The wind comes up out of nowhere

Charles Nicholl on the disappearance of Arthur Cravan

In the annals of French literature, Arthur Cravan is more often a colourful footnote than a sober paragraph. He is usually referred to as ‘the poet and boxer Arthur Cravan’, and this odd-seeming conjunction is often fleshed out with more disreputable terms such as ‘con man’ or ‘adventurer’. He is also described as Oscar Wilde’s nephew, which is true up to a point: he was the nephew of Wilde’s wife, Constance. As a writer, Cravan had a brief and stormy career, in Paris, in the years around the outbreak of the First World War. His chief influences were Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry and the Italian Futurists; he preceded by a few years the Dadaists and Surrealists, who acclaimed him a pioneering figure. He was, André Breton said, a ‘barometer’ of the avant-garde. As a heavyweight boxer, his career peaked in 1916, when he fought the formidable Jack Johnson in Barcelona. He lasted six rounds. These two strands of Cravan’s career are not as diverse as one might think: his stance as a writer was extremely combative – confrontation and ‘anti-art’ polemic were his métier. As the poet Mina Loy, who was briefly his wife, put it, ‘The instinct of “knock-out” dominated his critique.’ One of my favourite Cravan pronouncements is the contemptuous dismissal, ‘Toute la littérature, c’est: ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta.’ One might translate ‘ta ta’ as ‘blah blah’, but the sentence is also very physical, the repeated monosyllable delivered like a series of jabs to the chin of literature.

At its best, Cravan’s writing has a wayward brilliance, but probably his greatest creation was himself, or at least the deeply dodgy persona he presented to the public. Before a fight he would unnerve opponents with a bellowed recital of his accomplishments: not his successes in the ring, which were not much to boast about, but a dubious curriculum vitae including ‘hotel-rat’ (i.e. thief), muleteer, snake-charmer, chauffeur, ‘ailurophile’ (cat-lover), gold prospector, nephew of Oscar Wilde, and ‘poet with the shortest hair in the world’. These pre-fight performances are comic, and he is often very funny on the page, but his eccentricities hover on the edge of a more menacing kind of craziness. He stood 6’ 4” tall; for the Johnson fight he weighed in at 105 kilos (over 16 stone) but was heavier when out of condition. In civvies he was insouciant, dandified, caddish-looking: a fur collar, a chapeau melon, his huge shoulders draped in an expensive-looking suit probably bought on credit. Fair-haired and square-jawed, in certain photographs he is very handsome, and he was known as a voracious womaniser. Loy’s first impression when they met in New York was that he combined ‘the air of a Viking with the repartee of a Victorian charwoman’.

His name is not much known this side of the Channel, where there is as yet no biography of him or translation of his works. (A long-awaited life is in preparation by the leading Anglophone Cravaniste, Roger Lloyd Conover.) This lacuna is curious because although Cravan was Swiss by birth, and wrote exclusively in French, he was a mix of Irish and English by blood. I have long been fascinated by this hyperbolic but ultimately enigmatic figure, and not the least enigmatic thing about him is the matter of his death. In early 1917 he left Europe for the United States, on the run from the draft: ‘On ne me fait pas marcher, moi!’ There he continued to sow scandal, notably when arrested for indecent exposure at the opening of an exhibition by the ‘Independents’ (Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp et al) at New York’s Grand Central Gallery. The entry of the United States into the war made him liable once more to conscription or detention, and in the last days of 1917 he crossed the border into Mexico. He was last seen in about October 1918, but whether this is the date of his death remains open to question. If it is, he died at the age of 31. It is generally said he drowned off the Mexican coast, but among the many legends that surround him are alleged later sightings, and there are some picturesque theories concerning his survival, the neatest of which is that ‘A. Cravan’ reinvented himself as the no less mysterious author ‘B. Traven’. (Other than orthographic neatness, however, this theory has little to recommend it.) On a recent visit to Mexico I attempted some sifting of the facts and fantasies of his disappearance – if not to answer, then at least to pose more clearly the questions that hang over his last months.

It comes as no great surprise to learn that Arthur Cravan was not really Arthur Cravan. He first used the name in 1910, when he was in his early twenties. It is a nom de plume, but the nature of the man tempts one to call it an alias. It is generally said (though never, as far as I can find, by Cravan himself) that the forename is a tribute to Arthur Rimbaud, whose poetry and lifestyle were undoubtedly a major influence; and that the surname is taken from a small village in Burgundy (now Cravant) where his first wife, Renée Bouchet, came from.

He was born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd, in a residential suburb of Lausanne, on 22 May 1887, the second son of a well-to-do Anglo-Irish gentleman, Otho Holland Lloyd, and a former governess, Clara ‘Nellie’ Hutchinson, whose origins are obscure but who was certainly born illegitimate. They were married in 1884, just a month after Otho’s sister Constance married Oscar Wilde. (Cravan’s claim to be ‘the grandson of the queen’s chancellor’ – one of his pre-fight brags – was grounded in truth: his grandfather Horace Lloyd was a distinguished jurist and privy councillor. Many of Cravan’s statements put one in mind of Adorno’s psychoanalytical maxim, ‘only the exaggerations are true.’) Though Cravan never met him, his notorious Uncle Oscar was a profound influence; more so than his father, who deserted the family shortly after Cravan’s birth. He was 13 when Wilde died in Paris, but the name had never been mentioned in his bourgeois family. It was a later meeting with his cousin Vyvyan Holland – Wilde’s second son – that kindled his interest. One of his first truly Cravanesque pieces, self-published in 1913, is a strange séance-like ‘interview’ with the long-dead Wilde, whom he also calls Sebastian after Wilde’s Parisian alias, Sebastian Melmoth. The piece veers between adulation and insult; Cravan is seduced by the possibility that he was Wilde’s illegitimate son. The ending is rather fine:

Out on the pavement he squeezed my hand and, embracing me, he murmured once more: ‘You are a terrible boy’ [these words in English in the original]. I watched him going off into the night, and just at that moment something tempted me to laugh, and from afar I stuck my tongue out at him, and made a gesture of giving him a great big kick. It was not raining but the air was chill. I remembered that Wilde had no overcoat, and I thought how poor he must be. A wave of sentiment rolled through my heart: I was sad and filled with love. In search of consolation I looked up – the moon was so lovely it only swelled my grief. I was thinking that Wilde had perhaps misunderstood my words; that he did not realise I could never be serious; that I had caused him pain. And I began to run after him like a madman. At every crossroads I strained my eyes for him, and shouted: ‘Sebastian! Sebastian!’ I careered up and down the boulevards until I was certain I had lost him. Wandering the streets I slowly made my way home, my eyes forever fixed on that useless idiot, the moon.

This is typical of Cravan’s style, the overwroughtness expressed in a style of controlled lucidity. As early as 1905 he wrote in a letter to his mother that he preferred a ‘down-to-earth style’ (‘le style terre-à-terre’), and apart from some flowery juvenilia he mostly stuck to that maxim, however bizarre the content. The Wilde interview was convincing enough to inspire a po-faced report in the New York Times of 9 December 1913. Its headline, ‘No One Found Who Saw Wilde Dead’, is an amusing vindication of Cravan as prankster, but has also a rather chilling note of prophesy concerning Cravan’s own demise five years later.

The Wilde interview appeared, like almost all of Cravan’s extant work, in the magazine Maintenant, which ran for five issues published at irregular intervals between 1912 and 1915. (A sixth issue was advertised but seems never to have appeared.) A complete flush of Maintenants recently sold at auction for €15,000. A confection of poetry, essay, polemic and scandal, Maintenant was entirely written and published by Cravan: the other contributors (Robert Miradique, W. Cooper, E. Lajeunesse, Marie Lowitska etc) are all pseudonyms. Even the advertisements bear his skewed imprint: the restaurant Chez Jourdain entices customers with the words, ‘Where can you see Van Dongen’ – the Flemish painter Kees van Dongen – ‘put food in his mouth, chew, digest, smoke?’; and a glue has the slogan, ‘You can’t break everything, but with Seccotine you can glue everything together again.’ The most extensive of Cravan’s subsidiary identities, it seems, is that of Edouard Archinard, who not only contributed to Maintenant, but had a small exhibition of paintings in Paris in 1914. He is still mentioned briefly in French art reference-books (‘Little is known about . . .’), but Roger Conover argues convincingly in his 1992 essay ‘The Secret Names of Arthur Cravan’ that he was yet another of Cravan’s disguises, and even discovers that Archinard was the name of a headmaster at the college in Lausanne that Cravan attended. In 1992, four small Archinard canvasses were exhibited at Paris’s Galerie 1900-2000, whose owner, Marcel Fleiss, is a noted Cravaniste. Cravan’s ventriloquy seems almost obsessive: ‘my fatal plurality’, he calls it in Maintenant 3; ‘my character, heart of my inconsistencies’; ‘my detestable nature, which . . . makes me sometimes honest and sometimes sly; vain and modest, coarse and distinguished’. He presented, Loy said, ‘an unreality of himself to the world, to occupy himself with while he made his spiritual getaway’.

