Luhan, Mabel Dodge (1879–1962)
Luhan, Mabel Dodge (1879–1962)
Early 20th-century American benefactor of the arts and of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, first through her salons in Florence and New York, later through her friendship and support of many artists and intellectuals at her home in Taos. Name variations: Mabel Dodge. Born Mabel Ganson on February 26, 1879, in Buffalo, New York; died in Taos, New Mexico, on August 13, 1962; daughter of Charles Ganson (a banker) and Sara McKay (Cook) Ganson; married Karl Evans, in 1900 (killed in 1902); married Edwin Dodge (an architect), in 1905 (divorced 1914); married Maurice Sterne (an artist), in 1916 (divorced); married Antonio (Tony) Luhan (Lujan), in 1923 (died 1963); children: (first marriage) John Ganson Evans (a writer).
Ran a Florence salon (1905–12); ran her New York salon (1912–16); published her autobiographies (1933, 1935, 1936, 1937).
Lorenzo in Taos (1932); Intimate Memories: Background (1933); European Experiences (1935); Winter in Taos (1935); Movers and Shakers (1936); Edge of the Taos Desert (1937); Taos and Its Artists (1948).
Although she is now mentioned perhaps most often as a "friend of" or "patron to" many of the literary and artistic giants of the early 20th century (and not infrequently saddled with the adjective "eccentric"), Mabel Dodge Luhan was an intriguing and productive figure in her own right. She established influential intellectual salons, published eight books, and was a benefactor of the arts and of the Pueblo Indians over the course of a long and varied life that took her from a constricted household in upper-class Buffalo, New York, to the freedom of sunbaked Taos, New Mexico. Throughout it all, one senses, she remained intermittently frustrated.
Mabel Luhan was born in 1879 to Charles and Sara Ganson of Buffalo, New York. Her childhood was spent in the comfortable confines of the affluent in Buffalo, New York City, and the Berkshires, where material advantages were no shelter from loneliness. Her father was an angry and unhappy man who paid little attention to his daughter except when she was in his way, and her mother was kept busy managing the household in accordance with the long and detailed letters she received every day from her own mother, to which she also replied. In effect, Mabel's maternal grandmother ruled the roost from afar. In her autobiography, Mabel remembers that in her vain search for affection she would press her mouth to the Mother Goose figures on her wallpaper.
She had few memories of her early schooling at St. Margaret's Episcopal School for Girls, directly across the street from her parents' house. Then, her grandmother arranged for 16-year-old Mabel to attend Miss Graham's school in New York City. There she found a soul mate in Mary Shillito , another girl as isolated as she. Although her parents were American, Mary had spent most of her young life in Paris, and spoke little English; at Miss Graham's, she was almost overwhelmed by the loneliness of being in a strange country, far from home. Mary spoke to Mabel of her sister Violet, whom she idolized. Listening to her friend describe her sophisticated and cosmopolitan sister, Mabel fell under the spell of the remarkable Violet Shillito well before the two met.
Biographer Winifred Frazer notes that this friendship with Mary forecasts Mabel's later role as friend and facilitator to the smart set. The first summer after she entered Miss Graham's, Mabel traveled to Paris where she visited Mary and met the exceptional Violet. To read Dante and Plato, Violet had learned Italian and Greek; she was also studying higher mathematics and could perform Beethoven. Mabel, Mary and Violet spent the summer on long walks through the streets of Paris discussing philosophy, literature, and life, and by summer's end, Mabel, too, was in love with Violet.
After another year of school, Mabel made her New York debut at the Twentieth Century Club, which she had decorated for the occasion as a baronial hall with banners of coats of arms and reproductions of Rembrandt and Velázquez. Following her formal coming out, she spent her time in the idle ways then expected of young women of her class and entertained herself with the affections of men she had no desire to marry. When she became involved with the fun-loving and irresponsible Karl Evans, she wrote in her autobiography, it was because he was rumored to be engaged to another woman and thus could not marry Mabel. In July 1900, he tricked her into a secret marriage. For him, she said, "the world was a rabbit to hunt." A year and a half later, they had a son named John; several months after that, around the time that Mabel's father died, Karl was killed in a hunting accident.
In 1904, the young widow left Buffalo on a trip to Paris. En route she met Edwin Dodge, an architect who pursued her relentlessly in Paris. They were married in 1905 and, after a winter on the Riviera, settled in Florence. Seeing the great Italian city as indifferent to her upon her arrival, Mabel proclaimed: "I will make you mine!" It was in Florence that she began her career as a salon hostess and influential socialite.
