Monday, September 24, 2012

Mabel Dodge: The Power of Money


      Early in the 20th century, Greenwich Village was a heterogeneous community of actors, anarchists, artists, editors, feminists, intellectuals, journalists, poets, playwrights, progressives, radicals and writers. 
      One woman who burst on the burgeoning bohemian scene belonged to none of these groups: Mabel Dodge. 
      A wealthy socialite, hostess, and promoter of the arts and social causes, she had a voracious appetite for life and love. She would join the exodus of bohemians to northern Westchester.
      Born Mabel Ganson on February 26, 1879, the daughter of a rich Buffalo banker, she married Karl Evans, son of a steamship owner, in 1900. It was a loveless marriage, and Mabel began a scandalous affair with her gynecologist, an older man. Married at 21, Mabel was a widow at 23. Shortly after the birth of a son in 1903, her husband was accidentally killed by a friend while duck hunting. Her adulterous relationship became a public scandal, and she quickly left Buffalo for Europe.
By the time the ship reached Le Havre, she had snared another suitor—a passenger named Edwin Dodge, an independently wealthy Boston architect. After a brief courtship, they married. Mabel soon felt as trapped by this union as by the first. The Dodges restored and furnished a sumptuous ancient Italian villa on a hill above Florence. Bored after eight years in Europe and unhappy in her marriage, she arrived in New York City in November 1912.

Mabel Dodge’s Salon
Mabel Dodge took over the second floor of the brownstone at 23 Fifth Avenue, north of Washington Square, after instructing her husband to take up residence at the nearby Hotel Brevoort. And what a building it was! Her landlord was cranky Daniel Sickles, a 92-year-old former Civil War general who had lost a leg at Gettysburg. During his first term in Congress representing New York City, Sickles shot his wife’s lover, Barton Key, son of national anthem composer Francis Scott Key, on the sidewalk across from the White House.
Acquitted of murder, he became the first American defendant to plead temporary insanity. Sickles’ apartment on the first floor was crammed with furniture and trophies from the other three floors converted into apartments. Sam Clemens, best known as Mark Twain, who had moved in 1904 to 21 Fifth Avenue, on the opposite corner at 9th Street, got to know the General. Clemens found him to be “a genial old fellow; a handsome and stately military figure,” seated in a room cluttered with trophies, medals, flags and animal skins.
“You couldn’t walk across the floor anywhere without stumbling over the hard heads of lions and things,” he recalled. “It was as if a menagerie had undressed in the place. Then there was a most decided and unpleasant odor, which proceeded from disinfectants and preservatives and things such as you have to sprinkle on skins in order to discourage the moths.”
“It was a kind of museum,” Clemens added, “and yet it was not the sort of museum which seemed dignified enough to be the museum of a great soldier—and so famous a soldier. It was the sort of museum which should delight and entertain little boys and girls.”
Mabel had every stick of woodwork in her apartment painted white and the walls covered with white wallpaper. White silk curtains hung in the windows. For furniture, she had her French antique chairs and chaises longues shipped from Italy and reupholstered in white. A white porcelain chandelier, a white marble mantelpiece and a polar bear rug all reinforced the white theme.
News of Mabel Dodge’s presence quickly spread. Bearded sculptor Jo Davidson, a friend from Europe, was a frequent visitor. Through him, she met Hutchins Hapgood, a columnist for the New York Globe, who lived in Dobbs Ferry. Hapgood became Mabel’s confidant. Not only did he encourage her to hold evening gatherings in her white rooms, he offered to supply interesting guests.
In time, these would include muckraking magazine editor Lincoln Steffens; Carl Van Vechten, music critic for The New York Times and white disciple of African-American culture; Emma Goldman (“Red Emma”) and her former lover, Alexander Berkman, who failed in his attempt to assassinate  millionaire Henry Clay Frick; Max Eastman, former instructor in philosophy at Columbia and editor of the radical monthly The Masses; Frances Perkins, later FDR’s Secretary of Labor; author Mary Heaton Vorse; birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and an assortment of labor leaders, poets and actors.
Mabel Dodge’s “evenings,” as she called them, were usually held on Wednesdays. She served as a catalyst, dressed in flowing robes covering her square, stubby figure as she sat regally in a massive chair. They concluded with a buffet supper, which made them popular with hungry poets and artists. Her salons marked the first time such a cross-section of American society had gathered to explore the social and political implications of the sexual, artistic and economic changes taking place in the country.

