Mar 072016
 

Barbara Joan Keppel-Compton (1902-1999), also later known as Barbara Keppel-Compton Witt, and Barbara Moravec, used the name Barbara Compton for her novel To The Isthmus (1964), partially set at Lake Chapala in the 1940s. The novel is largely autobiographical, and events and characters are only thinly disguised. (We look more closely at the novel’s links to Ajijic in a separate post).

Who, exactly, was the author? Keppel-Compton was born in Southampton, U.K., the middle of five children of John Herbert Keppel-Compton (1869-1940), a medical doctor, and his wife Anne Sylvester Webb. Prior to 1940, the family had also lived in Hampshire, Surrey, London, Bexhill-on-Sea, and Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire.

The Keppel-Compton’s youngest child, Ursula Mary Keppel-Compton (1907-1997) became better known as Ursula Niebuhr. After studying at Oxford, and being awarded double firsts in history and theology, she became the first woman to win a fellowship to the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Within a year, she married Reinhold Niebuhr, one of her former teachers, in 1931 in Winchester, UK. The couple made their home in New York City where Ursula completed her studies and went on to found the Department of Religion at Barnard College in New York City. She remained head of the department until her retirement in 1965.

As we shall see, Barbara Keppel-Compton was to join her sister in New York in the middle of the second world war.

Much of what we know about Barbara Keppel-Compton comes from the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, which includes the The Barbara Compton Collection of manuscripts, correspondence, and other material. Additional details can be gleaned from a close reading of To The Isthmus.

Barbara Compton (photo from back cover of To The Isthmus)

Barbara Compton (photo from back cover of To The Isthmus)

It is apparent that Barbara spent some time, as a relatively young woman, in both Prague (1924-1927) and Africa (1928-1929). She spoke several languages, including German and Czech.

Keppel-Compton was co-translator of two works by German psychologist Fritz Kuenkel: Jugend-Charakterkunde (“What it Means to Grow Up”), with Hulda Niebuhr (older sister of Reinhold Niebuhr) in 1936, and Charakter, Wachstum und Erziehung (“Character, Growth, Education”) with Basil Druitt in 1938.

During the mid-1930s, Keppel-Compton was living with her parents in Surrey, and then London (1938-1939).

In September 1937, two years prior to the start of the second world war, Keppel Compton met German clinical psychologist Gerhard E. Witt, described in her novel as rather tall, in his late 40s with silver-grey hair. After a hesitant start, their relationship became intense, and they spent two weeks together in Paris one September. At the outbreak of war, fearful of his future in London, Witt moved to the U.S. and took a position at Union Theological Seminary, the same institution where Barbara’s sister Ursula had studied.

The following year, Barbara wanted to join him but was denied permission to leave the country. (Posters at the time announced that no one between the ages of 16 and 60 was allowed to leave the country). In December 1941, Witt asked her to marry him and she was finally able to travel to the U.S. as his fiancee.

They married and lived together for a while, but soon discovered that even if they couldn’t exactly live apart, they couldn’t live together all the time either, so they took separate apartments in Manhattan.

In 1945 (or 1946?), they made plans to visit Mexico but Witt persuaded his wife to go on ahead to Ajijic, to a small inn a German friend in New York had told him about, where he would drive down to join her and travel together back to California and then across to New York. Barbara did indeed travel to Ajijic and stayed at the Posada Heuer, a simple establishment run by a German brother and sister on the lakeshore. By the time it was obvious that Witt had no intention of joining her, she had met and was falling under the spell of Richard Moravec.

Witt died in 1946. Following his death, Barbara and Richard Moravec (whom she later married) edited Witt’s book Active Psychology and the Welfare and Progress of Man: Notes on the Establishment of a Non-medical Practical Psychology, Written 1941-1946 (published in 1947). A reviewer in the Journal of Consulting Psychology described it as “the posthumously published notes of a brilliant psychotherapist”. The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center also has manuscripts relating to Witt’s poetry, 28 sketches and a list of 324 of his paintings.

Barbara Keppel-Compton married Richard Zdenko Moravec, a chemical engineer and film-maker, in Albemarle, Virginia, in 1951. The couple worked together on at least two motion pictures: The Story of A Volcano, about Paricutin Volcano (1952) and With Malice Toward None (1955). By 1955 the Moravecs were living in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Barbara Moravec spent her final years in Surrey, England.

Sadly, and notwithstanding the claim on its inside back cover that it is “her first novel to be published in America”, To The Isthmus appears to be the first and only novel she ever published anywhere. Interestingly, though, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center includes drafts of two more novels, one untitled and one with the title Margaret Townshend. The archive also has several short stories by Keppel-Compton, as well as a play, and poems.

If any reader is close enough to Boston University to take a look at these unpublished novels, we would love to learn more about them.

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.

Feb 222016
 

Elaine Gottlieb (1916-2004) was a novelist, author and teacher who lived for several months in Ajijic in the second half of 1946. She traveled to Mexico shortly after completing her first novel, Darkling, which was published the following year. She used her experiences in Ajijic as the basis for a short story, “Passage Through Stars”, published many years later, in Noonday #2, 1959.

Gottlieb’s decision to visit Mexico was apparently at the suggestion of Robert Motherwell, her art teacher one summer at Black Mountain College. (By coincidence, another former Black Mountain College art student, Nicolas Muzenic, lived in Ajijic shortly afterwards, from about 1948 to 1950).

noonday-2-coverIn Ajijic, Gottlieb stayed at the collection of small cottages on the water’s edge known as Casa Heuer, run by a German brother and sister (Pablo and Liesel), where communal dinner was the norm. At mealtimes, Gottlieb found herself drawn to a handsome, smartly-dressed, charismatic older man, Elliot Chess, a flying ace from the first world war whose stories and anecdotes kept his mealtime companions spellbound.

She was 30 years of age, he was 46; within two weeks they were engaged. To celebrate, on 15 September 1946, they caught a bus to Guadalajara. Gunmen attacked the bus and Gottlieb credited Chess with saving her life. Their precipitous, but short-lived, relationship led to the birth of Nola Elian Chess (her middle name is a combination of Elliot and Elaine) in New York in July 1947, which turned out to have life-changing consequences for Gottlieb and her future family.

[Nola, conceived in Mexico and born in New York, developed a brilliant mind, but died at the tragically-young age of twenty-five after a prolonged struggle with schizophrenia. Gottlieb’s younger son, Robin Hemley, has written an absorbing account of the life of his older half-sister: Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness.]

In Gottlieb’s “Passage Through Stars”, Casa Heuer is transformed into Casa Unger, with Elaine becoming Emma and Elliot renamed Claude. The fictional names of the inn’s owners are Don Ernesto and Donna [sic] Sophía. The autobiographical story is a powerfully-told and moving account of her brief fling with Chess, exploring her personal doubts before, during and after.

She recalls her lover’s daily ritual swim in the lake:

“She would see him in the mornings, going down to the lake for his pre-breakfast swim; a shiny maroon robe flapped around his narrow legs. He would walk briskly, towel in hand, remove his robe in two swift movements, step out of his slippers, and, chin erect, approach the lake. Deliberately, he would plunge his head in, shake it vigorously, stand waiting a moment, and then plunge boldly. A little later, he would return, hand passing through his wet, mahogany-colored hair. Frowning against the light, he would continue to walk, martially erect, his head high and handsome, the face still young, eyes like the eyes of tigers.” [Passage Through Stars,  82]

According to Gottlieb, she and Elliot Chess lived together as man and wife there for two months, from mid-September (following the attack on the bus) to mid-November, at which point Chess returned to El Paso, promising to sell some of the land he owned there and rejoin her in New York in two weeks. Gottlieb, meanwhile, traveled by train to Mexico City and then to New York. Chess never made it to New York, and the two never met again.

In “Passage Through Stars”, Gottlieb says that Emma (herself) had “come to the pension alone, a widow, and had never fully recovered from her widowhood. Claude had happened on the scene…” but I have yet to find any mention elsewhere of Gottlieb’s former spouse.

Elaine Gottlieb. Credit: Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness, by Robin Hemley

Photo credit: Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness, by Robin Hemley

Gottlieb was born in New York City in 1916. Her mother, Ida, was a teacher in the New York Public Schools and eventually established the family home on Long Island. She gained a degree in journalism from New York University and studied art at the Art Students League of New York and at Columbia University. When Gottlieb was 25 years of age, she moved to Manhattan, determined to become a successful writer. During the summer of 1941, she studied at the Cummington School for the Arts.

During the second world war, Gottlieb had a job inspecting radios for the Signal Corps and also trained to teach photography to Army Air Corps recruits in Denver, Colorado.

In 1946, her short story “The Norm”, about an affair between a couple of college students, was chosen for inclusion in Martha Foley’s annual anthology The Best American Short Stories. The biographies attached to that and later stories say she had once sold books at Macy’s and written cables for The Office of War Information, as well as written book reviews for The New Republic, the New York Herald Tribune, Poetry, Accent, and Decision.

Her first (and only) published novel, Darkling (1947), tells the story of Cristabel, a young woman who yearned to become an artist, but was alienated from family and peers, and “lost in her own insecurities”. The book’s subject matter was ahead of its time and contemporary reviews were generally not favorable.

Prior to marrying poet and novelist Cecil Hemley (1914-1966) in 1953, on Nola’s fifth birthday, Elaine Gottlieb had been raising her daughter as a single parent. Despite a succession of family tragedies, Gottlieb continued to write short stories for publications such as The Kenyon Review, Chimera, New Directions, Chelsea Review, Noonday and Commentary, and also wrote “The writer’s signature: idea” in Story and Essay (1972). By the time of her death in 2004, she had still not completed two more novels that she had started many years earlier, including a mystery story based on a trip to England.

The Hemleys socialized with a glittering array of literary and artistic friends (including Robert Motherwell, Joseph Heller, Louise Bogan, Weldon Kees, Conrad Aiken, John Crowe Ransom and Delmore Schwartz) and became particularly close friends with poet and novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. The Hemleys helped translate and edit, several of Singer’s works from their original Yiddish, including The Manor (Penguin Books, 1975); Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories (Peter Owen Limited, 1958); The Magician of Lublin (Bantam Books 1965); and The Estate (Jonathan Ball, 1970).

Gottlieb taught creative writing, literature and film at Indiana University (South Bend) in the 1970s. Several former students of Gottlieb have acknowledged her role in helping them develop their craft. They include Gloria Anzaldúa, a foremost Chicano feminist thinker and activist, and author of This Bridge Called My Back (1981); Borderlands/La Frontera (1987); and Interviews/Entrevistas (2000).

Elaine Gottlieb was also known as Elaine S. Gottlieb, Elaine Gottlieb Hemley, Elaine S. Gottlieb Hemley and Elaine S. Hemley.

Sources:

  • Elaine Gottlieb, 1959. “Passage Through Stars”, in Noonday #2, edited by Cecil Hemley and Dwight W. Webb, p 80-93. (New York: the Noonday Press)
  • Robin Hemley, 1998. Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness. (Graywolf Press).