She began with the renovation of a villa in the hills above Florence that had belonged to the Medici. With the Villa Curonia in which to entertain, Mabel courted Florentine expatriate society. Among the first figures she drew about her were Pen Browning, the son of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning ; Lady Muriel Paget , who was considered the de facto head of English society in Florence; and Lord and Lady Acton , leaders of the local international set. Soon she was entertaining writers, actors, sculptors, singers, painters and other expatriate "characters." Mabel held grand house parties and banquets in Medicean style. Thinking of people in terms of the types of paintings they best represented, she began to cast herself as a Renaissance woman.
In the spring of 1911, in what proved to be a turning point, Mabel met Gertrude Stein and her brother, American art connoisseur Leo Stein. Leo Stein was well known for his aesthetic philosophy, which involved enjoyment of and emotional reaction to art in addition to appreciation of technique and style; through him, Mabel learned to appreciate art, particularly modern art, in a new way. Turning from her absorption with the Renaissance, she began to embrace the 20th century. Through Gertrude Stein, with whom she had a close and creative relationship, she came to a clearer understanding of how language works, and of how to write. Mabel greatly
admired her friend's use of language, and she was convinced that Stein's writing was important. Both sister and brother encouraged Mabel to pursue her own writing, and to follow her intuition, an influence which may have helped her to pursue a writing career later. Through this friendship, she also realized that she was tiring of her Florentine existence. The window to a new world that the Steins had opened provided the impetus Mabel needed to leave Florence, the Renaissance, and her husband behind. She moved to New York City.
In 1912, Mabel took up residence at 23 Fifth Avenue, just north of Washington Square, where she established her New York salon. Here she entertained journalists, socialists and psychiatrists as well as her usual collection of artists, writers and performers. Soon she had met Max Eastman, Alfred Stieglitz, Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood, Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger , all political and social radicals of Greenwich Village. Mabel later wrote: "Looking back upon it now, it seems as though everywhere, in that year of 1913, barriers went down and people reached each other who had never been in touch before; there were all sorts of new ways to communicate, as well as new communications."
Mabel Dodge Luhan, to the city of Florence">
I will make you mine!
—Mabel Dodge Luhan, to the city of Florence
The signal event of this new era was the International Exhibition of Modern Art, held at the 69th Regiment Armory on Park Avenue (and thus popularly known as the Armory Show). Everything about this exhibition—the location, the art, the artists—was being touted as new and different. Equally radical in a way was the organizers' intention of allowing the public to see, and to decide about for themselves, the new art of Europe free of the academic and other influences then controlling the art market. Although plans for the Armory Show were well under way when Mabel became involved, the exhibition might never have opened if not for her management of fund raising and publicity. Approximately 4,000 visitors crowded in on opening night; when the show closed a month later, 100,000 people had attended.
In the summer of 1913, Mabel became involved with John Reed, whom she met while they were both on the organizing committee for a pageant at Madison Square Garden. Representing the violent struggle of silk workers on strike in Paterson, New Jersey, the pageant drew a crowd of 15,000 and gained the strikers considerable publicity. Then newly graduated from Harvard and trying to establish himself as a writer, Reed would later become famous for his books about the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, and for his relationship with Louise Bryant . Mabel was nine years older than Reed, and when they began living together without benefit of marriage their affair became an open scandal. Before the stormy relationship ended, she followed Reed as far as El Paso, Texas, when he was reporting on the Mexican Revolution.
After her breakup with Reed, Mabel moved to Finney Farm, in the Hudson River Valley, where she led a quieter life. She helped dancer Isadora Duncan and her sister Elizabeth Duncan open a school on land she had given them, then became involved with the painter Maurice Sterne, whom she believed should be a sculptor. In 1917, despite the objections of friends, she married him. While continuing to live on the farm, she sent her husband on a trip to discover the American West, never realizing the change it would bring to her own life. His letters intrigued Mabel with their descriptions of the West, and particularly of the Native Americans living near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Finally she agreed to his pleas for her to join him, and with her son John traveled to Santa Fe, where Sterne had rented a house.
Mabel's love affair with the landscape of New Mexico and its people was immediate and long-lasting. During a day trip to Taos, she decided she wanted to stay there. On a visit to the nearby Taos Pueblo, she and her family were invited into a Pueblo Indian home, where their host, Candalaria Luhan , served them tea. When the guests were introduced to Candalaria's husband Tony Luhan, Mabel recognized him as a man she had seen in a dream. She began going to the pueblo daily to teach knitting to the local women. Despite the teasing of both her husband and her son, Mabel soon came to believe that her destiny was tied to Taos and to Tony Luhan. She sent Sterne back to New York, eventually obtaining a divorce. In 1923, at age 44, Mabel married Tony Luhan.
