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Journal of the Southwest

Anloniela Bivas Mevcado KalIevine Anne Fovlev's Hovvov and Inspivalion


AulIov|s) BavIene HavIouv Unvue
Souvce JouvnaI oJ lIe SoulIvesl, VoI. 47, No. 4 |Winlev, 2005), pp. 615-635
FuIIisIed I Journal of the Southwest
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Antonieta Rivas Mercado: Katherine
Anne Porter's Horror and
Inspiration
Darlene Harbour Unrue
Maria Antonieta Rivas Mercado was born in a mansion in Mexico
City
on
April 21, 1900,
the second
daughter
of Matilde Cristina Castellanos
de Rivas
Mercado,
an
educated, loose-living beauty,
and Antonio Rivas
Mercado,
a
professor
at the San Carlos
Academy
and the
distinguished
architect who at the
request
of President Porfirio Diaz created the famous
El
Angel,
the monument to
independence,
on the Paseo de la Reforma.1
In her
early years
Antonieta was educated
by
tutors and
governesses
and
by
her
parents. By
the time she was four she could
play
classical
pieces
on
the
piano,
dance
well,
and read and write in both
Spanish
and French.
When she was ten
years old,
her mother left the
family
to live in Paris.
By
the time Cristina returned to Mexico in
1915,
Antonio refused to
let her move back into the
family
residence.
Antonieta,
who had not
seen her mother for five
years
and
already
felt
abandoned,
considered
the banishment
justified.
Between 1915 and 1917 Antonieta was her father's hostess for
social affairs and with his
indulgence
and
encouragement expanded
her
intellectual and artistic
pursuits. Intensely
interested in
philosophers
such as Rene Descartes and Friedrich Nietzsche and writers such as
Francois
Rabelais and Maxim
Gorky,
she flouted Catholic Church doc-
trine
by reading
whatever she wanted. She
began
to hold salons for
other like-minded Mexican intellectuals and aesthetes and scandalized
the more conventional
people
in the
city.
At an amateur
gala
at which
she danced and
sang,
she met and fell in love with Albert
Blair,
a
young
British-born,
American-bred
engineer
who had been educated at the
University
of
Michigan.
With Antonio's
grudging permission they
mar-
ried within the
year.2
Ten
years
older than
Antonieta,
the
stocky
blond Albert had
rigid
ideas about the
proper
role of a wife and none of Antonieta's intel-
Darlene Harbour Unrue is
distinguished professor
in the
Department
of
English, Unversity
of
Nevada,
Las
Vegas.
Journal of
the Southwest
47,
4
(Winter 2005)
: 615-635
616 *
Journal
of the Southwest
lectual or artistic interests. Of Scottish
descent,
he was
firmly Calvinist,
while she was Roman
Catholic,
even if
unorthodoxly
so. Blair had been
drawn into the Mexican Revolution
by
two of his
Michigan classmates,
sons of Francisco I.
Madero,
who overthrew Diaz in
1910,
whereas the
aristocratic Rivas Mercado
family
had benefited from the
patronage
of
Diaz and after his removal had suffered at the hands of brutal
peasant
revolutionaries. At the time of her
marriage
Antonieta had little reason
to feel
sympathetic
to the revolution.
The Blairs moved back and forth between Albert's
primitive
ranch in
the state of
Durango
and an
apartment
in the Rivas Mercado mansion
and
immediately
confronted the difficulties in a
marriage
of discordant
personalities, symbolized
in
simple
terms
by
Antonieta's
preference
for
the
invigorating society
of Mexico
City
and Albert's fondness for the
isolation of the
ranch,
to which he forbade Antonieta to
bring
her books.
Antonieta was miserable without the stimulation of
reading,
and the sum-
mer after their
son,
Donald Antonio
(Tofiito),
was born on
September
9, 1919,
she fled with him to her father's home in Mexico
City,
never
to live with Albert
again.
The Madero Revolution that unseated Diaz and in which Albert
Blair
fought
initiated two decades of
upheaval
and devastation. Elected
president
in
1911,
Madero was ousted and killed in
1913,
a victim of
power struggles among
factions led
by
Pancho
Villa,
Emiliano
Zapata,
and others. In the chaos of civil war Victoriano Huerta claimed the
presidency
in
1913-1914,
and Venustiano
Carranza,
after
ruling
the
country provisionally
for two
years,
was elected
president
in 1917. Car-
ranza, however,
was assassinated in
May 1920,
and in
September
Alvaro
Obregon
was elected to
replace
him.3 As
preparations
for the December
inauguration
were in
progress, Antonieta,
still
wary
of
revolutionary
regimes, stayed
out of the
political
arena and resumed her
literary
salons
and her former social life.
A month before the
inauguration,
Katherine Anne Porter arrived in
Mexico
City.
She was
thirty years old,
three times married and
divorced,
childless, rootless, trying
to
support
herself with freelance
writing.4
While
living
in Greenwich
Village
in 1919-1920 she had become
acquainted
with Mexican artists and musicians who in the summer of
1920
encouraged
her to
go
to
Mexico, where, they
told
her, exciting
changes
were
going
to be instituted
by
a
newly
elected
revolutionary
president. Intrigued,
she collected
assignments
from several
magazines
and set out on the adventure.5
Antonieta Rivas Mercado * 617
Katherine Anne Porter was born in a small
log
house on
May 15,
1890,
in the frontier
community
of Indian
Creek,
Texas. Christened Cal-
lie Russell
Porter,
she was the fourth child of Harrison Boone Porter and
(Mary)
Alice
Jones Porter,
a
genteel,
handsome
couple,
well educated
for their time and
place,
who made their
living by farming
a
piece
of land
owned
by
Alice's father. The Porters' third
child,
a
son,
had died
shortly
before Callie's
birth,
and less than two
years
later Alice Porter herself
died after the birth of her fifth
child,
another
daughter.
