May 222017
 

Rubén M. Campos‘s novel Claudio Oronoz includes dozens of pages relating to Lake Chapala. The lake is not only described (in all its glory) but also provides the setting for some memorable discussions between the main characters.

Campos utilizes Lake Chapala as a kind of antidote for, or counterbalance to, life in Mexico City. This is perfectly fitting, especially given the fact that the novel was written at the start of the twentieth century, precisely the time when many of the wealthier businessmen and residents of Mexico City established close ties to Lake Chapala, often setting up second homes there.

The protagonist of this novel is a young man, Claudio Oronoz, who considers himself an artist. (His poems appear at intervals in the novel). At the age of twenty-one, Claudio evades the obligations and responsibilities foisted on him by his family, who want him to enter business, turns his back on materialism, and heads for the capital city in search of like-minded bohemian individuals with whom he can share his thoughts, feelings and concerns. Thus begins his “odyssey of pleasure”, which subsequently involves trips to the theater, dinners, “parties and orgies”.

To quote Claudio: “I had imagined a distinct area for dreamers, for thinkers, a special neighborhood for musicians, painters, sculptors, poets …” He hoped to find “that blissful neighborhood which this Latin-American metropolis, like Paris, must have” but becomes increasingly disillusioned as he finds instead “the roar of the struggle for life in workshops, in factories, in warehouses, in the daily traffic of the streets, in the haste of passers-by.”

Eventually, Claudio does succeed in locating the “bohemian neighborhood and the fierce artists” he had dreamed of, and shares friendship and experiences with other young artists. But Claudio has a serious illness (consumption or tuberculosis) which is gradually sapping his energies. He is torn between a tendency to hedonistic debauchery and reveling in the pure love that he feels for Clara Rionda, the woman who cared for him during one of his serious relapses.

Two of Claudio’s other friends share Clara’s home with him: José Abreu, the narrator of the novel, and his lover Ana Belmar, Clara’s best friend, who was born in Jamay on the shores of Lake Chapala.

After some time enjoying themselves in Mexico City, the group decides to escape the city and go to Lake Chapala. (They return to the city for the final section of the book).

The trip to the lake via train from Mexico City to Ocotlán, and then by lake steam boat (vaporcito) from Ocotlán to Chapala is described at some length, and the text includes many details about the village of Chapala. For instance, the group stays on the second floor of a lakefront hotel: this is a clear reference to the historic Arzapalo hotel that first opened in 1898. The group arrived in early April, apparently well before Easter that particular year, since they are described as being among the first visitors that spring. Even the chalets (with verandas) that characterized the second homes of the wealthy in Chapala at that time are described.

These descriptive details owe nothing to coincidence or chance. As Dulce Diana Aguirre López has shown, the main section of the book about Chapala is based on a straightforward, narrative account that Campos had originally published many years previously, as “En el Chapala”. This was actually published twice – first in La Patria (1899) and then, with some variations, in Revista Moderna (1902) – before being suitably modified for the section in Claudio Oronoz: an interesting example of how a regular narrative or travel piece can be recycled as an integral part of a fictional work.

Claudio Oronoz is considered to be Campos’s master work in fiction. Campos’s portrayal of youthful artistic and intellectual ambitions which ultimately lead his protagonist to disillusionment helped move Mexican novels away from the realism of the end of the 19th century into new, emerging “modern” territory. Mexican literature would never be the same; later Mexican writers would never look back.

Notes :

  • All quotations are loose translations by the author of this post.
  • The text of the original novel is included in the thesis (downloadable as a pdf file) linked to below.

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 use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

May 152017
 

Rubén Marcos Campos, though now largely forgotten, was one of the major figures in Mexican literature in the first half of the twentieth century. Campos, a poet, intellectual, novelist and folklorist, was born on 25 April 1871 in Ciudad Manuel Doblado, Guanajuato, and died in Mexico City on 7 June 1945.

Sketch of Ruben Campos by Julio Ruelas.

Sketch of Ruben Campos by Julio Ruelas.

His first novel, entitled Claudio Oronoz, was published in 1906 and is considered one of the gems of the so-called modernist prose that was then in vogue. Lake Chapala plays an important part in the novel, as the destination towards which the hedonistic protagonist gravitates.

Campos was well acquainted with Lake Chapala and vacationed there several times over the years. In 1906, for example, we know from contemporary newspapers that he spent the second half of December in Chapala in the company of poet Luis G. Urbina (1864-1934) and painter Leandro Izaguirre (1867-1941).

In 1899, Campos wrote several short travel pieces about the lake for La Patria. We will take a closer look at both Claudio Oronoz and these travel articles in later posts.

Campos lost his mother at an early age, and grew up in León, Guanajuato, before moving to Mexico City in about 1890 to try and make his way as a writer. He was soon accepted into the literary circles of the city which gave him the opportunity to have poems and articles published in many of the major publications of the time, including El Mundo Ilustrado, Nosotros, México, Vida Moderna, El Universal, El Centinela and Revista Moderna. The last named, Revista Moderna, published two of his poems – “Desnudos” and “Ruth” – in its second issue, adding Campos to its distinguished list of contributors alongside Amado Nervo, José Juan Tablada, Luis Gonzaga Urbina and Jesús E. Valenzuela.

His only published collection of poetry was La flauta de Pan (1900), where many verses suggest or explore eroticism and sensuality. However, Campos’s poetry is not very well known, mainly because his essays and studies of popular music and Mexican folklore were already gaining him an enviable reputation for non-fiction writing, based on sound research and skillful use of language.

His most important articles about music and folklore appeared in such specialist publications as Revista Musical de México, Gaceta Musical, México Musical and Boletín Latinoamericano de Música. Among the many books by Campos related to the fields of history, folklore and folk music are Chapultepec, su leyenda y su historia (1922); El folklore y la música mexicana (1928); El folklore literario de México (1929); El folklore musical de las ciudades (1930); La producción literaria de los aztecas (1936); and Tradiciones y leyendas mexicanas (1938).

His keen interest in folklore and its history did not prevent him from continuing to hone his skills as a reporter. Campos produced numerous, elegantly-written pieces about different parts of Mexico, and also wrote several short fictional stories, many of them for El Nacional. A collection of  travel pieces was published in 1922 as Las alas nómadas.

The publication of his first novel Claudio Oronoz in 1906 marked the start of an astonishingly productive period that lasted to his death. The novel was welcomed by critics, despite being quite unlike most of his previous work, and established Campos as an accomplished modernist, quickly hailed as one of Mexico’s finest writers of prose of the period.

His versatility knew few bounds and Campos also completed at least three operatic librettos: Zulema (1899); Tlahuicole (1925); and Quetzalcóatl (1928).

He employed pen names at various points in his career; these pen names included Rubén Martínez, R. Martínez Campos, Oro and Rudel.

Given his interest in all aspects of culture and in interpreting the human story, it is not surprising that many of Campos’s stories and novels examine the multifarious seedy undersides of life such as sexual abuse, imprisonment, alcoholism, prostitution, murder and abandonment.

Campos managed to combine this prodigious output with a teaching career. At one time or other, he inspired students in the Escuela Normal Preparatoria, the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, the Conservatorio Nacional de Ciudad de México, the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía, and in the Universidad Nacional de México (UNAM)) in a variety of subjects, including art, music, history and Mexican folklore.

In addition to Claudio Oronoz, widely regarded as his master work, Campos also completed two other important novels: Aztlán, tierra de garzas (1935) and El bar: la vida literaria de México, which remained unpublished during his lifetime, but was finally put in print by the Universidad Nacional de México (UNAM) in 2013.

El bar: la vida literaria de México is especially interesting. It explores the bohemian artistic and literary scene of Mexico towards the end of the Porfiriato. It is based on the experiences of Campos and the other members of his literary circles, as well as of artists such as Julio Ruelas and Germán Gedovius, and of musicians including Manuel M. Ponce and Ernesto Elorduy. All of these literary and artistic greats are given their real names in the novel, the only exceptions being the author himself and Alberto Leduc, whose fictitious names – respectively Benamor Cumps and Raúl Clebodet – are anagrams of their real names.

Several works by Rubén M. Campos have been re-released in recent years, making them more available to modern readers.

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 use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Apr 202017
 

Anne McKeever (1928-2002) was an artist, model, photographer and Beat poet who spent some time in Ajijic during the 1950s and was a close friend of the painter Don Martin and folksinger Lori Fair. Another of McKeever’s closest friends was Jeonora Bartlet, who lived in Ajijic in 1956-7 and later became the partner of American pop artist Rick Reagan. Many years later, McKeever and her husband, a former bullfighter, started an English-language school in Tapachula, Chiapas, and invited Bartlet to teach there.

Anne McKeever modeling Embassy Shoes. ca 1949. Credit: Auckland Archive.

Anne McKeever modeling Embassy Shoes. ca 1949. Credit: Auckland Archive.

McKeever was born in Middletown, Ohio, on 4 September 1928 and was interested in all manner of artistic activities from an early age. She was a bright student and took extracurricular classes in classical ballet, acting, painting and photography, before attending Teacher’s College in Greeley, Colorado.

In her youth she had been a member of a Chicago dance troupe, “The June Taylor Dancers”, and had done some modeling for advertisements. From Colorado, she went to New Zealand, where she studied in Auckland College and modeled for Christian Dior, Embassy Shoes and other firms. The photographer Clifton Firth (1904-1980) shot many of these campaigns. Sixty years later, ten images of McKeever, all taken by Firth in the 1940s, were included in a major 2003-2004 exhibit in Auckland, entitled “A Certain Style: Glimpses of Fashion in New Zealand”.

Anne McKeever modeling pyjamas. ca 1949. Credit: Auckland Archive.

Anne McKeever modeling pyjamas. ca 1949. Credit: Auckland Archive.

McKeever returned to the U.S. in 1950 to complete her university studies. She became associate professor in the history department at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, and also taught at Newberg High School. After she graduated from Linfield College in 1951, she moved to New Orleans, where she worked as a teacher and in the photographic labs of Greer Studios.

It was in New Orleans that McKeever first met artist Don Martin, artist and folk singer Lori Fair, and artist and jazz musician George Abend. They would meet up again a few years later in Ajijic. Joan Gilbert Martin alerted me to the photograph (below) used for the cover of the second (Summer 1956) issue of Climax, a Beat magazine published by Bob Cass in New Orleans and printed in Guadalajara. The photo, taken by Anne McKeever, shows Don Martin’s studio in Ajijic in 1955/56 with one of his paintings hanging on the far wall. Lori Fair is sitting by the drums and George Abend is at the piano. This image neatly conveys the close friendship of these artistically-talented individuals before their paths, and lives, diverged.

Cover of Climax #2 (1956)

Cover of Climax #2 (1956)

McKeever had left New Orleans for Mexico in 1953 at the invitation of the Instituto Norteamericano de Relaciones Culturales to give English classes in Guadalajara, where she taught at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Jalisco until January 1955. Newspaper articles describe her jovial personality and list her hobbies at this time as painting (watercolors and pastels) and photography.

Early in 1954, Don Martin and Lori Fair also left New Orleans, to live together in Ajijic. Martin had several very productive months and his first solo show in Mexico opened at the Casa del Art in Guadalajara on 2 August 1954. Both McKeever and Lori Fair attended the gala opening, as did Archie Mayo, the Hollywood movie director; Nicole Vaia Langley, daughter of violinist John Langley; Peter and Elaine Huntington of Ajijic; artists Jose Maria Servin, César Zazueta and Thomas Coffeen Suhl; and Nayarit-born painter Melquiades Sanchez Orozco, who later became a legendary scocer commentator.

In January 1955, Anne McKeever left Guadalajara to oversee English teaching in the smaller neighboring state of Nayarit, as Director of the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Nayarit. She spent six months there, during which time she arranged two art shows featuring the works of Don Martin. The opening night for the first show, at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano in Tepic, in April, included a concert of folksongs sung by Lori Fair. The second show, in May in Santiago Ixcuintla and billed as the “Third Painting Exhibition, Mexican and International Artists”, included a painting by Anne McKeever entitled “The Women”.

Ad for New Orleans show, 1956

Ad for New Orleans show, 1956

McKeever returned to Guadalajara in the summer of 1955. In September, the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Jalisco presented an exhibition of her photographs, described in the local newspaper, El Informador, as a “magnificent collection”. The reviewer praised McKeever an an “American who loves Mexico and its customs” and a “very original photographer”. The photos, taken in Guadalajara and Tepic with a simple camera in natural light, included portraits of people engaged in everyday activities: rotalistas (sign painters), street sellers, children and bricklayers.

A similar exhibition, entitled “Ojos sobre Mexico” (“Eyes on Mexico”) was held in New Orleans the following year at the Climax Jazz, Art and Pleasure Society. A portrait of McKeever on the flyer for her “Eyes on Mexico” series shows her wearing bullfighters’ watches while cradling her camera.

This chronology of McKeever’s life throws some doubt on the very precise time frame claimed by Penelope Rosemont in Surrealist Women: an international anthology that, “A fascinating surrealist-orientated group – including Carol St. Julian (aka Beavy LeNora, the Nevermore Girl) and photographer Anne McKeever – burst onto the scene in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1955.” Though McKeever retained links to the city, and had poems and photographs published there until 1960, she had left the New Orleans scene two years prior to 1955. Perhaps Rosemont is equating McKeever’s presence in New Orleans with the start of the journal Semina, which ran from 1955 to 1964?

Anne McKeever. 1955. "Terminal de Autobusses" - Guadalajara.

Anne McKeever. 1955. “Terminal de Autobusses” – Guadalajara.

After Guadalajara, McKeever moved to Mexico City where she taught English and renewed her friendships with Lori Fair (now married and calling herself Bhavani Escalante), Jeonora Bartlet and Rick Reagan. McKeever was an integral part of the then-vibrant Beat scene in Mexico City which included surrealist poet Philip Lamantia. McKeever and Lamantia were visited in Mexico City in 1959 by jazz poet ruth weiss, near the end of her lengthy trip through Mexico:

“In 1959, ruth returned from traveling the length of Mexico with her first husband, having completed her journal COMPASS, which includes an excerpt of her memorable meeting with two close San Francisco friends in Mexico City -poet and photographer Anne McKeever and poet Philip Lamantia. After talking all night in a café, they decided to climb the Pyramid of the Sun in the Mayan ruins outside Mexico City and catch the sunrise. Neither guides nor other tourists were there in the predawn chill. The climb to the top of the pyramid was easy, but ruth, paralyzed by fear of heights, had to be carried all the way down.” (Brenda Knight, 2009).

In that same year, 1959, weiss included several short poems about “Ana” (McKeever) in her Gallery of Women, a book comprised of poem-portraits of more than a dozen women poets whom she most admired and respected. Other poets whose portraits were painted in verse by ruth weiss included Aya Tarlow and Laura Ulewicz, the partner of Jack Gilbert.

Weiss also refers briefly to McKeever in her poem “Post-Card 1995”, writing “ANNE McKEEVER vanished in Mexico” and later, “ANNE McKEEVER your poems, your voice, your toreador’s baby where are they”. (This poem also describes Ernest Alexander, another artist closely associated with Ajijic.)

McKeever’s own work featured in the 5th issue of the Beat magazine Semina, published in 1959. Her photographic collage, “Musicians”, appeared in the same issue as an extract from “Compass” by ruth weiss, and a poem and translation by Philip Lamantia.

Anne McKeever. 1955. "Parting the Plaza". Eyes on Mexico series.

Anne McKeever. 1955. “Parting the Plaza”. Eyes on Mexico series. Guadalajara.

McKeever’s interest in photography continued unabated in Mexico City and led her to document bullfighters and the many activities occurring near the bull ring. She lived with bullfighters, took their photos, and even fought a young bull herself. This is how she first met matador Humberto Javier, the love of her life, the start of an entirely new chapter. Anne had an infant son (Felipe) and, after the couple married, they left Mexico City by train in 1960 to start a new life as a family in Tapachula, Chiapas. Their daughter Ana Andrea was born a couple of years later.

The newly married couple started an English-language school in Tapachula which is still in operation today. The Instituto Cultural de Inglés Javier McKeever was the first English language school in Chiapas and is now run by McKeever’s grandsons: Oliver and Lester Trujillo Javier, who have English teaching degrees. McKeever taught English there for more than forty years, becoming known locally as “Teacher McKeever”.

In about 1970, McKeever invited Jeonora Bartlet, then living in California, to teach at the school. Bartlet moved to Chiapas and lived there with her partner Rick Reagan for more than a decade, teaching English part-time. Reagan’s artwork was regularly displayed in the school.

McKeever’s daughter, Ana Andrea Javier McKeever, trained as a teacher of classical ballet before starting a school in 1979 for classical ballet, jazz and tap. It is now called the Royal Ballet Center, and is run by Ana Andrea’s own daughter, Andrea Trujillo Javier. The family has also opened a language center for Spanish courses: The Anne McKeever Language Center.

Anne McKeever, “Teacher McKeever”, died in Tapachula, Chiapas, on 14 July 2002, but the family’s numerous contributions to enriching the cultural life of Tapachula will live on for many years to come.

Acknowledgments

  • My sincere thanks to Jeonora Bartlet, Joan Gilbert Martin and Ana Andrea Javier McKeever for their help in piecing together this profile of a truly remarkable and inspirational woman.

Sources and references:

  • Climax magazine, #2, Summer 1956
  • Miguel Angel González. 2017. “En Memoria: Anne McKeever de Javier (1928-2002)” in Revista Morada Chiapas, March 2017.
  • Informador (Guadalajara) 5 Feb 1955; 15 Sep 1955; 12 Dec 1955; 5 Jan 1956.
  • Brenda Knight. 2009. “Return of the prodigal poet – ruth weiss in San Francisco Poetry Festival July 24“.
  • Anne McKeever. 1959. Photographic Collage (musicians) – in Issue 5 of Semina (1959)
  • Prensa Libre (Tepic), 24 April 1855:
  • Penelope Rosemont, 2000. Surrealist Women: an international anthology.
  • ruth weiss. 1959. Gallery of Women.
  • ruth weiss. 2011. can’t stop the beat: the life and words of a Beat poet. This includes “Compass” and “Post-Card 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 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.

Dec 262016
 

Enrique Carmen de Jesús Villaseñor y de La Parra was born on 14 July 1865 in Jiquilpan, Michoacán (at that time on the shores of Lake Chapala), in a house on a street named for another famous priest and poet born in the town: Diego José Abad. Villaseñor ‘s father, Toribio Villaseñor, was a rural property owner. Villaseñor was one of ten siblings. He studied in Jacona (near Zamora) and at about age 11, as was customary at that time for upper class families, was sent to Europe to study for the church at the Pontificio Colegio Pío Latino Americano in Rome, Italy. He studied there from 1876 to 1885.

After his ordination in the Jesuit order, he returned to his native Mexico and became a priest in Jiquilpan, singing his first Mass there in 1890. Shortly afterwards, he began to teach Science and Humanities in a seminary in Zamora.

Villaseñor wrote and  published many verses and poems about the region, but his most noteworthy early work is a translation from Latin to Spanish, published in 1896, of Diego José Abad’s Poema heroica. Villaseñor was a great admirer of Diego José Abad (1727-1779) and instrumental in convincing the town that the townsfolk erect a monument in Abad’s honor .

Villaseñor collaborated on La Libertad (1904) and La Bandera Católica (1909-1910). He was also a corresponding member of the Sociedad Michoacana de Geografía e Estadística (Michoacán Society for Geography and Statistics). His magnus opus was a monumental poem in verse about the divinity and humanity of Jesús entitled Teogenesia o el Nacimiento de Jesús, published in 1901 with engravings by the outstanding artist José Guadalupe Posada.

Villaseñor died in his native Jiquilpan on 28 October 1934. He was a great philanthropist throughout his life and on his death left all his land as the basis for a foundation to help the poor of the town.

Sources:

  • Martín Sánchez. 1995. Repertorio michoacano 1889-1926. El Colegio de Michoacán A.C.
  • Gabriela Inocencio. 2008. “Conmemoran natalicio de poeta jiquilpense”. El Sol de Zamora, 17 July 2008

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 192016
 

Poet and writer Jim Levy lived for about a year in Ajijic from mid-1968 until May 1969. Many years later, he has started publishing some of his poems,  essays and stories.

Levy, whose father was a Freudian psychoanalyst, was born in Chicago in 1940 and raised in Los Angeles. As a child, he spent several summers in Taos, New Mexico, a town he would return to later in life.

Levy attended the Thacher School in Ojai, California, and studied two years at Pomona College before traveling through the Southwest and Mexico by (like the Beats) hitchhiking and riding freight trains. After a year in Europe, he started classes at the University of California at Berkeley. Levy graduated with a B.A. in English and History and a teaching certificate.

At Berkeley he met Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, a married woman with two children. The couple married in 1966. In 1968-69 they spent a year in Ajijic.

From Ajijic, Jim and Deirdre returned to the U.S. to live in Taos. In a memoir entitled “¿Paradise Lost?” published in Hakod in 2009, Levy recalls their arrival in Taos:

We — my wife Deirdre, her two children, and I — came to Taos in a VW van in May 1969 with a white rat named Fortunata smuggled in from Mexico rolled in a sleeping bag. We had been living for a year in Ajijic on Lake Chapala. The scene in Ajijic was crazy, but in a Mexican village there was only so much trouble you could get into. In Taos, we found more ways.”

They tried to live as close to the land as possible:

– Although Deirdre and I had BAs and teaching credentials from Berkeley, we didn’t mind living without indoor plumbing or a phone — in fact we thought it was glamorous. We used a two-seat outhouse and carried water in buckets from the Rio Hondo. Like our counterculture neighbors, we “returned” to the land — a purely hypothetical return because my family was Jewish from Los Angeles via Newark and Germany, and Deirdre’s was Catholic from New Jersey via Ireland. My father was a Freudian psychoanalyst and her father was middle management for Bendix Corporation.”

