Mabel Ganson was born in Buffalo, New York, on 26th February, 1879. Her first marriage, at the age of 21, was to Karl Evans, the son of a steamship owner in 1900. He died in a hunting accident two-and-half years later leaving her a widow at the age of 23.
In 1903 Mabel married Edwin Dodge, a wealthy architect. The couple lived in Florence, Tuscany, for over seven years. According to her autobiography, Intimate Memories (1933), she had a series of affairs with both men and women. Some of her friends included Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and André Gide. After one failed relationship she tried to commit suicide by eating figs with shards of glass.
After leaving her husband in 1912 she moved to a apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue. Mabel Dodge's friend, Bertram D. Wolfe, later recalled: "Wealthy, gracious, open-hearted, beautiful, intellectually curious, and quite without a sense of discrimination, she was Bohemia's most successful lion-hunter."
Her apartment in New York City became a place where intellectuals and artists met. This included John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, Robert Edmond Jones, Margaret Sanger, Louise Bryant, Bill Haywood, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Frances Perkins, Amos Pinchot, Frank Harris, Charles Demuth, Andrew Dasburg, George Sylvester Viereck, John Collier, Carl Van Vechten and Amy Lowell.
Bertram D. Wolfe explained: "Sometimes Mrs. Dodge set the subject and selected the opening speaker; sometimes she shifted the night to make sure that none would know of the gathering expect those she personally notified." Dodge pointed out in her autobiography, Intimate Memories : "I switched from the usual Wednesday to a Monday, so that none but more or less radical sympathizers would be there." Ella Winter later wrote: "Mabel... was a strong, dominating woman who had always been wealthy and who used her money to make a personal bohemia.... I admired her intense vitality and energy even while I distrusted the anarchic uses to which she put them.
In his book, Autobiography (1931), Lincoln Steffens claimed: "Mabel Dodge, who is, in her odd way, one of the most wonderful things in the world; an aristocratic, rich, good-looking woman, she has never set foot on the earth earthy... With taste and grace, the courage of inexperience, and a radiating personality, that woman has done whatever it has struck her fancy to do, and put it and herself over-openly. She never knew that society could and did cut her; she went ahead, and opening her house, let who would come to her salon. Her house was a great old-fashioned apartment on lower Fifth Avenue. It was filled full of lovely, artistic things; she dressed beautifully in her own way.... Mabel Dodge managed her evenings, and no one felt that they were managed. She sat quietly in a great armchair and rarely said a word; her guests did the talking, and with such a variety of guests, her success was amazing."
Mabel Dodge began an affair with John Reed. She later described their first meeting: "His olive green eyes glowed softly, his high forehead was like a baby's with light brown curls rolling away from it and two spots of shining light on his temples, making him lovable. His chin was the best... the real poet's jawbone... eyebrows always lifted... generally breathless!"
Paterson was known as the "Silk City of America". More than one-third of its 73,000 workers held jobs in the silk industry. In 1911 silk manufacturers in Paterson decided that workers, who had previously ran two looms, were now required to operate four simultaneously. Workers complained that this would cause unemployment and consequently, would bring down wages. On 27th January, 1913, 800 employees of the Doherty Silk Mill went on strike when four members of the workers' committee were fired for trying to organize a meeting with the company's management to discuss the four-loom system. Within a week, all silk workers were on strike and the 300 mills in the town were forced to close.
John Reed decided to report on the Paterson Strike and took Mabel Dodge with him. He was soon arrested and imprisoned in Paterson County Jail. When the police found that he was embarrassing them by writing articles on prison conditions, they released him. Other left-wing journalists such as Walter Lippman arrived to show solidarity with Reed and to support the demand that reporters should be free to report industrial disputes.
Reed, Dodge and John Sloan organised a Paterson Strike Pageant in Madison Square Garden in an attempt to raise funds for the strikers. Dodge later wrote: "For a few electric moments there was a terrible unity between all of these people. They were one: the workers who had come to show their comrades what was happening across the river and the workers who had come to see it. I have never felt such a pulsing vibration in any gathering before or since." However, the strike fund was unable to raise enough money and in July, 1913, the workers were starved into submission.
