Writing about writers: Puerto Vallarta and Jenny McGill
Editor's note: After a brief battle with cancer, Jenny McGill passed away peacefully in the early hours of December 31, 2009.
I first heard of her when I was editor in chief of About Magazines and she was named U.S. Consular Agent in Puerto Vallarta, where we published a monthly ediition. She was, I heard, a tough, no-nonsense person you didn't want to mess with. Later, I was privileged to discover the warm, caring and highly principled person she was. My family and I loved her very much.
I'm proud of her work on MexConnect. Few foreigners know Mexico as well as she and her husband, and few people come to understand the country and its people as they did.
We're featuring this article once more to honor the memory of an extraordinary person.
Writing about writers: Puerto Vallarta and Jenny McGill
Writing about writers can be a challenge. Most are civil enough. They know you can't do it as well as they do but they are forgiving and generally polite.
Writers understand interviews but seem reluctant to part with good lines. I think they think they are saving them for themselves.
Not so Jenny McGill. She tells it like it is. If you ask enticing questions, you get exciting answers, about her 35 years in Mexico, about beauty and bandits, about Fourth of July parties and the fake gardener who fleeced her out of $35.
Even better is the tale of the maid Matilda who cleaned the oven by throwing in a mop bucket full of used soapy water. Chocolate meringue pie was never the same.
Jenny is a modest artist. She paints word pictures without fully realizing it. She seems surprised by responses to her MexConnect essays and by the on-going success of her first book. She says she felt 10 feet tall when she first held a copy in her hands.
"It is one fine feeling to be introduced as a writer. It is even better to have a perfect stranger say 'I read your book and I loved it.'"
Drama & Diplomacy in Sultry Puerto Vallarta is an insider view of a hot beach town in a less complicated time. Both are long lost, the simple village and the relative serenity.
A lot happened in Jenny's years on the west bank, 1972 to 1998. Part of it was a blast, zingy (her word) parties, tennis matches, art lessons and floating poker games. For more than half of that transformation period, she was consular agent for the U.S. government, assigned tidbits of pomp and ceremony but mostly ho-hum dull, depressing problems.
There were time-share victims, sad mental cases without home addresses, dirty, old men under arrest and occasional next-of-kin who only wanted to scatter ashes in the ocean.
Of course there were high times, too, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, curtsying to Queen Elizabeth, enduring Eleanor Roosevelt and staying on high alert when thousands of sailors came ashore from U.S. ships.
It isn't bragging when Jenny says she mixed and mingled with royalty, statesmen, drug barons, murderers, thieves, drunks, beggars and politicians from both sides of the border.
Her book is vigorously alive. Characters are real. There is triumph and tragedy, happiness and heartbreak, the mortician's wife who took a nap in a coffin, an Easter morning $1.87 robbery and murder on a golf course, a physician who wore hot pants and made house calls on a motorcycle.
Readers applauded. Drama & Diplomacy required a second printing. Why not my three books?
The Jenny McGill story is even better than the book. If you ask, she will tell about growing up in Mississippi, red clay and pine trees, how she happened to be the youngest of 15 children in a merged household, not far from Oprah Winfrey's first playground.
"Oprah and I were born 31 miles and 18 years apart, she near Kosciusko and I near Ackerman, in the middle of the Tombigbee National Forest. Our similarity stops there."
In the beginning …
"My father was old enough to be my grandfather and I think I must have been as much a delightful surprise to him as I was a disappointment to my mother. There were no hand-me-down baby clothes, no toys, high chair or rocking horse for me. Those things had been passed along to somebody else. My sister, next to me, was 10 years older."
Jenny had lots of guides and guardians, but, for the most part, there was harmony in the big farmhouse. There was a small problem of girls from both sides of the previous marriages being named Ethel Elene. More serious complications? Well, one of Jenny's half-brothers did fall in love with his stepsister.
Jenny always wanted to be a writer. As an honor student, she helped with the high school newspaper. As secretary for an insurance company, she wrote an in-house newsletter "to boost morale of door-to-door salesmen."
As a stewardess for American Airlines, she didn't find many stories she could tell. As a government employee she was too busy but did see story potential. Friends said she had the tale-telling touch. Movie director John Huston (Night of the Iguana) suggested she keep notes. Pulitzer winner Allen Drury (Advice and Consent) often said, "Jenny, go for it."
In retirement, she moved story files to the relative sanctity of Talpa de Allende. Notes gathered dust. She burned them. Soon thereafter she decided to sit down and write — from memory and with all her heart. She laughed and cried and wrestled with haunting recollections.
Jenny says husband Howard was very supportive, even to the point of making up the bed a few times and preparing an occasional taco. She had fun. She's going to try it again.
So, have congratulations and half a lifetime in Mexico really changed Jenny McGill? Not much. She is still quick with a helping hand. She maintains a strong Christian faith. She still enjoys gardening. She seems genuinely grateful for the opportunity to boost young Mexicans in the arts — writing, painting, music.
She carries her recipe book when she travels. One section is food for the sick. Another is funeral food. This goes back to her Mississippi roots. Friends provided meals so those hurting wouldn't have to slave over a hot stove.
Jenny and Howard McGill celebrated their golden wedding anniversary at the hospital. She was in for a hip operation. He, there to hold her hand, marveled again at the girl he married.
Coming out of the fog, Jenny realized there were others in the recovery room. She counted two nurses, a woman doctor and a male patient.
"The doctor was nudging me, asking if I could help. The man had a damaged shoulder, suffered from Alzheimer's and spoke no Spanish. He was disoriented and angry that his clothes had been taken. He thought he was being held in prison."
In a throwback to sultry Puerto Vallarta and her time as consular agent, Jenny McGill, only half awake, was able to soothe and smooth the scene. So go the many little miracles of this woman's life.