This article is from the October 2004 The Mexico
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LAS JOYAS DE MEXICO
Casa Robert Brady – Cuernavaca
by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle is a longtime Mexico File subscriber and contributing editor from Maine. The object of the Las Joyas de Mexico feature is to highlight for MF readers some of the lesser-known but most rewarding of Mexico’s geographic, human and artistic treasures.
From the time I was a kid living with my family in Cuernavaca, I have a vague recollection of a breakfast where there was a lot of background noise coming from my parents. Since I do not come from a family of morning people, this was most unusual, which is probably why I remember it. Usually, my siblings and I ate breakfast on the glass-topped table on the balcony outside the dining room with our nannies, while my parents rose later and ate without benefit of having to listen to all of us.
Family lore has it that the discussion centered on a cocktail party my mother had attended the previous evening at the home of American ex-patriot Robert Brady, who lived a couple of blocks from us, where she had been introduced to his guest of honor, Josephine Baker. My father, working in Mexico City, had arrived home late in the evening and missed it. The issue apparently was that my mother had not told him Josephine Baker would be there. (For those who don’t know, Baker was a black American dancer with a body to die for who left behind the discrimination of the US to live and work in Paris and was famous for supposedly dancing nude behind a bunch of bananas.) My mother claimed she hadn’t known who the guest of honor was!
I, alas, have no memory of either Robert Brady or his fabulous house from that time in my life. Later, when I was grown and starting my own love affair with Mexico, I was in Cuernavaca having lunch with a childhood friend still living there and mentioned my parents’ odd quarrel. My friend said to me, “We ought to go see that house – they’ve turned it into a museum, you know.” I didn’t know, but thought it might be fun to have that little look into what I viewed as my family’s past.
Anyone who visits Cuernavaca and skips Casa Robert Brady is missing something extraordinary. The house itself as seen from the street is non-descript – another high wall on the sidewalk directly behind the Cathedral in a town of high walls hiding magnificent homes and landscapes. It was once part of the 16th century monastery connected to the cathedral, but fell into disrepair and was walled off and sold to Iowa native and would-be artist Brady when he came to town in 1962. While, in my opinion, Bob was a good artist in his own right (there is a marvelous portrait of his cook hung in the house), he turned out to be a better collector – of art, of people, of the essentials of a culture that he loved.
The restoration he did on his house and courtyard is a work of art in itself. Bob fussed over every detail in the restoration of the adobe and stone building and then placed each of his objects with the utmost care. Thankfully, after his death in 1986, his brother endowed the house as a museum and it has been kept exactly as Bob lived in it. Built on several levels, it is a museum in the best sense, reflecting the life and art of the times. With fourteen rooms and more than 1,200 pieces in all, my favorite display is an outstanding collection of crucifixes covering the wall of the sitting room outside Bob’s bedroom, but another is a whimsical grouping of antique iron keys on one wall of the lower level bar. There is an original Kahlo along with several Rivera, Tumayo and Cavarrubias pieces in the living room. Molas and woven wool carpets from Teotilan de Valle adorn the floors and walls throughout the house. There are cabinets of treasures everywhere, in every room and hallway, including a grouping of wooden santos upstairs and masks in the lower level lounge. Some of the finest examples of olinala that I have ever seen hang in the dining room and vintage Tonala pottery is everywhere. There is a history of Talavera tile throughout the house, from large antique urns to the entirely tiled bathrooms and kitchen. Perhaps a most interesting stop is the second story balconied bedroom (with adjoining private bath complete with sunken tub) that Bob decorated and named for his good friend Baker, who loved Mexico and visited him often. Additionally, Bob collected textiles from all over Latin America. Museum docents will tell you that there are enough fabrics in the collection to replace pillows, cushions and coverlets destroyed by the sun for decades to come.
Not to be forgotten is the gorgeous landscaping of this great house. The courtyard is small but impressively arranged with both foliage and flowering tropical vegetation as well as unique garden sculpture and the grave markers of Bob and his small dogs. There are pots of cacti and succulents on every nicho, corridor and balcony. On the lowest level are an immaculately kept patio, small lawn and pool. According to my siblings, during our time in Mexico one of our nannies had a sister who worked for Bob and occasionally took us there to visit. I apparently loved Bob’s small kidney-shaped pool because – never a good swimmer – I was able to swim the narrowest part of Bob’s pool when I was unable to successfully cross our larger rectangular pool.
Family legend says there were intermittent visits between my parents and Bob for most of the time we lived in Cuernavaca. Perhaps my mother had gardening and animals and, to a lesser extent, folk art, in common with Bob. I can’t imagine what my father – a reserved and taciturn man – did there, except maybe hope for another chance to get a look at Josephine Baker. For myself, every time I visit Casa Robert Brady, I am struck again by the serenity and cool beauty of this magnificent home – this gentle man’s great tribute to his adopted country that represents all of Mexico’s finest artistic expressions within its walls. You really shouldn’t miss this gorgeous spot.