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Chapter 1: Mabel Dodge's Salon
"Oh, How We Were All Intertwined!"
"To dynamite New York!" -- that's why she'd gathered in her Greenwich Village apartment the writers, artists, journalists, socialists, anarchists, feminists, labor leaders, clergymen, psychiatrists, and poets, all the "movers and shakers," who would "upset America with fatal, irrevocable disaster to the old order!"
Among the more than one hundred guests tonight in Mabel Dodge's legendary salon at 23 Fifth Avenue might be Max Eastman and Walter Lippmann in animated conversation with Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn -- or Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman holding forth for Carl Van Vechten, Alfred Stieglitz, and Marsden Hartley -- or Lincoln Steffens, Jo Davidson, and Edwin Arlington Robinson clustered around Margaret Sanger -- while a long-haired, walrus-mustached, glitter-eyed anarchist named Hippolyte Havel wandered among them, muttering "goddamn bourgeois pigs." They debated radical politics and free love, psychoanalysis and the single tax, birth control and the Wobblies, cubism and women's suffrage, all the enlightened ideas of the dawning century that they felt certain would cast off the darkness of the past.
Only a few months earlier, in the fall of 1912, Mabel had sat alone in the middle of her huge living room, staring despondently at the walls. Having returned to America after eight years in Europe, shuddering "ugly, ugly, ugly" as her ship sailed into New York harbor, she had taken over the second floor of an elegant brownstone on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street. On the first floor lived a cranky ninety-two-year-old major general who'd lost a leg at Gettysburg (and who'd been found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity of murdering his wife's lover, the son of Francis Scott Key, on the sidewalk across from the White House). On the top floor brooded an ex-governor of New York who'd been impeached for his dedicated services on behalf of Tammany Hall. But Mabel fought her inclination to sink into their morose seclusion. Determined to experience "the fire of life," and convinced that she had "always known how to make rooms that had power in them," she shook off her malaise and promptly redecorated.
As if to counteract the tenacity of the drab and dismal past, as well as her listless moods, Mabel surrounded herself with white -- white wallpaper, white woodwork, white velvet chairs, white silk curtains, a white marble mantelpiece, a white porcelain chandelier, a white bearskin rug. But now that she'd created her tabula rasa, what was she to write upon it? Elation, dejection -- the constant counterpoint of her life. "Nothing to do again!" she wailed. But recalling her passion "to know the Heads of things, Heads of Movements, Heads of Newspapers, Heads of all kinds of groups of people," she opened her doors and "let the town pour in!"
A wealthy socialite of thirty-three, with a voracious curiosity and an insatiable need for stimulation -- "I wanted to know everybody!" -- Mabel quickly befriended the prominent journalists Hutchins Hapgood, Carl Van Vechten, and Lincoln Steffens, and dispatched her lackluster husband, who was "unaware of the possibilities lingering in the soul," and whose "commonness and mediocrity" contrasted so strongly with her own "broadmindedness," to the Hotel Brevoort across the street. Hapgood, a writer for the New York Globe who virtually invented the solemnly effusive style that still plagues American newspaper columnists, knew virtually everyone in New York and obediently brought several of his most interesting friends to Mabel's home, and Van Vechten, the urbane music critic for the New York Times, invited a pair of Harlem entertainers. While Mabel was distressed by the way they "leered and rolled their suggestive eyes" as they played the banjo and sang off-color songs, she comforted herself with the thought that "one must let Life express itself in whatever form it will."
Steffens, America's "messiah at large," told her one day as they took tea, "You have...a centralizing, magnetic social faculty. You attract, stimulate, and soothe people...If you had lived in Greece long ago, you would have been called a hetaira. Now why don't you see what you can do with this gift of yours. Why not organize all this...coming and going of visitors?" "But I thought we don't believe in 'organization,'" protested Mabel, already a devotee of the Village cult of spontaneity. "Oh, I don't mean you should 'organize' the evenings," Steffens replied wryly. "I mean...let [people] feel absolutely free to be themselves and see what happens." Gather interesting people around her, then listen to them exhort and denounce and declaim -- at last Mabel could satisfy her craving for stimulation. Evenings!
It is Mabel's Dangerous Characters Evening, and her posh salon is under police surveillance. Big Bill Haywood is talking about the IWW tonight, Emma Goldman about anarchism, English Walling about socialism. With half the nearly two hundred guests in evening dress sipping Graves Supérieur, the other half in working clothes and sandals, waiting to put together a free dinner from the lavish buffet of Virginia ham, cold turkey, and Gorgonzola, she quietly signaled her butler to open the door to the dining room at midnight. The future, classless organization of American society was to be debated, perhaps even decided. Insurrectionary ideas were socially respectable to the degree that they were intellectually provocative -- and since the stirrings of radicalism were beginning to awaken the middle-class conscience, the restructuring of industrial capitalism and bourgeois politics seemed less a matter of class conflict than of rationally selecting the most persuasive agenda.
Big Bill was feared by upright citizens as a fiery advocate of labor violence -- a reputation enhanced by his hulking body and black eyepatch -- but naturally that made him a folk hero to the Villagers, the Cyclops of the revolution. But unfortunately the Wobbly spokesman, like so many leaders who become impassioned orators when addressing thousands of angry followers in a driving rain, was inarticulate, almost reticent, when asked to explain rather than exhort. Sprawled on a chaise longue, "this great battered hulk of a man, with one eye gone and an eminent look to him," Big Bill seemed, said Mabel, "like a large, soft, overripe Buddha," with two or three Village maidens -- schoolteachers by day, bohemians by night -- seated enraptured at his feet. And when the brilliant young Harvard graduate Walter Lippmann, in his somber, precise manner, tried to question him about Wobbly strategy, Big Bill's "lid drooped over his blind eye and his heavy cheeks sagged even lower."
Emma Goldman, editor of the anarchist magazine Mother Earth and advocate of Direct Action -- she and her constant companion, Alexander "Sasha" Berkman, had served time in prison for attempting to assassinate the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick -- scolded Mabel's guests for their dilettantism and "endless quibbles and hair-splitting of issues." But though Emma warned the working men and women not to listen to the "college professors and lawyers who with the philanthropically-minded ladies" -- whom could she mean? -- "only succeed in sentimentalizing the cause and making compromises which in turn become real evils again," she showed little inclination to satisfy the guests' curiosity about the differences between the competing philosophies.
The socialist English Walling, one of the founders of the NAACP, was the most articulate speaker, everyone agreed, but also the most bland -- though with Eugene Debs receiving six percent of the vote for president in the 1912 election, socialism had never before, or since, been such a prominent voice in the American political dialogue.
Some of Mabel's guests expressed shock at the inflammatory ideologies of the speakers, others felt their minds quickened by startling new ideas, while a few felt that the debate merely exposed the innocence of the Villagers, their commitment to conversational radicalism. "They all talk like goddamn bourgeois pigs!" Hippolyte Havel cried out shrilly, and as the Evening came to an end, he embraced Mabel with tears in his eyes. "My little sister! My little goddamn bourgeois capitalist sister!"
Tonight's topic, Mabel announced a few weeks later, is Sex Antagonism. Doctrines of free love periodically surface in American life -- the practice, of course, is considerably more consistent -- but in the Village in the teens the concept flourished by allying itself with feminism, socialism, Freudianism, anarchism, birth control, and the assault on marriage as a bourgeois institution. And while it's tempting to say that never has so much ideology been called upon in support of instinct -- for nothing seems quite as quaint as the erotic rationalizations of previous generations -- this was in fact the first generation of Americans to realize the role of sexual repression in social control. As the critic James Hunecker complained, in America "the whole man ends at the collarbone." The sexual revolution of the years preceding World War I alternated between the frivolous and the fearless -- and as those who lived through the sixties can confirm, in the midst of a revolution it's sometimes difficult to discern the difference.
In 1914, to take a not untypical example, a buxom Villager named Babs, sympathizing with the plight of those young men unfortunately forced to resort to prostitutes for the happiness that was their birthright as Americans, persuaded a number of her friends to freely give their bodies to anyone who asked, a movement that proved as short-lived as it was enthusiastically encouraged. Somewhat less self-deluded, prominent Village intellectuals constantly experimented with ways to reconcile erotic independence and emotional commitment. Lincoln Steffens pretended he was married when he wasn't -- and later pretended he wasn't when he was -- while Max Eastman and his wife, Ida Rauh, who at one point denied they were married in order not to disturb the free-love ideologues, later shocked the pulpit from coast to coast by putting their names separately on their Village mailbox. Still others, like the flamboyant Hippolyte Havel and his mistress, Polly Holladay, proprietor of the Village's most popular restaurant, fell into the familiar pattern of adopting free love for themselves and bitterly denouncing their partners for exercising the same privilege. And then there were men like Hutch Hapgood, Mabel's closest confidant, who, having once been told by William James himself that he was "in thrall to the absolute," felt that he was obligated by this distinction not only to have extramarital affairs but to report their subtle effects on his soul to his resigned wife -- and even to write a book about his wanderings for circulation among his Village friends.
