May 012017
 

Ireneo Paz, the paternal grandfather of Nobel Prize-winning author Octavio Paz, was a respected writer, journalist and intellectual.

One of his novels, Guadalupe, first published in 1874, is an illustrated romance novel (in Spanish) with several descriptive passages relating to Lake Chapala. The story is set in an unnamed lakeshore village. The text includes several mentions of specific towns and villages around the lake, and one of the middle chapters is devoted to the events that arise from a storm on the lake.

While the style of the writing is “dated”, the story is clearly told. English speakers with an intermediate level of Spanish should find the plot and dialogue relatively easy to follow. The third edition of this book can be downloaded for free (as a pdf file or for ereaders) via Google Books:

Ireneo Paz Flores was born 3 July 1836, in Guadalajara, and died in Mexico City on 4 November 1924. A lawyer by background, he founded several literary magazines and was editor of the national magazine La Patria Ilustrada, which, in 1889, was the first major publication to regularly accept the often-startling cartoons and skeleton-like calaveras drawn by famed graphic designer and engraver José Guadalupe Posada.

In a prolific career, Ireneo Paz wrote more than 30 books, including poetry, plays comedy, memoirs and novels. His best-known works are a study of Malinche and a book about the famous Mexican (Californian) bandit Joaquin Murrieta. Among his works are: La piedra del sacrificio (1871); La manzana de la discordia (1871); Amor y suplicio (1873); Guadalupe (1874); Amor de viejo (1874); Doña Marina (1883); Leyendas históricas de la Independencia (1894); Vida y aventuras de Joaquín Murrieta, famoso bandolero mexicano (1908); Porfirio Díaz (1911); Leyendas históricas (1914).

Tragically, the political differences between La Patria (edited by Ireneo Paz) and La Libertad (edited by Santiago Sierra Méndez) led to a duel between the two men in April 1880, in which the latter was killed.

During the Mexican revolution, Mexico City was the scene of fighting between rival groups. In 1914 (the year his grandson was born), Ireneo Paz’s spacious, well-appointed house and printing shop in the heart of the old city were ransacked and Paz moved the family out of the then-city to live in Mixcoac.

Ireneo Paz’s own life and writing career are interesting, but his greatest contribution to Mexican literature is through the influence he exerted on his grandson, Octavio, who lived under the same roof throughout his childhood.

As British translator, journalist and non-fiction author Nick Caistor explains in his biography of Octavio Paz, Ireneo Paz was his grandson’s “direct link to the struggles for Mexican independence in the nineteenth century, in which he had personally played as significant role, and to Mexican history in general.”

However, despite supporting the liberal movement led by Benito Juárez in the 1850s, and fighting against the French, most notably in the city of Colima, Ireneo Paz had eventually become a staunch supporter of the modernization efforts of Mexico’s multi-term dictator President Porfirio Díaz.

Caistor justifiably argues that Ireneo Paz exerted an influence over his grandson that extended well beyond politics:

As a novelist he was one of the precursors of the ‘indigenista’ movement, which sought to make the indigenous inhabitants of Mexico protagonists of the national narrative for the first time. The awareness of the presence of the ‘other’, the silenced, marginalized voice of the country’s first inhabitants, fascinated Octavio from an early age.

At the same time, the Paz household was open to outside influences. Despite his opposition to the French invasion, by the 1880s Ireneo Paz saw France as the emblem for modernity. In 1889 he even travelled to Paris as an exhibitor at the Exposition Universelle where he displayed examples of his printing and binding.”

Illustration of a storm on Lake Chapala from Guadalupe (1882). Artist unknown.

Not surprisingly, the Paz household was full of books, including not only those written or printed by Ireneo but also a fine collection of Spanish and French literature, many of the volumes brought back from Paris. Growing up in such an atmosphere undoubtedly wove its spell over young Octavio who became one of Mexico’s most famous and revered poets.

