TAOS, N.M. – There are few perfect homes, and most of those didn’t start out that way.
I’ve been privileged to see a couple of pitch-perfect residences, including Marjorie Rawlings’ board-and-batten cottage, cobbled together from a couple of rudimentary sharecropper shacks and tucked into an orange grove at Cross Creek, Fla. It would be hard to find a house more suited to the spunky owner’s creative spirit.
And I count as perfection Thomas Jefferson’s majestic Monticello, which began modestly and, thanks to his genius, grew to be grand.
In this lovely town, where adobe dwellings rise smoothly as mushrooms from mountainsides, I see another uniquely beautiful home. It belonged to Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan. And, yes, she earned all but one of those names the hard, old-fashioned way; she married Karl Evans, Edwin Dodge, Maurice Sterne and Tony Luhan. She was born a wealthy Ganson, both parents from banking families and with icewater veins.
Mabel might have married often and extremely well, but she found time to do other things – including but certainly not limited to: taking lovers like radical journalist Jack Reed, befriending Pablo Picasso in Paris, attempting suicide by eating figs laced with shards of glass, and becoming a newspaper columnist on Freudian psychology for Hearst.
In turn, in Italy, Greenwich Village and Taos, this busy, bisexual woman launched literary salons and entertained anyone avant-garde enough to suit her. Those around the table at her Italian villa included Gertrude and Leo Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Lord and Lady Acton and an occasional Indian swami. In New York you might find Margaret Sanger, Walter Lippmann, Lincoln Steffens and Emma Goldman.
But it was in Taos that Mabel really grew aggressive with her artistic recruitment. Through the years, until her death in 1962, she drew to little Taos and her messianic vision the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Willa Cather, Thomas Wolfe, Edna Ferber and Ansel Adams. Here she married her fourth and final husband, the full-blooded Pueblo Indian Tony Luhan, but only after he set up a teepee in front of the house and drummed each night until Mabel left her marriage bed and came to him.
To say she led an interesting life is to say the Pope prays.
And the same is true of her adobe house. It might have been huge considering Mabel’s assets, but is not. That would have been too bourgeois for our Mabel. The Southwestern sun streams through generous old windows in the rambling hacienda and onto worn rugs and furnishings. An outdoor stairway leads to a solarium. The place feels, well, inspirational, which, I suppose, was the whole point.
The house, without Mabel at the helm, still hosts literary and art conferences and has continued to nurture artists, poets and renegades. It’s where Dennis Hopper wrote the script for “Easy Rider,” for instance. You, too, can stay in the “Ansel Adams Room” or the “D.H. Lawrence Room” if you have the do-re-mi.
A giant cottonwood tree shades the courtyard, which is entered through a mission-style gate replete with bell. And if a location, a mere house, can make you want to start sketching, typing, sculpting or singing, this is it. I resist the urge to dance.
Mabel Dodge Luhan, as she’s most often known, was a so-called new woman who invested in art and ideas. That alone made her exceptional. And the house is worthy of her passion.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson