San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Earlier I wrote of having dinner with 84-year-old friend, Bob Fay, when he shared stories of friends he has come to know while spending the last sixteen winters in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I was mightily entertained, and he assured me that his retellings represented merely the tip of the iceberg. I told him, "I would love to meet these guys." By the next morning Bob wrangled an invitation from Howard and Bill, former Kansas Citians, now permanent residents in San Miguel, to stay in their home to listen and record some of their remarkable adventures.
Below is a snippet from the emerging story about their time with Sally Rand, the celebrated burlesque fan dancer from the 1930's:
Anna was an elderly black lady who oversaw the operations of Bill and Howard's 8,000 square foot Hyde Park (KC) mansion. They would explain, "Anna ran the household, she just let us live there." On the first morning of her stay, Howard was in the kitchen with Anna when Sally walked in totally nude. "Good morning. Got any coffee? Do you have any garlic salt?"
Anna handed her a cup of coffee and poured a dash of garlic salt in Sally's hand, and she disappeared. She was 70 at the time, but she had the body of a 30-year-old.
On the third day Howard encountered an irritable Anna in the kitchen. "What's the problem?"
"Mmm! Mmm! Mmm" she murmured, "We're sure seeing a lot more of Miss Rand than we want to. I have a feeling she is going to be here for some time." Sally followed the identical routine every morning for the next five years, much to the delight of the gardener who timed his coffee breaks accordingly. And after the prickly start, Anna and Sally developed a deep friendship becoming inseparable.
We arrived at Queretaro two hours behind schedule, but Howard was gracious and waited even though we were responsible for his being over an hour late for the fundraising luncheon he and Bill were hosting for 70.
We drove down a narrow, cobblestoned street surrounded by tall stone walls and entered the handsome gate leading to Howard and Bill's one-acre estate. We walked into a courtyard packed with well-dressed people. Howard made introductions and began working the crowd. Liveried waiters offered margarita’s and hors d'oeuvres.
We were seated at a table set up on the lawn and began the first of a five-course dinner. A 10-piece Mariachi band serenaded the crowd. Howard took me aside to comment on the piece being played, "Lost Child." One of the trumpets played a wailing lament from somewhere distant in the house. A second answered boldly from the gardens. This continued as the trumpeters moved about, finally coming together, all to the accompaniment of four violins and four guitars.
Bob introduced me to our dining companions, and several said, “Oh you’re, the Nude Nuns guy”, and they would recite a portion of the book. Bob told them I had come to write about Howard's stories, and I was quickly invited to Chicago to speak to a ladies' book club.
Their home is one part art gallery, two parts Architectural Digest gracious living, and three parts world-class botanical gardens, all enclosed in immaculate white adobe, tile-capped walls 9' high. There are over 100 different species of trees in the garden. A museum quality display of American Indian and pre-Columbian artifacts fills the entryway. The living room is long and narrow with art covering the interior wall. Even though my art appreciation capabilities are non-existent, I did note the presence of a Thomas Hart Benton. The exterior wall features a large fireplace bracketed by glass doors leading to a veranda and on to the gardens. Bill's jewelry studio occupies one corner of the hacienda with a separate entrance off the front courtyard. I was most impressed by the bronze-framed and beveled glass doors and windows. It was like looking through a chandelier.
We rested after lunch in preparation for a 6:30 dinner party. Our guests arrived, both attractive 50ish women, neither of whom knew the other. The first just moved to San Miguel from Palm Beach having just sold her orchid growing business. She knew all of the characters in the book, The Orchid Thief, and proclaimed that she, too, was an orchid thief. She told of a trip to the Peruvian Amazon basin searching for orchids. Her companion, the chief botanist for the St. Louis botanical garden, was arrested, but she escaped. The also spoke of a trip to Burma in search of exotic orchids. She is tall and slender and told of once losing to Chris Evert in a national level junior tennis tournament. She is an heiress of a family whose name you'd recognize, and she despises Chilangos, the nouveau-riche Mexicans who apparently treat everyone shabbily.
The second lady hailed from Toronto’s aristocracy and was uncommonly gracious. She seemed genuinely interested in my book and the stories that brought me to Howard and Bill’s. We learned that her godfather was Edward Brooke, the late senator from Massachusetts, and her cousin is Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I told them that I know the owner of the now defunct Prairie Village Standard station. At one point in the conversation, I mentioned ‘my wife’, and she seemed mildly disappointed saying, “Oh! I thought that you and Bob were partners.”