A spiritual Mabel Dodge in white robe and turban, circa 1915. 

Mabel next became a patron of the 1913 Armory Show that introduced modern art to America. Held at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue between East 25th and 26th streets, it was the first time Americans could see the work of Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Braque, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat on this side of the Atlantic. But it was Marcel Duchamp’s controversial Nude Descending a Staircase that created the biggest sensation.
Mabel also proposed a gigantic pageant in Madison Square Garden to support silk workers in Paterson, N.J., whose strike would last from six bitter months. When no one in the group volunteered to organize this project, a young man raised his hand. “I’ll do it,” he said quietly.
He was John Reed, a rising young journalist and war correspondent active in the radical movement. This meeting marked the start of a relationship that would evolve into a torrid love affair.

A Trip to Croton
Mabel Dodge’s connection with Croton began when she arrived in a chauffer-driven limousine and rented a small house on Mt. Airy Road, locally called “Miss Sharkey’s cottage.” It was small, old, simple, and supposed to be haunted. Robert Edmond Jones, who had a studio in a shack on the property and later achieved fame as a stage designer, saw the ghost once or twice—“a nice old lady.” The cottage, hidden from view behind a tall fence, is virtually unchanged today.
Mabel wanted the Mt. Airy house to be near her friend, Elizabeth Duncan, the diminutive older sister of flamboyant Isadora Duncan. Unlike Isadora, who was more interested in performing than in teaching, Elizabeth had operated their dancing school near Berlin for ten years until the German army took over the school building in the summer of 1914.
Elizabeth Duncan and nine pupils fled Germany for Paris and then London. Short of funds like other sudden refugees from the European war, Elizabeth and her little group embarked from Liverpool as steerage passengers aboard the American liner St. Paul
Wealthy real estate developer Clifford Harmon happened to be a first-class passenger aboard the ship. Aware of the Duncan group’s plight, Harmon persuaded the captain to allow them access to the upper deck.
Arriving at New York on August 31 without passports after an uncomfortable eight-day voyage, the nine pupils were held at Ellis Island, where Commissioner of Immigration Frederick C. Howe, a Croton resident, allowed them to stay in his quarters.
In Movers and Shakers, the third volume of her four-volume series of reminiscences titled Intimate Memories, Mabel told how she and philanthropist Samuel Levisohn gave $1,500 to help the Elizabeth Duncan School of the Arts get started.

A School in Westchester
Elizabeth established her first school in Westchester in a large Victorian mansion (later demolished) at 360 North Broadway in Yonkers. Next she moved the school to a house at 39 Sunset Drive in Harmon, the former home of the caretaker of the Van Cortlandt farm.
After a few months, the school moved again, renting two stucco houses on Glengary Road in Mt. Airy owned by Ralph Waldo Trine for use as classrooms. A third house, leased from Dr. Ralph H. Mussey, professor of economics at Barnard College, served as a dormitory.
Mabel soon realized that the tiny Sharkey cottage was too small for her needs and her entourage. Elizabeth Duncan, who was searching for more ample quarters for her school, learned of a large house that might be available at the Finney family’s farm.  One of the Finney children, Katherine, was a student at her school.
Elizabeth asked Mabel to accompany her on a visit to Finney Farm located on the side of a hill sloping down toward the Hudson River. The farm had once been owned by a niece of Horace Greeley who operated it as an experimental farm and quarantine station for imported cattle. Mabel quickly convinced the Finneys to accept her own generous terms for a long-term lease of the property, leaving Elizabeth to continue her search for a new school site.
Toward the end of 1917, the Duncan school left Croton and moved to the huge Dula estate in Tarrytown, an area formerly known as “Millionaires Row.” Vast and drafty, the Dula mansion soon proved to be unsatisfactory. The school moved again in 1919, this time to the former Archbold estate on South Broadway, also in Tarrytown. In these latter moves Elizabeth Duncan was aided by a wealthy patron, Frank Vanderlip of Scarborough, president of the National City Bank, ancestor of Citibank.
The Duncan school left Westchester and moved to Switzerland in 1920. Isadora died in 1927 in a tragic auto accident at Nice, France. Elizabeth died in Tübingen, Germany, in 1948 at the age of 77.