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.

Jan 112016
 

In July 1923, a few days before the British author D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda left Chapala, they arranged an extended four-day boat trip around the lake with friends including Idella Purnell and her father, Dr. George Purnell.

The Esmeralda boat trip, 1923

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

The group that assembled at the pier in Chapala to board the Esmeralda on 4 July 1923 comprised:

  • D. H. Lawrence
  • Frieda Lawrence
  • Witter Bynner
  • Willard (“Spud”) Johnson
  • Dr. George E. Purnell
  • Idella Purnell
  • The boat Captain, from Tuxcueca
  • Two unnamed Mexican crew
  • Daniel, the Lawrences’ gardener and night watchman

Idella Purnell later recalled how “we took off amid the applause of the population of Chapala, a large part of which was on the beach.” (quoted in Bynner, 169)

Unfortunately, the trip did not prove to be without its challenges. The boat ran into very bad  weather overnight, causing several of the group to suffer from motion sickness, before the Esmeralda finally limped to shore on the south side of the lake near Tuxcueca.

Bynner was particularly ill, so Idella accompanied him back to Chapala on the regular (and larger) lake steamer. While friends escorted Bynner to a hospital in Guadalajara, for an operation to resolve an infected fistula, Idella remained in Chapala to greet the remaining members of the party when they finally made it back to port a few days later, having spent a second night near Tizapan el Alto and a third night near La Palma. On 9 July, the Lawrences left Chapala for Guadalajara en route to the U.S.

The trip on the Esmeralda would not quickly be forgotten. In The Plumed Serpent, Lawrence not only describes how the boat was pitched about by storms on “the chalk-white lake” but also succinctly depicts the boat’s departure:

“Barelegged sailors began to pole the ship from the shore. They leaned heavily on the poles, and walked along the rims of the vessel. Slowly she began to move upon the waters, in the shallows. Slowly, she was leaving the shore, and the throng.

Two other sailors swiftly began to hoist the huge, square white sail. Quickly, yet heavily it rose in the air, and took the wind. It had the great sign of Quetzalcoatl, the circling blue snake and the blue eagle upon a yellow field, at the centre, like a great eye.”  – (The Plumed Serpent, chapter XVIII)

Bynner, in Journey with Genius, includes far too many details of his own malaise, but also quotes this passage from one of Idella Purnell’s later letters, recalling the morning after the storm:

“The next thing I knew my father was excitedly summoning us all to come and see a water snake. I couldn’t see why a water snake was of any interest, now whey we had to be awakened so early to see one; there was only a faint gray light under our shelter. But obediently we all went on top of the hatch. The water snake was a waterspout, a black funnel reaching from the lake to the sky, or rather a chimney, with an elbow in it about half way up. The lake was now gray and angry, a thin rain spattered down, and it was cold. My seasickness was upon me again.” (quoted in Journey with Genius, 171)

Lawrence’s wife Frieda, in her memoirs, Not I, But the Wind…, had her own recollections of the trip

“We went into a huge old Noah’s Ark of a boat, called “Esmeralda”, on the Lake of Chapala, with two other friends and Spud. Three Mexicans looked after the boat. They had guitars and sang their melancholy or fierce songs at the end of the boat. In the evening we slowly drifted along the large lake, that was more like a white sea, and, one day, we had no more to eat. So we landed on the island of the scorpions, still crowned by a Mexican empty prison, and only fit for scorpions. There Lawrence bought a live goat, but when we had seen our Mexican boatmen practically tearing the poor beast to pieces, our appetites vanished and we did not want to eat any more.”  – (Not I, But the Wind…, 140-141)

The various minor discrepancies in the diverse accounts of this boat trip are easily forgivable, given the discomforts suffered during the expedition, and the relatively short time that the writers were in the area. For example, in her description, Frieda appears to overlook Bynner’ presence, and to conflate two separate islands, the Isla de Mexcala (Mezcala Island) and Isla de los Alacranes (Scorpion Island).

Sources:

  • 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)
  • Witter Bynner. 1951. Journey with Genius (New York: John Day)

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.

Jan 042016
 

D. H. Lawrence, together with his wife Frieda, and friends Witter Bynner and Willard (“Spud”) Johnson, visited Mexico in March 1923, initially staying in Mexico City.

By the end of April, Lawrence was becoming restless and actively looking for somewhere where he could write. The traveling party had an open invitation to visit Guadalajara, the home of Idella Purnell, a former student of Bynner’s at the Univeristy of California, Berkeley. After reading about Chapala in Terry’s Guide to Mexico, Lawrence decided to  catch the train to Guadalajara and then explore the lakeside village of Chapala for himself.

Lawrence liked what he saw and, within hours of arriving in Chapala, he sent an urgent telegram back to Mexico City pronouncing Chapala “paradise” and urging the others to join him there immediately. Lawrence and his wife Frieda soon established their home for the summer in Chapala, on Calle Zaragoza. In a letter back to two Danish friends in Taos, Lawrence described both the house and the village:

“Here we are, in our own house—a long house with no upstairs—shut in by trees on two sides.—We live on a wide verandah, flowers round—it is fairly hot—I spend the day in trousers and shirt, barefoot—have a Mexican woman, Isabel, to look after us—very nice. Just outside the gate the big Lake of Chapala—40 miles long, 20 miles wide. We can’t see the lake, because the trees shut us in. But we walk out in a wrap to bathe.—There are camions—Ford omnibuses—to Guadalajara—2 hours. Chapala village is small with a market place with trees and Indians in big hats. Also three hotels, because this is a tiny holiday place for Guadalajara. I hope you’ll get down, I’m sure you’d like painting here.—It may be that even yet I’ll have my little hacienda and grow bananas and oranges.” – (letter dated 3 May 1923, to Kai Gotzsche and Knud Merrild, quoted in Knud Merrild’s book, A Poet and Two Painters: A Memoir of D.H. Lawrence.)

DH Lawrence house in Chapala, ca 1950, Photo by Roy MacNicol

DH Lawrence house in Chapala, ca 1950, Photo by Roy MacNicol

Life was not without its incidents and travails. Frieda, especially, was unconvinced about the charms of Chapala:

Lawrence went to Guadalajara and found a house with a patio on the Lake of Chapala. There, Lawrence began to write his “Plumed Serpent”. He sat by the lake under a pepper tree writing it. The lake was curious with its white water. My enthusiasm for bathing in it faded considerably when one morning a huge snake rose yards high, it seemed to me, only a few feet away. At the end of the patio, we had the family that Lawrence describes in the “Plumed Serpent”, and all the life of Chapala. I tried my one attempt at civilizing those Mexican children, but when they asked me one day, “Do you have lice too, Niña,” I had enough and gave up in a rage. At night I was frightened of bandits and we had one of the sons of the cook sleeping outside our bedroom door with a loaded revolver, but he snored so fiercely that I wasn’t sure whether the fear of bandits wasn’t preferable. We quite sank into the patio life. Bynner and Spud came every afternoon, and I remember Bynner saying to me one day, while he was mixing a cocktail: “If you and Lawrence quarrel, why don’t you hit first?” I took the advice and the next time Lawrence was cross, I rose to the occasion and got out of my Mexican indifference and flew at him.  – (Frieda Lawrence: (1934), Not I, But the Wind… Viking Press, New York (1934), p 139)

The house the Lawrences rented was at Zaragoza #4 (since renumbered Zaragoza #307) and became the basis for the description of Kate’s living quarters in The Plumed Serpent. The Lawrences lived in the house from the start of May 1923 to about 9 July that year.

Interestingly, the house subsequently had several additional links to famous writers and artists.

Immediately after the Lawrences departed, the next renters were American artists Everett Gee Jackson and Lowell Houser, who lived there for 18 months. They did not realize the identity of the previous tenant – “an English writer” –  until the following year. Their time in Chapala is described, with great wit and charm, in Jackson’s Burros and Paintbrushes (University of Texas Press, 1985).

[Jackson visited Mexico many times and made several return visits to Chapala, including one in 1968 when he, his wife and young grandson, “rented the charming old Witter Bynner house right in the center of the village of Chapala. It had become the property of Peter Hurd, the artist…” In 1923, Bynner and Johnson stayed at the Hotel Arzapalo. In 1930, Bynner bought a home in Chapala (not the one rented by Lawrence) and was a frequent winter visitor for many years.]

Lawrence house in Chapala - ca 1963

Lawrence house in Chapala – ca 1963

Over the years, the house on Zaragoza that Lawrence and Frieda had occupied was extensively remodeled and expanded. The first major renovation was undertaken in about 1940 by famed Mexican architect Luis Barragán. Another large-scale renovation took place after the house was acquired in 1954 by American artist and architect Roy MacNicol (mistakenly spelled MacNichol in Moore’s The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence).

lawrence-quinta-quetzacoatl-chapala

Quinta Quetzacoatl

In the late 1970s, Canadian poet Al Purdy, a great admirer of Lawrence (to the point of having a bust of Lawrence on the hall table of his home in Ontario), wrote a hand-signed and numbered book, The D.H. Lawrence House at Chapala, published by The Paget Press in 1980, as a limited edition of 44 copies. [If any generous benefactor is reading this, I’d love to own a copy!] The book includes a photograph, taken by Purdy’s wife Eurithe, of the plumed serpent tile work above the door of the Lawrence house.

The town of Chapala today would be totally unrecognizable to Lawrence, but the home where he spent a productive summer writing the first draft of The Plumed Serpent eventually became the Quinta Quetzalcoatl, an exclusive boutique hotel.

Sources:

  • Goldsmith, M.O. 1941. “Week-end house in Mexico: G. Cristo house, Lake Chapala.” House and Garden vol 79 (May 1941). Describes the remodeling of D.H. Lawrence’s one story adobe cottage by Luis Barragán, the “talented young Mexican architect.”
  • Harry T. Moore (ed). 1962. The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence (Two volumes), (New York: Viking Press).

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.

Dec 142015
 

English novelist, poet and essayist David Herbert Lawrence was 37 years of age in summer 1923 when he spent three months in Chapala writing the first draft of the work that eventually became The Plumed Serpent (1926). For an account of Lawrence’s time in Chapala, see:

The first version of The Plumed Serpent , very different to the final version, was titled Quetzalcoatl and completed in Chapala. Lawrence revised this early version the following year during a visit to Oaxaca. The Plumed Serpent was published in 1926. In 1995, long after Lawrence’s death, the original version, Quetzalcoatl, was also published.

If you haven’t yet read The Plumed Serpent, the entire text is available online:

The Plumed Serpent has been extensively analyzed by literary experts. (One of the most interesting of these analyses is L. D. Clark’s Dark Night of the Body: D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent, Univ. of Texas, 1964). The purpose of this article is not to delve into literary criticism but to highlight some of the salient links between Lawrence’s novel, his time in Mexico and, in particular, his months at Lake Chapala.