However, as Bertram D. Wolfe pointed out: "It is hard work to fill Madison Square Garden. The dollar and two-dollar seats remained almost empty until workers and strikers were let in free or at ten cents a seat. Instead of making money, the pageant ended with a deficit". The strike fund was unable to raise enough money and in July, 1913, the workers were starved into submission.
The day after the Paterson Strike Pageant, Dodge and John Reed left for a tour of Europe. He told his current girlfriend, "Rose, I don't love you: I love Mabel Dodge." However, the relationship was stormy. After one argument Reed sent her a parting letter: "Goodbye, my darling - you smother me. You crush me. You want to kill my spirit. I love you better than life but do not want to die in my spirit. I am going away to save myself. Forgive me. I love you."
A pacifist, Mabel Dodge contributed articles to the radical journal, The Masses, during the First World War. She was also active in the Women's Peace Party. In 1916 she married the artist Maurice Sterne. After the war, Mabel Dodge, her husband and Elsie Clews Parsons, a sociologist, moved to Taos, New Mexico, and started a literary colony there.
In 1922 D. H. Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence, stayed at Taos where he wrote The Plumed Serpent (1926). The main character in his short-story, The Woman Who Rode Away, was based on Dodge. In 1923 she married Tony Lujan, a Native American. The couple visited the recently married, Lincoln Steffens and Ella Winter in 1927 at their new home in Carmel, California. Winter later wrote: "Tony was broad-shouldered, square, brown-skinned, and wore Western clothes, with cowboy boots and a colored Navajo rug, tog alike, over his shoulders. He was illiterate and childlike, and liked to play darts or gather shells on the beach with the children. He brought his big Navajo drum to parties, and when he got bored, would take it out and thump on it an Indian lament."
© John Simkin, May 2013
Returning from three years in her elegant Florentine villa to "ugly, ugly America" and on the way to becoming estranged from her loyal, conventional second husband, she sought to fill the void in her life by turning her beautiful apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue into an open house for everybody that was anybody, and many a nobody. Wealthy, gracious, open-hearted, beautiful, intellectually curious, and quite without a sense of discrimination, she was Bohemia's most successful lion-hunter. "I wanted to know the Heads of things, Heads of movements, Heads of newspapers, Heads of all kinds of groups ... anything that showed above the tribal pattern." Her hospitality, her capacity for listening, her quiet, encouraging smile, brought together the great, the near-great, and those who came to dream of greatness.
Steffens was one of her lions; he brought the three young Harvard classmates, Lee Simonson, Walter Lippmann, and John Reed. There they could meet of a Wednesday evening the Hapgoods, Jo Davidson, Margaret Sanger, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Max Eastman, Frances Perkins, Andrew Dasburg, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Amos Pinchot, Amy Lowell, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Carl Van Vechten, Harry Kemp, Frank Harris, George Sylvester Viereck, John Collier... an inexhaustible Who's Who.
"I'll do it," cried a voice - and a young man (John Reed) detached himself from the group and assumed a personality before my eyes... His olive green eyes glowed softly, his high forehead was like a baby's with light brown curls rolling away from it and two spots of shining light on his temples, making him lovable. His chin was the best... the real poet's jawbone... eyebrows always lifted... generally breathless!
During this period Reed had become an habitue, along with an assortment of writers, artists, labor leaders, and theater personalities, of Mabel Dodge's salon on lower Fifth Avenue. Mrs. Dodge, a few years older than Reed, was divorced from her second husband, Edwin Dodge, a prominent Boston architect.
She was not beautiful; she was completely humorless; and she was staggeringly conceited. But she managed by flattery, a superficial knowledge of the arts and politics, and lavish hospitality, to lure such disparate personalities to her gatherings as Steffens and Emma Goldman. Her friends included Walter Lippmann, Robert Edmond Jones, Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, and Big Bill Haywood. Her Evenings were famous. She seemed, as she candidly admitted, to be able to exert a "free-flowing magnetic influence on all sorts of people." Seldom venturing out of the sheltered luxury of her own house, she joined some friends one evening, out of curiosity, in a visit to the Greenwich Village apartment of Big Bill Haywood's mistress. There she found Haywood, the one-eyed leader of the much publicized silk workers' strike, addressing a group that included Reed. Haywood was complaining of the difficulty of dramatizing for New Yorkers the tragedy in New Jersey. His workers needed money and moral support to win their strike, he said, and their New York comrades would surely help, if they could visualize what was really happening.
