Mabel Ganson was a rebel from the beginning. Born to wealthy but dour parents in Buffalo in 1879, she spent her teen years being privately educated and exploring her sexuality. Her adult life was dedicated to passionate affairs and using her money to build utopian artist communities, first in Florence, Italy, then in Greenwich Village, where she hosted salons; and finally in Taos, where she married Tony Lujan from Taos Pueblo. Together they built a 17-room estate. She hosted so many artists, writers, and other creative people and intellectuals that she is credited as a driving force behind American modernism. She also became fodder for a generation of feminist historians, including Lois P. Rudnick, who has written numerous books on Luhan, including Utopian Vistas: The Mabel Dodge Luhan House and the American Counterculture and The Suppressed Memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan: Sex, Syphilis, and Psychoanalysis in the Making of Modern American Culture. Now Rudnick and art historian MaLin Wilson-Powell have co-edited Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company: American Moderns and the West, published by Museum of New Mexico Press, in conjunction with an exhibit of the same name at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, opening Sunday, May 22.
Many of the people who visited Luhan in Taos are well known, especially those who stayed, like D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe’s work is included in the Harwood exhibit, as are pieces by Andrew Dasburg, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Ansel Adams, and Agnes Pelton, as well as works by Pueblo and Hispano artists who inspired their modernist sensibilities.In all, the exhibition includes 150 artworks and ephemera produced by the visual, literary, and performance artists who came to Taos at Luhan’s invitation. A timeline provided in Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company sheds light on less well-known visitors, or those whose connections to New Mexico come as a surprise. For instance, in 1941, Luhan hosted a party for the cast of the movie Valley of the Sun, starring Lucille Ball, and after a performance by Taos Pueblo Indians at Luhan’s house, Desi Arnaz led the Natives in a conga line.
Here is a sampling of information about some of Luhan’s more obscure relationships, collected by Pasatiempo writers. — Jennifer Levin
Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company: American Moderns and the West
Opens Sunday, May 22; exhibition through Sept. 11
Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux St., Taos
Entrance by museum admission; 575-758-9826
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Gertrude and Leo Stein
“The days are wonderful and the nights are wonderful,” begins Gertrude Stein’s 1911 book Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia, the only nonvisual work available at the groundbreaking 1913 Armory Showin NewYork, after Steindistributed 300 copies at the event. Luhanhadmet Gertrude and Leo Stein for the first time two years before, during one of their Saturday night “at homes” at 27 rue de Fleurus, and Luhan’s salons were often compared to those of the Steins’ in Paris, as many guests flowedbackand forth between the two. Gertrude Stein and Luhan formed a mutual admiration society: As a response to Stein’s Portrait of Mabel Dodge, Luhan published the firstmajor article on Stein’s writing, “Speculations, or Post- Impressionism in Prose,” in 1913, declaring, “Gertrude Stein is doing with words what Picasso is doing with paint.” Luhan diverged fromStein’s salonniére style,making her orchestrated gatherings a lifelong pursuit in Florence, New York, and Taos (Stein stopped her regular salons before World War I began), and incorporatingamore eclectic range of guests than Stein’s modern-art circles. —Molly Boyle
Rebecca Salsbury Strand James
Rebecca Salsbury Strand James mighthavehad anamorous relationship with Georgia O’Keeffe, or the two might have just been good friends, but it’s because of her comely pal “Beck” that O’Keeffe first came to New Mexico to stay with Mabel Dodge Luhan. Beck wasmarried toPaul Strand, protégé of Alfred Stieglitz, when they first visited Luhan in 1926. She andO’Keeffe came to Taos in 1929 to get away from their men for the summer and paint in peace, though Beck was busier helping Luhanwhen she was sick than painting in those years. She later found her true artistic medium in developing and perfecting a technique that heightened the luminosity of oil paint as seen through glass. Beck divorced Strand inMexico in 1933, and then came back to Taos, marriedWilliamJames, and stayed for the rest of her life. — Jennifer Levin
Mexican artist and author Miguel Covarrubias and his soon-to-be wife, dancer and choreographer Rosa Rolando, visitedMabel Dodge Luhan in Taos in 1929. A humorous drawingmade during his visit shows a tourist at Taos Pueblo, wearing a squash-blossom necklace and a concha belt, with a Navajo blanket furled beneath her arm, proving that some regional fashion trends have a long shelf life. In Taos, Covarrubias met Georgia O’Keeffe, making her the subject of one of his caricatures. He depicted her as “Our Lady of the Lily,” her head balanced at the top of the elongated stalk of her neck, mirroring the long-stemmed flower she held in her hand, her demeanor seemingly dour. The drawing appeared that year in The New Yorker. In June of 1929, photographer Alfred Stieglitz wrote to O’Keeffe from his home in Lake George: “The New Yorker has sentmeback the three small prints of you I let them have. Covarrubias hasmade a drawing of you. The article is to appear July 6. — I fear to see it.” —Michael Abatemarco
Ella Young and Ernie O’Malley
In the summer of 1929, two Irish freedom fighters came to Taos. Ella Young, “the Joan of Arc of the Irish revolution,” was a mystic, poet, and lecturer on Celtic and Gaelic studies at University of California, Berkeley, who traveled to Taos with photographer Ansel Adams and his wife, staying with Mabel Dodge Luhan and visiting with Georgia O’Keeffe. Young, who wore purple Druid robes, talked to trees, and heard the songs of faeries, had smuggled rifles and supplies in support of Republican forces shortly before the Easter Rising in 1916. That rebellion had also sparked the political career of another visitor to Taos that year, Ernie O’Malley. O’Malley was an IRA officer and Irish Civil War hero who was one of the last Republican prisoners released after the end of the hostilities in Ireland. He had been traveling through the United States and decided to stop in Taos for a few years, living among Native people and beginning his memoir of the War of Independence, On Another Man’s Wound. Young, too, associated with Taos Pueblo Indians, traveling to the pueblo’s sacred Blue Lake with Tony Lujan, where she exchanged stories about Indian and Irish songs with the chief, who told the poet, “Song is a great thing. It is very powerful.” —M.B.
