Who was Mabel Dodge?
From High Society Heiress to Bohemian Goddess
It is hard to believe that the same woman pictured in her Sunday best with her husband and their young son would, ten years later, be seated on the floor of her Washington Square Garden apartment hosting a discussion about “The Cult of the Orgasm.” Arguably, Mabel Dodge could not have done more of a shift in life styles. She was born the princess of a capitalist dynasty, the only child of Buffalo, New York elites, and died on a Native American reservation in Taos, New Mexico. It would be hard for her parents to imagine that their only child would make a name for herself from Florence, to Paris, to New York City to the quiet artist colony in New Mexico.
Mabel Dodge was born Mabel Ganson in 1879. Though she was raised in a world of abundance, she early on described feeling that money and objects had always served as a substitution for affection for the Gansons. Dodge’s own parents were extremely distant. Already an only child, Dodge felt extremely alone in the cavernous mansions that the Gansons owned in western New York. Dodge recalled her only memory of her grandfather being him standing a far way off and giving her a silver coin from his pocket. Rudnick writes how the memory “epitomized the substitution of power for love that Mabel attributed to the American upper classes into which she was born” (200). Dodge’s family was the definition of “old money:” the Gansons had thrived since the Jacksonian era, and Dodge was a direct benefactor from that wealth. Her great-grandfather Ganson had served in the Revolution and proceeded to be educated at Harvard. He served in the Senate and continued to finance industrialization and his son continued to work in investment (Rudnick 297). Dodge also reported that she was conflicted in her perception of her family because she felt a mixture of respect and fury toward the sheer prosperity she enjoyed. Dodge venerated her parents much less than her grandparents, though. Dodge’s parents lived off of the work of the generation before them. Her parents didn’t need to do anything in order to live a wealthy and gilded life. In fact, while Dodge’s father was formally trained in law, he never actually practiced law or took on any other professional pursuits (Rudnick 211).
Dodge wrote extensively of the separation and isolation she felt in her childhood. She would even account how she felt her family’s mansion was a place “Destined for sorrow” (Rudnick 212). Dodge’s father and mother often argued, and Dodge’s father spent long hours in his study away from his daughter and his wife. Dodge would write that, “I knew with all the prescience of a child that my father had no love for me at all. To him I was something that made a noise sometimes in the house and had to be told to get out of the way” (Dodge Luhan 23). Dodge expressed feeling that her mother too was distant and cold. Dodge says, “I have no recollections of my mother’s ever giving me a kiss or a smile” (25). Dodge was mostly cared for by the servants of her family’s house, and Dodge admits not knowing the names of most of the “nursemaids” (Rudnick 332).
From Dodge’s own accounts and accounts from the Ganson house’s existing correspondence, it is apparent Dodge spent the majority of her time secluded in the nursery, which was a large white room in the mansion. Nursemaids visited mostly just to teach lessons in womanhood and manners. Rudnick surmises that in the nursery began “her [Dodge’s] fear of purposelessness that led to her obsession as an adult to be part of everything in her environment, to take up every cause, to experience emotions to their furthest limits” (360). Dodge did have activities she engaged in. Dodge took on activities like riding horses and painting outdoors, but rarely did she ever share these activities with other individuals. Dodge’s cycles of depression began while she was young and persisted into her adulthood. Dodge would write that she suffered “neurasthenic depressions during which she claimed she could accomplish nothing” (Dodge Luhan 26). Like others of her class, she attended a school for girls and she notably enjoyed Shakespeare.
When Dodge turned eighteen, she was thrown a “Coming Out” party, which was a common practice of the higher class. It essentially advertised that a daughter was ready to be married. Dodge had several months of escapades with various men of the social circle until her parents pressured her to settle down and marry. Her father wanted her to marry another named Seward Carey, and so as an act of defiance, Dodge chose someone else, Karl Evans. Still, their marriage was strategic, since Evans was the child of a shipping dynasty and in similar social circles as the Gansons (Rudnick 234). Dodge still would describe her marriage as being “kidnapped” (Dodge Luhan 33). She did not completely dislike her marriage to Evans: she eventually would feel content in their smaller home, and two years after marriage, she gave birth to their son, John, in 1902. Evans would die only a few months after in a hunting accident, around the same time as her father, who died from a sudden illness. Dodge was essentially alone in a sea of wealth, without company other than a small child. After a brief affair with the gynecologist who had delivered John, Dodge departed for a new life in Paris, where she would begin unraveling the Victorian influences on her life. A decade later, she returned to New York, a woman in Renaissance robes determined to seek out the spirit of “The New”.
Dodge Luhan, Mabel. Mabel Dodge Luhan: In Her Own Words. Taos, New Mexico: Mabel
Dodge Luhan House, 2010. Print.
Rudnick, Lois. Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds (Kindle Locations 200-360). University of New Mexico Press. Kindle Edition.