It was Hutch who Mabel felt would be most qualified to address her guests on the subject of the relationship between the sexes -- though it was Mabel, recently converted by Margaret Sanger to "the joys of the flesh," who came up with the unambivalent title Sex Antagonism. Still, even to discuss the topic openly, and in mixed company, was daring for the time. A little drunk, Hutch stood before Mabel's assembled guests, announced that "my wife is always telling me that love is a misunderstanding between a man and a woman," and concluded by observing that "men are the victims" -- apparently because they do not have "the vitality that the working class has, that the women have," and are thus forced to resort to clandestine affairs. "The problem is how to get the heat without the lie," he went on.
Steffens, the chairman for the Evening, remarked wryly, "Quite Steinesque" -- referring to Mabel's friend Gertrude. When Hutch elucidated his thesis by remarking that "the sex distinctions are only a thing like time and space, something by which we go through our experiences," and attempted to throw an ecumenical bouquet to the unimpressed anarchist faction by gushing that "Emma Goldman represents an infinitely greater amount of law than the government does," it was apparent that Villagers committed to the principle of free love but hoping for some guidance as to its practice were still on their own.
Undaunted, Mabel turned from sexual to aesthetic liberation. Despite the shift in cultural power from Boston to New York and the fierce assaults on moral and literary respectability in the novels of Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser (who lived in the Village but kept a sullen distance from Mabel's salon), the complacent conventions of the Genteel Tradition, so named by George Santayana only a year earlier, still ruled the American literary imagination. Within months of her return to the United States, Mabel embarked on "my own little Revolution" in literary and artistic taste by introducing Gertrude Stein to the American reading public and by serving as one of the sponsors of the explosive Armory Show of 1913.
Believing that political, sexual, and artistic rebels were equal partners in the struggle against capitalism, Mabel invited "that sturdy old eagle" Big Bill Haywood back to address her modernist friends, including Marsden Hartley, Andrew Dasburg, Max Weber, and John Marin, at an Evening on Proletarian Art.
Artists think themselves too special, too separate, Big Bill argued with a rather condescending smile. Someday the state will recognize that everyone is an artist. Torn between sympathy with the working-class cause and dedication to their own revolution, the artists were momentarily silent -- until sculptress Janet Scudder rose from her seat, and asked, with the same scorn with which she'd address a Terre Haute matron, "Do you realize that it takes twenty years to make an artist?"
On another Arts and Politics Evening, Mabel invited both the artists who drew for The Masses, the newly founded leftist magazine (to which she contributed several articles), and the editors of the uptown Metropolitan Magazine (the most popular 10-cent periodical of the day, featuring plutocratic politics and pretty-girl covers), who had refused the artists' work because of their radical politics. But the "gatling gun talkers" of the Village, as the Metropolitan editor characterized them, left the uptowners launching even more pointed epithets -- such as "your prostitute of a magazine."
To the Poets Evening, over which Edwin Arlington Robinson presided as an owlish, grimly mute eminence, Mabel invited not only published poets, but those whose masterpieces were too "advanced" to reach print -- or in some cases paper. George Sylvester Viereck's "quite startling verses" were the most memorable, though not as memorable as Amy Lowell's shocked departure in mid-reading, leaving, as Mabel described her, "like a well-freighted frigate."
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The Dangerous Characters Evening, the Sex Antagonism Evening, the Evenings of Art and Unrest -- all ended in ideological disarray.
But Mabel's curiosity combined with her diffidence, her need for self-expression with her impulse to self-effacement, to make her the perfect salon hostess. For three years, beginning in January 1913, her salon became the center of the country's radical intelligentsia. Experts on "good government" and women's suffrage appeared, on prison reform and eugenics, on unemployment and "the Mexican question," on "primitive life" and "the corrupting influence of money" -- the debaters, even in the last case, smoking imported cigarettes and sipping imported liqueurs provided by Mabel's imported servants.
She was constantly exhorted to open her rooms to discussion of such Village cults as vegetarianism and Esperanto, but in politics she focused on the labor movement, in sex she stressed women's rights, and in art she emphasized modernist painting and prose.
She managed the Evenings so skillfully, as Steffens noted, that "no one felt they were managed...Practiced hostesses in society could not keep even a small table of guests together; Mabel Dodge did this better with a crowd of one hundred or more people of all classes. Her secret, I think, was to start the talk going with a living theme."
Feeling that she was merely "an instrument of the times," that "I'm not doing anything...I let them come, that's all. Life decides, not me," Mabel never participated in the "living themes" herself but acted as their conduit. "I had a little formula for getting myself safely through the hours without any injury to my shy and suspicious sensibilities...I never uttered a word during my Evenings beyond the remote 'How do you do?' or the low 'Good-by.'...I never talked myself except to one or two people at a time, and preferably to one."
Some Villagers were enthralled by Mabel's regal inscrutability, others felt she was concealing her incomprehension, yet most agreed with Carl Van Vechten, who recalled that "she remained in the room without being present," and that though her face was "a perfect mask," her "electric energy presided." Max Eastman, never one of Mabel's admirers -- in his heart he thought her "witchlike" -- wrote that "for the most part she sits like a lump and says nothing. She seems never to have learned the art of social intercourse...She has neither wit nor beauty, nor is she vivacious or lively-minded or entertaining...[Yet] there is something going on, or going round, in Mabel's head or bosom, something that creates a magnetic field in which people become polarized and pulled in and made to behave queerly...And they like it -- they come back for more." Mabel's fetish was other people's conversations -- and her genius at listening catalyzed an entire generation of vociferous radicals.
Carl Van Vechten stressed the way she forced her guests to test their convictions by confronting them with others who held opposing points of view, combining "dissimilar objects to their mutual benefits." As Max Eastman put it, "Many famous salons have been established by women of wit or beauty; Mabel's was the only one established by pure will power." But its very simplicity made it, as Lincoln Steffens said, "the only successful salon I have ever seen in America."
A particularly striking example of the benefit of juxtaposing apparently incongruous ideas, of the Villagers' emphasis on the importance of self-expression in both personal and public life, were Mabel's Evenings devoted to the New Psychology. It was there that many of America's leading radicals and intellectuals first heard of the theories of Freud and Jung that were to play such a crucial role -- and in some cases to create such havoc -- in their public as well as private lives.
Walter Lippmann, a rather unlikely acolyte of the unconscious, led the first Evening's discussion, and not surprisingly the conversation focused on such issues as the environmental causes of nervous disorders, the "unhealthy" aspects of the Protestant work ethic, and the repressiveness of genteel, middle-class "civilization."
On another New Psychology Evening, Dr. A. A. Brill, Freud's American translator and a founder of the American Psychoanalytic Association (and later to become Mabel's psychiatrist -- nothing but the best), alarmed many of the guests, who got up and left in mid-discussion, "incensed at his assertions about unconscious behavior and its give-aways." But Brill's Evening, and the awareness of the new theories that soon swept through the Village, made Freud a fad. As the playwright Susan Glaspell recalled, "You could not go out to buy a bun without hearing of someone's complex." But Freud's theories, though invariably simplified and warped to fit the Villagers' optimistic creeds, didn't just energize the sexual radicals with a new vocabulary, they also inspired modernist artists with a new muse and provoked political radicals to reconsider the premises of middle-class progressivism. As Steffens recalled after the Brill Evening, "It was there and thus that some of us first heard of psychoanalysis and the new psychology of Freud and Jung, which...introduced us to the idea that the minds of men were distorted by unconscious suppressions, often quite irresponsible and incapable of reasoning or learning...I remember thinking how absurd had been my muckraker's description of bad men and good men and the assumption that showing people facts and conditions would persuade them to alter them or their conduct."
Margaret Sanger had learned the frustrations of "showing people facts and conditions," and those who characterized as frivolous Mabel's Evenings devoted to free love, feminism, and birth control ignored the hostility, even brutality, with which such ideas were greeted in America in 1913. When Mabel's apartment was opened to meetings of the Sanger Defense Committee, Margaret had not only spent numberless nights in jail for distributing information on birth control, but had lost nine teeth when one inflamed jailer, zealously defending traditional moral values, had kicked her in the mouth. Labor unrest involved more than a cozy debate of ideologies. Mabel might feel a frisson up her spine at entertaining "murderers," but she also exhibited much courage in juxtaposing classes as well as causes. One evening in the late winter of 1914, Mabel welcomed IWW leaders "Wild Joe" O'Carroll, "Chowder Joe" O'Brien, "Omaha Doc" Roth, and "Baldy" McSween for an Unemployment Evening, "a great gathering" of nearly two hundred Village figures. A red banner hung on the wall. Feminists in bobbed hair and sandals accepted cigarettes from bankers in starched linen and tails. Society women mingled with laborers. And everyone listened raptly to the Wobblies, who'd just returned from a protest meeting that had been circled by mounted police.