Harrison then
took his four
surviving
children to
Hays County, Texas,
to live with his
domineering
widowed
mother,
Catharine Ann
Skaggs
Porter.6
From 1892 to 1901 Callie lived in the secure dominion of her aristo-
cratic,
iron-willed
grandmother,
who tried to instill her version of Cum-
berland
Presbyterianism
in her
grandchildren
while
entertaining
them
with romantic tales about her affluent
family
in antebellum
Kentucky
and
Virginia
and
grim
stories about the hard times in Texas
during
the Civil
War and Reconstruction.7 When his mother died in
1901, Harrison,
who
had no
plan
for
making
a
living,
set forth with his children on a
sequence
of
long
visits with relatives and short
stays
in rented houses while he
picked up
odd
jobs
as
teacher, salesman,
and farm laborer.
Harrison,
who valued
education, placed
his children in school whenever
possible,
however
briefly,
and in 1904
scraped together enough money
to send
his son to a
military
school and his
daughters
to he Thomas
School,
a
well-regarded private
Methodist educational institution in San Anto-
nio.8
Although
Callie's
single year
there was the
only
sustained formal
education she would
have,
she had been an avid reader from an
early
age,
and
by
the time she left the Thomas School she was
widely
read
in
Dostoevsky, Turgenev,
St.
Augustine, Shakespeare, Dante, Voltaire,
Chaucer,
the
Brontes,
and other "older" writers.
During
that
year
she
also
developed
her musical and dramatic talents and
began
to call herself
"Katherine Porter." Soon she was
giving
her name as "Katherine Anne
Porter," aligning
herself with her indomitable
grandmother.
In 1906
sixteen-year-old
Katherine Anne Porter married nineteen-
year-old
John Henry Koontz,
the son of a
prosperous
Texas rancher.9
Inexperienced,
she married with romantic illusions and the
comforting
expectation
that she would have economic
security
in the Koontz
family.
Her illusions and
expectation
were soon shattered. Her
husband,
who
held
jobs
first as a
stenographer
with a
railway
and then as a salesman
with a cotton
manufacturing company, proved
to be
parsimonious
and
physically
abusive. For
eight years
Porter endured his drunken
attacks,
618 *
Journal
of the Southwest
during
which he threw her down stairs and beat
her,
once with a hair-
brush until she lost consciousness. She feared for her
life,
but it took
her a
year
to stash
away enough money
to flee to
Chicago,
where she
worked
briefly
as an extra in the movies before
returning
to Texas and
divorcing
Koontz in 1915.
10
During
the nine
years
of her
marriage
she
converted to the Roman Catholicism of the Koontz
family
and contin-
ued her
apprentice writing
and
self-education, reading
five or six books
a week and
discovering
the "moderns"
-
notably Virginia Woolf,
Ezra
Pound,
Gertrude
Stein,
and
James
Joyce.11
Between 1915 and 1919 Porter contended with
poverty,
tubercu-
losis
(in 1915-1917),
the failures of her second and third
marriages,
and a near-fatal bout of influenza in the
epidemic
of 1918. Her arrival
in Greenwich
Village
in the fall of 1919 followed a
year
of
journalistic
writing
for the
Rocky
Mountain News in
Denver, Colorado, during
which
she formulated an aesthetic
theory
and
sharpened
her
writing
skills.12
In 1920 Katherine Anne Porter and Antonieta Rivas Mercado
(she
informally
had
dropped
her husband's
name) despite many
economic
differences in their birth and
upbringing
had
significant
common
experi-
ences. Both had been abandoned in one
way
or another
by
their mothers
and had been reared
by literate,
liberal-minded fathers. Both had failed
at
marriage
but were intellectual and multitalented.
Both, too,
were
well-read, independent
women who
interpreted
Roman Catholicism
liberally
and created scandal
by flouting marriage
customs in their
respec-
tive countries.
Antonieta,
whose Rivas Mercado nose was
sharp,
was not
considered
beautiful, but,
tall and
slender,
she had a
style
and an
elegance
that dazzled as
readily
as Katherine Anne's
beauty
and charm.
In 1920 and
1921,
the two women nevertheless walked
parallel paths
in Mexico
City,
where Katherine
Anne,
unlike
Antonieta,
was
instantly
caught up
in the headiness and idealism of the social revolution. As she
wrote her
family
the last
day
of
1920,
There are
[a]
thousand delicious
things
to tell
you,.
How one
goes
to a
party
at
Chapultepec
Castle one afternoon and drinks tea and
champagne
with the President
-
a former
marauding
General and
in no time at all attends the
Lottery
ticket sellers ball in
company
with the
greatest
Labor leader in Mexico
-
and
many
others
-
and
dances until two o'clock with one
eyed men,
and marvelous car-
bon colored Indians in scarlet
blankets,
who dance
divinely
-
and
one
staggers
home in the
gray
of the
morning
with vine leaves and
confetti in one's hair. And
goes
that afternoon to a bull
fight."13
Antonieta Rivets Mercado * 619
As an
expatriate
activist she
joined
the Mexican women's movement as
the
seventy-ninth
member of
Consejo
Feminista de Mexico
(The
Women's
Council),
was
occasionally
a courier for Labor
Secretary
Luis Morones
(her
escort at the
inauguration ball), developed
a
philosophical
aversion
to Roman
Catholicism,
and became an
outspoken sympathizer
with the
Indian
peons.14
Despite
Porter's
revolutionary
activities and the
high- government
social life she described to her
family,
she had been in Mexico
only
a
few weeks before she
began
to have doubts about the revolution's
likely
success. An astute
observer,
she saw cross
-purposes
in the aims and
personalities
of the revolutionaries. Two
essays
she wrote
during
1920
and
1921,
"Where Presidents Have No
Friends,"
a
survey
of ambition
and
betrayal among
Mexican
leaders,
and "The Mexican
Trinity,"
an
analysis
of the
complex political relationship among
the Catholic
Church,
rich hacienda
owners,
and
foreign (especially U.S.)
oil
interests,
reveal
her reservations and the reasons for them. She returned to the United
States in the late summer of
1921,
disillusioned with Mexican
politics
but still
sympathetic
to Mexican women and Indian
peons
and
friendly
with
scientists,
such as the
anthropologist
Manuel
Gamio,
and
artists,
such as Adolfo Best
Maugard,
in the intellectual and
imaginative wing
of the revolution.15
Porter made her second
trip
to Mexico in the
spring
of 1922 at the
request
of President
Obregon
himself,
who asked her to
organize
an
exhibit of Mexican
popular
art for
transport
to the United States and to
write a
pamphlet
to
accompany
it.16 It was
during
this visit that she no
doubt met Antonieta Rivas
Mercado, probably
at the studio of
Diego
Rivera,
who had been one of Antonieta's father's students at the San
Carlos
Academy
and had become Antonieta's friend.
