Saturday night I attended a unique Taos event: a salon in honor of the late Mabel Dodge Luhan (born on February 26) — I heard someone say she’d be 134…
In spirit, the lively evening reminded me of annual birthday parties for Emily Dickinson, hosted by my amazing friend-teacher-poet Phebe Hanson of Minnesota. Biographical, inspirational, with nosh and socializing to boot! (Mabel’s birthday included no poetry, unfortunately.)
The event kicked off in the classroom space of the Mabel Dodge center, with guests gathering from Taos and Santa Fe (I saw folks comparing license plates in the parking area, as several came from New England states, those lucky folks who winter in NM). Liz, the “blog maestra” for “Remarkable Women of Taos” solicited suggestions for future articles on the website, and introduced actress Leslie Dillen and Lois Palken Rudnick , author of Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds and Utopian Vistas. Rudnick delivered a fast, funny, spirited overview of Mabel Dodge’s eclectic life (wealthy-passionate-opinionated-traveled-intellectual-four-times-married-plus-affairs), how she came to Taos, married Tony Lujan, and how some of her ideas changed over time (as others didn’t). Rudnick explained that when searching for a thesis topic, she found material about Dodge’s interest in orgasms, of all things! She immediately knew that writing about Mabel Dodge would be far more interesting than writing about Moby Dick.
Following Rudnick, actress Leslie Dillen (who wrote and performed “The Passions of Mabel Dodge Luhan“) addressed us *as Mabel Dodge*, and dramatically read aloud her thoughts on the joys of Menopause (!) which was actually an unpublished short essay by Dodge, called “The Change of Life” which Dillen found during her research. I adored the essay, and Dillen promised to mail me a copy! Poignant, thought-provoking yet very funny. She begins by describing a man whose wife is entering menopause, complaining melodramatically “It seems as though some splendor is passing from the earth….” then she expresses her own vision of “new door opening” to a time in which one’s energies are freed for greater pursuits. She seemed rather ahead of her time! “One fire follows another fire” says Mabel, but the fire “must be kindled” or it goes out. In this mature phase of a marriage, she explains, “there must always be a flame passing between the man and woman” — “sacred life of the inner flame.” She was really talking about spiritual communion here (although the serious idea is hidden inside wry humor). The essay encapsulates one of Dodge’s contradictions, as Rudnick pointed out: the essay is a rallying cry to women to “self-kindle” their “spiritual fire” in post-menopausal life, yet reveals Mabel’s underlying psychological belief that women should serve as muses to creative men, rather than championing their own creative lives. Fascinating.
During the open Q & A portion of the salon, details of Mabel’s complicated relationships with Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers, D. H. and Frieda Lawrence were shared, and her stormy, bossy, love-hate relationships with various creative men over the decades — as Rudnick put it to great laughter, “no woman has been killed in more ways in American fiction.”
Afterwards, everyone walked over to the historic main house for a lavish reception cooked up in Mabel Dodge’s own kitchen, and there was a booksigning for the new coffee-table book “Mabel Dodge Luhan: In Her Own Words” which features photos and a timeline of her life, focused on her time in Taos and her house (note to my dear auntie: I have a copy for you). We all sang Happy Birthday to Mabel, and a fancy chocolate-raspberry cake was lit, extinguished, and served, loaves and fishes style. Near the close of the evening, I found myself sitting at a great old table in the dining hall with Dillen and Rudnick, as we listened to local gallery owner Rena Rosequist (who’s run Mission Gallery in Taos for 50 years) relating dreadfully juicy anecdotes about painter Dorothy Brett (with whom she was friends), Robinson Jeffers and others. I could have listened to Rena for hours! Hated to leave, but I did meet the woman who gives tours of the Mabel Dodge house, so I will follow up with her in a few weeks.