Mabel Dodge Luhan, writer and patron of the arts, led a remarkable and passionate life, and it was at her invitation that D H Lawrence came to Taos, New Mexico in 1922.
Photographed in 1934 by Carl Van Vechten
Born the daughter of a wealthy banker from Buffalo, New York in 1879, Mabel married her first husband, Karl Evans, in secret at age 21 against her father's wishes.
Karl died in a hunting accident just two years later and she left America for Europe, settling in Florence with her second husband, the wealthy Boston architect Edwin Dodge.
Tiring of Europe, and Dodge, Mabel returned to New York and threw herself into the promotion of the modernist writers and artists she had met in Europe.
She was involved in organising the famous Armoury Show of 1913, the first international exhibition of modern art in America (including works by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Braque and Duchamp), and between 1913 and 1916 hosted one of the leading salons of the day at her New York home, 23 Fifth Avenue.
At this point, ever restless, she left New York first for Provincetown, where she met and married the artist Maurice Sterne, and then west to New Mexico. Sterne had been sent ahead and she followed, travelling first to Sante Fe before moving on to Taos. Arriving in Taos towards the end of 1917, Mabel was immediately captivated:
“My world broke in two right then, and I entered into the second half, a new world.”
Soon Antonio Luhan (originally Lujan) a Taos Pueblo Indian, had replaced Sterne in her affections, and Sterne was despatched back to New York. She and Tony Luhan married in 1923.
Photograph of Los Gallos (now renamed The Mabel Dodge Luhan House) by Laura Gilpin
In May 1918 she purchased 12 acres of meadow land and by March 1919 had built a four-room adobe – named ‘Los Gallos’ and the earliest incarnation of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House which, over the years, she steadily enlarged to 17 rooms.
She was now ready to set about putting Taos on the cultural map.
Her dream was to establish Taos as the birthplace of a new civilization, based upon a reawakening of spiritual and mystical values, and saw D.H. Lawrence as key to realising this ambition.
She wrote to Lawrence repeatedly, inviting him "to come and know the country before it became exploited and spoiled” and describing him as
“[the] only one who can really see this Taos country and the Indians, and who can describe it so that it is as much alive between the covers of a book as it is in reality.”
Lawrence came, but did not in the end write the book she had hoped for. Nevertheless Taos and the Kiowa Ranch (now named the D H Lawrence Ranch) in the hills inspired some of his most radiant and vivid writing:
From her doorway, from her porch, she could watch the vast, eagle-like wheeling of the daylight, that turned as the eagles which lived in the near rocks turned overhead in the blue, turning their luminous, dark-edged-patterned bellies and underwings upon the pure air, like winged orbs. So the daylight made the vast turn upon the desert, brushing the farthest out-watching mountains. And sometimes the vast strand of the desert would float with curious undulations and exhalations amid the blue fragility of mountains, whose upper edges were harder than the floating bases.
D H Lawrence, from St Mawr
Over the years many writers and artists were invited to Los Gallos (the Mabel Dodge Luhan House), amongst them Ansel Adams, photographer Laura Gilpin, Martha Graham, Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley and Georgia O’Keefe, who wrote many sensual and passionate letters to her husband Alfred Stieglitz from Los Gallos.
Last page of letter from Georgia O’Keefe to Alfred Stieglitz, June 1st 1929 (courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
For Mabel, no visitor was ever more important than Lawrence, and in 1932 she published a memoir of his time in New Mexico – Lorenzo in Taos.
She also wrote an extensive (and fairly scandalous for the time) autobiography of her early life, titled Intimate Memories, which Lawrence read in manuscript shortly before his death, declaring it: “the most serious ‘confession’ that ever came out of America, and perhaps the most heart-destroying revelation of the American life-process that ever has or will be produced.”
Intimate Memories was published in numerous volumes, the later years under the titles European Experiences (1935), Movers and Shakers (1936), and Edge of Taos Desert (1937). Mabel died in 1962.
In the sixties, using some of the proceeds from Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper bought the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, welcoming a new generation of artists and bohemians, including Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
The house is now a hotel and conference centre, a site for retreat style meetings and workshops in the arts and humanities. Much is preserved, including the bathroom with windows painted by Lawrence in bright geometric and animal designs in 1922 to protect Mabel Luhan’s modesty.
They were at their ranch, on the great level of yellow autumn, with the vast sky above. And after all, from the hot, wide sky, and the hot, wide, red earth, there did come something new, something not used up.
D H Lawrence from St Mawr