American writer and patron of the arts Mabel Dodge (also known, in recognition of her four husbands, as Mabel Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan), was born Mabel Ganson on February 26, 1879. She was the only child and heiress of a wealthy but unloving family in Buffalo, New York. After a suitable education for a young woman of her social status, in 1900, against her father’s wishes, Mabel married Karl Evans, a man who dedicated his life to hunting and having a good time. In January 1902, Mabel became the mother of her only child, John Evans. Soon bored with both father and son, she sought happiness in the arms of her gynaecologist.
After Mabel was unexpectedly widowed at 23 (Evans was killed in a shooting accident), her mother quickly packed her and the baby off to Europe to avoid the impending scandal of her affair with her married doctor. Just before her ship arrived at Le Havre, Mabel met fellow passenger, Edwin Dodge, a wealthy Boston architect who had graduated that same year from the École de Beaux Arts in Paris. After Dodge had ardently pursued her all over France, in 1904, Mabel finally agreed to marry this ‘nice young man in tweeds,’ as she described him at their first meeting, mainly because he could afford her extravagant lifestyle.
The following year the couple moved to Florence, where they lived for eight years. They purchased the fifteenth-century Medici palace Villa Curonia at Arcetri, overlooking the city. Determined to restore it to its Renaissance glory, Mabel expensively furnished it in the style of the epoch and even had Renaissance costumes made to wear when playing hostess to her many guests. Famous for her lavish entertaining, she sought the company of resident expatriates, visiting artists, writers and colourful eccentrics. When, in 1913, she invited Gertrude Stein to visit, she wrote, ‘Please come down here soon-the house is full of pianists, painters, pederasts, prostitutes, and peasants.’
In Stein’s bestselling autobiography of her lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas, she tells us about the visit, describing Mabel as ‘a stoutish woman with a very sturdy fringe of heavy hair over her forehead, heavy long lashes and very pretty eyes and a very old-fashioned coquetry. She had a lovely voice.’ She also recounts how Mabel relished in teasing her guests, especially with ghost stories. Apparently, Stein explains, ‘there were two of them in the Villa Curonia and Mabel was very fond of frightening visiting Americans with them, which she did in her suggestive way very effectively. Once she drove a house party …. quite mad with fear. And at last to complete the effect she had the local priest in to exorcise the ghosts.’ Stein, in fact, was so taken with Mabel, she wrote a piece about her entitled ‘Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia.’ Flattered, Mabel paid to publish it and, once back in America, it made her a celebrity. However, the friendship between Stein and bisexual Mabel was short lived, as Toklas became jealous of her.
Chronically restless and sentimentally unstable, Mabel had a disastrous fling with her Italian chauffeur, Gino, which included two attempts at suicide. This hastened the now-estranged Dodges’ return to New York in late 1912. There, Mabel assumed the role of patron of the arts, helping to stage the famous Armory Show of new European Modern Art in 1913. Her weekly ‘salon’ at her elegant brownstone in Greenwich Village was attended by the city’s flourishing intellectuals. She also began to write for newspapers and magazines.
For three months in 1913, Mabel again sojourned at Villa Curonia, accompanied by her latest lover, the communist journalist John (Jack) Reed, who became famous for his chronicles of the Mexican and Russian revolutions at the beginning of the last century. Their tortuous, on-and-off relationship lasted until 1917, when Mabel married her third husband, Russian-born artist Maurice Sterne.
Sterne is credited with introducing Mabel Dodge to New Mexico, which, at the time, still retained much of its Spanish and Indian heritage. It changed her life forever. On settling in Taos in 1917, she fully embraced the native Pueblo culture and devoted the rest of her life to its preservation. She invited such famous writers and artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Frank Waters and numerous others to come and stay at Los Gallos, the home she had built on her 12-acre property there (today a museum). She also published her best work there, including Lorenzo in Taos (1932), a portrait of D.H. Lawrence, and her memoirs, Intimate Memories (1933), Europe Experiences (1935), Movers and Shakers (1936), and Edge of Taos Desert (1937).
Typical of Mabel Dodge, she rapidly replaced Sterne with Antonio Luhan, a local Pueblo chief, whom she eventually married in 1923. She remained with him until her death on August 13, 1962. She is buried in Kit Carson Cemetery in Taos.