It all started with a fight. A housewife flew away from her fiery marriage in a prop plane headed to the Mexican fishing village of Puerto Vallarta. She liked it there and began building a life separate from her husband Smokey, who stayed home in Texas. This is the story of a self-liberated woman in 1969, who jettisoned the expectations and conventions of two countries to create a life on her own terms. Along the way she almost single handedly created the tourism imprint and liberal regional personality that still draws visitors to Puerto Vallarta today. Her main tools were personal style, true-grit personality and the dynamics of cultural transfer.
Our heroine is Mary Margret Alexander Killen, called Silver Cortez, from her marriage to “Smokey” Cortez Hugh Killen. The sobriquet “Silver”, arose in part, for her beautiful hair and dramatic jewelry. Silver designed and built totally original houses that were broadcast to the world in movies and magazines. Her first place was a simplified, Spanish Colonial style sited on the beach in Conchas Chinas where she lived until 1995. With only local sources and some help from architect Juan Vidal, she constructed a house that celebrates modern living, outdoor rooms and open plans that accentuate sea views. The beach house featured carved stone fireplaces and columns counterpointed by decorative touches like large scale painted faux stone paneling.
In 1983 Silver built a three-story townhouse on the Rio Cuale, which runs through old town Puerto Vallarta down to the Bay of Banderas. It is designed in a more formal style I can only call Mexican Maximalism, which layers lots of ideas over pattern, colors and mixed materials. She added eccentric touches like an indoor swimming pool and displayed the art of friends, especially regional favorite Manuel Lepe. Lepe pioneered the folk style of angel-winged, duck-footed children (patas de pato) you’ll see in every local gift shop.
Silver was an Aries who loved art, sensuality and the color black. She proudly claimed to be the first woman to drive a pick-up truck in Puerto Vallarta and run a B & B at the beach house. She decorated the only way she could, by showing books of what she loved to workmen who would imitate a fireplace from here, a design motif from there--becoming a whole cloth invented dream as if from other times and far-off places.
The story was that if Silver didn’t like you, all the enchiladas in Mexico couldn’t get you invited to her house. True grit women are celebrated today, but I’ll wager that exactly zero Americans or Mexicans did these things in the conservative 1960s. I'll also wager that at times her choices made life hard in a Catholic country. Hollywood noticed, came to call and spread the word about this magical place and its extraordinary doyenne.
You Got to Have Friends
Back in the day the right introduction got you invited to private house parties and dinners. Silver was that social connector person for the global creative community who came to Puerto Vallarta to have a break, film a movie, indulge in privacy or tuck into pleasures that were rarer north of the Rio Grande. Consequently, she met everyone who mattered, creating lasting friendships with many.
Personal style distinguishes between this which is good and that which is passé. It’s complicated. At the top level, those who have style are hard to recognize because the cues are, like any secret code, unsaid. In The Beautiful Fall, Alicia Drake describes those in the know as having “…a highly visible state of grace”. Like most states of grace, the energy of style dissipates over time. In a pre-Instagram world, signifiers were transitory. When others move in, the tastemaker moves on. That said, when Silver died in 2011, her codes were so indelible and hard to imitate that no one has been able to replicate her magic.
A grad school professor used a simple tool to understand almost any country. He said there are rules cultures (places that value rule-of-law like the UK, US and Germany), where individuals are protected by process. Other countries are relationships cultures, where you are protected, mostly, by who you know. Mexico is a relationships culture where, if you create jobs that build the Mexican economy, or line powerful pockets you get more leeway than the average punter. One of the main reasons I point to Silver’s influence is that she was first in Jalisco to get a liquor license for a gay bar. The bar, Los Balcones, became a fixture that drew a pioneering wave of gay tourists and other free-range denizens to the Zona Romantica old town.
She seemed to cultivate, and was cultivated by others who held the world’s attention. Kenneth Jay Lane custom designed a golden cross necklace and serpent bracelets with emerald eyes for her. There are other stories about Halston, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole.
Iterative. Ephemeral. Important. Influence is a powerful economic driver of consumer spending and style in general, even though it exists only in the ether. Did Silver’s friend, director Tony Scott copy The Hunger’s atmospheric love scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon from something he saw at Silver’s house? Did she play the swoony Flower Song from Delibes’s Opera, Lakmé for him? Probably not. But, Scott did mine his friend for inspiration. He tuned into the romance of her tall, unlined curtains that floated unusually in the Vallartan breeze, which in his way became the swirling metaphor for lesbian vampire passion. Scott said as much.
How can I claim that one woman could be responsible for so much visitors see in today’s Puerto Vallarta? To me, it is obvious. Simply look at Silver’s firsts: first house on the beach, a modern appreciation of siting and space, her singular design vision and gay bar pioneering. She constructed her own identity and flouted convention a generation or two before these actions would cease to shock. For gosh sakes, she few the damn plane down there by herself. She stayed married to Smokey, a man she loved and saw through the long goodbye of Alzheimer’s. She built houses on her own steam and with her own hands. She lived a full, creative life without apology. We all simply followed. To me, she was much more a woman of this time than of that one. What can be said of her: fun, artful, slightly louche are exactly what defines Puerto Vallarta's image today.
If these aren't reasons enough, you'll note that others in-the-know validated her point-of-view. They believed Silver’s originality and charisma could inspire their own creative work, make a lucky location for their movie or make the best, conspiratorial dinner companion. I hope the city celebrates what they had, what they lost and how much of her is still there today.
Townhouse photos are Greige's own. Vintage photos used with express permission of Silver Cortez's family.
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