Finney Farm
Leasing Croton’s ample Finney Farm made it easier for Mabel Dodge to entertain her wide circle of friends and guests. Among them, Journalist Jack Reed, her former lover, accepted her offer of the third floor of the house as a writing studio. Maurice Sterne, a Russian-born artist and sculptor, occupied a cottage behind the house. She had met him at a dance recital given by young students of the Duncan school. Her latest sexual partner, he spent his days painting portraits of her.
Almost on a whim, she decided to make Sterne her third husband--but first she had to get free of Edwin Dodge, who gallantly allowed her to charge him with desertion. Mabel and Sterne were married in Peekskill by a justice of the peace in August of 1917. When he suggested a honeymoon, she pointed out that the lease on her city apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue was about to expire and the building was to be demolished. New space had to be found.
“You go on a little honeymoon out West, and I will stay here,” she told him.
Sterne wrote frequent letters on the trip, but one written from Santa Fe in New Mexico would change the course of her life. He urged her to come to the Southwest and "save the Indians, their art, their culture and reveal it to the world." It was a challenge Mabel could not resist.

To New Mexico
After traveling to Santa Fe and finding it not to her liking, she was driven to Taos, some 70 miles north, and liked it. With a population of about 2,000, Taos lacked electricity or street lighting and had little to recommend it. Mabel decided she would have to create her own atmosphere and circle of friends.  Also, she discovered the multistoried ancient Taos pueblo and its Indian population, just outside of town. Finding a long, low, 200-year-old adobe building on 12 acres of meadowland for sale for $1,500, she made it the nucleus of a larger and taller three-story rambling house with a glassed-in top floor. She also built five guest houses on the property. Because winters in 7,000-foot-high Taos were harsh, Mabel often returned to New York and Croton’s Finney Farm. Sterne preferred the East; their marriage would last only four years.

The Mabel Dodge Luhan house in Taos.

Attracted by Indian culture and by one Indian in particular, Antonio Lujan, a tall, handsome, taciturn Indian of the Tiwa tribe, Mabel Anglicized his name to Tony Luhan.
Complicating the relationship, he was already married. His wife, Candelaria, a beautiful Indian woman, would have to be persuaded to accept a divorce arranged under tribal law.
In 1920, Mabel began a campaign against venereal disease among the Indians of the Taos pueblo. A Turkish physician visiting Mabel took blood samples in the pueblo for Wasserman tests. The results showed that about 12 percent of its inhabitants suffered from syphilis, including Tony Luhan, and he had passed the disease to Mabel. She usually kept nothing from her friends. This time, however, she only told Carl Van Vetchen about her medical problem and swore him to secrecy. But Mabel herself was an inveterate talker, and the word soon got out.
The only treatment was with an arsenical compound, Salvarsan, the "magic bullet" discovered by Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich. Effective only if the disease was diagnosed early, the cure involved weekly injections over a period of eighteen months. Mabel and Tony arranged to go to a discreet specialist in Albuquerque. For years after, blood samples were sent off to a laboratory, followed by an anxious wait for the results.
To everyone’s astonishment and amusement, she married Tony in 1923 and became Mabel Dodge Luhan. "Lo, the poor Indian," was Edwin Dodge's wry comment. Mabel had been hesitant about the marriage, fearing her mother would cut off financial support.