Outline plot

The plot, as described on the back cover of some editions of The Plumed Serpent:

“Kate Leslie, an Irish widow visiting Mexico, finds herself equally repelled and fascinated by what she sees as the primitive cruelty of the country. As she becomes involved with Don Ramon and General Cipriano, her perceptions change. Caught up in the plans of these two men to revive the old Aztec religion and political order, she submits to the ‘blood-consciousness’ and phallic power that they represent.”

Differences between Quetzalcoatl and The Plumed Serpent

Literary scholars have subjected the differences between the two versions to reams of analysis. Lawrence made dozens of important changes, but the most significant difference comes in how he developed the character of his heroine, Kate. In the original version, Quetzalcoatl, Kate did not agree to marry General Cipriano Viedma, did not agree to become the manifestation of the rain-goddess and did not agree to remain in Mexico.

The characters in the novel

Lawrence-Plumed-SerpentMany of the events in The Plumed Serpent are based on experiences Lawrence had in Mexico, and many of the characters are based on people in his immediate circle or people he met during his trip.

Some of Lawrence’s minor characters can readily be linked to real people. For instance, his portrayal of the Americans Owen Rhys and Bud Villiers at the bullfight was based on his traveling companions Witter Bynner and Willard (“Spud”) Johnson respectively.

The archaeologist Mrs Norris (Chapter II), who hosted a memorable tea party, was, in real life, Mrs Zelia Nuttall (1858-1933).

The young Mexican who conducted the tour of the frescoes in Mexico City (chapter III) was Mexican artist-geographer Miguel Covarrubias (See Mexican artist-geographer helped put Bali on the tourist map and Mexico in the USA: Pacific fauna and flora mural in San Francisco).

The family of Mexicans at Kate’s house (chapters VIII and IX) was based on the Mexican family that helped look after Lawrence and his wife Frieda in their home in Chapala.

Bell, the American hotel owner in chapter VI, was based on hotelier-photographer Winfield Scott, who at one time had managed the Hotel Ribera Castellanos, but in 1923 was managing the Hotel Arzapalo in Chapala, the hotel where Lawrence’s traveling companions Bynner and Johnson stayed. (The Hotel Ribera Castellanos has various literary claims to fame dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, when it was owned by Ignacio Castellanos and his wife, poet Esther Tapia de Castellanos.)

The more complex characters in The Plumed Serpent are, in all likelihood, fictional amalgams of several real people. The personality and actions of Don Ramón, for instance, are said to echo José Vasconcelas, the Mexican Education Minister at the time of Lawrence’s visit, combined perhaps with elements of General Arnulfo Gómez, who Lawrence met in Cuernavaca. Witter Bynner, in Journey with Genius, suggests that an American ex-boxer John Dibrell, then resident in Chapala, also influenced the character of Don Ramón.

Cipriano in the novel adopts tactics similar to those espoused by General Gómez, but other details of his life are surely based on the early life of Benito Juárez, the nineteenth century reformer, of humble origin, who served five terms as Mexico’s president.

The landscapes and villages of Lake Chapala

The Plumed Serpent includes many locales that clearly relate to specific places Lawrence visited during his three months in Chapala in 1923. Almost all of the place names Lawrence uses in the novel are the names of real places in the Lake Chapala area, though Lawrence “reassigns” them in his novel.

For example, Lake Chapala itself is fictionalized as “Lake Sayula” in the novel. (Sayula is the name of a town and shallow lake to the west of the real Lake Chapala.) Even though Lawrence stayed at Lake Chapala into the summer rainy season, when the local vegetation is at its most verdant, in chapter 5 of The Plumed Serpent, where Kate arrives at the lake, he deliberately paints only an unflattering dry-season description of the lake’s surrounding countryside:

Dry country with mesquite bushes, in the dawn: then green wheat alternating with ripe wheat. And men already in the pale, ripened wheat reaping with sickles, cutting short little handfuls from the short straw. A bright sky, with a bluish shadow on earth. Parched slopes with ragged maize stubble. Then a forlorn hacienda and a man on horseback, in a blanket, driving a silent flock of cows, sheep, bulls, goats, lambs, rippling a bit ghostly in the dawn, from under a tottering archway. A long canal beside the railway, a long canal paved with bright green leaves from which poked the mauve heads of the lirio, the water hyacinth. The sun was lifting up, red. In a moment it was the full, dazzling gold of a Mexican morning.”

Ixtlahuacan (chapter V), with its railway station, was Lawrence’s name for the town of Ocotlán. The nearby Orilla Hotel (chapters V, VI) was (in reality) the once prominent Hotel Ribera Castellanos. In the novel, Kate was greeted by the hotel manager:

He showed Kate to her room in the unfinished quarter, and ordered her breakfast. The hotel consisted of an old low ranch-house with a veranda — and this was the dining-room, lounge, kitchen, and office. Then there was a two-storey new wing, with a smart bathroom between each two bedrooms, and almost up-to-date fittings: very incongruous.

But the new wing was unfinished — had been unfinished for a dozen years and more, the work abandoned when Porfirio Diaz fled. Now it would probably never be finished. (chapter V)

In the following chapter, Lawrence expands his explanation of the hotel’s recent history:

In Porfirio Diaz’ day, the lake-side began to be the Riviera of Mexico, and Orilla was to be the Nice, or at least the Mentone of the country. But revolutions started erupting again, and in 1911 Don Porfirio fled to Paris with, it is said, thirty million gold pesos in his pocket: a peso being half a dollar, nearly half-a-crown. But we need not believe all that is said, especially by a man’s enemies.

During the subsequent revolutions, Orilla, which had begun to be a winter paradise for the Americans, lapsed back into barbarism and broken brickwork. In 1921 a feeble new start had been made.

The place belonged to a German-Mexican family, who also owned the adjacent hacienda. They acquired the property from the American Hotel Company, who had undertaken to develop the lake-shore, and who had gone bankrupt during the various revolutions.

The German-Mexican owners were not popular with the natives. An angel from heaven would not have been popular, these years, if he had been known as the owner of property. However, in 1921 the hotel was very modestly opened again, with an American manager. (chapter VI)

Lawrence uses Kate’s boat ride from Orilla to Sayula (Chapala) to include a thumb nail account of the historically-important Island of Mezcala:

They were passing the island, with its ruins of fortress and prison. It was all rock and dryness, with great broken walls and the shell of a church among its hurtful stones and its dry grey herbage. For a long time the Indians had defended it against the Spaniards. Then the Spaniards used the island as a fortress against the Indians. Later, as a penal settlement. And now the place was a ruin, repellent, full of scorpions, and otherwise empty of life. Only one or two fishermen lived in the tiny cove facing the mainland, and a flock of goats, specks of life creeping among the rocks. And an unhappy fellow put there by the Government to register the weather. (chapter VI)

The village of Sayula itself, where most of the book’s action takes place, is, of course, based on the village of Chapala, complete with its hot pools and (in 1923) newly-opened railway station:

‘Sayula!’ said the man in the bows, pointing ahead.

She saw, away off, a place where there were green trees, where the shore was flat, and a biggish building stood out.

‘What is the building?’ she asked.

‘The railway station.’

She was suitably impressed, for it was a new-looking, imposing structure.

A little steamer was smoking, lying off from a wooden jetty in the loneliness, and black, laden boats were poling out to her, and merging back to shore. The vessel gave a hoot, and slowly yet busily set off on the bosom of the water, heading in a slanting line across the lake, to which the tiny high white twin-towers of Tuliapán showed above the water-line, tiny and far-off, on the other side.

They had passed the jetty, and rounding the shoal where the willows grew, she could see Sayula; white fluted twin-towers of the church, obelisk shaped above the pepper-trees; beyond, a mound of a hill standing alone, dotted with dry bushes, distinct and Japanese-looking; beyond this, the corrugated, blue-ribbed, flat-flanked mountains of Mexico.

It looked peaceful, delicate, almost Japanese. As she drew nearer she saw the beach with the washing spread on the sand; the fleecy green willow-trees and pepper-trees, and the villas in foliage and flowers, hanging magenta curtains of bougainvillea, red dots of hibiscus, pink abundance of tall oleander trees; occasional palm-trees sticking out.

The boat was steering round a stone jetty, on which, in black letters, was painted an advertisement for motor-car tyres. There were a few seats, some deep fleecy trees growing out of the sand, a booth for selling drinks, a little promenade, and white boats on a sandy beach. A few women sitting under parasols, a few bathers in the water, and trees in front of the few villas deep in green or blazing scarlet blossoms.

‘This is very good,’ thought Kate. ‘It is not too savage, and not over-civilized. It isn’t broken, but it is rather out of repair. It is in contact with the world, but the world has got a very weak grip on it.’

She went to the hotel, as Don Ramón had advised her. (Chapter VI)

Lawrence opens chapter VII with a more in-depth look at the village:

Sayula was a little lake resort; not for the idle rich, for Mexico has few left; but for tradespeople from Guadalajara, and week-enders. Even of these, there were few.

Nevertheless, there were two hotels, left over, really, from the safe quiet days of Don Porfirio, as were most of the villas. The outlying villas were shut up, some of them abandoned. Those in the village lived in a perpetual quake of fear. There were many terrors, but the two regnant were bandits and bolshevists.

Sayula had her little branch of railway, her one train a day. The railway did not pay, and fought with extinction. But it was enough.

Sayula also had that real insanity of America, the automobile. As men used to want a horse and a sword, now they want a car. As women used to pine for a home and a box at the theatre, now it is a ‘machine.’ And the poor follow the middle class. There was a perpetual rush of ‘machines’, motor-cars and motor-buses — called camiónes — along the one forlorn road coming to Sayula from Guadalajara. One hope, one faith, one destiny; to ride in a camión, to own a car.” (chapter VII)

At weekends, Sayula really heated up, with the arrival of cityfolk, who presented quite a spectacle to the local peons:

But on Saturdays and Sundays there was something of a show. Then the camiónes and motor-cars came in lurching and hissing. And, like strange birds alighting, you had slim and charming girls in organdie frocks and face-powder and bobbed hair, fluttering into the plaza. There they strolled, arm in arm, brilliant in red organdie and blue chiffon and white muslin and pink and mauve and tangerine frail stuffs, their black hair bobbed out, their dark slim arms interlaced, their dark faces curiously macabre in the heavy make-up; approximating to white, but the white of a clown or a corpse.

In a world of big, handsome peon men, these flappers flapped with butterfly brightness and an incongruous shrillness, manless. The supply of fifis, the male young elegants who are supposed to equate the flappers, was small. But still, fifis there were, in white flannel trousers and white shoes, dark jackets, correct straw hats, and canes. Fifis far more ladylike than the reckless flappers; and far more nervous, wincing. But fifis none the less, gallant, smoking a cigarette with an elegant flourish, talking elegant Castilian, as near as possible, and looking as if they were going to be sacrificed to some Mexican god within a twelvemonth; when they were properly plumped and perfumed. The sacrificial calves being fattened.

