Jan 092017
 

Regina Alma (deCormier) Shekerjian and her husband, photographer Haig Shekerjian, spent several months living in Ajijic over the winter of 1950-51, and returned frequently thereafter, including numerous times in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Illustration by Regina and Haig Shekerjian

Illustration by Regina and Haig Shekerjian

Regina deCormier Shekerjian (1923-2000) was a well-known poet, author, translator and illustrator of children’s books.

She was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on 22 December 1923 and died on 21 April 2000 at the age of 76. DeCormier was the daughter of Robert DeCormier, a public school teacher born in Maine, and his Swedish-born wife, Selma.

After graduating from Poughkeepsie High School, where she was an active member of the Dramatic Club, Regina studied art at Skidmore College and then began classes at the University of New Mexico. In 1944, she married U.S. Navy Seaman Second Class Haig W. Shekerjian in Pensacola, Florida, where he was then stationed. Shekerjian had studied at the Eastman School of Photography in Rochester, New York, and had been a fellow student at the University of New Mexico, before joining the Navy in November 1943.

After Haig Shekerjian left the Navy in 1945, the couple, and their two sons (Tor and Jean-René) lived for many years in New Paltz, New York, where Haig was Art Director of the Media Services Center at the State University College.

Regina Shekerjian published under various names, including Regina Tor, Regina deCormier (or Decormier) and Regina Shekerjian.

As Regina Tor, she co-wrote, with Eleanor Roosevelt, Growing Toward Peace (Random House, 1960). This book, translated into 15 languages, was written for the United Nations and describes the various programs offered by that organization, with many attractive illustrations, presumed to be the work of Regina.

Regina Shekerjian had written to Eleanor Roosevelt several years earlier, in 1953, sending her a copy of her recently-published first book (Getting to know Korea) and seeking help with getting funding to travel to Germany to research her next book in the series. In a diary entry, Roosevelt includes quotes from Shekerjian’s letter to her:

“A letter addressed to me that accompanied the book interested me very much because I discovered that the author, Regina (Tor) Shekerjian, is a very near neighbor. She lives in Pleasant Valley, N.Y., a nice, quiet little village about 10 miles from Poughkeepsie.
She told me that this book was her first and she hoped it was just the beginning of a series. The next would be on Germany . . .  She is still looking for some way to get there so that this second volume can be written.
She introduces herself by saying: “You don’t remember me, but I had lunch with you one summer day. I was 21 that year and I was running for alderman on the Democratic ticket in the city of Poughkeepsie. I was the first woman ever to have run for that office. I was also the youngest, I guess.”
“Of course, that was eight summers ago and I was only one of about seven young Democrats, but I remember well that day. There were hot dogs and tiny, perfectly shaped red tomatoes and salad, and ice cream and you speaking about peace and the future of the world, and the part young people must play—the responsibility which belonged to each of us not only to preserve this great country but to help make it even greater.” [Eleanor Rooseveldt, 19 April 1953]

Regina first visited Ajijic when her husband took a sabbatical break over the winter of 1950-51 and they spent several months living in the village. Regina wrote an article in 1952 entitled “You can Afford a Mexican Summer” for Design in which she extolled the virtues of Ajijic as an ideal location for an inexpensive art-themed summer break.

Regina Shekerjian wrote at least six books for young readers: Getting to know Korea (1953); Getting to know Puerto Rico (1955); Getting to know Canada (1956); Getting to know the Philippines (1958); Getting to know Greece (1959) and Discovering Israel (1960), which won a National Jewish Book award.

Shekerjian illustrated several books, including River winding (1970); 19 Masks for the Naked Poet (1971); The Chinese Story Teller (1973); and Menus For All Occasions (1974).

Together, Regina and Haig Shekerjian illustrated several books, most of them written by Nancy Willard and aimed at young readers. They included The Adventures of Tom Thumb (1950); Life in the Middle Ages (1966); The boy, the rat, and the butterfly (1971); King Midas and the Golden Touch (1973); Play it in Spanish : Spanish games and folk songs for children (1973); The merry history of a Christmas pie : with a delicious description of a Christmas soup (1974); All on a May morning (1975); How Many Donkeys? A Turkish Folk Tale (1971); and The well-mannered balloon (1976).

The Shekerjians also co-wrote, with close relative Robert deCormier, A Book of Christmas Carols (1963); and A Book of Ballads, Songs and Snatches (1965).

Turning to poetry, Regina deCormier had poems published in numerous journals, including American Poetry Review, American Voice, ACM/Another Chicago Magazine, The G. W. Review, Kalliope, Kansas Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, The Nation, Nimrod, Poetry East, and Salmagundi.

A collection of deCormier’s poems, entitled Hoofbeats on the Door: Poems, was published in 1993 by Helicon Nine Editions of Kansas City, Missouri. Several of the poems in this strong collection have obvious connections to Ajijic and Lake Chapala. 

Several of the poems in this strong collection have obvious connections to Ajijic and Lake Chapala. The longest and most complex is “From the Bellringer’s Wife’s Journal”, a rich, powerful, three-part poem set in Ajijic.

