Saturday, November 25, 2017


Andy Warhol, the legendary Rusyn-American founder
of Pop Art, once famously said that everyone, in our
current age, gets (or is entitled to) 15 minutes of fame.

It doesn’t quite happen that way, but he was making a
valid point about the sudden and brief quality of much
celebrity in our own time.

I have a corollary to Warhol’s now-legendary prophecy.
It is that almost everyone (meaning lots of ordinary
persons) can and will have an extraordinary experience
at some time in their lives.

We all well know, from tabloids, films, daytime TV
and innumerable glossy magazines, how the “rich and
famous” live. The affluent homes of a great many
middle class Americans today are filled with lavish
furnishings, world-class kitchens, large spaces, fine art,
architectural amenities and numerous other features
unavailable to all but the very rich in the past. But they
are distinct from a category of multi-million dollar
over-sized dwellings with dozens of bedrooms, bathrooms,
swimming pools, tennis courts, assorted luxury
outbuildings, beaches and docks for private yachts.

I live modestly these days in a comfortable apartment.
I have no desire to live in some great house, but part of
this feeling comes from an experience I once had in my
youth while visiting Mexico.

I grew up in a small city, and in a middle class home. In
Erie, Pennsylvania, I spent the first dozen years of my life
in a three-story brick house built at the turn-of-the-century
and originally owned by my grandparents. It had a
coal-burning furnace in the basement that had been
converted to gas after World War II. The basement had a
laundry room and a windowless pickle cellar that was no
longer used. (I turned this room into a dark room.) The
laundry room had a washer and a dryer, as well as a mangle
(an old-fashioned device for pressing clothes). My brother,
a budding scientist, made a small laboratory/workshop for
himself near the furnace, and a no-longer-used coal bin was
used for family storage.

The other primary storage area in this house was the attic
which was very much like countless other attics in America
except that it had a small sleeping room where a live-in
maid stayed during the years before and just after World
War II.

The first floor had a small living room, a dining room,
a den, a pantry, a small powder room, and the kitchen.

The second floor originally had four small bedrooms, a
large bathroom and an enclosed porch. My grandmother,
who survived my grandfather by two decades, had the
porch converted into her own kitchen, and combined two
bedrooms into her separate living quarters.

By the time I was in high school, we had moved to a
comfortable suburban ranch-styled house with a small
attic, large basement, and all its rooms on one floor.

I mention this because these living quarters were very
typical of those of many Americans. I was used to modest
comfort and nice furnishings, but nothing really out of the

After my undergraduate years, I attended graduate school
in the midwest. I had originally planned to go to law school,
but had been convinced by a well-known writer who had
been a guest teacher at one of my English writing classes
to attend the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.

One of my first Iowa courses, in world literature, was taught
by the Chilean novelist Jose (“Pepe”) Donoso. Donoso had
moved to Iowa City with his wife Maria Pilar that semester
to teach at the Workshop. He had attended Princeton in his
youth before returning to Chile, and then traveling
throughout South America and Europe. He spoke English
flawlessly, and was a master storyteller and a charismatic

At the end of the school year, in May, he invited a few of his
students, including myself, to visit him and Maria Pilar at
their rented villa in Guanajuato, Mexico where he was
working on a new novel novel (it became his masterpiece
“The Obscene Bird of Night”).

As it turned out, only two of us who had been invited showed
up in Mexico. That was the year that Greyhound had a special
deal for traveling by bus --- $99  for 99 days anywhere in the
U.S. you wanted to go. So I decided to circumnavigate the U.S.
with a side trip to Mexico.

I arrived in Guanajuato (which translated means “City of
Frogs”) in June, and was warmly welcomed by the
Donosos at their lovely villa in Marfil, an elegant suburb of
the old Mexican colonial capital that was designed by an
expatriate Italian architect Giorgio Belloli. Belloli was
developing in Marfil a group of new villas over the ruins
of a 16th century Spanish hacienda. These villas, each
different, were quite magnificent with large rooms, superb
period furnishings, modern kitchens and bathrooms, and
fabulous gardens each with a swimming pool, hibiscus, palm
trees and other tropical flora.

