Sunday, August 29, 2010

Who was Mabel Dodge Luhan?

Mabel Dodge Luhan, photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1934.

She was a woman of profound contradictions. She was generous. She was petty. Domineering and endearing. She was Mabel Gansen Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan -- salon hostess, art patroness, writer and self-appointed savior of humanity.

Reading this statement on the Mabel Dodge Luhan House website, I wondered if people would ask: "So who was Mabel Dodge Luhan anyway?" The answer is as complex as Mabel herself.

I went looking for statements describing her. From Lois Rudnick's book Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds I took two samplings. Poet Witter Bynner, who spent part of summer 1922 as Mabel's guest during his first visit to New Mexico, at first held her in high regard. He extolled her generosity and hospitality: she provided him with food, shelter and the quiet necessary for writing. Within four years Bynner's feelings had changed; he expressed them in his play Cake. Mabel's life and personality traits provided inspiration for the character called "the Lady." As Bynner wrote D.H. Lawrence, some of the play's aspects "were said to be a satire" of Mabel Luhan. When Bynner sent Mabel a copy of the play with a note, he heard that she was "not amused."

At the other end of the spectrum, Mabel's granddaughter Bonnie Evans compared Mabel to a rich tapestry or landscape. In Bonnie's opinion, her grandmother had the ability to create "a physical and emotional arena in which people found the energy to act."

In his autobiography, Ansel Adams described his introduction to Mabel the summer of 1929. He pronounced Los Gallos (her home) "beautiful" and the surrounding countryside "magnificent." Adams noted that Georgia O'Keeffe and John Marin were among his hostess's many guests, and that everyone had the freedom to pursue their "creative business." He had an "agreeable" relationship with Mabel and her husband Tony Lujan. In fact, if it hadn't been for Mabel's hospitality and Tony's assistance with Taos Pueblo officials, Adam's book Taos Pueblo (1930) might not have been published.

During my search for the real Mabel, I noticed how many books on women of the Southwest mention her. Judi Jordan, the resident docent at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House (at least that's one of the many hats she wears) also made this observation. I interviewed Judi this week to see what her study of Mabel revealed.

I asked Judi what struck her most about Mabel Dodge Luhan. She replied that Mabel was a contradiction, a complex woman. Mabel generated her own excitement, and exasperated her friends. She drove D.H. Lawrence crazy, yet she was kind to young people and animals. She took in lost kittens and stray dogs. Once, Lawrence told her she should bake her own bread and wash her own floors. Mabel got down on her hands and knees and washed about half of the Big Room's floors, while her maids looked on, giggling. Judy also mentioned Mabel's generosity: she gifted Taos with its first hospital.

Mabel had a reputation of being overbearing, imperialistic. Yet, of all that Judi related to me, what struck me the most was the Mabel who is not quite so well known--the Mabel who had the gift of silence, the ability to listen deeply. Certainly, the first thing that most people notice when they visit the Mabel Dodge Luhan House is the quiet. She created an exceptional place, a retreat that continues to provide the silence needed for creative work, for thinking, for respite from the world.

Over the next months I will continue to look for the real Mabel. In September the Mabel Dodge Luhan House staff will host a gathering of Taosenos who knew her when they were young. Known as "Granny Mabel" to some, it will be interesting to hear their stories.

What are your thoughts on Mabel? If you knew Mabel or her family members and have a story to tell, please let me know.

Adios for now,

NEXT: Frieda Lawrence; Mabel Dodge Luhan House staff reflections on the "Remarkable Women" questions from posting number one

 Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection

Friday, August 20, 2010

Looking at profiles of Taos women: a beginning

Photo (left to right): Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frieda Lawrence, Dorothy Brett (circa 1938) Courtesy of Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, CT

A search for sources that profile women of Taos led to a recent discovery, More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Women of Taos. Curious to see which women the author chose, I found that three of the twelve women or groups of women portrayed in the book resided in Taos: Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frieda Lawrence (two of the “Three Fates”) and Millicent Rogers. Five of the others—Georgia O’Keeffe, photographer Laura Gilpin, anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons, the sisters of Loretto and the Harvey girls—spent time in Taos. How interesting that two-thirds of the women profiled had Taos connections.

One of this blog’s goals aligns with what More Than Petticoats: Remarkable New Mexico Women works to achieve. The telling of their stories and the identification of qualities and characteristics of remarkable women of Taos (and elsewhere) are meant to provide role models that inform and inspire girls and young women.

Responses to the Mabel Dodge Luhan and the Remarkable Women of Taos blog have helped me prioritize some of the past and contemporary women I will be featuring. The readership request list includes Natalie Goldberg, Sas Colby, Eya Fechin, the sisters Anita Rodriguez and Sylvia Rodriguez, Hilda Street, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Art Bachrach, author of D.H. Lawrence in New Mexico : the Time Is Different There (and co-owner with his wife Susan of our local Moby Dickens Bookstore), has also pondered the question of why Taos has produced so many independent-minded women. Just today we revisited this, and “Uncle Art” observed that when certain women come to Taos, their full capability gets expressed and recognized. He spoke to a certain spaciousness: “These women have a freedom to be who they are and do what they want. There is a freedom of movement and expression here that is quite unusual. I love it!” Art recently supplied me with his list of past and present grande dames of Taos, including Mabel, Frieda Lawrence, Dorothy Brett, Rebecca Salsbury James, Blanche Grant, Agnes Martin, Corina Santistevan, and Susan Bachrach.

