Hotelier, raconteur, bibliophile, composer and educator, Paul Cleaver found his place in the sun.
He was born April 30, 1935 in a small Washington town optimistically named Centralia, although its founders’ optimism turned out to be unfounded. His father was an under-employed civil engineer who frequently moved the family for reasons of work. It was during the depths of the great depression but the Cleavers did better than most thanks to the family matriarch, Paul’s maternal grandmother, who was born on the Kansas frontier in 1867. “Through her frugality she prospered in real estate ventures which allowed my father to take better care of us,” he remembers.
They moved in short order to Yakima, Tacoma and Seattle, then just before the outbreak of World War II to Portland, Oregon, “one of the nicest cities in North America.” He and his two older sisters were joined by a new brother, Robin, in 1941. The postwar boom carried the family to Albany, a fast-growing community in the Willamette Valley, where Paul Cleaver graduated from high school near the top of his class in 1953. “I was a good student, I loved reading, music and farming and I spent a great deal of time in the beautiful Carnegie library there,” he recalls.
In an extraordinary stroke of good fortune, Paul Cleaver won acceptance to Deep Springs College, a tiny, little known, yet highly competitive school set on a 50,000-acre cattle ranch in California. “The faculty numbered six and the student body 25. Among my teachers, some permanent and some visiting, were (Nobel Laureate) Linus Pauling, Alan Watts (the preeminent American expert on Buddhism) and Lawrence A. Kimpton, the philosophy professor who later became the president of the University of Chicago.”
He spent “a sweet and happy year” at the University of Oregon in Eugene, “but missing a more intellectual atmosphere, I transferred to Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., where I formed a strong friendship with Richard Fariña.” Fariña later became a major figure in the beat and folk scene, the author of the acclaimed novel, “I’ve Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up To Me.” Richard married Mimi Baez, the teenage sister of Joan Baez, and as “Richard & Mimi Fariña” they composed and recorded songs with a guitar and Appalachian dulcimer.
“Richard’s grandmother still lived in Cuba . . . so we went together to Havana for Christmas vacation,” Paul says. This first taste of the tropics opened up a new reality for him. “The Pacific Northwest was my birth land, but I felt that my post-natal country was destined to be Cuba.” After graduation from Cornell (in English literature, with classmates like Thomas Pynchon and professors like Vladimir Nabokov) Paul found a first teaching position at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut.
But soon he went back to his sun-soaked island to teach. Unfortunately that was 1959, the first year of the Cuban Revolution, so his tropical sojourn was short-lived.
He moved instead to Coconut Grove, Florida, where he taught Spanish but after two happy years there his native roots called loudly to return to the northwest, “maybe to determine whether the moss had grown, or to see if my life would be one of terminal mildew. Again good fortune opened the doors to a teaching post at the Lakeside School in Seatle, a fine, traditional and yet modern-minded prep school,” where he spent another two years teaching, among many others, Bill Gates (French) and Paul Allen (Spanish), later to become the titans of Microsoft.
He had spent several summers taking university courses in Spanish in such cities as Havana, Guanajuato and Guadalajara, but he says he felt a need to accomplish with French what he had managed to do with Spanish. This was 1963 and Paris was calling. “I studied at the Alliance Francaise on Boulevard Raspail and I taught advanced English at the Palais Berlitz on Boulvard des Italiens. After the workday was done, it was only a few steps to the Opera Garnier or the Opera Comique.”
The winter of 1964 was spent on the island of Majorca, where he made the acquaintance of Robert Graves of “I, Claudius” fame in Dea, “near the house where Frederic Chopin and Georges Sand carried on their tumultuous affair.”
That spring he returned to Mexico, traveling to the family home in in Guadalajara.
“Our parents had taken up residence there in the mid-50s,” he explains. “They had become enamored of Mexico after their initial visit in 1929, when our father worked on the Texas border as a hydraulic engineer for the great irrigation projects of the era.