When one of her guests urgently whispered to Mabel that "There are some newspaper men coming in," she promptly delegated Walter Lippmann, who had made it clear that he felt her Evenings were becoming too raucous, to act as her bouncer. As he tried to eject the intruders from the press, Mabel began to have second thoughts. "Surely we should not put them out. They are just people, too. They are part of Life trying to express Itself." So she countermanded her order, and the newspapers were also allowed to express themselves. "I.W.W. THRONG ARE GUESTS OF SOCIETY FOLK ON FIFTH AVENUE," exclaimed the headline in one New York paper. "WOMEN IN EVENING GOWNS ENTERTAIN BILL HAYWOOD, AGITATORS, AND THE UNEMPLOYED IN HOME OF MRS. MABEL DODGE." "About 200 men and women, in evening dress, and nearly all, women included, smoking cigarettes, took part in the meeting," the article reported. "Women in low-necked gowns hid behind escorts and tried to hide their cigarettes." "I.W.W. MEN STARVE AS LEADERS EAT," another paper proclaimed. "LEADERS OF I.W.W. FIFTH AVE. GUESTS MINGLE WITH MEN AND WOMEN IN EVENING CLOTHES AT MRS. DODGE'S HOUSE." "There were present some men with long, black, flowing locks, who say they are anarchists, some of the Haywood type who say they are leaders of industrial organizations, some who belong to social uplift movements in New York...[and] some women who didn't appear to have any occupations...A heavy set young man [Lippmann] came out and said that the gathering was for the purpose of discussing social problems and that all present were friends of Mrs. Dodge and that positively nothing should be published about it."
And so, with the emphasis on emblems that was rapidly moving from advertising into journalism, evening clothes transformed muckrakers and editors of The Masses into "society folk," cigarettes signaled sexual audacity, and the press responded to the incomprehensible, as it always has and always will, by adopting a tone both ominous and condescending, which would come to characterize American attitudes to the Village itself.
Long accounts of Mabel's salon soon appeared in the press almost weekly, and Mabel herself became one of the country's first celebrities. She was widely regarded by the tabloid public as a "sphinx," an appellation that, given her anathema to mystery, she loathed. Most of the papers mocked the very fame they were heaping upon her, but according to the Morning Telegraph, "If you ever get a card from Mona Mabel Dodge with the word 'discussion' in the corner, drop what you had planned to do and get on the ground floor." Recalled the widow of a president of Yale, "Simply everybody went."
Patron of geniuses or collector of celebrities? Siren of spirit or dabbler in ideas? Feeling a void at the center of her being, she became adept, as did so many women, at discerning the needs of others and then adopting a persona that would fulfill them. At first in her salon, and especially in her many love affairs, she resigned herself to living through others -- as if she could only be real to herself if she saw her reflection. "I wanted to lie back and float on the dominating decisive current of an all-knowing, all-understanding man," she confessed of her lovers, though in practice, and not at all paradoxically, this meant she aspired to be either their muse, their mother, or their master.
Inevitably dissatisfied with floating, Mabel soon became resentful and manipulative and sought in domination the only alternative to submission. "People were always warning other people about me," Mabel said, not without a touch of pride. How could a woman so committed to following the flow be so willful? Her contemporaries did not understand, though nearly all considered themselves feminists, that with no outlet for her talent and ambition other than devoting herself to the men she hosted and the men she loved, these were the only two choices available to her. Most of the epithets directed at Mabel -- femme fatale, queen bee, sorceress, Venus flytrap, spiritual vampire, and, of course, bitch goddess -- and most of the fictional portraits of her written by fascinated and appalled novelists who considered her a kind of female principle -- resulted from her dubious relationships with men.
But it's too easy to dismiss Mabel as a "werewolfess" -- as she once characterized herself -- for the neurotic qualities that proved so disastrous in her romances made her the ideal hostess. Her psychic emptiness, her dread of purposelessness, led her not only to devour the men who, she vainly hoped, would provide her with authenticity of self, but also to crave experiences, and causes, that through her salon might provide her with a sense of identity. "That woman will drive me crazy," Van Vechten told Hapgood, more in admiration than dismay. Still, he said, "She had more effect on my life than anybody I ever met." In the freewheeling, experimental vortex that was the Village in the years before World War I, who was more perfectly suited to gather together the "movers and shakers" to debate the contours of the future? Her refusal to crystallize her commitments, her ultimate indifference to the causes she sponsored, while leaving her in a state of psychic disarray, also kept the Villagers who attended her salon in a state of ideological flux. Mabel could never cease experimenting -- but her emotional indecisiveness quickened the Village's intellectual glory.
Many of Mabel's critics dismissed her as less hetaera than "a species of Head Hunter," as she herself acknowledged -- as nothing but a dilettante of radicalism, mixing champagne and dynamite, confusing feelings with thought, regarding insurrection as entertainment, the latest in the long, ignoblesse oblige tradition of aristocratic voyeurs of bohemia, seeking titillation by flirting with revolutionary credos she had no desire to embrace. But more than any other person, Mabel recognized, if only intuitively, that the repressive traditions against which the Village radicals were rebelling -- political, economic, sexual, artistic -- were inextricably linked, and that the most immediately necessary radical act was not to focus on specific reforms but to break down the barriers between the radicals themselves, to affirm both the range and the unity of the insurgent spirit itself.
One Evening might founder in factionalism, another might degenerate into disputation, another might conclude in incoherence -- but the Lyrical Left defined itself more by its energy than by its ideas. Mabel's fabled openness to all those willing to risk "shattering themselves for the sake of their ideas" -- which led Steffens to remark that "she believed, for a while, everything," and one historian to claim that she "all but established the pattern of the 'free-lance intellectual' of the early twentieth century" -- had a greater impact than any one of those ideas, for they would not have received such vigorous mutual reinforcement had they not been disseminated at her salon. As Mabel exclaimed, "Oh, how we were all intertwined!" Without an original idea in her head, Mabel helped sow every original idea of her decade.
The catalyst of Mabel's fabled openness to divergent points of view was less philosophical curiosity than psychological circumstance -- her real need was to create and then ameliorate emotional conflict. Like most prominent Villagers, she was raised in the intellectual hinterland, but more than most, she seemed, as she said, to have a life "destined for sorrow."
Born into a wealthy family in Buffalo in 1879, Mabel was shaped by the proper Victorian gentility her remote parents adopted as a mask. Of their marriage one need know only that whenever Mabel's mother returned home from one of her frequent trips, her father honored the occasion by lowering his monogrammed flag to half-mast. Unloved, miserably lonely, and surrounded by formalized contentiousness, Mabel soon learned that the only way to avoid sinking into a pit of purposelessness was to manipulate others. Yet driven by the panic of nonbeing, and determined to flout her mother's hypocritical "respectability," she obsessively tried on roles, causes, ideas, identities -- as a teenager even flirting with a kind of chaste lesbianism, for which there was little peer pressure in late-nineteenth-century Buffalo -- then instantly dropping them when they inevitably failed to fulfill her. Neurasthenia, they called it, that feeling of placid desperation, of restless passivity all too familiar to gifted women in all ages.
At twenty-one, Mabel married a young man who, despite awakening her to what she called "fiery fountains falling on black velvet," failed to gratify the longings of her soul. Within a few months, she began an affair with an older man who satisfied her on both counts -- her gynecologist -- and when her husband was killed in a hunting accident and her illicit relationship became a public scandal, her mother shipped her off to Europe, not least because Mabel had seen her in the gynecologist's arms herself. Before the boat landed in Le Havre, a Boston architect named Edwin Dodge had fallen in love with her and they were married four months later.
Settling into a Florentine villa constructed by the Medicis in the fifteenth century -- its courtyard designed by Brunelleschi, and one of its inhabitants, Raphael -- Mabel immediately adopted the pose of voluptuous Renaissance lady. "I will make you mine!" she addressed Florence from a Tuscan hilltop. "Questo angelo vestito di bianco" ("this angel dressed in white"), the local merchants called her. Already as unhappy in her second marriage as she'd been in her first, she indulged in a series of not-quite affairs (one with her Italian chauffeur, whom she transformed into "a knight, a page, a courtier"), attempted a series of not-quite suicides (in one instance mixing figs and broken glass), embarked on a fully consummated affair with her son's tutor, and, in a last effort to save her marriage, designed a bedroom with a trapdoor in the ceiling from which descended a silken ladder that could facilitate more episodes of "fiery fountains falling on black velvet" -- though Edwin used it only once, to certify that it wasn't a safety hazard. Wealthy, well connected, intelligent, charming -- when not indulging in her pose of elegant ennui -- Mabel had no difficulty collecting both objets d'art and objets de personnalité, and the Villa Curonia soon became a prominent international salon -- a "constant carousel," in the words of Artur Rubinstein. Emotionally immobilized by her lack of any sense of self, she frantically surrounded herself with the vibrant intellects who might provide it. Among her many guests were Bernard Berenson, Roger Fry, Gordon Craig, Eleanora Duse, André Gide, Norman Douglas, Paul and Muriel Draper, and Lord and Lady Acton, and she flattered everyone with a passive yet desperate curiosity that seemed to say she'd discovered the one person who could answer the questions about the nature and purpose of existence she'd been vainly asking all her life.