By the lake, bent over a wheelbarrow of water,
a woman guts a large salmon-gold carp,
gives a friend a recipe
for curing the bite of a scorpion,
and one for the heart that breaks.

The poem also includes  references to Calle Ocampo and, across the lake, the mountain named García.

The poem entitled “Testimony” describes the near-death experience of “Guillermo”.

“Rain” is a delightful tribute to one of Ajijic’s most famous residents ever, a legendary former ballet star who lived in Ajijic for decades prior to her passing in 1989:

[We] huddle over the photographs
of Zara, La Rusa,
the legendary one,
the dancer from the Ballet Russe
who came to this village
longer ago than anyone can remember,
the one who went everywhere
on horseback, the one
who still believes horses are spirits
from another realm…

“Lupe”, the title of another poem in the collection, turns out to be the daughter of the village baker, “Tito”:

Tito shoves the long-handled wood paddle
into the adobe over, lifts out
five perfectly round loaves of bread, round
as his wife’s breasts…
. . .
By five, all the loaves are ready,
heaped in wide shallow baskets, lifted
to the heads of their two youngest sons
who trot them off to the store.”

Her poems were chosen for at least two anthologies: “Snow”, “Grandmother” and “The Left Eye of Odin” were included in Two Worlds Walking (New Rivers Press, 1994) and “At the Cafe Saint Jacques” appeared in Claiming the Spirit Within: A Sourcebook of Women’s Poetry, edited by Marilyn Sewell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996). 

Michael Eager, the owner of La Nueva Posada hotel in Ajijic, remembers Regina as a very quiet person, who rarely talked much. He recalls her as being slender and pretty, with dark hair, and usually dressed casually, often in hand-embroidered blouses. Like her husband, Regina loved the local people, music and traditions.

Sources:

  • Regina Shekerjian. 1952. “You can Afford a Mexican Summer: Complete Details on how to Stretch your Dollars During an Art Trek South of the Border”, in Design, Volume 53, Issue 8, pp 182-197.
  • Poughkeepsie Journal, Poughkeepsie, New York, 19 February 1944, p5.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt. 1953. Diary entry dated 18 April 1953.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published 4 July 2016.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Nov 212016
 

Barbara Strong used her maiden name of Barbara Nolen professionally, as an author and editor of children’s books. Strong was born on 19 December 1902 and died at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on 13 December 2002, less than a week shy of her 100th birthday.

She and her husband David Strong lived in Morris, Connecticut, and in Washington D.C. (where they lived in “an old, antique-furnished eight-room house” in American University Park), but also kept a weekend home in West Virginia. In their retirement years, they regularly wintered at Lake Chapala, where Barbara became especially active in supporting the Niños y Jovenes children’s home in San Juan Cosalá.

Barbara Strong graduated from Smith College in 1924, studied at Columbia School of Journalism in the summer of 1924, and received her MA from Stanford University in California in 1925.

She first met her husband, David Fales Strong, at the Grand Canyon in 1924, when they were both on their way to do graduate work at Stanford. They married on 14 June 1927 in Vienna, Austria, and had a year-long honeymoon traveling around Europe. The couple had two children: Stephen Lewis Strong and Deborah Louisa Strong MacKnight. David Fales Strong (1899-1987) was the author of Austria (October 1918-March 1919): Transition from empire to republic, published by Columbia University Press in 1939.

Barbara Strong had a long and successful career in children’s publishing. From 1925 to 1944, she was an editor of children’s books for Macmillan, Century Publishers and several other publishers. In total, she edited more than 500 books ranging from fiction to biography and animal stories and was a regular contributor of book reviews to the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Washington Star and several other papers.

nolen-barbara-portraitBetween 1935 and 1954, she was the Editor of Story Parade, a children’s magazine with a circulation of more than 60,000. Interviewed by a local journalist in 1951, Strong said that she reviewed about 300 new books a year and read between 100 and 200 manuscripts a month looking for stories that would hold real interest to children. She noted that, “Today’s kids just eat up books on science and biography, books that a generation ago they just wouldn’t be interested in” before suggesting that, “Maybe it’s because we live more completely in the whole world and our children are exposed to more and varied interests.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, Strong was a consultant to the CBS Radio program, “The American School of the Air”. She taught workshops in Children’s Literature at George Washington University and the American University in Washington D.C., and gave seminars on “Writing for Children” for teachers from overseas. Strong co-founded the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. and was actively involved in lobbying for special legislation to be passed creating school libraries for Washington D.C. schools.

After retirement, Barbara traveled frequently to Mexico and became an early member of the Asociación de Amigos de Ninos y Jovenes, which provided local support for a children’s home in San Juan Cosalá. Strong established a U.S. and Canadian fund-raising group called Friends of Ninos y Jovenes to help the home.