Cravan sold his magazine in the streets of Paris, out of a wheelbarrow, typically stationed outside some grand cultural event comprehensively trashed in the issue he was selling. He was the ‘critique brutale’, the prize-fighter amok among the aesthetes. A particular target was André Gide. In Maintenant 2 (July 1913), Cravan announced: ‘I have to go and visit Gide, he’s a millionaire: no kidding, I’m going to fleece that old scribbler.’ The next issue duly featured an interview full of taunts and abuse. Part of the reason was Gide’s equivocal comments about Wilde, and the two are compared throughout: Wilde, Cravan said approvingly, ‘looked like an elephant’, while Gide looks ‘neither like an elephant, nor like an ordinary man: he looks like an artist’ – the latter a term of execration. Another writer he tangled with was Guillaume Apollinaire, who challenged him to a duel further to some obscene comments about the painter Marie Laurencin. Other provocations were issued in a series of Cravan ‘lectures’, anarchic improvisations somewhat like the ‘happenings’ of the 1960s. A typical annonce reads: ‘At Les Noctambules on Friday 6 March [1914], at 9 o’clock in the evening, Arthur Cravan will lecture, dance and box.’ He gave these one-man shows in curious and often revealing attire: a sense of brute erotic prowess was one aspect of the provocation. During one of these ‘pantomimic atrocities’ (as Loy called them), he brandished a loaded shotgun and threatened to commit suicide on stage; at another he hurled a heavy attaché case full of papers into the audience. Of these performances Picabia said drily: ‘Cravan never tried to shock others: he tried to shock himself, which is a much harder thing to do.’ Among his friends were the artist Robert Delaunay and the poet Blaise Cendrars. The latter recalled Cravan dancing the tango at the Bal Bullier nightclub, in a black shirt with the front cut away to reveal ‘bleeding tattoos and obscene inscriptions on his skin’.

Among those he encountered in the Paris nightclubs was the former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, a fugitive from America since being prosecuted under the Mann Act for his liaison with a teenage white girl. Cravan said of him: ‘After Poe, Whitman and Emerson he is the greatest glory of America.’ There was a background of artistic interest in boxing at this time, but although Braque and Picasso made drawings of black boxers they never went as far as getting into the ring with them. Cravan fought Johnson amid much fanfare at the Plaza de Toros in Barcelona on 23 April 1916; some scratchy footage of the fight remains. It was a one-sided contest but Cravan lasted five three-minute rounds before being felled in the sixth. ‘Johnson laughed,’ he later recalled, ‘and I think I laughed too. I knew I was going to get beaten.’

With his share of the 50,000-peseta purse Cravan bought a ticket on the steamship Montserrat, and in early January 1917 he embarked at Cadiz, destination New York. It was not the first time he had been to America. From his youth he had been a prodigious traveller – ‘I have twenty countries in my memory, and I carry the colours of a hundred towns in my soul’ – and while some of his more exotic itineraries are hard to verify it is fairly certain he had travelled in the States as a teenager, and perhaps also in the East and Australia. One of his best poems, ‘Sifflet’ (‘Whistle’), evokes the charisma of the docks, where ‘the rhythm of the ocean cradles the liners’ and ‘the gaslights dance like spinning tops’ and ‘the heroic express-train whistles’. Among his fellow passengers on the Montserrat was Leon Trotsky, a rather different kind of exile (though also ultimately destined for a fatal rendezvous in Mexico). Trotsky noted in his journal that the ship was full of ‘undesirable elements’ – ‘deserters, adventurers, speculators’ – among them ‘a boxer and part-time writer, a cousin of Oscar Wilde, who frankly declared that he would rather smash a Yankee’s face in the noble art of boxing than be done in by a German’.

