Gene Smith & Mexicana

By Anna Mazhirov

goyescas001

During my time as a Duke/CDS Work-Study student this past year, Sam asked me to look into a particular Broadway performance that obsessed W. Eugene Smith.  Thus began an intriguing research assignment for the Jazz Loft Project about a revue called Mexicana, which opened at the 46th Street Theater in NYC on April 21, 1939.  Smith attended sixty-three consecutive performances of the show.

I was interested initially because this was a flamenco-heavy show and I consider myself something of a flamenco aficionado.  As a dance and theater student, I studied it but most of my experience has been as an enraptured audience member at various flamenco shows in Spain and New York.  The rhythm is elusive, the movements strong, almost grotesque, and the sounds empathetic to personal pain.  It is a decisive dance, in which you rip out and pull into yourself what you desire and throw and stomp out what you despise.  The earthy, bitter beauty of flamenco is why I don’t get sick of it, unlike the unnatural sweetness, in my view, of a light ballet. Perhaps this is why Smith did not get sick of it either.

My curiosity about Mexicana grew as I learned of the impact it had on Smith’s life.  I wanted to know what made him return sixty-three times and fall in love with a stranger, a dancer in the show named Marissa Flores who spoke no English.  He ultimately married the Mexican-American woman, Carmen Martinez, who translated letters between himself and the dancer and they named their first child Marissa.  In Mexicana Marissa had danced to the “Intermezzo” from Goyescas by Enrique Granados and so Smith purchased a vinyl record of Goyescas and compulsively listened to it, often while working in the darkroom.

In 1939 Smith was about the same age as I am now.  Imagining myself so inspired, I started piecing the elements of this show together.  At Duke, I found some photos and reviews of Mexicana online in digital archives.  I graduated in May and moved back to my hometown of New York and continued my research.  I discovered the mother load of Mexicana material at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.  There are dozens of photographs of the performers, costumes, and scenery, folders of newspaper clippings, playbills, and microfilm of critical reviews.  Hooray for yellowed paper that I can’t pull up on my iPad.  The dusty stacks have purpose beyond the romantic.

The process of accessing these materials, however, requires Smith-like devotion.  I had to visit three different desks, check my bag, and wait for my number to be called while wearing white gloves in a designated area.  Library procedures prohibited me from viewing more than one item at a time, from even filling out forms for more than one item at a time.  I had to do this with dozens and dozens of items.  This procedure became gratifying when I held several glossy photographs.

I was struck by the beauty of the female performers.  One reviewer, Richard Watts, writing in The Herald-Tribute, confessed that the “swell-looking girls,” particularly Marissa Flores and Carmen Molina, were the most interesting aspect of the show.  “They seemed to me remarkably attractive and pleasantly talented,” he wrote.  I do not doubt that this kind physical attraction fueled Smith’s infatuation with Marissa.  According to Jim Hughes’ biography of Smith, Shadow and Substance: The Life and Work of an American photographer, Smith took her and her friend to dinner after every performance.  Although his amorous advances failed, he memorialized his love by naming his daughter Marissa.  After wondering about this woman for months, I was finally able to look on a photograph and see her brilliant eyes and coy smile.  (JLP hopes to be able to get permission to scan and post this photograph soon).

Most of the reviews focus on the “visual beauty and colorful effects,” as John Cambridge wrote of Mexicana.  Thomas Dash called the revue “a luscious banquet for the optic nerve.”  I realized that the scenic designs, costumes, and flashing beauty of the girls could easily translate as background, detail, and foreground.  This must have been appealing to a photographer.  The 27 scenes with over 140 dancers, singers, players, and actors in hand-embroidered costumes, performing before brightly painted scenery, must have provided for great visual material for a visual artist.  But I suspect that Smith saw in Mexicana a deeper quality that he later tried to capture in his own work, the rhythms of the flamenco music and the corresponding dancing – the music made visible.

This was the first Broadway show to be produced by a foreign government, offered officially by the Republic of Mexico.  Part of the World’s Fair, Mexicana was a living cross-section of Mexican culture from the ancient Aztec traditions to the modern.  Celestino Gorostiza, director of the Department of Fine Arts of Mexico, explained it best when he was quoted in Michel Mok’s New York Post review:  “The important thing is that the performers capture some of the inherent sweetness and simplicity of our people so that Americans may get acquainted with them.”  Is this not what Smith tried to capture in his photographs throughout his career, an affirmative spirit that made the foreign familiar?

Gene Smith and Mexicana, Part 2 coming soon.

Postscript – July 30, 2010:  Having read Jim Hughes’ biography of Smith, Shadow and Substance: The Life and Work of an American Photographer, from cover to cover, I was stunned to receive a phone call yesterday from the author himself. He graciously corrected me on the point of whose love letters Carmen translated. Marissa’s friend, a singer from the show, fell in love with Smith over the course of their group dinner dates. It was this friend, and not Marissa, who sent Smith love letters from Mexico that Carmen then helped translate. I apologize for the mistake. -A.M.

Anna Mazhirov emigrated with her family from the former Soviet Union to Brooklyn in 1992. She attended NYC’s Stuyvesant High School.  At Duke, she studied English and Environmental Science and Policy, fiction and documentary writing. She won Duke University’s Benenson Arts Award and the Center for Documentary Studies’ John Hope Franklin Student Documentary Award to complete a nonfiction writing project about America’s largest Russian-speaking community, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She will continue writing and exploring documentary work.

2 Comments

  1. Shana Rasmus Said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    Just for the record, Carmen Martinez, my mother, was Puerto Rican & Irish American….. & I have always loved the story about how they met over the translating of the love letters. I never knew the name of the show that Marissa Flores was in so thank you for this missing part of my history.
    Sam also amazes me with his incredible ability to pull the projects on my dad together!
    Thank you both!

  2. admin Said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    Thanks so much for the note and clarification and kind comments, Shana.