Barbara Strong’s first trip to Lake Chapala seems to have been in about 1971. The Guadalajara Reporter for 6 March 1971 reported that “Mr and Mrs David Strong, who write juvenile books” were visiting Chapala while undertaking research for a Mexican anthology, before continuing on to Guanajuato and Mexico City. This anthology was Mexico is people : land of three cultures (1973), for which Concha Romero James wrote the introduction. James, also an author, was head of the division of cultural relations of the Pan-American Union (later the Organization of American States) and responsible for the formation of its visual arts program.

The book was generally well received by reviewers. For example the Kirkus Review observed that the editor had produced a lively anthology, choosing “primary over secondary sources whenever possible” and including “many pleasant surprises” such as Octavio Paz celebrating the “Art of the Fiesta”, D. H. Lawrence‘s description of an “Indian Market”, and Michael Scully on the Little League “Wonder Kids of Monterrey.” The reviewer concluded that this was “a varied, often sparkling collection — though somewhat lacking in the common touch.”

In addition to her book about Mexico, Strong compiled or edited numerous books, including Children of America (1939); The Brave and Free (1942); Merry Hearts and Bold (1942); Fun and Frolic (1947); Luck And Pluck (1950); Do and Dare (1951); What Next? Adventure and Surprise (1957); Spies, spies, spies (1965); Africa is people : firsthand accounts from contemporary Africa (1967); Ethiopia (1971); Africa Is Thunder and Wonder: Contemporary Voices from African Literature (1972); Voices of Africa (Fontana modern novels, 1974); The Morris Academy – Pioneer in Co-education (1976).

Documents and papers relating to the life and work of Barbara Nolen Strong reside in the Special Collections of the University of Oregon (Barbara Nolen papers, 1937-1974) and in the Litchfield Historical Society, Litchfield, Connecticut.

Sources:

  • Anon. 2002. “Barbara Nolen Strong, 99, W. Yarmouth resident, editor, consultant, library advocate.” Cape Cod Times. 20 December, 2002.
  • Jane Eads. 1951. “Young Readers Lean to Books on Science”. Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), 12 November 1951, p 16:
  • The Evening Sun. 1951. The Evening Sun (Hanover, Pennsylvania). 18 October 1951, p 18
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 6 March 1971

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Oct 242016
 

Hazel Emma Wilson, a prolific author of children’s books, visited Lake Chapala in 1971, “doing research for a Mexican book”. At that point in her career she had already written 19 books. Unfortunately, it remains maddeningly unclear whether or not any book based on her Mexican research was ever published!

Wilson (née Hutchins) was born in Portland, Maine, on 8 April 1897 (some sources claim 1898). She earned her AB from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1919 and a B.S. in Library Science from Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts, in 1920. She worked as a librarian in various educational institutions: Portland High School, Maine; Kirksville State Teacher’s College, Missouri; Bradford Academy, Massachusetts; the American Library in Paris, France (1926-1928); and was supervisor of school libraries in Denver, Colorado.

wilson-hazel-coverShe married Dr. Jerome William Wilson (1884-1963) and settled in Washington D.C. in 1930. Their son, Jerome Linwood Wilson, was born in 1931. He went on to become a member of the New York State Senate (from 1963 to 1966) and the Political Editor of the TV station WCBS-TV.

Hazel Wilson is best known for her series of stories about Herbert, a 10-year-old whose antics were based on the real-life experiences of her son and his friends.

Wilson was also a lecturer at George Washington University, Washington, D.C. (1956-1957) and taught at one time at Georgetown University. For some years, she wrote monthly reviews for the now defunct Washington Evening Star newspaper. She was a founder of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington and a member of the American Newspaper Women’s Club and Women in Communication.

Wilson’s books include The Red Dory (1939)-her first book for children; The Owen Boys (1947); Island Summer (1949); Herbert (1950); Thad Owen (1950); The Story of Lafayette (1952); The Story of Mad Anthony Wayne (1953); More Fun with Herbert (1954); His Indian Brother (1955); The Little Marquise: Madame Lafayette (1957); Tall Ships (1958); Jerry’s Charge Account (1960); Herbert’s Homework (1960); Herbert Again (1962); The Seine River of Paris (1962); The Last Queen of Hawaii: Liliuokalani (1963); The Years Between: Washington at Home at Mount Vernon, 1783-1789 (1969); Herbert’s Stilts (1972); and Herbert’s Space Trip (1973).

Among other honors, Wilson won the Ohioan Award for Island Summer (1949); the Boys’ Clubs of America Junior Book Award for Thad Owen (1950); the Edison Award for His Indian Brother (1955); and the 1955 New York Herald Tribune Spring Book Festival Honor Award for Herbert.

Hazel Wilson died in Bethesda, Maryland, on 20 August 1992.

Sources:

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Dec 232015
 

Guadalajara poet Idella Purnell‘s “The Idols Of San Juan Cosala” was first published in the December 1936 issue of American Junior Red Cross News. The story was reprinted in El Ojo del Lago, December 2001. Purnell’s father owned a small home in Ajijic and Purnell regularly visited Lake Chapala.