In New York Cravan met and fell in love with Mina Loy. She was 34 years old, very beautiful, ‘splendid and inaccessible’; alternatively (in the view of Cravan’s mother) she was a neurotic Jewish divorcee with two young children parked in Italy. Their affair has the sparkle of obsession: ‘tenderness awakened in him,’ she later wrote, ‘and tenderness in a strong man is always a deluge.’ But soon the threat of conscription grew acute, and in the late summer of 1917, Cravan set out on an ill-fated and rather desolate tramp northwards with a writer called A.B. Frost, who contracted tuberculosis and subsequently died. The journey can be traced in Cravan’s increasingly desperate letters to Mina: New York . . . New Haven . . . New London . . . Boston . . . Portland . . . Bangor . . . Meductic . . . Sydney, Nova Scotia . . . St John’s, Newfoundland. Then the trail goes cold: it is said he enlisted in the crew of a Danish fishing boat. It was probably during this journey that Cravan’s last extant literary text was written. A sheaf of what might be called ‘automatic writings’, it remained in Loy’s possession and was first published in New York in 1942, under the title Notes. Introducing it, André Breton said: ‘Connoisseurs will breathe in these pages the pure climate of genius, of genius in the raw.’ Sometimes unreadable, it occasionally blossoms into moments of startling beauty: ‘It is snowing on the empty benches – the biggest monuments make the most dust – all these fruits promised by autumn – all that shines in springtime is promised by winter – the silvery sun of winter – Canada, I know you are green – and to take a walk in the woods . . .’

In December Cravan wrote to Loy from the border town of Nuevo Laredo, announcing his imminent departure for Mexico, and telling her to send any letters to ‘Arturo Cravan, General Delivery, Mexico City’. He sends her a photograph ‘taken for my Mexican passport’, apologising for the ‘piteous state’ of his clothes – ‘just look at that torn faux col!’ This is perhaps the extant passport photo of Cravan, almost certainly our last image of him, haunting in its sense of the dandy now somewhat battered by fortune’s knocks. (Is he wearing a faux col – a detachable collar – and if so is it torn? It is crumpled, certainly.) The letter includes the ominous comment ‘Je suis l’homme des extrêmes et du suicide,’ but this refers to the apparent breakdown of his relationship with Loy (who consistently failed to answer his letters) and need not fuel the theory that Cravan later committed suicide. He crossed into Mexico on 20 December 1917.

Cravan in Mexico – it is not quite a zone of silence, but it must be reconstructed from difficult sources. There are only two eye-witness accounts. One is Colossus, Loy’s fragmentary memoir of her relationship with Cravan, unpublished in her lifetime, but it is not very informative, being mainly bound up with emotional and poetic concerns. The other is a little-known book by Bob Brown, a New York journalist who celebrated the life of the ‘slackers’ – as the drop-outs and draft-dodgers of the day were known – in a fictionalised memoir called You Gotta Live, published in 1932. In this, Cravan appears as Rex Johns and Loy as Rita. Brown writes of Rex’s ‘striking figure’, his ‘smooth manners and grace of being’, his charisma for women (‘what Rex Johns had, he had for women’) and his hybrid exoticism: ‘Educated in Europe and England, talking French, German, Italian and Spanish as no native would, Rex’s nationality was hard to place: he seemed like a Scandinavian of the wealthy, aristocratic class.’ Brown is an eye-witness but his novelising streak makes him an unreliable one. To these sources may be added a few notices of Cravan in the Mexican press, exclusively in a boxing connection; and a few brief letters he wrote to his remarried mother, Nellie Grandjean, in Switzerland. These letters have never been published in full; they were in the possession of Cravan’s elder brother, Otho Lloyd, until his death in 1979; they are partly cited, in Spanish, in Maria Lluisa Borras’s Arthur Cravan (1993). At the outer periphery of information there is a buzz of second and third-hand testimonies, plugged rather into the mythos than the facts (a distinction, admittedly, that Cravan blurs more radically than most). The following is a brief resumé of what we know about ‘Arturo Cravan’ in Mexico.

In early 1918, in Mexico City, he worked as a boxing instructor at the Escuela de Cultura Física Sandow, in a large town house on Calle Tacuba which is still standing, elegantly refurbished, with tall French windows illuminating the former gym on the first floor. During his first weeks in the city he lodged at Hotel Juárez, a few blocks down the same street. This may possibly be the ‘Slackers’ Hotel’ described by Bob Brown as an ‘ancient hidalgo mansion, grand, crazy and creaky with ghostly staircases’, but it is certainly not the glass and concrete building that stands at the address today. Calle Tacuba lies behind the fashionable shopping streets of Cinco de Mayo and Francisco Madero: quieter, more humdrum. It was like this when Graham Greene passed through in the 1930s, the street ‘where you can buy your clothes cheaper if you don’t care much for appearances’.

