Saturday, November 18, 2006

LA CABEZA DE VILLA





from:
The New Yorker
11/27/89
p. 108-120
LA CABEZA DE VILLA

ONE of the current members of the Wednesday Group can say precisely when it was founded. They know that the original Wednesday Group-a weekly, luncheon gathering of self-selected representatives of the intelligentsia of El Paso, Texas—-got started more than twenty-five years ago, and that Pablo Bush Romero, who goes back almost twenty years, is the senior active member. They know that solidarity is a Wednesday Group tradition. In other words, whatever Pablo Bush Romero ultimately decides to do about Pancho Villa’s skull—even if circumstances force him to drag the Wednesday Group into a high-profile geopolitical controversy—the other members are a good bet to back him up a hundred per cent, more or less.

Pablo Bush Romero, a tall and imposing bald man with a pencil-thin mustache, who is now in his mid-eighties, reads a lot. A couple of years ago, he came across “Let the Tail Go with the Hide,” a cowhide-bound vanity-press as-told-to memoir that was published in 1984 by an Arizona rancher and businessman named Ben F. Williams and his daughter-amanuensis, Teresa Williams Irvin. “I read this book by accident,” Bush Romero said later, meaning that the general subject matter lay outside his usual areas of interest, which include under-water archeology, big-game hunting, and Mexican history. What did arouse his interest was two passages that seemed to explain the fate of Pancho Villa’s skull—la cabeza de Villa—which became separated from the rest of his bones in 1926 and has been missing ever since. Villa, the fabled Mexican Centaur—peon hero, scourge of the landowner, part-time bandido, brilliant military strategist—was assassinated and buried in Parral, a town south of Chihuahua, in 1923. According to “Let the Tail Go with the Hide,” Ben Williams happened to turn up in Parral in February of 1926, a few days after an acquaintance of his, an American soldier of fortune named Emil Holmdahl, was jailed as a suspect in the desecration of Villa’s tomb. Williams described visiting Holmdahl in the Parral jail, receiving assurances that he had had nothing to do with robbing the tomb, and arranging for his release. When Williams next encountered Holmdahl, about six weeks later in EI Paso, the soldier of fortune confessed not only that he had robbed the tomb and disposed of the head but also that he had collected twenty-five thousand dollars for his trouble and wished to express his gratitude. An apparent capacity for recalling punchy dialogue verbatim was one of Williams’ remarkable skills:

“Half the money is yours, because you got me out of that damned jail. I have it in my pocket.”
I looked at him and said, “Emil, if I had known then what you’re telling me now, you’d still be in that jail. I’m not interested in your goddamn money!”
He said, “What difference does it make, whether that head is in the hole where it was or where it is now?”
I got up from the table and left. That was the last time I ever saw Major Emil Holmdahl.

Forty-five years and a hundred and eighty-five pages later, in Phoenix, Williams visited a friend, Frank Brophy. On Brophy’s wall he saw “a plaque of the Skull and Bones Society.” When Brophy acknowledged that he was a member of Skull and Bones and remarked that “we have Pancho Villa’s skull in our house at Yale,” Williams proceeded to tell him the tale of Holmdahl, the jail in Parral, and the twenty-five thousand dollars. Brophy replied, “By God, that’s right! Five of us put up five thousand dollars apiece. The other members of Skull and Bones covered his expenses.”

It is a simple fact that Frank Brophy graduated from Yale College but was never a member of Skull and Bones, the most myth-shrouded of Yale’s under-graduate senior societies. Whatever hung on Brophy’s wall would therefore not have been “a plaque of the Skull and Bones Society.” This strongly implies, of course, that if Frank Brophy (who died in 1978) told Ben Williams (who died in 1985) that he and four Bones accomplices had paid twenty-five thousand dollars for Pancho Villa’s cranium his object was to embroider an anecdote that sounded to him more colorful than truthful. It also implies that Brophy was the sort of person who would have enjoyed knowing that a casual, innocent prevarication of his could resurface and cause a stir in EI Paso many years later. Above all, it implies that Frank Brophy and Ben Williams would have fitted right in with the Wednesday Group. In EI Paso—along the blurry border, where the truth can often become as cloudy as the water in the Rio Grande, where history has immediacy and mythology counts for a lot—simple facts tend to ferment awhile before they’re allowed to imply much at all.

