The House That Mabel Built



Mabel Dodge Luhan was an American socialite.

She was also a renowned salon hostess, writer and patron saint to some of the most talented artists, literary figures, and political radicals during the early decades of the 20th century. Taos would not even be on the map, if not for her.

Nowadays, Taos is mostly known for its world class ski resort – faraway from the everyday, but closer than you may imagine – so if you are having a hard time making up your mind about where to travel this season, I’m here to help.

All of New Mexico still has that small-town, everyone-knows-everyone vibe – and in Taos, that’s especially true. You’ll see former governor and presidential candidate Gary Johnson on the slopes along with a host of visiting or locally based, celebrities, hanging with regular folks.  

“Oh, sure, you see him here all the time during ski season,” a friend told me recently. “I’ve skied with him often.” Evidently, the Libertarian’s futile 2016 campaign for POTUS hasn’t stopped him from flying down Black Runs in this offbeat resort, hand-built by a German-Swiss war refugee, lovingly upgraded by a billionaire conservationist, that happens to be one of the highest-elevation municipality’s in the U.S. at 9,207 feet. (A friend just informed me that Leadville, CO, is higher, at 10,152, so I’ve corrected my error.)

The crown jewel in a $300 million series of improvements undertaken by Taos Ski Valley’s owner, Louis Bacon, who purchased the resort from the heirs of resort founder Ernie Blake in 2013, is the Blake, an eco-friendly, 80-room boutique hotel with ski-in/ski-out accessibility to the slopes. It also houses an enviable art collection of the Taos Masters; a nod to the early origins of both the art colony and the mountain resort.

Because without women like Mabel Dodge and Millicent Rogers, none of this would exist. Without O’Keeffe’s Modernist impressions of the desolate landscape, none of this would exist. Of course others had come before them. They too were newcomers. The intrepid early pioneers including the Taos Society of Artists had clearly paved the way, but between these two Society heiresses, beginning with Mabel, they brought the world to Taos.

The impressive collection of vintage photographs, original and important art, along with alpine artifacts, that fill the hotel’s Arts and Crafts-inspired hallways help tell the story of the resort, which the indefatigable Blake – a Jewish émigré and friend of Millicent Rogers, who worked for U.S. intelligence during World War II, interrogating Nazi POWs – started as a one-slope operation in 1955. The resort – and, indeed, the town itself– continued to grow in an odd fashion, in fits and starts — a building here, a new lift there, for almost six decades until the ownership changed.

But what truly makes the 1,200-acre ski facility unique – besides its 300 days a year of sunshine, are its high percentage of expert runs –  great for Black Diamond lovers but if that’s not your jam, there are plenty of languorous runs to keep you happy. Taos Air makes it very easy to get here during the winter, or you can fly into Santa Fe and take the Taos Ski Valley shuttle to the resort from the airport. 

Taos Ski Valley should not be confused with Taos proper, the somewhat funky little Southwestern art colony and historical pueblo at the foot of the mountain, where many of the ski resort’s seasonal workers actually live. I’ll have more on Taos Ski Valley on Friday, but no trip to Taos would be complete without… a trip to Taos. And any trip to the town, must begin with Mabel.

Mabel Dodge Luhan was born on February 26, 1879, in Buffalo, New York, to an affluent family living on inherited wealth. Both of Mabel’s grandfathers had made fortunes in banking. Mabel Ganson, like most women of her social background at the time, was educated to be a charming and decorative wife, which she dutifully  became at the age of 21. Her husband, Karl Evans, was a member of her social set whose chief attraction for Mabel was that he was engaged to another woman. Evidently she longed for a little excitement to alleviate the boredom of her bourgeois upbringing.

Emotionally deprived as a child, she would continue to believe that she had a right to “steal” love whenever the opportunity presented itself. In 1903, shortly after the birth of their son, Karl Evans died in a hunting accident. Mabel suffered a nervous breakdown. Her family sent her to Europe in 1904 to recover. This was the first of three journeys—the second would be to Greenwich Village and the third to Taos, on her search for both a personal identity and a place where she could feel “at home.”

On her way to Paris, Mabel met “a nice young man in tweeds”—Edwin Dodge, a wealthy architectural student from Boston. Dodge became her second husband, and together they moved to Florence in 1905. There, depressed and trapped in a loveless marriage, Mabel began to devote herself to the love of art. The couple purchased a grand Medician estate which they named Villa Curonia, and for the next eight years she spent enormous amounts of money, energy, and creativity transforming her surroundings and herself.

