The forgotten story of a Chicago artist-adventurer who left behind his social position to make a difference in a small Mexican town
In San Miguel de Allende, I learned of Stirling Dickinson, a larger-than-life Chicago native who transformed this place, for better and worse.
For better and worse, Dickinson is widely credited with putting San Miguel on the international tourist map by helping start and promoting two art schools that became a magnet for a large community of Americans and Canadians who moved here.
That ex-pat community, in turn, became the backbone of a tourism-based economy that enabled the town to grow from a population of around 7,000 when Dickinson arrived in 1937 — four centuries after the founding of the first Spanish settlement here — to more than 72,000 today. Another 100,000 people live in the surrounding area.
Ten years after Dickinson’s 1998 death, San Miguel was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which cemented its status as one of the world’s top tourist destinations and accelerated the proliferation of high-end restaurants, boutiques and galleries that have greatly transformed the quaint, quiet place that originally attracted Dickinson here.
Soon after I joined this February’s parade of northern visitors coming to San Miguel to escape the cold, I found myself wanting to know more about this larger-than-life Chicago native who has a street and a baseball field named after him and whose bust stands on a pedestal at the foot of one San Miguel’s fanciest neighborhoods.
Instead of the tale I expected of another colorful Chicago schemer looking for quick riches, I learned the story of a beloved figure who abandoned his place as a member of Chicago’s social elite to devote himself to a small Mexican community, someone who started and supported its most important charities and who left a legacy of goodwill.
Along the way, Dickinson was able to fend off accusations of Communist Party involvement during the red-baiting era of the 1950s while also being credited with helping make the strongly Catholic community of San Miguel a welcoming place for an LGBTQ community that followed him here, even though he never publicly acknowledged his own sexual orientation.
In a 2008 biography of Dickinson, author John Virtue cast Dickinson as the “Model American Abroad,” the opposite of the commonly held image of the “ugly American.” Dickinson, he wrote, was a shy man by nature, more comfortable socializing with the common Mexican people than the wealthy foreigners he helped attract to town.
“He was very well liked among Mexicans,” agreed Joseph Toone, a popular tour guide in San Miguel. “He really was interested in Mexicans.”
A later book tracing San Miguel de Allende’s path to UNESCO recognition, written by University of Charleston history professor Lisa Pinley Covert, portrays Dickinson’s legacy in a more skeptical light.
Unlike Virtue, Covert never met Dickinson but acknowledges that “he seemed like a very interesting, well-liked, thoughtful person.” Her quarrel is with his role in promoting the tourism industry on which San Miguel came to rely.
“The downside of that is that it wasn’t an economy that created a lot of upward mobility for a lot of Mexicans,” she told me.
In the end, Covert argued, for all its charming cobblestone streets and historically preserved buildings, today’s bustling, gentrified San Miguel would be unrecognizable to Dickinson, just as it is increasingly unaffordable to the locals who are being displaced.
“I don’t really think it would have appealed to him,” she said.
Could one outsider really have had so much influence?
William Stirling Dickinson was born Dec. 22, 1909, the son of Frank Dickinson and Alice May Stirling, who moved in Chicago society circles.
Frank Dickinson was a Harvard-educated lawyer, but it was Stirling’s grandfather William Dickinson who was the source of the family’s wealth. The elder Dickinson had been a partner in one of the city’s leading grain exporting companies, later owned his own grain brokerage and was a vice president of the Chicago Board of Trade.
Stirling Dickinson and his two younger sisters grew up in the family home on North Astor Street on the Gold Coast. It later was purchased by one of the Pritzkers after the Dickinsons moved to Lake Shore Drive.
During Dickinson’s youth, the family spent summers on its estate in Charlevoix, Michigan, a popular destination for Chicago’s upper crust.
In the manner of the period, the family’s comings and goings were chronicled in newspaper society pages, including reports on when the Dickinsons opened their summer home for the season and when the children would be arriving back in town for the holidays from their East Coast schools.
Dickinson attended the Berkshire School, a college prep and boarding school in Massachusetts, before studying art and architecture at Princeton. He followed with three years of grad school at the Art Institute of Chicago but later said he never had the talent to support himself as a professional artist.
It was with similar deference that the papers covered Dickinson’s exploits after college, when he and Evanston’s Heath Bowman, a Princeton classmate, turned their six-month tour of Mexico in a 1929 Ford Model A convertible into an adventure book, “Mexican Odyssey.”
The lighthearted book featuring Bowman’s writing and Dickinson’s illustrations sold well enough to require a fourth printing, no doubt due in part to Dickinson’s public relations acumen and family connections. A Chicago Daily Tribune bestseller list at the time listed “Mexican Odyssey” at No. 10 among non-fiction books. Coming in at No. 1 in the fiction category was “Gone With the Wind.”
Dickinson and Bowman followed up their book with another travel adventure, “Westward from Rio,” recounting their exploits traversing South America.
It was with the intention of finding a quiet place to work on a third book, “Death Is Incidental,” a novel based on the Mexican Revolution, that the two men first headed to San Miguel de Allende.
They were drawn there by Jose Mojica, a Mexican opera singer and Hollywood film star Dickinson had seen perform in Chicago. That’s how he recognized him when they later met by happenstance during his earlier Mexican travels with Bowman. The never-married Mojica, who years later would reject his stardom to become a Franciscan friar in Peru, had built a home in San Miguel for his mother and invited the two young Americans to come see the town for themselves.
