“We are living in the Sertão, where women weave the pants and men wear them.” This is the line that opens The Promised Land (1952), Joan Lowell's memoir about her life in Brazil. At the time of writing such notes, the up-and-coming actress known for her career as a journalist, a cameo in a Charles Chaplin film, and later for her best-selling autobiography Cradle of The Deep, was tramping through the forests of São Patrício alongside her husband, sea captain Leek Bowen, in the interior of the central Brazilian state of Goiás.
The year is 1937. Lowell exercised her daily writing by recording recent adventures. Her stories were not just fiction, for she was actually traversing the wilderness in the middle of nowhere. In the previous weeks, as self-proclaimed pioneers, the couple had embarked on a journey to build a hundred-mile road in exchange for land to be ceded by the Brazilian government.
At that point, their home was under whatever tree they could find at dusk. In small clearings and by wick light, Lowell would find time to write on her last sheets to friends in New York. She wrote, “We continued up the mountain and rode along the ridge to the west, curling in an agonizing effort to reach the Tocantins. One of the affluents of the Amazon was the River of the Souls. It was so named because of treacherous currents and rapids that had claimed thousands of lives of slaves panning gold during the rush.”
Pathways to the Promised Land
Although fame was attributed to her acting work, Joan Lowell was first and foremost a writer. Her journey began in the late 1920s. While writing about her memoirs, Joan lived with one foot in reality and the other in fiction. Her father, Nicholas Wagner, a sea captain, was shipwrecked off the American coast and survived unharmed. A few years later, Joan, already a rising movie star, wrote an autobiography called Cradle of the Deep (1929), which immediately became a bestseller. In the book, she recounts how her father took her, malnourished and three months old, to join him on his sea voyages. She even tells how a few years later, in a fire off the Australian coast as a teenager, she swam five kilometers with a family of cats attached to her back to save herself, an endless list of glorious feats. As time went on, it was discovered that Joan Lowell had truly been aboard the ship, a four-masted wooden schooner, and that there was indeed fire on board. But in fact, the ship simply managed to dock on dry land, safe and sound.
After gaining some prestige starring in the film The Gold Rush (1925) alongside Charlie Chaplin, Joan found herself disillusioned with the failure of her last work, Adventure Girl (1934), an adaptation of her autobiography, and so decided to venture out on an ocean liner in search of artistic motivation. A few months later, she was in Brazil with a new husband, Captain Leek Bowen, whom she met at sea while boarding a ship in New York bound for the port of Santos. From the moment they disembarked, their plans to marry were all set.
According to Joan's reports, she spent a few months in a fishing village in Santos learning Portuguese while waiting for her partner to finish his last sails. Once settled, the pair headed to Goiás in search of an opportunity in the Marcha para o Oeste (Westward March), Getúlio Varga's program to occupy the Midwest of Brazil. In her memoirs she wrote, “Perhaps the good-neighbor policy was not official between Brazil and the United States, but in November 1935, I had a friendly and cordial reception when I returned from the States, two months later, disembarking in Santos. And I didn't have a return ticket!”
In 1937, the couple moved to the city of Anápolis. There, Lowell met an important political figure, Bernardo Sayão, an important member of the Ministry of Agriculture at the time, and began selling large properties and land to other Hollywood figures.
Dona Joana, as the locals called her, did not give up her fantasies of writing an autobiography about her time as an explorer. In 1952, she published Promised Land, in which she retells her saga in Brazil, and which later received translations in French, German, and Portuguese. A year after the book's release in the United States, newspapers announced that Joan Crawford would star in the film.
Despite great interest from Hollywood in adapting the book, the project did not get very far. Three years later, in 1955, Lowell explained to Manchete magazine why the project had failed. Everything was settled with the American studio, Joseph Kaufman would be the producer, but a law demanded that for a Brazilian film to be produced, the script had to be written by a Brazilian screenwriter.
After 28 years of living in the countryside of Goiás, at the invitation of Bernardo Sayão, the adventurous couple moved from the rural areas and settled in the capital of Brasilia. Lowell, as usual, became local news and was a distinguished guest at American Embassy parties. But tragedy struck and Joan's life took an unexpected turn when, on July 27, 1961, Captain Leek Bowen died suddenly when he was hit by a car while walking towards the Brasilia Bus Station.
Widowed, tireless, and driven by dreams of returning to the spotlight, Joan conducted an extensive report, with pieces published by newspapers in the USA, denouncing the abandonment of Brazilian roads and the hardships that truck drivers had to face in precarious work situations. With the support of sponsors, she traveled and documented the Belem - Brasilia highway (covering more than 1,600 kilometers) in the early 1960s in a Volkswagen Beetle. Among those on the trip were radio broadcaster Lira Alves de Sousa and French journalist Geneviève Hoffer.
In her last years, the remarkable Dona Joana lived on a farm in Planaltina. Yet there was no respite; in both Anápolis and Brasília, she was accused of fraud in the purchase and sale of land she bought and resold to her Hollywood cronies. Lowell even reported being harassed and threatened by debt collectors to local police. On the morning of November 14, 1967, at the age of 65, she was found dead in her bed. Pretinha, her dog and companion, was watching the body when it was found.
