When Lawrence returned to Taos to give it another go, Tony and Mabel Dodge Luhan (MDL) had also recently returned from their first long absence from home. It was the opportunity for a fresh start, or so went the plan. This time Lawrence and the QB had returned with a new guest, Dorothy Brett (10 November 1883 – 27 August 1977). ‘The Brett,’ as she was known, was a former student of the Slade School of Art and of aristocratic ancestry. Partially deaf, she had a brass ear trumpet stuck to her ear, rotating it to listen into conversations. ‘It was not a jolly, sociable ear trumpet that longed to be a part of everything else,’ complained MDL, ‘I soon saw that it was an eavesdropper. It was a spy upon any influence near Lorenzo.’ Oh dear, he we go again…
Brett is dismissed by MDL, rather unfairly, as some kind of commodity who is passed around the literati to satiate their various needs. First, she was Katherine Mansfield’s close confident, then the brief love interest of Middleton Murry, and now Lawrence’s typist. But she was a lot more to Lawrence than mere typist which probably explains MDLs lack of compassion towards her hearing aid. Brett was a threat; another obstacle thwarting the flow between her and Lawrence.
The Lawrence’s moved into a two storey house across the alfalfa from MDL. Brett had a studio a few doors away. Brett’s accommodation was tiny, but she was content to sit and paint the Truchas Peaks which lie on the divide between the Rio Grande and the Pecos River. MDL couldn’t accept that this shy, quiet artist was content perfecting her craft, instead she accuses Brett of ‘watching every move of Lorenzo to and fro between our houses.’
MDL picks fault with Brett at every opportunity in her memoir. She is keen to point out that although Brett’s father, Viscount Esher, had kept a racing stable; he never let his daughters ride. Whereas, of course, MDL had her own horses. But any hopes she had of long treks out into the mountains with Lawrence on her own are soon scuppered when Lawrence, who revelled in imparting knowledge, taught Brett to ride. They would end up taking long rides together. Given Brett’s deafness, a lot of these horse rides were taken in silence. In her memoir, Lawrence and Brett: A Friendship, she suggests that Lawrence enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of simply trotting along and being at one with his immediate environment, rather than being harassed for his affections by MDL.
To her credit, MDL tries every trick in the book to get close to Lawrence – which makes for unintentionally hilarious reading when it goes sour. One of the most bizarre examples of this is a haircutting incident. Lawrence didn’t want to trudge down to Taos to get his locks chopped, so they decided to do it in-house. MDL, dramatic and desperate as ever, writes: ‘I longed to have him shear me.’ But Lawrence wouldn’t shear anyone, instead Brett, courteous as ever, steps in. Not being a professional hairdresser she accidentally cuts MDL’s ear in the process, which ramps up the paranoia to new heights: ‘She hated me, she was deaf, and she tried to mutilate my ear.’
Brett paints a slightly different version of events in her memoir, recalling that Lawrence – a man not accustomed for his patience – becoming irritated at having to sit still, barking ‘haven’t you finished yet?’ A bowl is placed over his head and ‘I snip and snip as I have seen barbers do, but somehow it is not quite so easy as it looks.’ Needless to say Lawrence is not impressed: ‘For heaven’s sake. Get a man to cut my hair. You’ve given me a debutante bob.’ When it’s MDL’s turn she complains that Brett is pulling her and that it hurts. When she cuts her ear by mistake, Brett recalls a calmer MDL saying ‘It’s all right, Brett; it’s nothing. It’s almost healed and doesn’t matter.’
The latest cabin that MDL provided for the Lawrences required a lot of work. Brett was more than happy to get her hands dirty, passing Lawrence nails as he tacked down the roof. For her troubles she was nicknamed the ‘handmaiden’. Frieda became suspicious of Brett’s intentions, later limiting her home visits to three times a week. At this point Frieda’s relationship with MDL starts to improve, due to their shared distrust of this enthusiastic new guest.
MDL had strong ideas for how the cabin (the former home of Mrs. Sprage) should look and hoped Lawrence would paint the pink house green to blend in with the environment. Instead he painted it cream so that it stood out even more. Then he added a green snake wrapped around the stem of a sunflower. On either side he added a large black butterfly, a white dove, a dark brown bullfrog, and a rooster, followed by the Phoenix rising out of the flames. It was an eyesore that caused scandal with the neighbours. Tony Luhan wouldn’t go near it.
In her memoir, Dorothy Brett recalls Lawrence ‘committing an outrage on the toilet door’ and was under the impression that the reason the design caused so much offence was because of the addition of an Adam and Eve that they painted brown. But this wasn’t the problem. It was the amount of fun they were having together. As Brett recalls, ‘that seems to be the last straw of Mabel’s forbearance…She darts furious glances at us: we giggle and chop and paint. We are, as usual, absorbed, excited and terrifically amused, as doing these silly things amuse us.’
Although MDL was clearly a very difficult woman to be around, you have to admire her perseverance. She, like Lawrence, had an agenda, and was equally stubborn and forceful in trying to realise it. She had given Lawrence the space that he demanded but this affected the ‘psychic flow’ of their relationship, rendering her into a more pragmatic role: ‘Dear Mabel, We need whitewash…turquoise paint, brushes, a packet of tin tacks, a pound of putty, hinges for cupboards and screws. These things whenever anything is coming up, on wheels.’
Understandably, the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of the Indians’ required a more meaningful relationship with her latest project and so heeded Lawrence’s advice at not living life through her head and began building him a great chair. The chair was wide, deep and heavy. ‘I carved it a little and cut up a fine old blanket to upholster it, with shining brass nails. It was intended to become Lawrence’s very own chair. I fancied him always sitting in it and always writing in it…one of those dedicated pieces of furniture that would slowly become associated with him.’ When finished, she hoisted it up on a wagon, ‘where it loomed and swayed like the seat of honour in a triumphal procession.’ Lawrence took an immediate dislike to it, called it ‘the iron maiden,’ and had it send back down the hill.
No matter how hard she tried, MDL ended up annoying Lawrence, largely because she took his advice too literally. In his memoir, A Poet and Two Painters, Knud Merrild recalls a similar incident whereby MDL knitted Lawrence a scarf that comprised 45 different bands of colour. Yes, she had made something with her hands, but the scarf was imbued with symbolic meaning. ‘Look at it’ Lawrence fumed. ‘What a conglomeration of colours! Very bad taste, with no sense of proportion. What an atrocity! Now if she had just knitted a scarf in a few, simple colours, with some feeling in it, it could have been nice. But what does she do? She makes it with her head…the colours, even the proportions, are supposed to have a meaning. It is me and her and Taos!’ Merrild would go on to observe ‘She must be awfully dumb if she doesn’t know that she is annoying Lawrence; or else she is so blindly in love that she can’t see it. And to do it just for the sake of bullying would be too stupid.’
After the Kiowa Ranch was completed, it soon became clear that the idea of communal living wasn’t going to work – no matter how far the distance between the inhabitants. Whenever MDL turned up to say hello she was greeted with a grimace. The tension was exacerbated when Tony shot a porcupine close to Lawrence’s home. MDL claims that this incident would inspire Lawrence’s essay Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine, with him taking credit for the killing. But Knud Merrild confirmed that he taught Lawrence to shoot and he did once shoot a porcupine. Given that his memoir was published 6 years after MDLs, it’s easy to see why MDL may have taken credit for the incident.
Unhappy with running errands for Lawrence, MDL sent up her own errand boy, Clarence, to deliver messages on her behalf. The two men quickly struck up a friendship, enjoying long horseback rides into the desert together. MDL describes Clarence as immediately falling under Lawrence’s spell and that he longed to be ‘victimised’ by Lawrence! Whereas Dorothy Brett notes that Clarence ‘has the impertinence to make googoo eyes at you. You make no sign of having noticed.’ But the bromance didn’t last very long and Clarence soon discovered, via Frieda, that Lawrence wanted to ‘destroy’ MDL. All of this backstabbing, fighting, gossiping, and an almost sado-masochistic desire to get close to a person – who clearly wouldn’t let anyone in – is interspersed with poems and mystic philosophies, all of which helps paint a curious picture of the absolute bonkers life of Bohemians in 1920s New Mexico.
