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From The Oxford American, November-December 2000:

The Man from New Orleans

John Shelton Reed

Taylor D. Littleton, The Color of Silver: William Spratling, His Life and Art. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. 342 pp. 70 half-tones. $34.95. ISBN: 0-8071-2533-4

Joan Mark, The Silver Gringo: William Spratling and Taxco. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. 154 pp. 42 half-tones. $29.95. ISBN: 0-8263-2079-1

Sandraline Cederwall and Hal Riney, Spratling Silver. Centennial edition. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000. 176 pp. 70+ plates. $50.00. ISBN: 0-8118-2954-5

 

When Warner Brothers made a movie in 1948 about the life of William Spratling they called it "The Man from New Orleans," and Spratling liked that label. (He certainly liked it better than "Silver Bill," which is what Reader's Digest called him: he threatened to sue Warner Brothers if they called it that.)

In fact, Spratling wasn't really from New Orleans; he had only lived there for a few years before moving to Mexico. But at least he was a Southerner, an Auburn alum who sometimes affected the molasses accent and courtly style of a Southern gent. Writer, architect, artist, pilot, yachtsman, adventurer, horticulturalist, entrepreneur, friend of the rich and famous, connoisseur of pre-Columbian art, inventor of the margarita (he said), and one of the world's finest designers of silver jewelry and silverware, he wasn't your average Auburn man -- but, then, Bill Spratling wasn't average by any standard.

The son of an Alabama-bred father and a New England mother, he was born in 1900 in upstate New York, where his father ran a hospital for epileptics. But the family didn't stay there long. Both parents were in poor health and apparently unstable, and were often separated. Before Billy was a teenager his mother had died of tuberculosis and his father had suffered a "nervous breakdown" and gone off to Florida (where he died a few years later in what was said to be a hunting accident, possibly a suicide). The Spratling children were parceled out to various relatives; Billy was passed around among his father's people in Atlanta and east Alabama. The nearest thing he had to a home was the family farm near Auburn, where he went to high school and then to college.

The boy had demonstrated an early talent for drawing and at Auburn he developed it to the point that he found himself lecturing as an undergraduate in courses in the architecture department. In 1921 he left Auburn (without a degree) and shortly afterward took a position as associate professor of architecture at Tulane. He rented an apartment in the French Quarter and acquired a roommate from Mississippi, an aspiring writer named Faulkner. The two Bills quickly became part of New Orleans's surprisingly vibrant literary and artistic scene, drinking with the likes of writers Lyle Saxon, Hamilton Basso, and Sherwood Anderson, artists Caroline Durieux and Ellsworth Woodward, and the circle around the little magazine, The Double Dealer. Visitors like John Dos Passos and Anita Loos dropped in from time to time.

Spratling supplemented his Tulane salary by selling articles and drawings to a variety of architectural and travel magazines, and he illustrated several books by his writer friends: Picturesque New Orleans, with Lyle Saxon; The Wrought Iron Work of Old New Orleans, with his Tulane colleague and fellow architect Nathaniel Curtis; and Plantation Houses of Louisiana, with a redoubtable woman named Natalie Scott. (He also illustrated a cookbook by Miss Scott.) He and Faulkner collaborated on Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles, a droll collection of satirical sketches of New Orleans personalities, including themselves. (The title is a play on Miguel Covarrubias’s The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans. Maybe you had to be there.)

Spratling also sketched his way around Europe twice (once with Faulkner), and he spent three summers in the late 1920s drawing and writing about colonial architecture in Mexico, where he befriended leading figures in that country’s post-revolutionary artistic renaissance, among them Covarrubias, Diego Rivera, and David Siqueiros. In 1929, abruptly and rather mysteriously, he quit his job at Tulane and moved to Taxco, a somnolent village in the mountains southwest of Mexico City which had once been a thriving center of silver-mining.

He hoped to make a living writing about Mexico for American audiences (his book Little Mexico was published in 1932, with an appreciative foreword by Rivera), but that proved more difficult than he had foreseen. To supplement his income he began to design furniture and tinware, then –- perhaps at the suggestion of his friend Dwight Morrow, the American ambassador -- branched out into silver, commissioning goldsmiths from a nearby village to produce jewelry and tableware from his designs.

The rest, as they say, is history. Soon Spratling had established the "Taller de las Delicias" (later Spratling y Artesanos), and was producing objects in tin, copper, leather, and fabrics, as well as silver. Within a few years he was the town’s leading businessman, with a workshop employing scores of artisans, and an elaborate apprenticeship system for training local boys in silversmithing.

