Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962), American writer, salon hostess, patron saint, and inspiration to an assortment of talented artists, writers, and political radicals in the early decades of the 20th century, was a leading symbol of the "New Woman."
Mabel Dodge Luhan was born on February 26, 1879, in Buffalo, New York, to Charles and Sara (Cook) Ganson. The Gansons were an affluent family living on inherited wealth. Both of Mabel's grandfathers had made fortunes in banking. Her father Charles was trained as a lawyer, but his weak, nervous disposition, coupled with violent and unpredictable temper tantrums, made him unfit for this or any other profession. When he was not shouting at his wife in jealous "fits," he spent hours alone in his study doing absolutely nothing at all. He lavished affection on his dogs but had no interest in his only daughter. Mabel knew he did not love her. "To him," she recalled, "I was something that made a noise sometimes in the house and had to be told to get out of the way." Her mother Sara was strong and decisive where her father was weak, but Sara was a cold woman, unfeeling and entirely self-centered. Bored with the endless routine of Victorian social life and finding few outlets for her abundant energy, Sara became indifferent to both her husband and child. Mabel could not remember her mother ever giving her a kiss or an affectionate look. In her nursery, Mabel kissed the Mother Goose figures on the walls.
Mabel's need for emotional and intellectual sustenance was not met by her conventional education at Saint Margaret's School for Girls, where the class motto was "They also serve who only stand and wait," or at Miss Graham's School in New York City, or at the fancy finishing school she attended in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Mabel Ganson was educated to be a charming and decorative wife, which she became in 1900 at the age of 21. Her husband, Karl Evans, was a member of her social set whose chief attraction for Mabel was that he was engaged to another woman. Emotionally deprived as a child, she would continue to believe that she had a right to "steal" love whenever the opportunity presented itself.
In 1903, shortly after the birth of their son, Karl Evans died in a hunting accident. Mabel, who had as much interest in her child as her parents had had in her, suffered a nervous breakdown. Her family sent her to Europe in 1904 to recover. This was the first of three journeys—the second would be to Greenwich Village and the third to Taos, New Mexico—which marked her search for both a personal identity and a place where she could feel "at home."
On her way to Paris Mabel met "a nice young man in tweeds"—Edwin Dodge, a wealthy architectural student from Boston. Dodge became her second husband, and together they moved to Florence in 1905. There, depressed and trapped in another loveless marriage, Mabel decided to devote herself to the love of art for its own sake. She and Dodge purchased a magnificent Medician estate which they named Villa Curonia, and for the next eight years Mabel spent enormous amounts of money, energy, and creative intelligence transforming her surroundings and herself into works of Renaissance art.
Filling her home with objets d'art and artists, Mabel began her apprenticeship as a salon hostess in Florence. She entertained lavishly, and at her table sat the rich, the famous, the colorful, and the noteworthy of the international set: French novelist André Gide, actress Eleanor Duse, painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, Gertrude and Leo Stein, Lord and Lady Acton, and an Indian swami, to name only a few. Mabel, dressed in Renaissance costume, became celebrated for her role as Muse. Unwilling or unable to create in her own right, she wanted at least to serve as the inspiration for genius.
Bored with her life in Florence by 1912 and greatly influenced by the Gertrude and Leo Stein's philosophy that the individual could overcome the ill effects of both heredity and environment and create herself anew, Mabel returned to New York. Separated from her husband, Mabel moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village, the heartland of America's avant-garde. There, at 23 Fifth Avenue, she launched the most successful salon in American history. For the next three years Mabel entertained the "movers and shakers" of pre-war America, men and women who were sweeping in their condemnation of bourgeois values and industrial capitalism. Gathered together at one of Mabel's "Wednesday evenings" one might find artists, philosophers, writers, reformers, and radicals of all stripes: Margaret Sanger, Walter Lippmann, Lincoln Steffens, Emma Goldman, "Big Bill" Haywood, and Hutchins Hapgood. Mabel was determined to make herself the mistress of the spirit of her age by embracing its most idealistic and committed men and women.
Mabel Dodge gave generously of her time and money to support the various causes she believed would liberate Americans from the shackles of their Victorian past. She helped to sponsor the watershed Armory show which introduced postimpressionist art to a largely unfamiliar American audience; contributed to The Masses, the leading left-wing literary and political journal of her day; wrote a syndicated newspaper column popularizing Freudian psychology; and supported a host of organizations, among them the Women's Peace Party, the Heterodoxy Club, the Women's Birth Control League, and the Twilight Sleep Association.
Heralded by her friends and the public as the "New Woman," Mabel experimented with free love, having several unsatisfactory affairs, the most famous of which was with radical journalist John Reed. Mabel, who was never able to rid herself of the belief that women could only achieve through men, realized the tremendous gap that existed between the radical, emancipated image she projected and the reality that she was intellectually and emotionally dependent on men.
In 1916 Mabel and her third husband, artist and sculptor Maurice Sterne, moved to Taos, New Mexico. There she finally found the "cosmos" she had been searching for all her life. In the 600-year-old Pueblo culture she saw a model of permanence and stability; a total integration of personality achieved through the organic connection of work, play, community, and environment. Soon she fell in love with Tony Luhan, a fullblooded Pueblo Indian. Divorcing Sterne and marrying Luhan, her fourth and final husband, Mabel viewed their alliance as a bridge between Anglo and Native American cultures.
For the rest of her life Mabel took a leading role in calling "great souls" to Taos to help her create "a city upon a hill." The American Southwest was destined, she believed, to serve as a source of social and psychic renewal for the dying, decadent, and disillusioned postwar white civilization. Among the "great souls" she called to Taos to help her spread her gospel of American regeneration were D. H. Lawrence, Robinson Jeffers, Georgia O'Keeffe, Willa Cather, John Collier, Thomas Wolfe, Andrew Dasburg, Edna Ferber, Leopold Stowkowski, and Mary Austin.
In the 1920s Mabel wrote her four-volume memoirs: Background, European Experiences, Movers and Shakers, and Edge of Taos Desert. She wrote numerous articles on behalf of the integrity of Native American culture, health, and the protection of tribal lands. She died in Taos of a heart attack on August 13, 1962. Although she never fulfilled her messianic vision for the American Southwest, she herself remained, as one reporter described her in the early 1920s, "the most peculiar common denominator that society, literature, art, and radical revolutionaries ever found in New York and Europe." In attempting to alter the direction of American civilization, she captured the imaginations of her generation's most talented writers, artists, and thinkers, and profoundly influenced their understanding of modern America.
Further Reading on Mabel Dodge Luhan
There are three biographies, Winifred L. Frazer's Mabel Dodge Luhan, Emily Hahn's Mabel and Lois Palken Rudnick's Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds. For comments on her character and influence see: Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism in America (1965); Hutchins Hapgood, A Victorian in the Modern World (1939); The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, vol. II (1931); Robert Crunden, From Self to Society, 1919-1941 (1972); Joseph Foster, D. H. Lawrence in Taos (1972); Maurice Sterne, Shadow and Light (1952); and Claire Morrill, A Taos Mosaic (1973).
Additional Biography Sources
Frazer, Winifred L., Mabel Dodge Luhan, Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Hahn, Emily, Mabel: a biography of Mabel Dodge Luhan, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
Luhan, Mabel Dodge, Movers and shakers, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985, 1936.
Rudnick, Lois Palken, Mabel Dodge Luhan: new woman, new worlds, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.