Clearly MDL craved a more ‘spiritual’ relationship with Lawrence and was thwarted at every opportunity. But perhaps the most difficult thing for her to accept was that instead of recording the life of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, Lawrence gave everything to Old Mexico. She argues that in The Plumed Serpent ‘he has put the facts of his Taos experience of Indians and drums and dancing, but of actual Indian life there is very little told’. Meanwhile, Mornings in Mexico includes the three essays ‘The Corn Dance,’ ‘Indians and Entertainment,’ and ‘The Snake Dance’. Given she had tried so hard to woo Lawrence to Taos, and that her reasons for doing this were in earnest, the rejection hurt even more. MDL would also inspire the short story The Woman Who Rode Away, in which a naive white woman is sacrificed to an ancient God. It was a damning critique of her own life story, yet she seems more concerned that it’s not set in New Mexico, given she had taken Lawrence to see the ancient cave the story refers to. She argues that the reason he turned from New to Old Mexico in his writing was because ‘he belonged to those centuries of civilisation that come between the bright, true golden age of pure delight and the brilliant age of gold; between these two ‘soulless’ periods when men wandered pitifully wondering what was the matter with the world and with themselves that they should so unaccountably suffer.’
When Lawrence and the QB finally headed back to Europe, it would be the last time that MDL saw them in person. Their relationship would now be left to letters, many of which are published in her memoir. In one letter, Lawrence passes advice on MDL’s own writing, advising her to better disguise the real people she refers to in her script as ‘other people can be utterly remorseless, if they think you’ve given them away.’ And boy did Lawrence give people away in his own books! His depiction of Jessie Chambers as Miriam in Sons and Lovers destroyed their relationship forever. Her brother David Chambers recalls “Lawrence was ruthless. He would make use of anybody. My sister felt that Lawrence had betrayed himself. She felt that he had allowed the animal side of his nature to come to the top.”
Lawrence’s advice to MDL on getting published bitterly reinforced his own experiences: ‘Don’t leave your MSS. to anyone. They’ll all edit them to emasculation. Rouse up and publish them yourself…and don’t have introductions. Don’t be introduced and discussed before you’re there. Don’t have anybody write an introduction. Don’t ask for credentials and letters of recommendation. Publish your things blank straight as they are…have it reviewed in about three good newspapers, and no more. As little publicity as possible…For once put your ego aside. After all, there’s enough of your ego in the book, without having to write your name large on the title page’.
In one letter, after moaning about the weather in Florence, he requested any copyright photographs she might have of Indians for Mornings in Mexico, promising ‘I’ll dedicate the book to you, if you like; to Mabel Dodge Luhan, who called me to Taos’. Lawrence then offset this with some curt advice about her home and land, which he mocked as ‘Mabeltown’: ‘I believe that’s your ambition – to have an earthly kingdom, and rule it. But my dear, it’s an illusion like any other.’
But Lawrence being Lawrence, it’s not long before Europe is getting on his nerves and he’s umming and ahhing about returning to Taos as ‘a change of continent would do me good’ but it all depends on ‘my damned bronchitis’. As always, he’s in denial about his health, claiming ‘it’s partly psychological, of course.’ He is keen to hold onto the ranch, perhaps symbolically, because it gives him some kind of roots. The letters that fill the end of her memoir span his time in Florence, Switzerland, Baden Baden, and finally Bandol, France on 21 Jan 1930, where he seems to have finally mellowed and acknowledged he was equally at fault in their turbulent relationship: ‘if we can manage it, and I can come to New Mexico, then we can begin a new life, with real tenderness in it. Every form of bullying is bad’. He died on 2 March 1930.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. Do we have room for an ear trumpet to represent ‘The Brett’ or a scarf for Mabel Dodge Luhan? How can we convey the jealousy, paranoia and infatuation aroused during his time in Taos? If you have an idea for an artefact, please submit ideas here.
- Lorenzo in Taos 1: Come on over to my place
- Lorenzo in Taos 2: I put a spell on you…
- Lorenzo in Taos 3: Mabeltown
- Lorenzo in Taos 4: A Centre of Disturbance
- Mabel Dodge Luhan House (mabeldodgeluhan.com)
- Mabel Dodge Luhan (1932/2007) Lorenzo in Taos is published by Sunstone Press (sunstonepress.com)
- Knud Merrild (1938) A Poet and Two Painters is published by Andesite Press