Dropping out of Vanderbilt, Jenkins eloped with a southern belle and settled in Mexico in 1901. Driven by a desire to prove himself – first to his wife’s snobbish family, then to elites who disdained him as an American – Jenkins would spend the next six decades building an enormous fortune, in textiles, property, sugar, banking, and film. Already a millionaire when the Revolution of 1910 broke out, Jenkins began speculating in property in his adoptive state of Puebla. He had a brush with a firing squad and later suffered a kidnapping by rebels, an episode that almost triggered a U.S. invasion. After the war he developed Mexico’s most productive sugar plantation, before diversifying as a venture capitalist.
During Mexican cinema’s Golden Age in the 1940s and 50s, Jenkins lorded over the industry with a monopoly of theaters and a major role in production. Reputed as an exploiter of workers, a puppet-master of politicians, and Mexico’s richest industrialist, Jenkins was the gringo that Mexicans most loved to loathe. After the death of his wife, wracked by guilt at having abandoned her, Jenkins became increasingly dedicated to philanthropy, finally creating a charitable foundation to administer his $60 million fortune.
The Mary Street Jenkins Foundation helped set up and develop two prestigious universities, including the Universidad de las Américas (UDLA-Puebla), and set a precedent for U.S.-style foundations in Mexico. It continues to operate today.
My biography of William Jenkins is being published Spanish by Debate/CIDE November 2016 and in English by Oxford University Press in May 2017.
Jenkins, satirized as “Lord and Master of Mexico,” in 1959.
“Researched with care and written with verve, Andrew Paxman’s highly original study of the long and convoluted life of William Jenkins—entrepreneur, patriarch, philanthropist, and political fixer— is a fascinating read; it also sheds ample light on business and political (mal)practices during the Mexican Revolution and subsequent decades of state-formation and economic growth. For once, a book that manages to combine cogent scholarly research and stylistic flair.”—Alan Knight, author of The Mexican Revolution