Ajijic’s Grand Dame Neill James

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Author/Philanthropist Neill James

Most who live on Lake Chapala’s north shore – and particularly those who frequent the Lake Chapala Society – have heard the name Neill James, but many are unaware of the accomplishments of this extraordinary woman, or the full scope of her contributions to the community.

James was an author, philanthropist, and entrepreneur.  She was also a fearless adventurer who shrugged off the staid social conventions and gender stereotypes of a dawning twentieth century.

Born on a cotton plantation in Grenada, Mississippi in 1895, James earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1918, and – following a brief and childless marriage – began to travel extensively.

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Author/Philanthropist Neill James

She was employed at the American embassies in Tokyo (1924-1927) and Berlin (1928-1929), and her work and travel allowed her to meet many celebrities of the day, including Amelia Earhart.  Her travels took her to the South Seas (1931-32), and Lapland (1937-38).

Her plans to return to Asia and travel throughout the Orient changed when James encountered the Ainu people of northern Hokkaido in Japan and became enchanted with their culture.  She lived among them for an extended time, all the while taking photographs and keeping a diary of her experience.

James left Japan just before December 7, 1941 and headed for Mexico, where she was badly injured while hiking the slopes of  Michoacán’s Paricutin volcano during an unexpected eruption. She was brought to Ajijic for a year of recuperation, during which she drew upon her travel journals to complete the “Petticoat Vagabond” series of books on which she had begun work in 1937:

Dust On My Heart coverPetticoat Vagabond among the Nomads (1939)
White Reindeer (1940)
Petticoat Vagabond: In Ainu Land (1942)
Petticoat Vagabonds: Up and Down The World in Asia (1942)
Dust On My Heart (1946)

Dust on My Heart records James’ journeys throughout  Mexico, and includes a chapter on Ajijic that provides rare insight into life in Ajijic during the 1940’s that is well worth the read.

In the years which followed, Ms. James became a beloved benefactress of her adopted Ajijic.

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James in her garden of exotic plants

She collected rare plants during her travels, and when her attempt to import Japanese mulberry trees in the hope of breeding silkworms was doomed by blight, she converted the silk looms to weave cotton instead, and Ajiic’s community of weavers was born.

A woman of inherited means, James employed her wealth to launch projects focused on improving the daily lives of local people, and on helping them to help themselves.

She sponsored the digging of the area’s first deep water wells, helped to develop a water purification system, and promoted the installation of electricity and phone service.

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Author/Philanthropist Neill James

She founded libraries in Chapala and Ajijic, and offered classes in a wide range of academic and artistic disciplines, including art classes for children that the Lake Chapala Society perpetuates to this day.

She encouraged the most talented among her students to pursue art as a career by supplying them with materials, engaging an art teacher, and providing a venue for the sale of their work.  She paid university tuition for the most talented, and several of her original students, including Jesus Lopez Vega and his brother Antonio, still live and paint in Ajijic today.

In 1955 she was among a group who decided that Lakeside needed an organization devoted to the needs of the expat community.  In her final years she donated her home and the grounds upon which it sits to the Lake Chapala Society, but continued to live there until her death in 1994 at the age of 99.  Its gardens still contain over 200 varieties of plants gathered during her travels.

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Author/Philanthropist Neill James

James was honored by installation in the American Biographical Society’s Hall of Fame and named to the International Who’s Who of Intellectuals. She is also the recipient of more than 40 citations acknowledging her contributions to the arts.

 

Only one of Ms. James’ books – Dust On My Heart – is available on Amazon.  Find it here.

Read more about Lake Chapala’s literary legacy here.

Check out the complete listing of RiberasAuthors by genre here.

Posted by Antonio Ramblés.

LCS acknowledgement

Chapala’s unsung bard Witter Bynner

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Witter Bynner

Witter Bynner (1881-1968) was an American poet, writer and scholar who, for much of his life, divided his time between homes in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chapala, Mexico.  While Bynner’s reputation is today eclipsed by contemporaries including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W. H. Auden, he was in his day a literary superstar.

His talent was already evident by the time he enrolled at Harvard, where he was not only invited to join the student literary magazine, but was also published in The Harvard Monthly. He graduated with honors in 1902, and released his first book of poems, An Ode to Harvard in 1907.   The university named him its Phi Beta Kappa Poet in 1911.

250px-SpectracoverIn 1916, Bynner and friends including Arthur Davison Ficke, all writing under pseudonyms, published an elaborate literary prank titled Spectra that was aimed at deflating the self-important poetry critics of the time.  The work was enthusiastically reviewed as a serious contribution to poetry before the hoax was finally unmasked two years later.

A conscientous objector, Bynner was  assigned alternative service teaching Oral English to the Students’ Army Training Corps in Berkeley, CA. during World War I.

