[by Rob Roehm. Originally posted November 30, 2012 at twogunraconteur.com. This version slightly expanded.]
One of the items found in the collection of Glenn Lord (1931-2011) was a postcard, seen above, from Robert E. Howard (who signed with his X-triple bar brand) to Harold Preece. In the picture, the last words above the doorway, partially obscured by the tree’s branches, are “Piedras Negras,” which is a Mexican town just across the river from Eagle Pass, Texas. This is a picture of the border customs house. The flip-side of the card is below.
With the stamp long gone, and with it some of the post mark, the date is not known. So, when was Robert E. Howard in Eagle Pass and/or Mexico? None of the standard biographical material mentions Mexico much. Howard’s 1934 trip with Truett Vinson—through New Mexico, El Paso, and over the river to Juarez—is about it. Howard’s July 5, 1934 letter to Robert Barlow explains that he has been on “a sojourn in the extreme western part of the State, and into New and Old Mexico.”
Howard also mentions Mexico in at least two letters from 1935: his March 6th letter to Emil Petaja (“As for Old Mexico, I’ve been across the Border a few times but haven’t spent enough time in the south to learn much of the language”); and a circa July letter to H. P. Lovecraft (Santa Fe, New Mexico, is “much like towns I have visited in Old Mexico, with the exception that it is much cleaner and neater”). The above quotes indicate that Howard had been to Mexico on more than one occasion. So what do his pre-1934 letters have to say?
Howard’s earliest trip to Mexico appears to have been in 1924 when the whole family visited the Rio Grande Valley, way down on the Texas-Mexico border. In an illustrated letter/poem from Weslaco dated September 7, 1924, Howard tells his friend Clyde Smith, “I went across the Rio Grande / And viewed the great Tequila land. / The Rio Grande I went across, / It cost just fifty centavos. / There is a bar on every street. / You get quite thirsty in the heat.” Their return was noted in the Cross Plains Review for September 19:
Another reference to his being in Mexico comes from a January 1932 letter to Lovecraft: “I’m no gambler. I don’t like to risk money I worked hard to get. I was never a very welcome guest in the gambling houses of Mexico, for I was merely a looker-on.” Later that year, circa July 13, 1932, he tells Lovecraft, “My entrails have been insulted with so many damnable concoctions for so many years, that I fear I may have lost the ability to appreciate good liquor—though on my pilgrimages to Mexico I find that knack unimpaired so far.” And on November 2, “I’m in favor of the open saloon; and legalized prize-fights and horse-races, licensed gambling halls and licensed bawdy-houses. I wish I was in Mexico right now.” Howard’s late-December 1933 letter to August Derleth has more:
I’ve drunk only Prima, Budweiser, Pearl, Old Heidelberg, Schlitz, Rheingold, Savoy, Sterling, Blue Ribbon, Fox, Country Club, Atlas Special, Jax, and Superior. None of it was as good as the Sabinas I used to drink in Old Mexico. I understand that company is going to move their brewery to San Antonio, and I hope they do. That was mighty good stuff.
Shortly after his trip with Vinson, circa July 1934, Howard tells Lovecraft that Juarez “was just as dirty and lousy as any border town I ever saw—more so than Piedras Negras, for instance, and swarming with the usual pimps and touts. We drove around awhile, made a brief exploration of what is politely known as ‘the red light district,’ and of course imbibed some.” Around the same time, Howard told Carl Jacobi: “I prefer Piedras Negras, which lies across the river from Eagle Pass, and is somewhat cleaner and more progressive. The main charm about those Mexican towns to most people is, of course, the liquor, and El Paso is now just as wide open as anything south of the Rio Grande.” These are not Howard’s first mentions of Piedras Negras.
His March 2, 1932 letter to Lovecraft has the following: “I don’t know whether they’ve run the Chinese out of Piedras Negras or not. When I was there a few years ago—it’s the town opposite Eagle Pass, Texas—it was largely dominated by Chinese. They owned small irrigated farms along the river, and ran most of the best cabarets and saloons in the town.” And there’s one more mention, but we’ll look at that one a bit later.
All of the above indicates that Robert E. Howard was in Piedras Negras at least, as he told Lovecraft, “a few years” before 1932. We need a little more help to pin this down. Luckily, Harold Preece moved around quite a bit in the late 1920s due to his work on the city directory crew. In January 1928, Howard told Tevis Clyde Smith to write to Preece at “905 Main Street, Dallas.” In February, we learn that Preece is “now in Wichita Falls.” A postcard (above) postmarked June 4, 1928 is addressed to Preece at the same Fort Worth address as the Piedras Negras postcard that heads this post. Preece’s July 26, 1928 letter to Clyde Smith is addressed from “202 Provident Bldg. / Waco, Texas,” and mentions a prize fight Preece and Howard “attended together in Ft. Worth.” In October, Preece was back home in Austin. All of this suggests that Preece was living in Fort Worth for a relatively short time in June and possibly July 1928. None of his other surviving letters, nor those of his sister Lenore, nor the surviving envelopes (the ones I’ve seen, anyway) or letters from Robert Howard—none of these suggest another time that Preece was in Fort Worth “a few years” before 1932; however, 1929 is pretty sketchy, with big holes in all of the correspondence, but the Junto mailing list for July and August don’t have him anywhere near Fort Worth, either. So, with 1929 a remote possibility, given all of the above, I date the Piedras Negras postcard to circa June 1928. And that unlocks another little mystery.
In volume 3 of The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard is an undated letter to Tevis Clyde Smith that begins, “Not even a movie in this god forsaken town.” That letter has the final reference to Piedras Negras that I mentioned above:
I didn’t see such a hell of a lot of Eagle Pass but I saw Piedras Negras—and the hottest girl I’ve seen in many a day—a skirt in a Mexican whore house away out of the polite section. Also I learned several new vulgarities in Spanish. Some nice looking strumpets in what they name The Reservation across the border and most of them brazen as hell—five dollars [which is 67.64 in 2012 dollars].
Looks like circa June 1928 will work for this one, too. I love it when things come together.