Tag Archives: history of new mexico

Young Mabel

Empowered Women of Southwest History – Mabel Dodge Luhan

Some people find empowerment through their passion. Other people find empowerment through what they do for mankind. Still others find empowerment through their search of self and belonging. Such is the case for Mabel Dodge Luhan, self-proclaimed Muse of the Arts.

Mabel at 18 years old
Mabel at 18
(Buffaloah.com)

As an only child, Mabel Dodge Luhan grew up with wealth and privilege; two things many people strive their whole lives to achieve. But what she never had, until later in her adulthood, were things that many people take for granted; love, attention, and feeling of belonging.

Mabel’s father, Charles Ganson, inherited his wealth from his powerful banking family. Charles went to school and trained to be a lawyer, but his nervous disposition and volatile temper impeded his success. During Mabel’s growing up years, Charles spent time with his dogs, or in his study not doing much of anything. According to an article at Enclyclopedia.com, Mabel states that, to her father she “…was something that made noise sometimes in the house, and had to be told to get out of the way.”

Sara, Mabel’s mother, often the victim of Charles’ temper, grew indifferent to him and had little interest in her only child. While Sara entertained herself with the society of New York, Mabel spent most of her time in the care of a nanny, and then later school mistresses at Saint Margaret’s Episcopal School for Girls, and Miss Graham’s School in New York City. At 16, Mabel toured Europe and then attended the affluent Chevy Chase Finishing School in the Washington, D.C./Maryland area.

Educated in the arts of an upper crust domestic wife, Mabel, at 21 years old, married Karl Evans, another silver spoon youth. Her father did not approve of the match, and her mother remained indifferent.

The young couple soon had a child, a boy they named John. Perhaps because of her own upbringing, Mabel struggled with the confines of marriage and child rearing. After only two years of matrimony, Karl died in a hunting accident, adding to Mabel’s emotion duress. A single mother, now facing life alone, Mabel suffered a nervous breakdown. When she recovered, she took her young son and moved to Europe. In Paris, she met Edwin Dodge, an architect from Boston. He pressed his suit, and eager for a father for John, and security for herself, Mabel agreed to marry Dodge in 1904.

Mabel and her son John
Mabel and her son John
(mabeldodgeluhan.com)

The couple moved to Florence, Italy where they settled in a lovely villa they called Villa Curonia, a famous estate originally built for the powerful Italian Medici family. But, happiness still eluded Mabel. Trapped in a loveless marriage, and unable to escape the depression that would reoccur throughout her lifetime, Mabel needed a diversion. She embarked on her quest to become a muse of the arts, or as she states in her autobiography, Intimate Memories, “a mythological figure…in my own lifetime.”

For eight years, often dressed in Renaissance costume, Mabel entertained the famous and noteworthy of International society, including novelists, artists, photographers and art critics. Her Italian “salon” became a place of philosophical, political, and artistic enlightenment.

Still discontented with married life, Mabel left Dodge and moved back to New York where she established another salon for the artistic intelligentsia. From 1913 to 1916, she entertained those interested in unconventional attitudes of the era. Freudism, free-love, anarchy, and modern art were popular avant-guard topics discussed at Mabel’s house. Inspired by the conversation, Mabel embarked on a writing career and wrote for literary and art magazines, including Alfred Stieglitz’s publication, Camera Work. Stieglitz and his mistress at the time, Georgia O’Keeffe, frequented Mabel’s home along with mutual friends Leo and Gertrude Stein.

Between 1914 and 1916, she met and married artist Maurice Stern. Even though Mabel had created a world of her own, she still could not find happiness. In 1917 she and Stern traveled to New Mexico, a provincial and wild place she’d learned about from her friends the Steins. She arrived in Santa Fe, and was entertained by other wealthy, female east-coast transplants like Alice Corbin and Natalie Curtis Burlin, who had already established themselves in the town.

Eager to put her mark on a new and nearly undiscovered place, Mabel found Santa Fe too confining. In her book Ladies of the Canyons, Lesley Poling-Kempes asserts that “for Mabel, the real problem with Santa Fe was its population, however small, of erudite, creative, and audacious New Women who were already making their mark on the place. Mabel needed her own space to make her mark . . .”

Mabel moved to the nearby village of Taos to start her own literary society. There she met and befriended Tony Luhan, a Pueblo Indian. Mabel asserts that before arriving in Taos, she had a dream where she saw her husband Maurice’s face turn into that of an Indian. Mabel believed Tony to be that man. Tony encouraged Mabel to buy property, a 12-acre parcel of land, complete with a tiny dwelling. Tony helped the Stern’s remodel and rebuild the four-room adobe house. He set up a teepee on the Stern’s front lawn, and proceeded to woo Mabel. It worked. She sent Maurice packing and married Luhan in 1923.

Mabel and Tony
Mabel and Tony
(KUNM)

The colorful landscape and rich culture of Taos gave Mabel the life and love she craved. Finally, happy and at peace, Mabel, with her fourth and final husband, Tony Luhan, entertained some of the most famous literary and artistic minds of their time, including Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, and D.H. Lawrence. Georgia O’Keeffe, while visiting Mabel, decided that she, too, could find infinite inspiration from the enchanted landscape of New Mexico, and also settled there.

The Luhans eventually expanded their home to 17 rooms, and continued to provide literary and artistic inspiration for others, as well as forging Mabel’s own talents as a writer.

Never known for her warmth or sunny personality, Mabel, regardless, indeed made her mark on New Mexico and American history. She promoted Native American culture and art, as well as other important artists, writers, and abstract thinkers of her time. She found empowerment through her continual quest to get her life just right, and become the person she aspired to be.

Her vision, her promotion of others and herself, helped make Mabel Dodge Luhan an institution in Southwestern history.

 

The “Gentle Ghost” of Santa Fe

Halloween is again upon us and so closes my series of ghost stories for October. I hope you have enjoyed reading about some of the ghosts of Hawaii and New Mexico. I have saved my favorite ghost for last.

Julia Schuster Staab was the wife of Abraham Staab, a Jewish German immigrant, who came to New Mexico in 1846 to establish himself as a merchant on the Santa Fe Trail. After Abraham became a wealthy businessman, he went home to Germany to find a bride. He found Julia Schuster, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from his home village of Ludge. Having come from the same small village, it is thought that perhaps Abraham knew Julia’s family before he left to find his riches in America. With great expectations he brought Julia back to his new home in the high desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1865.

Young Julia Staab and Julia & Abraham
jwi.org

Completely out of place in the village of Santa Fe with its mud houses and arid landscape, Julia had been accustomed to more a more elegant lifestyle and grand home. Eager to make his wife happy, Abraham built Julia a beautiful white mansion. The Staab House, a Victorian masterpiece with a large ballroom on the third floor, suited Julia’s excellent taste.

Original Staab House Jewishbookcouncil.org
Original Staab House
Jewishbookcouncil.org

The couple had seven children, but at the death of their eighth, Julia changed both physically and mentally. She became sad, depressed, chronically ill and inconsolable. It is said her hair turned grey overnight. Her grief took a toll on the couple and they slowly grew apart. This did not help Julia’s situation and some say she went insane. She spent most of her latter days locked in her bedroom until she died in 1896, under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Rumors of Abraham’s extramarital affairs and Julia’s possible murder or suicide were never proven.

In the 1920’s a fire burned through the Staab house, destroying the third floor. When the house was rebuilt as a stuccoed, Pueblo-style hotel, the builders simply built around the remains of the mansion and then added charming casitas across the 7-acre plot as additional guest rooms.

Although she died in 1896, Julia’s ghostly presence had not been reported until the 1970’s. A janitor at the hotel stated that he saw a translucent dark eyed woman in a white Victorian gown, with white, upswept hair standing near the fireplace. From that moment on, more sightings of the same woman were reported. Staff and guests alike saw her wandering the hallways, lounging in a chair in the downstairs sitting room or standing near the fireplace.

The excerpt below is from the book American Ghost by Hannah Nordhaus, great-great granddaughter to Julia Staab. The book is an enthralling read and I highly recommend it.

“Strange things began to happen in the hotel. Gas fireplaces turned off and on repeatedly, though nobody was flipping the switch. Chandeliers swayed and revolved. Vases of flowers moved to new locations. Glasses tumbled from shelves in the bar. A waitress, not known for her clumsiness, began droppings trays and explained that she felt as if someone were pushing them from underneath. Guests heard dancing footsteps on the third story, where the ballroom had once been—though the third floor had burned years earlier. A woman’s voice, distant and foreign sounding, called the switchboard over and over. ‘Hallo?’ ‘Hallo?’ ‘Hallo?’”

One guest decided to test Julia when he and his wife requested to stay in Julia’s room. Hearing that Julia’s ghost was very particular about things in her room, he purposely left the top dresser drawer opened. Later that night, he and his wife were awakened by the sound of the drawer being slowly closed.

Entrance to Staab House from La Posada lobby www.10best.com
Entrance to Staab House from La Posada lobby
www.10best.com

I became fascinated with the story of the La Posada Hotel after our daughter decided she wanted to be married there last year. She, her fiancé and I took the hour long drive to Santa Fe to stay the night in the hotel and speak to the event planner who worked there. As luck would have it, the engaged couple was put up in one of the casitas, and I was assigned to a room on the second floor of the mansion—the room right next door to Julia’s. I had heard some stories that the hotel was haunted, but at the time, I didn’t know Julia’s story. Which is probably a good thing. Fortunately, the only thing that kept me up that night was the rowdy party in the bar at the foot of the stairs to my room.

La Posada Hotel today View from the garden
La Posada Hotel today
View from the garden

Months later, after our daughter and her new husband’s stunning wedding, I wandered into the lobby and saw Nordhaus’ book sitting on the concierge’s desk. When I asked the woman sitting at the desk about the book, she proceeded to give me the highlights and told me some of the fascinating stories other staff and guests had told about Julia’s ghost. I asked if she had any similar experiences and she said she hadn’t, although she wanted to. After her last chemo treatment, she and her daughter decided to celebrate with a weekend stay at the hotel. They requested Julia’s room in hopes they would get a visit from the familiar “gentle ghost” and sat up all night waiting for her. In the wee hours of the morning they fell asleep and slept undisturbed. The concierge believed that Julia was too shy to make an appearance when someone was expecting her. She said she’d rent the room again sometime.

That concierge is braver than I am. Now that I know the story, I’m not sure I’d request to stay in the main house again. In fact, I would definitely request one of the casitas.

If you ever get to New Mexico, a stay at the La Posada Hotel is a must. Even if you don’t get Julia’s room.