Mabel Dodge impulsively suggested putting on a pageant of the strike at Madison Square Garden, re-enacting the police brutality, the poverty-stricken conditions of the silkworkers and their families, and repeating the rallying speeches made by Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Carlo Tresca. The idea was taken up at once by Reed, who introduced himself to her and volunteered to organize the pageant.
For a few electric moments there was a terrible unity between all of these people. They were one: the workers who had come to show their comrades what was happening across the river and the workers who had come to see it. I have never felt such a pulsing vibration in any gathering before or since.
My "home" was a room in Washington Square, where youth lived and reds gathered, the young poets, and painters, playwrights, actors, and Bohemians, and labor leaders of a radical trend, like Bill Haywood, socialists like Max Eastman and Floyd Dell, anarchists, and IWW's. John Reed had a room above mine. His father, U.S. Marshal Charles Reed, whom I had known intimately in the timber fraud cases in Portland, Oregon, had asked me to keep an eye on his boy, Jack, who, the father thought, was a poet. "Get him a job, let him see everything, but don't let him be anything for a while," that wise father said. "Don't let him get a conviction right away or a business or a career, like me. Let him play." I got Jack a job on the American Magazine, on condition that he work only for a living, not to become an editor, but to use it as a springboard from which to dive into life. "Do well what you have to do, but keep the job in its second place," I bade him. And he acted on the advice. I used to go early to bed and to sleep, but I liked it when Jack, a big, growing, happy being, would slam into my room and wake me up to tell me about the "most wonderful thing in the world" that he had seen, been, or done that night. Girls, plays, bums, IWW's, strikers-each experience was vivid in him, a story, which he often wrote; every person, every idea; Bill Haywood, some prostitute down and out on a park bench, a vaudeville dancer; socialism; the I.W.W. program-all were on a live level with him. Everything was the most wonderful thing in the world. Jack and his crazy young friends were indeed the most wonderful thing in the world.
Jack became enamored of Mabel Dodge, who is, in her odd way, one of the most wonderful things in the world; an aristocratic, rich, good-looking woman, she has never set foot on the earth earthy. "A cut flower," Hutchins Hapgood called her. With taste and grace, the courage of inexperience, and a radiating personality, that woman has done whatever it has struck her fancy to do, and put it and herself over-openly. She never knew that society could and did cut her; she went ahead, and opening her house, let who would come to her salon. Her house was a great old-fashioned apartment on lower Fifth Avenue. It was filled full of lovely, artistic things; she dressed beautifully in her own way. "I found out what styles of hats and gowns suited me, and them I wore through all the passing fashions." She read everything; she believed - for a while - everything; she backed everything with her person and her money, especially young geniuses, like Jack and Robert Edmond Jones. She gave "Bobbie" Jones a back room in her flat to play in, and it looked like a nursery of toys. There he slept, worked, and played with the miniature stages and stage accessories he gathered to develop his childlike gift for stage-making and decorating.
Jack Reed had a second room there, when he got home in time to sleep, and either Jack or Mabel Dodge suggested the salon. Anyway we were soon told that one evening a week we might all come there with our friends, anybody, and talk. A rich, abundant luncheon was laid in the dining-room, apart, and that was visited by some people who were hungry. All sorts of guests came to Mabel Dodge's salons, poor and rich, labor skates, scabs, strikers and unemployed, painters, musicians, reporters, editors, swells; it was the only successful salon I have ever seen in America. By which I mean that there was conversation and that the conversation developed usually out of some one theme and stayed on the floor.
During my newspaper days some society women asked Norman Hapgood to induce some of his friends to come to their dinners and evenings. They had seen in England and France that their kind of people made thus social centers to which writers, artists, and statesmen came for conversation and amusement. Why could not they, the American rich, imitate that? Several writers and wits did go with Hapgood to some swell houses one winter, but soon dropped out. They said they were bored; it was impossible. There was no conversation, only food, drink, and risque stories. There was no management, no hostess.