In mid-January, Loy arrived in Mexico City, and there they were married on 25 January 1918. ‘We left the town hall, walking with great strides like conquering giants,’ she wrote. They set up home, very poor, in a ‘terrible’ room with arum lilies on the patio and ‘old sorceresses’ squatting on the pavement outside. Brown describes Loy cooking tortillas on a charcoal stove in their ‘dark, earthern-floored cave . . . in the garbaged outskirts’, but a letter of 30 April gives their address as Calle de Soto, which is just off the central boulevard of Paseo de la Reforma. In May, Cravan was sick, and there were fears for his life, but by July he had sufficiently recovered to resume training. On 9 August, he fought a Mexican heavyweight, Honorato Castro, at the Teatro Principio in Mexico City; he went ten rounds and lost on points. His promoter was a man named Red Winchester, described by Brown (under the name Red Remington) as a ‘flame-haired New York Jew’, and one of the most energetic of the Slackers in Mexico. ‘Red walked beside Rex like a keeper beside his elephant; he was only half Rex’s height but his face seemed twice as beaming-wide.’

Cravan’s last known letter, written to his mother from Mexico City, is dated 3 September 1918; in it he says he will be leaving Mexico in 12 days’ time, and tells her to write to him at Poste Restante in Buenos Aires. His expected departure doubtless depended on the proceeds of his forthcoming fight with Jim ‘Black Diamond’ Smith, slated for 15 September. (Boxing archives list various Jim Smiths around this time: he may be the heavyweight from Westchester, New York, who fought in the States between 1908 and 1917.) Two days before the fight, a glimpse of Cravan is granted us by the Mexican magazine Arte y deportes, whose reporter, signed only as ‘Chaplin’, caught up with him at a rooming-house on Calle Nuevo Méjico:

Stairs lead up from a small entrance hall, to a dining-room where they are making chocolate. I ask a little nervously for Señor Cravan, the boxer who will fight Jim Smith next Sunday . . . In his room I meet the strong and muscular fighter, who grips my hand as if we were old friends, invites me to take a seat, and says: ‘I am a native of Switzerland, my name is Arthur Cravan, 27 years old, married. I have been boxing for seven years in all parts of the world.’ He tells me that Mexico is an unforgettable experience, that the climate here is delightful, the landscapes enchanting. He says he is being prepared for the fight by Rosendo Arnaiz, the Mexican champion, and that he devotes three or four hours a day to training. ‘I begin at five in the afternoon and finish at eight or nine. Much of the day I spend walking in Chapultepec. Most nights I am asleep by half past eight. My agent is Señor Winchester, here present: he accepts all kinds of bets on me.’

The reporter’s verbatims seem strained and not quite trustworthy, but this is a more vivid glimpse of Cravan in Mexico City than either Loy or Brown gives us: the thick sweet smell of cacao, the walks in the woods of Chapultepec, the genial patter with its casual untruths (he was not 27 but 31). These are the last recorded words of Cravan: all bets are on!

The fight with Black Diamond Smith took place at the Plaza de Toros on Sunday 15 September 1918, the last fixed date in Cravan’s life story. It resulted in a humiliating KO. The contest was ‘laughable’, Arte y deportes reported. Cravan did little except use his superior height to keep Smith at bay; Smith despatched him early in the second round with a ‘blow to the thorax’ followed by ‘un terrible swing’ to the jaw. According to Loy, Cravan’s purse for the fight was about 2000 pesos, which he shared with others who had ‘helped him when he was starving and sick’. Cravan and Loy probably left Mexico City shortly after this. They had certainly left by 18 October, when it was reported in the same magazine that Cravan ‘is in Veracruz, and will probably return for a rematch against Smith’. On this last point Arte y deportes was wrong, for the next we hear of them they are in the highlands, in the airy town of Oaxaca. During this journey, Loy says, they earned a few pesos by putting on ‘little theatrical shows’ in the plazas and villages they passed through – a tantalising revenance of the Parisian Cravan. Cravan also boxed in Oaxaca, and according to Brown scored some notable victories, but Brown’s Rex wins fights more often than Cravan did. And, by this stage visibly, Loy was pregnant.

The scene of Cravan’s disappearance lies on the Pacific coast of Mexico, at the point below Acapulco where the coast curves round to run almost due east towards the Guatemalan border. It is hardly populous now, and was doubtless very wild nearly ninety years ago, when Cravan and Loy arrived at the small seaport of Salina Cruz. They came by train, on the narrow-gauge line which still snakes through the outskirts of the town, though it’s now disused. The train line tells a story of boom and bust. It ran across the isthmus from Veracruz, linking the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, and when it was completed in 1907 Salina Cruz was transformed into an international port. But just seven years later the Panama Canal was opened: the rail-link became instantly obsolete, and Salina Cruz’s glory years were over. Today, the station at which Cravan alighted in 1918 is deserted: a boarded-up ticket-office in fake red brick, a girdered terminus rampant with shrubbery. Some of its high glass roof is still intact, making it a giant hothouse. I think of Cravan’s ‘Sifflet’: the train ‘whistles infinitely across the valleys,/Dreaming of the oasis: the station with a sky of glass’.