American-Junior-Red-Cross-News-Dec-1936

The little Indian village of Ajijic in Mexico nestles between high green mountains and a thin strip of white beach along a lovely lake. Its name is pronounced Ahee-heec, and it sounds more like a hiccup than a name. Ajijic has one long main street, and a few other streets, a tiny town square, or plaza with trees and flowers, and a small high-steepled church, built in 1740 – a quarter of a century before the American Revolution. Around the tiny church cluster the houses of the people, mud brick houses with red tiled roofs. Nearly every house has a patio, or flower garden in the center, and has behind it another garden, in which grow pomegranates, bananas, and trees bearing papayas, which are green melons like cantaloupes. Nearly everyone has birds in cages, and chickens and pigs. The pigs go into the streets and lie grunting in the mud puddles, rooting them up with their snouts.
      In this toy-like village lived a boy and his grandmother. His name was José Contreras. They had a grocery store so small and with so few groceries that we would wonder why they called it a store. A dozen paraffin candles, a few pounds of coffee, beans, corn, sugar, ropes, green peppers, soap, onions, ten bottles of soda pop, half a dozen cans of sardines and of hot green peppers, perhaps one egg or two, were for sale.
      His grandmother could no longer read the numbers on money or on the weights, and José would show her: “These two weights you put on this side of the scales when anyone wants to buy ten centavos of coffee.” He kept store for her most of the time, and always while she went to the mill to have the corn ground for their corn cakes, or while she washed their clothes up at the spring. But after all, he was a boy, and his grandmother often shooed him out and told him to run along and have a good time.
      One Sunday José and his friend Paco decided to go up in the mountains. Paco’s father lent Paco his burro. Climbing out of the town they soon left behind them cobblestone streets and small mud-brick houses with fences of cobblestones piled on each other, and gardens of fruit and flowers. In the mountains they climbed until they reached the rich black fields where wild flowers grow. Here the two boys picked big bunches of St. John’s roses to take home.
      Paco wanted his flowers for rice pudding but José thought maybe his grandmother could use his for her eyes. The boys tied their big bouquets to the high-peaked crowns of their hats, climbed on the burro again and started home. On their way they met Cholé driving home her father’s big black ox, which had been grazing in the upland pastures all day. Cholé was a ragged-looking girl of fourteen, much poorer even than José. She had two dresses and one pair of shoes and a pair of stockings worn out at the feet. Mostly she went barefoot to save her shoes and stockings for church.
      Cholé told them that more than anything in the world she wanted to earn some money to go in the bus to Guadalajara to find work, so that she could wear nice clothes and help her family. Her father and mother were willing, but she didn’t have even two pennies.
When José told her what his flowers were for, she shook her head. “It will take more than St. John’s roses to cure your grandmother’s eyes. It is not sickness, but old age that makes her sight dim, and for old age, there is no cure. What she needs is a good pair of glasses. In Guadalajara, they say there are all kinds of spectacles for two and three pesos.”
      That night as José lay on the straw mat that was his bed, he wondered how he could earn two or three pesos. He had not told his grandmother the real reason he had bought her St. John’s roses, and she had cooked rice pudding with them. While José ate it, he nearly choked with his secret disappointment.
      The next day someone told him how he might earn some money. “Why don’t you go to San Juan on San Juan’s Day? They say that on that day, the idols come out of the lake, and if you can find a few and sell them, you can earn money!”
      The village of San Juan was only five miles away so that in a few hours José could walk there. He decided that if he found any idols he would sell them in his grandmother’s store. That would make the foreigners come to buy, and maybe they would purchase some soap, or candles, or an egg, after they once came in for an idol.
      He remembered what their school teacher had told them about the history of the lake. “Once upon a time,” The school teacher had said, “a long time ago, San Juan was the capital of the Indian Kingdom of Cutzalan. There were a great many people there. The people worshipped many gods. One of them, called the unknown God, had no name. The Indians used to make idols and images of stone and throw them into the lake for the Unknown God. They also made tiny jars with three handles. They pierced their ears or noses and let drops of blood fall into these tiny jars, and when after a few weeks or months, the jars were full, they threw them into the lake as sacrifices to him.” José decided that he must tell Cholé about this, too. Perhaps she could find enough idols and carved jars to earn money to go to Guadalajara!
      On San Juan’s Day, José and Cholé set out for the lake. They got up earlier than the earliest fisherman and walked and walked in the dark, on their way so San Juan. About daylight they arrived. They went at once to the beach and sat down, to wait for the idols to come out of the lake.
      A boat from Chapala came in, with its big square sail, bringing a load of cow peas and rope to trade for papayas. The bus to Jocotepec went by. Fisherman put out with empty nets and came back with full baskets and boats. The men were up in the mountains working in the corn. And the idols had not come out of the lake!
      Cholé began to cry and José wanted to, but he was nearly a man, so he whistled instead, a thin, unsteady tune. Suddenly José gave Cholé a great clap on the back that nearly upset her.
      “Cholé!” he cried. “I bet that about the idols coming out of the lake an San Juan’s Day is what our teacher would call a superstition! I bet it isn’t even so. It is the end of the dry season, though, so the lake waters are at their lowest and that’s why they say the idols come out. I’m going in!”
      “But you’ll get your clothes all wet!”
      “Who cares?” cried José. He took off his hat and his blanket, and his overalls, and red waist sash. He rolled his white cotton trousers up as high as they would go, and waded in. Then he stubbed his toe on something hard, felt for it, and pulled it up out of the water. Only a stone. This happened three times. But the fourth time the object was carved. An idol! Cholé was so exited and happy that her tears dried up. Slipping off her dress and wearing the white cotton slip that all the women of Ajijic use as a bathing suit, she waded in, too.
In an hour or so they had all that they could carry: idols, little jars for blood sacrifices, and stands for the jars, ugly small objects called naguales – witches who change themselves into animals whenever they willed.
      José and Cholé sat in the hot sun until they dried off, and then put on the rest of their clothes and started home. On their way the bus picked them up and gave them a ride to Ajijic. The driver knew José because his bus always brought coffee out from Guadalajara to the grandmother’s store.
      Nearly a month later Cholé climbed onto the same bus on her way to Guadalajara. She was wearing her best dress and her shoes and stockings. Folded in her handkerchief she had ten pesos to buy new clothes and pay her expenses until she found work. José and his grandmother came out to wave good-bye to her.
      Jose’s grandmother looked proud and happy in her new spectacles which, as Cholé rode away, sparkled and flashed in the bright sunshine.

