John Liggett Meigs
By Mark S. Fuller
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Extraordinary people lead extraordinary lives, and John L. Meigs was an extraordinary person. Even the way John began life was highly unusual; he enjoyed telling the tale – repeating it on a regular basis – of his “kidnapping” by his father when John was but a baby.
John was born on May 10, 1916 and, early the next year, John, senior, along with his mistress, Jane Winkler, ran off with little John, who would never see his biological mother, Margaret Mary (Cookley), again. After the “kidnapping,” from the Palmer House in Chicago, where John’s parents were living, the family assumed the name “MacMillan.” During the next several years, they moved from city to city, eventually settling in San Antonio, Texas, where John began to form some of the associations with fascinating and unusual personalities that would populate the rest of his life. In San Antonio, John was fascinated by the last of Sam Houston’s daughters and took dancing lessons with America’s first toreadora (female bullfighter), Portia Porter de Prieto. It was in San Antonio where John first developed an interest in the fine arts, taking lessons from an assistant scoutmaster. As John put it, “He was a wonderful inspiration. And that’s what got me started. I’ve been doing some form of art ever since.”
After the death of his father in San Antonio in 1931, John and his foster mother, Ms. Winkler, eventually moved in with her sister in Colton, California, east of Los Angeles. After being graduated from high school, in 1934, John attended the University of Redlands near San Bernardino, California, during the years 1934-36 and subsequently worked as a newspaper reporter in Los Angeles. From Los Angeles, John relocated to San Francisco for a job that was no longer available when he got there. Being in a bit of a bind, John wrote to a fraternity brother of his from the University of Redlands who had gone to Hawaii, sounding him out for some employment ideas. The fraternity brother suggested John come to Hawaii, sent John some money, and arranged for John to work as a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
Thus, in 1937, John relocated to Hawaii, a move that would lead to several, different paths down which he would eventually travel. The first was his continuing work as a reporter. On the side, his continuing interest in art led him to architectural work designing houses. His artistic talent, also, led him into the world of textile design: John became one of the original designers of Hawaiian aloha shirts and, in that field, he became known as “Keoni of Hawaii” (“Keoni” is Hawaiian for “John”).
During the Second World War, John served in the U.S. Navy as a gunners mate on the cruiser U.S.S. Minneapolis. It was through his enlistment process that John learned of his real name, Meigs, and that his “mother” was actually his foster mother. After the war, John spent two years in Saint Augustine, Florida, where, with an associate by the name of Kenneth Dow, he designed and helped build a lounge they called “Ken and Jon’s Trade Winds” (currently called the Trade Winds Tropical Lounge).
After the stint in Saint Augustine, John returned to Hawaii, where he met artist Peter Hurd from New Mexico. That meeting led John down yet another path which would change his life, dramatically. John was invited by Hurd to assist him with a mural commission in Texas. Excited about the new association, John departed Hawaii in 1951 to join Hurd at his home in San Patricio. While waiting for the project to commence, John accepted his own commission for a mural project in Roswell, New Mexico. As the plans for Hurd’s Texas mural commission were delayed, John, not one to let moss grow under his feet, accepted an invitation from another interesting person he had met while in Hawaii: artist Rolf Armstrong, known as the “father of the American pin-up girls,” had invited John to spend a year driving around Europe with him.
So, in 1952, John sailed for France on the transatlantic liner “Ile de France” with Armstrong and a lady acquaintance. Once in Paris, though, the three went their separate ways. John found a room to rent from the former housekeeper of the French writer Marcel Proust, who, in turn, introduced John to Alice B. Toklas (Gertrude Stein was deceased, by then) with whom he dined two or three times a month for the rest of his time in Paris. While in Paris, John also studied fine art at Le Academie de la Grand Chaumier.
Upon John’s return to the United States, Peter Hurd had suggested to him that he detour to Delaware to meet Hurd’s brother-in-law, artist Andrew Wyeth (Hurd had married Andrew’s sister, Henriette Wyeth). John did so, and Andrew and John formed a lasting association.
When John returned to San Patricio, he bought a small, old adobe house, which, over the next forty years, he expanded until it grew to twenty-three rooms; Peter Hurd dubbed it “Fort Meigs.” His association with Hurd and Henriette flourished, as did John’s artistic accomplishments and his social connections.
Through Hurd, John met oilman/cattleman Robert O. Anderson for whom John designed and furnished a chain of old-style restaurants around the state of New Mexico. With R.O.A., John, also, was actively involved as an architect with the Lincoln County Heritage Trust.
In his artistic pursuits, John worked in a variety of mediums, to include oil, watercolor, ink and photography. He had over fifty, one-man exhibitions, to include in Santa Fe, New Mexico; New York City; Lubbock, Texas; Roswell, New Mexico; and Honolulu, Hawaii. John’s subject material was primarily either landscape or architectural. In early 1960, John was commissioned by the Society of California Pioneers to paint a series of watercolors of Victorian homes in San Francisco, those paintings being exhibited at the Society’s headquarters in San Francisco in June 1960. In 1997, the Honolulu Academy of Arts hosted an exhibit of aloha shirts with “Keoni” designs from the late 1930’s and 1940’s. His art, to include his aloha shirts, is in private, corporate and academic collections.
In addition to his work in the fine arts, John edited books about art: Peter Hurd – The Lithographs, Peter Hurd Sketch Book and The Cowboy in American Prints. He also authored several magazine articles and lectured about art.
In November 1993, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, John received The Governor’s Award for Excellence & Achievement in the Arts from the State of New Mexico for major contributions to the arts, presented by Governor Bruce King.
After a fascinating life of widespread accomplishments reflecting his widespread talents, John died in August of 2003.