‘Arrived at a new town,’ Loy wrote, Cravan

would give it a glance and assess its population, then tramp through every street, round its suburbs, along the harbours, through the warehouses on the wharves, past the shunting lines of railways . . . Wherever one went with him one was sure to arrive sooner or later in some forbidden spot, so intuitively did he separate himself from the accepted places. He was looking for something of his own among all this, that something the poet always seems to have mislaid.

Salina Cruz today is a brash, friendly, upbeat place, buffeted by a warm ocean wind that whips grit in your eyes and rolls plastic bottles down the street. A measure of prosperity has returned since the port was renovated as an oil terminal in the 1970s. The centre of town is a pleasant, palm-shaded plaza where the urracas, the glossy black crows of the region, descend in hordes at twilight with a shrilling so intense it’s like an electric current. Around here are some places that Cravan would have known. A block away is the old Hotel Gambrinus, its arches now scrawled with graffiti, its ground floor subdivided into murky boutiques. The swanky place to stay was the Hotel Terminus (or Hotel Salina Cruz), with its long colonnaded breezeway, and its spire like a minor French château, but one must be content with an old photograph. It was recently demolished – soon to be replaced, I am told, by a Mormon temple. But these hotels would not have housed our indigent poets: they stayed at a place that Brown generically calls the ‘Slackers’ Hotel’ (as he did the one in Mexico City), of which we learn only that it had green shutters and looked out on a warehouse where molasses was stored. Another of Cravan’s haunts here was a dive called Otto’s Bar, but Brown’s description – a ‘shaky shack’ with ‘pink cotton mosquito netting at the doors and windows’ – does not encourage the idea of its survival.

The heart of the town was its docks, and they are gone, or rather transformed beyond recognition. The cantinas in the dockside alleys have closed down, though their cheery promises of food and drink ‘and a little bit extra’ remain painted on the walls. Since 1979 Salina Cruz has been an oil terminal with a refining capacity of 300,000 barrels per day, a refrigerated terminal for liquid petroleum gas, and the only dry dock on the Pacific seaboard between San Diego and the Panama Canal. Around these facilities lies a rind of razor-wired walls and security gates. The old fishermen’s wharf is somewhere inside, but you cannot go there if you are not a fisherman; you are directed instead down an unpromising little trail that skirts the cordon. Across the ubiquitous train tracks, past the wire netting with scraps of black plastic caught like chars from a bonfire, and suddenly you are out on the wide Pacific seashore. It was perhaps here that Cravan worked fixing up an old boat, as described by Brown: ‘Rex . . . found a stout sailing vessel that suited. Because of a hole stove in its hull he bought it cheap . . . He had the boat towed to a small private pier a mile from town, where he worked at refitting it.’

This boat plays a crucial role in the story of Cravan’s disappearance. In Brown’s version, when the boat was ready, Rex sailed it out one evening, intending just to ‘go out a little way to get the sails working’ and then ‘tack back’, but never returned. The chapter ends with Rita forlornly waiting on the seashore, ‘staring out over the black water’. This is poetic licence: Loy was almost certainly not in Salina Cruz when Cravan sailed out. She had boarded a Japanese hospital ship bound for Buenos Aires, where she had arrived by the beginning of November. Her own version of events is inscribed in a long, lucid letter to Nellie Grandjean, dated 7 March 1921. It is not first-hand, but it is based on the eye-witness account of Owen Cattell, another of the ‘slacker’ crew at Salina Cruz. According to this, Cravan left Salina Cruz to sail up the coast to Puerto Angel, a journey of four days ‘in his little boat’. (The distance is about 150 nautical miles across the Gulf of Tehuantepec.) There his plan was to buy or fix up a larger boat, big enough to take him and three others down the coast to Argentina (or more probably to Valparaiso, Chile, then overland to Argentina). The others were Winchester, Cattell and an unnamed Swedish mariner, Cattell’s friend. Loy writes:

They all pooled their money and gave it to Fabian so he could buy a boat. They waited for him at the hotel in Salina Cruz, so that they did not have to pay for the journey to Puerto Angel, as they had very little money left . . . There is not the slightest possibility of him disappearing on purpose. He left all his belongings with his friends who were waiting for him, despite them urging him to take them with him in case something happened. But he did not want to. He took Cattell’s clothes (who was half his height) because his pack was easier to stow in the boat which he took to Puerto Angel: he wanted everything shipshape so they could slip away at night in the boat with as little luggage as possible.

