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Out of this World

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James first saw the mountainside paradise that would become his lifelong obsession in 1945. He was only 38, but he had already lived a full life as a fabulously wealthy art patron and proto-jet-setter. Thanks to his money and his charming manner, James had entrée into any social or artistic circle that struck his fancy. Among his friends were playwright Noël Coward and writer Aldous Huxley. He commissioned choreographer George Balanchine to create three ballets. He also tried his hand at various arts, including writing and painting, but had his greatest success as a patron. Picasso and Surrealists Dali and Magritte were recipients of his largesse, and the latter two found in him a friend and kindred spirit. Indeed, Dali once remarked to Sigmund Freud, "Edward James is crazier than all the Surrealists put together. They pretend, but he is the real thing."

By the forties, James had more or less relocated to California, where he met many people in the motion picture world, including Bette Davis, Ronald Colman, and Humphrey Bogart. He was on a typically quixotic journey to Mexico when the event that was to transform his life occurred. Having heard that orchids grew in near-miraculous profusion around the town of Xilitla (he-leet-la), he had set out to find them, taking along a handsome young Texan named Roland McKenzie, who served as his secretary and traveling companion. In the heat of the day, they stopped to swim, and when McKenzie emerged dripping from the water, he startled a throng of hundreds of butterflies. The agitated insects flew up in a cloud of yellow and blue and settled back all over McKenzie's naked body. To James, it was a mystical moment. He resolved on the spot to possess this realm of orchids and butterflies, and in 1947 Plutarco Senior purchased the land on his behalf. (One of the ironies of Las Pozas is that, because foreigners could not then own property in Mexico, Edward James never held the deed to his tropical Eden.)

Edward James au naturel, mid-seventies.
photo by Luis Felix

Having acquired the property, James plunged obsessively into orchids. Season after season he coddled them, and then, in the winter of 1962, disaster struck. A freak storm dropped the temperature below freezing, and 18,000 flowers perished in a three-day snowfall that the mystified villagers referred to as a rain of "white ashes." Says Avery Danziger, a filmmaker who has made a documentary on James's life: "When it freezes here, it looks like the whole forest has been burned. James was absolutely devastated." Like Scarlett O'Hara shaking her fist at the sky and swearing she will never be hungry again, James swore that the next orchids he planted would never die. After salvaging what he could of the real flowers, he began to create new ones -- in concrete.

Before long, he had become the patron of the village of Xilitla, paying higher wages than anyone in the area. Always a globe-hopper, he would be gone for months at a time, then without warning descend on Las Pozas bursting with new ideas -- such as building a fish pond in the form of a giant human eye or erecting a thicket of impossibly delicate bamboo-shaped columns to make a freestanding "curtain." He would sketch his fantasy on a ruled pad and show it to his master moldmaker. Then, using only machetes, axes, and knives, the master and his assistants would carve the wooden molds into which the concrete would be poured. Some forms might take months to make and require thousands of tiny strips of pine, all meticulously fitted together. But in time, a shape would emerge and another Wonderland blossom or Rapunzel's tower would take its place in the forest.

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