Mabel, in short, was precisely the kind of person Gertrude Stein was willing to bestow her presence upon, and when Gertrude visited Florence in 1911 they immediately became friends. "She has a laugh like beefsteak," said Mabel. Fascinated by Mabel's enigmatic, volatile moods, Gertrude wrote "Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia," one of her series of cubist word portraits of prominent figures of the first years of the century. (Among her other subjects were Picasso and Matisse, though it was her portrait of Mabel that Oliver Gogarty liked to read aloud in a Dublin pub, where it may have been heard by James Joyce.)
Mabel wanted to transform her life into a work of art, but when this proved beyond her talents, she began to see herself as a muse who would accomplish her purpose through others -- Gertrude's was the first of many portraits of Mabel by entranced if not always admiring writers, including novels by Carl Van Vechten and Max Eastman and several stories by D. H. Lawrence. Focusing on the discontinuity of Mabel's moods, with touches of sexual innuendo (her bedroom was next to Mabel's, the walls were thin), Gertrude found Mabel the ideal subject for her emphasis on the fluidity of personality. "So much breathing has not the same place when there is so much beginning..." "There is that desire and there is no pleasure..." "There is no action meant..."
Mabel wasn't entirely sure what such sentences signified, but she was sure that what she regarded as her unstructured personality could be interpreted as dynamic rather than passive. Gertrude helped Mabel understand that no metaphysic, no aesthetic could substitute for an absent identity, and that perhaps she could find herself in the disorderly present more easily than in the formalized past. So, still dissatisfied with her life, with her husband, and, most of all, with herself, Mabel abandoned the search in Europe and resumed it in America.
Even before beginning her salon, Mabel had three hundred copies of Gertrude's portrait printed and bound in Florentine wallpapers for her friends, and when a copy found its way into the hands of one of the organizers of the 1913 Armory Show, he asked her for permission to distribute it at the show and to write an accompanying article explicating Gertrude's genius. "There will be a riot & and revolution & things will never be quite the same afterward," Mabel wrote Gertrude in Paris.
"Gertrude Stein is doing with words what Picasso is doing with paint," she concluded. "She is impelling language to induce new states of consciousness." Gertrude's introduction into the world of American letters had turned both women into perhaps the earliest examples of what was soon to become a staple of the twentieth-century media, the incomprehensible celebrity.
"Everyone is saying, 'Who is Gertrude Stein?'" Mabel reported to Gertrude. "Who is Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia?" Despite Mabel's effusions, however, their friendship soon cooled. Mabel attributed Gertrude's withdrawal to Alice Toklas's jealousy over some innocent flirting -- she was one of those fortunate people who find flattering explanations even for flagrant rejections -- although the more likely explanation was advanced by Gertrude's brother, Leo. "In Gertrude Stein's mind," he said, "there had begun to be some doubt as to who was the bear and who was leading the bear." Mabel was never a self-starter, but once started she was unstoppable. Soon she became the vice president of the Armory Show, one of its financial backers, its most indefatigable publicist; she even contributed her chauffeur. "The most important public event that has ever come off since the signing of the Declaration of Independence," she called the exhibition in a letter to Gertrude. "I think it the most important thing that ever happened in America, of its kind," she added less grandiosely. Indeed, it was one of her rare understatements, for the Armory Show was the most important art exhibit of the twentieth century and detonated like a bomb in the national consciousness. The most controversial painting, of course, was Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, which was called, in perhaps the best example of philistine wit in the history of art criticism, "an explosion in a shingle factory."
"It should be borne in mind," editorialized the New York Times in a typical media response to the Armory Show, "that this movement is surely a part of the general movement, discernible to all the world, to disrupt, degrade, if not destroy, not only art but literature and society too...the Cubists and the Futurists are cousins to anarchists in politics." On one level, this reaction marked the beginning of a common phenomenon of the twentieth century -- success measured not by praise but by notoriety. On another, it acknowledged the unity of art and politics and hinted that art no longer served a comfortable cultural function but expressed an alienation from society. And on yet a third level, while superficially just another instance of philistine incomprehension, it actually articulated the goals of modernist art as clearly as any of its supporters. Disrupt, degrade, destroy? -- wasn't that precisely what the artists intended?
As for Mabel, she could at least take some of the credit for introducing Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Braque, Brancusi, Seurat, and Kandinsky to the New World. "Many roads are being broken -- what a wonderful word -- 'broken'!" she exulted. "Nearly every thinking person nowadays is in revolt against something, because the craving of the individual is for further consciousness, and because consciousness is expanding and is bursting through the molds that have held it up to now." But while she found a characteristically dizzying and detached gratification in her overnight notoriety -- "if Gertrude Stein was born at the Armory Show, so was 'Mabel Dodge'" -- she remained self-effacingly committed to "my own little revolution," the credo of her salon.
Not all the guests at Mabel's salon were movers and shakers. Indeed, the It that Mabel idolized occasionally revealed Itself in eccentrics and out-and-out crackpots. Bizarre behavior, whether annoying or amusing, came to symbolize freedom and authenticity, and "unconventional" became just as much an ideal for the Villagers as "conventional" was for the bourgeoisie they despised. Among the pioneers of individuality were those who discovered nothing but their own idiosyncrasies -- but whether outrageous, lunatic, or merely pathetic, they joined the ranks of Legendary Village Characters.
Hippolyte Havel! Outrageous, lunatic, and pathetic, first of a noble breed. Raised in Hungary by his Gypsy mother, confined as a teenager in an insane asylum and released at the advice of Krafft-Ebing himself, Hippolyte embraced anarchism in late Victorian London, moved to Chicago to edit an anarchist newspaper, and, after a less than delirious stint as one of Emma Goldman's many lovers, surfaced in New York, in the words of Max Eastman, like a "ragged chrysanthemum."
When not berating Mabel's guests as "goddamn bourgeois pigs," which sometimes seemed the full extent of his radicalism, Hippolyte could usually be found either as a short-tempered cook, waiter, and dishwasher at Polly Holladay's restaurant on the west side of Washington Square or standing on street corners shouting anarchist slogans at bewildered passersby. As for Polly, she found no fault with his cooking, but was severely disappointed in his companionship. He keeps breaking his promises, she complained to a friend, explaining that on more than one occasion he had promised to kill himself for her but as yet had failed to keep his word.
One night, over drinks with two friends at the Brevoort bar, Hippolyte suddenly suggested a Trimordeur evening. Trimordeur? Trimordeurs, he explained impatiently, were knights-errant of the spirit of wine and dance. So they drew up an announcement of a meeting of the Trimordeurs at an Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street and sent postcards to ten or fifteen friends. On the night of the party, friends brought friends and friends of friends -- was it the knight-errant grapevine? -- and by midnight over seventy Villagers were celebrating the spirit of wine and dance, one of the first occasions when Villagers began to form their own bohemian community. "Goddamn bourgeois pigs," yelled Hippolyte, stroking his goatee, grinning.
On one memorable occasion, Hippolyte relieved himself in the gutter at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 8th Street at 3:00 A.M. and raved at the policeman who arrested him, "You mean I don't even have the rights of an ordinary horse?" Yet Mabel fondly welcomed Hippolyte to all her Evenings, even if his only contribution was "Goddamn bourgeois pigs!"
Mabel became muse to a Village variation of the prototype -- the After-Working-Hours Genius. A copy editor at the New York Times by day, Donald Evans turned to the Quest for Immortality at night, differing only from most night-dreamers in that he actually published his effusions, an achievement somewhat diminished by the fact that his publishing house, Claire-Marie Press, one of the first of those small, avant-garde enterprises, was owned, managed, and staffed by a single person, Donald Evans himself. Reading his letters to Mabel ("You opened up avenues of joy today for me...The vision of your freedom was intoxicating...You yourself are ineffable; Your name will be blessed above the Virgin's") and the poems she inspired ("She tried to rouge her heart, yet quite in vain...Her hidden smile was full of hidden breasts"), it's not entirely clear whether he was trying to give expression to infinite yearning or just wanted to get laid. As a potential lover, Donald had -- how to put it? -- a kind of vegetable magnetism, but Mabel concluded that "this fin de siècle attitude of his was rather boring" -- an opinion she expressed of several other Village men who fell in love with her. Undiscouraged, Donald informed Mabel of "the golden voyage I have embarked upon, a thousand and one sonnet portraits of you," of a "slender vol." describing in verse a dozen ways of commiting suicide. Of the latter, one way was all Donald needed, however -- unsuccessful in his poetic projects, he proved all too successful in taking his life.
For a few years, a Donald Evans cult sprang up. As the poet Arthur Davison Ficke wrote in the foreword to a proposed book called The Donald Evans Legend, "Probably no figure so mythical as that of Donald Evans has ever had even an imaginary existence. Faust, Til Eulenspiegel, the Wandering Jew, and Haroun al Raschid are all solid, demonstrable, and documented persons in comparison. Already the Evans-Legend has assumed large proportions; in fact, we must even today make a discrimination between the archaic -- or as I shall call it, the Ur-Legend -- and the latter and doubtful form, which I shall call the Neo-Legend." The book was never completed, however, and very soon Donald Evans became a nonlegend.
Mabel sometimes showed as little understanding of the significance of her salon as the newspapers that hooted at its "radical chic" -- an epithet that surfaced fifty years before the sixties. But her ingenuousness gave her courage, and she never faltered in her quest for emotional or intellectual adventure. Even if Mabel had never hosted a single Evening, she would have entered Village lore, for in one of her more prescient experiments, she threw the Village's first peyote party.