The villa the Donosos had leased, they told me, was then
owned by the curator of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Other residents included Dirk Hubers, the famed Dutch
potter and his young son, the unmarried heiress of a
Canadian department store chain, a Mexican physician and
his wife, the Hollywood novelist/screenwriter Harry Brown
and his wife, and in the most spectacular villa of them all,
architect Giorgio Belloli and his retinue. For a  small U.S.
city kid like me, this was heady company and high living.
Maria Pilar was a fine cook, and her meals were splendid.
She taught me how to make her dazzling recipe for bananas
flambe, and both Dososos told me about their fascinating
childhoods and glamorous friends all over the world.

When not touring the environs of Guanajuato with Donoso, I
regularly visited the other residents in their villas. The heiress
invited me every Tuesday for afternoon tea and conversation
about art and poetry. Harry Brown, it turned out, had attended
Harvard just before World War II, and then gone to England
where he served in the army and became a protege of T.S.
Eliot. On returning to the U.S. after the war, he wrote the
novel “Island in the Sun” which became a best-seller, and
then he moved to Hollywood where he wrote novels and
screenplays, including “Oceans Eleven” for his pals Frank
Sinatra and the “Ratpack.” Now he lived in Marfil, and
drank a case of Carta Blanca every day in his large office
with bookshelves containing just about every contemporary
novel, play and book of poems. The first time I was there,
he suggested I browse through this library, and I soon
discovered that nearly every book, all first editions (and
including virtually every major writer of the past 30
years in the U.S. and Europe), contained inside a tyoed or
handwritten letter from the author to Harry!  (I am told that
after he died, this incredible library was thrown away!)
Dirk Hubers’ son Maarten was my age, so we spent time
together hanging out and visiting the neighboring towns.

One week, I went to Mexico City, armed with letters of
introduction from Donoso to some of the leading Mexican
writers. One of them was the legendary (and now deceased)
Juan Rulfo with whom I spent an incandescent  and
unforgettable evening in a bar near his apartment.

But the best experience was yet to come.

On returning from Mexico City, it became apparent that my
visit with the Donosos had gone on too long. I was young,
inexperienced, and having such a great time, that I did not
realize that I was overstaying my welcome. Finally, Pepe
took me aside, and told me directly it was time to resume my

The problem was that I was having such a good time that
I didn’t want to leave Guanajuato. Pepe then promised to
help me find a place to rent, but there were not any low rent
places available at that time in the summer. Perhaps in
desperation to get me out of his villa, Donoso went to one
of his local friends and finally found a place for me.

Actually, it wasn’t just any friend or any “place.” It was
a palace of the fabled Conde de Rul, the 18th century
Spanish nobleman (when Guanajuato was the national
capital), and, as well, one of the principal owners of the
silver and gold mines of Valenciana (a mountain located
next to the city). These mines for many decades produced
not only gold, but more than half the world’s entire
production of silver. For a time (this was before Bill Gates),
the Conde de Rul was one of richest men in the world. He
built two palatial houses in Guanajuato. One was in the city
(and now is a national tourist site that Pope Benedict recently
visited), and the other was on top of the mountain Valenciana
near the silver mines, and across the street from a spectacular
churrigueresco Baroque church (Iglesia San Cayetano) which
he also built. Tourists could not visit this house, which had
remained in private hands. In fact, the owner was Donoso’s
friend (and I believe, a descendant of the Conde de Rul) who
lived in the city, and had become one of Mexico’s greatest
collectors of antiques, He used the house/palace at
Valenciana, with its huge living room, formal dining room,
many bedrooms, mountainside gardens and terraces as one
repository for his great collection of rare paintings, furniture,
one of the finest private collections of early Mexican pottery,
and early European harpsichords.

