The memoirist is at the center of two new, very different books: a biography of D. H. Lawrence and a novel by Rachel Cusk. Has she been rescued or reduced?
June 2, 2021
“Now don’t you keep going on to me about introverts and extraverts and insides and outsides,” D. H. Lawrence wrote to Mabel Dodge Luhan in 1924. Instead, he continued, she should wash the dishes until she could keep up a rhythm “with a grace.” At the time, Luhan was reading up on mysticism and Jungian psychoanalysis, and she had written to Lawrence about her discoveries. He was not the right audience. Lawrence regarded Luhan alternately as a source of irritation; as an embodiment of his bête noire, the dominating woman; and as a model for some of the most cruelly portrayed heroines he would ever write. He had vowed to destroy her, and she would come to believe, at times, that he had succeeded.
A former Greenwich Village radical, Luhan considered herself divinely appointed to “save the Indians” in order to restore the spiritual and sexual life of a white American society in decay. This vocation led her to New Mexico, where she ditched husband No. 3 for Tony Lujan, a man from the Taos pueblo. In Taos, she launched an artist colony, wrote volume after volume of a tell-all memoir, and hosted a parade of famous guests, Lawrence included. Their relationship is a central subject of two new books: Frances Wilson’s “Burning Man: The Trials of D. H. Lawrence,” a biography of the author, and Rachel Cusk’s “Second Place,” a rewriting of Luhan’s memoir “Lorenzo in Taos.”
It is a strange moment for a Mabel Dodge Luhan revival. Long the butt of historians’ jokes, she resists an easy feminist reading, and even the flowering of women’s histories in the seventies and eighties produced no unbridled celebrations. But she doesn’t make for a natural villain, either. Although, by today’s standards, her racial beliefs sit somewhere on the spectrum between troubling and deranged, they led her to support a multiracial array of artists and fight doggedly, and effectively, for indigenous land rights. Even her memoirs, which are peppered with occult vernacular and accounts of unhinged behavior, are essentially harmless—a modernist sex-and-gossip log, at high pitch. All the same, plucking her out of oblivion is a fraught endeavor: to mine the archive for characters to rediscover is to engage in a kind of revisionism, casting elements of the past as contemporary fables. Sometimes, that process is a cautionary tale all its own.
Mabel Dodge Luhan was born Mabel Ganson, in 1879, to a wealthy Buffalo family. In 1900, she eloped with her first husband, who died less than three years later, leaving her a son of questionable paternity. (She had an affair with the family doctor, who, she later alleged, was also sleeping with her mother.) Widowed and extricated from the first of many love triangles, Luhan set off for Europe, where she met and married the architect Edwin Dodge. Together they lived in Florence and socialized with the likes of Gertrude and Leo Stein and André Gide.
Eventually, the couple moved to New York, where Luhan ran a legendary salon out of her Fifth Avenue apartment, hosting socialists, anarchists, suffragists, and radicals of all stripes. One of the first of her famous “evenings” was orchestrated by the writer and patron Carl Van Vechten, who invited a pair of Black performers to dance and sing. Luhan was scandalized—it “made me feel first hot and then cold, for I never had been so near this kind of thing before,” she wrote. On another occasion, she asked A. A. Brill, the first translator of Freud’s major works into English, to give a presentation. Several of the guests, “incensed at his assertions about unconscious behavior,” walked out in protest.
Luhan knew everyone and was part of everything. She helped organize the 1913 Armory Show, the exhibition that introduced European modernism to the United States, and called it “my own little revolution.” She joined the Heterodoxy Club, a society for “tabooless” women, and wrote for The Masses, Max Eastman’s socialist magazine. She liked to be around revolutionaries like Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and her sometimes-lover John Reed, not for their politics so much as their personalities. When she got tired of them, too, she helped Isadora Duncan’s sister Elizabeth establish a dance school in Croton-on-Hudson. Around that time Luhan became acquainted with her third husband, the Jewish painter and sculptor Maurice Sterne.
Perhaps inevitably, the marriage soured, and Luhan embarked upon a series of attempts at psychoanalysis—“apparently a kind of tattletaling,” she reflected approvingly. On one analyst’s advice, she dispatched Sterne to the Southwest, where she suggested he might find a new subject for his paintings. Sterne considered the separation temporary, and in his letters home he coaxed Luhan to join him. “Do you want an object in life?” he wrote her. “Save the Indians, their art-culture—reveal it to the world!” Shortly after Sterne’s departure, Luhan had visited a medium who foresaw her surrounded by Indians. Luhan was also haunted by a dream in which Sterne’s head floated before her and morphed into a second face, “an Indian face.” The letter, the prophecy, and the dream forming a triad of signs, she resolved to travel to New Mexico.
