In Taos, they just say “Mabel.” No last name needed. Taos had a reputation as an arts colony before she arrived, but no one did more than anyone to promote and sustain that reputation than Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan.
Before she came to Taos, Mabel was a mover and shaker in the arts and society of New York and Europe. Born into a wealthy family in Buffalo, she spent her life entertaining, influencing, supporting, and not infrequently outraging her many artist friends. She could be imperious and cruel. But she knew how to throw a great party, and she surrounded herself with some of the most interesting people of her times. Along with Gertrude Stein, who became her friend and correspondent after they met in Paris in 1911, she was considered a leading female modernist of the early 20th century.
She was born in 1879, three years before my grandmother, and they both lived long lives. It’s difficult for me to comprehend that she was my grandmother’s contemporary. As a child, seeing Grandma sitting in her rocking chair, wrapped in her crocheted afghan and re-reading Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, I didn’t have a clue that Grandma’s favorite author often visited this woman in Taos who was considered to be avant-garde, even scandalous. D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Martha Graham, Maynard Dixon, Dorothea Lange, and Carl Jung, among many others, also came to stay at Mabel’s house. Perhaps they sat under this portal and talked about their art:
She arrived in New Mexico in December 1917, with her new (and third) husband, Maurice Sterne, and first visited Taos in late December of that year. She took to Taos from the beginning. Maurice was less enthusiastic: one of the first people Mabel met was Tony Luhan, a Taos Pueblo Indian who immediately captivated her and for whom she left Maurice.
In Maurice’s words: “Mabel had always been enthralled by the mystical. She thought that she had finally found what she had been searching for in Tony and in the Indian mystique. As soon as she discovered the Pueblo Indians, she was like someone under hypnosis. She sat entranced when they beat their tom-toms and chanted their weird music. Most of all, their silence fascinated her…. Mabel had no vitality or creative power of her own. She was a dead battery who needed constantly to recharge with the juice of some man, though she might leave him dead in the process.”
Maybe a little taste of sour grapes in that? Apparently, Mabel had indeed found what she had been searching for in Tony. They stayed together for 45 years, until her death at age 83. During her funeral, Tony cried out that the sun had dropped out of the sky — a rare burst of speech for a man who was, by all accounts, almost always silent.
Her sprawling adobe house, which they built together in the early 1920s, is now a historic site and a conference center/inn where guests enjoy “the best breakfast in town,” according to the receptionist. Here’s a photo of the dining room:
Mabel’s final resting place is marked with a small stone, and is in an inconspicuous corner of the Kit Carson Memorial Cemetery. However, as you can see, her fans have found it: