January 15, 2008
Fifth Avenue & The High Road to Taos: Mabel Dodge Luhan, Georgia O'Keeffe, and New York City (A Walk)
Read the updated, revised version from 2012 with all the posts in the series here.
Years ago, in the plaza of Taos, New Mexico, my mother and I struck up a conversation with a guy who ran a sandwich stand. He told us he was a New Yorker, a former business executive who decided on a whim one day to move out west. While stuck in traffic for hours on the Long Island Expressway, he decided to go home, collect the wife and children, and leave New York for good. He said he never regretted the decision, and he was happy selling sandwiches on the Taos plaza.
Mabel Dodge (1879-1962), the wealthy heiress at 23 Fifth Avenue, and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), the famous artist whose first exhibit was held at 291 Fifth Avenue, could have lived out the rest of their lives in New York. In 1917 Dodge married painter Maurice Sterne and had her eye on a new apartment at 23 Washington Square North. In April of 1917 Alfred Stieglitz exhibited a series of O'Keeffe's watercolors at his 291 gallery, and soon the two would be living together. They married in 1924.
After a series of nervous ailments, Dodge decided her future was in the west. In December 1917 she moved to Taos, New Mexico with her husband and their friend, Elsie Clews Parsons. Twelve years later, in the summer of 1929, O'Keeffe traveled to New Mexico with her friend, Beck Strand. The two stayed at Mabel's ranch. Mabel had divorced Sterne and married Tony Luhan, a Native American. For O'Keeffe, the visit presented a new palette, not just for her art but for her life. Upon returning to New York her art career blossomed (so to speak), but in 1932 and 1933 she also suffered from bouts of psychoneurosis. In 1934, still recuperating, she returned to New Mexico and found her ranch.
New York can be beautiful, but not in the way that New Mexico can be beautiful. I think New Mexico will continue to hypnotize those of us who live back east. When I get sick of the city, I sit on my terrace and look west. I imagine the Sangre de Christo Mountains in the setting red-orange sun and cow's skulls with white calico roses descending over the azure sky. I think then, "How much longer can I take this? What Ghost Ranch waits for me?"
A walk up Fifth Avenue continues with Ladies of the Canyon
(top) Mabel Dodge Luhan. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1934, and (bottom) Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1950.