Intimate Memories: The Autobiography of Mabel Dodge Luhan

Overview

Mabel Dodge Luhan's Intimate Memories offers the brilliantly edited memoirs of one woman's rebellion against "the whole ghastly social structure" under which the United States had been buried since the Victorian era. Luhan fled the Gilded Age prison of the upper classes to lead a life of notoriety among Europe and America's leading artists, writers, and social visionaries--among them D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, and John Reed.

Intimate Memories details Luhan's assemblage of a...

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Overview

Mabel Dodge Luhan's Intimate Memories offers the brilliantly edited memoirs of one woman's rebellion against "the whole ghastly social structure" under which the United States had been buried since the Victorian era. Luhan fled the Gilded Age prison of the upper classes to lead a life of notoriety among Europe and America's leading artists, writers, and social visionaries--among them D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, and John Reed.

Intimate Memories details Luhan's assemblage of a series of utopian domains aimed at curing the malaise of the modern age and shows Luhan not just as a visionary hostess but as a talented and important writer.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the early years of this century, Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962) gathered the foremost artists, philosophers and political radicals--including Gertrude and Leo Stein, John Reed and D. H. Lawrence--to her salons in Florence, Italy, Greenwich Village and Taos, N. Mex. Born into a wealthy but emotionally remote family in Buffalo, N.Y., Luhan's life began in a society she described as "a slaughter of innocents." She believed women were "rarely self-starters," saw marriage as a "passive act" and wrote most passionately about sex, autoerotic or with women. Desperate, self-indulgent, tempestuous, at times profoundly perceptive and always at the edge of revelation, Luhan called herself "a mythological figure right in my own lifetime." She had little interest in her only son (from her first marriage, to Karl Evans, who died in a hunting accident), used "movers and shakers" for her advantage and was given to frequent depressions, which she momentarily alleviated with rounds of malicious gossip or extravagance. In 1917, Mabel Dodge went to New Mexico, where she met Tony Luhan, a Pueblo Indian from Taos whom she had apparently first encountered in a dream some weeks before; he had dreamt about her as well. In Tony and in Taos, Mabel found the balance and completion that had eluded her in previous liaisons, movements and places. The couple lived together until Mabel died, a year before Tony did. At age 45, she began writing her life; this book is a severely abridged edition of the original four volumes spanning 1879-1918. Gossipy, self-serving, at times brilliant, the writing exudes Luhan's feelings of insatiable searching. This is a major film waiting to be made. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826318572
  • Publisher: University of New Mexico Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/1999
  • Edition description: Abridged
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Lexile: 1150L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.59 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Lois Palken Rudnick is a professor emerita of American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Buffalo


In 1880 Buffalo was a cozy town. At least it was for those who formed the nucleus in the center of it, that central part made up of Delaware Avenue and the avenues parallel to it and the cross streets that intersected the privileged area. This fashionable part of Buffalo, where one knew practically everyone one met on the street, was only a small portion of it, but it seemed to us to be the only real Buffalo. On the other side of Main Street, where all the stores were, it was just an outer wilderness.

    Our instinctive feeling towards the East Side was one of contempt that had something inimical in it. Charlotte Becker made one of her jokes about the beautiful Reinhardt girls whose German father came to live in our part of town when they began to grow up. Because they had lived on the East Side, everybody snickered at Charlotte's remark that the Reinhardt girls didn't "come out" like other girls—they just "came over."

    Within the narrow limitations of life in Buffalo, where the occupations were so unvaried and the imaginations so little fed, there came to be many queer characters and people with curious ways. Although everybody knew everybody else and all there was to know about everybody else, yet by a kind of mutual agreement they all pretended to ignore each other's inward lives. People never talked to each other except of outward things, but about each other they exchanged many conjectures. There was hardly any real intimacy between friends, and people had no confidence in each other. People in this town neither showed theirfeelings nor talked about them to each other. To their neighbors or to their families, they only talked of other people's feelings. Inside the house or outside, no one ever talked about how she felt ... her own pain and fear—she just felt and buried it.

    Life flowed on in an apparently commonplace way until, once in a while, something happened. Donald White would be found hanging to the gas fixture in his bedroom, naked except for a pair of white gloves; Caroline Thompson would suddenly be seen no more among her friends and her mother would not mention her absence. But people would whisper: "They say they had to take her out to the insane asylum"—and she would never be seen again. It would not be long before she was forgotten by everyone except perhaps her parents, who seemed to go on as they always had, though their faces changed almost unnoticeably from the hidden grief.

    Scattered among the houses that made up Buffalo for us lived our doctors and our ministers, and that was about all of Buffalo, except the shops. There was Boyce's on the corner of Main Street and Allen, where all the women in our neighborhood met every morning to pick out their groceries and meat, and Allen's drugstore, on the corner opposite. Next to Boyce's was Miss O'Brien's, a tiny shop containing tiny dolls and dolls' furniture, knitted mittens and mufflers, hairpins and kid curlers, and many little oddities. Farther down on Main Street there stood Flint & Kent's, a large refined drygoods store. It had attractive things in it; all our ribbons and ginghams for summer dresses came from there, and when people bought some new furniture covering or things for their houses they bought them upstairs in that store.

    Still farther down Main Street were other, larger department stores—Jay & Adams, and Adams & Meldrum's—but these were not pleasant stores to go to. One met fewer people one knew there. These stores were full of people we didn't know and never would know, and the air was close and had a disagreeable, common smell we always associated with common people.

    When I was ten years old my grandfather Cook gave me a Shetland pony named Cupid, with a tiny two-wheeled cart, and some of the other girls and I used to range all over Buffalo, galloping as fast as we could go. We knew all sorts of places in that way that other children never could have known in that town. We used to drive out to Forest Lawn, the new cemetery that took the place of "the old burying ground" on the corner across from our house that held the first graves of people—many of them Indians.

    We used to be allowed to take things out to eat and picnic there in Forest Lawn sometimes, and once we forgot to notice the shadows growing longer as we played behind a tomb, and when we realized it was late we made a dash for the gate and found it locked! Three small girls not yet in their teens and locked up in the cemetery for the night! We were instantly filled with a thrilling, delightful terror. We knew we were scared but yet how we enjoyed it!

    From the very earliest days in Buffalo any accidental heightening of feeling was welcome. No word reached us of any way to live beyond the routine of sleeping, dressing, and "going outdoors to get fresh air." Until we began to read books, our need for change and variety was gratified only by our companionships and expeditions around town. And these companionships were comparatively few. However, I think we savored to the utmost the qualities and differences we found in each other, and while we were still children we used to talk about each other and call each other's attention to the slightest change or alteration in those whose backs were turned for a moment!

    So we savored each other and fed upon each other a little. Later we played a game together called Truth, in which we had to answer every question truthfully or not at all. In this game we grilled each other, probing into the most hidden corners, laying bare preferences, analyzing each other and ourselves until we were in a tingling excitement. But it helped us by letting off steam and it helped us, too, to call by name the vaguer thoughts and feelings that we carried about inside us, as well as by airing those secrets that were all too defined for comfort. The unloading of secrets—what a pleasure that always was! Since that time I have been indiscreet. Everybody says I tell everything, my own and everyone's secrets, and it's true! I cannot, to this day, resist that peculiar urge to tell what is not really mine to tell. Just a little interesting news and an interested mind nearby, and "My dear, do you know ...?" and the secret's out! I used to be sorry I did it and ashamed that people knew it and said it and called me a sieve. But I don't know that I feel particularly sorry anymore. The less secrets the better—of my own or anybody else's. Need anyone ever feel ashamed? I doubt it.

    Besides the cemetery, of course we made excursions in all the other directions about town. Once in a while, on a gray, dull day when hearts sank and seemed to beat more slowly, we would whisper to each other: "Let's go to that street." "My dear, that's a bad place. No one ever goes there!" "What of it? Let's go and look at it." And so rarely—maybe it only happened two or three times—we turned down from the street where the General Hospital stood and we searched out Grove Street, the bad place where the "men" went. It did not look any different from any of the other streets, either east or west of our part of town. Wooden houses painted gray or brown, little yards, verandas with rocking chairs on them, that was all. But to us it seemed to be masking another world altogether. Life of some kind, other than that of our own houses, went on behind those windows. We had to taste it all—all the flavors the town had in it.

    I do not need to say that every street and house in our quarter of Buffalo had for us its particular look and character. The houses of the people we knew were all big, solid houses, each standing on its own and having flowers about it in the summer. Buffalo always grew northwards and people beginning life down on Lower Delaware Avenue or Franklin Street, where my grandparents first lived in Buffalo and where I was born in 1879, people already living in comfortable brick or stone houses, following some urge, from time to time would build new and larger houses farther uptown. So that when I was little my parents moved up to Delaware and North Street to live in the square redbrick house that Grandpa Cook bought for my mother.

    It seems an obvious thing to say, yet how many people know that beauty and reality in a house come from a sharp personal feeling for all the things in the house—and for a need to have them there either for use or merely to live in through the eye? I have never had a room merely "arranged" in any house I have ever lived in, from the time I first wrestled with death in our house—wrestled and won a room to "fix up," above on the third floor. I have never, thank God, regarded things as merely inanimate. They have always lived for me or else I did not have them about. And every house I have ever lived in has been a reflection of myself as I lived in it, sometimes changing noticeably year by year. There has never been any setting for a personality unfelt or any longed-for grandeur. When I had grand surroundings I felt grand and that was why I had them. They did not make me so. So the houses I have lived in have shown the natural growth of a personality struggling to become individual, growing through all the degrees of crudity to a greater sophistication and on to simplicity. Of all these houses I shall try to tell, for they are like the shells of the soul in its progressive metamorphoses—faithfully revealing the form of the life they sheltered until they were outgrown and discarded.