“Thus Mexico became integrated into our family psyche and all through childhood we were exposed to the fascinating new books proliferating during the 30s, when the Mexican post-revulutionary culture captured the attention of the world.
“I realized consequently what should have been obvious to me: Mexico became a perfectly acceptable substitute for Cuba, my ideal place, an ideal that seemed lost to me forever.”
In the fall of 1964 he joined the faculty at the Catalina Island school in California but after one year “a grand opportunity for a young man was extended by a fine country day school in Tucson, Arizona, the Green Fields School.” During his four years there he progressed from assistant headmaster to acting headmaster. He had attained the acme of his teaching career, but the times they were a-changing.
“This coincided with the cultural upheavals of the late 60s, spurred by Prof. Timothy Leary’s ‘Tune In, Turn On and Drop Out’ credo. And so I did.” He drove an old Chevy sedan to Belize, “a place that was aptly described at the time as a ghetto in outer space. I was intent on carrying forth my early dreams to become a farmer in a country where I could actually afford to buy land.
“But I failed to factor in the irreconcilable fact that Belize is the graveyard of failed projects.”
Broke and chagrined he moved to Palo Alto, California, where his brother Robin and one of his sisters were living. Robin invited him to join his successful business importing and distributing Mexican wool and angora, silk embroidery threads, Spanish cotton, Icelandic and English knitting yarns and fine Portuguese worsteds.
“I labored 10 joyous years in promoting and distributing our fine line for textile craftspeople, from 1970 to 1981. We also established Menlo Woolen Mills, which produced specialty yarns for craftspeople and rug manufacturers.”
The operation was later sold to Douglas French, the son of the former U.S. consul in Oaxaca, Roberta French, who later moved the operation to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca’s famous weaving center, where Menlo spinning frames are still operating to this day.
“My final and permanent move to Mexico occured in January, 1982, when my brother Robin asked me to join his project for building what would become the Hotel Santa Fe,” Paul recalls with satisfaction.” Robin had visited Puerto Escondido in 1975 and fell in love with the place. It was truly a tropical paradise, population 4,500 and not a single paved street.
“In 1976 our family organized a February birthday celebration for our mother’s 75th, who was still residing in Guadalajara. Our generous hosts were Don Daniel and Doña Reina Bramlett of the Hotel Rincon de Pacific. At that time my brother carried out his arrangements to purchase the property that would become the Santa Fe.”
In 1981 ground was finally broken on the hotel and in January 1982 Robin invited his brother to work on the project. Despite its initially successful commencement disaster struck almost immediately with the expropriation of the banking industry by then Pres. Lopez Portillo. “All of our investment dollars overnight were turned into ‘Mex Dollars’ and devalued by 50 per cent,” Paul remembers. “Within a few days they were virtually valueless.” The crisis put the ambitious plans for a first-class hotel on hold. Instead it was decided to concentrate on completing 10 rooms and having them ready by Christmas.
“We opened December 19, 1982, without electricity on the second floor, no windows had been installed anywhere,” he recalls. “Only the first floor had hot water. As we started fitting the windows, I was surprised when the guests asked us to wait until their departure because they so enjoyed the breeziness. They also said they enjoyed the romance of candlelight and nobody seemed concerned by the lack of hot water.” Among the first guests were Sally and Albert Grossman, (famous empresarios, managers of Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin and Peter, Pall and Mary), and Isabelle Allende, the famous Chilean novelist.
Now ensconced in his own boutique bed and breakfast, Tabachin del Puerto, nestled behind the Sante Fe, surrounded by his art, his collection of rare and historic books, the grand piano where he composes, Paul Cleaver is the consummate host. His elaborate breakfast table is the closest Puerto has to a literary salon. Among his regular visitors and friends from around the world, you might run into a Mexican actor, a French film critic, philosophers, poets or an English museum curator.
Having just celebrated his 76th birthday, he reflects on the privilege he feels to live and work, ruminate and create in this remarkably beautiful and rustic corner of Mexico. “Our town never ceases to amaze!”