Dickinson and Bowman arrived by train on Feb. 7, 1937, in the early morning dark at the station just outside of town. A mule-drawn cart brought them to the city center at dawn, just as a heavy fog began to lift.
“I looked up and saw the Parroquia sticking up out of the fog, and I said, ‘My gosh, what a place!’ I think I must have decided in that minute I was going to stay here because 10 days later I bought the house I’m sitting in now,” Dickinson recalled in a 1992 interview for the San Miguel Archive Project, which is posted on YouTube.
The Parroquia is the striking, neo-Gothic parish church that still dominates the San Miguel skyline, serving as the town’s iconic landmark, somewhat ironically because it was actually built in the late 19th century and is out of character with the centuries-older colonial heritage on which the town stakes its reputation.
The property that Dickinson and Bowman bought was part of a former tannery located on a hill overlooking the town. Three months later, Bowman suddenly announced he was marrying a woman he had met during their original Mexican trip.
According to Virtue’s account, Dickinson was heartbroken by his friend’s decision. After finishing their book, Bowman sold Dickinson his share of the house, and the newlyweds moved away. Dickinson, left alone as the only American in town at the time, would remain unmarried.
Soon after Bowman’s departure, Dickinson was asked to help start the first of the art schools that would transform San Miguel. The Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes was housed in part of a convent confiscated from the church by the government following the Mexican Revolution.
With Dickinson’s encouragement, Chicago papers and other publications soon were carrying stories of this popular, new artist enclave in the mountains of Mexico. Wealthy Chicagoans were among the first to make the trip.
Dickinson’s efforts in Mexico were disrupted temporarily by World War II. He returned to the United States to serve in Naval intelligence and later in the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA.
After the war, Dickinson was able to use his connections to win permission for U.S. servicemen and women to attend the art school on the G.I. Bill, leading to more boom times for the school and the town.
A 1948 article in Life magazine about San Miguel headlined “G.I. Paradise” carried a photograph of two male art students painting the backside of a nude woman reclining on a hillside patio with the Parroquia in the background, a risqué illustration for the times but no doubt a great marketing tool for the school. Dickinson’s name does not appear in the story, but his fingerprints are on it.
Trouble would come Dickinson’s way the following year, when a recently arrived member of the faculty, noted Mexican muralist and Communist Party member David Alfaro Siqueiros, got into a dispute with the art school’s new owner, a Mexico City lawyer. Siqueiros led a walkout of students and staff. Dickinson sided with those who walked out.
The eventual upshot was that Dickinson, the faculty and students would move to a newly created art school, Instituto Allende, but not before the owner of Bellas Artes, accusing them of communist involvement, arranged for Dickinson and seven others to be deported by Mexican officials at gunpoint to Texas.
Dickinson and friends pulled their own strings and were allowed to return a week later, a story they would delight in telling the rest of their lives.
But the accusations of communist influence would resurface again at the height of McCarthyism, when the New York Herald Tribune and Time magazine published stories in 1957 asserting that his home was a meeting place for exiled U.S. communists. Dickinson enlisted his family’s lawyers to fight back and eventually received retractions from both publications. The Chicago Sun-Times, which ran a news wire service version of the Herald Tribune story, issued an apology.
Dickinson went on to work 25 more years at the Instituto as its education director.
His life in San Miguel was hardly limited to the art schools. A big White Sox fan, he started an amateur baseball club, for which he was a player-manager.
During one stretch, his team won 84 straight games against teams from neighboring towns. He also arranged for baseball fields to be built, which is why, years after his death, the local government recently invested public funds into fixing up one that’s named for him.
His other love was orchids. Dickinson traveled throughout Mexico and the world collecting the plants, which he then grew across the ravine from his home in a sprawling garden that was open to the public even for a period after his death.
“It was mostly a home for the orchids, not for him,” joked Felipe Dobarganes, who worked with Dickinson at Instituto Allende, co-founded by his grandmother.
Dobarganes said the humble Dickinson conducted himself around town like a monk.
“If you’d see him on the street, you wouldn’t think he had a dime to his name,” Dobarganes said.
But, all the while, Dickinson was using his inherited wealth to help the locals. Dickinson helped found the town’s first public library in 1954, donated the land for the foreigner section of the local cemetery where his own grave can be found and was particularly proud of his volunteer work delivering books to rural schoolchildren. He also brought them shoes and vouchers to pay for medical care.
Less easy to document is Dickinson’s impact on the LGBTQ community, which formed an important subset of San Miguel’s ex-pat community from its earliest days. Dickinson’s biographer Virtue was equivocal on the subject of his sexual orientation, though nobody in San Miguel seems to have any doubt.
“I can assure you there was no question that Stirling was a gay gentleman, and he was a gentleman,” said Howard Haynes, 86, who became friends with Dickinson after moving to San Miguel 25 years ago with his partner Bill Harris.
“He was one of the great mentors,” said Haynes, a wealthy Kansas City native who has assumed some of Dickinson’s civic duties. “He set the tone for so many people.”
Haynes said Dickinson was sharp and engaged until the end, when he died in a freak accident while leaving a meeting for one of his favorite charities, Patronato Pro Ninos. The meeting was held at a home high on a hill, and Dickinson somehow drove his parked car off a cliff while putting it in gear.
Patronato Pro Ninos remains the primary charitable beneficiary of the San Miguel historical walking tours, which are conducted three times a week from the plaza across from the Parroquia.
At some point in those tours, the story always comes back to the role of the man from Chicago.