When once the dust of Mexico has settled upon your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land. Neill James, lesbian writer/adventurer/ philanthropist penned this in her 1944 travel book, Dust on My Heart. She was on a supposed six-month tour of Mexico, writing the fourth of her books in the “Petticoat Vagabond” series about her adventures in cultures around the world. Little did she know that she would spend the next fifty years in the small, mountain village of Ajijic until her death at the age of ninety-nine. Her residence on Lake Chapala, was donated to the Lake Chapala Society and became a hub serving Lakeside foreigners as well as the Mexican community for more than fifty years.

Here is the first paragraph of Neill James’ Dust on My Heart:

I am by instinct, a global vagabond. I cannot rest from travel. Glamour of the unknown has lured me thrice up and down and around the world. Alone, I have shared the home life of peoples in extremes of latitudes, longitudes and altitudes. I have tented on arctic snows beneath the Northern Lights with fur-clad Laplanders who follow the reindeer, have supped with gentle Fiji Islanders, and tattooed Maoris, and have breakfasted on seaweed in the grass huts of the Ainu. I have worshipped in a Malay Snake Temple at sea level and joined Buddhists at prayer on lofty Fujiyama. Restrictions imposed by a world at war (WWII) foreshortened my horizon, and guided my eager footsteps south to Mexico. 

She was much-maligned (a single woman, ah ha! and a writer! must be crazy, a prevaricator at the least! cantankerous! a provocateur!). She was a mystery woman, much-praised and most probably a US intelligence agent. Most of all, she was her own woman. A year ago, a blogpost of mine called Female and Fearless spoke of women writers before me here in Ajijic, and included my beginning glimpse of Neill James.

Since then, I have heard some first-hand stories of her ferocious way of life. I am glad to have a sense of her that sees past the sanitized and sainted version recalling only her splendid philanthropy. She was an inventive woman, belonging to herself, a person who was whole. And women becoming whole shift the planet’s paradigm.


Books by Neill James, 1885-1994:

Dust on My Heart:Petticoat Vagabond in Mexico
Petticoat Vagabond In Ainu Land
Petticoat Vagabonds Up and Down The World in Asia
White Reindeer
Atlantic Rendezvous
Penkerth, Journey’s End

5 Responses to “Neill

  • So cool! I would love to hear more of the stories of her life. Is any of her writing accessible in print or online?

  • Susan Larson
    9 months ago

    Now I want to read a lot more about her! Loved the phrase about her previously “sanitized” legacy!

  • astrologerjenny
    9 months ago

    Fascinating. I wonder if any of her books are in my library?

  • Hi Susa – has the dust settled around you too now? Of course you could make anywhere your home, you have the feel to fit in.

  • So glad I’ve now been there to Ajijic, and to her former residence.

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