Mabel Dodge Luhan: Background information when reading Second Place

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Second Place

by Rachel Cusk

Second Place by Rachel Cusk X
Second Place by Rachel Cusk
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  • First Published:
    May 2021, 192 pages

    Apr 2022, 192 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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About this Book

Mabel Dodge Luhan

This article relates to Second Place

Print Review

sepia-tinted photo of Mabel Dodge LuhanRachel Cusk reveals through a note at the end of her novel Second Place that the book is based on Lorenzo in Taos, a 1932 memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan recounting the time the author D.H. Lawrence spent with her in Taos, New Mexico. Luhan, whose full name was Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan (as the result of multiple marriages), was a famous patron known for her support of writers, artists and other influential people. She had a contentious relationship with Lawrence, which she detailed in her memoir.

Luhan was born Mabel Ganson to wealthy parents in Buffalo, New York in 1879. At a young age, she became disillusioned with the banalities and oppressive nature of upper-class life. Her first husband, Karl Evans, died in a hunting accident, leaving her widowed with a child. Shortly after, she traveled to Europe with her son John, where she met and married Edwin Dodge, an architect from Boston. Dodge offered her security and a life of luxury in Italy that enabled her to begin socializing with and hosting salons for artists, writers and other people she found interesting, including the art historian Bernard Berenson and Gertrude Stein. She eventually became bored with Italy, divorced Dodge and returned to the States, taking her penchant for salon hosting to New York. There, she cultivated relationships with people involved in the avant-garde scene and wrote for art and literary publications.

Luhan's third husband, the sculptor Maurice Sterne, encouraged her to visit Santa Fe, which led to her discovery of Taos, where she immediately felt drawn to the natural surroundings and the local people. She soon found the man who would become her fourth husband, a married Pueblo Indian named Tony Lujan (the "j" in Spanish is pronounced like "h" in English; Mabel changed the spelling of the name to avoid mispronunciation). She bought land in the area, and the couple constructed a home that eventually included 14 guest bedrooms. Luhan continued her arts patronage there, inviting guests such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence. She also developed a philosophy around the importance of bringing the ways of the Indians to white America, believing that she could transform Western civilization by doing so.

Luhan thought that Lawrence was uniquely equipped to write about Taos and make it known to the rest of the world. She told him about the area, as well as herself and Tony, when asking him to come visit. He eventually did, in 1922, bringing along his wife, Frieda. Lawrence and Luhan quickly developed a magnetic but tempestuous relationship. Lawrence was intrigued by Luhan, as she was by him, but he was also reported to have said that she was the only person who had ever made him think himself capable of murder. In order to encourage him to remain in Taos and work on his writing, Luhan gave him access to a nearby ranch. Lawrence never wrote the depiction of the area that Luhan envisioned, but he was influenced by it, later noting, "I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had. It certainly changed me forever."

Some have praised Luhan's involvement with Taos and the local people, arguing that she offered support for Pueblo artists and communities, but others have pointed out the flaws in her attempts to co-opt Native culture for her own vision. Writer Carmella Padilla has described Luhan as having "no qualms about making an authoritative assessment of a tradition she knew little about."

Luhan continued to live in Taos with Tony, and died there in 1962. Tony died the following year. Their home has been preserved as the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, which now operates as an inn and conference center.

Mabel Dodge Luhan, courtesy of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Elisabeth Cook

This "beyond the book article" relates to Second Place. It originally ran in May 2021 and has been updated for the April 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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