On Saturday, the fifis and the flappers and the motor-car people from town–only a forlorn few, after all–tried to be butterfly gay, in sinister Mexico. They hired the musicians with guitars and fiddle, and the jazz music began to quaver, a little too tenderly, without enough kick.” (chapter VII)

At weekends, the village plaza became the center of commercial activity:

It was Saturday, so the plaza was very full, and along the cobbled streets stretching from the square many torches fluttered and wavered upon the ground, illuminating a dark salesman and an array of straw hats, or a heap of straw mats called petates, or pyramids of oranges from across the lake.

It was Saturday, and Sunday morning was market. So, as it were suddenly, the life in the plaza was dense and heavy with potency. The Indians had come in from all the villages, and from far across the lake. And with them they brought the curious heavy potency of life which seems to hum deeper and deeper when they collect together.

In the afternoon, with the wind from the south, the big canoas, sailing-boats with black hulls and one huge sail, had come drifting across the waters, bringing the market-produce and the natives to their gathering ground. All the white specks of villages on the far shore, and on the far-off slopes, had sent their wild quota to the throng. (chapter VII)

The house which Lawrence and his wife Frieda rented in Chapala at Zaragoza #4 became Kate’s living quarters in The Plumed Serpent:

Her house was what she wanted; a low, L-shaped, tiled building with rough red floors and deep veranda, and the other two sides of the patio completed by the thick, dark little mango-forest outside the low wall. The square of the patio, within the precincts of the house and the mango-trees, was gay with oleanders and hibiscus, and there was a basin of water in the seedy grass. The flower-pots along the veranda were full of flowering geranium and foreign flowers. At the far end of the patio the chickens were scratching under the silent motionlessness of ragged banana-trees.

There she had it; her stone, cool, dark house, every room opening on to the veranda; her deep, shady veranda, or piazza, or corridor, looking out to the brilliant sun, the sparkling flowers and the seed-grass, the still water and the yellowing banana-trees, the dark splendour of the shadow-dense mango-trees.

With the house went a Mexican Juana with two thick-haired daughters and one son. This family lived in a den at the back of the projecting bay of the dining-room. There, half screened, was the well and the toilet, and a little kitchen and a sleeping-room where the family slept on mats on the floor. There the paltry chickens paddled, and the banana-trees made a chitter as the wind came.” (chapter IX)

Early in the day, Kate would sit on the veranda:

Morning!  Brilliant sun pouring into the patio, on the hibiscus flowers and the fluttering yellow and green rags of the banana-trees.  Birds swiftly coming and going, with tropical suddenness. In the dense shadow of the mango-grove, white-clad Indians going like ghosts.  The sense of fierce sun and, almost more impressive, of dark, intense shadow.  A twitter of life, yet a certain heavy weight of silence.  A dazzling flicker and brilliance of light, yet the feeling of weight.” (chapter IX)

The imposing, twin-spired church (chapters XVI and XVIII) was only a few steps away from the house Lawrence rented in Chapala.

Jamiltepec, Don Ramón’s hacienda on Lake Sayula (chapter VI onwards) was based on the mansion Villa El Manglar, owned by in-laws of President Porfirio Díaz, which was partially ruined in 1923.

Other obvious parallels include the market scene (chapter VII), and the novel’s depictions of women washing clothes and men fishing for charales (chapter IX).

Lawrence’s wife Frieda, in her memoir Not I, But the Wind… (1934), also recalls that,

“We went across the pale Lake of Chapala to a native village where they made serapes; they dyed the wool and wove them on simple looms. Lawrence made some designs and had them woven, as in the “Plumed Serpent”.

These examples should suffice to show just how keenly Lawrence observed everyone and everything around him during his months in Chapala, as well as how widely he read about Mexico’s history, both ancient and modern.

Why was there never a movie version?

Somewhat surprisingly, Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent has never been made into a movie.

Apparently, there was a 1970 screenplay by Robert Bolt (who wrote Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Man for All Seasons) that Christopher Miles hoped to direct, but this project never came to fruition. Miles wanted his sister (and Robert Bolt’s wife) Sarah Miles, the English actress who starred in Ryan’s Daughter, to play “Kate Leslie” and Oliver Reed to be “Cipriano”. In a 1973 newspaper article, Sarah is quoted as saying, “I’m going to star in ‘The Plumed Serpent‘ on location in Argentina. Robert has written the screenplay from a D.H. Lawrence story. And my brother Christopher is going to direct.” (Long Beach Independent, 9 April, 1973)

Sources:

  • Witter Bynner. 1951. Journey with Genius (New York: John Day)
  • L. D. Clark. 1964. Dark Night of the Body: D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent. (Univ. of Texas)
  • D. H. Lawrence. 1923 (published 1995) Quetzalcoatl.
  • D. H. Lawrence. 1926. The Plumed Serpent.

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 232015
 

Author, playwright and flying ace Elliot William Chess was in his late-forties when he spent several months in Ajijic at the small hotel Casa Heuer in 1946, but had already experienced far more than most people can manage in twice as many years.

Born in El Paso, Texas, at the turn of the century, Chess left El Paso High School when the first world war broke out and emigrated to Toronto, Canada, to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps. His RFC papers give his birth date as 25 Oct 1898, though it is entirely possible that the teenage Chess inflated his age by a year or two to boost his chances of  acceptance.

He served overseas from age 18. After the end of the war (1918) he was the youngest American pilot to join the Kosciusko Squadron in Poland. He fought with them for two years in the Polish-Soviet War (1919-21), for which he was awarded the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military award.

Chess-elliot-Koskiuszko-squadron-insigniaEarly on, when the Squadron still lacked suitable insignia, Chess suggested a design (see image), apparently first sketched on a menu of the Hotel George in Lwów. With only minor variations, this insignia remained in use until after the second world war. According to Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud in A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II, the insignia includes “the red, four-cornered military cap that Kosciuszko wore in the uprising of 1794, plus two crossed scythes, representing the Polish peasants who had followed him into battle… superimposed on a background of red, white and blue stars and stripes representing the U.S. flag.”

In the Second World War the “Kosciuszko” Polish Fighter Squadron No. 303 was the highest scoring of all RAF squadrons in the Battle of Britain.

Captain Elliot Chess, who served in WWII in the “A” Troop Carrier Group of the Ninth Air Force, was presented with his “Polish Pilot’s Wings” at a special ceremony in June 1944.

In the 1920s, after the end of the Polish-Soviet War, Chess returned to El Paso and worked as an advertising manager with the El Paso Times. The biography of him on his 1941 novel’s inside back cover says that, since the first world war, “he has been a miner, an editor, a newspaperman, an advertising copy writer, a professional wrestler, a stunt flyer, a short story writer and a dramatist.”

Chess had fulfilled a childhood dream by becoming a published writer. He wrote numerous short stories and novelettes, published between 1929 and 1932, in magazines such as Sky Birds, Sky Riders, Aces, War Birds, War Aces, Flying Aces and Air Stories. He also worked for Liberty magazine.

chess-coverIn 1941, his first and only novel, Walk Away From ‘Em, was published by Coward-McCann. Nick Wayne, the hero of his novel is (no real surprise here!) a transatlantic pilot, who “tangles with three women – his ex-wife, Jo, a neurotic dipsomaniac, Fran, and Toddy Fate, young and untouched”. (Kirkus Review, which summarized it as “pop stuff” but “better than usual of its kind”).

The Elliot Chess papers, in the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department of The University of Texas at El Paso Library, include drafts of two plays, Passport to Heaven, and Call it Comic Strip, as well as notes, photographs and other material.

It is unclear why Chess chose to spend the latter part of 1946 in Ajijic, but his sojourn there had several unexpected consequences. Already in residence at Casa Heuer (a small, rather primitive guest house on the lakefront run by a German brother and sister) was an attractive, more serious, younger writer, Elaine Gottlieb.

Despite their sixteen-year difference in age and their contrasting backgrounds (or maybe because of them?), the two hit it off almost immediately, with Gottlieb spellbound by Chess’s magnetism and captivating story-telling. According to Gottlieb, they lived together as man and wife for two months, from mid-September (when they were on a bus to Guadalajara that was attacked by gunmen) to mid-November, at which point Elliot Chess returned to El Paso, claiming he would sell some land he owned there and rejoin her in New York in two weeks. Gottlieb, meanwhile, traveled by train to Mexico City and then to New York. Chess never made it to New York, and the two never met again, but Gottlieb gave birth to their daughter, Nola Elian Chess, in New York City on 3 July 1947. (Nola’s middle name is a combination of Elliot and Elaine).

We can only speculate as to whether Elliot Chess’s aversion to moving to New York was in any way connected to his prior marriage there in 1930 to a “Jean B. Wallace”. It is equally plausible that Chess had no desire to be a father, having never known his own father.

chess-elliot-portrait-from-cover-2Chess died in El Paso, Texas, on 27 December 1962, at the age of 63, but left no will. When his aunt claimed to be the sole beneficiary, Elaine Gottlieb sought to establish that her daughter (whose birth certificate listed Elliot Chess as father) was entitled to a share of his estate. The case hinged on whether or not Nola was Chess’s legitimate child. Had Gottleb and Chess ever celebrated a legal marriage? In documents filed with the court, Gottlieb claimed that she believed they had been legally married, though she had no marriage certificate. The somewhat convoluted story is retold by Robin Hemley in  Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness. Gottlieb, who by then had married Cecil Hemley, failed to convince the court which concluded, even after an appeal in 1967, that Nola had no right whatsoever to any part of her father’s estate.

Elaine Gottlieb Hemley… testified substantially as follows:
“I married Elliot Chess September 15, 1946, in Ajijic, Mexico, and lived with
him until on or about November 16, 1946. Elliot did not make an application for a marriage license in the Republic of Mexico. I have no written evidence that I was married to Elliot. It wasn’t that kind of marriage. I said to him, ‘I take the Elliot to be my lawful wedded husband’ and he said to me, ‘I take Elaine to be my lawful wedded wife.’ I did not sign a civil registry of our marriage in the Republic of Mexico. Neither Elliot nor I appeared before any public official, by proxy or otherwise, to be married. On November 17th I boarded a train for Mexico City. Elliot kissed me goodbye at the hotel early that morning and that was the last time I saw him. I returned to New York and the appellant was born on July 3rd, 1947. Elliot Chess is the father of Nola Elian Chess.” (Court of Civil Appeals of Texas, Eastland.416 S.W.2d 492 (Tex. Civ. App. 1967) BUNTING V. CHESS).

Robin Hemley’s Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness is a detailed account of his older, and brilliant, step-sister Nola’s life and descent into schizophrenia, and how it affected the entire family, including Elaine Gottlieb. It is an uplifting, if at times harrowing, read.

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 162015
 

Poet and novelist Arthur Davison Ficke (1883-1945) and his second wife Gladys, an artist, spent the winter of 1934-35 in Chapala. From late November 1934 to late April 1935, they rented a house with fellow poet Witter Bynner and his partner Robert Hunt.

Ficke subsequently penned a novel, Mrs Morton of Mexico, set at the lake and published in 1939 by Reynal & Hitchcock, New York. It is Ficke’s only novel. One of the stories told in the novel, about “The Burro of Chapala”,  had been published previously, with an illustration by Eric Lundgren, the December 1937 edition of Esquire.

ficke-book-cover-2

Frontispiece of Mrs. Morton of Mexico

The novel was illustrated at the heading and end of each chapter with interesting and attractive drawings by Ficke’s wife, Gladys Brown.