In Santa Fe, where Sterne was staying, Luhan judged the artistic community too established—but, in the smaller, more remote Taos, she found what she was seeking. “The singular raging lust for individuality and separateness had been impelling me all my years,” she writes. Taos was different: “All of a sudden I was brought up against the Tribe, where a different instinct ruled. . . . and where virtue lay in wholeness instead of in dismemberment.” That instinct, she thought, could teach America to abandon the logic of science and individualism and revert to mysticism and communal life.
As outlandish as Luhan may sound, neither her primitivism nor her spiritualism was particularly unusual in her time. Charlotte Osgood Mason, Van Vechten’s rival for the most influential patron of the Harlem Renaissance, believed that she was using her money to achieve a “mystical vision of a great bridge reaching from Harlem to the heart of Africa.” Fellow Heterodoxy Club member Elsie Clews Parsons likewise became enthralled with the Southwest, and, declaring, “It may seem a queer taste, but Negroes and Indians for me,” began to pursue her own fieldwork. (Parsons was a student and funder of Franz Boas’s anthropology department at Columbia, which trained Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston.) And, in the nineteen-tens and twenties, much of the European and American art world was oriented around what would now be called cultural appropriation. A year after the Armory Show, the gallerist Alfred Stieglitz opened an exhibition titled “Statuary in Wood by African Savages: The Root of Modern Art.” When Luhan appointed herself the savior of the Indians, she was treading a well-worn path for avant-garde transgression. Where she deviated was in a choice that, with a century’s hindsight, appears less scandalous: marrying a man whose race differed from hers.
When Mabel met Tony Lujan, he was singing on the floor of a pueblo hut. According to Sterne’s later account, the performance was for the benefit of tourists, but Mabel was entranced: Tony’s face was the one from her dream. As she fell in love, she came to believe that “my real home was in the Pueblo.” Soon rid of their respective spouses, Tony and Mabel began work on a new house—not, of course, in the pueblo. Their adobe mansion had, by the time all the extensions were completed, seventeen rooms and three stories, along with central heating, soundproofing, and plumbing. (“Mabeltown” also comprised five guesthouses, a gatehouse, barns, and stables.) Mabel continued to praise the locals for their lack of materialism, and the hypocrisy was not lost on at least one resident of the pueblo, who, in a letter to the Taos Star, suggested that she trade places with him. “You drink muddy water which came down from the mountains,” he wrote, “and my five children will drink nice clean water from your faucets.”
By then, Luhan was no stranger to newspaper coverage. Her Southwestern adventures were duly chronicled, with reports describing her as the “first lady of Taos” and a “hostess and angel to numerous writers.” Aside from Lawrence and Parsons, her guests included Willa Cather, Georgia O’Keeffe, Martha Graham, Thornton Wilder, Greta Garbo, and Jean Toomer. Ansel Adams photographed both Tony and the pueblo. John Collier, who would go on to become the Commissioner of Indian Affairs during the F.D.R. Administration, visited Luhan and stayed on to help lead the campaign against the Bursum Bill, which aimed to privatize indigenous land so that it could be bought up by white ranchers and developers.
As for Tony and Mabel’s marriage, it was both famous and famously mocked. The writer Mary Austin told Mabel that Tony was “a joke—a good natured and occasionally ribald joke, but still a joke—to most of the people who come to your house.” When Tony accompanied Van Vechten to a Harlem night club, the event was so extraordinary that it merited inclusion in the New York Daily News’s society column. But in all the sensational press coverage, as well as in Mabel’s romantic telling of the story, Tony himself remains a hazy figure. He abandoned his wife, and lost his place in his tribe, to be with Mabel, and she later admitted that they had little in common. Tony never became conversant in Mabel’s preferred topics, like psychoanalysis and modern art, and he would not tell her the secrets of his tribe, no matter how desperately she pleaded. That he had been able to largely avoid school was part of his appeal. “He was Indian,” she wrote, “whole, uninjured, and unsplit.”
This, of course, is projection. With her descriptions of Tony’s attributes, Mabel tells us less about her partner than about the qualities she feels she lacks. In current academic-adjacent parlance, we might say that she is “othering” Tony, and intend it as a condemnation. But Mabel wore the accusation proudly: “Tony is a kind of symbol of my having gone over into an ‘otherness,’ as Lawrence would say.” Applying the term without any negative connotation, she was careful to credit the person from whom she had picked it up. As Wilson notes in her new biography, its originator was none other than D. H. Lawrence himself.