Chapter Two


In Our House


It stood on the corner of North and Delaware—that's the way everyone spoke of streets in Buffalo. There it was of red brick and half covered with an ampelopsis vine in the summertime. It was square and had a cupola on top. In the center of the neat lawn there was a circular bed of flowers that held, through the warm months, different kinds of blooming things.

    My mother was rather proud of this flower bed on account of its hard, unfailing precision. First the hyacinths would come up in rows: pink, blue, white, and deeper pink. With no expression at all, they just came up in large healthy spikes. In tulip time the tulips would radiate in symmetrical circles of white, red, yellow, and pink—every bloom a perfect, unblemished success, every leaf strong, aggressive, and tailored, and the whole thing so mathematical and so ordered that all the spontaneity and flowerness of growth couldn't be felt at all. It was like a slaughter of innocents to plant those hardy bulbs there and make them come up in unbroken and undifferentiated rows. Because every flower is a thing, a special individual thing in itself. A hundred specimens of it is only a hundredfold camouflage of singleness and identity. So that I, who loved flowers so much and who used to try to assimilate each into myself by a passionate sniffling, followed often by a more passionate tasting, could never bear that flower bed. Besides, the colors in those rigid rows were so hard and ugly, planted willfully like that.

    The tulip bed was a symbol for the rest of our house. It was all ordered and organized, nothing was left to fortuitous chance, and no life ever rose in it taking its own form. My mother was too good a housekeeper for that.

    The rooms were filled with furniture that had no significance for me either. Not even before my mother "did over" the house, when I was maybe ten, nor after, can I recall any object in it that was, so to speak, mine. Excepting the possible case of the wallpaper in the nursery where I slept in the early years, and this became mine from many nights' association with it, rather more than from the days, for in the early evening summer twilight I used to lean my head against the wall and press my mouth to the small figures in the paper until I had aroused in myself some feeling of comfort. The scenes were from Mother Goose and the simple outlines of the forms were filled in with a light wash of pinks and blues. I can only recall the kind of thing they were and not any detail. They were simple, cozy, and familiar, and I was so used to them that I could trace their outlines on the wall when dark had settled down altogether over the room and blotted out everything except myself and my everlasting need to rest—for nothing in my actual life about me did anything to lessen the ache and the hunger. I believe if there had been one picture in the house that I could have looked at from which I could have drawn some of the spirit of life, I would have been satisfied by it. One thing, if it had been true, would have been enough to slake me. Or one face that had real feeling in it for me would have answered. But there was nothing and no one.

    I would gladly have exchanged what I felt to be finer in myself for the kind of perception that would have let me enjoy the things I had to live with. Besides, I suffered very much from my failure to hide my lack of interest and feeling for my world, or for the world into which I was pitched at birth, for the people in our house felt my criticism, no matter how I tried to dissemble it. Anyway, I could not always pretend an enthusiasm that was singularly absent, for them and all their ways, and at the earliest age they revenged themselves upon me by sarcastic utterances in my hearing, such as: "Oh, she was born old!" ... "She was born bored." ... "She's always blasé." That I showed no feeling was of course supposed to be due to a lack of it, and no one ever suspected—or if they did they never showed it—that feeling was there, accumulating in me all too fast in the absence of anything to which to attach it. Only on the nights when the west wind blew down North Street and loosened the perfume of the hyacinths, only at moments like that could my own perfume leave me and spend itself on the warm night.

    Probably most people have some memories of their earliest years that contain a little warmth and liveliness, but in my own I cannot find one happy hour. I have no recollections of my mother's ever giving me a kiss or smile of spontaneous affection, or of any sign from my father except dark looks and angry sound. I know now they must both of them have been cheated of happier times than they found under their own roof, and that they had no happiness to radiate to a solitary child. We all needed to love each other and to express it, but we did not know how.

    My mother was married to a man whose years passed in an increasing inner torment and whose temper grew worse with these years. She was a strong, energetic woman with ruddy hair and truly no words in her mouth. She was of the purest Anglo-Saxon blood. She was not tall—about five feet six, I think—and her small bones were padded with the whitest, firmest flesh. Always plump, in the later years she grew quite stout. She had no imagination and no fear and she seemed to live without love, though both my father and she loved their animals. They each had a dog, usually little longhaired Yorkshire terriers or Boston bulls, and they always had a tenderness for these.