From the outset, Spratling’s designs were characterized by a clean, architectural quality, often employing pre-Columbian motifs. (He was rapidly educating himself on that subject.) He worked either in plain silver or in silver combined with wood, tortoise shell, or semiprecious stones from the immediate vicinity. "I’ve always had the conviction," he wrote, "that certain materials have the right to be worked in a given community because they are native to that area and that the work of the designer is to utilize these materials and to dignify them."

Many of the young men who trained with Spratling started their own tallers, and they were joined by American and European designers attracted by the town’s cheap living, cheap labor, and good company. At one point it was estimated that there were 2000 silversmiths working in the town -– with, it must be said, varying degrees of artistry. (Some of them simply copied Spratling’s designs: he complained once that it took less than a month for one of his new designs to start appearing in other shops.)

But there was plenty of business to go around. After the completion of the highway from Mexico City to Acapulco in the mid-1930s Taxco became a regular stop on the touristic itinerary, and when World War II cut off the supply of jewelry from Europe, Montgomery Ward and other American retailers placed large orders. By the end of the war Taxco had become a sort of combination artists' colony and tourist trap, largely through Spratling's doing, but not at all to his satisfaction.

Spratling had always had a knack for befriending influential and celebrated people (as well as a coterie of older women, two of whom –- Natalie Scott and Sherwood Anderson’s ex-wife Elizabeth -- moved to Taxco to be with him), but he had now become a celebrity in his own right, hobnobbing with movie stars and politicians. His friends and visitors included Errol Flynn, Lyndon Johnson, Hart Crane, Leon Trotsky, Clare Booth Luce, Bette Davis, Richard Nixon, John Huston, Katherine Anne Porter, and Orson Wells. Georgia O’Keefe, who rarely wore jewelry, was photographed wearing a Spratling pin.

But pride goeth before a fall. After the war, American demand for Mexican silver fell off, and some disastrous business decisions put Spratling y Artesanos out of business. Spratling moved to a ranch south of Taxco and continued his silver business, but on a greatly reduced scale. He also continued to pursue his archeological interests, and remained heavily involved in the sometimes shady world of artifact trading, for which he atoned by donating important collections to the National University of Mexico and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. In 1960 he published More Human Than Divine (dedicated to Covarrubias), largely photographs of his collection of pre-Columbian sculpture.

The most engaging account of Spratling’s remarkable life is his autobiographical File on Spratling, published shortly after his 1967 death in a car wreck (driving too fast, as usual). But it has long been out of print and it’s also, shall we say. . . not always reliable. Even the brooding Siqueiros portrait on its dust jacket -- a bare-chested young man with large dark eyes, a neat mustache, and an unsmiling mouth -- gives fair warning that this book is an artful rendering, touched up a bit for effect.

In fact, Spratling told a lot of little fibs about himself, and implied a good many more. His autobiography is as much an artifice as any of his silver designs, with a great deal of omission, misdirection, and creative rearrangement. Being "the man from New Orleans" was the least of it.

Two new biographies issued to mark the centenary of Spratling's birth try to sort fact from fiction. The covers of these new books, like the books themselves, are less romantic than Spratling’s. Both are illustrated by remarkably similar black-and-white photographs of Spratling (fully clothed) standing in profile, hand in pocket, leg cocked. The Color of Silver, by Auburn art historian Taylor Littleton, shows us a young man in his French Quarter apartment in the 1920s, his right arm resting on an untidy bookcase, and Littleton’s book, published in LSU's Southern Biography Series, is especially informative on Spratling's time in Dixie: growing up in Georgia and Alabama, college days at Auburn, living la vie boheme in New Orleans. The cover photograph of The Silver Gringo, by Joan Mark, of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, was taken some twenty years after Littleton’s; it shows an accomplished, self-confident, graying man of affairs in his Mexican ranch house, right arm resting on the mantle of an adobe fireplace -- and Mark concentrates on Spratling's life in Taxco. (He moves there on page 15.)

The two books differ in other ways as well. Littleton relies much more on letters, family papers, and interviews with Spratling’s relatives. Mark has more interviews with Spratling's Tasqueño neighbors, and she is more ready to repeat their small-town gossip and speculation. In particular, she offers some good dish on the subject of Spratling's homosexuality. Littleton, perhaps out of deference to the family, perhaps because there is little to go on in the written record, is very circumspect on the matter -- but so was Spratling.