Paz’s exploration of the Mexican identity, El laberinto de la soledad, first published in 1950, was elegantly translated by Lysander Kemp, and published in 1961 as The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. Kemp, who later became chief editor of the University of Texas Press, had his own connections to Lake Chapala: he was a long-time resident (1953-1965) of Jocotepec, at the western end of the lake.

Sources:

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 162017
 

Gabino Ortiz Villaseñor (1819-1885) was a 19th century poet, journalist, lawyer, politician and playwright born in the town of Jiquilpan, Michoacán, on the eastern shore of Lake Chapala prior to that area’s draining for farmland in 1906. Despite the fact that the commemorative plaque on his birthplace (image) gives his date of birth as 18 February 1819, biographers appear to agree that his actual birth date was one day later, on 19 February 1819. Note, too, that his first name is often spelled as Gavino, the letters v and b sharing an almost identical sound in Spanish.

Memorial plaque on birthplace of Gabino Ortiz

Memorial plaque on birthplace of Gabino Ortiz

Ortiz studied in Morelia where he became a lawyer in 1845. He then worked in that city as a lawyer until 1847, when he was elected to the Congress. He occupied various public positions over the years. In 1850 he became a Deputy in the State Congress. Affiliated to the Liberal party, he wrote the political paper El Espectro, which came out against the dictatorship of Antonio López de Santa Anna (who served a total of eleven non-consecutive terms as President of Mexico) and later another liberal newspaper, El Sanscalote.

After the 1857 Reform Law was passed, Ortiz became the first head judge of the Civil Registry in Morelia. The following year, he wrote the official newspaper Bandera Roja; he was also a regular writer for the La Bandera de Ocampo newspaper.

Ortiz translated two ecclesiastical leaflets by Lefevre from French to Spanish, which were published in Morelia in 1859 and 1870 respectively. He also translated work by the Latin poet Horace.

Ortiz’s own poetic works (some of them satirical pieces or fables) were published in various newspapers, especially El Colibrí. A collection of his poems appeared in Morelia, with the simple title Versos, in 1873.

In addition, Ortiz wrote four dramatic works for the stage: La Redención del hombre (a biblical melodrama); Elvira ó la virtud y la pasión (a drama, set partly in Spain and partly in Mexico in the 17th century); and two comedies: Por dinero baila el perro (set in Morelia) and Mañana será otro día (set partly in Morelia and partly in Mexico City).

Despite his moderate success as a writer, Gabino Ortiz died in poverty in Morelia on 22 May 1885. His memory lives on in Jiquilpan because a local street and the town’s library are named in his honor.

The Biblioteca Pública Gabino Ortiz (Gabino Ortiz Public Library) occupies a former nineteenth century church on the town’s main street (Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas). The building is embellished with two impressive works of art. The beautiful main door, which has bronze sculptures of the heads of 22 of the most outstanding scientists and thinkers of the early twentieth century, was designed by Guillermo Ruiz.

Orozco mural;s inside Jiqulipan library

Orozco murals inside Gabino Ortiz Public Library, Jiqulipan

The murals inside the library are the work of famous Jalisco muralist José Clemente Orozco, considered one of the famous “Big Three” of Mexican Muralism, alongside Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Orozco painted, literally single-handedly (having lost his left hand in a childhood accident) a series of sketchy black-and-white murals depicting political parties and revolutionary Mexico on either side of the former nave and an unusual and striking full-color mural known as “A Mexican Allegory” on the end wall. Painted in 1940, it is one of his last completed works. For more about this mural and the town of Jiquilpan, see chapter 6 of my Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury.

Sources:

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.

Sep 142015
 

George Rae Marsh (née Williams) was an actress, playwright and novelist who lived for many years in Ajijic in the 1950s and 1960s with her first husband, the novelist Willard Marsh. The couple were married in 1948 and were together until Willard died in Ajijic in 1970. Two years after her husband’s death, George Rae married the science fiction writer Theodore R. Cogswell.