If some of these women’s names are unfamiliar, let them be a mystery for now. As I introduce them to you, you will see that they are all remarkable in their own way. In fact, two of them—Millicent Rogers and Corina Santistevan—are subjects of two forthcoming books. Art Bachrach and Nita Murphy are putting the finishing touches on Millicent Rogers: A Life in Full. I’m awaiting copy-editing on my labor of love, Stones Into Bread: The Correspondence of Peggy Pond Church and Corina Aurora Santistevan.

This brings me to some questions that Karen Young (my “co-conspirator” and brain trust at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House) and I are pondering. What are the qualities or attributes that combine to make a remarkable woman?

What do you think? What constitutes a remarkable woman?

Looking forward to your answers.


NEXT: Mabel Dodge Luhan: Who Was She?

The "More than Petticoats" series is published under Two Dot, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. To date books from this series about remarkable women cover 36 of the 50 states in the US.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mabel Dodge Luhan and the Remarkable Women of Taos Inaugural Blogsite Posting

A Sign from Taos: “The Three Fates” Launch Mabel and the Remarkable Women of Taos Blogsite

Weeks ago I heard that the New Mexico State Highway Department had called the Mabel Dodge Luhan House to ask where the staff wanted their highway sign placed. “What sign? We didn’t order a sign…. No, we don’t want a highway sign in our driveway.”

Then staffer Karen Young noticed a new highway sign on Route 64, placed near the “Places of Interest” marker, just a mile north of the crossroads leading to the Rio Grande Gorge to the west and to the Taos Ski Valley to the east. It read: “THE THREE FATES.”
Intrigued I went looking for the sign. After one failed attempt, I finally located it, and took this picture.

As I had hoped “THE THREE FATES” referred to Mabel, Frieda Lawrence and Dorothy Brett. The sign’s text read:
Three extraordinary women contributed to the unique artistic culture of Taos in the 20th Century. Sometimes called “The Three Fates”, they had a long, passionate and often contentious relationship with each other. Mabel Dodge Luhan created a haven for artists, writers and musicians at her Taos home, including D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. They arrived in Taos in 1924 with their friend, Dorothy Brett.
Well if that isn’t synchronicity at work: that this sign should appear just at the time of the blog launch for “Mabel Dodge Luhan and the Remarkable Women of Taos.”
The idea for this blog came from a question posed at a Mabel Dodge Luhan staff meeting in early August 2008:
  • “What is it about Taos that has proven, over the last 80 years, to provide such a supportive and encouraging environment for strong, independent-minded women, and has encouraged them to successfully pursue their careers, their lives, and their professional and artistic interests.?”
This question of why this area has attracted so many remarkable women has provided a discussion topic for several other residents of and visitors to Taos. Steve Parks, Director of Parks Gallery in Taos, ponders this in “Taos Women,” the introduction to a forthcoming book A Precarious Balance: Creative Women in Taos, New Mexico by Robbie Steinbach and Lyn Bleiler, featuring photos and quotes from a cross-section of women living in Taos County – dancers, visual artists, musicians, writers and those who live a creative life.
In an excerpt from the introduction, Parks conveys his early impressions of some remarkable Taos women:
When I stumbled into Taos for the first time, September 30, 1973, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. A few months earlier I’d packed my small family into a Volkswagen van, crossed the Hudson and headed west in search of a new life. …I quickly became enamored with the town and its history, and one of my first and strongest impressions was that the place was filled with strong, independent women. In those years, 4 of the 5 best galleries in town were owned by women – Maggie Kress and Tally Richards, Mary Sanchez and Rena Rosequist. The co-founder of the Lama Foundation was Asha Breeson, a woman of great physical and spiritual authority. Billy Blair was the fearless editor of the Taos News. All the elected officials in the town and the county were male, but arguably the most influential political figure in town was Sally Howell – she gave me my first job in town as her gardener. Then I tended bar for a few years at the old La Cocina on the plaza, a raucous joint on a Saturday night but nobody messed with Ruth Moya, the sweet but steely strong cocktail waitress who could stop a drunken brawl without raising her voice.
Halfway through his essay, Parks poses two questions:
  • Why Taos?
  • What attracted so many strong women?
Part of the Mabel and the Remarkable Women of Taos blog’s goal is to invite a dialog around those two questions and two more:
  • Looking at the lives of remarkable women like Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frieda Lawrence and Dorothy Brett, what brought them here? What caused them to stay?
  • What is it about Taos that invites women who come here to become remarkable women?
Those of you who have spent time at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House might have noticed some remarkable women among the staff. I thought they would provide some interesting answers. I decided to ask them and some of the remarkable women who conduct workshops here -- like Natalie Goldberg and Michele Cassou – to serve as my sample group. As of this post, they are writing down their thoughts.

In the meantime, as I eagerly await that group’s responses, I invite you to answer these questions, too.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Liz Cunningham, blog host

What’s next: Profiling women of Taos; The First of the Three Fates: Mabel Dodge Luhan