I’m laptopping you from Ansel Adams’s room in the beautiful old home of Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, New Mexico. It’s now a B and B and conference center. In these hallowed rooms Mabel entertained some of the luminaries of her day — D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Nicolai Fechin, Walter Lippman, Marsden Hartley, Willa Cather and many others. Mabel was a maven of experimental thought, risky undertakings, free love, new art, new writing, socialism, anarchy and counterculture. In 1916, at age 37, while still in New York and in the process of getting a divorce from her second husband, she began thirty years of psychoanalysis and started a bi-weekly advice column for the Hearst newspapers.
With her fifth husband Tony Luhan, a Pueblo Indian, Mabel built this house in 1918. “Now I had come to the place where one life ends and another may begin,” she wrote in her autobiography, “For the first time in my life I discovered I could trust someone always and that I could be trustworthy to someone always.” Mabel intuitively cultivated what she considered the right kind of talent and dropped those who were beneath her. Hers was the art of the salon. Often quiet and coy, then again flamboyant and bombastic, she flaunted her narcissism. Above all, Mabel was without fear. She felt writers, painters and intellectuals were naturally attracted to her and that she had a unique ability to bring out their best. “It is my gift to the world,” she wrote.
Those of us who seek a quiet life, who don’t do salons or put ourselves forward, can only reflect on the connections we might have missed. Success and fame in the arts often depends on who you know and being in the right place at the right time. To be invited to pass through Mabel’s pueblo gates was worth a long journey by train and jitney. Though many thought her crazy, to be endorsed by her was of some consequence. Mabel’s dance card reads like a who’s who. These walls exude the spirit of some of the creative greats of the first half of the twentieth century. Is it possible some of this moxie can rub off on passersby?
PS: “I have always been myself and at the same time someone else; always able to be the other person, feel with him, think his thoughts, see from the angle in which he found himself.” (Mabel Dodge Luhan 1879-1962)
Esoterica: Right now Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones is giving a yoga and writing workshop in Mabel’s house. There’s another workshop coming in August. “In silence we alternate between writing and meditation,” says Natalie. “A cushion or chair is fine — sits are no longer than 30 minutes and some are shorter. We have timed writings and space each day for a nap, a solitary walk and individual writing. Instruction is available.” I’m wondering how enforced silence might work in a painting workshop.
This letter was originally published as “At Mabel’s house” on March 18, 2011.
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