George Rae Marsh has several published plays and short stores, and also wrote at least one novel. Piecing together her bibliography is complicated by the fact that she wrote under several different names. Her plays were written as George Rae Williams, her novel as Georgia Cogswell, and most of her stories appear to have been written as George Cogswell. She was also sometimes referred to as George Rae Marsh Cogswell. To the best of my knowledge, despite several of these works having been written while she was living in Ajijic, they have no textual connections to the village.

However, George Rae Marsh was the basis for the character Sam Chester, wife of Willie Chester, in Eileen Bassing’s Ajijic-based novel Where’s Annie? (1963). George Rae’s most substantial work set in Mexico was the novel Golden Obsession (1979).

marsh-george-as-georgia-cogswell-obsession

George Rae Williams was born in 1925. She graduated from the Wichita Falls High School in the early 1940s and became an actress at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Her brother John Williams (1922-1994) was a novelist, editor and professor of English whose 1972 novel “Augustus” won a National Book Award. He also wrote “Stoner” (1965), the tale of a professor of English at the University of Missouri. Williams’s work has seen something of a revival in recent years in Europe and he is the subject of a forthcoming biography by Charles J. Shields, who was kind enough to share with me the information that John Williams had started a novel about bohemians living in Mexico (presumably based on his visits to his sister and brother-in-law) but that it has since been lost.

Shortly after George Rae married Willard Marsh, they decided to move to Ajijic, so that they could concentrate on their writing. They lived on-and-off in the village from the early 1950s through to 1970, though with numerous intermissions elsewhere, including several spells in the U.S. where Willard taught English at Winthrop College in South Carolina (1959-1961), at the University of California, Los Angeles (1961-64) and at the North Texas State University, Denton (1968-70). They also spent some time in the literary and artistic circles of San Miguel de Allende.

Two years after Willard’s death, George Rae married Theodore Rose Cogswell (1918-1987) in San Miguel de Allende. Cogswell was an American professor of English and science fiction writer. After their marriage, the couple divided their time between Ajijic, San Miguel de Allende and the U.S.

The photo below, from the Megan Cogswell Collection, shows George and “Ted” Cogswell on their wedding day in 1972, in their matching leather safari suits.

marsh-george-marriage-to-ted-cogswell-1972

At the time, George Rae owned a discotheque in Ajijic, presumably one of the earliest discotheques, if not the earliest, in the village.

Jerry Murray, a writer who lived in Ajijic at the time, was invited to the wedding, and later recalled (e*I*43–(Vol. 8 No. 2) April 2009) how the couple had ended up spending the first night of their honeymoon in separate cells in the city police station:

George owned a discotheque in Ajijic, and like everyone else in the wedding party at the Episcopalian church, including the priest, she was an atheist. The ceremony was followed by the wettest reception I’ve ever attended, and that was followed by Ted and George getting into her Jeep and heading for their honeymoon suite in Puerto Vallarta.

An hour later the reception was winding down when the Jeep came roaring back, stopping between the plaza and the police station for Ted to shove his screaming, cursing bride out on the cobblestones, where bride and groom were immediately arrested for being drunk and very disorderly. Placed in separate cells, Ted made a pillow out of his boots and went to sleep on the thin mattress of the cell’s wooden cot. George propped her mattress against her cell’s door, set it on fire, and screamed bloody murder until the cops turned them loose at dawn to continue on their honeymoon. When the honeymoon ended, George sedately began serving tea at the Sunday seminars Ted hosted for his graduate students at Ball State Teacher’s College in Muncie, Indiana.”

As George Rae Williams, she wrote five published plays: Mind Over Mumps: A One-act Farce (Eldridge Publishing Company, 1951); Augie Evans: Private Eye: A One-act Farce (Eldredge Publishing Company, 1951); Leave it to Laurie: A Comedy in One Act (Northwestern Press, 1952); Keeping it in the Family: A Comedy in One Act (Northwestern Press, 1953) and A will and a way – A Three Act Comedy (Eldridge Publishing Company, 1962).

As George Rae Cogswell, she wrote (with her husband) the short story “Contact Point” (1975) and they contributed a joint story to Six Science Fiction Plays, (Pocket Books, 1975).

In 1979, as Georgia Cogswell, she published Golden Obsession (Zebra Books, 1979).

George Rae Williams Marsh Cogswell died in 1997 and was interred next to Theodore Cogswell in Arlington National Cemetery.

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.

Jul 302015
 

John Macarthur (“Jack”) Bateman was a painter, author and architect who was born on 9 October 1918 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and died on 15 March 1999. Bateman moved to Ajijic with his wife Laura Woodruff Bateman and three young children in 1952; the couple quickly became pillars of the local community, making exemplary contributions to the local social, cultural and artistic scene.

The Batemans were living in New York City prior to moving to Mexico. They responded to an advert in The New York Times which offered a home in Ajijic, together with five servants and a boat, for the princely sum of 150 dollars a month.

Jack Bateman studied architecture at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), prior to be called up for military service in January 1942. He served in the U.S. Navy from 21 January 1942 to 22 September 1945 at various Naval Air Stations, including a spell in North Africa flying submarine-hunting dirigibles. After the war, he completed his studies and then set up an industrial design studio in New York to produce, among other things, molded architectural elements made of plaster.

According to a blog post by Jack’s son-in-law Tom Vanderzyl, this led to Bateman having an unexpectedly significant impact on the work of the great German-born abstract expressionist artist Hans Hofmann who was living on the floor below:

…the painter/architect John MacArthur Bateman had a studio just above Hans Hoffmann (sic). In his studio, John poured large heavy 55-gallon drums of plaster into molds for architectural elements. It seems one day a plaster mold broke and sent 55 gallons of plaster pouring across his wooden plank floor that was also the ceiling of the studio under him, and the plaster dripped through the ceiling of the studio below. At the time, Hans had all of his paintings out looking them over for his upcoming show. Hans shouted upstairs in German for it to stop and that he needed help covering his work from the dripping plaster. Bateman along with his klutz brother-in-law, who had dropped the mold in the first place, came down to help. They used blankets and canvas in an attempt to cover the paintings, but it was too late. The plaster was setting up and the damage was done. Bateman put the best spin on it by telling Hans that his paintings needed that texture made by the pressed fabric and wet plaster and that the new tactile surface was in many ways more interesting. Now, he only needed to paint over the white plaster to get a far more interesting surface. Hans Hoffmann’s show was a success, and he would pop up to borrow plaster from time to time and talk with Bateman about materials.

bateman-book-coverFor the first few years in Mexico, Jack Bateman commuted back and forth to New York, spending about one week a month in the U.S. At home in Mexico, he spent time on his art and began to write. He authored five books including Loch Ness Conspiracy (New York: R. Speller & Sons, 1987), as well as a play, Caldo Michi, first performed in Ajijic in early 1999.

When the Lakeside Little Theater needed a new home in the mid-1980s, Bateman was a strong supporter of a plan to build a purpose-built facility on land donated by Ricardo O’Rourke, and acted as architect. The theater opened in 1987 and became the permanent home of Mexico’s most active English-language theater.

At various times sailor, artist, pilot, architect, writer and marketing consultant, whatever he turned his mind to, Jack Bateman made many unique contributions to the world.

For her part, Laura Bateman was a patron of the local arts scene in Ajijic, opening the village’s first purpose-built gallery, Rincón del Arte, at Hidalgo #41, Ajijic in about 1962. (For a couple of years prior to that, she had arranged shows in her own home). Rincón del Arte, which ran for many years, had monthly shows, featuring dozens and dozens of artists.For example, Whitford Carter exhibited at Rincón del Arte in both February 1967 and August 1968, while Peter Huf and his wife Eunice (Hunt) Huf held a joint exhibit there in December 1967 .