    My mother spent herself in ordering her household and in controlling the servants. Everything was carried out according to "what was what". No unhappy maid was ever allowed a visitor in the evening, though there was a servants' dining room that could easily have harbored an occasional addition to the dull domestic discipline. No, my mother knew "what was what," as she had been heard to announce. Any servant who ever had a beau was dismissed—and yet she herself had beaux. Quite early I sensed this and was terrified by it. I didn't know why. Not for my father's sake, certainly, for when he flew into a storming rage of jealousy and stamped and shouted and called her names, and I saw her cold, merciless, expressionless contempt behind her book or newspaper, I tried to imitate her look, for that was what he made me too feel.

    My father would shout and fling his arms about and his face would seem to break up into fragments from the running passion in him, but my mother behaved as though she were not alive, and when he could shout no more he would stamp out of the room and mount the stairs and presently we would hear his door slam far away in the house. Sometimes, then, she would raise her eyes from the pretense of reading and, not moving her head, she would glance at me sideways and drawing down the corners of her mouth, she would grimace a little message of very thin reassurance to me, upset as I must have looked. For these storms shook me through and through, menacing the foundation of a life that, unsatisfactory though it was, still held all the security I knew.

    So that was why I feared that my mother had secrets, because it made my father so wild, and me so afraid that someday our whole life would fall apart, and I could not conceive any other than the one we had so miserably together. I would have had to stay with him, as I had heard him threaten her, when he swore he would leave her and never come back and that if he left I would leave too. That I was to be used merely as a weapon to overcome her I quite clearly understood, for I knew with all the prescience of a child that my father had no love for me at all. To him I was something that made a noise sometimes in the house and had to be told to get out of the way. So that a change which would have resulted in a house containing just him and me and his nerves was a frightful thing to look forward to. Or should a change mean that my mother and I would be alone together, it was scarcely less to be feared, for would that not mean, perhaps, that then she and I would go and live all the time with Grandma Cook, that old woman who didn't like me either?

    My father was taller than my mother by several inches and he was well built. He had a nicely shaped head and his hands and feet had a great deal of individuality until they grew deformed from rheumatism and gout. His irritable nature had spoiled his whole being. And yet ... and yet ... he was kind. He always followed up an attack of swearing at Andy, the coachman, with a present of long black cigars. Everyone seemed to know instinctively that he was not really mean and that something tortured him so that he gave vent to it upon anyone who happened to be near. His life was so terribly empty of interest or activity—since he wouldn't work in the bank with his father or at the law for which he was trained—nothing remained for him in Buffalo but to grow cross. His empty life! The energy in him turned to poison, stagnating in his veins, and his only outlets were anxiety, jealousy, and querulousness. No child could have taken to him. Of course I didn't like him.

    But I didn't want a change, I wanted things to stay as they were because I had my own nursery with the colored English Christmas prints in it, and though it wasn't ever happy, it was safe. Besides, I didn't know what happiness was; I only knew what safety was.

    People didn't divorce in those days. We knew only one woman who had ever done so, and when she reached the pinnacle of resolution that enabled her to jump off into the uncharted realm, she was without a guide in the conduct that was required, so she had to invent her procedure. What she did was to put on deep mourning and, ordering a closed carriage, she drove from house to house announcing her divorce to her friends and showing her papers.

    So, since this realization of the safety of the unchanging, even if unhappy, environment grew in me, it made room there for that power to grow which would effect a change for myself as soon as the right time came. For very soon after I was born, I must have known anxiety, a fear that, without the stability of my surroundings, my ego could not grow and develop unless some assurance of a kind of continuity was found. And when the cunning watchfulness of childhood made out that the two antagonists were helpless and bound, from that time on I was at liberty, in myself, to find my escape from them both. And all the years that I have to tell of are but a record of that search.


    If the long quiet hours in the nursery were dull with Mary Ann [her nursemaid] for my sole companion, anyway they were better than the times when I was left there alone. For often she would say: "Now you be good till I come back. I have to go and iron," or some other excuse like that, and off she would go for a gossip with the other "girls." I found this out very soon by summoning the courage to follow her on tiptoe down the back stairs, and there she would be in the cozy kitchen with a cup of hot tea in one hand and on her pale, thin face a shadow of faint animation hardly ever to be seen in our room.

    There was always some play going on among the girls down there. And once they had a visitor, a fat gay female who roistered and teased them and chuckled and nagged until they retaliated with some daring rejoinder, when, to my inexpressible amazement, I saw her rip open the front of her dress and drag her great breast out from the shelving corset that supported it. With a quick pressure she directed a stream of pale milk right across the room onto the three squawking servant girls, who hid their faces from this shower. Such a novelty as this became a matter of conjecture to me that lasted for ... who knows how long? I couldn't get the picture out of my mind. Continually I saw again the fine stream of grayish milk striking across the room, and I longed to see it again in actuality. That it came like that out of a woman allured my imagination and was fascinating to think about because it stirred something hidden inside me and gave me new feelings.