This mansion came thus fully furnished, with a full-time
maid, cook and gardener. It was like living in a royal palace
with a royal retinue. The cook, a young and cheerful woman
of Aztec heritage, prepared three meals a day for me
with recipes from her great Aztec culinary legacy. Every
morning, seated at a table under an intense sun on a 30-foot
terrace, I was served a delicious breakfast of eggs, filet
mignon or Spanish ham, fresh-squeezed juice, aromatic
fresh tropical fruit, home-made pastries and imported tea.
At several thousand feet, my terrace/balcony overlooked the
whole terrain surrounding Guanajuato, with the mines to my
right. After breakfast, I would catch the hourly bus to the
city, and go to the market to buy the meat and produce
specified by the cook for the day’s later meals. (Prices were
ridiculously low. Even the filet mignon was about sixty
cents a pound. Bacardi Rum was less than a dollar a gallon.
Fresh fruits and vegetables went for pennies.)

The palace itself was built around a large courtyard filled
with banana trees and an ancient well. It had been
constructed in the 18th century on the side of the top of the
mountain. An all-glass shower room faced out into the
valley below. Below the terraces were cultivated gardens.
A small enclosed alley alongside the palace led to a tiny
grotto with fountains of sculpted lions, water pouring
from their mouths over elegant white lilies planted between
the old bricks underneath.

Each bedroom had an antique bed, some with canopies.
Tables, chairs, decorations and chests were all rare antiques.
I slept in a different bedroom every few days. On the walls
was a museum of old paintings.

Aside from the maid, the cook and the gardener, I thought
I was the only person in this palace, but I was wrong.

One late morning, back from the market in Guanajuato,
I returned to my bedroom to discover a tall man, with
a black patch over one eye, and wearing a cape, instructing
the gardener how to dismantle my bed.

I inquired in Spanish who he was,  and he replied,
“No, young man, the question is what are doing here!” It
turned out that my “visitor” was actually Manuel Parra,
one of Mexico’s greatest architects and a friend of the
owner of the villa (Donoso’s friend, and my landlord).

What I had not noticed when I moved into this sprawling
house was another building built adjoined to it, but hidden
from the street. This building was the working studio of
Sr. Parra, and it contained an elegant living room, his
large workroom, a bedroom, a kitchen and a terrace of
its own.

He invited me to dinner at his studio that evening, and
I learned that he had just arrived from his other villa in
Acapulco where he had for a week been entertaining
Jacqueline Kennedy and her two young children Caroline
and John Jr.  Sr. Parra also had a house in Mexico City, and
spent much of his winters in Monte Carlo and on the “jet
set” circuit.

My own huge living room did have a record player, but
the only record I could find was Mendelssohn’s “A
Midsummer’s Night’s Dream
” which I played frequently
at night while I tried to write poems in the room only
lit by candles in wrought iron candlesticks made from old
branding irons. A large oil painting dominated the living
room. It was, I later found out, by the Spanish master
Herrera. My landlord/collector had obtained it, I was told,
while shopping for antique furniture in the rural Mexican
countryside. After purchasing an antique chair, the seller
had given him a piece of old canvas to wrap it in, but when
he removed the canvas back at the palace, he discovered it
was a priceless Herrera!

I did meet some local students at the University of
Guanajuato, and occasionally invited them to the
palace for dinner. The first week I had  some daily
visitors at my door, all tourists from the hourly bus
that brought them from the city to see the mines and the
cathedral, and hoping to see “my” palace. The maid
sternly advised me not to admit anyone.

For about two months I lived in this splendor, not quite
fully believing what was happening, At the end of
August, I had to reluctantly return to the U.S. and the
rest of my trancontinental trip.

I have some slides  I took of the palace, but it is only
when I hear the Mendelssohn piece, that my Mexican
midsummer dream truly returns from my memory.

The palace, a friend who recently visited there tells me,
has now become partly a restaurant. That’s hard to imagine,
but apparently it’s so.  [Update; the restaurant has closed.]

Money could not buy that long ago summer’s
experience at any price today, nor could any residence,
however large and lavish, exceed those magic and halcyon
days and nights in the City of Frogs when I unexpectedly
was a mere young gringo poet who became transformed
briefly into a prince.

Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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