Luhan, Mabel Dodge

Luhan, Mabel Dodge (b. Ganson)

(1879–1962) hostess, promoter of art and social causes, author; born in Buffalo, N.Y. Born into a moderately wealthy family, she studied briefly in New York City and near Washington, D.C., before entering Buffalo society (1897). As expected of such a young woman, she married a young man of her class (1900), but shortly after the birth of their son her husband died in an accident. Suffering from a nervous breakdown, she was sent to Europe, and on the ship she met Edwin Dodge, an architect from Boston; they married in Paris (1905) and went off to Florence, Italy, where she took on the first of her several personas: the "renaissance" hostess of a salon where she entertained a steady flow of celebrities and artists such as Getrude Stein and André Gide. By 1912, more neurasthenic and erratic than ever—she had twice attempted suicide—she returned to New York, separated from her husband (they were divorced in 1916) and adopted her new persona: the radical/avant-garde hostess. Her salon on the edge of Greenwich Village now became a celebrated gathering place of a new stream of artists and social activists; she supported both the famous Armory Show of 1913 and the Paterson Strike Pageant, an extravaganza at Madison Square Garden to support striking textile workers in New Jersey; she spoke out for everything most modern, from Gertrude Stein's prose to Freud's psychology; she supported all kinds of radical causes and individuals while having an intense affair with the revolutionary John Reed. It was the end of this relationship that caused her to attempt suicide again and then to retreat from New York City and adopt her new persona: the leader of a new community. In 1917 she married Maurice Sterne, a painter, and in 1918 they moved to Taos, N.M. She was immediately drawn to the Pueblo Indian culture and for much of the rest of her life she spent her energies trying to become one with the Pueblo Indians, trying to help their community, and trying to bring other artists to join her there. She even went so far as to divorce Sterne and marry Antonio Lujan (1923), a Pueblo Indian (he became Tony Luhan to her). She did manage to pull some artists into her circle—D. H. Lawrence, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Robinson Jeffers—but all soon found her personality too much for long or close relationships. In the 1930s she took up her final persona: the writer-recorder of her own life and ideas, publishing such works as Lorenzo in Taos (1932)—about D. H. Lawrence—and Winter in Taos (1935). In addition to a fair amount of published work, she left volumes of unpublished materials (now at Yale University's library), and although no single work, idea, contribution, or "persona" of Mabel Dodge Luhan may seem that important, the totality of her life in search of identity and community have gained her some standing as an archetypal 20th-century American woman.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.