51HGG8E024L._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_While there, he met a Chinese professor with whom he began an eleven-year collaboration on the translation of T’ang Dynasty poems.  He  traveled to China in 1920 to study its literature and culture.

In that same year, Bynner was elected President of the Poetry Society of America.  In an effort to encourage young poets, he created the Witter Bynner Prize for Undergraduate Excellence in Poetry, whose later recipients included Langston Hughes.  The Spectra hoax, however had tarnished Bynner’s reputation within the poetry establishment, and his works which followed the scandal received far less attention.

In 1922 a lecture tour took him to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Exhausted and suffering from a lingering cold, he cancelled the remainder of his tour to recuperate there.  Enchanted by the

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Bynner (center) with the Lawrences in Santa Fe.

setting and its artistic community, he returned four months later with his companion to take up permanent residence, and soon after met D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda.

514-XmrPHUL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_In 1923, Bynner and his companion accompanied the couple on a journey through Mexico that inspired Lawrence’s novel The Plumed Serpent, which includes an unflattering character based on Bynner.   In contrast, Bynner had high esteem for Lawrence, about whom he wrote three poems and a memoir titled Journey with Genius published in 1951.

Bynner stayed on in Chapala after the Lawrences left Mexico to continue working on his book of verse, Caravan (1925). At the time he noted that several other American writers and painters had already taken up residence there.

bynnerfriends

Between 1923 and 1929, Bynner penned more than a dozen poems that drew upon his Lake Chapala experience.  Many appear in his collection Indian Earth (1929), which he dedicated to D. H. Lawrence.

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Robert Hunt & Witter Bynner

In 1930 poet Robert Hunt visited Bynner in Chapala.  They would become companions for the remainder of their lives.

Arthur Davison Ficke, Bynner’s friend and partner in crime on the Spectra hoax, spent the winter of 1934-35 in Chapala, and drew upon the setting to write his novel Mrs. Morton of Mexico.

In 1940 Bynner purchased a house in Chapala from Mexican architect Luis Barragán that became the second home to which he would often return over the next three decades.  His acquaintances during these years included  resident writers Nigel Millett and Neill James, and a visiting Tennessee Williams.

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Former Witter Bynner home | Calle Madero 411, Chapala (Arq. Luis Barragán)

Bynner had a minor heart attack in 1949 and in the following year began to lose his eyesight, but neither infirmity prevented him from travelling with Hunt to Europe, where they visited acquaintances including Thornton Wilder, James Baldwin, and George Santayana.

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Witter Bynner

He  was almost completely sightless by 1964 when he lost his Robert Hunt to a fatal heart attack.  The following year, Bynner suffered a severe stroke from which he never recovered, and he died in the U.S. in 1968.

The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry was founded in 1972, funded by a bequest from his estate. Since 1997, it has sponsored the Witter Bynner Fellowship, for which the recipient is selected by the U.S. Poet Laureate.  The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters established a Witter Bynner Poetry Prize in 1980.

Witter Bynner’s works can be found here on Amazon.

Read more about the Lake Chapala area’s rich literary legacy here.

Check out the complete listing of RiberasAuthors by genre here.

(Posted by Antonio Ramblés.)

 

Lakeside’s author who never was

silhouette-of-a-man-36181_960_720Dane Chandos is one of Lakeside’s most celebrated writers, but no one has ever seen his photo and no tombstone marks his grave  because Chandos is a pen name that Lakeside writer Peter Lilley shared with two successive collaborators.

Lilley, born in the U.K. in 1913, lived for much of his life in San Antonio Tlayacapan.  His first collaborator was Nigel Millett, who was born in London in 1904 and emigrated to Mexico with his father in 1937.

The pair wrote two books before Millet died in 1946.  (He and his father are both buried in  Ajijic’s Panteón.)  Both stories share a San Antonio Tlayacapan setting and many of the same characters.

chandos-village-in-the-sunVillage in the Sun (1945) tells the story of building Lilley’s house in Mexico and is still treasured as an authentic account of Lakeside life in the 1940s.  Find it here on Amazon.

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In House in the Sun (1949) the protagonist has added guest rooms to the house and become an innkeeper of sorts.  Find it here on Amazon.

The year after Millet’s death, Lilley was visited in Mexico by Anthony Stansfeld, a U.K. expat who shortly after emigrated to the U.S.  Stansfeld later became Lilley’s second collaborator, traveling frequently from his American home to Mexico.

The  pair wrote two travelogues under the name Dane Chandos.

downloadThey also created a huarache-wearing Mexican detective who appears in two works written under the pen name Bruce Buckingham.  Three Bad Nights (1956) here on Amazon, and Boiled Alive (1957), here on Amazon.

Boiled Alive cover

Peter Lilley lived in San Antonio Tlayacapan into the 1970s, but returned to the U.K. in his final days and died there in 1980.