If Luhan’s politics have not aged well, neither have Lawrence’s. His sex scenes—in which any motion by the female partner is tantamount to a moral failure—will baffle the contemporary reader. But they recall the advice Luhan received from her first analyst, who told her to stop trying to assume “the male role” during intercourse, and, when she mentioned wanting to cut her hair short, accused her of expressing the intent to commit castration. Both Luhan and Lawrence were profoundly influenced by theosophy, a nineteenth-century occult movement, and Lawrence shared Luhan’s faith in the tonic properties of indigenous life. “America must turn again to catch the spirit of her own dark, aboriginal continent,” he wrote in The New Republic.“They must pick up the life-thread where the mysterious Red race let it fall.”
By the time he collided with Luhan in New Mexico, Lawrence had already published several novels, including “Sons and Lovers” and “Women in Love,” and been censored multiple times over. Sex was, for him, a religion, and he had earned a reputation for risqué prose. He had also broken up a marriage, persuading an aristocratic German woman named Frieda to abandon her husband and three children. For years, the pair had lived a nomadic existence, staying in such places as Sardinia, Australia, and Sri Lanka. The glamorous women who pursued Lawrence were flummoxed by his loyalty to Frieda: stout, older than he was, decidedly ungifted with words. Much is known about their life together because, as Wilson notes, most people Lawrence spent time with wrote about the experience.
Luhan was no exception. Written in direct address to the poet Robinson Jeffers, “Lorenzo in Taos” is dedicated “To Tony and All Indians,” but Tony and the Indians are a sideshow. The memoir’s raison d’être is the arrival of Lawrence, whom Mabel has mystically “summoned” to Taos to articulate the beauty of the Indian way of life. When Lawrence is keener on depicting Mabel’s romance with Tony, she does not object, framing it in symbolic terms. “Of course it was for this I had called him from across the world,” she writes, “to give him the truth about America: the false, new, external America in the east, and the true, primordial, undiscovered America that was preserved, living, in the Indian bloodstream.” She intends Lawrence to write a parable about her escape from a fallen civilization to an American Eden.
It is Frieda who vetoes the collaboration. From Luhan’s first encounter with the Lawrences, which she reports as a “vibratory disturbance,” Luhan and Frieda are suspicious of one another. Luhan thinks she can see Frieda picturing her and Tony in bed, and Frieda’s correspondence supports the intuition that she was shocked by the mixed-race pairing. After Luhan wears a dressing gown to her first planning session with Lawrence, and listens sympathetically as he gripes about his wife (“the hateful, destroying female”), Frieda bans their one-on-one meetings, and Lawrence’s novel is dropped.
Their relationship, though, is just getting started. Over the course of “Lorenzo in Taos,” Lawrence attends Hopi ceremonies, steals some plausibly-deniable physical contact with Luhan (fingers meeting under soap suds, thighs brushing on horseback), berates Tony, pelts Frieda with stones, and sagely advises Luhan’s son to beat his new wife. He and Frieda are in and out of Taos, eventually returning with the painter Dorothy Brett, whom Luhan characterizes as an awkward hanger-on. Whenever Lawrence is absent, Luhan feels a “psychic emptiness.” She loves him, then gives him up, then can’t leave him alone. He spreads the rumor that she attempted to seduce him, and promises to “destroy” her, then assures her that she’s no longer his enemy, and that, even when she was, he “never really forsook” her. She sends him a letter ending their friendship, because “his core was treacherous.”
Some elements of “Lorenzo” are ripe for feminist finger-wagging, but Luhan depicts Lawrence’s misogyny with a light, self-mocking humor. Appalled at her laziness—she was accustomed to spending the first half of the day in bed—he instructs her to scrub her floors and bake bread, feats she attempts to comic effect. She even agrees to forgo her flowing dresses for the fitted waists and aprons of his childhood. (“My heart sank,” Luhan writes, “but I determined to be equal to this need of his to be entirely surrounded by all sorts and sizes of persons dressed like his mother.”) She is less inclined to indulge Lawrence’s substantive critiques of her character. “I am not going to think of you as a writer,” he tells her early on. “I’m not going to think of you even as a knower.” To him, she will always be “the Eve who is Voiceless like the serpent”—or, in Luhan’s words, “that greatest living abomination, the dominating American woman.”
Out of the breakdown Lawrence occasions comes a revelation: Luhan begins work on her memoirs. In what would later be titled “Intimate Memories,” she reproduces the allegorical plot she sketched out for Lawrence, and “Lorenzo” concludes with her sending him the first volumes and receiving his reply. “It’s the most serious ‘confession’ that ever came out of America,” he writes, “and perhaps the most heart-destroying revelation of the American life-process that ever has or ever will be produced.” His response is everything she’d wished for. She has written for an audience of one, she admits, and he at last thinks of her as a writer, even as a knower. In this final, self-reflexive turn, Luhan caters almost too well to a latter-day feminist readership: rather than waiting for Lawrence to tell her story, she tells it herself.