Mark’s book is the livelier of the two, but at more than twice the length Littleton’s is far more thorough. Much of the detail in Littleton’s book will interest only real devotees, but some of what Mark omits is important. When Mark doesn’t mention Spratling’s 1962 honorary degree from Auburn and Littleton treats it as an important emotional homecoming, for example, one is tempted to suspect the Auburn professor of home-team exaggeration -- until he quotes a letter in which Spratling tells a friend that the degree was "a sort of vindication of my life objectives and a deep satisfaction to me after all these years."

Littleton’s book is also at least occasionally more accurate. Mark misdates her cover photograph by fifteen years or so, for instance, while Littleton gets another from the same sitting right. More importantly, Mark says that Spratling's mother died after his father abandoned his family; Littleton says correctly that the elder Spratling's collapse and flight to Florida came after his wife's death. (It does make a difference in how one thinks of the man.)

But these are minor points. Mark’s book is a splendid introduction for readers who have no idea who Bill Spratling was or why they should care. After you’ve read it, I’ll wager you’ll want to know more, and Littleton’s your man for that.

Both books –- Mark’s especially -- indicate that Spratling turned cranky toward the end of his life (alcohol may have been a factor) and suggest that he was well on his way to becoming a grouchy old man when he died. But I prefer to think of him earlier, shooting pedestrians from his French Quarter window with the BB gun he and Faulkner kept for that purpose (the highest score was for hitting a Negro nun), skinny-dipping with visitors to his ranch, or hiring a boy to set off a stink bomb in the noisy whorehouse across the street from his house in Taxco. Picture him nearly drowning while sailing alone (with no previous experience) from Santa Monica to Acapulco, or flying blind through foul weather and mountain passes to Alaska to teach Eskimos how to make jewelry, at the invitation of his friend, Governor Ernest Greuning.

And there’s always that marvelous silver.

You can get some idea of what the excitement was all about from the half-tones in the two biographies, but far better –- indeed, the next best thing to actually seeing and handling the objects themselves (and a whole lot cheaper than buying them) -- is to pick up a copy of Spratling Silver, a tribute by Sandraline Cederwall and Hal Riney originally published in 1990, now newly reissued and expanded, with gorgeous full-page photographs of over 70 pieces, plus pictures of Spratling at work and play.

"The true color of silver is white," Spratling wrote once (giving Littleton the title for his biography), "the same color as extreme heat and extreme cold. It is also the same color as the first food received by an infant and it is the color of light. Its very malleability is an invitation to work it." And he did, with genius.

 

More on Spratling:

William Spratling, File on Spratling: An Autobiography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967. 235 pp. Spratling's own account of his life and adventures presents him as he wished to be remembered.

Elizabeth Anderson and Gerald Kelly, Miss Elizabeth: A Memoir. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969. 315 pp. An "intimate account of life with Sherwood Anderson" by one of Anderson's ex-wives tells us at least as much about Spratling, whom she knew in New Orleans, then in Taxco, where she moved to live in an apartment in his house. (She confesses that she misses him more than Sherwood.)

Penny Chittim Morrill and Carole A. Berk, Mexican Silver: 20th Century Handwrought Jewelry & Metalwork. Revised edition. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, 1998. 272 pp. $59.95. Most of the first 80 pages of this book are explicitly devoted to Spratling, with many illustrations. Much of the rest discusses and displays the work of Taxco maestros who trained in Spratling's workshop.

www.SpratlingSilver.com, a website maintained by Spratling enthusiast Phyllis Goddard, offers a searchable inventory of Spratling's work, a guide to hallmarks, a forum for questions and answers, and much else.

To see what Spratling's work is selling for these days, click on the eBay logo below, and search on "Spratling." To get some idea of what he started, search on "Taxco."

Click here for your favorite eBay items

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A Personal Postscript

Idling through the Birmingham Museum of Art a few years ago I came across a stunning art deco rosewood and silver tea service. The label said it had been made by an Auburn alumnus who had moved in 1929 to Taxco, Mexico, and revitalized the silver industry there. That was my first conscious exposure to William Spratling's work or, for that matter, to his existence.

A few months later at a party in Washington, however, my wife and I were introduced to an antiques dealer with a fancy shop in Georgetown. Peering intently at my wife's throat, he said "I hope you've got that necklace insured." The necklace, which I'd picked up in an East Tennessee junk shop just because I liked its looks, turned out to be by Hector Aguilar, who worked for Spratling and is second only to Spratling himself as a figure in the Taxco silver revival.

That certainly got our attention, and we started reading about Mexican silver jewelry, only to discover that another necklace I'd bought at the same shop was a well-made Spratling knock-off and a third was by the Castillo brothers, who also trained with Spratling.

As a matter of fact, they weren't insured, but they are now.

--J.S.R.