Jack and Laura Bateman’s eldest daughter, Alice M. Bateman, studied in Guadalajara, London (U.K.), New York and Italy before becoming a successful professional artist-sculptor based in Forth Worth, Texas.

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 232015
 

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was an African American playwright, artist and author of political speeches and essays. She studied art in Ajijic at Lake Chapala in the summer of 1949, mid-way through her studies at the University of Wisconsin, where she took classes in art, literature, drama and stage design.

Hansberry was born in Chicago on 19 May 1930 and died of cancer at the age of 34 in New York City on 12 January 1965.

Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

Her father, Carl Hansberry, was a prominent Chicago realtor who, in 1938, challenged the city’s racially segregated housing laws, by moving his family into a “restricted” area near the University of Chicago. The resulting violence, in which bricks and concrete slabs were thrown through their windows, prior to them losing their legal suit challenging the legality of restrictive covenants and being evicted from that home, subsequently inspired Lorraine Hansberry to write her best-known play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959).

A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. The 29-year-old author became the youngest American playwright to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play over Tennessee Williams‘s Sweet Bird of Youth. The play was translated into 35 languages. A movie version of A Raisin in the Sun was released in 1961, starring Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil and Ruby Dee. The movie was nominated “Best Screenplay of the Year” by the Screen Writers Guild and won a special award at Cannes Film Festival. Raisin, a musical based on the play, opened in New York in 1973.

Lorraine Hansberry was only 15 years old in 1945, when her father, “in a final desperate act to escape racial oppression in the U.S.”, moved to a suburb of Mexico City. Carl Hansberry was making arrangements to relocate his family to Mexico when he died there the following year from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Lorraine Hansberry spent the summer of 1949 in Ajijic studying art, apparently first at a University of Guadalajara extension in Ajijic, and then afterwards at the Mexican Art Workshop run by Mrs. Irma Jonas. Teachers at the Mexican Art Workshop that year included Alexander Nicolas Muzenic, Ernesto Butterlin and Tobias Schneebaum.

The following summer she studied art at Roosevelt University in Chicago before moving to New York City, where she took courses in jewelry-making, photography and short story writing at the New School for Social Research. While living in New York, she became actively involved in peace and freedom movements.

Hansberry wrote several other plays, including The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which played for 101 performances on Broadway and closed the night she died.

Hansberry’s life and achievements inspired her close friend Nina Simone to write the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (lyrics by Weldon Irvine), first recorded in 1969.

At Hansberry’s funeral, a tribute message from Martin Luther King Jr. praised “her commitment of spirit” and “her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today.”

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1999, and the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2013.

Reference:

Steven R. Carter. 1980. “Commitment amid Complexity: Lorraine Hansberry’s Life in Action”, in MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 3, Ethnic Women Writers I (Autumn, 1980), pp. 39-53.

Oct 202014
 

Robert (“Bob”) Mitchell Bassing, born in Rhode Island in 1926, lived with his novelist wife Eileen and her two sons in Ajijic between 1950 and 1954. The Bassings, who had previously been living and working in Hollywood, where Bob had been assistant story editor at Colombia Pictures. In Ajijic, they were early members of Lake Chapala’s Lakeside Theatre and Bob was active in civic affairs. For example he is mentioned in the 13 August 1953 issue of El Informador as one of the two foreigners on the “Junta de Mejoramiento Moral, Cívico y Material” of Ajijic, together with Carlos Moor (= Charles Moore).

Bob Bassing wrote short stories, fiction screenplays, and worked on numerous television projects. As Michael Hargraves has pointed out, “Although none of his [Bob Bassing’s] published works uses Ajijic or the Lake Chapala area as a locale, he nonetheless was influenced by his being there.”