Diego
fascinated Katherine Anne as "one of the
great
artists of the
world"17 and as the model for characters in stories she was
writing.18
She was
among
those women who went to admire the master at work
and mixed
paint
for him
(in
some instances a
euphemism
for
sleeping
with
him),
and she
routinely joined
him and his
model,
later to be his
wife, Lupe
Marin,
at
popular
Mexico
City
cafes such as Los Monotes.
Antonieta, too, joined Diego
and
Lupe
at those
cafes,
and like Kather-
ine
Anne, through
him became friends with other
painters
such as
Jean
Chariot,
Pablo
O'Higgins, Miguel
Covarrubias,
Gerardo Murillo
(Dr.
Atl),
and Carlos Merida and with
expatriates
such as Americans Carleton
Beals and Frances
(Paca)
Toor and the Chilean
poet
Gabriela Mistral.19
620 *
Journal
of the Southwest
There is no
possibility
that Katherine Anne Porter and Antonieta Rivas
Mercado did not know each other well.
They
traveled in the same set.
In 1922 Antonieta's social conscience took
fire,
as had Katherine
Anne's two
years earlier,
and like Katherine
Anne,
she became as
pas-
sionate about women's
rights
as she was about literature and
philosophy,
joining
the Women's Council that Katherine Anne had
joined
in the late
fall of 1920. Antonieta
wrote,
I think it's
generally accepted,
that women are
"good"
and men
are scoundrels. I believe that
"goodness"
is
really passivity.
The
Mexican woman allows herself to be used as a floorboard for
masculine license
-
because
basically
she's afraid of men. Look at
it from her
perspective.
She's trained to be submissive from the
moment she's born. Submissive to her
father,
submissive to her
brothers and all the males around her. As
wives,
Mexican women
tolerate and suffer. As
mothers, they
suffer and tolerate. I'm con-
vinced that
only through
education will the Mexican woman be
exorcised of that
passivity
which has chained her for
generations
and
generations.20
This was
essentially
the same
position
Katherine Anne had set forth in
her 1921
essay
"In a Mexican Patio."
When Katherine Anne returned to Mexico in 1923 for her third
visit in three
years,
this time to edit a Mexico number for the
magazine
Survey Graphic,
Antonieta
already
had
gone
to
Europe
with her father
and son.
Although
the two women did not see each other
during
this
visit,
Katherine Anne had a chance to become
acquainted
with more
persons
who
were,
or later would
be, part
of Antonieta's
group, including
Americans Alma
Reed,
an
authority
on
Mexico,21
and lone
Robinson,
a
young painter
who had come to Mexico to
study
with
Diego,22
and
the Italian American
photographer
Tina Modotti.23
In Paris and Madrid between 1923 and
1926,
Antonieta increased
her intellectual and
literary knowledge,
had her first
affair, published
feminist
articles,
and continued futile efforts to divorce Albert Blair.
When she returned to Mexico in 1926 she revived her
literary
salons and
her association with
Diego
and became intimate friends with Manuel
Rodriguez Lozano,
an
eccentric,
bisexual artist whom Katherine Anne
also knew and admired.24
Kathryn
Blair described Antonieta in 1928
with
images
similar to those that had swirled around Katherine Anne
eight years
earlier: "Life took on a new
hue,
a new accelerated
pace.
Antonieta Rivas Mercado * 621
Antonieta moved from her crowded salons to
popular
cafes to Manuel's
studio to the sawdust-covered floors of dance
halls,
a life that moved to
the sensuous
rhythm
of rumbas and
tangos, fast-stepping
danzonesznd
the
paso
doble. She became a devotee of the
bullfight
and mixed with
threadbare intellectuals and women with florid vocabularies."25
In 1928 Antonieta also became
part
of a
group
called Contem-
poraneos.
Advocates for
progressive
ideas and
avant-garde art, they
favored
Eugene O'Neill,
Paul
Valery,
T. S.
Eliot, James
Joyce,
and Andre
Gide26
-
writers Katherine Anne had discovered in the last
years
of her
marriage
to Koontz and
during
her first Greenwich
Village
months.
Antonieta had
family money, especially
after the death of her father in
1927,
and she used some of it to found El Teatro
Ulises,
an
experimental
theater;
to establish with Carlos
Chavez,
a friend of Katherine
Anne's,
a
national
symphony;
and to
open
El
Pirato,
a dance
hall,
on the
premises
of the convent of San
Jeronimo,
once the home of the seventeenth-cen-
tury nun, mystic, intellectual,
feminist
poet
Sor
Juana
Inez de la
Cruz,
whom both Antonieta and Katherine Anne
lavishly
admired and whose
sonnet Katherine Anne translated and
published
in 1924.27
Antonieta was drawn further into the
revolutionary government
when she was
recognized by
Moises
Saenz,
an
undersecretary
in the
Department
of Education and another friend of Katherine
Anne's,
as
an
extraordinary
woman of ideas and
given space
in the
conservatory
at San Carlos to work on
projects
that included
introducing poetry,
dance,
and theater in the
public
schools.28 She was closer than ever to
Diego,
who was
deeply
involved in the Mexican Communist
Party.
As
Kathryn
Blair
wrote,
the
sight
of the two of them
driving
down Paseo
de la Reforma in Antonieta's Cadillac
convertible,
a black fur
laprobe
over their
legs
and
Diego leaning
on his
painted
wooden
cane,
invited
gossip.
A tabloid writer
asked,
"What do the chairman of the Russian
Anti-Imperialist League
and 'the Muse of the
Contemporaries'
have in
common? Could it be romance?"29 It was similar to a
question
that had
once been asked about Katherine Anne and
Diego.30
Throughout
the 1920s Porter was
thinking
about Mexico whether
she was there or not. Considered an
expert
on
Mexico,
she was often
asked to review books on
Mexico,
and she
published essays
and stories
inspired by
what she called her "second
country."31 By
1922 she also
was
working
on a novel she
tentatively
called "The Book of
Mexico,"
an
episodic
work
loosely
held
together by
common
setting
and themes and
incorporating
events and characters drawn from the
Madero-to-Obregon
622 *
Journal
of the Southwest
phase
of the revolution. But the flush of idealism that stimulated her in
her first weeks in Mexico in 1920 was
long gone
and nowhere
apparent
in her notes for the novel.
By
the mid- 1920s she concluded that Luis
Morones had caved in to self-interest and "done
badly."32
Plutarco Elias
Calles, Obregon's
minister of
gobernacion,
whom she had admired for
his anticlericalism in
1920,
she considered not
only
a
corrupt politician
but
also,
as she was to
say later,
"a
quite dangerous thug."33 Perhaps
the most
interesting change
was her revised
opinion
of
Jose Vasconcelos,
an intellectual
idealist, president
of the national
university,
and minister
of education in
Obregon's cabinet,
who had hired her in 1921 to teach
dancing
in one of the secular
girls'
schools he had established. In the
early
months of 1927
reviewing
a book coauthored
by
him and Manuel
Gamio,
Porter
wrote,
"Mr. Vasconcelos . . .
professes faith,
more
espe-
cially
in the Mexican
Indian,
and
rejects
alien
paternalism,
but
preaches
a vast
religious
native
paternalism fully
as
debilitating
to his
people.
Mr.
Vasconcelos has an
incurable,
almost romantic faith in the
perfectability
of human nature.34 This was severe criticism from one who had
tried,
and
failed,
to sustain a similar romantic faith in the revolution.
By
1928 Porter's
early pessimistic
view of Mexican
politics
seemed to
her to have been confirmed.
Many
of the revolutionaries she had known
in 1920 and
1921,
such as
Felipe
Carrillo
Puerto,
the socialist leader
and
governor
of
Yucatan,
had been arrested and shot
by firing squads
or had
mysteriously disappeared.
There were so
many attempted coups
of
Obregon
that it was
surprising
he finished his first term in 1924.
According
to the Mexican
constitution, presidents
could not succeed
themselves,
and
Obregon
was followed
by
Calles. In 1928
Obregon
was
elected
president again,
but before he could assume office he was assas-
sinated,
and Calles
appointed
Emilio Portes Gil interim
president.
Early
in 1929 Vasconcelos announced that he was
running
for
presi-
dent. Antonieta met him on Palm
Sunday and, enraptured
with both
him and his
political agenda
-
which included
suffrage
for Mexican
women
-
she
joined
his
campaign. Soon, despite
the fact that he was
married and a
father, they
became lovers.35
In the
early
fall of 1929 Antonieta went to New York to
gather sup-
port
and
money
for Vasconcelos. Katherine Anne was in New York at
the time
too,
and
they surely
saw one another at
bawdy
cabarets and
Harlem
nightclubs
and in the circle of Mexican and
Spanish
artists and
musicians in which
they
both moved.
They
would have socialized with
painters
Rufino
Tamayo (with
whom Katherine Anne had once had a
Antonieta Rivas Mercado < 623
romantic
entanglement)
and Clemente Orozco and also with Gabriela
Mistral,
who was
teaching
at Columbia
University.
Katherine
Anne,
in
fact,
had
begun drafting
a
long essay comparing
Sor
Juana
and
Mistral,
two artistic women
who,
like her and
Antonieta,
had been forced to
choose between the
physical ("ardor
for human
love,
for
maternity,
for
the
earth,
the world of the
senses")
and the intellectual
("the
world of
ideas").36
Both Katherine Anne and Antonieta would have avoided like
the
plague
Alma
Reed,
who was also in the
city
and whom Katherine
Anne had come to dislike for her
exploitation
of the death of her
fiance,
Felipe
Carrillo
Puerto, briefly
Katherine Anne's lover in
1920-1921,
and who had offended Antonieta
by accusing
her of
promoting
a
false,
romantic view of Mexico in her
attempt
to advance Vasconcelos.
Despite
the efforts of Antonieta and
many others,
in December Vas-
concelos was declared the loser in a fraudulent election that
placed
Calles's
puppet,
Ortiz
Rubio,
in the
presidency.37
A
distraught
Anto-
nieta,
whose
family money
was
running out,
suffered a nervous break-
down that
required hospitalization.
When she felt able to
travel,
she took
a train to California to meet
Vasconcelos,
who had fled Mexico in fear
of his life. After a few
weeks,
she
secretly
entered
Mexico,
collected her
son,
and took him to France. The
plan
was for Vasconcelos to
join
her
there as soon as
possible.
Porter had
temporarily
turned
away
from her Mexican materials after
she
began
to mine her childhood
memories, personal experiences,
and
ancestral
history
for her fiction. In
1929, however,
she returned to the
Mexican material and finished
"Flowering Judas," originally imagined
as
a
segment
of "The Book of Mexico." The
story
was
accepted by
Hound
&Horn for its
Spring
1930 issue.
Shortly afterward,
Porter met with
editors at
Harcourt,
Brace to discuss both a limited edition of a collection
of her
stories,
to be called
Flowering Judas,
and her Mexican
novel,
which
she had re-envisioned and whose title she had
changed
to "Thieves Mar-
ket,"
a reference to Mexico
City's
historic, bustling
wholesale
market,
El Mercado del Volador. The result was that in March 1930
Harcourt,
Brace offered her two
contracts,
one for the
completed story
collection
and one for the novel in
progress.
With advances on both
books,
Porter
went back to Mexico to
complete
the novel.
Porter should have been
feeling good,
even ebullient. But she wasn't.
Her low state of mind was tied to her
approaching
fortieth
birthday
on
May
15 and her
feelings
of failure.
Wanting
to think of herself as an
artist,
she had neither made her mark on American literature nor succeeded in
624 *
Journal
of the Southwest
supporting
herself with
earnings
from her
writing.
In the other
way
that
seriously
mattered to
her,
she had failed at both
marriage
and mother-
hood,
feminine ideals handed down from her
paternal grandmother
and
achievements she ascribed to her dead mother.
Once settled in
Mexico, Porter, deeply depressed,
was unable to make
progress
on "Thieves Market." She countered her writer's block with
frenetic
socializing
and a romantic
relationship
with
Eugene Pressly,
a
young
American
diplomat
whom she would
marry
in 1933. But noth-
ing
lifted the darkness that
enveloped her,
not even the
publication
of
Flowering Judas
in
September
to
glowing
reviews that established her
reputation
in the
upper
echelon of American letters.38
Correspondence
with friends and
family
in the United States disclosed her
gloom
and
cynicism
-
beginning
with her
estrangement
from her
family.
"I am
the
only person
I
know,"
she wrote her sister
Gay,
"who has been so
far as human relations
go,
without a
family.
... I know well ... if I
had
depended
on the love of
any
of
you
I should be
good
and dead
by
now."39 She lamented the commercialization of Mexico and lambasted
persons
who had once been her friends
-
Adolfo Best
Maugard,
Carleton
Beals,
Paca
Toor,
Moises
Saenz,
and
especially Diego,
who had
severely
disappointed
her
by accepting
a
$22,000
commission from the American
Ambassador
Dwight
Morrow to decorate
("to spoil,"
she
said)
Cortez's
palace
in Cuernavaca.40
Porter remained
melancholy
and her
writing
moribund as 1930 ended
and 1931
began.
In
January
she wrote Allen
Tate,
"God knows I cannot
get
a
paragraph
to
please
me these
days.
. . .I'm terrified . . . and have
a
recurring
dream of Time as a
thing past,
done
forever,
I stand in a
world in which
nothing
has
changed apparently,
but
nothing
more can
come to
pass
because there is no more Time. And this dream has more
horror than
any
ferocious
nightmare
filled with
monsters,
such as we
have in childhood."41 Katherine
Anne,
in
fact,
had
fought
some
degree
of
depression
most of her
life,
as had
Antonieta,
who at the
age
of fif-
teen described her own recurrent
nightmare:
"I am
crawling
toward a
pit
where wild beasts are
kept.
Their roar is
deafening
as I come
closer,
unable to
conquer my
fear or
stop my
advance. . . . What drives me
toward the
pit?
Is it because
my
stomach is
empty?
William
James
says
that we are the architects of our own
fate,
but how can I build on this
emptiness
which sucks me down?"42
Several weeks after Porter's letter to
Tate,
her life and art
changed.
On
February
12 Antonieta Rivas Mercado dressed herself
elegantly
in a
Antonieta Rivas Mercado * 625
black dress and
stylish
veiled
hat,
stole a
gun,
and went to the Cathedral
of Notre Dame de Paris. At the
altar, kneeling
before the
image
of the
crucified
Christ,
she shot herself
through
the heart.43
All of Mexico
City
soon heard details of the suicide: Antonieta had
settled in Bordeaux with Toiiito to wait for Vasconcelos to
join
her.
Making plans
for
collaborating
with him on a
political magazine,
she
lived
frugally
with her
young
son in a cold
boarding house, working
on
a novel and
studying
Latin.
Finally,
after six
long months,
she received
word from Vasconcelos that he was in
Paris,
and she left Toiiito with
her
landlady
in Bordeaux while she went to meet her lover in a left-bank
hotel. She saw a
changed
and broken
Vasconcelos,
however.
Although
he
told Antonieta that he loved
her,
he also told her that his wife and one of
his sons were to
join
him in Paris in a few weeks.
Already
in
despair
over
the loss of her fortune and over the Mexican courts' refusal to
grant
her
a divorce from Albert
Blair,
Antonieta had received a
final, devastating
blow.44 It was Vasconcelos's own
gun
she stole from a dresser when his
back was turned.
In Paris and Mexico
City
there was considerable
speculation
on Anto-
nieta's motives and state of mind. Was her suicide in Notre Dame an
act committed in the most
blasphemous way
she could
imagine
and a
denunciation of the church? Was it to ensure the damnation of her soul?
Or was
it,
as
many
chose to
believe,
a last act carried out in the most
sacred
place
she could find and an
abject plea
for
forgiveness?
But what
about
abandoning
her son in Bordeaux?
Many people
asked how she
could have done that. Arturo
Pani,
the Mexican consul in
Paris,
broke
the news to Vasconcelos and Toiiito and
negotiated
the child's return
to Mexico and his father.45
Katherine
Anne,
who because of her own battle with
depression always
reacted
strongly
to mental breakdowns or suicides of
people
she
knew,
must have been
thoroughly
shaken at the news of Antonieta's death. She
would have seen Antonieta's suicide as the result of what she described
the summer before as "a horrible distress of mind"46 that had
gone
to
its final extreme. She and Antonieta had suffered in so
many
similar
ways:
like
Antonieta,
Katherine Anne had herself "abandoned" a
child,
hers
through
an abortion she had had in Mexico in
1921,
and
also,
like
Antonieta,
she had had
many betraying lovers, including
her three
husbands, who,
like Antonieta's Albert Blair and
Jose Vasconcelos,
had
fallen far short of her illusions and
expectations.
Ten and eleven
years
ago
she was
romantic,
idealistic Antonieta's
age
and in love first with the
626 *
Journal
of the Southwest
revolutionary Felipe
Carrillo Puerto and then with the
Nicaraguan poet
Salomon de la
Selva,
who had fathered the child she aborted. Katherine
Anne knew that
despite
the
rationality
she
clung
to
-
and that infused
her art
-
there was an
aspect
to her nature that was as
incurably
naive
as Antonieta's.