Mabel Dodge managed her evenings, and no one felt that they were managed. She sat quietly in a great armchair and rarely said a word; her guests did the talking, and with such a variety of guests, her success was amazing. 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. She would seize a time when there was an IWW strike to invite, say, Bill Haywood especially. He would sit or stand near her and strike out, in the hot, harsh spirit of his organization, some challenging idea, answer brutally a few questions, and that evening everybody talked IWW. Emma Goldman said something about anarchism one evening when the anarchists were in the news, and that night we discussed anarchism. It was there and thus that some of us first heard of psychoanalysis and the new psychology of Freud and Jung, which in several discussions, one led by Walter Lippmann, introduced us to the idea that the minds of men were distorted by unconscious suppressions, often quite irresponsible and incapable of reasoning or learning. The young writers saw a new opening for their fiction, the practical men a new profession. I remember thinking how absurd had been my muckraker's descriptions of bad men and good men and the assumption that showing people facts and conditions would persuade them to alter them or their own conduct.
Mabel Dodge came from New Mexico with Tony Luhan, her American Indian husband. Tony was still married to an Indian wife and under United States law was not allowed to divorce her, so every Friday, Mabel told us, "I plait his long black hair with bright-colored ribbons and send him off to his wife." Tony was broad-shouldered, square, brown-skinned, and wore Western clothes, with cowboy boots and a colored Navajo rug, tog alike, over his shoulders. He was illiterate and childlike, and liked to play darts or gather shells on the beach with the children. He brought his big Navajo drum to parties, and when he got bored, would take it out and thump on it an Indian lament. When I saw him silent and seemingly unhappy at these cocktail parties, and asked Mabel if she thought he understood what they were chattering about, she responded, "Oh, he gets it through his skin."
Tony accompanied Mabel everywhere, driving their long black Cadillac while she sat dignifiedly in the back with a stout white bulldog. When the limousine swept down the little winding Carmel streets, they looked like three bulldogs sitting together.
Mabel was square and squat like her husband, and though her face was broad, she wore her straight dark hair cut short in a bang. She was a strong, dominating woman who had always been wealthy and who used her money to make a personal bohemia. She created settings for artistic or odd individuals-the "movers and shakers" she liked to have around-the latest being a hundred-thousand-dollar luxury ranch in Taos, New Mexico, which she built when she shed her painter husband Maurice Sterne in favor of the Indian, Tony. "I like to make things happen,"' Mabel said, and she did; she experimented with drugs, treating her guests to mescaline parties. She mixed couples for the fun of "making trouble," and did not hesitate to destroy in the process. She even made trouble between Una and Robin on one occasion.
I admired her intense vitality and energy even while I distrusted the anarchic uses to which she put them. When she told me about her famous "salon of radicals, anarchists, and poets" at 23 Fifth Avenue before World War I, and I remarked what fascinating discussions there must have been, she commented dryly, "Oh, I never listened to what they said, I only watched the interplay of personality." Her literary friends wrote about her - Max Eastman, Jack Reed, with whom she had had a celebrated affair, Carl Van Vechten, D. H. Lawrence (The Woman Who Rode Away) -while she herself recounted in six volumes her Intimate Memories. When Lawrence "unfeelingly died," as Steffy, who was a very old friend, put it, Mabel decided on Jeffers for her "next lion," and came straight to Carmel.
Mabel was frantic when Jo Davidson chose to sculpt Robin on our balcony instead of in the house she had especially rented, and sought daily to lure me away from artist and model on any pretext. She would drive by in that domineering Cadillac and peremptorily order me to accompany her uptown - on one occasion to send fourteen telegrams inviting guests to Carmel, only to cancel them the next day. "How boring if they should all show up," she wailed. And a scowling Mabel showed up at the studio party to which we invited all Carmel to admire Jo's finished bust. Jo took one look at her face and whispered gaily to me, "We are not going to like the bust." He was right. "He hasn't caught the spiritual quality in the eyes," Mabel announced, "or the poetry of the nostrils," and none present dared oppose.