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Mabel Dodge Luhan
by Michael Ann Sullivan
In December of 1917, Mabel Dodge closed her apartment in Greenwich Village, and took a long slow train ride to Lamy, New Mexico to meet her husband Maurice Sterne and her son Paul. Although she planned only a brief vacation, the 38-year-old writer and avant-garde intellectual fell in love with New Mexico and would return to New York only to collect her belongings. In her memoir, Edge of Taos Desert, Dodge remembered her sojourn in New Mexico as a turning point in her life. “I wanted a vacation. I got it. My life broke in two right then, and I entered into the second half, a new world that replaced all the ways that I had known with others, more strange and terrible and sweet then any I had ever been able to imagine.”
Dodge spent the next 45 years in Taos. Her home, Los Gallos, became a sanctuary and meeting place for many of America’s most celebrated artists and writers. Georgia O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Andrew Dasburg, Dorothy Brett, Willa Cather, Ansel Adams, John Marin and hundreds of others first encountered New Mexico from the porches and environs of her home. Dodge also devoted her life to preserving and promoting Pueblo culture. She wrote numerous articles in popular magazines and scholarly journals touting the advantages of the Indian way of life. She invited not only artists but other politicians and reformers to her home in the hopes of enlisting their aid. John Collier, social reformer and progressive, visited Dodge in 1920. Collier fell in love with Pueblo customs and people and began a lifelong endeavor to preserve their lands and way of life which culminated in his appointment, in 1930, as the commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Mabel was born on February 26, 1879 to Charles Ganson and Sara Cook Ganson. The Gansons lived in a Victorian mansion on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo mirrored the prosperity and power of the growing United States during the Gilded Age. Located at the foot of Lake Erie, Buffalo had been a commercial center since the 1860s. No fewer than four presidents (Cleveland, Filmore, McKinley, and Roosevelt) lived on Mabel’s street prior to their election to office. The Gansons lived a life of leisure. Charles Ganson trained as a lawyer but never practiced. Mabel grew up in the milieu of Buffalo’s social, economic, and political elite and like other young girls of her social station, Mabel grew up in the company of her nursemaid. She attended Saint Margaret’s Episcopal School for Girls until she was sixteen, when her grandmother insisted she attend a more suitable school in New York City. She toured Europe with her mother in 1896, attended Chevy Chase, a finishing school in Washington, D.C, and had the requisite coming out ball at age eighteen.
Two years after her debutante ball, in July of 1900, Mabel married Karl Evans, the son of a Buffalo scion, in secret. Her father disapproved of Karl. Although nominally employed at his father’s steamboat company, Karl spent most of his time hunting and running around with his friends. The Gansons made the couple re-marry—this time in Trinity Church in front of all Buffalo society. In January of 1902, Mabel gave birth to her only child, John Evans. Although deliriously happy during her pregnancy, after John’s birth, Mabel became depressed at being a mother and unhappy in her marriage. She sought solace in an extramarital affair with Dr. Parmenter, a close family friend and her personal physician. Then, the following year, a series of tragedies came one after the other. Her father died in November. Several months later she entered the hospital for a serious operation. Next, while recuperating at home, her husband Karl was shot in a hunting accident and died several days later.
Mabel’s mother sent her to Europe to recover from her loss and separate her from the married Dr. Parmenter. Mabel set sail for Paris with two nursemaids and her young son. On board, she relinquished John to the nursemaids, and languished alone in a chaise lounge on deck, refusing to take meals with anyone. On the last night, before her arrival in Paris, at the urging of the nursemaids, she reluctantly agreed to attend dinner. At her table she met Edwin Dodge, a young Boston architect trained at the École de Beaux Arts in Paris. Mabel found Dodge to be a pleasant companion—cheerful and kind. In Paris, Dodge began an unrelenting courtship of Mabel. She finally agreed to marry him for pragmatic reasons. Edwin could be a father to John and provide the luxurious life she was accustomed to. Mabel and Edwin wed in October of 1904 and honeymooned in Biarritz. They spent the winter on the Riviera and the summer in Switzerland. Mabel suffered from restlessness and depression and took it out on her new husband.
