Hidden Treasure

Half a century ago, ex-heroin dealer Alfredo Santos created an epic work of art inside San Quentin. Now, he's coming back to be honored for it.

A press release for the opening of his gallery in Guadalajara in 1961 proclaimed that the artist had come to Mexico to "have more freedom to express himself artistically." That was putting it mildly. He had fled the United States to avoid going back to jail. By 1960 his San Diego gallery and studio had become a mainstay of that city's nascent arts scene. That spring the police raided it looking for marijuana.

The stash was above their heads, cleverly attached to a parachute suspended from the two-story ceiling. All the cops found was a roach clip or two. Nonetheless, they arrested Santos. He pleaded guilty to one count of possession, then a felony. The night before he was to appear in court for sentencing, Santos made a fateful decision. He and his 19-year-old girlfriend ran out and got married and took off for Mexico. "I advised him not to go, but he was afraid that with his prison record they'd throw him in jail for six months to a year -- which was entirely likely -- and he didn't want to be locked up again," recalls the San Diego attorney who represented him, Max Lercher, 77, a longtime Santos friend.

The marriage dissolved after a few months, with the homesick bride returning to California. But Santos flourished south of the border.

The Santos murals give inmates "something 
stimulating to think about," says prison 
spokesman and former guard Vernell 
Crittenden.
Paolo Vescia
The Santos murals give inmates "something stimulating to think about," says prison spokesman and former guard Vernell Crittenden.
The Santos murals give inmates "something 
stimulating to think about," says prison 
spokesman and former guard Vernell 
Crittenden.
Paolo Vescia
The Santos murals give inmates "something stimulating to think about," says prison spokesman and former guard Vernell Crittenden.

"Guadalajara gave him a fresh start in many ways," says Lercher, who was amazed at Santos' wood sculpting and abstract paintings upon arriving there for the first of several visits. Others were impressed, too. Joan Woodbury, a Palm Springs art critic and socialite who had been a B-movie actress in the '30s and '40s, declared Santos to be "one of Mexico's foremost impressionists" in one of her newspaper columns. At her urging, he slipped back into California for a monthlong show at a Palm Springs gallery despite being on the lam.

His good fortune in Guadalajara was eclipsed by his success in Mexico City. Santos moved to the Mexican capital in 1964 and set up shop on Calle Niza, near the trendy boutiques and restaurants of the Zona Rosa, the city's upscale tourist mecca. "It was really an incredible time," says Mary Ann Summers, 61, Santos' second wife. She was a young Irish Catholic woman from Chicago exploring Mexico when she met and married Santos in 1965. The union produced two sons, Chris, 35, an aspiring artist in Colorado, and Rene, 33, a part-time waiter who lives with his father. Divorced in 1977, Summers is now a librarian in the village of Woodstock, N.Y., but remains close to Santos.

"Alfredo had this fantastic gallery above a Chinese restaurant with four huge rooms downstairs and a big sunny studio loft above it," she recalls. "Between the two levels, sort of hidden away, was his bedroom, the walls of which were completely covered with photographs and paintings of nudes." And then there were the real ones. "There was a constant stream of beautiful women, and they all seemed to want to pose for him," says Lercher. "He was this magnetic young artist with a terrific following. His problem was that he couldn't manage the business side. People who worked for him stole him blind."

Lercher says he unwittingly contributed to Santos' business woes. On a flight to Mexico City the lawyer sat next to a man who revealed he had been an inmate at San Quentin, which led to a discussion of the murals. The ex-con expressed his admiration and said he'd love to meet the artist. "You should drop in and see him," Lercher recalls telling the passenger. Santos later hired the man to work in the gallery, "and the guy ended up embezzling."

At the top of his game, the ever-restless Santos relocated to Acapulco for a year and then got the urge to go stateside. The plan, he says, was to hit New York City as a steppingstone to Europe. It didn't work out. With a wife and infant son in tow, he settled into a rented apartment near Washington Square, accepting commissions from a cadre of New York clients who had discovered his work in Mexico. One of them, a matronly socialite, had a summer home in the Catskills near the sleepy village of Fleischmanns, a short drive from the soon-to-be-famous town of Woodstock.

Santos scooped up the family and moved there in the summer of 1968. Soon, with help from another patron who provided the down payment, he bought an abandoned plumbing supply store on the town's main drag and converted it to a studio and gallery. The family lived upstairs. "Alfredo's place was a magnet for every hip person for miles around," says Joel Fishkin, 61, a retired executive who lives in Connecticut and a longtime Santos friend and patron.

Fishkin discovered Fleischmanns -- and Santos -- during a ski trip to the Catskills in the early 1970s. "People would come and watch him work and just hang out and talk politics, art -- you name it. There was always a crowd." Indeed, an ad in the local paper proclaimed the gallery to be "open daily until 11:30 p.m. or by appointment." Says Fishkin: "It was its own little world, with Alfredo the charismatic central figure."

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