In Taos, Jim edited a local “hippie newspaper called The Fountain of Light” for a time, on which Phaedra Greenwood (who would later become his second wife) was the staff reporter.

Levy’s marriage with Deirdre Blomfield-Brown ended in 1971. Deirdre subsequently changed her name to Pema Chödrön and became a Tibetan Buddhist nun, whose teachings, such as When Things Fall Apart and The Wisdom of No Escape, have reached a very wide audience. She is the director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Also in 1971, Levy destroyed much of his previous writing, including several completed novels, because he did not deem them to good enough for publication. (He destroyed other works, on the same grounds, in 1985).

In 1972, Levy began living with Phaedra Greenwood and her son. Levy and Greenwood had a daughter two years later and married in 1977. In 1978 Levy embarked on a 35-year career directing non-profits, starting with the Harwood Foundation of the University of New Mexico.

Between his divorce from Phaedra Greenwood in 1994 and their eventual reconciliation in 2003, Levy lived and wrote in a variety of places, including Pátzcuaro and Oaxaca in Mexico, Montreal in Canada, Spain and California. Levy and Greenwood continue to make their home in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico.

Levy began publishing his writing and poetry at the age of 74. His published works include Corazón (and Merkle): A man, a dog, and another dog (2014), Cooler Than October Sunlight, selected poems 1959-2004 (2015); The Poems of Caius Herennius Felix (2015), an extraordinary work about the discovery and translation of an imaginary first century Roman Spanish poet; Joy To Come, Literary and Cultural Essays (2016); and The Fifth Season: A Journey Into Old Age (2016).

Acknowledgment:

  • My thanks to Jill Maldonado (daughter of Beverly Johnson, unofficial town photographer of Ajijic in the 1960s) for bringing Jim Levy and Deirdre Blomfield-Brown to my attention. Johnson herself will be profiled in a future post.

Source:

  • Jim Levy. 2009. ¿ PARADISE LOST ? in Hakod – “The Voice of the Taos Jewish Center”, Vol 8 #2, Winter 2009/5770.

Other Lake Chapala artists and authors associated with Berkeley

Several other Lake Chapala artists and authors have close associations with either U.C. Berkeley or the California College of Arts and Crafts in Berkeley. They include the writers Ralph Leon Beals, Earle Birney, Witter Bynner, Willard “Spud” Johnson, Clement Woodward Meighan, Idella Purnell, and Al Young and the artists Tom Brudenell, Ray Cooper, Sylvia Fein, Gerald Collins Gleeson, Dorothy Goldner, Paul Hachten, John Langley Howard (1902-1999), Alfred Rogoway, Alice Jean Small, and Richard Yip.

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 052016
 

The distinguished Black American poet, novelist and educator Al Young visited Lake Chapala sometime in the mid- to late-1960s. It was in Ajijic that he first met Black American artist Arthur Monroe, the beginning of a long artistic friendship.

Al Young subsequently published two works with a direct connection to the lake. “Moon Watching by Lake Chapala” is a prose poem first published in the Berkeley literary journal Aldebaran in 1968, and reprinted in The Song Turning Back Into Itself (1971). The poem was also chosen for the collection We speak as liberators: young Black poets; an anthology, compiled by Orde Coombs (1970).

In 1975, Young’s novel Who is Angelina? was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. It includes several scenes set at Lake Chapala, with passages relating to Chapala, Ajijic and Jocotepec. (We will consider this novel more closely in a separate post).

Chapala is also mentioned in a 2011 poem, “Elegy for a Live-Loving Friend” written in memory of Edith Eddy (1919-2011), which opens with the lines:

Light-years ago: Chapala afternoons,
a lake-like feel and smell, the way we met,
three children California-born, full moons,
the world not yet as gone as it would get.”

Albert James Young was born 31 May 1939 in Ocean Springs on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. His father, Albert James, was a professional musician and, after the family moved to Detroit, an autoworker. Young’s childhood in the rural south gave way to adolescence in urban, industrial Detroit.

young-al-poet-laureate-california-emeritusYoung attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor from 1957-1960 and was co-editor of Generation, the campus literary magazine. In 1961 he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and proceeded to have a variety of jobs (folksinger, laboratory aide, disk jockey, medical photographer, clerk typist, employment counselor) before eventually completing an honors degree in Spanish at University of California, Berkeley, in 1969. In 1963, Young married Arline Belck, a freelance artist; the couple’s son, Michael James, was born in 1971.

Young’s academic life has been grounded in California. In addition to holding a a variety of editorial positions, he taught creative writing classes at Stanford University, 1969-1976, and was a visiting writer-in-residence at the University of Washington, Seattle, 1981-1982. He has also taught at the University of California (at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Davis branches), at Bowling Green State University, Foothill College, the Colorado College, Rice University, the University of Washington, the University of Michigan, the University of Arkansas, and San José State University.

In the 1970s, Young worked as a screeenwriter, for Laser Films (New York) in 1972, Stigwood Corporation (London and New York) 1972, Verdon Productions (Hollywood) 1976, First Artists Ltd. (Burbank, California) 1976-77, and for Universal (Hollywood) 1979. His screenplays include Nigger (1972) and Sparkle (1972.)

Young has received numerous awards including National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1968, 1969, and 1974; a Guggenheim fellowship in 1974; two Pushcart prizes, two American Book Awards, a PEN-Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction and a Before Columbus Foundation award in 1982.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Young served as a cultural ambassador for the United States Information Agency, making trips on its behalf to South Asia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank.

Al Young’s novels include Snakes (1970); Who Is Angelina? (1975); Sitting Pretty (1976); Ask Me Now (1980); Seduction by Light (1988); and Straight No Chaser (1994). Among his short Stories are, “My Old Buddy Shakes, Alas, and Grandmama Claude,” published in Nexus (San Francisco), May-June 1965; and “The Question Man and Why I Dropped Out,” in Nexus, November-December 1965; “Chicken Hawk’s Dream,” in Stanford Short Stories 1968 (1968)

Poetry collections by Young, who was Poet Laureate of California 2005-2008, include Dancing (1969); The Song Turning Back into Itself (1971); Some Recent Fiction (1974); Geography of the Near Past (1976); The Blues Don’t Change: New and Selected Poems (1982); Heaven: Collected Poems 1958-1988 (1989); and Heaven: Collected Poems 1956-1990 (1992). His works have been translated into many languages, ranging from Spanish and Serbo-Croat to Urdu and Korean.

The distinguished poet and novelist has also published several “Musical Memoirs”, including Bodies and Soul (1981), Kinds of Blue (1984), Things Ain’t What They Used to Be (1987) and Drowning in the Sea of Love (1995).

In the words of William J. Harris in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Al Young’s art destroys “glib stereotypes of black Americans.” Harris adds that “His work illustrates the complexity and richness of contemporary Afro-American life through a cast of highly individualized black characters. Since he is a gifted stylist and a keen observer of the human comedy, he manages to be both a serious and an entertaining author.”

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 102016
 

The famous American writer, composer and translator Paul Bowles (1910-1999) was a frequent visitor to Mexico in the late 1930s and early 1940s prior to moving to live in Morocco in 1947. Bowles spent a few relaxing weeks in Ajijic, on Lake Chapala, in the first half of 1942.

Paul Bowles was born in New York on 30 December 1910 and displayed early talent for music and writing. After attending the University of Virginia, Bowles made several trips to Paris in the 1930s, and also visited French North Africa in 1931. During the late 1930s and most of the 1940s, Bowles was based in New York where he composed music (primarily for stage productions) while making frequent trips south to explore the sights and sounds of Mexico and elsewhere, trips which had a profound influence on his musical compositions.

Bowles’ interest in visiting Lake Chapala dates back to 1934, when he was considering accompanying Bruce Morrissette in traveling around Mexico. In March 1934, Bowles wrote to Morrissette that, “A while ago I made a list of what seemed to be the best places there: Campeche, Necaxa, Toluca, the baja part of Baja California, Mazatlán, Pátzcuaro, perhaps Lago Chapala, Morelia, which looks to be lovely, Tepatzlán, Cholula, Amecameca and Xochimilco …”

In 1937, Bowles met Jane Auer at a party. When they met again, accidentally, a few days later, Jane suggested to Bowles that he “take her to Mexico with him.” Auer and Bowles married 21 February 1938, and had a successful, if unconventional, marriage that lasted until her death in 1973.

[Jane Sydney Auer (1917-1973) was an American writer and playwright. Her novel, Two Serious Ladies, first published in 1943, may have been the catalyst that resulted in Bowles’ own novel-writing career. Jane Bowles suffered a stroke in 1957, from which she never fully recovered. She died in 1973 at a clinic in Spain.]

bowles-paul-autobiographyThey took a Greyhound bus to reach Mexico on their first trip together in 1937, with Bowles hiding 15,000 anti-Trotsky stickers in his luggage. In Mexico, he met the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas and attended a concert at which Revueltas conducted his Homage to García Lorca. Bowles took a second trip to Mexico later in 1937 in order to live for a short time in Tehuantepec (on the recommendation of Miguel Covarrubias, whom he had met in New York), where he worked on an opera about a slave rebellion.

On 23 February 1938, two days after their marriage, Bowles and his wife attended the first performance of Bowles’ Mediodia (Mexican dances for 11 players) in New York. The couple then left on a honeymoon, “with 27 suitcases, two wardrobe trunks, a typewriter and a record player”, aboard a Japanese freighter, the SS Kanu Maru, on a trip that took them to Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Barbados and Paris, France. They returned to New York in September.

They visited Mexico again in 1939 and stayed in Acapulco and Taxco (where Jane first met Helvetia Perkins, who would later became her lover). On this trip, they met a still unknown Tennessee Williams, and a young man named Ned Rorem, then only a teenager, who went on to become a composer and diarist, and win a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

bowles-paul-on-musicSome idea of the exalted literary and musical circles in which Bowles and his wife moved can be gained from a list of their roommates in the rented house they occupied in 1941. The house, at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, New York, was rented by the novelist and editor George Davis, who occupied the ground floor. Paul and Jane Bowles lived on the second floor, together with the theater set designer Oliver Smith. Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and W. H. Auden shared the third floor, while Golo Mann lived in the attic. It was in this house that Bowles composed Pastorela, a Mexican Indian ballet commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for American Ballet Caravan.

Early in 1942, when Bowles and his wife revisited Mexico, he was taken ill with jaundice and spent several weeks in a “British hospital in Mexico City” before going to Cuernavaca for convalescence. In Cuernavaca, Jane let him read and critique her manuscript of Two Serious Ladies, though it was greatly rewritten and edited prior to its publication the following year. Jane, accompanied by Helvetia Perkins, left for New York at the end of March, while Bowles remained in Mexico a few more weeks, staying at Casa Heuer, the small posada run by siblings Paul (Pablo) and Liesel Heuer in Ajijic.

