D.H. Lawrence’s New Mexico: The Ghosts That Grip the Soul of Bohemian Taos
ONE winter as an undergraduate at Cambridge I rented a room in the home of a bibliophile, where towers of books that wouldn’t fit on the shelves would tremble when I shut the door. In idle moments I’d browse the spines, and one evening I happened to pluck out a slim old hardcover, something by D. H. Lawrence I didn’t know. I opened at random.
“In a cold like this, the stars snap like distant coyotes, beyond the moon,” I read. “And you’ll see the shadows of actual coyotes, going across the alfalfa field. And the pine-trees make little noises, sudden and stealthy, as if they were walking about. And the place heaves with ghosts. But when one has got used to one’s own home-ghosts, be they never so many, they are like one’s own family, but nearer than the blood. It is the ghosts one misses most, the ghosts there, of the Rocky Mountains. ...because it is cold, I should have moonshine ...”
Lawrence’s prose at full throttle: Lawrence the poet as much as the novelist. But what was this place he was talking about? I read on, and discovered that it was his ranch in Taos, N.M. The book was “Mornings in Mexico.”
Something happened. The print seemed to rise a quarter of an inch off the page. The ink glistened. Outside my window it was raining. Bare branches dripped under a thick overcast sky. What was I doing here in dismal, rainy England, perennially late with my essays? There were other places, with mountains stretching their backs under a cloudless sky, and coyotes and pines and eagles no doubt, and moonshine to be drunk. One day, I told myself.
That day came eight years later, when a trusting editor sent me to New Mexico to write about Lawrence. I’ve been returning ever since, and now I live there.
THERE’S something about the first glimpse of the Taos Mesa as you travel north from Santa Fe, up the narrow canyon of the Rio Grande past Embudo. A series of long, sweeping bends brings you over a brow, and suddenly the view ahead opens out onto empty, bare land, with a smoky gorge cut into it like the Great Rift Valley of Africa. Ten miles off stands a bulk of dark, brooding mountains. One of the biggest, bald Taos Mountain, sits bolted to the plain like a remonstrance. At its foot the town of Taos spreads like litter glinting in the sun.
It would be impossible to live at the foot of that mountain for a thousand years, as the Indians of the Taos Pueblo have done, and not come to think of it as sentient — the Kong of northern New Mexico. This was, in a sense, why the painters who “colonized” the area in the early 1900’s came. As one of them, Maynard Dixon, put it: “You can’t argue with those desert mountains — and if you live among them enough — like the Indian does — you don’t want to. They have something for us much more real than some imported art style.”
This was the creed of the American modernists who clustered in Taos in the early decades of the last century: Taos would be a fount of a new Americanism in art, an ever-flowing alternative to Europe. But Taos also had its appeal for Europeans. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung and Leopold Stokowski were only a few of the European artists and thinkers who found their way there. The reason they went was because of one pioneering American woman.
It was from the foot of Taos mountain that Mabel Dodge Luhan — heiress, patroness, columnist, early proponent (and victim) of psychoanalysis, memoirist and hostess — planned the rebirth of Western civilization. She moved to Taos from the East Coast in 1917 and fell in love not only with the place but also with Tony Lujan (later anglicized to Luhan), a chief in the nearby pueblo. She promptly left her second husband, married Tony and expanded a house on the edge of town, turning it into an adobe fantasy castle (what Dennis Hopper, who owned it in the 1970’s, would later call the Mud Palace), and began to invite scores of cultural luminaries. The idea was to expose them to the Indian culture she believed held the cure for anomic, dissociated modern humanity. After dinner, drummers and dancers from the pueblo would entertain the household.
Today her house is a museum, guesthouse and literary shrine all in one. For anyone on the trail of Lawrence, it’s the first of three essential ports of call. As I make my way up the groaning narrow stairs, the sense not just of history but of peace hits me: no TVs, no telephones. Instead, the deep quiet of an old, applianceless home. There are a bathroom with windows that Lawrence painted in colorful geometric and animal designs in 1922 to protect Mabel Luhan’s modesty, and floorboards across which Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe and Thomas Wolfe creaked. (In fact Wolfe stayed only one night. He arrived late and drunk, decided he didn’t like it and fled the next morning.)