BEING dead for sixty-six years has not seriously diminished Pancho Villa’s topicality in EI Paso. Newspaper editors there have long assumed that interchangeable stories marking the anniversary of Villa’s assassination or one of his military skirmishes—with headlines like “PANCHO VILLA RIDES AGAIN IN MEMORY”—make good if not necessarily fresh copy. If, no anniversary is convenient, it’s always O.K. to send a feature writer over to Juarez to interview one of Villa’s widows. In downtown EI Paso, the hotel concierge can still point you to buildings that bear alleged bullet scars left by Villa’s troops. Knowledgeable natives can offer directions to the office of the doctor who periodically treated Villa for chronic gonorrhea. A man in El Paso told me not long ago, with obvious pride, that his mother once danced with General John (Black Jack) Pershing, Villa’s nemesis. Any self-respecting night spot in Juarez, it is said, comes equipped with a mariachi group capable of rendering at least half a dozen corridos, or ballads, about Villa—including, of course, the popular standard “La Decapitación de Pancho Villa.”

In 1960, Haldeen Braddy, a profes-sor at what was then Texas Western College and is now the University of Texas at EI Paso, or UTEP, published an article in the journal Western Folk-lore titled “The Head of Pancho Villa.” Braddy catalogued all the extant theories concerning the missing skull: the tomb was violated by Villa’s enemies, among them one of his assassins and a Mexican Army general; the skull ended up in the hands of American scientists who thought studying it would reveal the source of Villa’s battlefield genius; the culprits were treasure hunters attracted by the legend that tattooed to Villa’s scalp was a map showing where he had buried gold ingots in the Sierra Madre. Braddy also discussed Emil Holmdahl but offered an account of his capture, interrogation, and release not at all consistent with what Ben Williams recorded in his memoirs a quarter of a century later. Other sources suggested that Holmdahl had once tried to buy the head—from the Mexican general—but had failed to come up with the money. Braddy, however, turned up no evidence of this. “The head of Pancho Villa, in the absence of proof to the contrary, is still in Mexico,” Braddy concluded.

Current events have been a staple of Wednesday Group conversations, along with history, archeology, and anthropology. Haldeen Braddy’s scholarship notwithstanding, however, until Pablo Bush Romero introduced la cabeza de Villa as a discussion topic none of the other members had given it much thought. “As a matter of fact, we didn’t even know the son of a bitch was missing,” Frank Hunter told me. Hunter started hanging out with the Wednesday Group around the time he stopped practicing law full time, seven years ago, and he doesn’t deny that his eagerness to pursue la cabeza de Villa has dovetailed with his wife’s eagerness to get him out of the house more often. Three afternoons a week, Hunter puts in regular hours on the golf course, but golf alone cannot nourish an inquisitive mind. It was the former American consul-general in Juarez, now a lapsed member, who originally invited Hunter to join the Wednesday Group. As now constituted, the group reflects a catholic range of interests. Pablo Bush Romero, the exemplar, has had several lucrative careers—automobile dealer (the largest Ford agencies in Mexico City and Juarez), resort developer (on the Yucatan Peninsula), and movie producer (he once showed me a picture of himself with Lupita Topar, “the Mexican Mary Pickford”). Alex Apos-tolides is an archeologist, a museum curator, a free-lance folklorist, co-host (with his wife) of a weekly South-western-history program on the local National Public Radio affiliate, and a weekly columnist for the EI Paso Herald-Post. Oscar Gonzalez has a ranch near Juarez and occasionally promotes bullfights and prizefights. Eugene Finke is a retired Navy captain and electrical engineer who has taught political science at UTEP. Bob Massey has taught studio-art courses at the university. John Bockoven, who happens to be Frank Hunter’s brother-in-law, was stationed in EI Paso, at Fort Bliss, during the Second World War but devoted his civilian career to the insurance business in Wisconsin until five years ago; then he retired to EI Paso and immediately joined the Wednesday Group. A couple of retired Army generals, among them a commanding officer of Fort Bliss, have drifted in and out. So have a rabbi and an F.B.I. agent. Donald Rathbun, an active member, is a physician who once trekked part of the way up Mt. Everest. He is also an accomplished photographer and geologist who carries two business cards-one for his medical practice and one that says “METEOR-ITE RECOVERY EL PASO.” Along with Apostolides, he has organized extra-curricular Wednesday Group excursions to Mexico. Because his avocations demand as much time as his vocation, Dr. Rathbun says, it is a convenient coincidence that his medi-cal specialty is neurology and that the missing part of Pancho Villa is the skull.