Howard kept us on a busy schedule throughout our seven-day stay attending cocktail parties, lengthy comidas (lunches), dinners, impromptu gatherings and house calls in and around San Miguel. We made side trips to nearby Queretaro and Celaya, traveling by car and bus. The premo bus from Queretaro to San Miguel offered luxurious accommodations, think first class on Lufthansa, for the modest sum of 115 pesos ($7 U.S.). My expectations upon arriving in central Mexico had sadly and erroneously been formed from exposure to border towns. Open eyes quickly dispelled these misconceptions. San Miguel and Queretaro are beautiful and prosperous cities.
Our visit was timed to coincide with the Dias de la Muertas festival. I'll readily concede that the Mexicans do a superior job of honoring their dead. On Sunday, November 1, deceased children are honored. We strolled past several blocks of street vendors en route to the cemetery. They offer everything needed to create shrines and decorate tombs for the dead. They also sell tasty treats, my favorite being long sugared donuts. The cemetery was packed wall-to-wall with celebrants. Men were scraping and repainting the white gravestones. Children played nearby, even sitting on the tombs. Artistic shrines were created from the petals of yellow magnolias, colored sand, and photos and personal items of the dead. Mondays are even more crowded when adults are honored.
The dominant architectural feature of San Miguel is the Parroquia, located in the center of a 64-square block section of town dating back to 1520. It towers over the Jardin (Garden), the largest of the town's plazas ringed with laurel trees manicured in the shape of giant drums. Seventeenth, and eighteenth century haciendas border the square. They were once the homes of the wealthy owners of the silver mines in nearby Guanajuato. Most, but not all, of the grand haciendas are repurposed as hotels, restaurants, museums, government buildings, and retail shops. They are typically two-story edifices built around a large courtyard. Entry is gained through a wooden or metal gate sufficiently large for carriages, and each stone threshold reveals the wear of centuries of carriage traffic. One can almost imagine the grand lifestyles enjoyed by their 17th century inhabitants.
San Miguel de Allende was recently designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Situated at 7,200 feet, it is known for its moderate temperatures, flowers blooming year round, steep cobblestone streets, and 16th and 17th century colonial architecture. There are no stop signs, stoplights, fast food restaurants, or evidence of use of motorcycle helmets. There is a large expat community estimated at 5,000 full time and another 5,000 seasonal residents. The restaurants, shops, parks, and plazas bustle with activity. A car is unnecessary. Most destinations are in easy walking distance, cabs are readily available, and first class inter-city buses are easy to navigate.
In the evenings, party-goers packed the Jardin and the surrounding areas. On Sunday morning we watched teams of artists build shrines around the square. The two adjacent cathedrals on the square held mass before a full house. At night people dress in black and paint their faces in varying interpretations of what the dead might resemble. This usually involves a white base with the mouth outlined in black and extended with stitches like the Frankenstein monster. Everyone was friendly and festive. Hank's New Orleans Oyster House and Bar, just off the Jardin, is one of the most popular bars in town, and they were showing the Royals / Mets game. Go Royals!
One evening Howard and Bill hosted a cocktail party for a dozen people, and everyone gravitated to the veranda. Abell, the butler, expertly served drinks and hors d'oeuvres, an interesting assortment of guests chatted, and all was convivial. Howard called for everyone's attention and said, "You may not realize it, but we have a famous author in our midst." I thought to myself, "Cool. Who?" Then he held up a copy of Nude Nuns and Other Peculiar People and continued, "It is customary that we have the author come forward and read the last page of his book. Chuck." I was caught unaware, but I was able to stumble through the story about the Nude Nuns in the hot tub, and I appreciated Howard's kind setup. He would repeat the stunt on two more occasions with different audiences.
We met Hugh Carpenter for dinner at The Restaurant . He is a friend of Howard and Bill's, a frequent visitor to San Miguel, a wine and food critic from Napa, CA, the author of several cook books, and a nice guy. After being introduced, he said, "Oh, so you're Howard's biographer?"
I noticed that his publisher was Andrews McMeel in Kansas City, and I shared the story of receiving a speedy rejection letter from that fine firm and being told, "We don't accept book submissions from people like you." He explained the fickleness of dealings with publishers, "I've had books that did well and sold over 200,000 copies, and I've had some that were bombs, barely selling 100,000. By the way, how many have you sold?" I mumbled into my hand with a barely audible, "closing in on 1,500."