She was buried in the Campo da Esperança, Brasília's main cemetery, keeping her husband, Leek Bowen, company.
The publication of Joan Lowell's book, Promised Land, had already attracted many stars to Brazil. In this story of adventures in rural Goiás, Janet Gaynor, the first Academy Award winner for Best Actress, stood out. Her elegant cinematic portrayal of abandoned heroines brought her to fame in both silent and talking films. In Lowell's promised paradise, she was just another farmer—and that's where the charm lay. Gaynor was in Brazil for the first time at the first edition of the Brazil Film Festival, in 1954. "It was time to seek new worlds," she later said.
During the press tour of the festival, long before her death, Joan Lowell sent a telegram inviting Gaynor and her husband Adrian Gilbert, a costume designer whose work included the costumes for The Wizard of Oz (1939), to visit Anápolis. The distinguishing feature of their farm—which had no electricity—was the supposed help provided by the fields for Adrian Gilbert's heart problems. It was then that the couple decided to buy a farm in the area to spend their vacation from time to time.
While reading about Mary Martin's success as Peter Pan in the Broadway adaptation of the play, which earned her a Tony Award for best actress for the 1960 TV movie, and taking advantage of what would be her brief stay at the Port of Santos in São Paulo, Janet sent a telegram inviting the fellow actress to visit the city of Anápolis and spend a few weeks on her property, so that she could experience the tranquility of the Brazilian countryside. The discreet interior of Goiás became the target of celebrities such as Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, and Claudette Colbert, who preferred tranquility to the hustle and bustle of the then capital of Rio de Janeiro.
Upon arriving on vacation in South America, Martin found her own private paradise in Goiás. “We didn't even know they were in Brazil at the time, but Janet got a clip in the mail about it from Hedda Hopper's column, and when we docked in Santos, Brazil, a lady came to the ship with a letter in her hand asking, Are you Mary Martin and Richard Halliday? and she had an invitation from Janet and Adrian. We had virtually no time, and we had to go 500 miles each way just to get there. Janet, I remember the furniture was just arriving and we had dinner on the king-sized bed. Then we sat up all night and talked. And as we left Richard pointed to another building and said, 'If that house is ever for sale I want it,’” Martin reported to the Washington Post in 1979.
Excited, they sent money to Joan Lowell, who would broker the purchase of the property, but upon visiting the land that was to become theirs, they were met by a burst of bullets from the real owners. Joan, however, pretended it was all a misunderstanding and even wrote a check to Martin, which bounced.
Martin's dream of having a home in Brazil, despite all the regrets, was not over. Along with the Brazilian rancher Gibran El-Hadj, who decided to be Richard Halliday's representative in the country, Janet Gaynor intermediated the purchase of a ranch for her colleague. This solidified a friendship that lasted until the end of their lives and so was born "Nossa Fazenda Halliday," a sumptuous Hollywood-style farm.
In 1959, Gilbert Adrian died of a fatal heart attack. Over the next few years Gaynor continued to visit his ranch sporadically, but what had once been a shared lived dream no longer made sense when enjoyed alone. A few years later, Paul Gregory convinced her to return in front of an audience and promoted her in a theatrical production of "War and Peace" and it was then that the actress left Goiás permanently. Later on, regarding her time as Mary Martin's neighbor, she said, "It's really one of the most special friendships. We've known and depended on each other for so many years that neither of us can even place when we first met. We've been very close, and it had nothing to do with our careers because they hardly coincided. It comes from those days when we’re all neighbors in Brazil."
As for Mary Martin, after the completion of the construction of Brasilia, moving between New York and Anápolis became quick and convenient. In May 1964, Martin declared to a local newspaper that she intended to retire from Broadway and permanently live out her days in Goiás.
Martin's family remained in Brazil until the late 1970s, when her husband, Richard Halliday, died of pneumonia in a hospital in Brasilia. Martin took his remains to be buried in the States and there she stayed until her death in 1990. The actresses’ ranches, cabins, furniture, and personal belongings are now in ruins.
Today, Mary Martin's old house in Goiás, which was the stage for so many historical meetings in the city, lies in disrepair. The owner, José Caixeta, laments the state the house is in. After Mary, he was the first owner of the farm, who resold it and, after some time, bought it back. On the site where Joan Lowell's ranch stood, to the present date, there is a rehabilitation clinic, and its administrators are unaware of the history that was once lived there. "My first contact with her [Joan Lowell] was a business, she kept buying old produce. My father took my catri, which was my bed, to sell to Doña Joana and I cried a lot. She wore pants, she spoke softly. She spoke in our language, a little curled, but she spoke," says Claudimira Leite Bueno, a retiree who knew Lowell and currently lives on the land the actress built with her own hands.
Although the history of a piece of Hollywood in Central Brazil has slowly come to an end, the importance of the passage of such prominent figures is still symbolic for the memory of Anápolis and its inhabitants. The research and mapping of the lives of Joan Lowell, Mary Martin, and Janet Gaynor in Brazil continues to be carried out at the Jan Magalinski Institute in Goiás.