 

But there’s a delightful postscript…

Candelaria's Cookbook coverThe new owners of Lilley’s house discovered an unpublished manuscript containing a collection of recipes and anecdotes that they released in 1997 as the bilingual work Candelaria’s Cookbook under the name Dane Chandos.

 

Read more about the Lake Chapala area’s rich literary legacy here.

(Post by Antonio Ramblés.)

Spotlight: Blossoming Bickmore

Barbara Bickmore mug 2
Barbara Bickmore

Barbara Bickmore lived and wrote in Ajijic from 1990 to 1997.  She recalled writing her first story at the age of seven, but fifty-four years would pass before her dream deferred would reveal itself in a frenetic burst of writing creativity.

Born and raised on Long Island, Bickmore exhibited an interest in literature and theater from childhood and grew up to become a teacher.   She married, and her career was later interrupted for several years  following the births of her three children.

Divorced after 16 years of marriage, Bickmore took a sabbatical from teaching in order to complete her Masters degree, then moved with her children to Oregon in 1973.  When her attempts at farming and shopkeeping failed, she returned to teaching until her employer declined to renew her contract in 1985.

The now unemployed Bickmore was invited to China by a daughter who was at the time working as an English language instructor in Xian.  During the visit mother and daughter befriended a South African couple.  The experience led Bickmore to later choose both China and South Africa as settings for some of her books.

East Of The Sun 1989
Published 1989

Upon her return to the States, Bickmore completed her first novel, East of the Sun, which was published in 1988 when she was aged 61.

The Moon Below 1994
Published 1994

She came to Ajijic in 1990 following publication of her second novel, The Moon  Below, and stayed for 7 years.

During her time in Ajijic she completed five books, including:

  • The Back of Beyond (1994)
  • Homecoming (1995)
  • Deep in the Heart (1996)
  • Beyond the Promise (1997)

Bickmore covers 02

While none of her books were set in Mexico, Bickmore was clearly enamored of the Lake Chapala area, writing of it:


I lived for 7 magical years in a little Mexican village, Ajijic, high in the mountains south of Guadalajara on the edge of Lake Chapala. They were the happiest years of my life.


She returned to Oregon in 1998, where she continued to write and where she remained until her death at age 87.

Bickmore covers 03

The themes of Bickmore’s books are expressions of her personal morality, and she considered her work a form of political activism:

I am against war. I am for a woman’s right to reproductive choice. I believe women should have the same choices, and chances, men do. I am against racism. I believe education can make for better informed choices and can expand one’s view of the world and make for a limitless horizon. I believe friendship is one of the most important things in life and that love is the single most important ingredient.  I believe in kindness and that we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.

One of the amazing and wonderful, almost unbelievable, things about writing is that people read what I think and feel and perhaps I even influence a few. I’d like to be like my heroines, each of whom makes a difference in their worlds. They look out beyond themselves to help others and hopefully make the world a better place.

Bickmore’s books were at least as popular abroad as in the U.S., and her work has been translated into 16 languages.

Read more about Barbara Bickmore and browse her books here on Amazon.

Read more about the Lake Chapala area’s rich literary legacy here.

Check out the complete listing of RiberasAuthors by genre here.

(Post by Antonio Ramblés.)

The Chapala-Taos Connection

Witter Bynner
Witter Bynner

American poet Harold Witter Bynner (1881-1968), divided his time between homes in Chapala and Taos, New Mexico for nearly 30 years, and had the distinction of introducing both D.H. Lawrence and Tennessee Williams to the Lake Chapala area.   Williams had visited Mexico before Bynner hosted him in 1947, but Lawrence’s trip in 1923 was his first of three visits, and the Englishman might never have come to Mexico had not he and Bynner met quite by happenstance in Taos.

Lawrence and his wife Frieda had left England in 1919 for a self-imposed exile that the Englishman called his “savage pilgrimage”.  Their intended destination was Taos, New Mexico, but their route was quite circuitous, beginning with almost two years of travel through Italy. Malta, Germany, and Austria.  They left Europe early in 1922 and arrived in Taos late that year by way of Ceylon and Australia.

Frieda & D. H. Lawrence
D. H. Lawrence & wife Frieda

Bynner, having met a Chinese professor with whom he had begun collaborating on the translation of T’ang Dynasty poems, had traveled to China during 1920-21 to study its literature and culture.  Upon his return to the U.S. he embarked on an extensive lecture tour which brought him to Santa Fe, New Mexico in February 1922. Exhausted and ill, he canceled the rest of his tour and remained there.