It was doubtless Katherine Anne's eerie identification with Antonieta
that sobered her and
yanked
her back from the brink of
despair
on which
she had been
hovering
for
nearly
a
year.
The artist in
her, however,
had
to see the beautiful
possibilities
in the
drama,
and she
reported
sud-
denly having
"the
leading
thread" of "Thieves
Market,"
which
only
the month before had been
"plotless,"
with
"everything happening
at
once" and "all the characters immobilized in their
entanglement
with
one another."47 She declared to friends on the third week of
February,
"After all the
hell-raising you
can
imagine, my
book is
really going.
But
going!
I must have written one hundred thousand million
words,
and
the
manuscript
was
piling up
around
me,
and
yet
somehow I COULD
NOT
get
the
hang
of the
thing.
That's
past,
and the
thing
has a
shape.
Let me announce the new title and the new
plan."48
She was
calling
it
"Historical
Present,"
and it had two
parts,
a Book of Men and a Book
of Women. Like the earlier "Book of Mexico" and "Thieves
Market,"
it was to be set in Mexico between 1910 and 1931. The first
part
was
to be the stories of seven
men,
and the second
part,
the stories of seven
women. Models for six of the men were
Felipe
Carrillo
Puerto,
Luis
Morones, Jerome
Retinger (an
intellectual Polish
expatriate
and another
of Katherine Anne's lovers in
1921), Diego Rivera,
David
Siqueiros (an
artist who was
Diego's
Communist associate and well
acquainted
with
Antonieta),
and Moises Saenz. The seventh male character was
"Juan
Fulano de
Tal,"
whose surname translates as
"Anybody."
Models for
six of the women were Alma
Reed, Mary Doherty (Katherine
Anne's
close friend who worked for Saenz with
Antonieta), Lupe Marin,
Tina
Modotti,
lone
Robinson,
and Antonieta. The seventh female character
was
"Juana,"
a
representative
Indian maid. All the women
except
the fic-
tional version of Alma Reed were to be
presented
as
independent
women
who were innocent victims of
imperfect
men.
Antonieta,
whose fictional
character was to be called
"Antonia,"
was the center of the circle.
Porter told Malcolm
Cowley
near the end of
February
that to save her
life she didn't know how or
why
"the main
problems"
with her stalled
novel "cleared themselves
up
between four and five o'clock one after-
noon a few weeks
ago"
-
a
loosely designated
time that coincided with
Antonieta Rivas Mercado < 627
news of the death of Antonieta. "It was like the
breaking
of a
dam,"
she
wrote. "I have been in better health ever since and have
energy enough
for
everything."49
The
depression
was
broken,
it is
true,
but other events interfered with
the
progress
on the novel.
Only
a few weeks later Porter learned that
she had been awarded a
Guggenheim Fellowship
that would enable her
to
go
to
Europe
for at least a
year.
She told herself that she would finish
the novel in
Europe,
and she
spent
the
remaining
five months in Mexico
surrounding
herself with visitors and
creating
diversions.
The novel was never
completed
in the form she described to friends
at the end of
February.
But the novel's
"leading thread," inspired by
the life and death of Antonieta Rivas
Mercado,
remained intact and
reappeared
from the 1930s
through
1962 in
stories,
short
novels,
and
Ship of Fools,
her
only long
novel.50 "The Cracked
Looking-Glass,"
published
in
1932,
is the
story
of a once
-beautiful, no-longer-young,
romantic Irish woman who
clings
to dreams and illusions to
compensate
for the ordeals of her
marriage
to an
ailing, practical-minded,
older man.
It was a conflict Porter reversed in "A
Day's
Work"
(1940),
in which it
is the husband who is a feckless
dreamer,
and "That Tree"
(1934),
the
story
of a ruined
marriage
between an idealistic
poet
and a
puritanical
wife whose drama is
played
out in Mexico in the
declining stage
of the
failed
revolution,
a mirror reflection of the
marriage
of Antonieta and
Albert Blair as well as a direct
representation
of that of Carleton and
Lillian
Beals,
a
couple
both Katherine Anne and Antonieta considered
friends. Hacienda
(1934),
the
long,
fictional version of an article Porter
published
in
1932,
is the account of an unnamed narrator's visit to a
pulque
hacienda to watch a Russian moviemaker film scenes for a motion
picture
intended to show the success of the revolution. It is
ironically
apparent,
however,
that the initial idealistic aims of the revolution have
been overcome
by
the
grim
realities of its
failure,
lessons Porter and
Antonieta
experienced.51
The themes of disillusionment and failed idealism dominate Porter's
short novel Old
Mortality (1938),
the
story
of Miranda
Gay,
Porter's
most
autobiographical
character,
who with her older
sister, Maria,
con-
fronts the falseness of the romantic
legend surrounding
their
beautiful,
dead Aunt
Amy,
their father's favorite
sister,
and her
handsome,
mel-
ancholy
suitor and short-time
husband,
Gabriel. Porter also treats the
themes in The
Leaning
Tower
(
1941
),
a
story
written in the
early phrase
of World War II and based on her and
Pressly's stay
in Berlin in the
628 *
Journal
of the Southwest
fall and
early
winter of 1931. The
quixotic
ideal here is not love but a
romanticized
Germany
described
by Kuno,
the German American child-
hood friend of the
protagonist,
Charles
Upton,
who arrives in Berlin
expecting
to find the realization of
idyllic picture postcards
Kuno had
sent at the turn of the
century
and discovers instead
poverty, hopeless-
ness, greed,
and
desperation.
The idealization of
places
was
something
Porter understood well.
Although,
unlike
Antonieta,
she
relinquished
her
early
idealized view of Mexico as a
country,
all her life she
clung
to
a
Utopian
view of the
village
of
Amecameca, vowing repeatedly
to return
and live her life out there.