Prior to living in Ajijic, Bassing had worked as a writer for the TV series Studio One in Hollywood (1948). While living in Ajijic, he had a short piece entitled “Lullaby” published in Discovery, No. 2 (New York; Pocket Books, 1953), edited by Vance Bourjaily. Bourjaily had also lived in Ajijic, albeit apparently briefly, during summer 1951.

Published short stories by Bassing include “The Trouble with Arabella” in Woman’s Home Companion, January 1955, and “Summer Evening,” in Mademoiselle, May 1955.

Bassing wrote several screenplays, including that for his wife’s novel Home Before Dark (1958) and for Evil Town (1977), as well as more than 120 scripts for episodes of numerous TV series including The Millionaire (1956), Ford Television Theater (1954-1957), Harbor Command (1958), Assignment: Underwater (1960), National Velvet (1960), My Three Sons (1961) and Shirley Temple’s Storybook (1961).

Bob Bassing also wrote a book, Dr. Hudson’s secret journal: The Denby story (Los Angeles: Authors Playhouse, 1955).

Bob Bassing was the basis for the minor character “Beau Blissing” in Willard Marsh‘s Ajijic-based novel Week with No Friday (1965).  Marsh and his wife had earlier been used by Eileen Bassing for two minor characters in her own novel set in Ajijic, Where’s Annie?.

After Ajijic, the Bassings moved back to California. Eileen Bassing passed away in 1977 but Bob Bassing, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is still living in Los Angeles, writing about movies. In 2016, he threatened to sue the Academy for its alleged age discrimination in changing his membership category from active (voting) to emeritus. The change was apparently part of the Academy’s efforts to (finally) become more inclusive.

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Sep 222014
 

The great American poet and dramatist Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams (26 March 1911 – 25 February 1983) had visited Mexico several times in the five or six years preceding 1945, but had never been to Lake Chapala. He spent the summer of 1945 in Cuernavaca and Chapala, and it proved to be a productive period in his writing career.

A year earlier, in 1944, his first major success – The Glass Menagerie – had catapulted Williams from obscurity to literary stardom, giving him a steady income. However, in 1945, Williams wanted to refocus on his writing and escape the publicity accompanying his success. He had also just had a cataract operation and wanted somewhere pleasant to recuperate.

While in Chapala, Tennessee Williams stayed at the home of poet Witter Bynner. Bynner’s home, now numbered as Francisco I. Madero #441, is no longer a private residence. In Chapala, Williams wrote diligently for several hours every day, working not only on the new play provisionally called The Poker Night, but also on several poems and an essay entitled “A Playwright’s Statement“. In the words of Michael Hargraves [1], Williams spent his time, “Strolling along the borders of Mexico’s largest inland body of water (over four hundred square miles), swimming, drinking rum-cocos with native boys….”

In his essay, “On a Streetcar Named Success” (1947), Williams recalls that “I settled for a while at Chapala, Mexico, to work on a play called The Poker Night, which later became A Streetcar Named Desire. It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention, and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial. The right condition for him is that in which his work is not only convenient but unavoidable….“

How long was Tennessee Williams in Chapala?

It surprised me to discover that Williams spent less than two months in Chapala. He arrived in Chapala in July 1945 and left in mid-August of the same year. This is the only time he is known to have visited the area.

Why exactly did Williams choose Lake Chapala?

As Williams explains in his essay “The Catastrophe of Success”, “For me a convenient place to work is a remote place among strangers where there is good swimming. But life should require a certain minimal effort. You should not have too many people waiting on you, you should have to do most things for yourself. Hotel service is embarrassing. Maids, waiters, bellhops, porters and so forth are the most embarrassing…”

It appears to be largely coincidental that Tennessee Williams, who was a great admirer of British author D. H. Lawrence, happened to spend the summer of 1945 in the town where Lawrence had penned The Plumed Serpent twenty years earlier.

Tennessee Williams quote on vintage postcard of Chapala

Tennessee Williams quote on vintage postcard of Chapala

Does The Poker Night have any connection to the (Old) Posada Ajijic?