I once asked Frank Hunter to explain the protocols of the Wednesday Group, and he said, “No officers, no rules, no nothin’.” As Hunter recalls the scene, Bush Romero showed up at lunch one Wednesday in the spring of 1987 with a copy of “Let the Tail Go with the Hide,” read the passages relating to Villa and Skull and Bones, and said, “Who wants to help me get this thing back?” No one at the table that day had any grasp of the rather more refined protocols of Bones: that fifteen male Yale seniors are selected each year to join the society, thereby entering a brotherhood whose bonds are supposed to offer ineffable but enduring spiritual sustenance; that no one who is not a member or an employee is ever supposed to enter Bones’ so-called tomb, a nearly windowless sandstone monolith in the center of the Yale campus; that it was once customary for a member who happened to be outside the tomb and heard the phrase “skull and bones” uttered to excuse himself, more or less in the manner of Clark Kent abruptly heading off to be Superman for a while. The Wednesday Group merely had a sense that Skull and Bones was old (it was founded in 1832), Eastern, and elitist. And the name, of course, suggested the potential for shadowy activities-say, plundering grave sites in the Mexican outback.

“Pablo’s immediate suggestion was that he would pay for tickets for us to go up to Connecticut and get the skull out of the Skull and Bones tomb up there at Yale,” Hunter said. “The thing that squashed that idea was that we would have to get some sort of admission into the place and we knew we didn’t have it. There was no sense all of us just wandering around New Haven.”

Instead, Hunter put in a call to Benno Schmidt, then recently installed as president of Yale. Without much difficulty, he got through and was able to explain why the Wednesday Group was interested in Villa’s skull. Schmidt replied that the subject was brand-new to him but that he would check it out. A few days later, Hunter received a call from Endicott Peabody Davison, Bones Class of ‘48, a partner in the white-shoe Wall Street law firm Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts, a former officer of Yale University, and at the time the designated spokesman for the Russell Trust Association, the governing body of Bones. Both Hunter and Davison, who is known to his familiars as Cottie, recall their first conversation as friendly. After stating with confidence that Skull and Bones didn’t have la cabeza de Villa, Cottie Davison said, “But if you’re looking for a skull we can probably get you one from the Yale Medical School.” Hunter demurred. What he and his friends had in mind, after all, was a particular skull.

I once heard a Bonesman from the nineteen-thirties brag that there was a time when all senior societies collected relics, and that Bonesies, being naturally superior in every respect, could not avoid excelling at this sport. He quickly added, however, that this institutional interest in relics “was of course generic rather than specific.” (According to this logic, there is no obvious explanation of how Wolf’s Head, the only other remaining all-male senior society, came to possess a set of Hitler’s silverware.) A Bonesman who was an undergraduate,
in the early seventies, and who has difficulty discerning the humor in this subject, said, “We’re not in the business of buying human remains.” A journalist and Yale alumnus who once investigated Skull and Bones says he is disinclined to believe the cabeza de Villa story, “because those old Wasps are so cheap it’s very unlikely they’d pay, twenty-five thousand dollars for it.”

If Davison expected Hunter simply to go away after their first conversations, he failed to take account of several factors, not the least of which was that Hunter, a lifelong resident of El Paso, relished the challenge of corresponding with a New England Brahmin named Endicott Peabody Davison. What motivated the members of the Wednesday Group above all was the knowledge that, no matter how slight might be their reason to believe that Pancho Villa’s skull reposed with-in the Bones tomb, they had plenty of free time to search for corroborating evidence. And so what if they couldn’t prove that Bones had la cabeza de Villa? Merely by stating their suspicion, they had burdened the trustees of Skull and Bones with the logically impossible task of proving that Bones didn’t have it.