In the spring of 1914, when Raymond Harrington, a visiting cousin of Hutch Hapgood, told them about a strange medicine he had discovered while doing ethnological research among the Oklahoma Indians that enabled the mind to pass beyond ordinary consciousness, Mabel announced that they must all try it.
Harrington and Hutch and his wife, Neith Boyce, were the first to be invited. Max Eastman and Ida Rauh were always eager to try something new. Her old friend Bobby Jones, the famous set designer. Andrew Dasburg, the pioneering modernist painter. Genevieve Onslow, an actress and friend of the Hapgoods -- one of those familiar Village figures who, though embarked on a quest for ultimate wisdom, had difficulty expressing the simplest idea. And of course Terry.
Another figure in the gallery of Legendary Village Characters, Terry Carlin, a true anarchist, had vowed as a young man never to earn so much as a dollar under the exploitative capitalist system. A man of his word, he lived on the verge of starvation, but since he was an ingratiating conversationalist, his many friends gave him money for food, and since he was an alcoholic, he spent it all on booze. With his huge thatch of iron-gray hair, sparkling Irish blue eyes, "beautiful skeleton, and splendid head with noble features" -- Mabel's phrase -- Terry would sit for days in various bars, the Hell Hole on 8th Street and Sixth Avenue in particular, spinning tales until he dropped. One of those helplessly charming dreamers called poets though they've never written a word, he became one of Eugene O'Neill's closest companions.
So one evening -- having fasted, as Raymond insisted -- they gathered at Mabel's and sat cross-legged on her living room floor. Holding an arrow in one hand and eagle feathers in the other, Raymond stationed himself behind the "fire" -- one of Mabel's Chinese silk shawls draped over an electric bulb. He popped a peyote button into his mouth and soon began to howl like a dog. The others took pieces of peyote and gulped them down. "The mere presence of that peyote seemed already to have emphasized the real nature in us all," Mabel recalled. "I was laughing, but Neith looked down at the fire, distantly grave and withdrawn, beautiful and strange. Hutch appeared rather boyish, like a boy in church who lowers his head and peeps over his prayer book at another boy. Bobby's face was simulating a respectful attention, while it hid his thoughts. Ida looked more like a superior lioness than ever, cynical and intolerant; Max grinned amiably, and Terry seemed more remote than the others as he contemplated the end of his cigarette...Genevieve Onslow's frog-like eyes were brilliant and intense...Andrew's brows twitched as he gave and yet did not give himself to the occasion; a half smile played over his sulky lips, but it was an irritated smile. Only I seemed to myself to be just exactly as usual, unaffected by anything and observant of it all."
Raymond motioned everyone to join his howling song, but only Hutch obeyed, then motioned everyone to take a second button. This time everyone obeyed but Mabel, who, finding herself more affected than she'd realized, palmed the button and placed it on the floor behind her. "Everything seemed ridiculous to me," Mabel continued -- "utterly ridiculous and immeasurably far away from me...Several little foolish human beings sat staring at a mock fire and made silly little gestures. Above them I leaned, filled with an unlimited contempt for the facile enthrallments of humanity, weak and petty in its activities, bound so easily by a dried herb, bound by its notions of everything -- anarchy, poetry, systems, sex, and society."
Hutch, who liked to describe himself as "God drunk," wasn't one to so readily scorn "the facile enthrallments of humanity." "It didn't seem strange to me when Raymond left his seat and ascended through the air to the ceiling," he recalled. Soon afterward, however, he left his seat and knelt before the toilet watching lurid flames dart out of his mouth, then lay down in one of Mabel's bedrooms and turned into an Egyptian mummy, "making a complete review of my whole life, applying to it an intense criticism, which amazed me for its complete unworthiness." As for Raymond, he reported that he had departed on "a long voyage to wander for months in a tropical valley full of huge birds and animals of hitherto unknown colors."
Hours passed; Max and Ida quietly went home. Long after midnight, Mabel discreetly retired to her all-white bedroom. Hutch, Neith, Andrew, and Bobby departed to Mabel's guest rooms, leaving Raymond, Genevieve, and Terry in their oblivious trances.
Mabel lay in a fitful half-sleep, trembling with rage. "To think that that was going on there in my house and I could not stop it." "Oh, Great Force, hear me!" she prayed, and in almost immediate response she heard Andrew stalking furiously into the living room, where he opened the windows, threw out the remaining buttons, and cursed the entranced trio.
Mabel heard a dreadful cry, then silence, then a tap at her door. Genevieve stood before her like an apparition. "Oh Mabel!" she moaned. "It is terrible!" Mabel hurried to the living room. Raymond, horrified at the defiling of a sacred ceremony, was trying to restrain Andrew when suddenly they noticed that Genevieve had disappeared. By this time, the others had been awakened. The sudden startling ring of the telephone. "Genevieve is here," Max said. "We heard her crying under our window. We'll put her to bed and see you in the morning."
The participants were suddenly sobered. "Mabel," Hutch said with his usual solemn exultation, "I have learned tonight something wonderful. I cannot put it into words exactly, but I have found the short cut to the Soul." "What is it?" Mabel asked eagerly. "The death of the flesh." "I saw what Sex is," Andrew contributed. "And it is a square crystal cube, transparent and colorless, and at the same time I saw that I was looking at my Soul."
Max soon showed up with Genevieve, gibbering and rolling her eyes, and Hutch rang up Harry Lorber, a discreet Village doctor. After a quick examination, Lorber offered his half-amused, half-chiding diagnosis -- "Dope, hey?" The word brought Mabel crashing down. She had failed to achieve the visionary consciousness reported by Hutch and Andrew -- or even Genevieve, who was now mumbling tearfully about God -- and felt compelled to take the public stance that "such gatherings...were the antithesis of all I wished to stand for. The level of my life, at least in my own eyes, was infinitely raised above such sordid sensationalism." Mabel took some measure of solace, however, in the fact that "every one of the others who had been at the apartment that night talked about it for years...undoubtedly that legend has encircled the world."
Terry? Terry finally spoke for the first time since nine o'clock the previous evening. "I have seen the Universe," he exclaimed with what Mabel was forced to describe as "the most illumined smile I have ever seen," and "man!," he concluded, "it is wonderful!" -- whereupon he walked out without another word, and, in all likelihood, repaired to the Hell Hole for his morning pick-me-up.
Mind cures," spiritualism, astrology, New Thought, Divine Science -- Mabel tried every cult with the same blend of promiscuous enthusiasm and disenchanted skepticism with which she listened to Wobblies advocate revolution or watched Villagers pop peyote. In the years 1912 to 1917, such therapies seemed to hold out as much healing potential as the rather implausible "talking cure" recently introduced from Vienna. What all the various new therapies shared, and what made the radical intellectuals flock to them with evangelical ardor, was the conviction that mind could triumph over matter, that the environment could be mastered by the will.
Mabel's motives were less ideological. Sunk in emotional paralysis, she gave herself over to each of the new cures with the wholeheartedness and detachment that allowed her both to explore every idea of her generation and commit herself to none.
Dear Hutch wrote of "my sister Mabel," "Her eager, sometimes graceless searchings...her inability to let go of anything even for a moment casually within her domain, all this seems often ugly and reprehensible. But to me it is not so at all; for I know that even the harsher more unattractive elements of her activity are there because of her eager love of 'It' -- the infinite -- with which she wants to be naturally, strongly connected." Why not try to connect herself through the as yet unfashionable science of psychiatry? Even if Mabel felt the new doctrine from Vienna was "apparently a kind of tattle-taleing," hadn't her New Psychology Evenings been among her most provocative? So Mabel became one of the first Americans to undergo psychoanalysis, and not the last to change analysts. Mabel's first psychiatrist, Smith Ely Jelliffe, America's leading Jungian and the man who coined the word "psychosomatic," quickly arrived at his diagnosis. Mabel obviously suffered from penis envy and responded by trying to castrate men, a conclusion that not only followed inevitably from her confession that she wanted to cut off her hair, but had the added advantage of being applicable to all women. Mabel expressed her willingness to see gender as one of the sources of her emotional disturbances -- an intuitive feminist, she recognized all too clearly that she derived her sense of self largely from her identification with the achievements of men -- but this organ business seemed dogmatic and about as healing as "the Intense Inane." "I am afraid I did not learn much about myself with Jelliffe," said Mabel, "but I did get a very complete line on him."
So Jelliffe didn't work out? Go for the best. Go for Brill. When Brill informed her he was too busy to see her until fall, she told him she simply couldn't survive until then. Brill well understood that one of an analyst's most effective tools, in addition to the nuances of Freudian methodology, was a brisk dose of psychic cold water, and replied that not only could Mabel survive until fall, but that she would. "I have a very bad Oedipus complex -- " Mabel began one of their first sessions, but Brill cut her off. "Never mind about that," he said. "You are not here for conversation." "I believe people constitute your best medium," he soon told her, and his insistence on sublimation, translated into encouragement that she find some sort of "meaningful work," inspired her to at last take her writing seriously.