– – – – – – –

Happy Christmas! – ¡Feliz Navidad!

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Dec 212015
 

Explanations of why the famous British author D. H. Lawrence chose to visit Chapala in 1923 often ignore the key role played by Idella Purnell, a strong-willed young poetry fanatic from Guadalajara.

Purnell had studied under American poet Witter Bynner at the University of California, and Bynner had received an open invitation to visit Purnell and her family in Guadalajara. Over the winter of 1922-23, Bynner and Lawrence had become friends during the English author’s first stay in New Mexico.

In 1923, Lawrence was becoming restless and proposed a trip to Mexico. Lawrence and his wife Frieda invited Bynner, and Bynner’s secretary-companion Willard “Spud” Johnson (who had been a fellow student of Purnell in Bynner’s class), to accompany them. After a short time in Mexico City, the group settled in Chapala for the summer, during which time they met frequently with Idella Purnell and her dentist father, Dr. George Purnell, sometimes in Guadalajara, sometimes in Chapala. The Purnells had numerous links to Chapala and Ajijic (where Dr. Purnell owned a small house), and Idella Purnell went on to enjoy considerable success as a poet, editor, and author of children’s books.

Idella Purnell: The Merry Frogs

Idella Purnell: The Merry Frogs (1936)

[Born on 28 March 1863, Purnell’s father, George Edward Purnell (1863-1961), was among the earliest graduates in dentistry from the University of Maryland, the first dental college in the U.S. Purnell practiced in Missouri before moving to California. In 1889, during a downturn in the Californian economy, a vacation trip to Mexico became a permanent move.

Purnell set up a dental practice in Guadalajara and got married. Dr. Purnell also had mining interests, including a stake in the Quien Sabe Mining company at Ajijic, where several rich veins of gold ore were found in 1909, duly reported in the Los Angeles Herald and El Paso Herald. Some years later (1930), Purnell was kidnapped by bandits but released unharmed after less than a week in exchange for four hundred pesos.]

Idella, the eldest of the Purnell’s three children, was born in Guadalajara on 1 April 1901, and named after her mother. As a teenager, she taught primary school in Guadalajara before attending the University of California, Berkeley. During her second semester there, she was the youngest student in a poetry class given by Witter Bynner. She also became an associate editor of The Occident, the university’s literary magazine.

After she gained her B.A. degree in 1922, Purnell returned to Guadalajara where she worked as a secretary in the American Consulate for the next couple of years. She began writing to Bynner, asking him to come for a visit:

“I was very hungry for intellectual contacts; Guadalajara at that time was an arid desert.” (letter to Nehls)

Taking advantage of her connections to the Berkeley poetry circles, Purnell spent much of 1922 planning the first issue of Palms, a small poetry magazine that she would edit and publish until 1930.

The first issue of Palms appeared in the spring of 1923, just before her prayers for further intellectual stimulation were answered by the visit of Bynner, Johnson and Lawrence. Bynner had been supportive of Palms from the start, but had certainly not anticipated Lawrence’s willingness to offer some poems and drawings, in exchange for some home-made marmalade.

In Journey with Genius, his account of visiting Mexico with Lawrence, Bynner describes how they visited the Purnells’ “quaint little untidy house of adobe”:

“Never have I seen Lorenzo [Lawrence] more amiable, more ingratiating that he was that evening. He listened to poems of Idella’s and to some of her Palms material. He was full of saintly deference to everyone…” (Journey with Genius, 82).