Ship of Fools,
Porter's
only long novel,
is her most elaborate and
sophisticated exploration
of the hollowness of romantic idealism. In
the mid- 1930s she conceived the
novel,
based on the
voyage
she and
Pressly
made from Mexico to
Germany
in
August
and
September
of
1931,
and she worked on it
sporadically
for
nearly thirty years
until it was
published
in 1962. An
episodic satire, Ship of Fools,
rich in its
analysis
of
humanity
and the seeds of
totalitarianism,
focuses most
intensely
on the
concepts
of home and love in all their manifestations. The vast
majority
of the
passengers
and crew of the North German
Lloyd ship
the Vera
are
going
home to
Germany.
The others are
traveling
to a
place they
think will be better than the one
they
left. The
irony is,
of
course,
that
in 1931
during
the rise of Nazism
they
are
going
to the
near-collapse
of modern civilization.
Love,
the illusion of
love,
the
betrayal
of
love,
the
perversion
of
love
-
all are
presented
in the novel. The one
example
of true romantic
love on board the
ship
is that of a bride and
groom
from
Guadalajara,
Mexico,
on a
honeymoon trip
to
Spain. "Walking
in their own
Eden,"
they
are fated to
learn,
Porter
implies,
that love ensures
suffering
and
that its
original purity
will be either
destroyed
or reduced to
something
much less within the cauldron of
quotidian
cares and losses.
That romantic love is doomed to failure was a lesson Porter had
learned
personally
over and
over,
and that idealism is destined to defeat
by
a brutal
reality
was a lesson she learned as witness to the revolution
in Mexico
during
the 1920s. A few of her
early
stories set in Mexico had
treated the
subject
of sentimental idealism
glancingly,52
but in
February
1931 she
suddenly
saw the theme in a
strong,
new
light.
The life and
death of Antonieta Rivas Mercado and her failed love affair with
Jose
Vasconcelos clarified for Porter what was to be the broadest
controlling
theme for the remainder of her fictional canon. *
Antonieta Rivas Mercado < 629
Notes
1. Unless otherwise
indicated, biographical
facts about the Rivas Mercado
family
are drawn from
Kathryn
Blair's In the Shadow
of
the
Angel,
which
although
slightly
fictionalized in
imagined dialogue
and interior
thoughts,
is faithful to
the facts of Antonieta's
history
and
supported
with
documents, memoirs,
and
personal
interviews. In Mexico it is considered the definitive
biographical saga
of the Rivas Mercado
family. Kathryn
Blair translated Antonieta's words from
both
published
and
unpublished
works. For information about the
relationship
between the Rivas Mercado
family
and
Diego Rivera,
see also Wolfe.
2. All
biographical
information about Albert Blair is also drawn from Blair's In
the Shadow
of
the
Angel.
He is
mentioned, however,
in Beals's Glass Houses.
3. For a
summary
of the 1910-1936 Mexican
Revolution,
see
Dulles, Hall,
and Hart.
4. Porter's arrival in Mexico is recorded in her
daybooks (Katherine
Anne
Porter,
hereafter
KAP, Papers, University
of
Maryland, College Park).
For an account of
her
marriages,
see
my
Katherine Anne Porter: The
Life of
an
Artist, pp. 40-41, 46,
50, 54, 56-57, 72, 88, 176,
and 220.
5. For an account of KAP's time in
Mexico,
see Walsh.
6. See
my
Katherine Anne Porter: The
Life of
an
Artist, pp.
3-17.
7. See
KAP,
"Portrait: Old South" and
my
Kathenne Anne Porter: The
Life of
an
Artist, pp.
12-17.
8. See
chapter 4, "Adolescence,"
in
my
Katherine Anne Porter: The
Life of
an
Artist.
9.
Joan
Givner discovered the
identity
of Porter's first husband and
significant
facts about the Koontz
family.
See
Givner,
Katherine Anne Porter: A
Life, pp.
86-103.
10.
John
Koontz
signed
a list of abuses
against
his wife that included these
and others. Certified
copy
of Divorce
Judgment
no.
19893-C,
Katherine Porter
Koontz vs.
J.
H.
Koontz,
filed 20
May 1915,
District Court
68,
Dallas
County,
TX. An
autobiographical
account of KAP's work for the
Essanay
Film Manufactur-
ing Company
in
Chicago
is included in her
papers
at the
University
of
Maryland,
College
Park.
11.
KAP,
"Reflections on Willa
Cather,"
The Collected
Essays, pp.
33-34.
12. See
my
Katherine Anne Porter: The
Life of
an
Artist, pp.
59-65.
13. KAP to
family ("Dear Darlings"),
31 December
1920, unpublished
letter,
KAP
Papers, University
of
Maryland, College
Park.
Quoted
with
permission
of
the
University
of
Maryland
Libraries and Barbara
Thompson Davis,
trustee of the
Katherine Anne Porter
Literary
Estate.
14. See
KAP,
"The Fiesta of
Guadalupe."
15. KAP met Best
Maugard
in New York in
1919-1920,
and he was
among
the
Mexican artists and musicians who
persuaded
her to
go
to Mexico. She had
plans
to work with him on a ballet for Anna Pavlova
portraying
the
history
of
Mexico,
and
they
saw one another
frequently
while she was in Mexico
sporadically
from
1920 to 1931. He was the model for the character Betancourt in her short novel
Hacienda.
630 v
Journal
of the Southwest
16. In KAP
Papers
at the
University
of
Maryland, College
Park is a
telegram
from
J.
H.
Retinger informing
her that
Obregon
had
appointed
her to head the
popular
art exhibit. More than
twenty years ago
when I was in Mexico
City interviewing
persons
who had known Katherine Anne Porter there between 1920 and
1931,
I met
Kathryn
Skidmore
Blair,
whose
father, Edgar Skidmore,
had been
casually
acquainted
with Porter.
Although
Mrs. Blair had no firm
evidence,
she felt sure
that Porter also would have known her
mother-in-law,
Antonieta Rivas Mercado
de
Blair,
whose
biography
she intended to write. The name meant
nothing
to me
at the
time,
but as soon as I heard the
story
of Antonieta I
agreed
that it was
likely
the two women had met. A few
years
after
my meeting
with
Kathryn Blair,
I found
among
Porter's
papers
at the
University
of
Maryland, College Park, proof
that she
was well aware of Antonieta and
probably
knew her
personally.