Like many novelists, Ficke based many of his characters on real people.

The title character is an octogenarian American expatriate, based in real-life (as Neill James pointed out in Dust on My Heart), on the persona of Mrs. Hunton, originally from Virginia, the matriarch of a family that first settled in Chapala at the start of the twentieth century. Many of the details of Mrs. Morton’s family given in the book tally with what is known of Mrs. Hunton’s own family. Both, for example, are named Elizabeth, and both had husbands that were mining engineers. The descriptions of Mrs. Morton’s home, “Villa Colima”, could easily apply to the former Hunton residence in Chapala, and so on.

The British Vice-Consul, who (in the novel) used to visit Sir John Murdoch twenty-odd years ago, and had family in Devon, could well be a nod to former British Vice-Consul for Norway, Septimus Crowe, who “retired” to Chapala at the end of the nineteenth century, and whose wife had family in Tavistock, Devon.

Ficke does not even bother to disguise “Widow Sanchez” of the Hotel Universal, praised as a “very famous cook”. She is clearly the novelistic twin of La Viuda Sanchez, owner (for many a long year) of a popular restaurant-bar in Chapala.

The extraordinary character Professor Arzici in chapter VII is surely based on the artist Gerardo Murillo, better known as Dr. Atl. They share an interest in “curvilinear perspective” (Atl’s “aerial” landscapes), both experimented with new pigments (Atlcolors are still used today), both loved to paint volcanoes, both were “a combination of scientist and painter” and “eccentric but gifted”, and both went by pseudonyms: while Dr. Atl means Dr. Water, Professor Arzici means, according to the novel, Professor Terrible Mountain of Fire. “Only about eighty years of age”, “ugly as a goat”, “long snow-white beard”, “bald head”, “pipe ” – that’s Atl! (p 171-2)

There may well be real-life equivalents for some of the other characters in this novel, such as the poet and dramatist Señor Enrique Devargas Castellano, or the former politician General “Antonio” Hernando Gonzales. Suggestions welcomed!

Ficke also includes descriptions of lakeside geography, from Chapala west to Ajijic and Jocotepec. One passage that sings comes where Mrs. Morton is sitting in her garden contemplating the lake and wondering why she loves it, “with an intensely personal feeling, just as if it were a very small and private lake of one’s own”:

Perhaps because it had the intense reality of a dream-lake: because it comprised so much  mysterious variety of shore, with pointed mountains, harsh cliffs, sloping plains and rounded hills; because of its hidden little villages and its small rocky islands, its wide sea-like expanses and its narrow reedy inlets, its acre-broad drifting masses of water-hyacinths and its square-rigged fishing boats with prows high and sharp as a blackbird’s beak; because of its golden days of sun and its grey days of rain, its blue noonday skies and its black-and-starry- midnight dome.” (167)
. . .
Quiet dark-eyed fishermen sailed over these waters; their returning boats were outlined against the western gold, and at night their nets, hung on poles along the beach, were turned by the moonlight to spider-webs of silver. (168)

Mrs Morton of Mexico was reviewed positively by Kirkus:

“A sentimental story of an 80 year old Englishwoman’s last adventure in Mexico. Having lived some forty years on the shores of Lake Chapala, after the death of her husband, Mrs. Morton cultivates her garden and the friendship of the Mexicans, and intensifies her legendary qualities by hiding a political refugee, buying the tail of a burro, acquiring a holy picture, having her hair bobbed, inspiring a poet, and preventing a mass killing. There are nice touches of the Mexican servants and townspeople, there are some charming scenes, there is a certain authenticity, and the whole is pleasant, intelligent reading.”

Esther Brown, reviewing the book for the El Paso Herald Post, however, was less convinced:

“OF the many ways to write a book about Mexico Arthur Davison Ficke has found a new one. In Mrs Morton of Mexico he combines an interesting character study of an eccentric old Englishwoman with descriptions of people and places in a little town on the edge of Lake Chapala near Guadalajara. For those who prefer fiction set in Mexico to fact about Mexico this book will be welcome. The author has doubtless spent a summer on Lake Chapala and enjoys writing about it. He feels the spell of Mexico and its people but he fails somehow to be very convincing about it. Perhaps it is because his main character is a foreigner in Mexico. On the other hand he just misses making a thorough study of her because he is too concerned about the setting and minor characters in his story. These are stereotyped – the revolting general the inscrutable Indian woman, the Spanish gentleman of the old school and the inevitable artist. The decorations of Gladys Brown at the heading and end of each chapter are very interesting and attractive.” – (El Paso Herald Post, 18 November 1939, p6)

Related reading:

Other twentieth century novels set largely, or entirely, at Lake Chapala include:

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 092015
 

Poet and novelist Arthur Davison Ficke (1883-1945) and his second wife Gladys, an artist, spent the winter of 1934-35 in Chapala. From late November 1934 to late April 1935, they rented a house with fellow poet Witter Bynner and his partner Robert Hunt.

ficke-book-cover-2Ficke subsequently wrote a novel, Mrs Morton of Mexico, set at the lake and published in 1939 by Reynal & Hitchcock, New York. It is Ficke’s only novel. The novel was illustrated at the heading and end of each chapter with interesting and attractive drawings by Ficke’s wife, Gladys Brown.

We take a closer look at the novel in a separate post, but the title character is an octogenarian American expatriate, based in real-life (as Neill James pointed out in her Dust on My Heart), on the persona of Mrs. Hunton, originally from Virginia, the matriarch of a family that first settled in Chapala at the start of the twentieth century.

A poem by Ficke entitled “Lake Chapala” and at least one of the stories told in the novel, about “The Burro of Chapala”, had been published previously, in Esquire. (The poem, illustrated by John Groth, in May 1936, and the short story, with an illustration by Eric Lundgren, in December 1937.)

Portrait of Ficke (Iowa Post)

Portrait of Ficke (Iowa Post)

Arthur Davison Ficke was born on 10 November 1883 in Davenport, Iowa, the son of a lawyer, and died in Hudson, New York, on 30 November 1945. During his childhood, the family traveled to Europe and the Orient, the start of a lifelong interest in Japanese art.

Ficke entered Harvard College in 1900, where he first met Witter Bynner, who became a lifelong friend. After graduating from Harvard in 1904, Ficke then gained a law degree at Iowa State University (1908) while teaching some English classes at the university and having married Evelyn Bethune Blunt in 1907 .

He was a prolific poet. Ficke published From the Isles his first collection of poetry in 1907. This was quickly followed by The Happy Princess and Other Poems (1907), The Earth Passion (1908), The Breaking of Bonds (1910), Twelve Japanese Painters (1913), Mr. Faust (1913), Sonnets of a Portrait Painter (1914), The Man on the Hilltop and Other Poems (1915), Chats on Japanese Prints (1915), and An April Elegy (1917).

Ficke was close friends with Bynner, who accompanied the Fickes on a trip to the Far East in 1916-17. This close friendship led to the two poets perpetrating what has often been called “the literary hoax of the twentieth century” in 1916, when they published a joint work, Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments, purportedly written by Anne Knish (Ficke) and Emanuel Morgan (Bynner). Intended as a satire on modern poetry, the work was enthusiastically reviewed as a serious contribution to poetry, before the deception was revealed in 1918.

During the first world war, Ficke served in France with the U.S. Army from 1917 to 1919. For a short time in 1922, Ficke accepted a post as curator of Japanese prints and lecturer in Japanese art at the Fogg Art Museum in Boston.

On 8 December 1923, a year after his divorce from Evelyn, Ficke married Gladys Brown, a painter. The couple settled first in New York City but then moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, until 1928. He published four books in the 1920s: Out of Silence and Other Poems (1924); Selected Poems (1926); Christ in China (1927); Mountain Against Mountain (1929), followed by The Road to the Mountain (1930). Later works include The Secret and Other Poems (1936) and Tumultuous Shore and Other Poems (1942).

A brush with tuberculosis took him to North Carolina and Texas for treatment, after which, in the early 1930s, he traveled to Jamaica and Florida before his visit to Chapala in 1934-35.

“University of Iowa researcher William H. Roba said many writers thought of him as a “poet’s poet.” Tall, debonair, always impeccably dressed and with perfect manners, he stood out from others. He used traditional forms for most of his poetry — odes, elegies, sonnets — but had a humorous side that sometimes emerged in his writings.” – Tom Longden in Desmoines Register.

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.

Aug 242015
 

The Canadian playwright and novelist George Ryga (1932-1987), who also wrote poems and song lyrics, lived and wrote during part of the 1980s in the village of San Antonio Tlayacapan, mid-way between Chapala and Ajijic.

George+RygaRyga was born in the tiny Ukrainian community of Deep Creek, Alberta, on 27 July 1932. He died in Summerland, British Columbia, on 18 November 18, 1987.

Ryga left school after grade six and worked in several jobs, including as a radio copywriter, prior to winning a scholarship to the Banff School of Fine Arts. In 1955, he traveled to Europe to attend the World Assembly for Peace in Helsinki, and undertake some work for the BBC.

Shortly after returning to Canada in 1956, he published his first collection of poems, Song of My Hands (1956). In 1961, Ryga’s first play, Indian, was performed on television. He achieved national exposure in 1967 with his play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, about a young native woman who leaves her home for the big city but then finds she loses any sense of belonging. It was warmly received by critics and still considered to be one of the most important English-language plays by any Canadian playwright. It has been widely performed, and in 1971 was turned into a ballet by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

Other plays by Ryga include Captives of the Faceless Drummer (1971); Sunrise on Sarah (1972); Portrait of Angelica (1973); Ploughmen of the Glacier (1977); In the Shadow of the Vulture (1985); Paracelsus (1986); Summerland (1992).

For more details about Ryga’s life and work, try James F. Hoffman’s The ecstasy of resistance: a biography of George Ryga (Toronto: ECW Press, 1995).

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.

Jun 292015
 

Novelist and acclaimed creative writing instructor Smith Kirkpatrick spent several summers in Ajijic, with his wife Barbara, in the early 1960s and at one point was apparently working on a novel set in the village. The novel was never published.

Kirkpatrick was born near Paris, Arkansas, on 28 November 1922, and passed away in Gainesville, Florida, on 6 June 2008. As a child he became fascinated with natural history and determined to make his career based on writing. A former merchant seaman, he served in both World War II and Korea as a U.S. naval aviator, flying torpedo planes. He apparently survived seven crash landings before ending up in a VA hospital. Following his discharge in the mid-1950s, he studied English at the University of Florida in Gainesville, under novelist and critic Andrew Lytle, who had established the Creative Writing program there in 1948.