Idella Purnell was initially taken aback by Lawrence, but soon became enthralled:

“Even warned about the red beard, it was with a sense of shock that I met Mr. Lawrence, so thin, so fragile and nervous-quick, and with such a flaming red beard, and such intense, sparkling, large mischievous blue eyes which he sometimes narrowed in a cat-like manner. His rusty hair was always in disorder, as though it never knew a comb. But otherwise the man seemed neat almost to obsession and frail, as though all his energy went into producing the unruly mop on top and the energetic still beard.” [Letter from Purnell to Bynner, quoted in Journey with Genius]

Over the next few months, the Purnells saw Lawrence regularly, either at their home in Guadalajara, or in Chapala at weekends when they stayed Saturday nights at the Hotel Arzapalo.

In early July, a few days before the Lawrences left Chapala, they arranged an extended four‑day boat trip around the lake with Idella Purnell and her father. The group left Chapala aboard the Esmeralda on 4 July.

The Esmeralda boat trip, 1923

The Esmeralda boat trip, 1923. Photo credit: Willard Johnson.

The boat ran into very bad weather overnight, causing several of the group to be sick, before they finally limped into shore on the south side of the lake near Tuxcueca. From there, Idella took a badly-suffering Bynner back to Chapala on the regular steamer. While friends accompanied Bynner to a hospital in Guadalajara, Idella remained in Chapala to greet the remaining members of the party when they finally returned a few days later.

Based on these times with Lawrence and his friends in Chapala, Purnell wrote an unpublished roman à clef novel entitled Friction. The novel, whose title was suggested by Lawrence, apparently incorporates some excellent descriptions of the local area, and revolves around a political assassination. Among the characters are Edmund (Lawrence), Gertrude (Frieda), Judith (Idella), Lionel (Johnson) and Dean (Bynner).

Purnell continued to publish and edit Palms, considered a forum for young, upcoming poets, until 1930. She never published any of her own poems in Palms, but under her leadership, the magazine published work by more than 350 poets, many of them rising stars at the time, even if largely forgotten since.

palms-cover-by-gotzchePalms included contributions from Bynner, D.H. Lawrence, Johnson, Marjorie Allen Seifert, Warren Gilbert, Mable Dodge Luhan, Countee Cullen, Norman Maclean, Carl Rakosi, Langston Hughes and Alexander Laing, among others. Both Lawrence, and his Danish artist friend Kai Gøtzsche (1886‑1963) (see image) provided illustrations for Palms‘ covers, as did Idella’s younger sister Frances-Lee Purnell. Famous American poet and critic Ezra Pound, in his essay “Small Magazines” (1930), said that Palms “was probably the best poetry magazine of its time”, high praise indeed.

During the second half of the 1920s, Purnell yo-yoed between Mexico and the U.S. In summer 1925, she was head of the foreign book department at the Los Angeles Public Library, where she first met future husband, John M. Weatherwax, before moving back to Mexico in October.

[In 1926, while staying at the Hotel Cosmopolita in Guadalajara, Emma Lindsay Squier (1892-1941) became good friends with the Purnells. Squier’s time with them is described in detail in her memoir Gringa (1934).]

purnell-idella-30-mexican-menus-span-engIn 1927, Purnell and Weatherwax married, and she joined him in Aberdeen, Washington. She returned to Guadalajara the following year to have their only child, a daughter who, tragically, died as an infant. Weatherwax sued for divorce in 1929, but despite this, he and Purnell collaborated on 19 books between June 1929 and October 1930.

She gave up publishing Palms in 1930. The title was briefly revived by Elmer Nicholas in 1932, a minister in Frankton, Indiana.

On a business trip to New York in 1930, Purnell fell in love with Remington (“Remi”) Stone. The couple lived in New York and married in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, on 30 September 1932.

In 1931, Purnell returned once again to Guadalajara, and the following year was the organizer and dean of the first University of Guadalajara summer session. Many years later, in 1975, her photograph appeared in the Guadalajara Colony Reporter as a guest of honor at ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the University of Guadalajara, since she had been the University of California’s delegate to the university’s opening in 1925.

In 1932, Purnell applied, unsuccessfully, for a Guggenheim fellowship to study the anthropology of Lake Chapala and write an anthropological-fictional novel to be called Canoa, which she hoped “would convey to the reader the idyllic atmosphere of the Mexican countryside.” (Delpar)

Purnell had two children with Remington Stone: Marijane Stone, born in 1934, and Remington, born in 1938. The couple also later brought up Purnell’s niece, Carrie Stone. In 1935, when Marijane was only 14 months old, the family began another Mexican gold-mining venture. Remi remained in New York to secure financing, while Idella and Marijane joined Dr. Purnell in Ameca, Jalisco, to oversee the mining operations. All three became ill, so Remi arrived to help run the mine. In 1937, Idella and Marijane went to Los Angeles for medical reasons. Remi gave up the mine shortly afterwards when the Mexican government began expropriating foreign-owned mining property.