    Sometime later I tried to make it happen again. My mother was away visiting Grandma Cook in New York. I do not remember Mary Ann's being about anymore at this time, but we had for a "second girl" a big fair Swedish girl named Elsa. I was attracted by her; she seemed to me to have so much life in her. I begged her to sleep with me. I told her I was afraid at night with my mother gone from the room next to mine, so she sat with me until she thought I slept and later she came and got into my big bed: the bed where Mary Ann had slept beside me for years. But I had not gone to sleep. I had been waiting for her; I had no plan, no thought, of what I wanted—I just wanted.

    I waited, quiet, until I knew she was asleep and then I drew nearer to her. She lay on her back and in the darkness I felt her soft breath coming from her open mouth. I felt, rather than saw, how stupid she looked, but I liked her so: I liked her stupid, fair, gentle presence that was yet so throbbing and full of life. With a great firmness, I leaned over her and seized her big warm breast in both hands. It was a large, ballooning, billowing breast, firm and resilient and with a stout springing nipple. I leaned to it and fondled it. I felt my blood enliven me all over and I longed to approach the whole of my body to her bosom, to cover her completely by my entire surface and have the bounding breast touch me at every point. I rolled it ecstatically from side to side and slathered it with my dripping lips. As my sudden new, delicious pleasure increased, I grew rougher. I longed now to hurt it and wring something from it. I wanted to pound it and burst it.

    Suddenly I remembered that other breast seen long ago in the kitchen and I wanted to force from this one the same steely stream of milk that I felt within it, resisting me. However Elsa slept through all this is more than I know, but she never became conscious. I and that breast were alone in the night and that was what I wanted. I worked it back and forward; I approached my body to it in every way I could think of doing to see how it would feel. I held it, pushed it up hard and taut between my two small cold feet, and finally I had enough and, relinquishing it, I fell asleep. Of the awakening the next day I remember nothing; only that night, that first battle and thunder of the flesh, I remember as though it were yesterday.


    My mother's room had always for me the same atmosphere both before she did over the house and after. After her breakfast she threw herself energetically out of bed and one could hear the movements of her morning toilet all over the house—such splashing and coughing and bustle she made! Only on Sunday mornings she stayed in bed longer and the Sunday (illustrated) Buffalo paper would be brought up to her and the bed would be covered with the tossed, open sheets, but any further delay in rising after the paper was read was disastrous. A half hour's idleness and time to think with nothing to do brought the mood to the surface that the weekdays were spent in crushing back, the discouragement and self-pity that she was too gallant all the week through and all the year round to allow to take possession of her thoughts. But on Sunday mornings the tears would pour down her face, and when I would go in to see her after my own breakfast on my own little table in the nursery, her eyes would be stained a bright red.

    My mother, a speechless woman herself, had set an example of mute endurance and I had modeled myself upon her. So it was, in our house, as though we believed that by ignoring and never speaking of the misery we caused each other we would thereby blot it out from our hearts. And though knowing so well what weight of woe was pressing the rare and difficult tears from her blue eyes, I could find no better way to show her I was interested and sympathetic, struck more dumb than ever by the sight of her, than to squeeze out in a small voice: "What's the matter, Mamma?" "I feel so blu-u-e," she would quaver, burying her face in her handkerchief, but not before I had a glimpse of her disciplined countenance breaking up into a wholly new group of curves and contours forced upon it by the inner upheaval. It was like watching the ice break up in the river.


    The outstanding feeling that comes to me from those days is of désœuvrement [idleness], of having nothing to do, and with the recollection comes, in long waves that reach away back into that very time, the dread of that feeling, so heavy, so desolate, and so deeply painful that nothing is quite so hard to bear. Better a real pain, better a danger to life itself, than this negation of living that-comes from not having anything to do. So to escape from that burden became the great problem in the first five years and has remained so ever since, and to escape the fear of the pain for idleness has led me in curious deviations away from the true chances of escape into occupation, all for lack of an intelligent word now and then from my mother, whom I scarcely ever saw, or from Mary Ann, whom I saw all the time. A very little girl alone is not often, I am sure, ingenious in invention; boys probably can amuse themselves more readily and "think up" all kinds of things to do, but a girl needs someone to take the initiative and to suggest things to her. A word is enough to set the whole psychic process moving, but that word is necessary, for she is rarely, I believe, a self-starter.

    There were so many hours like this in those first years that later on my principal prayer for a long time was to be used. No one had ever taught me how to use myself; I didn't know how to begin. My only hope was from fortunate outside initiative until I developed my own, which later I did.

