I had an agenda as I headed into Taos County, New Mexico. I wanted to touch bases with some eccentric woman who called the area home. The first, of course, would be Georgia O’Keeffe. And the best way to prepare for her is to drive through the country she painted. On the road from Abiquiu, you go past grey hills that will be familiar from some of her paintings. Unfortunately, there aren’t many turnouts on that road to accommodate picture taking. So when I reached Taos, I immediately sought out the church of San Francisco de Asis in the Rancho de Taos. As Georgia O’Keeffe painted it and Ansel Adams photographed it, the adobe church seems to stand alone against the mountains. In reality, it sits in a parking lot surrounded by adobe restaurants, gift shops and clothing stores.
The next eccentric woman on my list was Mabel Dodge Luhan. A wealthy patron of the arts, she established the Taos arts colony when she purchased a twelve acre property and invited Frieda and D.H. Lawrence to join her there. At about the same time, a charismatic Tewa Indian from the Taos Pueblo set up a teepee in her courtyard and started drumming to draw her to him. It drove her current husband away. The Indian, Tony Luhan, moved in, Mabel was influenced to cut her hair in the native Pueblo fashion, don Turquoise, collect Native New Mexican art and expand her colony.
Although the house might be better known today as the house Dennis Hopper bought shortly after filming Easy Rider nearby. He famously rode his Harley across that roof and hosted drug-fueled parties inside.
Moving to Taos after a bad break-up with Clark Gable, she managed to amass thousands of important works of Native American art, from bowls from the Chaco period to contemporary artwork.
Oh, I also sampled some other sights of Taos including Kit Carson’s house, and the home of George Bent, the first American governor of the territory and the brother-in-law of Carson. During an Indian uprising, Bent’s family and Carson’s wife were barricaded in his house, escaping by hacking through the adobe to crawl into an adjoining house. While the women and children escaped, Bent remained to reason with the rebels. He was stabbed, scalped alive and killed for his troubles. The gruesome Governor Bent House Museum highlights exactly where it happened.
But the real highlight of my trip to the Taos area, was meeting up in Ojo Caliente with two Facebook friends, I’d “met” through various Roadtrekking groups and Hillary Clinton political posts. Mary Ellen and Sue are in about their third reinvention of themselves, each iteration more interesting than the last. My favorite Mary Ellen story is that time she organized a conference and fundraiser that featured Anita Hill’s first public appearance since the Clarence Thomas hearings. Fortuitously — or maybe on purpose — the napkins on the tables were the same salmon pink of the suit Anita had worn at the hearings. When she came out, several hundred women jumped on their chairs, waved their napkins and yelled, “We believe you, Anita!”
Mary Ellen’s latest iteration is as a publisher, because Sue is now a novelist. Seems Sue has been a scholar of Willa Cather and her equally accomplished but virtually unknown significant other, Edna Lewis, who was a magazine editor and copywriter at J. Walter Thompson back in the 20s when women were in neither of those professions. While trying to shape a biography, Sue came to the conclusion that she could have more fun filtering Cather and Lewis’s real life travels through the lens of a mystery novel. You can find the first one here. She’s already got a second in the works. I’ve got my copy and can’t wait to read it. Hint: the real Cather and Lewis made it to Taos and those travels are featured in the upcoming book.
Can’t wait to stay tuned and see their next act. I’ve suggested perhaps a Netflix series for the Willa Cather/Edna Lewis Mysteries!