In Los Angeles, Idella taught creative writing, and during World War II, she became a riveter for Douglas Aviation and Fletcher Aviation.

In the 1950s, she started studying dianetics, and opened a Center for Dianetics in Pasadena in 1951, before moving it to Sierra Madre in 1956.

Purnell died in Los Angeles, California, on 1 December 1982; she had played an active role in many different literary and educational achievements of the twentieth century. Her archive of correspondence and papers, 1922‑1960, is held by the University of Texas.

purnell-idella-1944-bambi-sIn her long literary career, Idella Purnell (Stone) was the author or co-author of numerous children’s books, including The Talking Bird, an Aztec Story Book: Tales Told to Little Paco By His Grandfather (1930); Why the Bee is Busy and Other Rumanian Fairy Tales Told to Little Marcu By Baba Maritza (1930); Little Yusuf: The Story of a Syrian Boy (1931); The Wishing Owl, a Maya Storybook (1931); The Lost Princess of Yucatan (1931); The Forbidden City (1932); Pedro the Potter (1935); The Merry Frogs (1936).

However, Purnell’s best known work is the Walt Disney version of Bambi (1944), when she “retold” Felix Salten’s original version, Bambi, A Life in the Woods, with Disney providing the illustrations. (Incidentally, Walt Disney himself actually visited Chapala at least once; he gave a speech at the Villa Montecarlo in October 1964, during a “De Pueblo a Pueblo” meeting attended by Mexican president Adolfo Lopez Mateos and US military historian John D Eisenhower).

purnell-idella-sci-fi-anthologyIn addition to children’s stories, Purnell also wrote non-fiction, including a Spanish language biography of the famous American botanist Luther Burbank: Luther Burbank, el Mago de las Plantas (Argentina: Espasa Calpe, 1955), and 30 Mexican Menus in Spanish and English (Ward Ritchie Press, 1971).

Works compiled and edited by Purnell include 14 Great Tales of ESP (Fawcet, 1969) and Never in This World, a collection of stories by twelve famous science-fiction writers, including Isaac Asimov (Fawcett, 1971).

Her short pieces include “The Idols Of San Juan Cosala“, originally published in American Junior Red Cross News in December 1936.

Sources:

  • Witter Bynner. 1951. Journey with Genius (New York: John Day)
  • Helen Delpar. 1995. The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations Between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935 (University of Alabama Press)
  • David Ellis. 1998. D. H. Lawrence: Dying Game 1922-1930; The Cambridge Biography of D. H. Lawrence, Volume 3. Cambridge University Press.
  • D. H. Lawrence. 1926. The Plumed Serpent.
  • Frieda Lawrence (Frieda von Richthofen). 1934. Not I, But the Wind… (New York: Viking Press)
  • Harry T. Moore and Warren Roberts. 1966. D. H. Lawrence and his world. (London: Thames & Hudson)
  • Edward Nehls (ed). 1958. D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography. Volume Two, 1919-1925. (University of Wisconsin Press).
  • Vilma Potter. 1994. “Idella Purnell’s PALMS and Godfather Witter Bynner.” American Periodicals, Vol 4 (1994), pp 47-64, published by Ohio State University.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Sep 152014
 

Eileen and her second husband Robert (Bob) Bassing, both writers of some distinction, lived in Ajijic between 1950 and 1954.

bassing-eileen-photoEileen was born 6 March 1918 in Boston, Massachusetts, and educated in New York, Ohio and California. She married young, at age 16, and had two sons from her first marriage, before marrying Bob in 1948. She died aged 58 in February 1977 in Los Angeles, California.

In 1950, Eileen and Bob Bassing left their Hollywood careers and moved to Ajijic with her two sons from a previous marriage (then aged 11 and 14 respectively) to focus on their writing. The family struggled to survive financially in Mexico despite living in a $5 a month home in Ajijic, eventually resorting to selling home-made fudge and operating a small lending library, “Simple Pleasures”, of English-language books they had shipped from California.

Eileen Bassing, a brunette with green eyes, recalled in a 1957 newspaper interview that “It was an amazing success even though most of our books were texts on psychiatry and philosophy. We were only open three hours a day but out of our returns we supported our family, a maid, a cook, a laundress and a gardener. We rented everything—even the New York Times, section by section, at 15 centavos per section. And those who borrowed the crossword puzzle had to promise to erase it when the page was returned.” (The Marion Star, Ohio, 10 March 1957, p 18).

While in Ajijic. the Bassings were among the early members of the Lakeside Theater.

Home Before Dark

bassing-home-before-dark-movie

Movie poster for Home Before Dark

Eileen Bassing’s first novel, Home Before Dark (New York: Random House, 1957), was written in Ajijic and later made into a Warner Brothers movie (1958) based on a screenplay written by Eileen and her husband, and directed by Mervyn Le Roy.

Home Before Dark is the story of a young woman (Charlotte Bronn) suffering from bi-polar disorder who has been confined to a mental hospital. She leaves the Maraneck State Hospital after a year to resume her life at home with her emotionally repressed professor husband. Making her life even more difficult, they share their home with Charlotte’s attractive step-sister Joan and Joan’s mother, as well as a Jewish philosophy professor boarder and a servant.