In a letter to Virgil Thomson, Bowles wrote that, “As soon as she had gone I came to Chapala. Reasons for my not going with her were several.” During his stay in Ajijic, Bowles visited the house in Chapala where D.H. Lawrence had written the first draft of The Plumed Serpent in 1923; Bowles found it “depressing” and poorly ventilated, with the ambiance of a dead-end street. According to his autobiography, Bowles discovered a whole new world of “delightful” literature during his time in Ajijic. He started with García Lorca, then completed two novels by Bioy Cásares and the memoirs of Mario Alberti before turning his attention to Mexico’s early colonial times, and then to short stories by Jorge Luis Borges.

bowles-paul-and-janeBowles’ compositional creativity was in full flow during these years. In 1944, for example he composed the incidental music for the Broadway opening of Tennessee WilliamsThe Glass Menagerie. (The success of this work enabled Williams to spend the summer of 1945 at Lake Chapala).

In 1947, Bowles moved to Tangier, Morocco. His wife, Jane, followed a year later. Except for a series of winters spent in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), and occasional trips elsewhere, Bowles lived the remaining 52 years of his life in Morocco. His fame was undiminished and a succession of famous writers and musicians made the pilgrimage to Morocco to visit him, including the most famous names of the Beat generation: Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg.

When Gregory Stephenson interviewed him in Morocco in 1979, he found that Bowles had mixed memories of Mexico:

“When I mention the Tarahumara, Bowles says that he once translated some Tarahumara myths for a surrealist magazine. He rummages in his bedroom and returns with a copy of View for May 1945, a special “Tropical Americana” number which he edited. There are black and white photographs, collages and translations, including sections of the Popul Vuh and the Chilam Balam, all done by Bowles. A myth titled “John Very Bad” has been rendered by him into English from the Tarahumara. There are also bizarre and gruesome news stories selected by Bowles from the Mexican press.

Bowles speaks of the extreme poverty and squalor he encountered in parts of Mexico when he visited that country in the 1930s. Mexico was a land of gloom and chaos, he says, but also poetry, mystery and great natural beauty. Places such as Acapulco and Tehuantepec were very pleasant in those days and living there was very cheap. Yet he was often very ill in Mexico, afflicted with diverse ailments.”

The astonishingly prolific writing and composing career of Paul Bowles was drawn to a close by his death in Morocco on 18 November 1999.

Bowles’ extensive musical output included Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet (1931); Horse Eats Hat, play (1936); Who Fights This Battle, play (1936); Doctor Faustus, play (1937); Yankee Clipper, ballet (1937); Music for a Farce (1938); Too Much Johnson, play (1938); Huapango – Cafe Sin Nombre – Huapango-El Sol, Latin American folk (1938); Twelfth Night, play (1940); Love Like Wildfire, play (1941); Pastorela, ballet (1941); South Pacific, play (1943); Sonata for Flute and Piano and Two Mexican Dances (1943); ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, play (1943);  The Glass Menagerie, play (1944); Jacobowsky and the Colonel, play (1944); Sentimental Colloquy, ballet (1944); Cyrano de Bergerac, play (1946); Concerto for Two Pianos (1947); Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds and Percussion (1948); Oedipus, play (1966); Black Star at the Point of Darkness (1992) and Salome, play (1993).

Novels by Bowles include The Sheltering Sky (1949); Let It Come Down (1952); The Spider’s House (1955); and Up Above the World (1966). His collections of short stories include A Little Stone (1950); The Delicate Prey and Other Stories (1950); A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard (1962); Things Gone & Things Still Here (1977); Collected Stories, 1939–1976 (1979); and A Thousand Days for Mokhtar (1989). Poetry works by Bowles include Two Poems (1933); Scenes (1968); The Thicket of Spring (1972); Next to Nothing: Collected Poems, 1926–1977 (1981); and No Eye Looked Out from Any Crevice (1997).

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.

Sep 292016
 

Poet and translator Clayton Eshleman has repeatedly stressed in interviews the significance of a summer stay in Chapala in 1960 in determining his future direction and success. In addition to his own original works, Eshleman is especially well known for his translations of Peruvian poet César Vallejo and for his studies of Paleolithic cave paintings.

Ira Clayton Eshleman Jr. was born on 1 June 1935 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He discovered jazz in his teens and became a proficient jazz pianist and studied music for a short time in university, playing piano in bars to help finance his education. He graduated from the University of Indiana in 1958 with a degree in philosophy. Having by then discovered poetry, including the Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg, he immediately re-enrolled as a graduate student in English Literature.

In 1959, he was introduced by an artist friend Bill Paden to Latin American poetry and was immediately drawn to the works of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) and Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892-1938). Quickly realizing,  aided by a bilingual dictionary, that existing translations of their poems had obvious flaws, Eshleman decided to do something about it, but knew that he first needed to improve his Spanish.

This was the impetus for him to hitchhike to Mexico City in the summer of 1959, “with a pocket Spanish-English dictionary and two hundred dollars”, and work on his Spanish, while meeting other poets along the way. The following summer, 1960, he spent several weeks in Chapala. In an interview many years later, Eshleman recalls that:

“The next summer I got a ride in the back of a flat-bed truck to Etzatlan, Mexico, ending up in Chapala for a couple of months. I rented a room in the home of an ex-American retired butcher named Jimmy George, who had a sixteen year-old Indian wife and lots of pigs and turkeys. I showed some Neruda poems to her one day and with her very modest English and my baby Spanish (and the faithful bilingual dictionary), we made some crude versions together, which were the real start of my Residence on Earth collection, published in Kyoto, Japan in 1962.”

eshleman-mexico-and-northDuring his months in Chapala (and despite a bout of hepatitis), Eshleman also worked on many of the poems published in Mexico & North (privately published in Japan in 1961), the first collection of his own poetry.

In the summer of 1961, Eshleman married Barbara Novak. The couple then lived in Japan for three years, where Eshleman taught English and studied Eastern religions. Eshleman considered this period, when he was translating César Vallejo’s Poemas humanos, the beginning of his “apprenticeship to poetry”.

The Eshlemans then spent a year (1964-65) in Peru. Eshleman had gone there in the hope of persuading César Vallejo’s widow, Georgette, to allow him access to the poet’s original manuscripts, but she never did give her permission. While living in Lima, Eshleman worked on Quena, a bilingual literary magazine funded by the North American Peruvian Institute, but this magazine was suppressed for political reasons prior to publication. Though the young couple returned together to New York in 1966, they separated shortly afterwards.

Back in New York, Eshleman taught at the American Language Institute at New York University and began to publish a series of books under the Caterpillar Books imprint. He was an active participant in the anti-war movement and was jailed briefly as an organizer of the “Angry Arts” protest group.

On New Year’s Eve 1968 Eshleman met Caryl Reiter, who was to become his second wife. When he was appointed to the faculty of the School of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, the couple left New York for California. During a year in France (1973-1974), Eshleman taught courses in American poetry at the American College in Paris and the couple first visited the Paleolithic painted caves of the Dordogne region. This was the start of a prolonged interest in investigating the imagination and imagery of the Paleolithic painters. Eshleman’s major work on this topic was published in 2003 as Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld.

For the latter part of the 1970s and early 1980s, the Eshlemans lived in Los Angeles, with the poet working for the Extension Program of the University of California at Los Angeles, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and a visiting lecturer at campuses in San Diego, Riverside, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. From 1986 to his retirement from academic life in 2003, Eshleman was Professor of English at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

During his prolific career, Eshleman had work published in more than 500 magazines and newspapers, and also founded and edited two important literary magazines: Caterpillar (1967-1973) and Sulfur (1981-2000).

Eshleman’s books of poetry and prose include Mexico and North (Tokyo, Japan, 1961); Walks (New York: Caterpillar, 1967); The House of Okumura (Toronto: Weed/Flower, 1969); Indiana (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1969); The House of Ibuki (Freemont, MI: Sumac Press, 1969); Altars (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1971); Coils (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1973); Realignment (Kingston, NY: Treacle Press, 1974); The Gull Wall (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975); On Mules Sent from Chavin: A Journal and Poems (Swanea, UK: Galloping Dog Press, 1977); What She Means (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1978); Fracture (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1983); The Name Encanyoned River: Selected Poems 1960-1985 (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1986); Under World Arrest (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1994); Erratics (Rosendale, NY: Hunger Press, 2000); Everwhat (Canary Islands: Zasterle Press, 2003); An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2006); The Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2008); and Anticline (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2010).

Eshleman has won numerous literary awards, including a National Book Award for Translation, the Landon Translation prize from the Academy of American Poets (twice), a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Rockefeller Study Center residency in Bellagio, Italy.

And to think that it all began at a butcher’s home in Chapala…

Source of quotes:

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 222016
 

Lothar Wuerslin and his wife, Ann, lived in Ajijic in the late 1950s, from 1956 to about 1959. They stayed until their savings ran out and then returned to New York.

Their time at Lake Chapala changed their lives in more ways than one. First, their eldest son, Christopher (who late in his life became a chef, writer and photographer) was born in Mexico on 21 March 1956. Then, Lothar, who had been busy preparing enough paintings for a solo show on his return to New York, discovered sculpting. Thus began an entirely new chapter in his artistic career. Ann was also an artist, as well as a poet.

Lothar Hellmut Wuerslin was born in Auggen, Germany, on 3 March 1927 to a French father and his German wife. Before Lothar’s third birthday, the family emigrated to the U.S. (1929). He served in the U.S. Army from July 1945 to November 1946. In 1951 he entered the University of New Hampshire to study art, and met Ann. Lothar also studied at the Boston Museum school of art. The young couple moved to New York where a succession of part-time jobs (including painting fire escapes) enabled them to save a few dollars and try their luck in Mexico.

Lothar Wuerslin. Frescoes on wall of Ajijic home, 1957. Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life

Lothar Wuerslin. Frescoes on wall of Ajijic home, 1957. Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life

In 1956, they took up residence in Ajijic, paying the princely sum of $5 (dollars) a month for a 4-room adobe house that lacked a tub. Within months, Lothar had executed an interesting series of frescoes on the foyer walls (above) as well as begun to paint in earnest.

Lothar and Ann Wuerslin playing chess, 1957. Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life

Lothar and Ann Wuerslin playing chess, 1957. Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life

The Wuerslins were photographed by Leonart McCombe for his 1957 Life article about Americans at Lake Chapala. McCombe not only photographed their home (and murals), but also took pictures of the young couple playing chess and (their home lacking a tub) taking a bath, surrounded by flowering water hyacinths, in Lake Chapala.

