Remembering Mérida author Grant Spradling, remembered for ‘Chelem Papers’

His final book was dedicated to his late partner, Clifford Ames; he died on their 50th anniversary

Grant Spradling in October 2018

Author and longtime Merida expat Grant Spradling died Tuesday, Jan. 1, after a series of health challenges. He was 89 and predeceased by his partner, artist Clifford Ames.

His death coincides with what would have been their 50th anniversary.

From left, Clifford Ames and Grant Spradling. Photo: Facebook

In 2018, Grant had released “Chelem Papers,” a deeply felt memoir and tribute to Ames, who died in January while the book was still in production.

In September, Grant set aside a week to launch “Chelem Papers.” On two consecutive days, he gave well-attended book signings at Hennessy’s Irish Pub in the Centro and El Bull Pen on the coast.

Grant Spradling and Clifford Ames’ relationship spanned decades.

He capped off the week by throwing a launch party in his home on Calle 68, at the same time inaugurating a private gallery filled with Cliff’s paintings and sculpture. He seemed to be in fine health and good spirits despite reporting piercing chest pains, which doctors diagnosed as walking pneumonia and treated with antibiotics, days before.

Approach to life

Grant was philosophical about the world he lived in, having seen much of it in the 20th century. “The purpose of life is to live,” said Grant, who was a briefly a pastor with the United Church of Christ, a bartender and a Broadway singer.

Grant Spradling embraces friend Chris Strickling at El Bull Pen in Chelem in September 2018. He was concluding a book tour for “Clelem Papers,” which he released over the summer. Photo: Facebook

In his final role with the church, Grant was tasked with collecting and cataloging then-neglected African American Art. That collection eventually became the largest such catalog in the country and is now part of Tulane University’s Amistad Research Center.

During these years he met and befriend the Harlem Renaissance painter, Jacob Lawrence. Later, with Ames, he became the artist’s exclusive publisher. 

Years later, despite a lifelong battle with dyslexia, Grant wrote his own books, starting with a short-story collection called “From High in the Mulberry Tree.” He followed that with “Maya Sacrifice,” “Palenque Murder” and “David Goes Home,” fictional works with characters loosely based on himself and people he knew, and infusing Maya and Yucatecan culture.

Dave O. Dodge and Grant Spradling celebrate “Chelem Papers” with a launch party in September 2018. Photos: Facebook

“Chelem Papers” recalls his childhood in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl years, then detailing world travels and adventures. The name of the book derives from his beach home, where he found solitude suitable for writing.

Shortly before his death, Grant talked about publishing another book, centering more on the United States during the Depression. Unable to write, he was dictating passages to a friend.

From left, Clifford Ames and Grant Spradling. Photo: Facebook

Grant wrote five books, including “David Goes Home,” a coming-of-age story of a gay man in the 1940s through the ’60s.

Edward Grant Spradling was born March 27, 1929 to Wilbur and Helen Spradling in Weatherford, Okla., which he noted was “the bull’s eye of the Dust Bowl.” Grant said his classmates were sharecroppers.

On a scholarship, he attended Oklahoma City University and Boston University School of Theology. In the early 1950s, Grant was ordained in the Congregational Church and served at Attleboro and Cambridge, Mass., for about 10 years.

His last professional position was that of Arts Council Director in the Florida Keys and Key West. While there, in 1987, he started dividing his time between the Keys and Merida.

Life as an expat in a quickly growing Merida sometimes left him feeling alienated. In 2007, he told a Los Angeles Times reporter that he and Cliff were planning to live full-time in Amarillo, Texas, where they maintained a high-rise condo.

But later, he told Yucatan Living that they had a change of heart.

“By then I was an ‘old timer’ and I guess I was distressed by the rapid change in the character and makeup of the expatriate community,” he said in 2012. “About two weeks later, after the wire services picked up the story and I was hearing from friends in Maine, I was sitting out in our garden and a voice said, ‘Are you crazy?’ So, needless to say, I didn’t leave.”

“I expect to end my days here,” Grant added, delighted that a group of writers had formed in Yucatan. “I cannot imagine a more felicitous place than our Merida home.”

His connection to Merida’s literary circles was punctuated by a quirk of geography: Grant’s backyard bordered the Merida English Library, where he was once president.

Grant was supportive of his fellow English-speaking writers in Merida, opening up his spacious home to them on several occasions. His New Year’s Day brunches were famous for his black-eyed peas.

But losing Cliff, who was 15 years his junior, was a blow.

“The plan was for me to go first,” Grant said last summer. “… I feel unanchored. But I also feel less alone than I ever was (because of) the support I have received from friends and family, particularly our Maya houseman, who has been with us for 25 years, and a young student who lives near, who has practically become my caregiver, though I don’t yet feel I need one.”

Uncertainty was Grant’s friend. In an interview he gave last summer, he happily admitted that after a life pondering the nature of God, he was still at a loss.

“As I approach 90, the mystery isn’t daunting to me, it’s beautiful. There’s so much behind it.”

Details on a gathering to celebrate Grant Spradling’s life are pending.

{ Previously: Grant Spradling is preparing his next book, with the beach as his muse }

Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012.
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