Soon after starting her analysis with Brill, she began a syndicated biweekly advice column in the Hearst papers -- some historians even credit her with being the first female columnist in American journalism. Typically, she called her contributions feuilletons, at once belittling them and giving them a kind of snobbish éclat -- but in writing frequently about psychological problems she became one of Freud's first and most widely read popularizers.
For an acolyte of It, Mabel showed a surprising disinclination to search in the one place where a large number of Village men would have been happy to help. Not a beauty, she was described by Gertrude Stein as "a stoutish woman" and by Max Eastman as "a rather dumpy and stumpy little girl," but Gertrude went on to say that she had "very pretty eyes," and certainly it was her "very old-fashioned coquettry" that made her seem so attractive to so many men.
In principle, of course, Mabel championed sexual intercourse as "a scientific, wholly dignified, and prophylactic part of right living," a position she adopted at the urging of Margaret Sanger. Although Mabel aided her in establishing clinics, she was frankly more interested in Margaret's views of the process that led to the need for birth control. "She was the first person I ever knew," gushed Mabel, "who was openly an ardent propagandist for the joys of the flesh." In a cozy tête-à-tête, Margaret had taught her "the way to a heightening of pleasure and of prolonging it...the spreading out and sexualizing of the whole body until it should become sensitive and alive throughout, and complete" -- a lesson she learned with alacrity but that she remained reluctant to apply. (When Emma Goldman's companion, Alexander Berkman, an ardent devotee of free love as a philosophical obligation of anarchism, tried to steal a kiss in a taxi, Mabel was as horrified as any Victorian matron -- "this scared me more than murder.")
Mabel finally persuaded herself "that I was very old-fashioned and that what I needed and had never admitted to myself was this very sex-expression other people were so intent upon." But as is well known to everyone who's tried to talk themselves into opening their arms, ideology is a poor seducer. Mabel carefully selected a young man from her Village circle and invited him into her all-white bedroom, but instead of the fountains on black velvet redux felt only a kind of detached observation. Let's try a hotel, the dogged fellow suggested -- after all, she was technically still married, maybe that was the problem -- and while Mabel complied, she couldn't help feeling that "he had suddenly become a dose of medicine I must take...that would lead me into the world of free souls." Her companion, unaware of the pharmacological role he had come to play in her erotic imagination, was proceeding with the movements of ecstatic communion, if in a more or less solitary manner, when a waiter suddenly popped open the door and inquired, "You ring?"; it was at last clear to both of them that insofar as untrammeled, free-souled "sex-expression" went, Mabel was much more adept at talking about it.
This was the woman, however, who was later called America's leading exponent of the cult of orgasm (she even named her dog Climax) and who would soon embark on one of the legendary Village love affairs -- for when Mabel's flesh finally declared itself ready, it didn't have to listen to any arguments.
There was candlelight in the cozy apartment of Hutch's schoolteacher heroine, where enraptured Villagers had gathered to hear Big Bill Haywood. Just released from jail, he reported on the Paterson silk workers' strike for an eight-hour day. "There's no way to tell our comrades about [the strike]," he grumbled. "The newspapers have determined to keep it from the workers in New York."
"Why don't you bring the strike to New York and show it to the workers?" a shy voice blurted out -- and even Mabel was surprised to realize it was hers, "this idea speaking through me...another case of It!" "Why don't you hire a great hall," It continued, "and reenact the strike over here? Show the whole thing!" How? Where? "Madison Square Garden! Why not?"
Mabel had been addressing Big Bill, but suddenly a voice cried out "I'll do it!" and a young man moved from the back of the room to sit beside her. "That's a great idea. I'll go over to Paterson the first thing in the morning. We'll make a pageant of the strike! Where do you live? I'll come and see you when I get back." At first Mabel didn't quite get his name. "My name," he said, "is Reed."
Everyone in the Village had heard of Jack Reed, but Mabel had never met him. Flattered by his eagerness to implement her idea, amused by his breezy enthusiasm, she took even more careful note of his appearance. "His olive green eyes glowed softly, and his high, round forehead was like a baby's with light brown curls rolling away from it and two spots of light shining on his temples, making him loveable."
Who could resist? Poet of adventure, aflame with dreams, Jack Reed -- raised in cultivated Oregon, educated in the wilds of Harvard -- descended on the Village like a whirlwind. He endowed everything he pursued with the nimbus of romantic rebellion, and pursued everything with what Hutch called his "three-dimensional self-confidence." (Befriended by the much older Lincoln Steffens, Jack took a cheap apartment with three other young men at 42 Washington Square South. When Steff took an adjoining apartment, the building became celebrated as the successor to the fabled House of Genius at number 61, whose residents were said to have included Jack London, O. Henry, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, and Edwin Arlington Robinson.)
Before his mid-twenties, Jack had made his mark as a crusading journalist, widely published in both the commercial press and the radical Masses. And his exuberant ode "A Day in Bohemia" had established him as the Byron of the Village.
At five o'clock the morning after he and Mabel met, Jack hurried to Paterson, and before they met again, three weeks later, he'd interviewed dozens of strikers, gotten himself arrested for refusing to obey a policeman's order -- "I returned airy persiflage to his threats," he boasted -- spent four well-publicized days in jail with angry Wobblies and nodding cocaine-fiends and "a lineal descendant of the Republican doctrinaires of the French Revolution" (a particularly exhilarating experience for a Harvard man), and written a long, colorful, teeming account of "The War in Paterson" for The Masses.
Already on the way in his conversion from Village playboy to international provocateur, he was forging the solidarity between workers and intellectuals in a common revolutionary struggle the Villagers had only prophesied! Mabel led several meetings at Margaret Sanger's apartment, and enlisted the help of her friends, especially Bobby Jones, John Sloan, and Walter Lippmann. Her main task, she thought, was to act as an inspiration for Jack. "I kept having ideas about what to do and he carried them out...I knew I was enabling Reed to do what he was doing...pouring all the power in the universe through myself to him."
Writing the scenario, enlisting the painters and designers, preparing Madison Square Garden, rehearsing the striking silk workers, even teaching them to sing their insurrectionary slogans to the tune of "Harvard, Old Harvard" (with Jack, a former cheerleader, on the megaphone) -- as they worked themselves into a state of physical exhaustion and spiritual exaltation, Mabel and Jack fell in love. "That we loved each other seemed so necessary a part of working together," recalled Mabel, "we never spoke of it once...There wasn't time, and that it was no time for lovemaking was accepted without words between us...We had taken for granted the inevitability of our love for each other, Reed and I. We got each other through our pores."
And Jack? Who fell in love so often it was considered a joke among his friends? But as Hutch put it, "When I saw that look on her face, I knew it was all over for Mabel...and also probably all over for Reed."
But first the pageant. On June 7, 1913, Mabel watched in delight as nearly 1,500 strikers marched through the Village, up Fifth Avenue, and into Madison Square Garden. The letters "IWW" blazed ten feet high in red electric lights on all four sides of the Garden Tower. The city sheriff foamed at the mouth over what he called these "fulminations of paranoiacal ebullitions," but fifteen thousand spectators whooped and sobbed in a continuous roar for four, five, six hours as the strikers jammed the stage reenacting the fierce battles with the police, and, at the climax, the funeral of a slain worker, his coffin carried through the crowd as each striker placed in it a red carnation. "The Marseillaise," followed by "The Internationale," tore off the ceiling.
"These scenes," reported a New York paper, "unrolled with a poignant realism that no man who saw them will ever forget." The pageant proved a financial fiasco -- and helped precipitate the break between Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who felt that he had succumbed to the romantic allure of the Village. But even though the strike was soon broken, anarchists and socialists had been united with painters and poets, by two Villagers who were falling in love, to create what one historian has called "one of the most unusual cultural events in American history," and the quintessential Village link of politics, art, and sex.
The morning after the pageant, accompanied by Carl Van Vechten and Jack's old Harvard roommate Bobby Jones, Mabel and Jack sailed for Europe to spend the summer at the Villa Curonia. But when Jack tried to enter Mabel's cabin the first night at sea, she rebuffed him. "Inevitability" was one thing, decorum (what the other passengers would think) was another. "You shouldn't care about that," Jack reproached her bitterly. "If you cared for me nothing would matter." The same scene ensued on the second night, and again on the third, whereupon Jack took out his frustration -- what choice did she leave him? -- in poetry. "Wind smothers the snarling of the great ships," he wrote, "And the serene gulls are stronger than turbines / Higher than high heaven and deeper than sighs. /...But the speech of your body to my body will not be denied!" An "occasional" poem if ever there was one.
Jack had his plea delivered to Mabel's cabin at midnight, but her body remained mute. She feared, she said, "descending into the mortality of love." She found herself enamored instead of "the high clear excitement of continence."
Mabel proved right in thinking people were watching but wrong in thinking they disapproved, for even before they consummated their love, their friends began mythologizing their romance. "I feel there's something wonderful and immortal between you and Jack," Bobby shyly offered in mid-Atlantic. And when they arrived in Paris a letter from Hutch confessed that he had slept alone in her parlor, described their relationship as "a flower...full of an unfolded, a comprehensive, serene bien être floating beneficently on invisible and insentient things," and unnecessarily assured her, and himself, in a magnaminously discreet reference to Jack, that "what is between you and me can do no Wrong to anybody."