SOME months ago, I sat in Dr. Rathbun’s office, in a quiet neighborhood near downtown EI Paso, in a room lined with glass display cases full of archeological and geological specimens and bookshelves stacked with medical literature. A square brown metal file box with an orange label that said “VILLA’S HEAD” rested at our feet. La cabeza de Villa—or, for that matter, the head of an adult gorilla—would have fitted neatly inside. In fact, however, the box contained copies of Dr. Rathbun’s voluminous avocational correspondence. During the past two years, he had written more than two hundred letters on behalf of the Wednesday Group. He wrote to the American Medical Association asking whether its archives might contain information about Villa’s head injuries. He also wrote to the A.M.A. requesting information about Holmdahl, who seems to have last been heard of in Arizona in the fifties. He had been in touch with a forensic archeologist at the University of Wyoming who had developed a computer technique that made it possible to regenerate from a skull the image of a human face. From the director of research of the Institute of Texas Cultures he requested photographs showing Villa with his mouth open. In EI Paso, Dr. Rathbun tracked down the daughter of a dentist who treated Villa on several occasions, but it turned out that the dentist had been dead for more than a decade and the daughter had burned all his records. In a letter to the National Academy of History and Geography in Mexico City he sought, among other things, information about a dentist whose first name was Roberto (but whose last name he could not recall), who might have treated Villa. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, in Washington, sent Dr. Rathbun eight-by-ten glossy photographs, taken July 22, 1923, of the fresh corpse of Villa. A publisher in Parral sent photocopies of similar images, newspaper accounts of the assassination, excerpts from a book that recounted the’ assassination and the robbing of the grave, and a transcription of excerpts from Villa’s autopsy. In a letter to a Latin-American studies expert at New Mexico State University—a possible source of dental records, X-rays, or pathology reports—Dr. Rathbun discussed suing Skull and Bones to force their representatives to swear under oath that they didn’t have the skull.

“Our only goal in this whole thing is to improve relations between the United States and Mexico,” Dr. Rathbun said as he leafed through his files. “I think Mexico is embarrassed that the head of one of its national heroes is missing, and the Mexicans feel paranoid. Our roads are better, our schools are better, they owe our banks billions of dollars. At a gut level, when they come to the realization that the head of one of their heroes is residing in a club in a rich man’s school this is a thorn in their side. I think some people would be very pissed off about this. As citizens of a Catholic country, the Mexicans have a greater respect for the dead—reverence for the afterlife—than we do.”

During the time that Dr. Rathbun was accumulating his files, his Wednesday Group colleagues were not idle. Suing Skull and Bones, and Yale as well, was originally Hunter’s idea. The prerequisite for this strategy was a plaintiff with recognizable grounds for Complaint—with what is known in the law as “standing.” The Wednesday Group’s curiosity and sincere intentions did not, as a legal technicality, amount to standing. Hunter also looked into the 1970 Treaty of Cooperation between the United States and Mexico, and the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. The latter, in particular, seemed to offer a basis for a lawsuit, but the sticking point remained: no plaintiff. Then it occurred to Hunter, a regular reader of the EI Paso newspapers, that somewhere in Mexico there must be a widow of Villa. “Pancho Villa had a unique method of courtship,” Hunter told me. “Whenever he saw a chick he wanted to spend the night with, he would marry her. He did this something like twenty-nine times. At the time we showed up, the Mexican government had decided that his legitimate widow was Soledad Seanez la Viuda de Villa. So I prepared an authorization for the lawsuit to be brought in her name.”

Oscar Gonzalez, who was once described to me as “one of those people about whom it’s said ‘They mean well,’ “was dispatched to Juarez to recruit Soledad Seanez to the cause. He carried a document that authorized him and Pablo Bush Romero, the Wednesday Group’s only Mexican citizens, “to bring such action as may be necessary to recover the head of my late husband, and have it returned to Mexico, to be buried with his remains.” Unfortunately, negotiations between Oscar and the incumbent Mrs. Villa did not proceed smoothly.
Hunter: “Oscar took it to her to sign and she refused.”

Dr. Rathbun: “At times, Oscar tends to be a little bombastic.”

Asked to account for what went wrong in Juarez, Gonzalez expressed strong suspicion that Soledad Seanez, at ninety-two, no longer possessed a full complement of marbles. Bush Romero, after one conversation with her, reached a similar conclusion. With what seemed like almost ideological fervor, the widow insisted that Villa’s skull was not missing from his grave.

Hunter’s correspondence with Davison, meanwhile, failed to maintain a tone of unalloyed affability: “Very frankly, Mr. Davidson [sic], we are convinced ... that the skull of Pancho Villa is held by the Skull and Bones Society of Yale University. If you would be so kind as to contact the governing body of that Society and inform them of the contents of this letter, we would be most appreciative. We feel they would be only too happy to return the skull to the proper authorities, rather than have us proceed under the applicable law with its attendant publicity.”