Kirkpatrick, known simply as “Kirk” by many of his students, became a creative writing instructor at the university in 1956, took over from Lytle as Director of the Creative Writing Program in 1961 and finally retired from teaching in 1992. In the interim, he had taught an entire generation of students, many of whom went on to become fine writers. Perhaps his most famous student was Harry Crews, author of more than twenty novels. Crews’ first novel, The Gospel Singer, was dedicated to Kirkpatrick. While his liberal teaching style was not always appreciated by the university administration, the tributes paid to him after his death by former students speak for themselves.

Among other accomplishments during his tenure, Kirkpatrick founded The Florida Writers’ Conference, an annual week-long symposium attracting participants from far afield, including not only writers, but also agents and editors.

Kirkpatrick only published one novel, The Sun’s Gold: A Novel of the Sea (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1974), which was favorably received by critics. The novel, partly autobiographical, is about a young Arkansas boy (named “No Name”) who goes to sea aboard the “Ekonk”, a particularly undistinguished merchant vessel, seeking adventure. The ship, with her cast of memorable characters, is bound for a war-torn port in Africa, carrying munitions and beer. The youth’s voyage is one of self-discovery, becoming much more complicated after he kills a man in a brawl ashore. As the Kirkus reviewer summarizes, Kirkpatrick’s point “is that a worm-ridden mankind can turn to gold in the sun”.

Kirkpatrick also wrote several published essays and short stories, including “Silence,” (The Southern Review, Winter 1968) and had plans at one stage for a book of children’s poems.

Sources:

Sources include the inaugural issue of The Christendom Review, which was dedicated to the memory of Smith Kirkpatrick.

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.

Jun 222015
 

Poet, writer and politician Honorato Barrera Buenrostro was born in the Lakeside town of Jamay (mid-way between Ocotlán and La Barca) in 1870 and died in Ocotlán in 1952.

He left his home town for Mexico City at a young age. In Mexico City, he studied and wrote alongside Amado Nervo (1870-1919) and Luis Gonzaga Urbina (1864-1934). Coincidentally, Urbina’s own collection of poetry, Puestas de sol, includes “El poema del lago” (“The Lake Poem”), a lengthy poem inspired by a visit to Chapala.

Barrera Buenrostro subsequently returned to Ocotlán where he worked in commerce and as a telegraphist for the railway company. He later moved to Chapala, and was the Mayor (Presidente Municipal) of Chapala, 1924-1925, during the years when Lic. José Guadalupe Zuno was the state governor (1923-1926).

aquel-famoso-remingtonBarrera Buenrostro’s work won various literary prizes, including ones awarded in Aguascalientes, Morelia and Mexico City. His best known works are a book of poems, Andamio de Marfíl (1947), and a novel, El rémington sin funda (1947).

The novel El rémington sin funda (1947) is based on the life of Rodolfo Álvarez del Castillo. Nicknamed “El Remington”, Álvarez del Castillo was a famous pistol-packing womanizer of the 1930s, who eventually fought a duel with a soldier in which both men lost their lives. Álvarez del Castillo was the brother-in-law of famous Mexican movie star María Félix and his life story became the basis for at least two Mexican films: ¡Se la llevó el Rémington! (1948), starring charro singer Luis Aguilar, and Aquel famoso Remington (1982), directed by Gustavo Alatriste.

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.

May 182015
 

American artist and author Paul Alexander Bartlett (1909-1990) was a frequent traveler to Mexico who developed an obsession with Mexico’s ancient haciendas. Bartlett devoted years of his life to studying and documenting these haciendas (the mainstay of the colonial-era economy), gradually compiling an artistic record covering more than 350 of them throughout the country.

While it is not entirely clear precisely when Bartlett lived in the Chapala region, during his time there he painted and drew exquisite pen and ink drawings, such as this one of the Hacienda de Zapotitán, a short distance north of Jocotepec.

bartlett-hacienda-zapotitan

Pen-and-ink drawing by Paul Bartlett of Hacienda de Zapotitán, Jalisco

Bartlett explored Mexico with his wife, poet and writer Elizabeth Bartlett (1911-1994). The couple first met in Guadalajara in 1941 and married two years later in Sayula. Their son Steven James Bartlett (born in Mexico City and now a widely published author in the fields of psychology and philosophy) subsequently accompanied them as they roamed all over Mexico looking for photogenic and noteworthy haciendas.

Steven Bartlett recalls that the family definitely lived for some months in the Chapala-Ajijic area in the early 1950s. He remembers that his father knew author Peter Lilley (who, with first one writing colleague and then another, used the pen-name of Dane Chandos to craft, among other works, Village in the Sun and House in the Sun, both set at Lake Chapala). The Bartlett family also revisited the Chapala area several times in the 1970s, during the time they were living in Comala, Colima. During these later trips, his father gave lectures about haciendas while his mother gave poetry readings.

Bartlett eventually compiled the beautifully-illustrated book The Haciendas of Mexico: An Artist’s Record, first published in 1990 and readily available now as a free Gutenburg pdf or Epub. The book has more than 100 photographs and illustrations made in the field from 1943 to 1985 and is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the history, economics, art and architecture of Mexico’s colonial haciendas. For a brief review of this book, see The Haciendas of Mexico: An Artist’s Record on the Geo-Mexico website.

Bartlett’s hacienda art work has been displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum, the New York City Public Library, the University of Virginia, the University of Texas, the Instituto Mexicano-Norteamericano in Mexico City, and at the Bancroft Library, among other places.

An archive of Bartlett’s original pen-and-ink illustrations and several hundred photographs is held in the Benson Latin American Collection of the University of Texas in Austin. A second collection of hacienda photographs and other materials is maintained by the Western History Research Center of the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

Paul Alexander Bartlett (1909-1990) attended Oberlin College and the University of Arizona, before studying art at the National University of Mexico (UNAM) and in Guadalajara. He was an instructor in creative writing at Georgia State College and Editor of Publications at the University of California Santa Barbara (1964-70).

Bartlett had dozens of short stories and poems published in magazines such as Southwest Review, Crosscurrents, Antenna, Etc, Greyledge Review, Prospice, and Queen’s Quarterly, and also wrote the short novel Adios, mi México (1983), and the novel When the Owl Cries (1960). Free online editions of several of his books are available via his author page on Project Gutenberg.

Acknowledgment

Sincere thanks to Steven Bartlett for sharing his memories of the family’s time in Mexico.

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.

May 112015
 

Christian Reid was the nom de plume chosen by Frances Christine Fisher (later Tiernan). As a woman writing in a man’s world, presumably she felt that her pen name would enable her to better compete with her male counterparts. Fisher was very familiar with the Lake Chapala area and must have visited it, or stayed there, in the late nineteenth century, though the precise details remain unclear. In 1890, Fisher published A Cast for Fortune: A Story of Mexican Life, which had the hacienda and village of Atequiza as its setting. (At that time, Atequiza was the railway station closest to the town of Chapala.)

Frances Christine Fisher. Credit: Archive.org

Frances Christine Fisher. Credit: Archive.org

In the slightly later travel story, The Land of The Sun: On Lake Chapala (1893), the protagonists agree that Mexico’s constant sunshine makes any discussion of the weather irrelevant, unlike north of the border. They are on their way from Guadalajara to visit “Don Rafael’s hacienda.” After taking the train to Atequiza, they ride horses to Chapala. The horseback ride, about four leagues in distance, takes longer than they expected since, as one of the characters aptly comments, “Leagues in this country are very elastic.”

Once in Chapala, they comment favorably on the beauty of the surroundings, the thermal water with medicinal qualities, and the local hostelry with its equipal furniture.

Fisher (1846-1920) was born in Salisbury, North Carolina. Her father invested in mining ventures and was the president of the North Carolina Railroad. The family was left penniless in the aftermath of the Civil War, so she began writing for money at quite an early age.

Among early pieces was “Regret”, a poem written “in memory of Julian Fairfax, MA, University of Virginia”, in 1861, when Fisher was about 15 years old. Her first book was Valerie Aylmer, published in 1870, when she was 23. She was a prolific writer, especially of very popular and financially successful light romances. In all, she had almost fifty novels and travel narratives published. In several cases, the books used material that had been previously serialized in magazines. Her best-known book is The Land of the Sky (1876) set in the now homonymous western part of North Carolina. Many believe the region took its popular name from the book.

In 1887, Fisher married James M. Tiernan, a widower who had interests in silver mines in Mexico. In letters to her, Tiernan describes meeting President Díaz, and is critical of Americans who displayed prejudice against Mexicans. He also related his problems involving an embezzling official and a recalcitrant British engineer. It is unclear if the couple actually lived together in Mexico for any extended period, but she certainly must have visited frequently. The couple traveled widely, and Fisher used the knowledge she gained to write novels set not only in Mexico, but also in New York, the West Indies and Europe.

After her husband’s death in 1898, Fisher turned to the church. She continued to write, in her hometown of Salisbury, until her own death in 1920. Frances Fisher (aka Christian Reid) was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in October 2002.

[This is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter 38 of my Lake Chapala through the ages: an anthology of travellers’ tales.]

Source of image: opposite page 327 of Jethro Rumple’s A history of Rowan County, North Carolina (1916).

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.

Apr 302015
 

English novelist and playwright Raymond “Ray” Rigby was born in Rochford, England, in 1916 and died in Guadalajara aged 78 on 19 May 1995.

Ray Rigby, ca 1970

Ray Rigby, ca 1970

In 1972, Rigby turned his back on a successful Hollywood career to move to Mexico. He lived initially in Jocotepec and for a short time in San Antonio Tlayacapan. About two years later, he moved to Guadalajara, where he married María Cristina Quintero in 1975, and where he resided until his death in 1995.

Rigby, who claimed to be a descendent of Saint John Rigby, one of 40 English martyrs canonized in 1970, had a troubled early life, doted on by his mother but abandoned by his father. It led to him finding it a challenge to form lasting partnerships, as evidenced by his five marriages, the last of which was by far the most successful. Rigby had five daughters, all born prior to his move to Mexico.

During the second world war, Rigby served as a private with the British Eighth Army in North Africa, but got into trouble due to various nefarious activities, and spent two spells in British field punishment centers. His experiences there would later form the basis for his award-winning novel The Hill, which he later turned into the famous anti-war movie of that name starring Sean Connery.

Rigby’s writing career began in 1948, when he began to write for television series, documentaries, radio and theatre. His greatest success came in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was employed as a screenwriter by MGM, 7 Arts, Warner Brothers, David Wolper Productions, Nat Cohen, 20th Century Fox, John Kohn Productions and Associated British Productions.

The screenplays and adaptations for numerous TV series and movies that Rigby worked on included: The End Begins (1956); Shut Out the Night (1958); Armchair Mystery Theatre (1960); The Avengers (1961); The Night of the Apes (1961); Operation Crossbow (1965) and his own masterpiece, The Hill (1965).

The-Hill-1965

The Hill won the 1966 BAFTA Film Award for Best British Screenplay, the 1965 Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, and the 1966 Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for the Best British Dramatic Screenplay. It was translated into 13 languages and enjoyed a resurgence of interest following the break-up of the former Soviet Union.

jacksons-peaceRigby’s novels, several of which are largely autobiographical, were The Hill (1965); Where Have All The Soldiers Gone? (1966); Jackson’s War (1967); Jackson’s Peace (1974); Jackson’s England (1979); and Hill Of Sand (1981) (written as a sequel to The Hill).

