One of the great pleasures attendant on my beloved Tuesday evening writers’ group in Taos is that I get to stay Mabel’s house that night—the glorious B&B on the edge of Taos Pueblo land that preserves her spirit. Here come all kinds of people from all kinds of places, not exactly the luminaries like D.H. Lawrence that she drew, but fine people of all shades and stripes. Mabel’s portrait and the portrait of her Taos Pueblo husband, Tony Luhan, preside over the big dining room where the guests all share tables for breakfast.
My newest breakfast acquaintance, a beautiful woman from northern California, gave me an opportunity to discuss the way Mabel is remembered, now that she has become both a myth and an icon, with a museum-wide exhibition at the Harwood of the work of the painters she gathered in Taos. The exhibit opens with a quote from Marsden Harley’s letter to Alfred Stieglitz, describing Mabel Dodge Luhan as a “creator of creators.”
There’s the rub, as my new friend and I discussed. Mabel’s four books are included in the exhibition, in small glass cases, but so are the denigrating works of the men who disliked her, as though all are on an equal footing. She wrote about Taos and the experience of creating her life there; they made fun of her energy and individualism, as is so often the fate of original women.
For one man to another to label her, condescendingly, a “creator of creators” dismisses or at least downgrades her most important creation: her self.
Her self-revelation was courageous and astonishing, especially for the early years of the twentieth century. I doubt if anyone had ever before published a poem on the experience of menopause, or written with such heart-breaking honesty about the devastating effects of syphilis, contracted from her husband Tony. And then there is the house itself and the life she invented there, which, in a miraculous way, continues fifty years after her death.
Yes, some of the painters who came to Taos at her invitation left us beautiful landscapes and portraits, but probably they would have painted wherever they happened to land. But no one could write Mabel’s books, and no one created the house and the life there.
It seems we are still confined, in our appreciation of women, to admiring our roles as facilitators of other people’s lives, in this case almost entirely men’s. Mabel did encourage and promote several women artists, but their work is now lost, for the same reasons most women artists are blotted out over time. But Mabel’s four books remain, and surely they are the reason she deserves to be remembered, as a creator of herself, and only secondarily a creator or at least an encourager of a group of male painters.
Mulling over my breakfast conversation with my new friend, the first I’ve found who shares my point of view on this topic, I walked behind the house through the pueblo’s fields and the quiet residential neighborhood that borders them. A graveyard is placed almost casually in the middle of this neighborhood, along with a painted box displaying free books, and somehow both seem to belong to the flowers, the rail fences, and the distant view of Taos mountain.