The date of his departure from Salina Cruz would have been mid-October 1918. It cannot be much earlier: he was still in Mexico City in mid-September, and had since travelled many hundreds of miles, fought boxing-matches, and bought and repaired a boat. It cannot be much later, for by 3 November Loy was writing from Buenos Aires asking Nellie Grandjean if she had news of him: Cravan was by that point missing.

In the same narrative, Loy states that ‘Fabian bought a boat in Puerto Angel,’ but as no one ever saw him after his departure from Salina Cruz, this seems to be a supposition. Did Cravan, in fact, ever make it to Puerto Angel? In the somewhat unlikely hope of an answer I set off for this picturesque little fishing port, four days sailing in Cravan’s ‘little boat’, but nowadays reachable in a few hours by bus on an exhilarating coast road skirting the lower flanks of the Sierra Madre del Sur. An interview with the jovial harbourmaster, Captain Bartolomé López Ruiz, draws a predictable blank. There are no old ledgers in the neat office with its nautical charts and rule books. All boats docking in Puerto Angel have to register here, but after five years all the paperwork is sent up to the Coordinación General of the merchant navy (part of the Department of Communications and Transport) in Mexico City. The likelihood of documentation back to 1918? He seems to find the date amusingly distant. It is ‘not impossible’, he says, but I was later told that even thirty years ago registration was almost non-existent.

No building remains here from 1918: the coast was hit by a tsunami in 1928, which wiped out the entire waterfront. Juanito or John – a grizzled, pipe-smoking American of Finnish extraction, who has lived for years in Puerto Angel – filled me in on some local history. At the time of Cravan’s visit, the waterfront consisted of a single wharf and a couple of warehouses. The main trade was coffee, brought down from the Sierra by mule and loaded by launches onto ships in the bay; there were also mixed cargo vessels which carried passengers, and occasional visits from boats looking for pearls. There was no hotel or rooming-house here until the late 1930s. Juanito mused on Cravan’s requirements for the journey to Argentina. ‘To make that journey in those days he would have probably been sailing a small schooner. The trading vessels working up and down the coast today are diesel-powered, but in the old days it would have been a schooner-rigged sailing boat. For four people the minimum size would be thirty feet. But I’m beginning to wonder why he came here to buy a boat since there were no resident boats here to be purchased. Perhaps someone took him on a wild goose chase from which he never returned.’ Juanito also mentioned the possibility of pirates. ‘Pirates ruled this coast,’ he said. ‘Don’t underestimate the objective dangers. This was a wild and primitive coast.’ (If Cravan was murdered, piracy is more probable than the other scenario sometimes floated, that he was killed in connection with a fight-fixing scam: this seems to trace back to an unconvincing episode in Brown’s memoir, in which Rex fixes a fight in Mexico City.)

If Puerto Angel was indeed Cravan’s last port of call, there remains no documentary trace of his visit, and no architectural trace of the place he visited. But what does remain is the ocean, and the intimate knowledge of those who live by it. As I outlined the Cravan case to Captain López he took on an air of professional resignation. He was sailing in October? This is a very dangerous time: the época mala. It is the time of the nortes or northerlies: cold fronts in the Gulf of Mexico are displaced southwards, sending strong north winds gusting across the isthmus. They are particularly active in the Gulf of Tehuantepec, which Cravan had to cross: indeed, the fishermen here call these winds tehuantepecanos. López hauled out an old handbook from the Mexican Meteorological Service. A table of tropical storms in the Gulf over a 24-year period (1950-73) shows that nearly half occurred in September or October. The strongest recorded wind, a northwesterly in 1957, was measured at 54 metres per second, or about 120 mph. Juanito also had experience of the nortes: ‘There’s no visual indication, no clouds, just clear air, then the wind comes up out of nowhere, hurricane force, strong enough to pick up stones, strong enough to knock you flat and sink your boat.’

Local knowledge cannot re-create the event, but it has a coherence that the legend of Cravan’s survival surely lacks. It tells us of the real and regularly occurring dangers faced by a man crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec in October in a small and perhaps imperfectly repaired craft. On a thorny headland above Puerto Angel, watching a lone fishing boat head out into the pink-washed immensity of the Pacific at twilight, I know that the most plausible answer to Cravan’s disappearance is that he was lost at sea.