To which Davison replied, “Dear Mr. Hunter: ... Your letter does not help your cause in finding the skull of Pancho Villa.”

Not long after Bush Romero first mentioned “Let the Tail Go with the Hide,” Alex Apostolides wrote about it, rather elliptically, in his weekly column in the Herald-Post. Apostolides invited readers to send along any intelligence they might have about the skull, but he never returned to the subject in his subsequent columns. Therefore, when, more than a year later, a Herald-Post reporter named Tom Tolan wrote a story about la cabeza de Villa—a story that, in the fourth paragraph, invoked George Bush, Bones ‘48—he appeared to have come up with a scoop. The Herald-Post played it across the top of the front page, and the wire services picked it up. That happened just as the 1988 Republican National Convention was about to get under way. Previously, the Wednesday Group’s sphere of political influence had been limited to EI Paso: a former mayor was a lapsed member. By seeming to link the Republican nominee for President of the’ United States, however loosely, to the theft of the head of a Mexican national hero, the Wednesday Group was, for the first time, meddling directly with issues of geopolitical import. According to Tolan, going public with the accusations against Skull and Bones was a last resort. The most telling quotation came from Hunter: “We’ve come to the conclusion that the main thing they don’t want is publicity.”

Hunter’s analysis was accurate. Tolan discovered this for himself when he tried to interview Davison. “When I explained why I was calling, he sounded so sad,” Tolan told me. “He said, ‘But I’ve just spent two years putting to rest the Geronimo story.’”

The Geronimo story, a first cousin of the cabeza de Villa story, had floated around for years, and is not enormously popular with Cottie Davison. Ac-cording to Skull and Bones’ accusers in this instance—principally Ned Ander-son, a former chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe, of Arizona—the grave of Geronimo, the Apache chief, was violated in 1918 by a six-man raiding party that included the young Prescott Bush, father of George. This depredation was described in a 1933 typewritten manuscript titled “Continuation of the History of Our Order for the Century Celebration,” and a copy of it somehow found its way into Anderson’s hands. Davison and other Bonesies agreed that the document was authentic, but insisted that the events it described—the prying open of the iron doors of Geronimo’s tomb, the use of carbolic acid to clean the skull—were purely apocryphal. Nevertheless, fire or no fire, a tinge of smoke hung in the air. Several generations of Bonesies were familiar with the contents of a glass display case inside the New Haven tomb: a skull that everyone referred to as Geronimo. Whose skull it truly was and how it wound up in the display case were less clearly established. The Apaches had to be dealt with respectfully, and Davison made an effort. In 1986, in New York City, he and other representatives of Skull and Bones—among them George Bush’s brother Jonathan—met with Anderson. They brought a skull, and offered it to Anderson, but he declined it because it seemed not to be the same one he had seen in photographs surreptitiously provided by an anonymous dissident member of Bones. The nose and eye cavities didn’t match. Also, Anderson took offense at a document that Davison wanted him to sign, which stipulated that neither the Apaches nor Skull and Bones would publicly discuss the whole business. Following this encounter, the dispute, though it remained unresolved, became more or less dormant. Anderson has from time to time petitioned public officials for help, but he still lacks proof that Geronimo’s grave was ever robbed. The chief is buried on an Army base in southwestern Oklahoma, and his descendants there oppose disturbing his remains.

PABLO BUSH ROMERO, meanwhile, feels ill served by the President of the United States. When Tom Tolan broke the story in the Herald-Post, Bush Romero and Dr. Rathbun, both of whom strongly support the agenda of the Republican Party, felt apprehensive-for the same reason that Hunter and Apostolides, who are loyal Democrats, did not mind a bit seeing George Bush accused in print of being soft on grave robbers. Dr. Rathbun still marvels at the failure of the Democrats to exploit the issue during the Presidential campaign. “Because I’m a Bush enthusiast, I was worried that this was going to become a big controversy,” Dr. Rathbun has said. “I never understood why Dukakis didn’t make a fuss about it. He could have made hay out of the fact that Bush was a member of a Yale secret society that collected heads and that his father had done the same thing. He could have hurt Bush more with Pancho Villa’s head than Bush hurt him with the Pledge of Allegiance. The only thing I can think of is that there must have been Democrats who were members of Skull and Bones and who prevented Dukakis from bringing this up.”