Sylvia Leonora Brooke called her sister Dorothy Brett “Doll.” Dorothy was the only friend of D.H. Lawrence’s to follow the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Taos, where Lawrence sought to start a literary and artistic utopia called Rananim. After Dorothy left England, years passed between the sisters’ visits. In 1911, Sylvia Brett had married Charles Vyner Brooke, the last of the White Rajahs, the dynastic monarchy of the kingdom of Sarawak in the jungles of Borneo. She and Doll had a mutual friend in Mabel Dodge Luhan, who once exhorted Sylvia to wear her full Malay dress to a swanky Fifth Avenue party. Sylvia, according to author Philip Eade, needed little prodding to “don her Oriental garb” and “was only too happy to oblige.” Born into British aristocracy to become ruler of the head hunting Dyak natives of Borneo, Sylvia was more than a little eccentric (like Dorothy) but was made for other climes than those of her sister. Taking time out from a trip to Hollywood to stop in New Mexico, she told Dorothy “it would break my heart to live in Taos.” —M.A.
Most biographical information on the writer Jean Toomer omits his time in Taos, which he visited several times in the 1930s , bonding with Mabel Dodge Luhan over their shared interest in the Russian spiritual leader and mystic G.I. Gurdjieff. Toomer is known as an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and his most well known work, Cane, first published in 1923, tells a modernist story of African-American life in the South. Toomer, who was of mixed racial heritage and grew up in both black and white society, didn’t want to be identified as a black writer but as an American writer. He spent much of his life seeking spiritual and psychological enlightenment, studying the writings of Carl Jung, and finally becoming a Quaker and disappearing from literary life. Now a previously unpublished play, A Drama of the Southwest, available from the University of New Mexico Press as a critical edition edited by Carolyn J. Dekker, puts focus on Toomer’s New Mexico adventures. In Drama, Toomer writes about Anglo expatriates of the Taos art community, with characters inspired by Mary Austin, Luhan, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Toomer’s second wife, the photographer Marjorie Content, whom he married in Taos. —J.L.
Modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham was no stranger to New Mexico. She married Erick Hawkins, the first male dancer to perform in her company, at a Presbyterian church in Santa Fe in 1948; marveled at the handwoven Native American textiles she saw in Gallup; witnessed the Shalako dance at Zuni Pueblo; and was inspired enough by Pueblo and Hispano dances and ceremonial rites to choreograph the dance El Penitente in 1940, which featured Hawkins. She was a guest of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s in the summer of 1933. In her autobiography, Blood Memory, she wrote that the marriage of Mabel Dodge and Taos Native Tony Lujan did not go very well. “Mabel had bought him out of his first marriage, from the tribe,” she wrote. “Someone asked him if he had ceased loving her. He said, ‘I will not divorce her. I have disgraced my tribe enough by marrying her.’”—M.A.
Art aficionado, interior decorator, memoirist, Communist sympathizer —such was the well-rounded life of Muriel Draper. She visited Taos in the fall of 1933, but also spent time with Mabel Dodge Luhan in New York and Florence before becoming a renowned salon hostess in London. In 1934, Draper made the first of several trips to the U.S.S.R., where she became enamored of ladies’ opera costumes and contemporary Russian governance. She was a founding member of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship’s women’s division and in the late 1940s, she was involved in organizing an American chapter of the Women’s International Democratic Federation. In 1949, Draper was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which led her to withdraw from political life until her death in 1952. — J.L.