More than a decade
later I discovered that Antonieta's life and death in fact had had a
profound
effect
on Katherine Anne Porter and her art.
17. KAP to
George
Sill
Leonard, [May-June 1922], incorporated
in an article
by Leonard,
"A Letter from Mexico and the Gleam of Montezuma's Golden
Roofs."
18. "The
Martyr"
was the
only story
about
Diego
she
completed
and
pub-
lished.
19. Gabriela Mistral was the
pen
name of Lucila
Godoy Alcayaga,
who won the
Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945. At the time Antonieta and Katherine Anne met
her,
she had an established
reputation
as both a feminist and a
poet.
Her Lecturas
para mujereswzs published
in 1923.
20.
Blair,
515.
21. See Reed's The Mexican Muralists.
22. Robinson in her
autobiography,
A Wall to Paint
On,
mentions Antonieta and
her contributions to the artistic and intellectual movement in Mexico
(p. 115).
23. See
Hooks,
who mentions Modotti's
acquaintance
with Antonieta
(pp.
188 and
209)
and includes a
photograph
Modotti made of Antonieta in 1929
(p. 201).
24. KAP to Robert
McAlmon,
5
February 1934,
McAlmon
Papers,
the Beinecke
Library,
Yale
University;
carbon
copy
at MD. Antonieta's love letters to Lozano
are included in her Obras
completas.
25.
Blair,
471.
26. With Xavier Villaurrutia Antonieta translated Gide's VEcole
desfemmes
into
Spanish
as La escuela de las
mujeres.
27. See
KAP,
"To a Portrait of the Poet."
28.
Kathryn
Blair to the author, 15 August 2005.
30.
29.
Blair,
478-179.
30. See
Lopez,
Conversations with Katherine Anne
Porter, pp.
62-63.
According
to
Lopez,
it was the
painter
David
Siqueiros,
a close associate of
Rivera's,
who said
that Porter had had "an affair" with Rivera.
31.
KAP,
"Go little book . . ."
[preface!, Collected Stories, p. v.
32. KAP to Harrison Boone
Porter,
n.d.
[1928]
and
KAP,
Mexico
notes,
KAP
Papers, University
of
Maryland, College
Park.
Antonieta Rivas Mercado * 631
33. This
Strange,
Old
World,"
105-6.
34.
KAP,
"Paternalism and the Mexican Problem"
(review
of Some Mexican
Problems, by
Moises Saenz and Herbert I.
Priestly [Chicago: University
of Chi-
cago Press, 1926]
and
Aspects of
Mexican
Civilization, by Jose
Vasconcelos and
Manuel Gamio
[Chicago: University
of
Chicago Press, 1926]);
"This
Strange,
Old
World,p.
53.
35. See Antonieta's uLa
campana
de Vasconcelos" in her Obras
completas.
Vascon-
celos drew on her chronicle for his own memoirs. See also Blanco and Marentes.
36.
Fragments
titled "Notes on Two
Spanish
American Poets" are in KAP
Papers
at the
University
of
Maryland, College
Park.
37. In addition to
Blair,
see
Vasconcelos,
Obras
completas,
volume
4,
ElProcon-
sulado, 248-53,
265-69.
38. See Hilt and Alvarez for a list of
reviews,
and the introduction to
my
Critical
Essays
on Katherine Anne Porter for a
summary
of Porter's critical
reception.
39. KAP to
Gay
Porter
Holloway,
10 October
1930,
KAP
Papers, University
of
Maryland, College
Park.
40. KAP to Ernestine
Evans,
3 October
1930,
notes from
letter,
KAP
Papers,
University
of
Maryland, College
Park.
41 . KAP to Allen
Tate,
27
January 1931, Papers
of Allen
Tate,
Princeton Univer-
sity Library;
carbon
copy
in KAP
Papers, University
of
Maryland, College
Park.
42.
Blair,
319.
43. In addition to
Blair,
see Pani.
44. Antonieta's Bordeaux
diary
is included in her Obras
completas.
Vasconcelos
drew on it for his
memoirs,
where he
thinly disguises
Antonieta's
identity by assign-
ing
her the name
"Valeria," presumably
to
protect
her
reputation.
45. See Pani.
46. KAP to Kenneth
Burke,
20
July 1930,
Kenneth Burke
Collection,
Penn
State
University; copy
in KAP
Papers, University
of
Maryland, College
Park.
47. KAP to Caroline
Gordon,
28
January 1931,
Caroline Gordon
Papers,
Princeton
University Library;
carbon
copy
in KAP
Papers
at the
University
of
Maryland, College
Park.
48. KAP to
Josephine
Herbst and
John Herrmann,
20
February 1931, Josephine
Herbst
Papers,
Beinecke
Library,
Yale
University;
carbon
copy
in KAP
Papers
at
the
University
of
Maryland, College
Park.
49. KAP to Malcolm
Cowley,
25
February 1931, Cowley Papers, Newberry
Library, Chicago;
carbon
copy
in KAP
Papers
at the
University
of
Maryland,
Col-
lege
Park.
50. 1 first studied idealism in Katherine Anne Porter's fiction in the
early 1980s,
but I did not know then about her
relationship
with Antonieta Rivas Mercado. See
chapter
3
("Ideals")
of
my
Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter's
Fiction,
pp.
106-45.
51. The filmmaker in the
story
was a
thinly disguised portrait
of
Sergei
Eisen-
stein,
and
Hacienda,
based on KAP's earlier article
("Hacienda"),
was an account
of her visit to the hacienda where Eisenstein and his crew were
filming
scenes for
what would become
Que
viva Mexico!.
632 *
Journal
of the Southwest
52. See
"Virgin Violeta,"
"The
Martyr,"
and
"Flowering Judas,"
as well as
frag-
ments of stories such as "St. Martin's
Summer,"
which she seemed unable to com-
plete
until
1932,
when she recast and retitled it "The Cracked
Looking-Glass."
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