    The first toys in that early time, I remember, were the hollow blocks that begin large and, fitting into each other, grow smaller and smaller. They were gay colored with pictures pasted on them and big letters on some sides of them. A small child on the floor with a set of these graded blocks is limited in what she can do with them. But the years, following on one another's heels from then right down to today, bring me faithfully again the feeling of an extra-big flop of the heart in the middle of its ache that was induced by a great kick at the tall tower of squares, built up one on another as high as my own head. Now, to discover the thrill and leap of the heart that one can produce from kicking over this construction so carefully built up was an awfully bad discovery for me, and if someone had helped me find this accelerated life by another route, I would have been saved many troubles. This was the time when I became destructive and liked it because I got more feeling of life excitement from it.

    I look back and grasp at any lighter days among the many heavy months and years that went by. There were not many that I can bear even to think about. The trouble is, there just wasn't any fun in those days. In our family, all plodded along one day after another and two of us accepted it, while I tried to plot a way out of it. Esther Goodyear and I, eating supper on the tray up in my room, would talk of what we wanted to do when we were grown up. She wanted to be married and have children, but—oh, my goodness—I didn't!

    "I'm going to be a hospital nurse," I announced, for these were the only women I had ever seen who were free and not married. I had seen many of them coming and going in our house. They worked in nice clean starched clothes and then they changed their clothes and put on their hats and coats and went out into the dazzling world, free to enjoy all the things, whatever they were, that we didn't have in our house and yet must be waiting somewhere outside our environment. In those days a hospital nurse represented the most desirably situated woman alive!


Chapter Three


Grown-Up People
and a Dinner Party


There was always, for me, a great feeling of mystery about my mother. I suppose her reserve, combined with the appearance of free and unchecked movement through life, made her seem a creature of secrets. Maybe she was. Anyway, she didn't care how she appeared to anyone. That was evident. She has moved unhampered and even unaware that others watched her through the years from my babyhood until now—strange, hidden, determined, and free within the narrow boundaries of her life.

    I wanted to be as free. Someday I would be. But I never did succeed in becoming so unconscious or so indifferent to those outside myself. She made her plans and told them to no one. She never, I am sure, had a confidante. She was extremely respectful to my grandmother and grandfather Cook, and when almost daily letters of counsel came from the former, she read them and carried out the numerous suggestions for housekeeping, for dosing a child, or for the care of animals that my grandmother passed her mornings in compiling for her daughters. But for her own secret psychic needs my mother never received any advice. In those days, only the outermost rim of life was given any conscious attention. People, especially children and parents, never spoke together about or even thought of their hearts and souls, and as for their bodies, I think a pill was about the limit of their consideration! If it were true, as my father hinted to me darkly once or twice, that my grandmother had tried to separate my mother and me from him when I was a baby, it must have been in only the most practical qualities that he seemed to my grandmother unable to satisfy my mother. No lack in the inner life would ever be sufficiently important to justify a move like that. Only some external, practical deficiency.

    My mother naturally had no intimacy with Grandma Cook. One is not intimate about food and clothing and houses, but about the affairs of the heart. All this was left untouched between them, and left untouched by my mother and me in turn. Example is so strong! If only a mother here and there would be herself, act on her own feelings, and break the chain that holds her to the past and makes her emulate her own mother in every way!

    And so I do not know my mother's secret life. I only felt she had one. Sometimes little signs would make me feel she knew, intimately, people whom we never saw. For instance, she took me to New York when I was very little. We drove in a carriage to a large hotel, a place filled with what seemed hundreds of gay people. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. It was like a party at our house at home, and I felt there like the stranger that sat at the top of the stairs and watched the gaiety below.

    Apropos of this, I remember the way I tried once, at home, to get into things, to be a part of it, and not to have to stay up on the second floor away from it all, outside of life. They had put me to bed early to get me out of the way, so that Mary Ann could help in the pantry, where there was so much to do. I had gone into my mother's room in my night drawers and, sitting with my knees drawn up and my feet under me to keep warm, I watched her put on her jewels, which meant that she was ready. She pinned a life-sized emerald lizard on one shoulder and a dragonfly of colored jewels on the other. She had a diamond necklace from which a complicated ornament was suspended, and in her dark red hair a large diamond star whizzled at the end of a long, strong gold hairpin. For rings she had a set of three in rows of rubies, sapphires, and diamonds, her solitaire engagement ring, and a large single pearl.

    I have watched her jewels alter through the years, for she was always exchanging them to follow the fashion. And now she has scarcely anything but pearls. She has accumulated pearls as I have accumulated experience, all these years since she pinned on herself an emerald lizard and I, determined not to be excluded from all that, sat and planned how to get into the swim of life that she so imperturbably enjoyed. And now, so longer after, I have no pearls or emeralds but I do not mind, for I have had the years.