But if anyone resists the notion of plausibility it is the great and implausible Cravan, and the case for his survival should not go unremarked. A couple of small oddities can be discarded fairly quickly. The first is an item in Arte y desportes on 1 November 1918, promising an ‘interesting bout’ in Mexico City between Black Diamond Smith and ‘a worthy opponent just arrived from Mérida’. This sounds like a reference to Cravan, whose rematch with Smith had been trailed two weeks earlier, but the report is too vague to be taken as evidence that he had surfaced in Mexico City. The second is a telegram received by Cravan’s mother on 9 March 1919, purportedly written by Cravan himself in Buenos Aires. But this was probably sent by Loy as a desperate and rather heartless ploy to get information: so Mme Grandjean suspected, anyway. A third scenario refers to a report of two unidentified men shot dead by Mexican police on the Rio Grande: one of them is described as ‘very tall’ and ‘dark blond’. This report is not documented, as far as I know, and so is just another rumour.

But there is a more persistent ghost than these: an elusive figure going under the name of Dorian Hope, who was active in New York and Paris in the early 1920s, offering fabricated Oscar Wilde manuscripts for sale. The forgeries were accomplished, and were initially accepted as genuine by Robert Sherard, Wilde’s first biographer; some of them are now in the William Andrews Clark Library in Los Angeles. A book collector named Herbert Boyce Satcher met Hope in New York in 1919; he described him as ‘a strange sort of vagrant poet’, who wrote refined verses ‘completely at variance with his character’. His appearance was ‘rather derelict, with a velour hat down close over his eyes’. Satcher’s last relic of Dorian Hope was a postcard from Southampton, dated 6 July 1920. A few months later, from Paris, Hope, now describing himself as André Gide’s secretary, begins a series of letters offering more counterfeit material to book dealers in London and Dublin. He also used other aliases, such as Sebastian Hope, B. Holland and James M. Hayes. A book dealer, William Figgis, met him in Paris in 1922, ‘dressed like a Russian count with a magnificent fur-lined overcoat’. Many years later Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland said of Dorian Hope: ‘I always understood that he was my first cousin Fabian Lloyd. The Dorian came from Dorian Gray and the Hope from Adrian Hope, who was one of the family trustees. He also called himself Arthur Cravan and edited a short-lived Dadaist magazine’ (letter to William Figgis, 23 September 1955). However, Hope’s presence in Paris in the early 1920s seems to argue against him being Cravan: Cravan had been a well-known figure there only a few years previously. One of the problems of these supposed sightings is that the settings are unimaginative: a creaky ghost in predictable haunts. A glimpse of him in Tahiti or Tashkent would fit the bill rather better.

It is tempting to think of Cravan slipping off into the Mexican sunset, making his ‘spiritual getaway’ to start a new life under a new name. It chimes with a Modernist or Existentialist mythos of rootlessness, of which he is an early exemplar, though it would also be a sour reflection on his character, as his great escape would have involved leaving his pregnant wife virtually penniless in Argentina. Personally, I am unconvinced by his afterlife. In terms of available evidence it is more probable that he was drowned or murdered while crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec in October 1918: a journey he is known to have made, at a time of year known be dangerous. All the other scenarios are rumours and inventions to fill the vacuum of uncertainty. Physically huge but strangely weightless, Fabian Lloyd lived a life of indefinition – aliases, disguises, blurrings of fact and fantasy. He was a kind of illusionist, his greatest feat the creation of ‘Arthur Cravan’, his last trick the classic one of vanishing.

Mina Loy gave birth to a daughter, back in the comforts of her mother’s home in Surrey, on 5 April 1919. The child was named Fabienne in memory of the father she never knew. She was by all accounts a bright, charming, happy child; there is a photograph of her as a young girl by Man Ray; she later lived in Aspen, Colorado, with her architect husband, Frederic Benedict, and their four children. She died in 1997. Cravan was declared legally dead in 1920, but his memory haunted Loy long after. In ‘The Widow’s Jazz’ (1931) she addresses him, the ‘colossal absentee’:

Husband
how secretly you cuckold me with death
while this cajoling jazz
blows with its tropic breath
among the echoes of the flesh.

She outlived him by nearly half a century. Her last years were spent in Aspen, close to Fabienne, and there she died in the late summer of 1966, aged 83. She was once asked, in a foolish questionnaire sent by a literary magazine, what had been the happiest moment in her life. She replied: ‘Every moment spent with Arthur Cravan.’ And the unhappiest? ‘The rest of the time.’