There is no evidence that The Poker Night has any connection to the (Old) Posada Ajijic. In a letter written 23 March 1945 (a week before The Glass Menagerie opened in New York, and several weeks before he left for Mexico), Williams wrote that he was “about 55 or 60 pages into the first draft of a play… At the moment, it has four different titles, “The Moth”, “The Poker Night”, “The Primary Colors” and “Blanche’s Chair in the Moon”.” [2] Clearly, therefore, he had started writing The Poker Night several weeks before traveling to Chapala.

Claims that Williams was inspired to write The Poker Night on account of regular poker sessions in the Posada Ajijic are equally spurious. In the event, according to Williams himself, the idea for the play did not come from poker playing, but from an image in his mind of a woman, sitting with folded hands near a moonlit window, who was waiting in vain for the arrival of her boyfriend.

The early history of the (Old) Posada Ajijic is murky, but it appears to have first operated as an inn sometime between 1938 and 1946. However, in those early years, it was certainly not a hive of activity, and did not become the social center of Ajijic until much later. It is possible  (though I know of no supporting evidence) that Tennessee Williams may have played poker on one or more occasions in the Posada Ajijic but, even if he did, it was clearly not a formative experience in terms of his writing.

A Streetcar Named Desire

As noted above, this play had numerous working titles including “The Moth”, “The Poker Night”, “The Primary Colors” and “Blanche’s Chair in the Moon”. The eventual title was not used by Williams until some time after he had left Chapala.

According to a webpage written by Bert Cardullo of the University of Michigan, who cites Nancy M. Tischler’s book Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan (New York: Citadel Press 1961), Williams “had begun writing Streetcar in Chapala, Mexico (near Guadalajara) convinced that he was dying, that this would be his last play, and that therefore he should put his all into it. (Williams thought that the agonizing abdominal pains he had been experiencing were the result of lethal stomach cancer, but in fact they were caused by a ruptured appendix.)”

Michael Hargraves writes that Tennessee Williams’ writing, in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), “took on a fusion of sensuality and nostalgia and violence”, with the plot eventually centering on “a contest between the crude sensibilities of working-class poker players and the delicacies of two Southern women.” [1]

A Streetcar Named Desire is often considered Williams’ finest single work. It brought him renewed renown and won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The movie version, won four Oscars, including three of the four categories for acting. Oscars were won by Vivien Leigh (Best Actress), Karl Malden (Best Supporting Actor) and Kim Hunter (Best Supporting Actress). In addition, Marlon Brando was nominated (but failed to win) the award for Best Actor.

Poems written at Lake Chapala

While spending the summer of 1945 in Chapala, Tennessee Williams also wrote several poems. “Recuerdo” (Spanish for “Memory”) is a poem in memory of his recently diseased grandmother and his interned sister Rose. Williams also reworked a poem previously titled “Idillio” (1944) as “Lady, Anemone”. This was first published in New Directions 9 (1946), pages 82-83, as the last in a sequence of three poems, followed by the dateline “Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico, July 1945″. [3]

Other links between Tennessee Williams and Mexico

Later in his life, Tennessee Williams turned one of his short stories into the stage play The Night of the Iguana (1948), also set in Mexico. In The Night of the Iguana, a defrocked clergyman is leading a ladies’ bus tour around Mexico. The group is forced to take temporary refuge in a hotel whose owner proves to be especially sensual. The main characters become entangled in a web of relationships. They eventually manage to move on, but not before a captured iguana has been fattened for the dinner table.

The 1964 film adaptation of The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, starred Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr. The movie set was built on Mismaloya Cove, a short distance south of Puerto Vallarta. The film won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, and was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Cinematography and for Art Direction.

Sources:

  • [1] Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).
  • [2] John Bak. 2013. Tennessee Williams, a Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan).
  • [3] N Moschovakis, Tennessee Williams and David Roessel. 2007. Collected Poems Of Tennessee Williams.

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

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