Taos had first come to the attention of the Eastern artistic establishment in 1898 when Harpers Weekly published an article illustrated with work by artist Ernest Blumenschein, who had arrived in Taos while touring the U.S. and decided to stay.   Within a few years other American and European-born artists joined them.  Lawrence had often discussed the idea of setting up a utopian community with several of his friends, and in a 1915 note wrote:

“I want to gather together about twenty souls and sail away from this world of war and squalor and found a little colony where there shall be no money but a sort of communism as far as necessaries of life go, and some real decency… a place where one can live simply, apart from this civilization with a few other people who are also at peace and happy and live, and understand and be free…”

Mabel Dodge Luhan
Mabel Dodge Luhan

Many artists were drawn to Taos by Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy heiress from Buffalo, New York.  She had hosted art salons in Florence, Italy, and Manhattan before settling in Taos in 1917, where she married her third husband and carried on her salon tradition.  Luhan hosted artists, writers, and other luminaries including Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz in Taos.  Even D. H. Lawrence painted while in Taos, and his work is on display at La Fonda Hotel on the Taos Plaza, signed with the pseudonym “Lorenzo”.

Dorothy Brett
Dorothy Brett

Artist Dorothy Brett arrived in Taos with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda in 1924, sowing the seeds of a conflict that fully bloomed upon Lawrence’s death in 1930.  Luhan, Brett, and Lawrence’s wife Frieda each considered themselves in some way Lawrence’s true muse, and argued over the disposition of Lawrence’s ashes. To prevent Mabel from stealing and scattering them, Frieda had them mixed with concrete and formed into a block which remains to this day on the D. H. Lawrence Ranch above Taos.

Luhan’s salons continued, and in the years following Lawrence’s death her guests included Carl Sandburg, Willa Cather, Igor Stravinsky, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, and Thornton Wilder.

Following WWI, a new generation of writers and artists arrived in Taos to turn the page on the town’s artistic heritage, but Lawrence’s works The Plumed Serpent and Mornings In Mexico arguably owe their existence to his Taos connection and friendship with Witter Bynner.

Today, as the Lake Chapala area is poised to celebrate the centennial of Lawrence’s first visit, dozens of writers who call it home carry on the literary tradition.

Browse the Authors Gallery and find links to their bios and reviews of their work here.

Read more here about Lake Chapala’s long-standing literary tradition.

(Post by Antonio Ramblés.)

 

 

 

Spotlight: Author Georg Rauch

Georg Rauch mug
Georg Rauch

Everything about Georg Rauch’s life seems improbable. It was improbable that a young, partly Jewish Austrian boy should have escaped the Holocaust, much less been mustered into the Wehrmacht. Improbable that he should have survived combat on the Eastern front, internment in a Russian POW camp, or the illness which he contracted while in captivity.

The only thing not improbable about Georg Rauch was that his towering talent would one day overshadow his tortuous past to make him a world-reknowned artist.  Or that his autobiography – which has sold over 70,000 copies – would one day attract almost as much interest as his art.

51mMa7zM5qL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Georg Rauch passed away in 2006, but his artistic legacy shines even more brightly than his storied life, and thanks to the efforts of his wife Phyllis a new generation is discovering both his art and his story.

Learn more about Georg, and find links to his work and reviews on Amazon Books here.

Don’t miss the exhibition of Georg’s art at Jocotopec’s Casa de Cultura  (map here)  from Sept. 8-28, 2018.

Learn more about dozens of Lakeside authors and scores of their Amazon books Amazon here.

(Post by Antonio Ramblés.)

Tennessee Williams’ Mexico link

Tennesse Williams' mug shot '45 age 34
Tennessee Williams in 1945 at age 34

American playwright and poet Tennessee Williams visited Mexico on more than one occasion, but didn’t come to the Ribera until 1945, when he summered here as the guest of American poet Witter Bynner.  By then more than twenty years had passed since Bynner had first met and befriended D. H. Lawrence during the English writer’s 1923 Chapala stay.

During his Mexico sojourn, Williams continued work on the draft of a play to which he gave several successive working titles, the last of which was A Streetcar Named Desire.  The work won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948.

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Statue of John Huston, Isla Cuale, Puerto Vallarta

Mexico, though, clearly left a big impression on Williams.  In that same year, he adapted one of his short stories into the play Night of the Iguana, but more than a decade would pass until it was first performed in 1959.  It opened on Broadway to acclaim late in 1961, and was released as a motion picture in 1964 starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and  directed by John Huston.  (Today Huston’s statue sits on Vallarta’s  Isla Cuale, Liz and Dick’s former house is now a boutique hotel, and a local movie theater named after Tayler which once showed G-rated films shows only porn flicks!)

Williams considered the best setting in which to write as “a remote place among strangers, with good swimming.”  The Ribera de Chapala may no longer be remote, its burgeoning writers’ community makes night of the iguana posterstrangers increasingly few and far between, and the lake’s reputation as a swimming hole has been usurped by ubiquitous swimming pools, but anyone who doubts that this intimate corner of Mexico still has the power to inspire writers need only look for reassurance to its fourth generation of English language writers!

(Post by Antonio Ramblés.)