Howard, 80, is the scion of a pioneer KC family, an art collector, former college administrator, the headmaster of a private school, a horseman still riding 2-3 hours daily, and a hands-on philanthropist. He is funny and uncommonly irreverent, and he gets away with it. He will say or do something outrageous, and the recipient will say something like, "Oh, Howard! You're such a pill." Anyone else would be clubbed to death like a baby seal. Bill, 72, is the son of a barber growing up in Mexico, MO (later creating confusion when in the process of becoming a Mexican citizen), a decorated combat Vietnam War veteran, a one-time escort to Imelda Marcos, and now a celebrated jewelry designer. He is also a calming influence on Howard.
Howard, Bill, Bob, and I shared three formal story-telling sessions, each lasting 3-5 hours. As Bob foretold, the Sally Rand tale, was but one layer of the onion. Once home, I wrote feverishly trying to get as much on paper as possible while still fresh and ended up with 33 pages of material. The Howard and Bill and Sally story is still a work in progress, but it will definitely find a prominent place in Book II.
I'm still chasing a few other stories, but my goal is to self-publish Book II in the next few months. I am confident that dozens await.
Being run ragged by an 80 and 84-year-old this past week has given me an entirely new perspective on aging. A few years ago, a 95-year-old acquaintance told me, "Chuck, if you've got anything that needs doing, best get it done before 80." I somehow let that self-limiting notion settle in my impressionable psyche. Time spent with Howard and Bob has proven to be the perfect antidote.
Quite a few sales trickled in during the trip to San Miguel. People who said, "I'll go online and buy your book," did. On a totally different note, Lucy and I had articles published in the November issue of 'Mission Hills Living Magazine.' I'm sure father / daughter articles have appeared before in a single publication, but it can't be that commonplace. Go Lucy! She is far the superior scrivener. I'm now gaining confidence that I might some day earn literally tens of dollars from this writing gig. I'm not exaggerating! At the very least, I'm meeting some interesting people.
And that is what passes for news from here.
p.s. If you have any interest in additional San Miguel tidbits, read on:
One of the many interesting people we met was Mary Calderoni, a strikingly pretty artist from a small town in Texas. She once earned her living whipping cigarettes from peoples' mouths, ala Lash LaRue. She offered to demonstrate, but I declined.
The highways to Queretaro and Celaya follow valleys bracketed by distant mountain ranges. The natural terrain features scrub trees, grasses, and cactus of varying kinds. There are large swaths of land reminiscent of U.S. corporate farms lying in stark contrast to smaller cornfields still harvested manually with hand-stacked cornstalks dotting the fields. Ancient stone fences border many of the properties, especially the vineyards. It's not England-like tidy, but I found the countryside to be surprisingly pleasing.
Queretaro is a large, modern city, 1.5 million, founded in 1530. It is growing rapidly, presumably as the spillover for commerce from the overwhelmingly large Mexico City, population 25-30 million. The dominant architectural feature is an aqueduct built in 1738 that still brings water from the nearby mountains to the central city. The parks and plaza are beautiful, clean, and busy. The cathedrals compare favorably to anything one might see in Italy.
The road system is not radically different from the U.S. with two-lane and four-lane highways. The two-lanes become four when the slower traffic moves onto the shoulder. This forms a 'sort of' passing lane in the middle. It was a bit disconcerting at first, but I eventually calmed down. One must die of something. The biggest surprise was the ubiquity of speed bumps. Hitting one of these treasures at 40 mph would launch a vehicle skyward and destroy every working part. Accordingly, people slow down, but then speed up quickly. It's not quite as terrifying as riding in a car in China, but it's close.
The roads in the colonial district of San Miguel are extremely narrow with room for one car only, having been designed for burros. There are wider streets that allow two small cars to pass, only if one stops, and the other inches past. It's absolutely amazing that cars retain their side view mirrors. The major thoroughfares are paved with flat stones, offering a smoother ride, and easily accommodate trucks, buses, and the heavy traffic for the city of 150,000.
Houses require neither heating nor cooling systems. Fireplaces are used infrequently in December and January.
While traveling back to Queretaro to catch our flight, we encountered two disheveled young guys standing in the middle of a busy, high-speed two-lane highway at the intersection of the KC Southern rail line. They held up signs saying, "Need money to get to U.S." Howard speculated that they were most likely from Central America and would soon be hopping a northbound train, assuming they don't first get squished by an 18-wheeler.