Frank Waters, author of Book of the Hopi and other works, was a native of Colorado who spent time in Taos and Mora in the late 1930s. He considered Taos as “the last outpost of individualism left,” as Mabel Dodge Luhan wrote in 1951 in New Mexico Quarterly. At a Pueblo ceremonial dance, he met Tony Lujan, who invited the writer to a party at Los Gallos, the residence now known as the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. Years later, Waters told Luhan biographer Lois Rudnick that he found Mabel to be “friendly and warm and it destroyed my bad impression of her immediately.” He wrote both People of the Valley and The Man Who Killed the Deer at her compound. She also introduced Waters to the principles of Eastern philosophy; ever after, he devoted much time comparing the wisdom of the East with the beliefs of the Southwestern Indians in order to promote a faith “built on the premise that man’s psyche and the cosmos are related to each other as inner and outer worlds.” Tony, Mabel, and Waters worked for 30 years to reverse the 1906 government seizure of Taos Pueblo’s sacred Blue Lake, which was finally returned to the pueblo in 1970. —Paul Weideman
Until the winter of 1933-1934, Mabel Dodge Luhan had never met playwright Thornton Wilder, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Our Town, who had come to Taos to deliver a lecture. But, in an article published in New Mexico Quarterly in 1951, she described the telephone call she received from him when he first arrived in Santa Fe before heading north. “I w-w-would like to c-c-come up and see you if I may,” he stammered. According to author Lois Rudnick, while attending a dinner party in Taos, Wilder was put off by poet and author Witter Bynner’s readings of derogatory satires about the Taos literati. Bynner had also satirized Luhan in his play Cake: An Indulgence. Wilder purportedly told Bynner that “the portrait of the portraitist that emerges from the portrait is even more unlovely than the sitter.” — M.A.
The mother of the birth-control and family-planning movement in the early 20th century,Margaret Sanger, was a chronically misunderstood firebrand always running afoul of the law in her quest to lighten the loads of all women, whom she saw as unduly burdened by the poverty and ill health that could result from having too many children. When Mabel Dodge Luhan lived in New York, Sanger often used her apartment to hold meetings with fellow radicals; she visited Luhan in Taos in the summer of 1937. When considering New Women like Luhan and Sanger, it might be of interest to know that Sanger’s niece, Olive Byrne, was romantically involved with the creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, and it was Sanger’s brand of feminism that was the original inspiration for the iconic superhero. — J.L.
What a mess Aldous Huxley stumbled into when he arrived in Taos in 1937, where his longtime friend, British-born painter Dorothy Brett, was then living. According to Brett biographer Sean Hignett, after Frieda Lawrence, widow of author D.H. Lawrence, caught wind of a plot by Brett and Mabel Dodge Luhan to steal her husband’s ashes, the former friends were no longer on speaking terms, a tense situation Huxley had to navigate during his visit. Huxley described his initial impressions of Brett as increasingly odd in her 10-gallon hat (a gift from Luhan), her top boots, and a strong — to his ears — American accent. It wasn’t the first time the Brave New World author had remarked on Brett’s quirky character. In a 1918 letter he called her “Brettier than ever … an accentuation of eccentricities.” —M.A.
Conductor Leopold Stokowski first met Mabel Dodge Luhan in Mexico City in 1930, and was later introduced to indigenous music by her husband, Tony Lujan. Stokowski came to believe that recording such music throughout the Americas would lay the foundation for world peace after World War II. In 1937 and 1938, Stokowski chose Luhan’s house to rendezvous with his lover, Greta Garbo, a romance that landed the couple on the June 1938 cover of Modern Screen magazine. Earlier in the decade, the artist Dorothy Brett became enamored with Stokowski during one of his visits and followed him to Philadelphia, where she spent much of December 1933 and January 1934 sitting backstage at his rehearsals and performances. During the summer of 1934, she painted 11 stylistically different portraits of him. — J.L.
Hollywood costume designer Gilbert Adrian was known professionally as Adrian, the sartorial genius responsible for the sumptuous gowns paraded by Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939), as well as the sequined ruby-red slippers Judy Garland wore as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939). He’s also the missing link between Mabel Dodge Luhan and socialite Millicent Rogers. On a 1947 trip with his wife, Oscar-winning actress Janet Gaynor, to visit his close friend Luhan in Taos, Adrian brought the oil heiress Rogers to the mountain town for the first time. Rogers, who was mourning the end of an affair with Clark Gable, decided to buy an adobe house with a grand view of Taos Valley, thereby setting in motion her future as first Luhan’s protégé, and then Luhan’s foremost rival as doyenne of the Taos arts scene. — M.B.