Although she had for some time been writing magazine articles and columns, it was only in Taos that she began writing books. And while her urban-style salon evenings were now a thing of the past, she provided the same creative stimulus on a quieter scale to a parade of house-guests. What began as a correspondence and later friendship with Georgia O'Keeffe , who visited Mabel and her husband frequently, turned into an affair. (While Mabel was out of state, O'Keeffe also had a brief affair with Tony, about which she told Mabel in detail.) On a quest for a writer capable of bringing the wonders of Taos to the world's attention, Mabel sought, perhaps subconsciously, for someone who would accept her as his muse; English novelist D.H. Lawrence was the first writer on whom she pinned her hopes. In letters to both Lawrence and his wife Frieda Lawrence , Mabel implored them to cease their wanderings and come to New Mexico. Lawrence, who had never been outside Europe, was skeptical about traveling to the American Southwest, but finally agreed to come to the U.S. by way of Asia. The couple's relationship to their self-appointed mentor became difficult as soon as they reached Taos. Mabel planned horseback expeditions to give Lawrence a feel for the New Mexico landscape and the local Native American culture, and gave the Lawrences a ranch to encourage them to stay; D.H. steadfastly resisted her efforts to control his work. He and Frieda spent some months in Mexico, and upon their return he wrote a story ostensibly about Mexico that used Taos as the background and Mabel as the main character. Believing that it should have been placed in its real setting of Taos (she had, after all, invited him to Taos solely to write about the place), Mabel viewed the story as a betrayal.
After the Lawrences departed for Europe, she turned to the poet Robinson Jeffers. Through correspondence, she developed a friendly relationship with Jeffers and his wife Una Kuster Jeffers , and wrote the first of her books, Lorenzo in Taos, to explain to him her disappointment with Lawrence. Portraying herself as a character in Jeffers' best-known poem, Tamar, she hinted that she had been transformed from a she-wolf to a dove through a marriage of peace with pain, an idea flattering to the poet since it was very close to his poetic outlook. Lorenzo in Taos succeeded in luring the poet and his wife to Taos, but Jeffers also failed to write about her beloved land in the way Mabel had hoped. The Jefferses did become regular guests, however, returning to visit Mabel every year.
Around this time, she had also become concerned about the welfare of the Pueblo Indians, and anxious to assist them in preserving their culture. In the 1920s, she had befriended John Collier, who was later appointed commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and charged with the responsibility of implementing New Deal policies on the reservations. While Tony Luhan traveled throughout the Southwest as a liaison between the BIA and Native Americans, Mabel spent her time challenging Collier. Unhappy at first with some of his job appointments in the Taos area, she grew increasingly unhappy with Collier himself. Attuned mostly to the local needs of the Pueblo Indians, she rarely took into account the wider concerns of the BIA, or acknowledged that Collier himself was subject to the slow workings of government bureaucracy (she was not, however, alone in her criticism of him).
In the early 1930s, Mabel began her memoirs. These eventually spanned four volumes, and became, according to Lois Rudnick , "the most radical public act of her life." Originally undertaken as a form of therapy, and actively encouraged both by her analyst and by Lawrence, the memoirs eventually came to be seen by Mabel as serving a broader therapeutic purpose. She intended this portrayal of her own life to illuminate all that was wrong with Anglo-American society. Considering herself a product of society, she hoped to inspire others to change, or destroy, that very society. With the exception of her first volume, Background, the books were not well received. By the time of the Great Depression, an age of realism had set in that made the romanticism of the century's early years seem misguided and shallow, and the memoirs were criticized as confirmation of everything that had been wrong with the leftist movement prior to World War I.
By the end of World War II, Mabel was in her 60s, and confined herself to local interests. In 1948, Taos and Its Artists became her last published book, although she continued to write. After several years of serious illness, Mabel Dodge Luhan died in Taos in 1962.
Frazer, Winifred. Mabel Dodge Luhan. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1984.
Luhan, Mabel Dodge. Edge of the Taos Desert: An Escape to Reality. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.
——. Movers and Shakers. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1985.
Morrill, Claire. A Taos Mosaic: Portrait of a New Mexico Village. Albuquerque, NM: 1973.
Nelson, Jane. Mabel Dodge Luhan. Western Writers Series, Boise: Boise State University Press, 1982.
Rudnick, Lois Palken. Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.
Gibson, Arrell Morgan. Santa Fe and Taos Colonies: Age of the Muses, 1900–1942. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.
Sarah Hunt , freelance writer and historian, Las Cruces, New Mexico
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