C.M. Mayo, author and editor of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, discusses her new novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, which is being published today.
WP: Who was the last prince of the Mexican empire?
C.M. Mayo: He was Agustin de Iturbide y Green (1863-1925), grandson of the first Emperor of Mexico, Agustin de Iturbide (who had been executed by firing squad shortly after his abdication). His father was Angel de Iturbide, second son of the Emperor, and mother was Alice Green de Iturbide, who was from a prominent Washington, D.C. family. When the childless Maximilian von Habsburg became Emperor of Mexico, he made a contract with the Iturbide family, making them all Highnesses and granting lavish pensions (but, for the parents, to be paid in Paris), in exchange for his taking custody of the little Agustin, then two and half years old. Having delivered her child to the palace, however, the mother went nearly mad with grief, and her attempts to get him back from Maximilian—she claimed her son, an American, had been kidnapped— ignited an international scandal.
You can view a carte-de-visite of the little prince here.
And you can read an excerpt from the first chapter, about his parents, here.
WP: When did you learn about the last prince? When did you realize you wanted to write a novel about him?
C.M. Mayo: Many years ago, I was at a friend’s house and happened to see his portrait, when he was a little older probably about 12. He looked English, but there was Chapultepec Castle in the background. When my friend told me he was the prince, Agustin de Iturbide, I was intrigued. It was later, when I read more about the period and found out that his mother was an American, and what a scandal she’d caused in trying to get him back from Maximilian, that I knew I had to write the book. But it wasn’t easy—it turns out, as I explain at length in the novel’s epilogue, that much of the available material on the affair is riddled with omissions and serious errors.
WP: What was the most interesting thing you uncovered in your research?
C.M. Mayo: That the story had been so obscured, relegated to footnotes, and shot full of sometimes bizarre misinformation. So little was known about the price’s mother, who turned out be from a very prominent family—her grandfather, General Uriah Forrest, had fought with General Washington in the Revolution, and her great grandfather, George Plater, had been governor of Maryland. When I went to do research at the Historical Society of Washington, at that time, the portrait in the vestibule was of her grandmother, Rebecca Plater Forrest, who grew up at Sotterley, one of the most important tidewater Maryland tobacco plantations. The house where Alice grew up, Rosedale, is considered one of the most important historic houses in Washington.
Alice had a powerful personality, to put it mildly. She was one tough cookie.
WP: What was your greatest pleasure as a novelist in telling this story?
C.M. Mayo: Coming across things in the archives that very few people, and maybe even no living person, had seen, that told a new part of the story. Researching oftentimes felt like panning for gold. A lot of sludge and useless pebbles and then, wow, that shine. And also, after thinking about them for a very long time, getting sudden flashes of insight about characters, e.g., why he wanted something so badly, or why she lied about that. The sense of it coming together.
WP: Where in Mexico does the novel take place? Did you travel to some interesting locations for research?
C.M. Mayo: It begins with the prince’s mother in Washington, and then moves to Maximilian in Trieste and Austria, and his voyage (via Rome and Martinique, among other places) to Mexico. Most of the action in the novel takes place in Mexico City, but there’s also a chapter set on the road to Yucatan, another in Cuernavaca, another in Rio Frio, then Rome, Paris, and again Mexico City. It roves all over the globe.
That said, one of the surprises, for many people who know the story of the Emperor Maximilian, is that the novel only very briefly mentions Queretaro, the city, where he made his final stand for the empire, and was captured, tried, and finally, in June of 1867, executed by firing squad— a terrible scene, famously envisioned by the painter, Manet. But of course, my novel is not about Maximilian per se, but the story of the prince, which wraps up some months before Queretaro.
WP: Which pieces in your anthology, Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, touch on places in your novel?
C.M. Mayo: There are several. Mexico City has its modern portraits in the pieces by Carlos Monsivais, Juan Villoro, and Guadalupe Loaeza. I translated a brief an excerpt from Fernando del Paso’s novel, Noticias del Imperio, which shows Maximilian on the roof of Chapultepec Castle, pointing out the sites to Commodore Maury, the famous Confederate oceanographer. It’s considered a great classic of 20th century Mexican fiction, and in fact, has just been published by Dalkey Archive, translated by Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark as News from the Empire. I have to tell you, though, that quite intentionally I did not read the novel because, as I was writing my own, I did not want to be unconsciously influenced. How did I select the excerpt then? I swear this true: Juju. I just randomly opened the book, and there it was. Now that my own novel is out, I’ll have to read it!
In Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, there’s also a devastating short story by one of Mexico’s master writers, Monica Lavin, set in modern Acapatzingo. Maximilian’s main country residence was in Cuernavaca, but he also had a smaller, more informal retreat in that nearby village, which is now replete with large houses for weekenders from Mexico City. I should also mention the short story by Araceli Ardon, set in the conservative society of 1930s Queretaro (and it includes a mention of Maximilian’s photographer).
The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is available for purchase here.
And for more information about Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, click the book cover below.