With her marriage floundering, and suspecting her husband of being overly interested in Joan, Charlotte looks to be headed for another breakdown when she attends a faculty dinner dressed and made up to look like Joan. Her husband finally reveals his true feelings. Summarized as a study of “a mind and marriage at a crisis point”, both book and movie were generally well received and are still very readable today. The book was translated into French as Retour avant la nuit (1958) and into Italian.

Where’s Annie?

Eileen Bassing’s second novel, Where’s Annie? (Random House, New York, 1963) is set entirely in Ajijic at Lake Chapala, but was written after the couple’s return to California in 1954. It was chosen for the Book-of-the-Month Club; a French translation by France-Marie Watkins and Spanish translation appeared in 1964. This very interesting novel is looked at in more detail in this post. A screenplay for this novel was written by Eileen and Bob Bassing, but plans to realize the movie never worked out.

The dust jacket of Where’s Annie refers to a third novel “in progress” in Malibu at the time of publication of Where’s Annie, but this was apparently never published.

It may have met the same fate as some of her earlier unpublished works. An in-depth newspaper interview published in the 14 April 1963 edition of The Bridgeport Post in Connecticut, quotes Eileen Bassing as saying that, “My working habits are deplorable… I am not an organized writer. I work all the time, and I work very hard. It is impossible to measure the time I spend at the typewriter. There may be two days or so when I just stare and think. And those are the days when I really work.” The article goes on to say that “Several years ago. Mrs. Bassing did what some would consider a rash thing. She burned considerable unpublished work—short stories, three novels, including the first draft of “Home Before Dark,” and poetry written over a two-year period. “I wanted to have done with them so I wouldn’t go back and lean on them. I wanted to start anew.”

Excerpts of the first two chapters of Where’s Annie? appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1963. Bassing also had other short stories published, including “Our Strange Stay at Miss Pickering’s” in the 14 May 1955 issue of Maclean’s.

Children’s Books

Before embarking on her novels, Eileen Bassing had written four “Jamie” books for children, under the name Eileen Johnston: Jamie and The Fire Engine (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940); Jamie and The Dump Truck (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943) with pictures by Ora Brian Edwards; Jamie and The Tired Train (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946), illustrated by Ora Brian Edwards; and Jamie and The Little Rubber Boat (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951) with illustrations by Lys Cassal.

Sources:

  • “Eileen Bassing a “Bleeding” Type” by Jack Gaver. The Bridgeport Post, Connecticut, 14 April 1963, p44
  • “It Paid Them To Get Away From It All”, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Tuesday, March 19, 1957
  • “Couple Leaves Movie Capital and Finds Success in Mexico”, The Marion Star, Ohio, 10 March 1957, p 18

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

May 052014
 

Verna Aardema (1911-2000) was an American author of dozens of children’s books.

She has no known connection to Lake Chapala beyond the fact that one of her books, The Riddle of the Drum: A Tale from Tizapán, Mexico (New York: Four Winds, 1979), is presumably connected either with Tizapán [el Alto] on the southern shore of the lake, or with Villa Corona [formerly called Tizapán el Bajo] just west of the lake.

aardema-coverThe story, illustrated by Tony Chen, is a translation and retelling of “El Aro de Hinojo y el Cuero de Piojo”, from Tales from Jalisco, Mexico, by Howard True Wheeler, American Folklore Society, 35, 1943. The Riddle of the Drum: A Tale from Tizapán, Mexico can be viewed online via the website OpenLibrary.org: The Riddle of the Drum: A Tale from Tizapán, Mexico (free registration required).

The king of Tizapán has a beautiful daughter Princess Fruela. He asks a wizard to make her a special drum. The only man that will be allowed to marry his daughter must first guess what kind of black leather the drum head is made from. Prince Tuzán rises to the challenge, but knows he will forfeit his life if he fails. En route to victory, he gathers around him several unusual characters, all of whom contribute to his success.

Verna Aardema (full name Verna Norberg Aardema Vugteveen) was born in New Era, Michigan on 6 June 1911. Even as a child, she wanted to be a writer. She graduated from Michigan State University with a B.A. in Journalism in 1934, before working as an elementary school teacher (1934-1973), later combined with being a local newspaper correspondent for the Muskegon Chronicle (1951-1972).

Aardema’s first set of children’s stories Tales from the Story Hat was published in 1960. She started writing for children mainly because her daughter wouldn’t eat until she’d heard one of her mother’s stories. In most stories, the setting was somewhere that Aardema had been recently reading about, such as Africa and Mexico.

Her children’s books, based almost always on adaptations of traditional folklore tales, won numerous awards. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (1975) received the Caldecott Medal and the Brooklyn Art Books for Children Award. Who’s in Rabbit’s House? (1977) was the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. The author herself received the Children’s Reading Round Table Award in 1981.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

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