Friday, October 26, 2012

Why Mabel was remarkable: guest essay by Dr. Lois P. Rudnick

A year ago I wrote the first of the Remarkable Women of Taos profiles on Mabel and on Ali McGraw. To create a thread that ran through the profiles, our core team devised a list of questions that each interviewee answered. One of them was congruent with the questions that sparked this blog, namely “Why are there so many remarkable women in Taos?” Through some of the responses over this past year, the answers are coming into focus.

Other questions asked who was influential in the women’s lives, what was important to them, and what were their favorites Taos sites and sights. Another question became the impetus for this blog piece. Pondering the question, paraphrased here “What is it about Taos that draws and sustains adventurous and/or creative women? And what about Taos makes them want to overcome obstacles?” led me to ask Lois Rudnick, Mabel’s biographer, to pen her thoughts on Mabel: “Why was she a remarkable women?” and “What were the obstacles that hindered her becoming one; and what characteristics enabled her to become one?”

I’d like to add that Lois, Professor Emerita of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, edited Cady Wells and Southwestern Modernism (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2009) which, through her frank and probing analysis as a cultural historian, brought renewed attention to this mid-20th century American artist, a significant New Mexican modernist, collector, and patron. As guest blogger, she conveys the same objectivity in answering my questions about what made Mabel remarkable.

Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962)

 Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan was born into an upper-class Victorian family in 1879, in Gilded Age Buffalo, New York. Her parents, Charles and Sara Ganson, had a loveless marriage and provided no affection for their only child.  Mabel remembers licking the Mother Goose wallpaper in her nursery, as a young child, in order to receive emotional comfort. She escaped from her over-stuffed, rigid, lifeless home by marrying John Evans, when she was 21, a young man from her social set. He died in a hunting accident shortly after she gave birth to her first and only child, John Evans. Before his death, Mabel had begun an affair with one of the most prominent doctors in Buffalo, an affair that lasted close to 4 years, created a great scandal (he was married), and eventuated in her first of several suicide attempts. To save her life, her mother sent her, a nursemaid, and her child to Europe. On board ship, Mabel met Edwin Dodge, who would soon become her second husband, on the promise that he would provide her with a life of beauty. He bought a Medicean villa for them in Florence, Italy, where they lived from 1905 to 1912.

During this period Mabel began her “career” as a salon hostess, bringing to her home some of Europe’s most famous poets, musicians, and actresses. One of her most difficult impediments—and, ironically, a powerful enabler of her creativity--was her manic-depression. She suffered severe depressions, often marked by suicide attempts.  But during her manic phases she came up with some of her most creative ideas; for example, her dream of re-creating the Renaissance. In Florence, she began her first of what would become several utopian worlds where she hoped to find and create a world in which she could be “at home.”

 When Mabel moved to New York City in 1912, she left the European past, and became involved in many radical and avant-garde causes. She took an apartment on the edge of Greenwich Village, where she began a famous salon that hosted women’s rights and birth control activists, labor and union organizers, psychoanalysts, modern artists, and social reformers.

After World War I broke out, she moved “back to nature” in Croton-on-Hudson, where she met and married her third husband, Maurice Sterne, a postimpressionist painter. They married in August 1917, and Mabel sent him to Santa Fe for “their” honeymoon. He wrote her in November the letter that would transform the rest of her life: asking her to come to New Mexico and “save” the Indians and make their art and culture her life’s work. Mabel arrived in December, left almost immediately for Taos, rented apartments there, fell in love with a Taos Pueblo Indian, whom she took as a lover and married in 1923.

Tony Lujan was to become her “bridge between cultures,” as she adopted her final utopian plan: to build a community where the world’s great artists, activists, and writers would come to celebrate Pueblo Indian culture and teach the western world how to live in accordance with what she believed were their norms of peace and integrated spiritual, artistic, and communal lives. She didn’t meet her utopian goals, but she did bring some of the greatest artists and reformers of her time to Taos, where they were inspired to create work that often revitalized their personal and professional lives, among them D. H. Lawrence, Leopold Stokowski, Willa Cather, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and John Collier.

Notorious for being manipulative, bossy, and for intervening in her friends lives, Mabel was also a generous philanthropist (she donated the building that became the town’s first hospital), and a supportive friend to many.  She created an environment that enabled her work as a cultural catalyst, celebrator of, and writer about the beauties of the northern New Mexico landscape and Pueblo arts and culture. There is no doubt she romanticized the Indians, but she also respected them for values of which they themselves are proud as being vital to their culture.

Mabel and Tony*
Thank you, Lois. You amaze me with the way you are able to encapsulate Mabel's life, her struggles and achievements, in so few words. 

I hope you, Dear Readers, have enjoyed this overview. For me it shows Mabel's humanity, her frailties and triumphs--and just how complex we humans are as embodied in this remarkable woman's life.

Adios for now,


*Photo permission Town of Taos, Remarkable Women of Taos, 2012.