    Before she was quite finished she turned to me and said: "Now you go to bed and go to sleep. Don't call Mary Ann. She is going to be very busy. Have you had your drink of water? Well, go to sleep then and be a good girl." She held out a cold cheek and I kissed it and made off out of the room through the dressing room to the nursery. There the light was turned low and the bed was waiting for me, but I crept out on tiptoe and down the stairs. Quiet as a mouse, I crept on through the still rooms to the dining room.

    The loaded table stood in the subdued light of the room, glistening and portentous, like a sumptuous altar before the god descends upon it. I heard the maids in the pantry conversing in the low, serious voices that the occasion produced in them. Such a party was always a severe ordeal for them all in the kitchen. Twelve guests and nearly twelve courses of food, dozen and dozens of delicate glasses to be cared for, dozens and dozens of costly china plates; and all these dishes to be served promptly without a break in the rhythm—one thing followed another smoothly, inevitably. The wine bottles standing in rows ready to be uncorked, for every glass must always be full; the accessories ready waiting at the side; the crackers and cheeses and jellies and sauces, the pickles and sauces and olives and relishes.

    I stood an instant and gazed, then lifted the long tablecloth that hung almost to the floor and crept under at the right hand of my mother, closest to the pantry door through which the feast arrived. The table was wide enough for me, under there. I snuggled into the place between its legs and there I waited. It wasn't any fun at all. Never did I feel so out of things ... it's too sad to tell about. Presently I think I fell asleep there. There was nothing else to do! When I woke up in the morning I was in my own bed. When I was found or how I never learned. No one said anything. In this way, too, grown-ups bar children out, by refusing to talk things over with them instead of behind their backs.


    In the lively hotel in New York, in what I supposed was the middle of the night, I was hanging behind my mother and trying to look like everyone else, happy and gay. Soon after we came in, while my mother stood at the desk and talked to a man behind the counter, another man came up smiling and held out his hand to her. "Well, Sara," he said. He was rather old and fat. I had never seen him before but my mother called him Randolph. She said to him: "Wait till I take her up and put her to bed, Randolph, and then I'll come down again."

    She went upstairs into a dark room and when the gas was lighted she told me to undress myself. While I did so she poured some water from a pitcher and washed her face and hands. When I was in bed, shivering and shaking with dread, she said to me: "Now you go right to sleep."

    "Where are you going?" I asked in a choking voice. I was terrified. It seemed as though everything was going to pieces around me. What was she going to do? What was I to do alone in that room in that big bed that I had never seen before?

    "Never mind about me. You go to sleep," she said, and turned out the gas. She went out the door, and my heart threatened to knock me to pieces. The dreadful, dreadful fear! Where was my mother and what was she doing? I felt it was secret and strange and shameful. How could a child have had any such knowledge of shame? Was it shame? And why?

    I lay and quaked there in the bed. The linen sheets smelled queer and unfamiliar. I could not warm them and the bed remained cold and inhospitable to me. I could not sleep but lay awake for hours, it seemed to me, waiting for my mother, wondering who Randolph was and what they were doing together. The unknown street below me was full of the sharp clacking of horses' hoofs and people's voices rose from there. Again I was no part of it all. I was an unassimilated small atom of consciousness burning to live and unable to live wherever I found myself. Why? Why was I never a part of things like everybody else?

    After ages passed, my mother came back and I sat up in bed with a bounce of relief. "Aren't you asleep yet? What's the matter with you? I never knew such a child!" she complained, then threw off her clothes vigorously and blew her nose with a loud noise and gave the window a great push until it was wide open and then climbed into bed and flung herself onto her side with her back to me and was asleep in a moment. I was all right again. Her cold, harsh, healthy presence in the bed reassured me and I breathed in long, slow, happy breaths. I didn't care anymore what she had been doing nor was I tortured and shamed by the thought of her guilt, whatever it was. I had her there and she made me comfortable, whatever she had done or whomever with.

    Randolph appeared and disappeared throughout the years. I saw him again at Grandma Cook's. Just a friend, a family friend, the friend of all the Cooks. Why had I assumed some secret thing between him and my mother? Something hateful and terrifying? After I learned to read I found an English edition of Boccaccio in my mother's second bureau drawer under her handkerchief case. When I first found it and read it I could not understand it, but I felt it was shameful because it was hidden. This book threw a darker glamour over my mother.... It spoke of mysteries and far-off, strange things that I came to identify with her. Was she a deep and secret woman, ruthless and unashamed, imperturbable amidst the weaklings about her, or did I invent all that about her?


Chapter Four


Books and Playmates


Nina Wilcox is one of those whose destiny and mine have been linked together from the earliest days. My connection with her began when, as they told me, my father fell in love with her mother. But he married my mother and she married Ansley Wilcox and Nina and I were the outcome. Nina was born in our house on the corner of North and Delaware, and my grandfather Cook bought that house from her family and gave it to my mother when I was a year or two old. So I was moved into the nursery Nina had occupied there, and her parents moved two doors down the street into the fine old brick house with the high Doric columns. It was always painted gray and the columns were white.