Lothar and Ann Wuerslin taking a bath in Lake Chapala wster hyacinths, 1957. Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life

Lothar and Ann Wuerslin taking a bath in Lake Chapala water hyacinths, 1957. Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life

Years later, this is how a local Vermont newspaper described how Mexico and Ajijic had changed the direction of Lothar’s art for ever:

“A chilly night in Ajijic, Mexico, changed artist-painter Lothar Wuerslin’s life. … Once a painter, Wuerslin switched arts when he was given some firewood on a chilly evening in Mexico where he and his wife had gone in 1956. He had by this time painted murals on most of the adobe walls of their small rented house. He picked up a piece of the redwood and began carving it.” – (Bennington Banner, 24 July 1965)

In about 1959, the Wuerslins moved back to New York. By April 1960, they were sufficiently well established there for Lothar to have already held an exhibition of his paintings on Madison Avenue and to be renting a loft studio on the Lower East Side to continue his new-found love: sculpting. About a year later, their second son, Hasso, was born. In 1963, the Wuerslins moved to a farmhouse in Sandgate, Vermont, where Lothar could have a larger studio and more room to develop his sculptures. Their third son, Tristan, was born in Vermont in May 1965. The Wuerslins also had a daughter, Joan, the eldest of their four children, who had been given up for adoption.

Lothar Wuerslin. 1957. Painting of wife and child. Digitally derived from photo by Leonard McCombe, Life.

Lothar Wuerslin. 1957. Painting of wife and child. Digitally derived from photo by Leonard McCombe, Life.

Lothar exhibited in local shows in Manchester and Bennington and examples of his work (in wood and cast cement) were included in a 1967 collective exhibition of Vermont Artists. In February 2005, both Lothar (by then deceased) and Ann were represented in an exhibition of Sandgate artists at The Canfield Gallery.

Several younger Vermont artists, including Anna Dribble and Chris Miller, took community college classes with Lothar and have paid public tribute to his influence on their art.

Lothar Wuerslin died at Sandgate, Vermont, at the age of 55, on 25 November 1982.

Ann “Bunny” Wuerslin (1930-2009)

Lothar’s wife, Ann “Bunny” Wuerslin was born in New Hampshire on 14 October 1930 and died in Sandgate in 2009. She had been the town clerk of Sandgate for 13 years prior to her retirement in 2008.

In addition to her art, Ann Wuerslin wrote poetry and was, after 1967, designed and made jewelry, sold not only locally, but also in “Primitive Artisans” on 5th Avenue in New York City.

Late in life, Ann became a published author with a book called In the Child’s Voice (Shire Press, 2008). The book is a poignant and expressive memoir, comprised of vignettes about living in a succession of foster homes in New Hampshire during her childhood.

To listen to Ann Wuerslin reciting one of her own poems (later used in her obituary notice), see this YouTube video clip. The poem starts at minute 2:00 of the video.

Sources:

  • Bennington Banner, Bennington, Vermont, 24 July 1965, p 5
  • Madeleine B. Karter. 1960. Undaunted and Un-beat (with photographs by Ted Russell). Pageant, April 1960, p 148 on.
  • Leonard McCombe (photographer). 1957. “Yanks Who Don’t Go Home. Expatriates Settle Down to Live and Loaf in Mexico.” Life, 23 December 1957

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 082016
 

The Lake Chapala Auditorium (Auditorio de la Ribera), now celebrating its 40th anniversary, was originally scheduled to be formally opened on 25 September 1976 with a piano concert by Manuel Delaflor from Mexico City, who had just played at New York’s Carnegie Hall. In Ajijic, Delaflor was to play a Baldwin grand piano that had been donated to the auditorium the year before by Hilary Campbell, in memory of her sister Elsa. (However, the concert was cancelled at the last minute due to concerns about acoustics).

Hilary Campbell, together with her two sisters, Elsa and Amy, and brother Alan, settled in Chapala in the early 1950s. They first visited Chapala in 1945 but did not retire to the town until 1951. They initially lived in the “Salazar house”, across the street from the plaza. This building, close to Banamex, later became the Allen W. Lloyd offices.

In 1956, the family moved into their own home in Chapala, designed and built by Amy and Alan, at Calle Niza #10, on the hill near the chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes. The family landscaped the grounds and within a few years, the gardens were considered “a showpiece of the area”.

The Campbells were at home on Calle Niza when Life magazine photographer Leonard McCombe arrived in 1957 to document the American community at Lake Chapala. A photo of the eldest sibling, Elsa Cambell, arranging zinnias in the patio, has a caption explaining that the “ex-piano teacher … helps her brother, two sisters and three servants run an elegant household in a home they designed and built for themselves.”

The Campbells were the children of a mining engineer and his wife, Anne, an excellent pianist. Newly-wed, and about to move to Colorado, Anne ordered a Steinway grand piano to be shipped from Germany to the U.S., and then carried up winding Rocky Mountain roads to Gilpin, where the couple planned to set up home. However, the only home they could afford turned out to be quite small. Daughter Hilary later recalled that her mother had chosen to keep the piano rather than have a dining room table. The piano was subsequently inherited by Elsa, who took the piano, her “shining jewelry and faithful ally” from Colorado to New York, Carmel (California) and finally Chapala.

Elsa Campbell, 1957, photographed by Leonard McCombe for Life.

Elsa Campbell, 1957, in patio of the family home in Calle Niza, Chapala. Credit: Leonard McCombe, Life.

Elsa, who had been born in Ontario, Canada, in 1887 died in a hospital in Guadalajara on 24 May 1971. Her remains were sent to Mexico City for cremation. The only snippet I have managed to locate about Elsa’s early piano playing was from the Boston Evening Transcript for 23 February 1907, when she was about 20 years of age. The newspapers reports that she played a Grieg minuet and Lavalée’s “Butterfly” at the Dorchester Social Club of Women, “pleasing the audience with the delicacy of her nuances and the perfection of her technique.”

Amy Campbell (ca 1889-1966) was born in Denver, Colorado and died in Chapala on 20 February 1966. She lived for several years in Kingston, Ontario, as a child before becoming a faculty member at Simmons College in Boston. When the family was living in New York, Amy became a well-known dress designer. Amy was also a musician and played the violin in several amateur orchestras. Before “retiring” to Chapala, she had lived several years in San Francisco (she is recorded in the 1940 U.S. Census as living in that city with her mother, Anne, then aged 87) and Carmel, California, where she had designed and built houses.

Not content to be retired, Amy went to Taxco and learned silversmithing. She then designed and made silver and gold jewelry, some set with ancient jade found in tombs. Her beautiful jewelry was displayed in galleries in New York and San Francisco. Amy was very active in Chapala social and civic affairs,  including the local Bridge Club and the Lakeside Little Theater.

Hilary Campbell was born in Colorado in about 1891 and lived at least into her mid-80s. At the time of the 1940 U.S. Census, she was living in Manhattan, New York City, where she was an editor in the social work sector. The census record suggests that the four siblings may have had an elder brother or half-brother named James Perkin, born in about 1882.

There is evidence that Hilary was also a poet. In 1956 Witter Bynner, the famous American poet who was a long-time Chapala resident from well before the arrival of the Campbell siblings, gifted Hilary one of his volumes of verse, published the year before, with the inscription “to poet Hilary Campbell”.

It was Hilary (who outlived her siblings) who decided that there was “no better way to honor the memory of her sisters and their part in the early cultural efforts around Lake Chapala than by donating a $10,000 dollars [Baldwin] grand piano to the new auditorium.” The first concert on the Baldwin grand was performed by Mexican pianist Manuel Delaflor on 25 September 1976.

Alan Campbell, 1957, photographed by Leonard McCombe for Life.

Alan Campbell, 1957, photographed by Leonard McCombe for Life.

The youngest of the four siblings was Alan Randolph Campbell (ca 1893-1967). Born in Colorado, Alan spent part of his youth in eastern Canada and California, where he was in the class of 1915 at Stanford University. He then worked in Boston and New York, but by 1940 had returned to live in Carmel, California, where he is listed in the U.S. Census as a “salesman in the travel industry”. From Carmel, he moved to Chapala. He traveled widely in Mexico and in Guatemala. He apparently made a documentary film for the Guatemalan government tourism department, though I have yet to find any details. Alan died in Chapala on 8 October 1967; his remains are interred in the municipal cemetery.

Like so many other foreign visitors, this multi-talented family clearly found a new lease of life after “retiring” to Chapala!

Sources:

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 26 Feb 1966; 28 Oct 1967; 3 May 1975.
  • U.S. Census, 1940
  • Leonard McCombe (photographer). 1957. “Yanks Who Don’t Go Home. Expatriates Settle Down to Live and Loaf in Mexico.” Life, 23 December 1957

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 292016
 

The multi-talented African American poet, novelist and artist Clarence Major spent some time at Lake Chapala in 1968.

Major was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1936 and grew up in Chicago. In the early 1950s, Major studied drawing and painting under painter Gus Nall (1919–1995) and attended the Art Institute of Chicago, where his teachers included Addis Osborne (1914–2011). Coincidentally, the enigmatic African American artist Ernest Alexander, who lived for several years in Ajijic in the early 1950s, had also studied in Chicago and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago shortly before Major took classes there.

In 1966, after two marriages which both ended in divorce, Major moved to New York to begin a distinguished teaching career. Over the next 30 years, he taught creative writing and/or literature classes at Brooklyn College, Queens College, Sarah Lawrence College, University of Washington, Howard University, University of Maryland, University of Colorado, Temple University, and the State University of New York (Binghamton). In 1989, Major moved to California, where he taught until his retirement in 2007 at the University of California at Davis.

In 1968, Major left New York and visited Mexico for several months in the company of his then girlfriend Sheila Silverstone. During the trip, Major was revising his first novel, All Night Visitors, published in 1969. Major’s first collection of poems, Swallow the Lake, was published the following year and won a National Council on the Arts Award.

Clarence Major. Self-portrait. Image reproduced from wikimedia (Creative Commons license)

Clarence Major. Self-portrait. Image reproduced from wikimedia (Creative Commons license)

In Mexico, the couple spent some time in Puerto Vallarta but also visited Lake Chapala, which became the basis for at least two poems published in Symptoms & madness: poems (1971).

The first poem is entitled “IN CHAPALA, JAL” and describes them sitting, reading, in “a red mud / colored 30 pesos per day hotel room”.

The second poem, entitled “EIGHTEEN-DOLLAR TAXI TRIP TO TIZAPAN AND BACK TO CHAPALA” was later included in the collection Configurations: New & Selected Poems, 1958-1998, published in 1999 and a finalist for a 1999 National Book Award. This poem tells how their taxi driver (“with a good life / who has four children, / a pregnant wife, / and who lives in Guadalajara”) drives them, “radio going / cha-cha-cha” through a storm around the south side of the lake.

Major’s poetry and short stories have been published in dozens of literary magazines and anthologies. Major has won dozens of major awards and served as a judge for many important literary contests including the the PEN/Faulkner Award (1997-1998), the National Endowment for the Arts Awards (1987) and the National Book Awards (1991). Major helped edit several literary periodicals, including Caw! and The Journal of Black Poetry. He was a regular columnist for American Poetry Review and the first editor of American Book Review.