The couple finally settled down in Italy, buying an old estate in Florence called the Villa Curonia. The famous Medici family built the Villa Curonia in the fifteenth century and Mabel set out to recreate it in its entire Renaissance splendor. She filled the villa with Renaissance furniture, damasks, silks, tapestries, crystal, beautiful carved sculptures, and Venetian glass. Mabel even had renaissance costumes made to entertain in and had a portrait of herself painted by the renowned artist Jacques-Émile Blanche. She became famous in Florence for her hospitality. The Dodges hosted fabulous gatherings of interesting people. Mabel craved the company of artists, intellectuals, and writers. One might find at her table on any given evening the communist, John Reed, journalist, Carl Van Vechten, and avant-garde author, Gertrude Stein. In 1913, Mabel wrote Stein, “Please come down here soon—the house is full of pianists, painters, pederasts, prostitutes, and peasants. Great material.”
Stein presided over her own artistic circle in Paris comprising many of the most distinguished modernist artists of the day. While visiting at the Villa Curonia, Stein wrote a word portrait of Mabel in her abstract stream of consciousness style. Like her Cubist compatriots, Stein used fragments of images juxtaposed in unusual ways to capture the beauty of Mabel’s home. “…although there was the best kind of sitting there could never be all the edging that the largest chair was having…There was not that velvet spread when there was a pleasant head…” “Portrait of Mable Dodge at the Villa Curonia, 1912” thrilled her hostess and led to her later fame.
In November of 1912, the Dodges returned to New York and purchased a brownstone on the edge of fashionable Greenwich Village. Mabel set out to make it as beautiful as her home in Italy, furnishing it all in white—white wall paper, white paint, a beautiful white marble fireplace, and a polar bear rug. After decorating the apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue she sank into one of her recurrent downward spirals. After consulting a psychiatrist about her depression, he confirmed her suspicion that Edwin was the problem. Mabel asked her husband to move out until she became emotionally stable. He never returned.
In early 1913, Mabel became involved in helping promote the Armory Show of modern art through her acquaintance with Alfred Steiglitz the famous photographer and promoter of modern art. Mabel lived just down the street from Steiglitz’s famous 291 Gallery which hung the paintings of unconventional and daring young artists. The Armory publicist, James Gregg, encouraged Mabel to publish an account of her friend Gertrude Stein in the magazine Arts and Decoration, which was covering the Armory exhibit. Mabel wrote her first published article “Speculations, or Post-Impressions in Prose” which exclaimed Stein’s use of language akin to Picasso’s use of paint. The article ran accompanied by Stein’s “Portrait of Mabel Dodge”. While living in New York, Mabel wrote her first articles and short stories. For a time she had an advice column in the New York Journal.
Mabel’s Greenwich apartment became an important gathering place for New York’s intellectuals. One of the friends Mabel first met in New York was labor organizer Hutchins Hapgood, who suggested that Mabel host a salon or intellectual gathering. Mabel held a weekly evening (sometimes more than one a week) and invited all the leading lights of the New York intelligentsia. In her own words, the “Socialists, Trade-Unionists, Anarchists, Suffragists, Poets, Lawyers, Murderers, ‘Old Friends’, Psychoanalysts, I.W.W’s, Single Taxers, Birth Controlists, Newspapermen, Artists, Modern Artists, Clubwomen, Woman’s-place-is-in-the-home Women, Clergymen, and just plain men” came to reshape the world. Emma Goldman, Max Eastman, John Reed, Margaret Sanger, Big Bill Haywood, and many other reformers of the day would gather to discuss the ideas that consumed them. Mabel would greet her guests at the door usually attired in white, throw out a topic for discussion and retire to the back of the room. At midnight, she would feed the crowd a lavish meal of meat and drink. The media dubbed Mabel’s nights “The Salon Dodge” and wrote about it frequently in the papers.
Mabel met her third husband, Maurice Sterne, not in her salon as one might expect, but at a children’s dance recital. She and Sterne had a powerful sexual attraction. Sterne had recently received positive reviews on a series of neo-primitive paintings he had done in Bali. After a tempestuous love affair, the couple was married 23 August 1917. No sooner were Maurice and Mabel married then she became irritable and restless with him. He left on the advice of his doctor to paint the Indians in the Southwest. He wrote her long love letters from Santa Fe telling her of the beautiful country and people who lived there. One letter piqued her interest. “Dearest Girl,” Maurice began, “Do you want an object in life? Save the Indians, their art-culture---reveal it to the world!”
