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Destination: Mexico

An Eccentric's Secret Garden : An Englishman's Xanadu mirrors a fantasy world created by Poe

May 12, 1996|GERALD JONAS | Jonas, a staff writer for the New Yorker for 30 years, is also the author of six books

XILITLA, Mexico — From the moment I heard about it, I wondered how the reality of Las Pozas, an elaborate sculpture garden in northeastern Mexico, measured up to Edgar Allan Poe's fictional Arnheim, a fantasy landscape so perfect that Poe protested that it could not be captured in mere words.

But Poe's supremely beautiful estate, created in his short story "The Domain of Arnheim," never existed outside his imagination. Like Xanadu, Shangri-La and the Emerald City of Oz, it is a literary mirage, a lucid dream of worldly perfection. But Las Pozas owes its existence to a strikingly similar act of imagination. The man behind Las Pozas, an eccentric English millionaire named Edward James, is probably the nearest thing the world will ever see to Arnheim's Ellison, a landscape artist of prodigious wealth who transformed an entire countryside into a secret garden of his own design.

According to Poe, the creator of Arnheim worked in secrecy because he had a great "contempt of ambition." Edward James' reasons for keeping quiet about Las Pozas were more complex. Having failed to win the recognition he craved as a poet, James started building Las Pozas in the early 1960s to please himself. He envisioned a labyrinthine complex of concrete towers and whimsical sculptures set in a steamy rain forest far from the usual tourist playgrounds.

During his lifetime James shared his vision with only a few of his closest friends. After his death in 1984, the structures at Las Pozas would have been quickly buried beneath the rampant tropical vegetation if not for a small band of enthusiasts who, having discovered James' unique creation, began working to preserve it. Only recently have they begun to dismantle the wall of secrecy that has hidden Las Pozas from the rest of the world.

Spanish for "the pools," Las Pozas sprawls across a jungle-covered hillside outside the town of Xilitla (she LEET lah) in the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental. Xilitla is a 240-mile drive north of Mexico City and 80 miles southwest of the Gulf port of Tampico.

The region is known as Huasteca, after the Indians (distant relatives of the Mayans) who have made their homes here for more than 2,500 years. As a commercial center for the surrounding country, Xilitla offers several streets of shops, a bank, a branch of Alcoholics Anonymous and a Sunday market that is long on fresh produce, such as chiles and bananas, and short on handicrafts.

Despite the satellite dishes sprouting from the roofs of the fancier houses in town, Xilitla cannot have changed much since the late 1940s when Edward James first saw it. He was living at the time in Los Angeles, a member of a well-established English expatriate community that included Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley. He had come south with a Mexican friend named Plutarco Gastelum to search for a hidden valley where, he had been told, orchids bloomed year-round.

James had exiled himself from England a few years earlier for reasons having to do with hurt pride (his first serious book of poems had been mercilessly panned by reviewers), high taxes and a restlessness that no amount of traveling seemed to assuage. Born in 1907 to a family whose wealth derived from American lumber and mining interests, he was raised in a 300-room mansion in Sussex.

Like Poe's imaginary Ellison, Edward James inherited a vast fortune at the age of 21. As an undergraduate at Oxford he had already displayed a taste for the flamboyant, converting his college rooms into a salon for a circle of self-conscious aesthetes that included John Betjeman, future poet-laureate of England.

After he came into his inheritance, James began acquiring a reputation as a world-class eccentric. Forsaking Oxford for the Continent, he collected cars, villas and surrealist paintings with equal zest. With the help of artists he befriended, such as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte, he converted a hunting lodge on his Sussex estate into a surrealistic showplace that shocked his fox-hunting neighbors with its lavender exterior walls. and plaster sheets draped over the windowsills, as if drying in the sun.

He was wed, in 1931, to the beautiful dancer Tilly Losch. When the marriage faltered, James tried to win her back by hiring an unemployed choreographer named George Balanchine to create a season of ballet for her. When the 1933 season was over, Balanchine sailed for New York, and James and his wife ended their liaison in a juicy divorce trial that made headlines in all the London newspapers.

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