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Jack Smith

Mabel Luhan Just Kept Taos Thundering

July 27, 1988|Jack Smith

As our tour bus careened among the heavily forested mountains between Taos and Santa Fe, our guide told us the story of Mabel Luhan, interrupting himself periodically to describe some passing landmark.

Her full name was Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan, a name that duly honors her four husbands but slights her lovers.

Mabel was born in Buffalo, N. Y., in 1879, the only child of unhappy parents who were cold and uncaring. Both her grandparents were bankers, and though her father did nothing but rage and play with flags, he was wealthy. So was Mabel, when, at 20, she married a local boy, mainly to take him away from his fiancee. She bore him a son, but fell in love with her gynecologist. After her husband was killed in a hunting accident, the affair flowered; but the scandal drove her to Europe.

The day before her ship docked at Le Havre, Mabel met a tweedy young architect named Edwin Dodge. He pursued her through France until she finally married him. But Mabel was bored, as usual. She bought a villa in Florence and opened a salon to which most of the literary and artistic celebrities of Europe sooner or later came, including Gertrude Stein, in whom she may or may not have been sexually interested.

In her husband's absence, Mabel took in the impoverished and homosexual Marchese Bindo Peruzzi de Medici. Edwin made her give him up. Bindo shot and killed himself. Mabel fell in love with Gino, a peasant boy whom she hired as her chauffeur, seduced and then rebuffed.

Finally bored with Florence, Mabel sailed for New York, where she opened a new salon in an apartment on Fifth Avenue near Greenwich Village. Here she entertained the important poets, artists, anarchists, revolutionaries and bohemians of those tumultuous years before the United States entered World War I, including Lincoln Steffens, Max Eastman, Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger.

She soon fell in love with John Reed, the radical correspondent who was to cover the Russian Revolution and write "10 Days that Shook the World." Their affair was tempestuous, chaotic and, as usual in her liaisons, she denied sex to her lover until it could no longer be put off. What Mabel wanted was power, and she thought that if she gave in physically to a man, she would lose it. Reed had bought them twin rings. In the end she sent hers back, and he threw his in a river.

Mabel soon set her net for Maurice Sterne, a successful young Russian-born artist, and married him. Seeking new scenes to paint, Sterne went to Santa Fe, while Mabel busied herself by consulting Freudian analysts. Sterne urged her to come to New Mexico. She did, surviving an arduous trip by train and motorcar.

Soon they bought a house in Taos, where Mabel became enchanted with the ancient ways of the Taos Indians. In time, she took up with a handsome Indian, Tony Luhan, who dislodged Sterne. After Sterne left, Tony moved in, and in time he and Mabel were married, despite the disgrace to Tony's wife and the tribe.

Still hoping to dominate and inspire some male genius, Mabel prevailed upon the English novelist D. H. Lawrence to come to Taos. Lawrence came, with two of his many groupies--his wife, Frieda, a Von Richtoven who had left her English professor husband and three children for Lawrence, and the deaf young English painter, Dorothy Brett.

The three women fought like cats over Lawrence. Mabel and Lawrence worked together on a novel, but the relationship was combative and unstable. Each had to dominate the other.

In time Lawrence returned to France and died of tuberculosis. Frieda took up with Angelo Ravagli, an Italian captain who left his job and his wife and children to come with her to Taos. Later she sent him back for Lawrence's ashes, which she wanted to entomb at Taos. Mabel tried to steal the ashes to scatter over Taos Mountain. Frieda heard of the plot and had Ravagli mix them in the wet concrete of the tomb. Frieda had won at last.

Frieda married Angelo, though his divorce was not honored in Italy. When Frieda died, in 1956, Angelo went back to his family. Mabel died in 1962 at 83. Tony said the sun had gone out.

That night, we went to the Santa Fe Opera to hear "The Flying Dutchman." Wagner would have loved the thunderstorm.

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