D.H. Lawrence 
Her messianic intention at Taos was the creation of a center that would attract great artists, writers, musicians and intellectuals to celebrate Indian culture. Famous guests who stayed in her Taos house included Willa Cather, Thornton Wilder, Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe and Leopold Stokowski.
Perhaps her greatest catch was British author D.H. Lawrence. Having read his novels Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, she regarded him as the world's most powerful writer. Mabel bombarded Lawrence with letters and induced him to come to Taos. He arrived with his German wife, Frieda von Richthofen, a distant relative of the “Red Baron” air ace, in March of 1924.
Mabel offered Lawrence a 160-acre ranch. He declined her “too generous” offer, but Frieda accepted it. In return, the Lawrences presented her with the original manuscript of Sons and Lovers. Throughout her life, Mabel had been a difficult and manipulative collector of people. She was sure Lawrence would "take my experience, my material, my Taos, and formulate it all into a magnificent creation."
The clash of artistic temperaments between Lawrence and Mabel soon evolved into a love-hate relationship. Lawrence decided to write his "American book" without a collaborator. Mabel has the distinction of being the only person known to have caused the usually mild Lawrence to declare himself capable of murder.
The Lawrences left New Mexico in September of 1925 and returned to Europe. Lawrence died in France in 1930 from complications of tuberculosis and was buried there. Mabel later described his sojourn in her 1932 book, Lorenzo in Taos. His widow returned to New Mexico to live on the ranch. Following Lawrence’s death, Frieda took a lover, Angelo Ravagli, a dapper former captain in the Italian bersaglieri, the light infantry identified by the black feathers worn in their hats.
In 1935, Frieda decided that Lawrence's body should be exhumed, cremated in Marseilles and the ashes enshrined at the ranch. She asked Ravagli to pick up Lawrence's ashes in France and bring them to Taos. When the ashes were delivered, Frieda had them mixed with concrete and cast into a large block to create an immovable monolithic memorial and keep Mabel from ceremoniously scattering them to the four winds.
The massive concrete block has the initials DHL molded into it and green leaves and yellow flowers painted at one end by British artist Dorothy Brett .It sits in a small building on the ranch.  Above it, a concrete phoenix occupies a niche in the wall below a sort of rose-window.
As a reliquary, however, the Lawrence memorial may lack its purported relics—the ashes of the writer E. M. Forster called, "The greatest imaginative novelist of our generation." Years later, after consuming the better part of a bottle of bourbon, Ravagli made a startling confession. After picking up the wooden box containing Lawrence's ashes in Marseilles, he feared he would face problems bringing them into the United States. While on his way to Genoa to board the Italian liner Conte di Savoia, he emptied the box from the moving train.
Frieda had chosen "a beautiful urn" for Lawrence's ashes and sent it to New York City to await Ravagli’s arrival. In New York, he found ashes locally and filled the urn. It was these anonymous ashes that Frieda incorporated into the memorial block in New Mexico. Ironically, Lawrence's ashes may actually now be part of the roadbed of the French national railways somewhere in southern France.
Frieda and Angelo continued to live at the ranch until her death in 1956 on her 77th birthday. She is buried outside the chapel under a similar concrete block. On it, he inscribed, "In memory of twenty-five years of incomparable companionship--Angie."

Last Days
Mabel suffered several small strokes in the late 1950's and showed increasing signs of senility. Occasionally, she even failed to recognize blanket-clad Tony. "Who’s that Indian?" she would ask. "Get him out of here!”
This imperious, self-promoting, unconquerable, sometimes silly woman died in 1962 at the age of 83. Her willingness to experiment and openness to ideas helped to create the bohemia that was Greenwich Village. Leaving an estate that had dwindled to about $200,000, she was buried in Kit Carson Cemetery in Taos.
 Tony Luhan, who had remained silent throughout the funeral ceremony, suddenly became voluble. “Where's Mabel?" he demanded as he wandered among the mourners. "We can't start without Mabel."  He died one year later.
The Mabel Dodge Luhan House and the Lawrence ranch are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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