As can be seen from their publication dates, several of these novels were completed after Rigby moved to Mexico.

Rigby was always positive and cheerful and led a very disciplined life. He would “exercise” by walking round and round the small patio of his home on the outskirts of Guadalajara every morning for at least an hour, a habit possibly instilled during his spells in detention. He also had specific times set aside for writing and for socializing. He loved cooking and would watch and re-watch classic old Mexican movies. At the same time, he was one of the most gracious hosts imaginable, with a never-ending treasure chest of amazing experiences and stories. I first met him in about 1987 and we quickly became good friends. Indeed, it was Rigby who urged me to start writing and who provided moral support during my first struggling attempts, provided I visited him at a time when he wasn’t exercising or writing.

Rigby was a born raconteur, with keen street-smarts and a ready wit. Author Alex Gratton was not exaggerating when he described Ray, in a memorial piece, as a “world class wit and a fabulous story teller”.

While living in Jocotepec, Rigby had numerous run-ins with the local postmaster who was accustomed, apparently, at that time to check all incoming mail personally for any cash or valuables.

In 1973, Rigby and Wendell Phillips of Ajijic sold their joint script Ringer, written at Lakeside, to Universal Studios for a 90-minute pilot TV film. The two authors traveled to Hollywood to make the sale. This is almost certainly the last direct contact Rigby had with Hollywood.

Ray Rigby’s papers are in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.

Sources:

  • Alex Gratton. Remembering Ray Rigby, El Ojo del Lago, July 1995
  • Informador 6 August 1982, p 20-C

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.

Apr 162015
 

Robert Penn Warren, the great American poet, novelist and literary critic, was born in Kentucky on 24 April 1905 and died in Vermont on 15 September 1989. Warren lived and wrote in Chapala for several months in the summer of 1941.

Warren entered Vanderbilt University in 1921, where he became the youngest member of a group of Southern poets known as the Fugitives. Other members included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson and Merrill Moore. Warren’s first poems were published in The Fugitive, the magazine published by the group from 1922 to 1925.

From 1925 to 1927, Warren taught at the University of California, while earning his master’s degree. He also studied at New College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. After marrying Emma Brescia (nicknamed “Cinina”) and returning to the U.S. in 1930, he taught at Vanderbilt, Louisiana State, the University of Minnesota, and Yale University.

2005 U.S. stamp commemorating Robert Penn Warren

2005 U.S. stamp commemorating Robert Penn Warren

Warren was a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and founded the influential literary journal The Southern Review with Cleanth Brooks in 1935. He and Brooks also co-wrote a textbook Understanding Poetry (1938), which would prove to have a profound influence on the study of poetry in American colleges.

Warren, accompanied by his wife Cinina, visited Chapala in 1941, two years after the publication of his acclaimed first novel Night Rider.

Relatively little is known about their stay at Chapala, or their motivation in choosing to go there. However, Warren did have a family connection to the nearby city of Guadalajara. In Portrait of a Father, published in 1988, the year before his death, Warren wrote about the similarities between his father’s life and his own. Among the family members recalled in the book is Warren’s uncle Sam, who had worked in mining and lived in Guadalajara. Warren adds that he had often been there “during a long stay at Chapala”.

A few tantalizing snippets of information can be gleaned from the correspondence between Warren and his colleague Cleanth Brooks, published by the University of Missouri Press in 1998.

In a letter dated 17 July 1941, and signed “Red” (Warren’s nickname on account of the color of his hair), he wrote, from the Hotel Nido in Chapala, that Chapala was “a tiny town on a lake, surrounded by mountains, with a fine climate”, before providing some details of his living arrangements:

We have rented a little house, new and verminless, for which we pay six dollars a month, though getting it screened raised the rent several dollars more. A cook is a dollar a week, and food is cheap. The place beautiful, smelly and picture-postcardy. There are some Americans about, including Witter Bynner – who, in fact was about, very much about, with a palatial establishment, but he left yesterday for Colorado. But we have led a pretty isolated life here. Cinina was pretty busy for a few days getting the domestic machinery in motion, and I’ve been working and studying Spanish and swimming and going to the can more often than usual. Not that I’ve got a bug in me yet, but the complaint seems to be usual here upon first arrival…” (Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence, p 55)

He bemoaned his lack of access to American magazines,

We’ve seen one copy of Time, Latin America edition, but you can’t buy it here at Chapala, and we don’t go to Guadalajara, thirty miles away, but once a week…”

Chapala did offer him, though, a good space in which to think and work:

I’ve got some ideas for new poems, but haven’t done anything on them since arrival. The novel occupies most of my thoughts.”

“The novel” is presumably his second novel, At Heaven’s Gate, first published in 1943.

The following month, August 1941, he wrote that he had mailed a manuscript from Guadalajara to The Southern Review, but had to go to the city by bus because he was temporarily without his car:

We still like Chapala, but are getting awfully anxious for Baton Rouge. It seems that our car may be ready within a few days–though one can’t be too sure. I saw the body work the other day in Guadalajara, and you can’t even tell that the thing had taken a beating. But it has shore [sic] God played hell with what passes for the Warren budget.”

warren-robert=penn-at-heavens-gate

Warren also referred in this letter to “the unexpected arrival of the Albrizios”, friends from the U.S., whom “Cinina just happened to see”, “on the street at Chapala”. He excused his relative lack of work progress as being due to “matters of weather, stubbing toes, catching colds, having hangovers, and such…”

By coincidence, the house rented by Warren was later the home in 1952/1953 of Willard Marsh, author of the novel Week With No Friday (set at Lake Chapala), and his wife George. The owner of the house remembered “Red” as “a nice person with “red” hair who drank a lot – and gave wonderful parties!”

Warren’s marriage to Cinina ended in 1951; the following year, he married Eleanor Clark. He received numerous awards for his work, including the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for The Novel for All the King’s Men (1946), as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in both 1958 and 1979. Warren is the only person to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry. He was appointed as the first poet laureate of the United States (1986 -1987).

Two of Warren’s works were subsequently turned into movies: All the King’s Men (1949) and Band of Angels (1957).

Source:

Dec 292014
 

Scottish writer Alexander Whitelaw Robertson Trocchi was born in Glasgow 30 July 1925 and died 15 April 1984 in London, England.

After graduating from the University of Glasgow, Trocchi lived in Paris, where in the early 1950s, he edited the literary magazine Merlin, which published the work of many noteworthy writers including Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Christopher Logue and Pablo Neruda. In the late 1950s, Trocchi lived for some time in Ajijic, on Lake Chapala, while he was writing his controversial novel Cain’s Book, first published in New York in 1960.

Alexander Trocchi in about 1967

Alexander Trocchi in about 1967

Trocchi had previously published an autobiographical book Young Adam (1955), made into a movie in 2003. In the preface to Cain’s Book, Trocchi reassured readers that the narrator’s heroin use and related adventures were unrelated to the author’s personal life or experiences. Joe Necchi, the heroin addict and writer in Cain’s Book, is living and working on a scow (barge) on the Hudson River in New York. Necchi has numerous flashbacks to his childhood/youth in Glasgow, London and Paris. The narrative of the book, including its sex and drugs scenes, becomes more and more fragmented as Necchi stuggles to reconcile his desire for creativity with the demands of his addiction.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERATrocchi’s own addiction would prevent him from attending the launch party for Cain’s Book in New York and indeed, from ever completing another book-length work. Shortly after the publication of Cain’s Book, Trocchi shot himself up with heroin, live on camera, during a television debate on drug abuse. He was already on bail for having supplied heroin to a minor, and a jail term seemed inevitable. Trocchi’s friends (including Norman Mailer) smuggled him across the border into Canada, where he was given refuge in Montreal by poet Irving Layton and met Leonard Cohen.

This short Youtube video – Alexander Trocchi – A Life in Pieces – features comments from William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Leonard Cohen.

When the U.K. edition of Cain’s Book was published in 1963, Trocchi was first “feted as a new star”. But, in February of the following year, the book “was seized, together with 48 other novels and 906 magazines in a series of police raids in Sheffield.” The police view was that the book was corrupting, since it “seems to advocate the use of drugs in school so that children should have a clearer conception of art.” (quotes from Green’s Encyclopaedia of Censorship). The publishers lost the case and Trocchi held a public bonfire to burn all unsold copies of Cain’s Book.

Most of Trocchi’s novels were published by Olympia Press, but many were originally published under pen names such as Frances Lengel and Carmencita de las Lunas. For example, the name Frances Lengel was used for several pornographic books including Helen and Desire (1954) and Carnal Days of Helen Seferis (1954).

Trocchi’s other novels include:

  • White Thighs (1955)
  • School for Wives (1955)
  • Thongs (1955)
  • Young Adam (1955)
  • My Life and Loves: Fifth Volume (1954)
  • Sappho of Lesbos (1960)
  • School for Sin (1960)
  • Cain’s Book (1960)

He also published a collection of poetry entitled Man at Leisure (1972).

John Ross (1938-2011), author of several books and a long-time resident of Mexico City, describes in Murdered by Capitalism : A Memoir of 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left (Nation Books, 2004) how on one occasion (date unclear) he left Mexico City and met Alex Trocchi in Ajijic:

The road I was on took me west from Guadalajara out to Lake Chapala where Lawrence had set The Plumed Serpent. I kept staring at the dark surface, waiting for Quetzalcoatl to suddenly surge up from Chapala’s turgid, ancient depths.

Alex Trocchi, Scotland’s most accomplished junkie decades before Trainspotting, and a fellow barge captain whose Cain’s Book was one of Barney Rosset’s first titles at Evergreen, was hiding out in Ajijic. I bunked with Ned Polsky whose quibblings with Norman Mailer and his “White Negro” thesis were well-published on the Left. But heroin is a lethargic drug and weighty words did not spark much adventure. Ajijic, packed with dissipated gringos, seemed to me a kind of leper colony and I soon bid it adios and grabbed the puddle-jumper down to Puerto Vallarta, still a coastal backwater before Burton & Taylor filmed Night of the Iguana there, and caught a sail canoe out to the legendary Beatnik colony near the south cape of the bay at Yelapa.”

(Editor’s note: Richard Burton was in The Night of the Iguana (1964), but Elizabeth Taylor was not.)

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.

Dec 222014
 

Joan Van Every was born 28 Feb 1929 in Los Angeles, California, and died at age 83 in Santa Barbara, California, on 6 June 2012. She was survived by her husband John Frost, son John Frost and 3 grandchildren. Her father, Dale Van Every, was a famous writer and screenwriter most active in the 1920s and 1930s.

Joan was educated at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of California at Berkeley. She served as a librarian after the second world war on US military bases in France and Germany, and was later the Head Librarian of the Santa Monica Public Library for several years.