Not many of Mabel’s acquaintances knew much about New Mexico. Santa Fe and Taos at the turn of the century still retained much of their Spanish and Pueblo past. Pueblo Indians sold jewelry and pots in the ancient plazas of its towns. The buildings of mud-brick blended into the mesas. There were few signs of modernization—the sole exception being the Santa Fe railroad which brought the products of an industrialized age to this western outpost. Taos did not even have running water until the middle of the twentieth century.
Mabel packed her bags and boarded the train for the Southwest. When she arrived in New Mexico after the long journey what she encountered there stunned and changed her. On her first morning in Santa Fe the sun and sky beguiled her. “I found out that the sunshine in New Mexico could do almost anything with one: make one well if one felt ill, or change a dark mood and lighten it. It entered into one's deepest places and melted the thick, slow densities. It made one feel good. That is, alive.” Mabel found Santa Fe too civilized for her tastes and dragged Sterne unwillingly up into the mountains. She hired a car the day after her arrival and took the long drive to Taos over rutted and twisted roads. Mabel and Maurice reached Taos in the dark. Undeterred, Mabel set out to secure a home to rent. Maurice pleaded with her to wait and see what the place looked like but Mabel insisted she had a feeling that “…Taos would be just right for us.”
Taos would not in the end be right for Maurice but for Mabel it settled her and gave her life direction and purpose. Two weeks later Mabel moved permanently to Taos embracing the town and its people unreservedly. She even bobbed her hair short so as to look as much as possible like a pueblo woman. Maurice left in August and the couple separated permanently the next April. Mabel, however, had long since fallen in love with Antonio Luhan, a Taos Pueblo man she met soon after her arrival in Taos. Mabel claimed in later years that Tony, as she called him, visited her in a dream long before she came to New Mexico. The couple became inseparable and finally married in 1923. As might be expected, Mabel and Tony had their share of difficult times, but they remained married for over forty years.
Tony encouraged Mabel to purchase twelve acres of land bounded on two sides by Pueblo land. He supervised the building of Los Gallos, which Mabel considered her first real home. Los Gallos became one of New Mexico's most famous artist colonies. In 1898, artists Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips had established the first artist colony when their wagon accidentally broke down there during a painting expedition. The two young men started the Taos Society of Artists, informally called Los Ochos Pintores. The work of the Taos Society of Artists was in the main representational. Mabel introduced modern art and modern artists to New Mexico. She began by inviting her good friend Andrew Dasburg to come and stay with her and paint.
Dasburg was the first of many of Mabel's avant-garde friends to visit Taos. Mabel often invited famous artists and writers that she didn’t know but felt would capture in their work the beauty and magic of the Pueblo culture and lifestyle. D.H. Lawrence came to New Mexico in this way. In 1921, Mabel invited Lawrence to come and stay in Taos at Los Gallos. She believed that Lawrence would be able to reveal the secrets of Pueblo life to the world thru his writing. In her letters to him she described Taos as “like the dawn of the world.” Lawrence indeed fell in love with Taos, although he never wrote of it. Mabel sponsored many artists and writers—giving them accommodations, bungalows or rooms in the big house, for a summer so they could work uninterrupted.
Mabel, herself, worked tirelessly introducing the magic of the Southwest to the rest of the nation. In her last column for The New York Journal she praised Pueblo life, noting that Indians lived an authentic life free from crass materialistic pleasures. She claimed that in New Mexico everyone had abundant food and time to enjoy what life had to offer.
Mabel came into her own as a writer in the years she spent in Taos. She published five books, Lorenzo in Taos (1932), a portrait of D.H. Lawrence; and four volumes of her personal memoirs—Intimate Memories (1933), Europe Experiences (1935), Movers and Shakers (1936), and Edge of Taos Desert (1937) . Mabel’s writing captured the spirit of her times and the timelessness of the New Mexico desert. Through her writing and her hospitality she introduced many individuals to the joys of life she herself experienced in the Southwest. Mabel Dodge Luhan died on April 18, 1962.
Everett, Patricia. A History of Having a Great Many Times Not Continued To Be Friends: the Correspondence Between Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein, 1911-1934. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
Hahn, Emily. Mabel: A Biography of Mabel Dodge Luhan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977.
Luhan, Mabel Dodge. Edge of Taos Desert: An Escape to Reality. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1937.
Rudnick, Lois. Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.