Of course Mabel was too sophisticated to think it Wrong to sleep with Jack, but while her reluctant rhetoric echoed the virginal Victorianism of her childhood reading, her circumspect behavior presaged, if only intuitively, the feminist awakening in the Village. If at first the Village women demanded sexual equality as part of their liberation, they soon learned that many men all too enthusiastically encouraged them to throw off their clothes along with their shackles. Women like Mabel, struggling to find a sense of identity other than through their relationships with men, began to see that the only power they possessed was erotic -- which sometimes meant that only in withholding sex could they achieve sexual equality. Mabel's resistance to Jack, in short, resulted from her incipient self-respect as well as from her manipulative coyness, but when, the first night in Paris, at the Hôtel des Saints Pères, she finally tasted "my own elixir of love," she sank back into the bliss of submission. "In one night I threw it all away," she said -- the "it," in this case, being "power."
Off the lovers went to the Villa Curonia, and for the entire summer of 1913, night after passionate night, into the low bed with four gold lions at its corners, Jack descended from the silken ladder.
Happy affairs are all alike -- and so are all unhappy ones. Almost from the first, Mabel realized that her fears of "descending into the mortality of love" had been prophetic. "Nothing counted for me but Reed," she said in a tone mingling bliss and remorse, "to lie close to him and to empty myself over and over, flesh against flesh." Part of her wanted to strengthen her independence, another part wanted to devote herself to her lover -- the one enhancing the self, the other enslaving it.
Even in Paris, Mabel had been dismayed when Jack leapt out of bed to greet an old friend knocking at the door and insisted they immediately take a walk. Only two days his inamorata and already abandoned! And in Florence, every minute of every day was a jubilant new adventure. "He always went from thrill to thrill," Mabel complained. "He was sturdily loyal to his own wonder." The very aspect of his personality that had attracted her soon became a curse.
When she was forced to submit to "the terror of seeing his eyes dilate with some other magic than my own," Mabel's old depression returned. "Everything seemed to take him away from me and I had no single thing left in my life to rouse me save his touch. But I could not hold him day and night. Only at night." In the morning the joy with which he greeted the day cast her into despondency. Only when Jack fell briefly ill with diphtheria did Mabel feel "a resurgence of delight." "A lover sick in bed, one is safe for the moment!" Mabel was perceptive enough to recognize her dilemma, if not strong enough to extricate herself, and confessed that "a man completely at a disadvantage, disempowered, and delivered up to us, we find to be no man at all."
As for Jack, uninterested in the tangled emotional relationships that were Mabel's métier, the summer was little more than a brief interlude of white peacocks and Etruscan grottoes from the causes to which he had committed his life. "I feel," he wrote a friend, "like the fisherman caught up by the Genie's daughter and carried to her palace on the mountaintop." When Mabel attempted to consecrate their idyll by revealing to him the treasures of Tuscany, he responded, "It's old, Mabel. It's beautiful, but it's so old."
The lovers returned to 23 Fifth Avenue in the fall to discover that they had entered the realm of legend -- the Queen of Bohemia united with the Poet Laureate of the Village. He was greeted as the heroic radical-poet-lover who would define the style of an entire generation. "From the break of day he was eager to be off and doing," Mabel recounted. "The world had won him away from me again...Each day as soon as he was gone out of the house I felt deserted and miserable...My triumphs served to stimulate him to greater achievements in that world where men do things in order to prove themselves powerful to themselves. So a spirit of competition sprang up between us! If I had power, he, then, must have more power...Desperate, I tried to hold him closer by laments...I grew more and more domestic except for the Evenings, when I sat tragic and let It do what It wanted." Nothing worked -- not her laments, not her tears, not her hysterics -- not even her attempts to join him on his excursions, for when Jack said he wanted to show her the misery of the Lower East Side, Mabel, to his mortification, insisted on making the tour in her chauffeur-driven limousine.
One night, when Jack told her about an encounter with a Village prostitute, how he "had felt her beauty and her mystery, and through her, the beauty and mystery of the world," she conjured up a not entirely successful faint. A few weeks later, when he stormed out of her apartment she took a carefully insufficient overdose of Veronal. And a few weeks later, when Jack invited another young rebel to 23 Fifth Avenue and talked into the night she tried to convey her loneliness by belittling his friend. To her astonishment, Mabel discovered a note beside her bed the next morning. "Good-by, my darling. I cannot live with you. You smother me. You crush me. You want to kill my spirit. I love you better than life but I do not want to die in my spirit. I am going away to save myself. Forgive me. I love you -- I love you. Reed." Jack had vanished, "taking the universe with him."
Mabel sobbed out her misery to Hutch. "If you suffer enough," Hutch reassured her in his dolefully optimistic way, "you will know the Absolute." But for the moment Mabel preferred Jack. After two days of nonstop weeping, she lunched with Carl Van Vechten, dined with Walter Lippmann, distracted by the one's self-amusement, the other's self-effacement -- and the next morning, just as "a faint beginning of gladness for aloneness was lifting in me," Jack burst into her apartment, pale and worn, buried his head in her lap, and cried out, "Oh, I couldn't bear it. I can't live without you. I missed your love, your selfish, selfish love!"
So the cause of Mabel's misery was removed at the precise moment she was beginning to glimpse its benefits. Jack got an assignment to go to Mexico to write a series of articles on Pancho Villa; Mabel tried to talk him out of it; Jack protested. "I will take you with me in my heart, but we must be free to live our own lives!"
The morning Jack departed Mabel sobbed to her pillow, then suddenly resolved to follow him. By midday, she'd wired him to meet her in Chicago, and boarded a train. But alas, "when we met I was disappointed that he looked merely glad instead of overjoyed." By the time they reached El Paso and she began to realize that tents and troop trains awaited her in Mexico, Mabel returned to the Village, "very much out of sorts." "I think she expect[ed] to find General Villa a sort of male Gertrude Stein," Jack wrote a friend, "or at least a Mexican Stieglitz." But he also sent Mabel long, loving letters -- "I will write all our names across the sky in flames!"
Dimly recognizing that her love diminished rather than enhanced her sense of self, Mabel tried to escape the web in which she felt trapped only to create another. Upon her return from El Paso, she discovered on her living room wall a painting by her old friend Andrew Dasburg, one of the peyote celebrators, boldly entitled The Absence of Mabel Dodge, and clearly intended as the anguished love letter he was too reticent to write. Although she felt "chemically all avowed" to Jack, Mabel encouraged Andrew's attention and asked another pioneering modernist in her circle, Marsden Hartley -- that "gnarled New England spinster man," Mabel's euphemism for homosexual -- to write Jack about the painting in order to stir his jealousy.
"It is full of the lightning of disappointment," Marsden wrote Jack. "It is a pictured sensation of spiritual outrage -- disappointment carried way beyond mediocre despair." The critic for the New York World outperformed even Marsden's strenuous effort. "Mrs. Dodge is not only literary, aspiring, and a charming hostess," he wrote, "but also appears to wave a mesmeric wand over Mr. Dasburg. In her presence he seems to feel like a torso stripped of skin and palpitating in roast beef layers of deep red and shining white; away from her his thrill collapses and the torso is jammed, twisted, and flattened as if a motor car had run over it." Unfortunately, the painting that evoked such prose -- they don't write like that anymore -- has disappeared.
She began to see Andrew every day, though she conscientiously reminded herself after each visit that "I was all for Reed." While Mabel had hoped to stir Jack's jealousy, the only jealousy stirred, alas, was Mabel's, for when Jack breezed back from Mexico intoxicated by the enthusiastic reception of his articles on Villa, he dedicated the resulting book, to the chagrin of Mabel, to his mother. He departed almost immediately to cover the miners' strike in Ludlow, Colorado. Mabel wanted a hero, but had no one to remind her to be careful what you want because you might get it. She began to pull away from Jack, as dissatisfied lovers so often do, by disguising her criticism of her lover as questioning of herself. Why, she wondered, do I always seem to "choose men too immature to satisfy me"?
And so the curtain slowly descended on their love. They spent a few weeks in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, sleeping in a silken tent on the dunes, before Mabel left for another summer in Florence; then they met for a few days in Naples when Jack rushed to Europe to cover the war. But "how [to] recount the gradual fall from bliss" that followed? "Did the return to earthly love bring it about? Did I forfeit my wholeness when I lay in Reed's arms again, tearing open the entrance to the nether world until I was like a wound that gaped between heaven and hell?...Even though his had been the hand that thrust me below once more, he himself remained above in the light...He was not essentially radical or revolutionary; he loved it when things happened and always wanted to be in the center of Events." Operatic lovemaking, protestations of undying love, the charades that signal the end.
In saying goodbye to Jack, Mabel also bid farewell "to the labor movement, to Revolution, and to anarchy. To the hope of subtly undermining the community with Hutch; and to all the illusions of being a power in the environment." The Evenings ceased as well, but not her capitalization, for now Mabel determined to devote herself to Art and Nature.