Joan Van Every (then 35) married artist and photographer John Frost (41) on 26 September 1964 in San Bernadino, California. In 1966, the couple relocated to Mexico, living for a short time in Uruapan in Michoacán, before establishing their permanent home and John’s photographic studio in Jocotepec on Lake Chapala. John maintained his commercial photography studio (specializing in aerial photographs) in their home for more than 40 years.Prior to finding their home in the village, the couple spent 6 weeks at the historic La Quinta inn in Jocotepec. The La Quinta  had been an inn ever since 1824. Sadly, the building was wantonly destroyed in the 1990s.

frost-joan-ca-2008Joan was an indefatigable supporter of numerous charitable organizations at Lakeside, including the pioneering Centro de Salud in Jocotepec, the Lakeside School for the Deaf. For many years, she helped coordinate medical consultations and surgeries for Chapala-area children via the Shriners organization. Joan  was also the co-founder in 1993 of Amigos de Salud (which later became the Programa Pro Niños Incapacitados del Lago), and was a co-founder of the Lakeside region’s major annual fund-raising event: the Ajijic Chili Cook-off.

I have read that Joan wrote two art books for children, but have failed to find any proof of this. However, she certainly did write six novels, several set in Mexico, and all using her married name of “Joan Van Every Frost”.

frost-joan-van-every-coversHer first novel, This Fiery Promise (Leisure Books, 1978), dedicated to Tam, is a historical romance set at the start of the Mexican Revolution. It tells the fiery adventures of a horse-loving American girl who marries a rich, much older Mexican hacienda-owner. Their lives become entangled in the Revolution, and she eventually flees by joining a circus. The novel covers lots of territory from Santa Barbara (California) to Nayarit, Guadalajara, Colima and the port of Manzanillo.

Lisa (New York: Leisure Books, 1979) is dedicated “For John, with all my love”. This historical romance set in 1880s Britain unravels the complex relationships of a dysfunctional family, in the midst of scenes involving horses, fires, medical doctors, and class differences.

Her third novel includes scenes set in Guadalajara and at Lake Chapala. A Masque of Chameleons (Fawcett 1981) looks at the adventures and misadventures befalling a troupe of traveling actors in mid-nineteenth century Mexico. The theater troupe withstands lots of internal intrigue and external pressures as it tours Mexico, from Veracruz, Puebla, Mexico City and Cuernavaca to Morelia, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guadalajara and Lake Chapala. This novel displays a sound background knowledge of Mexican history and is engagingly written.

This is how Frost first describes the troupe’s arrival at Lake Chapala: “They finally came to a large body of water that stretched as far as they could see to the west, like an inland sea the color of a silver coin. Across the lake were green, brush-covered mountains, ancient dead volcanoes that had thrust themselves up when the world was still young to form this pocket cradling the endless lake.” ( p 228)

In Kings of the Sea (Fawcett, 1982), the publisher’s blurb claims that Gideon Hand is determined to endure all hardships as he struggles to forge a shipbuilding dynasty and to possess the woman he loves but cannot marry. Genius and passion hold sway in this sweeping saga of a shipbuilding dynasty.

Frost’s fifth novel, Portrait in Black (Fawcett 1985) has a Santa Barbara portrait painter Crystal Perry as its main protagonist. Perry not only paints portraits of Santa Barbara’s upper crust, but also paints horses, and she is quickly dragged into a web of extortion and murder.

Silvershine (Fawcett 1987) is set in Mexico, and looks at the drugs scene in the glittering Los Dorados hotel in Manzanillo, where swimwear designer Blaise Cory has opened a new boutique. A minor part of the action is set in Oaxaca (at Mitla). This is a tale of smuggling, money and corruption. The Los Dorados hotel is clearly based on Manzanillo’s famed Las Hadas hotel complex.

All of Joan Van Every Frost’s novels are well-crafted, and enjoyable light reading. They have long been out-of-print, but copies are readily available via used books sites such as http://abebooks.com.

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.

Nov 102014
 

Bruce Douglas was the pen-name of Theodore Wayland Douglas, who was born in Indianapolis 29 May 1897 and died in Mexico in about 1961.

Bruce Douglas is reported to have been a recent visitor to Ajijic in Neill James’ article about life in Ajijic published in 1945, so we can safely assume he visited in 1944 or very early in 1945. It is unknown if Douglas returned later to the Lake Chapala region, though he  resided full-time in Mexico City from at least as early as 1943 until his death.

douglas-bruce-cover-2Douglas served in the U.S. Navy during the first world war. Shortly after the war, he was awarded his bachelor’s degree from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, in 1918. In 1922, he received his Masters degree in English from the University of Illinois. He worked as a reporter on the Indianapolis Star 1919-20.

Douglas began his writing career after many years teaching in universities. From 1920 to 1932, he undertook postgraduate work while also teaching English at a series of universities, including Indiana University, the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago, and the University of Oregon. He also taught at the University of Texas and the State College of Washington.

Douglas married twice. His first marriage was in 1922 to Lucretia Lowe in Champaign, Illinois. His second marriage, in about 1929, was to a Mexican girl, Lee Patricia Bohan, born in 1906. The couple had one son. It appears likely that Bohan was a student, or university colleague of Douglas. She gained a B.A. in French from the Southern Methodist University in Texas in 1927, and then presented her Master’s Thesis the following year at the University of Chicago. (Her thesis was entitled: “Fielding’s Portrayal of the Country Squire (Henry Fielding)”. Bohan died in California in 1984.

Douglas was a prolific writer of short stories during the 1930s and 1940s. His first success in getting stories published was in May 1930 when Ace-High Magazine accepted “The Ghost of Oro Gulch”. That same year, he also saw at least three other short stories in print: “Code of the Range” in Western Rangers, “The Cowpoke from Coyote” in Western Trails and “For Love of a Bandit” in Ranch Romances.

After 1932, Douglas dedicated himself full-time to his fiction writing. Between 1930 and 1954, he had more than sixty short stories and several short novels published in the U.S., Canada and U.K.

His books include Border Range (1942) and The Strong Shall Hold (1943), in which “Wes Marshall fights for his father’s spread” (both western novels) as well as a thriller Tropical maze, published in the U.K. in 1948.

In 1934, one of his stories, “Holdup at Dry Wells” appeared in the same issue of Cowboy stories (vol. 26, no. 3) as “Off the westbound freight”, by John Mersereau, another author associated with Ajijic.

Main Source:

  • Ronald Hilton (ed) Who’s Who In Latin America: Part I Mexico (1946)
Nov 032014
 

Gina Hildreth (who wrote under her maiden name Gina Dessart) and her husband Philip, also a writer, apparently lived, at least for a short time, in Ajijic in the mid-1960s. She wrote at least three suspense novels: A Man Died Here (1947), The Last House (1950) and Cry For The Lost (1959). All three works were published in New York by Harper & Brothers. The first two novels were set in New England, whereas her third novel was set in and around Tucson, Arizona.

Gina Hildreth. Credit: John Lee (Ajijic-Artists of 50 years ago)

Gina Hildreth. Credit: John Lee (Ajijic-Artists of 50 years ago)

Gina Hildreth also wrote a stageplay – By any other name, a comedy in three acts (1948) – and had a short story, “Counterpoint”, published in the Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine issue of November 1965.

Gina Hildreth was born in 1912 in Chicago, and grew up in New York and Europe. She gained a Masters degree in English. She and her husband Philip moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1950, following a two month vacation there.

The precise timing, duration and motives for the couple’s decision to live in Mexico for a time in the mid-1960s are unclear, but by the late-1960s, they appear to be once again living in Tucson, Arizona.

Gina Hildreth was a lecturer in English and taught creative writing at the University of Arizona in the early and mid-1970s, at the same time that John Lee taught there.

It appears that Philip was also a writer, though I have found no definitive evidence that any of his work was published.

hildreth-dessart-gina-Ajijic - Artists of 50 Years Ago-3Gina Dessart Hildreth died in New York in 1979.

According to a Kirkus review, A Man Died Here (1947) tells the story of the Macklin family’s “attempts to piece out the happenings in the Williams family  when as the new owners of the Williams house, their curiosity is first aroused by the house itself, later by the hints of gossip, hatred, evasion, in the town. Bob and Liz fit together each small fact, each tiny segment of character, and write finis to a story of bondage, cruelty, dishonesty, lifting the shadow from the house.”

In The Last House (1950), according to one reviewer, a Connecticut gal “gets herself shot in village kitchen. Suspicion falls on various neighbors, male and female.” The reviewer, William C. Weber found the book to be an “absorbing and capitally written mystery-suspense tale with interesting psychological overtones.”

A review of Cry for the Lost describes it as “a murder story that poses no problem of who committed the crime. The interest and excitement in this suspense story lies in following the effect of the murder upon the characters and lives of the people who had been closely associated with the man who is killed. Miss Dessart reveals with considerable understanding and a searching sympathy the inner probings that torment both the guilty and the innocent when faced with the bitter knowledge that one among them has been driven to taking a human life.”

Sources:

  • Mecheline Keating, “Cry for the Lost – review”, Tucson Daily Citizen, 3 October 1959, p 13
  • William C. Weber, “The Last House, by Gina Dessart” in Tucson Daily Citizen, August 28, 1950, p 12
Oct 272014
 

Leonora Baccante had published two novels prior to living in Ajijic in the 1950s, at the same time as Eileen and Robert (Bob) Bassing.

Source: New York Evening Post, 7 March 1931

Source: New York Evening Post, 7 March 1931

Baccante’s novels are not set in Ajijic, but Baccante herself was the basis for the character of novelist Victoria Beacon, the central character in Eileen Bassing‘s novel, Where’s Annie?

Little is known about Baccante, who is reported to have hated publicity, children and pets.

According to a short profile of her by Selma Robinson in the New York Evening Post (7 March 1931),  “Mrs Baccante” was born in London, had dark eyes and dark hair, and had acquired the surname Baccante through marriage, and “has lived for the past few years in New York, part of the time in Woodstock, part of the time with her sister in Manhattan.”

A 1928 Kingston, New York, newspaper account describes Baccante as a “former New York World staff writer” (The New York World ceased publication three years later.)

Baccante’s two novels are

  • Johnny Bogan: A Realistic Novel Of Violent Young Love (New York: Vanguard, 1931) and
  • Women Must Love (New York: Vanguard, 1932).

Baccante-JohnnyBoganJohnny Brogan is set in a small town and is a character study and love story rolled into one. The striking cover art by Puerto Rican artist Raphael Desoto shows a young brunette undressing in front of a handsome guy in a bedroom. The novel is about a ladies’ man Johnny Brogan, the son of a murderer, who falls in love with Cathy Willis, a girl who initiated their relationship at school. According to Baccante’s friends, the character of Cathy is autobiographical.

A short piece by Baccante, “Can’t we be Friends?”, with illustrations by Ty Mahon, was published in the October 1931 issue of the College Humor magazine. Baccante also wrote an unpublished play, Making the man; a play in 3 acts, recorded as written in 1929 when she was living in New York City.

Baccante renewed the copyrights of her two novels in 1958 and 1960 respectively.

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.

error: Content is protected !!