In 2015, Major was awarded the “Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts,” by The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Major’s novels include All-Night Visitors (1969); No (1973); Reflex and Bone Structure (1975; Emergency Exit (1979); My Amputations (1986); Such Was The Season (1987); Painted Turtle: Woman With Guitar (1988); Dirty Bird Blues (1996); and One Flesh (2003).

His poetry works include Swallow The Lake (1970); Symptoms & Madness (1971); Private Line (1971); The Cotton Club (1972); The Syncopated Cakewalk (1974); Inside Diameter: The France Poems (1985); Surfaces and Masks (1988); Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in The Latter Part of The Century (1989); Parking Lots (1992); Configurations: New and Selected Poems 1958–1998 (1999); Waiting for Sweet Betty (2002); Myself Painting (2008); Down and Up (2013); and From Now On: New and Selected Poems 1970–2015 (2015).

His nonfiction books include Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970); The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work (1974); Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994); Necessary Distance: Essays and Criticism (2000); Come by Here: My Mother’s Life (2002); Configurations (2010) and Myself Painting (2011).

In his parallel career as a visual artist, Major’s first solo exhibition of paintings was at Sarah Lawrence College in 1974. Other galleries that have hosted one-person shows of Major’s art include First National Bank Gallery, Boulder, Colorad (1986); Kresge Art Museum, East Lansing, Michigan (2001); Schacknow Museum of Fine Art, Plantation, Florida (2003); Exploding Head Gallery, Sacramento CA (2003, 2004, 2006); Blue Hills Gallery, Winters, CA (2005); Phoenix Gallery, Sacramento CA (2006); Hamilton Club Gallery, Paterson, New Jersey (2007); Pierre Menard Gallery, Harvard Square, Cambridge (2010); and University Art Gallery, Indiana State University, Terre Haute (2011). His work has also featured in numerous group shows in New York, Los Angeles, and Davis, California.

His paintings now hang in many private and public collections, including those at Indiana State University, Terre Haute; Passaic County Community College Permanent Collection of Contemporary Art; the Schacknow Museum of Fine Art, Plantation, Florida; and The Linda Matthews MARBL Collection at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

The covers of several of Major’s books, including Myself Painting, Waiting for Sweet Betty, and Down and Up feature his own paintings.

Works about Clarence Major

His life, art and literature are described by Bernard Bell in Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African-American Postmodernist (1998), by Nancy Bunge in Conversations with Clarence Major (2002) and by Keith Eldon Byerman in The Art and Life of Clarence Major (2016).

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Aug 012016
 

The distinguished Canadian poet Earle Alfred Birney (1904–1995) traveled in Mexico in the 1950s and wrote several poems based on his experiences, including one entitled “Ajijíċ”.

birney-ice-cod-bell-stoneBirney was born in Calgary, Alberta, on Friday 13 May 1904 and raised on a farm near Creston in British Columbia. After short stints working on a farm, in a bank and as a park ranger, he attended university to study chemical engineering.

By the time he graduated, his academic interests had changed. Birney graduated with a degree in English from the University of British Columbia (1926). He also later studied at the University of Toronto (1926-27); University of California, Berkeley (1927); and at the University of London in the U.K. (1934).

During the second world war, he was a personnel officer in the Canadian Army, the basis for his 1949 novel Turvey, which won the Leacock medal for humor in 1950. Immediately after the war, Birney took a post at the University of British Columbia, where he was instrumental in founding and directing Canada’s first creative writing program. He retired from that university in 1965 to become the first Writer in Residence at the University of Toronto.

His poetry was widely acclaimed, published in more than hundred journals and regularly featured in anthologies. It also resulted in him becoming a two-time recipient of the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s top literary honor. Birney also wrote plays, novels and non-fiction, as well as working at different times as literary editor of Canadian Forum, editor of Canadian Poetry Magazine and supervisor of European foreign-language broadcasts for CBC.

Birney died of a heart attack on 3 September 1995 at the age of 91.

Birney’s poem “Ajijíċ” [sic] is one of a series of 12 Mexican poems that forms the second section of his Ice Cod Bell or Stone: A Collection of New Poems (1962). The other poems are entitled: “State of Sonora”, “Sinaloa”, “Njarit”, “Late Afternoon in Manzanillo”, “Irapuato”, “Pachucan Miners”, “Six-Sided Square: Actopan”, “Francisco Tresguerras”, “Beldams of Tepoztlán”, “Conducted Ritual: San Juan de Ulúa”, and “Sestina for Tehauntepec”. The place names in the titles clearly shows that Birney traveled quite widely during his time in Mexico, from Sonora and Sinaloa in the north to San Juan de Ulúa in Veracruz and Tehuantepec in the southern state of Oaxaca.

In Ajijíċ, Birney describes a “hip gringo” who, while enjoying a morning tequila, brings out “from under the bar”, “his six feet of representational nonart.”

The poem’s final section includes a description of sundown when,

“Outside the fishermen will pass /
and the blobs of pescada blanca in the nets /
swaying over their shoulders will flake /
their bare shanks with mica as they trudge” …

[Note that the correct Spanish spelling for Lake Chapala’s whitefish is pescado blanco.]

Birney’s Mexican poems were very favorably reviewed by other noted Canadian poets and literary figures. A.J.M. Smith, in his “A Unified Personality – Birney’s Poems”, praised this “brilliant series of Mexican poems. I don’t know where you’ll find anything better in modern North American poetry than the combination of wit and sentiment, pertinent observation and auricular, almost ventriloquistic precision than “Sinaloa”, “Ajijic”, or “Six-Sided Square: Actopan”.”

Mexican literary analysis of Birney’s poetry has been more critical. For instance, Claudia Lucotti, an academic at UNAM (Mexico’s National University),  argues that Earle Birney describes a Mexico of cliches, a simplistic country, one seen only through tourist eyes. She regards Birney’s attempt to record the typical speech patterns of a Mexican speaking English as patronizing and stereotypical. Incidentally, in the same chapter, which examines how various Canadian poets have looked at Mexico, Lucotti considers the same to be true for Al Purdy, another Canadian poet associated with Lake Chapala.

Birney’s poetry collections include David and Other Poems (1942), Now Is Time (1945), The Strait of Anian (1948), Trial of a City and Other Verse (1952), Ice Cod Bell or Stone (1962), Near False Creek Mouth (1964), Memory No Servant (1968), pnomes jukollages & other stunzas (1969), Rag & Bone Shop (1970), what’s so big about GREEN? (1973), Alphabeings and Other Seasyours (1976), The Rugging and the Moving Times (1976), Copernican Fix (1985) and Last Makings: Poems (1991).

Birney’s fiction works include Turvey: a military picaresque (1949), Down the Long Table (1955) and Big Bird in the Bush: Selected stories and sketches (1978), while his non-fiction writing includes The Creative Writer (1966), The Cow Jumped Over the Moon: The writing and reading of poetry (1972), and Essays on Chaucerian Irony (1985).

Sources / references

  • Wailan Low. Undated. Earle Birney : Biography.
  • Claudia Lucotti. 2000. “Nosotros en los otros: visiones de México en la literatura canadiense contemporánea de lengua inflesa”, in Canadá un estado posmoderno, coordinated by Teresa Gutiérrez-Haces (Plaza y Valdes, 2000).
  • A.J. M. Smith. 1966. “A Unified Personality: Birney’s Poems,” in Canadian Literature. (Vancouver, British Columbia, 1966), 30, 4-13

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May 092016
 

Dr. Arvid Shulenberger (1918-1964), who taught English at The University of Kansas for many years, wrote academic works, poetry and at least one novel. Shulenberger lived in Ajijic for part of 1955. In his 1992 booklet, Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey, Michael Hargraves, who inadvertently curtails the author’s surname to Schulenberg, wrote that the professor “lived at Ajijic in the late 1940’s—early 1950’s but apparently was never published.”

Arvid Leroy Shulenberger was born on 9 September 1918 in Wessington Springs, South Dakota. He married Margaret Louise Anderson on 24 November 24, 1942; the couple had four children.

During the second world war, Shulenberger served in the U.S. Air Force in the 548th Night Fighter Squadron. A 1947 book, “American Jews in World War II”, by I. Kaufman, describes “the rare combat exploit of Lt. Arvid Shulenberger”, who piloted the U.S. Black Widow night fighter plane which brought down a pilot-less B-29 headed for the American base on Iwo Jima. Arvid’s son Eric Shulenberger, an oceanographer, is the author of Deny Them the Night Sky: A History of the 548th Night Fighter Squadron, which details the story of his father’s squadron.

After the war, Arvid Shulenberger studied at Yankton College in South Dakota, and then at the University of Chicago which awarded him a PhD in English Literature in 1951. He taught as a professor of English at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, from 1952 to 1964.

Shulenberger-Arvid-Cover-of-Roads-from-the-Fort-1957In 1954, he published his first novel, Roads From The Fort. Described as a serious novel of the Old West, Kirkus Review called it, “A first novel of contagious sincerity.” The novel was a Book-of-the-Month recommendation.

Following publication of his novel, and of a serious academic work, Cooper’s Theory of Fiction: His prefaces and their relation to his novels. (University of Kansas press, 1955), Shulenberger took a year off from teaching and spent the latter half of 1955 in Ajijic on Lake Chapala.

A profile of Shulenberger in the 11 December 1955 issue of the Salina Journal in Kansas, says that he “has just returned with his family after spending five months in Mexico – writing another novel…. Before attempting his first novel Shulenberger, broad-shouldered and soft-spoken, had not written a single short story, but had limited himself to criticism and poetry.” I have been unable to find any evidence that this second novel was ever published.

A collection of poems by Shulenberger, entitled Ancient Music and Other Poems, was published by Allen Press in 1960. Shulenberger had several poetry credits in The New Yorker and in the magazine Poetry. He also wrote “The Orthodox Poetic,” (1963), an article in which he compared four important worldviews: the classical Greek, the Old Testament (“Hebraic”), the Christian, and the “modern”.

Shulenberger died in an auto accident on 23 June 1964, in Leavenworth, Kansas, on his way home from teaching night classes in English literature to inmates of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

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Apr 252016
 

Diego José Abad (1727-1779) was a Mexican poet and author, born in Jiquilpan, Michoacán (then on the shores of Lake Chapala). His birthplace appears to be the only direct connection that he has to Lake Chapala.

abad-diego-joseAbad, born on 1 June 1727, was the eldest son in a wealthy ranch-owning family. At twelve years of age, he entered the Colegio de San Idelfonso in Mexico City, where he took classes in grammar, poetry, rhetoric and philosophy, before joining the Jesuit order two years later in 1741. After ordination in 1751, Abad taught rhetoric, philosophy, canon law and civil law in Jesuit seminaries in Mexico City, Zacatecas and Querétaro. He was in poor health for much of his life and spent his free time translating Virgil into Spanish.

In 1767, when King Charles III of Spain ordered all Jesuits out of New Spain, Abad entered exile in Italy, where he died twelve years later. Abad wrote many works, some in Latin, others in Spanish, including: El más embrollado problema de las matemáticas resuelto; De deo deoque homine heroica (1769; the 2nd edition of which was published under the pseudonym of Jacobus Josephus Labbè); El cursus philosophicus (1775); Disertación cómico seria acerca de la cultura latina de los extranjeros (1778); Geografía hidrográfica general, a work about the world’s major rivers.

Abad died in Bologna, Italy, on 30 September 1779.

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Feb 292016
 

Santa Fe poet Robert (“Bob”) Hunt (1906-1964) visited Chapala regularly with poet Witter Bynner (1881-1968) for about thirty years, starting in the early 1930s. Hunt, whose full name was Robert Nichols Montague Hunt, was Bynner’s long-time partner, as well as being a poet in his own right.

Born in Pasadena, California, on 19 May 1906, Hunt’s parents were Harriette Boardman Hunt (1868-1913) and Pasadena architect Myron Hunt. Myron Hunt was a prominent architect in southern California, and designed the Hollywood Bowl, the Rose Bowl, and the Huntington Library in San Marino.

Bob Hunt worked briefly for his father’s firm, and is said to have had some talent as a designer, but like so many facets of his life, he never quite achieved what others thought he might, as he moved from one interest to another. Hunt’s design skills enabled him to add a wing to Bynner’s adobe home in Santa Fe, and to make significant alterations to their home in Chapala, as well as redesigning the living room of Peter Hurd‘s ranch in New Mexico.

Hunt was first introduced to Witter Bynner in 1924 by author and historian Paul Horgan.

[Horgan twice won the Pulitzer Prize for History: in 1955 for Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History and in 1976 for Lamy of Santa Fe. He was a childhood friend of artist Peter Hurd, and wrote, “Peter Hurd : A Portrait Sketch from Life”, for the catalog of the artist’s 1965 retrospective. ]

Hunt and Bynner’s paths crossed again in Santa Fe in 1926, and in Los Angeles in 1928. In November 1930 Hunt visited Bynner in Santa Fe to recuperate from a stress-related illness, following six months of long days working as Assistant Manager and Treasurer of the Paramount Public Theatres in Portland, Oregon.

James Kraft, Bynner’s biographer, describes the young Hunt:

“Bob, Bobby, sometimes called Monté, was twenty-four when he came to Bynner’s house. Tall, lean, elegantly handsome in the way of Robert Taylor or Robert Montgomery, with a brisk, debonair walk and an easy way of dressing, wearing clothes so well they seemed insignificant, he had a fine, clear voice, excellent manners, little formal education but a crackling sharp mind, and was well read and intelligent about history, art, and literature. He had tried all kinds of schools and jobs but could “do” nothing, and his patient father, the well-known California architect Myron Hunt, had attempted everything he could think of to help him.”

This 1930 visit began a partnership which lasted until Hunt’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1964. Hunt became not only Bynner’s partner, but his business manager, editor and, when the much-older poet struggled with serious health issues in his later life, his primary care-giver.

In 1931, Hunt and Bynner visited Taxco and Chapala. A few years later, they rented a house in Chapala (from late November 1934 to late April 1935) with poet and novelist Arthur Davison Ficke and his second wife Gladys, an artist.

l to r: Robert Hunt, Galdys Ficke, Arthur Ficke, ca 1935. [Source: Kraft: "Who is Witter Bynner"?]

Robert Hunt (left), Gladys Ficke, Arthur Ficke, ca 1935. [Source: Kraft: “Who is Witter Bynner”?]

In December 1936, Bynner and Hunt collected Bynner’s mother at Mexico City airport and toured around with her, including a stay at the Arzapalo Hotel in Chapala. Bynner’s mother, who did not get on well with Hunt, died in November 1937.

In 1940, Bynner bought a home in Chapala, close to the square at Galeana #441 (the street name was later changed to Francisco I. Madero).

Hunt’s health issues caused him to be rejected by both the army and navy when the U.S. entered the second world war, but he served on the local draft board for a year. After a short break in Chapala in early 1943, Hunt left Bynner in Chapala and returned to the U.S. to further assist the war effort by working on the docks in San Francisco. Hunt rejoined Bynner in Chapala in September 1944; they did not return to Santa Fe until August of the following year.

In February 1949, Bynner had his first slight heart attack, but still visited Chapala with Hunt for part of the year.The following year, the two men, together with artist Clinton King and his wife Narcissa, spent six months traveling in Europe and North Africa, visiting, among others, Thornton Wilder and James Baldwin in Paris, and George Santayana and Sybille Bedford (author of a travelogue-novel about Lake Chapala) in Rome.

In the 1950s, as Bynner’s health declined, he continued to visit Chapala, but Hunt took increasing refuge in the bottle, becoming angry and belligerent when drunk.

Hunt’s death in 1964 came as he was about to leave for Chapala to bring back more possessions from their winter home. Hunt had arranged for Bynner to be cared for in his absence by artist John Liggett Meigs. Meigs, in partnership with fellow artist Peter Hurd, later purchased the Bynner house in Chapala, complete with all its remaining contents.

Hunt wrote one collection of eighteen poems, The Early World and other poems, dedicated to Witter Bynner (Santa Fe: The Villagra Bookshop, 1936), and also compiled the collection of poems that became Bynner’s Selected Poems, with an introduction by Paul Horgan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936]

Sources:

  • Lynn Cline. 2007. Literary Pilgrims: The Santa Fe and Taos Writers’ Colonies, 1917-1950. (Univ. New Mexico Press)
  • Mark S. Fuller, 2015. Never a Dull Moment: The Life of John Liggett Meigs (Sunstone Press)
  • James Kraft, 1995. Who is Witter Bynner? (Univ. New Mexico Press)

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 Posted by at 6:13 am  Tagged with:
Feb 012016
 

American writer Walter Willard “Spud” Johnson (1897-1968) and acclaimed poet Witter Bynner accompanied English novelist D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, during most of their time in Mexico in 1923. Johnson had been a student of Bynner at the University of California in 1919 (in the same class as Idella Purnell from Guadalajara) and subsequently worked as Bynner’s secretary.

Johnson and Bynner traveled down to Mexico City in March 1923, a few days after the Lawrences; all four stayed at the Hotel Monte Carlo. At the end of April, Lawrence left Mexico City to explore the possibility of moving to Chapala, conveniently close to Guadalajara where the group had an open invitation to visit Purnell and her father.

Willard Johnson: Print of Lake Chapala (illustration in Laughing Horse)

Willard Johnson: Print of Lake Chapala (illustration in Laughing Horse)

Frieda Lawrence, Johnson and Bynner traveled to Guadalajara by overnight train, arriving on 2 May 1923. Frieda then caught a camion to Chapala and joined her husband, who had already rented a house there, while Johnson and Bynner stayed a few days in Guadalajara before moving to Chapala and renting rooms in the Hotel Arzapalo.

After the Lawrences left Mexico in early July, Johnson and Bynner remained in Chapala, having decided it provided the right conditions for them to mix writing with leisure.

After this visit in 1923, it does not appear that Johnson ever returned to the Lake Chapala area, though he did visit other parts of Mexico in the late 1940s and 1950s, traveling with Mabel and Tony Luhan [1], once with Lynn Riggs and once with Georgia O’Leefe. (Bynner, on the other hand, bought a home in Chapala in 1940 and was a frequent return visitor, spending several years of his life there.)

Johnson was born on 3 June 1897 Illinois, but spent most of his youth in Greeley, Colorado. After two years at the Colorado State Teacher’s College (1916-18) and a short time at the University of Colorado in Boulder, he transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. At Berkeley, he met Witter Bynner, took his popular poetry course, and began to take poetry writing more seriously, the start of a close and lasting friendship.

johnson-laughing-horse-lawrenc-enumber

Cover of the special edition of Laughing Horse devoted to D. H. Lawrence

In early 1922, Johnson and two friends founded their own “alternative” magazine, Laughing Horse, which was published intermittently over the next thirty years. In summer 1922, Johnson left Berkeley and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he began to write poetry while working as Bynner’s secretary.

During their time in Chapala, Johnson worked on a special edition of Laughing Horse (left) as well as on poems later included in his collection Horizontal Yellow (1935).

In D. H. Lawrence, a composite biography, editor Edward Nehls quotes Johnson’s recollection of a typical day in Chapala:

“Mornings we all worked, Lawrence generally down towards a little peninsula where tall trees grew near the water. He sat there, back against a tree, eyes often looking over the scene that was to be the background for his novel, and wrote in tiny, fast words in a thick, blue-bound book, the tale which called Quetzalcoatl. Here also he read Mexican history and folklore and observed, almost unconsciously, the life that went on around him, and somehow got the spirit of the place.

There were the little boys who sold idols from the lake; the women who washed clothes at the waters’ edge and dried them on the sands; there were lone fishermen, white calzones pulled to their hips, bronze legs wading deep in the waters, fine nets catching the hundreds of tiny charales: boatmen steering their clumsy, beautiful craft around the peninsula; men and women going to market with baskets of pitahuayas on their heads; lovers, even, wandering along the windy shore; goatherds; mothers bathing babies; sometimes a group of Mexican boys swimming nude off-shore instead of renting ugly bathing-suits further down by the hotel…

Afternoons we often had tea together or Lawrence and I walked along the mud flats below the village or along the cobbled country road around the Japanese hill – or up the hill itself. We discovered that botany had been a favorite study of both of us at school and took a friendly though more or less ignorant interest in the flora as we walked and talked. Lawrence talked most, of course.”

By 1926 Johnson’s work had been published in Poetry, Pan, Echo, Palms (the poetry magazine started by Idella Purnell), and the New Republic. He published a collection of fifty-six poems, some new and some reprinted from various publications, in 1935, entitled Horizontal Yellow. He also made numerous contributions to The New Yorker, Sunset Magazine and Taos Valley News.

By 1927, Johnson’s relationship with Bynner had weakened (though they remained friends) and he became the secretary to Mabel Dodge Luhan [1] in Taos, New Mexico.

By the early 1930s Johnson had become a fixture in the New Mexico literary and social scenes, dividing his time between Santa Fe and Taos. He continued to write for local papers and ran a small hand printing press. In his fifties, he took up drawing and painting. He died in 1968, still planning a show of his artwork. The show was still held, becoming a fitting memorial to the life and work of this talented writer.

Footnote:

[1] Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962) was a wealthy American patron of the arts who, among other claims to fame, had sponsored Lawrence’s initial visit to Taos in 1922-23. She had moved to Taos in 1919 (as Mabel Dodge Sterne) with her then husband Maurice and Elsie Clews Parsons, to start a literary colony. Mabel took the advice of Antonio (Tony) Luhan, a Native American, to buy a 12-acre (49,000 m2) property. Soon after, she sent Maurice packing (with a monthly allowance) and in 1923 married Tony Luhan. Mabel Luhan later wrote a memoir about Lawrence’s visit entitled, Lorenzo in Taos (1932). The Luhans hosted numerous influential writers, poets and artists, at their home, The Mabel Dodge Luhan House, since designated a national historic landmark, and now an inn and conference center.

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 Posted by at 5:59 am  Tagged with:
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 282015
 

Author and poet Harold Witter Bynner (1881-1968), known as “Hal” to his friends, had a lengthy connection to Lake Chapala extending over more than forty years. He first visited the lake and the village in 1923, when he and then companion Willard Johnson were traveling with D.H. Lawrence and his wife.

Bynner returned to Chapala in 1925, and later (1940) bought a house there, which became his second home, his primary residence remaining in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bynner spent two and a half years in Chapala during the second world war, and the equivalent of ten years of his life there in total.

Poet, mimic and raconteur Witter Bynner was born into a wealthy family. Apparently, he liked to recount stories about his mother, who, he claimed, kept $500,000 in cash in one of her closets.

He graduated from Harvard in 1902, having been on the staff of the Harvard Advocate.

Bynner published his first volume of verse, Young Harvard and Other Poems, in 1907. Other early works included Tiger (1913), The New World (1915), The Beloved Stranger (1919), A Canticle of Pan and Other Poems (1920), Pins for Wings (1920) and A Book of Love (1923).

In 1916, in an extended prank aimed at deflating the self-important poetry commentators of the time, Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke collaborated to perpetrate what has often been called “the literary hoax of the twentieth century”. Bynner and Ficke had met at Harvard and were to become lifelong friends. Ficke and his wife Gladys accompanied Bynner on a trip to the Far East in 1916-17. In 1916, Bynner writing under the pen name “Emanuel Morgan” and Ficke, writing as “Anne Knish” published a joint work, Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments. 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. (Ficke, incidentally, later spent the winter of 1934-35 in Chapala, with Bynner, and wrote a novel set there: Mrs Morton of Mexico.)

Even though Bynner still became President of the Poetry Society of America from 1920 to 1922, the Spectra hoax was not well received by the poetry establishment, and Bynner’s later poetry received less attention than deserved.

Bynner traveled extensively in the Orient, and compiled and translated an anthology of Chinese poetry: The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology, Being Three Hundred Poems of the T’ang Dynasty 618–906 (1929) as well as The Way of Life According to Laotzu (1944). He also amassed an impressive collection of Chinese artifacts.

In 1919, he accepted a teaching post at the University of California at Berkeley. Students in his poetry class there included both Idella Purnell and Willard “Spud” Johnson. When Bynner left academia and moved to Taos, New Mexico, in 1922, to concentrate on his own writing, Johnson followed to become his secretary-companion. In Taos, they met D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, and the four traveled together to Mexico in the spring of 1923. After a short time in Mexico City, they settled in Chapala, where the Lawrences rented a house while Bynner and Johnson stayed at the Hotel Arzapalo.

bynner-coverChapala with the Lawrences

Bynner’s memoir of this trip and the group’s time in Chapala is told in his engagingly-written Journey with Genius (1951), which is full of anecdotes and analysis. Among the former, for example, is the story told them by Winfield Scott, manager of the Arzapalo, who a few years earlier had been kidnapped by bandits who attacked the Hotel Rivera in El Fuente.

Bynner, who seems to have had near-perfect recall, describes Chapala and their trips together in loving detail, as well as providing insights into Lawrence’s work habits and mood swings. For his part, Lawrence appears to have been less than impressed, since in The Plumed Serpent he used Bynner as the basis for the unflattering character of Owen, the American at the bullfight.

Bynner’s poem about Lawrence in Chapala, “The Foreigner”, is short and sweet:

Chapala still remembers the foreigner
Who came with a pale red beard and pale blue eyes
And a pale white skin that covered a dark soul;
They remember the night when he thought he saw a hand
Reach through a broken window and fumble at a lock;
They remember a tree on the beach where he used to sit
And ask the burros questions about peace;
They remember him walking, walking away from something.

The Lawrences left Chapala in early July 1923, but Bynner and Johnson stayed a few months more, so that Bynner could continue working on his book of verse, Caravan (1925).

bynner-1961Bynner returned to Chapala in 1925, and a letter from that time shows how he thinks the town has changed, in part due to tourists: “Too much elegancia now, constant shrill clatter, no calzones, not so many guaraches, no plaza-market.” Among the changes, Bynner noted several other American writers and a painter in Chapala, making up “a real little colony” (quoted in Delpar).

Elsewhere, diary entries and other letters reveal why he liked Chapala: “The Mind clears at Chapala. Questions answer themselves. Tasks become easy”, and how he felt at home there: “Me for Chapala. I doubt if I shall find another place in Mexico so simpatico.”

Poems related to these first two visits to Chapala (1923 and 1925) include “On a Mexican Lake” (New Republic, 1923); “The Foreigner” (The Nation, 1926); “Chapala Poems” (Poetry, 1927); “To my mother concerning a Mexican sunset / Mescala etc.” (Poetry, 1927); “Indian Earth” [Owls; Tule; Volcano; A Sunset on Lake Chapala; Men of Music; A Weaver from Jocotepec] (The Yale Review, 1928); and “Six Mexican Poems” [A Mexican Wind; A Beautiful Mexican; From Chapala to a San Franciscan; The Cross on Tunapec; Conflict; The Web] (Bookman, 1929).

Bynner included many of these poems in the collection Indian Earth (1929), which he dedicated to Lawrence, and which many consider some of Bynner’s finest work. A reviewer for Pacific Affairs (a journal of the University of British Columbia, Canada), wrote that “Chapala, a sequence occupying over half the seventy-seven pages of the book, is a poignant revelation to one in quest of the essence of an alien spirit, that alien spirit being in this case the simple, passionate Indian soul of old Mexico.”

Among my personal favorites (though I admit to bias) is

A Weaver From Jocotepec

Sundays he comes to me with new zarapes
Woven especial ways to please us both:
The Indian key and many-coloured flowers
And lines called rays and stars called little doves.
I order a design; he tells me yes
And, looking down across his Asian beard,
Foresees a good zarape. Other time
I order a design; he tells me no.

Since weavers of Jocotepec are the best in Jalisco,
And no weaver in Jocotepec is more expert than mine,
I watched the zarapes of strangers who came to the plaza
For the Sunday evening processions around the band,
And I showed him once, on a stranger, a tattered blanket
Patterned no better than his but better blent––
Only to find it had taken three weavers to weave it:
My weaver first and then the sun and rain.

Later Chapala-related poems by Bynner include “Chapala Moon and The Conquest of Mexico” (two poems; Forum and Century, 1936) and “Beach at Chapala” (Southwest Review, 1947).

Bynner’s third trip to Chapala, with partner Robert (“Bob”) Hunt (1906-1964), came in 1931. The pair visited Taxco and Chapala, but Bynner preferred Chapala, claiming (somewhat in contradiction to his earlier letter about a “real little colony”) that, “Chapala survives without a single foreigner living there and, despite its hotels and shabby mansions, continues to be primitive and feel remote.” Of course, this was by no means true; there certainly were foreigners living in Chapala in 1931, including some who had been there since the start of the century.

When Bynner returned to Chapala for a longer stay in January 1940, he first stayed at the Hotel Nido, but not finding it much to his liking soon purchased a house almost directly across the street. The original address was Galeana #441, but the street name today is Francisco I. Madero. We will consider the history of this house in a separate post, but Bynner and Hunt regularly vacationed here thereafter.

At some point in mid-1944, Bynner had been joined at Chapala by a young American painter Charles Stigall, whose ill health at the time had caused him not to be drafted. He lived with Bynner while he recuperated. Certainly he was there in November 1944, as the Guadalajara daily El Informador (19 November 1944) records both “Mr Witter Bynner, famous American poet” and “Mr Charles Stigel” attending an exhibition of Mexican paintings by Edith Wallach, at the Villa Montecarlo. Among the other guests, at the opening were “Nigel Stansbury Millet (one half of the Dane Chandos writing duo); Miss Neill James; Mr Otto Butterlin and his “lovely daughter Rita”; Miss Ann Medalie; and Mr. Herbert Johnson and wife.” (The newspaper makes no mention of Bob Hunt, who was also in Chapala at that time).

In November 1945, Bynner lost his oldest and closest friend, Arthur Ficke. The following month, he returned to Chapala for the winter.

Bynner and Hunt continued to visit Chapala regularly for many years, into the early 1960s. He was well aware of how much the town had changed since his first visit in 1923. For example in a letter to Edward Nehls in the 1950s, Bynner wrote,

“The “beach” where Lawrence used to sit, is now a severe boulevard [Ramon Corona] which gives me a pang when I remember the simple village we lived in. The tree under which he sat and wrote is gone long since and the beach close to it where fishermen cast nets and women washed clothes has receded a quarter of a mile. But the mountains still surround what is left of the lake and, as a village somewhat inland, Chapala would still have charmed us had we come upon it in its present state.”

In February 1949, Bynner had his first slight heart attack, but still visited Chapala for part of the year. At about this time, his eyesight began to deteriorate. Bynner and Hunt, in the company of artist Clinton King and his wife Narcissa, traveled to Europe and North Africa for the first six months of 1950, visiting, among others, Thornton Wilder and James Baldwin in Paris, and George Santayana and Sybille Bedford (author of a fictionalized travelogue about Lake Chapala) in Rome.

Bynner’s final years were spent in ill-health. Bynner had almost completely lost his sight by January 1964, when he unexpectedly lost his long-time partner, Bob Hunt, who had a fatal heart attach just as he was setting out for Chapala, having made arrangements for Bynner to be cared for in his absence by John Liggett Meigs.

The following year, Bynner suffered a severe stroke. While friends looked after him for the remainder of his life (he died in 1968), Bynner’s doctors ordered that the famous poet was not well enough to receive visitors for more than one minute at a time.

Bynner left his Santa Fe home to St. John’s College, together with the funds to create a foundation that supports poetry. The house and grounds are now the Inn of the Turquoise Bear.

His passing marked the loss of one of the many literary greats who had found inspiration at Lake Chapala.

Sources:

  • Bushby, D. Maitland. 1931. “Poets of Our Southern Frontier”, Out West Magazine, Feb 1931, p 41-42.
  • Bynner, Witter. 1951. Joumey with Genius: Recollection and Reflections Concerning The D.H. Lawrences (New York: The John Day Company).
  • Bynner, Witter. 1981. Selected Letters (edited by James Kraft). The Works of Witter Bynner. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Delpar, Helen. 1992. The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican : Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935. (University of Alabama Press)
  • Kraft, James 1995. Who is Witter Bynner? (UNM Press)
  • Nehls, Edward (ed). 1958. D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography. Volume Two, 1919-1925. (University of Wisconsin Press).
  • Sze, Corinne P. 1992. “The Witter Bynner House” [Santa Fe], Bulletin of the Historic Santa Fe Association, Vol 20, No 2, September 1992.

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 212015
 

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

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

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

Idella Purnell: The Merry Frogs

Idella Purnell: The Merry Frogs (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Esmeralda boat trip, 1923

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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