Mabel's first project, early in 1915, was to aid Isadora Duncan in establishing a school to teach the joys of modern dance to the children of the New York slums. With Walter Lippmann's aid, she persuaded New York's Irish Catholic mayor to visit Isadora's Ark, a Manhattan loft that the priestess of erotic dance had decorated with billowing blue curtains to evoke an Aegean island. Isadora may have had a superb sense of decor, but she had only a marginal sense of decorum, and tore into the mayor with such agitated passion that her gown slipped from her shoulder, exposing a breast. "If this is Greece and Joy and the Aegean Isles and the Influence of Music," Walter informed Mabel, falling into a fit of capitalization of his own, "I don't want anything to do with it."
Mabel's interest in Isadora wasn't a total loss, however, for a few months later, at a performance at the Duncan school, she met a patriarchal painter named Maurice Sterne and discovered that Men were still among her goals. Maurice's face made her think of the "undisclosed soul of Russia," and she promptly invited him to spend the summer in Provincetown to paint a series of portraits of her. Mabel may have wanted another Andrew, but she got another Jack, for while she hoped to remain on the Threshold, Maurice informed her that he couldn't work without sex. Well, if it'll help complete the portraits...
Who should show up, soon after Mabel and Maurice had moved in together that fall, but the crestfallen Jack. He could not live without her. Lincoln Steffens persuaded her, since Jack was almost immediately going back to Europe, to defer the final break, and Jack exultantly told everyone they were going to be married as soon as he returned. But Mabel forgot him the moment he "plung[ed] away into a heavy rainstorm," as Max Eastman said, "none of us knew where."
As for Mabel and Maurice, some lovers meet each other's needs too perfectly. Maurice, who longed to lose himself to a woman who would give shape to his life, certainly picked the right one. Mabel, who was fearful of once more losing her independence in love, was more than willing to comply. Momentary bliss -- quick disaster. She became calculating, controlling, domineering, he slavish, then morose, finally enraged. Maurice was less her lover than her job, she complained. Noticing that after orgasm he would study her body with an artist's eye, rapturously explaining his theories of curves, volumes, and masses, she decided that sculpture was his true medium, and bullied him into trading in his oils for clay. Mabel was now muse with a vengeance, but of course the more pliant Maurice became, the less manly he seemed.
Torn between submissiveness and anger, Maurice had no choice -- he begged Mabel to marry him. Torn between gratification and contempt, she was equally helpless -- and agreed. A few days after the ceremony, a distraught Village feminist berated Mabel for betraying women. Hadn't she been an example of women's right to love without the constraints of marriage? "You have counted so much for Women! Your Example has stood for courage and strength! I wonder if you realize that hundreds of women and girls have been heartened and fortified by the position you took." To which the bewildered Mabel could only respond, "Which one?"
Only a few days after their wedding, aware that now she had the rights of marriage without the constraints of love, and aware that theirs was a romance that provided its greatest pleasures when they were separated, Mabel informed Maurice that she thought it advisable that he go on their honeymoon alone. The compliant groom departed for the Southwest without his bride. Mabel's marriage was no more a total loss than her visit to Isadora's Ark, however, for in one of his first letters from Santa Fe, Maurice wrote, half in affection, half in desperation, "Dearest Girl -- Do you want an object in life? Save the Indians."
The Indians! "My life broke in two right then," Mabel said, "and I entered the second half...curing me of my epoch." In the Village, she had struggled for individuality, for achievement, for self-expression, but in New Mexico she surrendered herself to the acceptance and wholeness she discerned in the Indian way of life. She settled in the Eden of Taos for the rest of her life, replacing It with One.
Unfortunately, she still had Maurice to deal with. On one of their first excursions, however, they entered a pueblo and saw a tall, handsome Indian dressed in a white sheet singing in a low murmur. When he looked up, Mabel recognized the placid yet leonine face that had superimposed itself over Maurice's in a dream she had had shortly before leaving the Village. "I sing you a little song," the Indian said solemnly. "I wish you'd come and see us down in Taos," Mabel responded after he'd finished. "I seen you before already," he replied calmly, a remark that Mabel interpreted as predestination, Maurice as a roving eye.
They were both right. Antonio Luhan, a Tiwa Indian who had once made a tour to Coney Island with a Wild West show, quietly but persistently took over Mabel's life, introducing her to native customs, and, with his emotional dignity, acting as the spiritual guide for whom she still yearned. "Goin' by, goin' by, just like water," Tony once described Mabel, which pleased her more than anything Gertrude Stein had ever said. Most of the time they spent together they remained silent, somewhat a novelty to Mabel -- and indeed, whenever her talking annoyed Tony, he simply walked away, an even more unusual experience. "It seems to me," Tony once told her when she complained of his silences, "my heart is talking to you all the time" -- and that quieted her, as it would quiet anyone, for several months.
When Maurice finally announced that he was thinking of returning East, she eagerly approved. For it was Tony who promised psychic stability, Tony who inspired her to plant a teepee in her front yard, Tony who said one evening, "I comin' here to this teepee tonight, when darkness come. That be right?" "Yes, Tony," answered Mabel, "that will be right."
Mabel and Tony married in 1923, to the amused astonishment of her Village friends. "Lo, the poor Indian," commented Edwin Dodge.
"Why Bohemia's Queen married an Indian Chief" trumpeted the headlines in the national press, though Tony was in fact a "blanket Indian" whose fellow tribesmen were under the impression that Mabel was merely renting him. Mabel's restless pursuit of peace was over, but she remained a hostess to the end. Famous guests descended on Taos; Tony, wrapped in his blanket, took particular delight in chauffeuring them to the neighboring pueblos in Mabel's Cadillac, and Mabel almost singlehandedly transformed Taos into a kind of Village West. Willa Cather and Thornton Wilder were seduced by "the regent of New Mexico," as she came to be called (Paul Horgan dubbed her "the Morgan le Fay of Taos"), followed by Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, Edna Ferber, Robinson Jeffers, Leopold Stokowski, John Marin, Jean Stafford, and Thomas Wolfe, who showed up drunk, with two whores in tow, and was promptly dispatched.
But Mabel's most notable conquest was D. H. Lawrence, whom she summoned "across continents" with the ineffable power of One -- and with a bombardment of letters. "Before I went to sleep at night," she recalled, "I drew myself all in to the core of my being where there is a live, plangent force lying passive -- waiting for direction. Becoming entirely that, moving with it, speaking with it, I leaped through space, joining myself to the central core of Lawrence, where he was in India, Australia...I became that action that brought him across the sea...Come, Lawrence! Come to Taos! This is not prayer, but command."
Mabel's conviction was that Lawrence would "take my experience, my material, my Taos, and...formulate it all into a magnificent creation." After briefly toying with the idea of collaborating with Mabel on a book about her life, Lawrence -- or Lorenzo, as she came to call him -- decided it would be wiser to write his "American book" by himself. Upon seeing a manuscript of Mabel's, he had advised her to "Take a boat out to the middle of the Atlantic and sink it."
Initially attracted to each other by their imperious wills, Mabel and Lorenzo soon found themselves in ceaseless combat. "I wanted to seduce his spirit," Mabel confided, but Lorenzo's wife, Frieda -- whom Mabel described as having "a mouth rather like a gunman" -- smelled sex in the air, and the two women spent much of their time trying to rescue the genius from each other's possession. As for Lorenzo, once his initial fascination had faded, he quickly passed from wry amusement -- referring to Taos as "Mabeltown" and warning prospective guests not to fall "under the wing of the padrona" -- to outright horror, and eventually came to see Mabel as "the prototype of that greatest living abomination, the dominating American woman." He was determined to break the spirit of that "cooing raven of ill-omen" and Mabel briefly capitulated, even scrubbing the floors of her kitchen, one of the few times in her life she had ever visited that part of the house.
But some things even a muse won't put up with, and when Lorenzo went on berating Mabel for her "terrible will to power" and for trying "to compel life," she decided to return to the behavior she would be accused of. Years later, his anger recollected in tranquillity, Lorenzo called Mabel's memoirs "the most serious 'confessions' that ever came out of America, and perhaps the most heart-destroying revelation of the American life-process that ever has or will be produced. It's worse than Oedipus and Medea, and Hamlet and Lear and Macbeth are spinach and eggs in comparison." When they finally separated, after four tumultuous years, Lorenzo published a story about Mabel in which he not only revealed his desire to murder her but described in ingenious detail precisely how he would accomplish the task.
"Lorenzo thought he finished me up," Mabel mused wryly, but she survived for nearly four decades, even returning briefly to the Village in 1940 in a halfhearted attempt to revive her salon at One Fifth Avenue.
This extravagant, insatiable, courageous, silly, indomitable woman -- so easy to mock, so difficult to comprehend -- whose openness to experience and curiosity about ideas contributed so much to inventing the Village, died in Taos in 1962 at the age of eighty-three. Tony, who'd remained silent throughout the funeral service and most of the burial ceremony, suddenly began to talk. "Where's Mabel?" he asked as he wandered plaintively among the mourners. "We can't start without Mabel."
Copyright © 2002 by The Estate of Ross Wetzsteon