With its kiva fireplaces and gleaming cabinets of books, the Mabel Dodge Luhan House is a strange mix of adobe curvaceousness and a country house fit for an Agatha Christie mystery. Behind it, sage scrub sweeps up to the hills. Before, a rough-hewed colonnade gives onto a courtyard of uneven flagstones. At each corner of the main building giant adobe buttresses keep the walls up, as if they might otherwise slump like wet sand.
I’ve been a few times, and it’s a fascinating place to stay, with all the rooms eccentrically different. My favorite is Luhan’s solarium at the top of the house, a glassed-in room where in spring you can watch blizzards of fluffy seeds float among cottonwoods and birches gauzy with new leaf. Through the trees to the north, the blue massif of Taos Mountain looms.
Luhan particularly set her sights on Lawrence, seeing in him her ideal spokesman. She pleaded with famous friends to intercede and even sent Lawrence’s wife, Frieda, a necklace steeped in irresistible Indian magic. Her schemes worked, and Lawrence arrived in 1922. But relations between Luhan and the Lawrences soon soured, and she packed them off to a ranch she owned in the mountains 17 miles north of Taos.
The last time I was at the Lawrence ranch, just after Christmas, snow lay on the ground, the roofs were crisp with a frozen bed of it and long gray icicles hung from the gutters like beards on old-time Russian mystics. The bottoms of the clouds drifted through the big ponderosas. My mother was with me, visiting from England, and was overawed to be standing in the home of her early-adulthood hero. Why did he ever leave, she kept musing aloud, as we peered through the windows into the locked cabin. Behind us an ancient ponderosa stirred and let down a shiver of crystalline snow that glittered in the high air.
Lawrence was here three times from 1922 to 1925 and spent only 11 months in total in New Mexico. But the ranch was the only home he ever owned. With her undaunted generosity, Luhan gave it to him. The Lawrences, however, didn’t like feeling indebted, and in return they gave her the manuscript of his novel “Sons and Lovers.” It was a move they would regret when they discovered that as much as they loved the ranch, it was worth $1,000, whereas the manuscript might have fetched $50,000.
The ranch seems to have less to do with the Southwest of the Indian that Lawrence was looking for than with that of the cowboy. Three old log cabins with dark planks, low roofs and rough board doors have the look of the haven of one of those cantankerous old white mountain-men in a Western. And, in fact, there is a rather cantankerous, though extremely helpful, old man who looks after the place — so independent-minded he preferred to go unnamed.
Under a spitting rain on this afternoon, he is not in evidence at first but soon emerges in a reluctantly friendly mood.
“Just ’tween us,” he begins, “I don’t think much of Lawrence.” Not a great opening. But he turns out to be not only salt of the earth, but also a mine of information, ambling up from his office to show me around the cabins.
“Back in the old days, people used every part of an animal they killed. This used to be a blood floor,” he explains, speaking of the three-room cabin the Lawrences lived in. Apparently cow’s blood was mixed with adobe to make a smooth, slick floor. “Wood was too expensive.”
The blood has gone, replaced by boards. But outside there’s a painting of a buffalo that’s fading on the cracked adobe wall. It was painted by Trinidad Archuleta, an Indian from the Taos Pueblo, who signed his name “TRNRDOD.”
“I sure as hell wouldn’t have got along with him,” the old man says of Lawrence. “Woman-beater. Frieda knew him for what he was. She was a mother to him.”
And it seems this man knew not only Frieda Lawrence, but Luhan and Dorothy Brett, too, an English aristocrat and painter who doggedly followed Lawrence around the world. “Yes,” he says, “I was friendly with all the three women.”
Next door to the Lawrences’ house is a cabin maybe eight foot square, with nothing but a bed, a table and a small stove. Here Lady Brett spent her days and even stayed on after Lawrence had gone — until her death in 1977. Hard of hearing and permanently armed with a long ear-trumpet, she had probably fallen in love with Lawrence and followed him to New Mexico after a disastrous affair with the writer and editor John Middleton Murry, whose wife, the writer Katherine Mansfield, had died only three months before. (The gossip of one time becomes the literary history of the next.)
Lawrence had his own reasons for coming to New Mexico. For years he had dreamed of founding a utopian community, to be called Rananim, and hoped to do it there. He was also a consumptive, and what he called his “savage pilgrimage,” his worldwide search for a civilization answering to humanity’s spiritual needs, was in part a search for a good climate. New Mexico, unlike Texas and California, welcomed tuberculosis sufferers. High, dry, clean air — just what the doctor ordered. With Lady Brett next door, and Lawrence and Frieda in the main cabin, this was as close as Rananim ever came to reality: three Europeans flung up a mountain north of Taos.
Here Lawrence not only wrote under a lofty pine later immortalized by O’Keeffe in “The Lawrence Tree,” he also began to dabble in painting himself, signing his canvases “Lorenzo.” Today, there are nine Lawrence oils that hang in La Fonda Hotel on Taos plaza. They were exhibited in London in 1929, but the show was closed at once on grounds of obscenity (a move prompted mostly by Lawrence’s notoriety as the author of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”; the paintings are tame), and the pictures were condemned to be destroyed. Lawrence promised to whisk them away from British soil, and they were spared. After Lawrence died, Frieda Lawrence continued to live in New Mexico, and the paintings wound up in the hands of Saki Karavas, the longtime owner of La Fonda, who died in 1998.
I met Mr. Karavas on my first visit to New Mexico. Clad typically in a silk robe and with a cheroot in hand, he struck a cultivated figure and rarely rose before noon. He kept the pictures in his office, a small cluttered room behind the reception desk.
The leering faces, the swaths of muddily painted human flesh and the rather awkward postures of the figures — something like Gauguin on a very bad day — didn’t make for the best décor, but Mr. Karavas had high hopes for them. One day, either a museum would offer some staggering sum or the British government would acquiesce to his long-cherished dream of returning the Lawrence oils to England in exchange for Britain’s return of the Elgin Marbles, taken from the Parthenon in 1806, to Mr. Karavas’s native Greece. He had letters of response to his offer from various British prime ministers framed on the walls: “The P.M. Mrs. Thatcher regrets that the quid pro quo you suggest is not acceptable. ...”
Lawrence died in Provence in 1930, and five years later Frieda Lawrence arranged for his ashes to be shipped to Taos, where she was building a mausoleum at the ranch. It seems she and Mabel Dodge Luhan had divergent plans for his ashes. Luhan thought Lawrence would have wanted them scattered, while his wife, who died in Taos in 1956, intended them for the shrine. To end the debate, she is said to have tipped the urn into a batch of fresh cement, ensuring that the remains wound up in her memorial.
According to some locals, Frieda Lawrence then declared of Lady Brett and Luhan: “Now let’s see them steal him.”
In many ways Luhan’s message to the world worked. She put Taos, where she died in 1962, on the map as one of the pre-eminent centers of American modernism. It is astounding that such a small, formerly obscure place should have drawn such major figures of 20th-century art, and even European royalty, including Prince Peter of Greece in the 1950’s. Meanwhile psychoanalysis spread, as she wished. And under Mr. Hopper’s stewardship in the 1970’s, the old house continued to be host to a glowing countercultural guest list, including Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
There is something slightly off about declaring love for a land not your own, the kind of thing Edwardian aesthetes went in for. But there are some places — Provence and Venice, for example — that exert a power over the imagination that is a kind of love and seems available to people from anywhere, even rainy Britain. Northern New Mexico is one such place.
When British friends ask me why I’m living in New Mexico, I can’t answer without reference to Lawrence. He may have gone out of fashion, but he opened the way not just in literature, but in geography, too. Many Europeans have followed him. Sometimes it feels as if he made Taos’s corner of the world a little corner of Europe. He may have been incurably restless, but I can understand my mother’s bewilderment at why he ever left. As Lawrence put it: “It is the ghosts one misses most, the ghosts there, of the Rocky Mountains, that never go beyond the timber. I know them, they know me: we go well together.”
WHAT TO READ
The indispensable reading on Lawrence and Mabel Dodge Luhan in New Mexico is Lois P. Rudnick’s scholarly but readable “Utopian Vistas: The Mabel Dodge Luhan House and the American Counterculture.” Otherwise, there’s Luhan’s “Edge of Taos Desert: An Escape to Reality” and Lawrence’s “Mornings in Mexico,” which covers both old Mexico and the Southwest in general.
Corrections: Nov. 5, 2006
The Cultured Traveler column on Oct. 22 about D. H. Lawrence in Taos, New Mexico, misstated the number of marriages that Lawrence’s friend Mabel Dodge had before she married Tony Lujan (anglicized later to Luhan), a pueblo leader. He was her fourth husband, not her third. The article also misstated the place where Dorothy Brett, another friend of Lawrence’s, spent the last years of her life. It was a house near Lawrence’s ranch; it was not a cabin on his ranch.