Filling her home with objets d’art and artists, Mabel’s reputation as a salon hostess began in Florence, where she entertained lavishly, and sat the rich, famous and most noteworthy members of the international set at her table. The French novelist André Gide, actress Eleanor Duse, painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, Gertrude and Leo Stein were frequent guests among many others.  Mabel who dressed in Renaissance costumes wanted to be seen as a muse; the inspiration for the genius she surrounded herself with.

Bored with her life in Florence by 1912 and greatly influenced by Gertrude and Leo Stein’s philosophy that the individual could overcome the ill effects of both heredity and environment and create herself anew, Mabel returned to New York. Separated from her husband, Mabel moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village, the heart of America’s avant-garde. There, at 23 Fifth Avenue, she launched the most successful salon in American history. For the next three years Mabel entertained the “movers and shakers” of pre-war America, men and women who were sweeping in their condemnation of bourgeois values and industrial capitalism. Gathered together at one of Mabel’s “Wednesday evenings” one might find artists, philosophers, writers, social reformers, and radicals. Mabel was determined to make herself the nucleus of the spirit of her age by embracing its most idealistic and committed men and women. She was in many regards, way ahead of her time,

Mabel Dodge gave generously of both her time and money to support the various causes she believed would liberate Americans from the shackles of their Victorian past. She helped to sponsor the famous Armory show which introduced post impressionist art to an American audience; contributed to The Masses, the leading left-wing literary and political journal of her day; wrote a syndicated newspaper column popularizing Freudian psychology; and supported a host of organizations, among them the Women’s Peace Party and the Women’s Birth Control League.

A model of the  “New Woman,” Mabel experimented with free love, and ended up having several unsatisfactory affairs, the most famous of which was with radical journalist John Reed. She soon married again however and  in 1916 Mabel and her third husband, artist and sculptor Maurice Sterne, moved to Taos, where she finally found the “cosmos” she had been searching for all her life.

Soon enough and predictably, she fell in love with Tony Luhan, a Taos Pueblo native. Divorcing Sterne and marrying Luhan, her fourth and final husband, Mabel saw their alliance as a bridge between Anglo and Native American cultures. For the rest of her life Mabel took on the cause (creating yet another role to play), of calling “great souls” to Taos to help her create “a city upon a hill.” 

The American Southwest was destined, she believed, to serve as a source of social and psychic renewal for the dying, decadent, jaded and disillusioned postwar Western civilization, Among the “great souls” she called to Taos to help her spread her gospel of American regeneration were D. H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Willa Cather, Thomas Wolfe, Andrew Dasburg and Carl Jung. 

During the 1920s Mabel began to write her memoirs: Background, European Experiences, Movers and Shakers, and Edge of Taos Desert, but her book, Winter in Taos, published in 1935, remains my favourite.

“Then the sun was low and shining already below branches of the cottonwood trees and turning the mountain into a big crumpled rose. It is a lovely hour to walk about the snowy lanes, hastening a little, for the bitterness of the night comes down fast. The air grows quiet” She describes a winter evening in this valley. The book captures the magic of the winter season in the Land of Enchantment.

She wrote numerous articles while here, calling attention to the integrity of Native American culture and the needed protection for their tribal lands. She died in Taos of a heart attack on August 13, 1962, and continues to be remembered, as one reporter described her in the early 1920s, “the most peculiar common denominator that society, literature, art, and radical revolutionaries ever found in New York and Europe.” In attempting to alter the direction of American civilization, she captured the imaginations of her generation’s most talented writers, artists, and thinkers, and profoundly influenced their understanding of modern America. And like a magnet, she drew them all to her home, right here,”faraway from the everyday.”

Her home was owned during the 70’s by the late actor and artist, Dennis Hopper, who continued Mabel’s legacy by bringing the most creative members of his generation to the house that Mabel built. 

We all still live in that house, where the edge of the desert inspires vision and creativity, where the ghosts of the not too distant past commune with us in the present, where tables are laden with food for the senses and soul as winter closes in. Where else in America can you ski all morning and look at great art all afternoon? This is what sets Taos apart from every other ski town in the states.

At the end of the day, it’s still all about Art.

For more information on Taos, Taos Ski Valley and Mabel, along with how to get here. please visit the sites linked below.





All images of Mabel, her house, Ernie Blake and TSV Stock Files. Painting of Mabel by Nicolai Fechin