When I was a young kid starting out as a writer, I had a shining goal: I was going to present Mexico and the Mexicans as they had never before been presented. Well, I did. I made the big time. I even made MGM and Book of the Month. You see, I reached my goal and passed it." -Josefina Niggli
King William has long been a home for writers and artists. Even so, it may surprise some of you to know that Josefina Niggli once lived in our neighborhood. For those who are not familiar with that name, she was an author, playwright, actor, teacher and photographer who was popular in the mid-1900’s. Fewer still may know that she lived on King William Street. Her parents, Fredrick Ferdinand “Fritz” and Goldie Morgan Niggli owned 221 King William where Josefina lived off and on for about thirty years, from the mid 1920’s to the mid 1950’s.
Josefina’s mother was a concert violinist of Irish, French and German descent. Her father’s Swiss-Alsatian forebears immigrated to Texas in 1836. In 1893 after her parents married, they moved to Mexico where Fritz managed a cement plant in Hidalgo near Monterrey.
Josefina was born in Monterrey, Mexico in 1910. When she was three, her parents moved the family to San Antonio to escape the violence of the Mexican revolution. Her father continued to manage the cement plant and traveled back and forth between Hidalgo and San Antonio. Her mother gave private violin lessons from her King William home.
Josefina completed her high school education at Main Avenue High School, now Fox Tech, and at age fifteen entered Incarnate Word College and that’s where she began to consider becoming a writer. After completing her undergraduate studies in 1931, she went on to graduate from the University of North Carolina with a master’s degree in drama. Over the next decade she continued to gain popularity as more of her works were published.
Local historian, Bill Fisher, says that toward the end of WWII, Josefina’s parents rented the one-story house next door, the Sartor House at 217 King William, for her to live and work. That’s where she finished writing Mexican Village, a volume of lively folk tales which would become her most famous and influential work.
When Mexican Village was picked up by Hollywood to be made into a movie in 1953, it became the MGM musical, Sombrero starring Ricardo Montalban, Pier Angeli, Cyd Charisse, Vittorio Gassman and Yvonne De Carlo. It was about that time that Josefina moved to Hollywood to become a film writer working anonymously on such films as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Mark of Zorro.
In the mid-1950’s, Josefina left Hollywood to teach English and drama at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, where she worked for the next twenty years. The University now houses an extensive collection of her various works and a theatre bearing her name. In 2009, the University sponsored a year-long, campus-wide theme in her honor: “Josefina Niggli: A Celebration of Culture, Art and Life.”
Josefina died at her home in Cullowhee in 1983 at age seventy-three, and is buried in San Antonio at Mission Burial Park along side of her parents and other family members.
Information source: Elizabeth Coonrod Martinez, Josefina Niggli-Mexican American Writer, Central Library Texana archives, historian Bill Fisher.