Although Pablo Bush Romero and George Bush share no blood ties, in jocular moments Bush Romero refers to the President as “my poor relative,” and it gives him no pleasure to speculate that he and the Wednesday Group might yet be forced to escalate the matter of la cabeza de Villa into an international incident. Each time the President’s handlers abandon modesty and enumerate his accomplishments since he took office, Bush Romero notes with regret that the repatriation of Villa’s headbone is not on the list, and he feels his self-restraint weakening. His poor relative, he believes, owes him one—a sentiment that he readily conveys to anybody fortunate enough to be invited to a meeting of the Wednesday Group. For more than a year now, the Wednesday Group has gathered at the Pinetum, an ostensibly Chinese restaurant on the west side of EI Paso, which is part of a commercial strip also populated by floor-covering stores, automotive-service centers, and what seems to be every franchise restaurant known to man. The Pinetum, sui generis, comes equipped with bamboo-print wallpaper and Masonite in the seating area and someone in the kitchen who is not afraid to be generous with the mono-sodium glutamate. Its main attraction is that it has less ambient noise than other places where the Wednesday Group has convened, among them the Juarez country club and a kosher butcher shop. Hunter has said of the Pinetum, “The reason we’re here is that they have a very limited clientele and they have a room that’s just right for us. We can meet and speak in plain language and no one ever objects.”

The first time I dined with the Wednesday Group, Ben Williams’ daughter, Terry Irvin, was also a guest. The conversation that day naturally centered on la cabeza de Villa, and at one point I polled the crowd. On ‘a scale of one to ten, how strongly did they believe that Skull and Bones had the head? “Ten-plus,” Mrs. Irvin said. “I know my dad did not make that story up. There is no reason in the world for this subject even to have come up when we were writing that book if it wasn’t true. I’m convinced in my own mind that they did it and they paid Emil Holmdahl to do it.”

While waiting for la cabeza de Villa to resurface, she has written a screen-play about it. She has also enlisted as an ally Garry Trudeau, the cartoonist, who has published two series of “Doonesbury” strips satirizing Skull and Bones. When I polled the other members, Bush Romero was a solid ten, and Hunter turned up at the low end, with a seven (demonstrating, hardly for the first time, that for the pleasure of an argument most lawyers will advocate anything). Oscar Gonzalez, the finest hairsplitter in the crowd, came in at nine-point-eight-five. Something in Gonzalez’s manner—a naturally antic quality-brought to mind a joke I had heard, about the man who was offered (in this version) two authentic Villa skulls: one of Villa as a boy and one as an adult. Gonzalez still holds out hope that one of Villa’s sons, Hippólito, who now lives in Mexico City, will agree to become the plaintiff in a lawsuit. The notion that anyone would regard such a lawsuit as frivolous offends Gonzalez. “This is an international group—we go all over,” he said. “We’re men. We’re not kids. We know what we’re doing.” Gonzalez had to leave early that day, and he made a ceremonious exit. He put on a black cowboy hat, which made him appear at least five and a half feet tall, gave Bush Romero a brotherly hug, and bade farewell to his other com-padres with a “Viva Villa!” The last thing he said to me was “If you have Villa’s skull and you bring it back to Mexico, that would be one hell of an act of international friendship.”

Pablo Bush Romero, wishing to make approximately the same point, was more specific. He told me that Villa’s body was buried in the Monument of the Revolution, in Mexico City, and that if I could arrange for la cabeza de Villa to once again repose with it he would see to it that I received the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor that Mexico can give to a foreigner. At the time of this tempting offer, we were seated in a room in his house that he uses as a study, and he had just shown me Villa’s death mask-a bronze casting taken from a plaster-of-Paris impression of Villa’s face made shortly after his assassination.