    I liked playing with Nina because I could make her do just as I liked. Quite early I won the upper hand over her, though of course that isn't saying much—the poor child! Her volonté de vivre [will to live] and to branch out for herself had suffered a daily, almost hourly, setback from the discouraging contrast between her stepmother's feelings for [her stepsister] Frances and for her, whereas I in my loneliness at home had gathered my forces until I was strong. When I ran out of my empty nursery I felt I could conquer the world, although from the habit of silence no one would have guessed it from my face. So I was the leader and Nina followed after wherever I went.

    [One] night I was going to stay over at Nina's for supper, so we had a nice long afternoon to play in. "What let's do?" I asked tentatively as I threw myself across the fence with gusto. "Let's do something different!"

    "Well, what?" asked Nina, ready.

    Frances came up with [her] rag doll and I got my new idea. I rushed Nina off alone and said: "I know. Let's s'prise Frances! Let's make her think her doll knows how to do number one!" Nina's eyes opened wide. "How do you mean?" she asked. "Oh, I'll show you! Let's get the doll away from her. Hey, Frances, come here! You give us that Dinah doll and we'll make you a wonderful s'prise." She thrust the lank and worn black doll out to us and we ran off into the house with it, after we got her to promise to wait out in the grape arbor till we came back.

    The house was deathly still as we entered it and darkened as were all the other houses of the people we knew in Buffalo on warm summer afternoons. Mrs. Wilcox, we knew, was "resting" in her bedroom. The door was closed upon her. We crept into the bathroom opposite and shut the door quietly. Then I turned Dinah upside down and sent Nina out again into the danger zone to find a pair of scissors. She came back trembling, for by now we were both awfully excited with a queer delicious kind of pleasure, both mysterious and yet familiar. We experienced the secret, forbidden joy of arousing our own buried life.

    I sat down on the floor and holding Dinah firmly between my knees I poked a hole into the seam between her dark legs in the place where the hole ought to be. Then I turned on the faucet in the washbowl and applied Dinah's newly made orifice to the stream of cold water. I suppose we thought that Dinah would just swell up and retain the water, but she didn't. She got danker and danker until she was a squishy bundle of rags and the colors ran together and into each other and into the washbowl. It was a dreadful mess and Dinah was done for!

    "What will Frances say?" whispered Nina, for Frances adored Dinah and even had to sleep with her. "What will your mother say?" I asked in an awestruck tone.

    I quaked with such a strong quake that now it began to be agreeable. It seemed to us both that the Judgment Day might be like this, for we could not imagine a colder, harder judge of our action than Mrs. Wilcox would be, and we knew our offense was one of those unspeakable, those absolutely unmentionable and shameful deeds that would arouse in her that certain look which grown-ups have for children—that look of repulsion, disgust, that thrusts one into the outer darkness, the look of helpless disgust for the unexamined and unnamed deeds of childhood that lie in the ignored areas of the body. Oh, children well know this look on the faces of their parents! But why did I have to tell her? I didn't know then and I don't know now. It was a feeling that we must, it was unavoidable, we must go and tell Mrs. Wilcox.

    Mrs. Wilcox simply couldn't say anything at first. She just looked and I looked back at her. The most frightening expression came into her face in the silence. She just looked baffled and unable to find words to punish us—me—as I deserved. I could see that to her we appeared to be the lowest form of animal life and she loathed having any connection whatsoever with us. Oh, how human beings can detest each other!

    In a moment she spoke: "You naughty girls! You shall be punished for this. Take that doll right downstairs and show Frances what you have done and then give it to Norah to throw away. And tonight you shall not have any strawberries and cream for your supper. Now go!"

    We went quietly downstairs and found Frances and we had no more feelings in us to experience any more. We just held out Dinah to her, where she sat waiting, that good, quiet blond child, in the cool grape arbor. "Here," we said again. "Here's Dinah."

    "Guess I'll go home," I said. "This is no fun. Goo'-by!" And I went, crestfallen, over the fence.

    That early energy of mine led me into many queer actions—into exhibitions of power, of prowess, and of courage that finally won me a dubious success, for while they impressed Nina and the other children with my surprising faculties, they affected the grown-ups with dismay. I recall that when I made Nina think that I could eat worms—by holding one in thumb and forefinger close to my mouth and then swiftly throwing it over my shoulder—Mrs. Wilcox really did think I was an out-and-out bad girl with who knows what strange perversions!

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Introduction vii
VOLUME 1 Background 1
VOLUME 2 European Experiences 45
VOLUME 3 Movers and Shakers 103
Part One 105
Part Two 147
VOLUME 4 Edge of Taos Desert 187
Afterword 247
Glossary of Names 251
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