Without wishing to seem immodest, Bush Romero said he assumed that he had read more about Villa than anyone else in the Wednesday Group. His library contains about twenty-five books on the subject, among them “Pancho Villa en la Intimidad,” by Luz Corral Vda. de Villa, Soledad Seanez’s predecessor as Villa’s officially recognized widow, and “Pancho Villa’s Shadow: The True Story of Mexico’s Robin Hood, As Told by His Interpreter,” by Ernest Otto Schuster. The latter book, one of Bush Romero’s favorites, features a dust-jacket photo-graph of a diminutive man wearing a dark suit and a straw boater and cavorting with a German shepherd. The caption says, “The author and his pal, Lobo.” Bush Romero also showed me a photograph of Villa taken in 1913, at the Battle of Ojinaga; a photograph of Villa and Emiliano Zapata sitting in a chair that they had looted from the presidential palace in Mexico City; a Villa autograph; and a bronze statue of Villa. These artifacts shared the room with photographs of Bush Romero and J. Edgar Hoover, Bush Romero and Marshal Tito, Bush Romero and Ronald Reagan, and Bush Romero and some pygmies, in what is now Zaire, posing with the largest privately owned ivory tusks in the world (at the time, Bush Romero owned them); with many big-game trophies (an Alaskan black bear, a wolf from Chihuahua, a wolf from Canada, a tiger from India, a lion from Africa, a Mexican fox and wildcat, a table with an elephant foot for a base and a surface covered with an elephant ear, on which sat a lamp made from an elk’s foot); and with a couple of shrunken human heads, from Colombia, one of which had been in better shape before “rats got to it.”

Bush Romero said he had shown the death mask of Villa and the relevant passages from “Let the Tail Go with the Hide” to the Mexican consul-general in EI Paso, who was impressed and sympathetic. He added that he had thus far avoided getting the Mexican government directly involved, however, because that would involve excessive red tape. “I could have gone to the governor of Chihuahua or the President of Mexico,” he said. “I wrote a letter to the President of Mexico today. But I didn’t go into this. I have other things I’m dealing with him on.” Rather, Bush Romero favored a strategy of direct appeal to George Bush. “I think that eventually we’re going to get something. President Bush wants good relations with Mexico, and that would be one of the best things he could do—influence his club to return the head.”

I mentioned a conversation I had had with a Bonesman who spent many years working in Washington and was of the opinion that “the demand for the return of the head of Pancho Villa is not a White House matter.”

Bush Romero seemed unfazed. “I’m looking at this from the international point of view,” he said.

The last time I happened to be in EI Paso, I discovered that there were no recent developments. The local press, for instance, had not been on top of the story. When I spoke with Tom Tolan, of the Herald-Post, he said that other than extending himself a while back to check out “a misleading rumor that Villa’s head was buried under a G-string at the Naked Harem,” a southeast EI Paso interpretative-dance laboratory, he had been preoccupied with other matters. The contingent at the Pinetum for that week’s Wednesday Club gathering was rather modest: Bush Romero, Hunter, Apostolides, Dr. Rathbun, John Bockoven, and Bob Massey. Of course, we talked about la cabeza de Villa. I felt somewhat sheepish accepting their hospitality, because I had come to lunch to report my growing suspicion that hounding Skull and Bones was a fruitless endeavor—not because the Bonesies would refuse to come clean about the skull but because they really didn’t have it. I warmed up to this by recounting a conversation with one Bonesman who told me he recalled during the early seventies seeing perhaps thirty skulls, not all of them human, scattered about the tomb.

“The fact that they have thirty or more skulls proves that they might have the skull of Villa,” Bush Romero said. “It can’t be proved. It’s just a matter of good will—Bush prevailing on his fellow club members. They collected heads. Why?” He turned his palms up and shrugged. “But they have a few. They’ve consulted with their lawyers and they’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not going to admit anything. And we’re trying to convince them that if they’ll return the head that’ll be it. We’ll bury the whole thing. Or they can leave the head somewhere where we’ll find it. One of the things we were going to discuss here was whether we I should write another letter to Bush, my poor relative. You tell him, Frank.”

Bush Romero deferred to Hunter, who extemporaneously paraphrased the text of a proposed letter to Skull and Bones, a copy of which would go to the President. Its concluding sentiment was “So now it’s time to put up or shut up.”
“If the letter goes unnoticed, then we’ll have to make it an international affair,” Bush Romero said. “It’s vital to Mexico’s history to get that head back with the body. I would make enough fuss that if the Mexican government even thinks not to act they’ll hear plenty about it. I’ll just take the whole thing to Mexico City. I know I can get Channel 2 and Channel 11 interested. If the President of Mexico or the Secretary of Foreign Affairs gets involved, then Bush will have to get involved.”

“The skull has got to be in New Haven,” Apostolides said. “By golly, we’ll take any skull that has a hole in the brain.”

“Villa is news,” Bush Romero said.

“And Villa is international news. He is the man most known in the Mexican Revolution worldwide. And anything that concerns Villa is news worldwide. And we’re banking on keeping that alive. Because it’s news.”

—MARK SINGER