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Chapter 1: Mabel Dodge's Salon "Oh, How We Were All Intertwined!"
"Oh, How We Were All Intertwined!"
"To dynamite New York!" -- that's why she'd gathered in her Greenwich Village apartment the writers, artists, journalists, socialists, anarchists, feminists, labor leaders, clergymen, psychiatrists, and poets, all the "movers and shakers," who would "upset America with fatal, irrevocable disaster to the old order!"
Among the more than one hundred guests tonight in Mabel Dodge's legendary salon at 23 Fifth Avenue might be Max Eastman and Walter Lippmann in animated conversation with Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn -- or Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman holding forth for Carl Van Vechten, Alfred Stieglitz, and Marsden Hartley -- or Lincoln Steffens, Jo Davidson, and Edwin Arlington Robinson clustered around Margaret Sanger -- while a long-haired, walrus-mustached, glitter-eyed anarchist named Hippolyte Havel wandered among them, muttering "goddamn bourgeois pigs." They debated radical politics and free love, psychoanalysis and the single tax, birth control and the Wobblies, cubism and women's suffrage, all the enlightened ideas of the dawning century that they felt certain would cast off the darkness of the past.
Only a few months earlier, in the fall of 1912, Mabel had sat alone in the middle of her huge living room, staring despondently at the walls. Having returned to America after eight years in Europe, shuddering "ugly, ugly, ugly" as her ship sailed into New York harbor, she had taken over the second floor of an elegant brownstone on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street. On the first floor lived a cranky ninety-two-year-old major general who'd lost a leg at Gettysburg (and who'd been found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity of murdering his wife's lover, the son of Francis Scott Key, on the sidewalk across from the White House). On the top floor brooded an ex-governor of New York who'd been impeached for his dedicated services on behalf of Tammany Hall. But Mabel fought her inclination to sink into their morose seclusion. Determined to experience "the fire of life," and convinced that she had "always known how to make rooms that had power in them," she shook off her malaise and promptly redecorated.
As if to counteract the tenacity of the drab and dismal past, as well as her listless moods, Mabel surrounded herself with white -- white wallpaper, white woodwork, white velvet chairs, white silk curtains, a white marble mantelpiece, a white porcelain chandelier, a white bearskin rug. But now that she'd created her tabula rasa, what was she to write upon it? Elation, dejection -- the constant counterpoint of her life. "Nothing to do again!" she wailed. But recalling her passion "to know the Heads of things, Heads of Movements, Heads of Newspapers, Heads of all kinds of groups of people," she opened her doors and "let the town pour in!"
A wealthy socialite of thirty-three, with a voracious curiosity and an insatiable need for stimulation -- "I wanted to know everybody!" -- Mabel quickly befriended the prominent journalists Hutchins Hapgood, Carl Van Vechten, and Lincoln Steffens, and dispatched her lackluster husband, who was "unaware of the possibilities lingering in the soul," and whose "commonness and mediocrity" contrasted so strongly with her own "broadmindedness," to the Hotel Brevoort across the street. Hapgood, a writer for the New York Globe who virtually invented the solemnly effusive style that still plagues American newspaper columnists, knew virtually everyone in New York and obediently brought several of his most interesting friends to Mabel's home, and Van Vechten, the urbane music critic for the New York Times, invited a pair of Harlem entertainers. While Mabel was distressed by the way they "leered and rolled their suggestive eyes" as they played the banjo and sang off-color songs, she comforted herself with the thought that "one must let Life express itself in whatever form it will."
Steffens, America's "messiah at large," told her one day as they took tea, "You have...a centralizing, magnetic social faculty. You attract, stimulate, and soothe people...If you had lived in Greece long ago, you would have been called a hetaira. Now why don't you see what you can do with this gift of yours. Why not organize all this...coming and going of visitors?" "But I thought we don't believe in 'organization,'" protested Mabel, already a devotee of the Village cult of spontaneity. "Oh, I don't mean you should 'organize' the evenings," Steffens replied wryly. "I mean...let [people] feel absolutely free to be themselves and see what happens." Gather interesting people around her, then listen to them exhort and denounce and declaim -- at last Mabel could satisfy her craving for stimulation. Evenings!
It is Mabel's Dangerous Characters Evening, and her posh salon is under police surveillance. Big Bill Haywood is talking about the IWW tonight, Emma Goldman about anarchism, English Walling about socialism. With half the nearly two hundred guests in evening dress sipping Graves Supe;rieur, the other half in working clothes and sandals, waiting to put together a free dinner from the lavish buffet of Virginia ham, cold turkey, and Gorgonzola, she quietly signaled her butler to open the door to the dining room at midnight. The future, classless organization of American society was to be debated, perhaps even decided. Insurrectionary ideas were socially respectable to the degree that they were intellectually provocative -- and since the stirrings of radicalism were beginning to awaken the middle-class conscience, the restructuring of industrial capitalism and bourgeois politics seemed less a matter of class conflict than of rationally selecting the most persuasive agenda.
Big Bill was feared by upright citizens as a fiery advocate of labor violence -- a reputation enhanced by his hulking body and black eyepatch -- but naturally that made him a folk hero to the Villagers, the Cyclops of the revolution. But unfortunately the Wobbly spokesman, like so many leaders who become impassioned orators when addressing thousands of angry followers in a driving rain, was inarticulate, almost reticent, when asked to explain rather than exhort. Sprawled on a chaise longue, "this great battered hulk of a man, with one eye gone and an eminent look to him," Big Bill seemed, said Mabel, "like a large, soft, overripe Buddha," with two or three Village maidens -- schoolteachers by day, bohemians by night -- seated enraptured at his feet. And when the brilliant young Harvard graduate Walter Lippmann, in his somber, precise manner, tried to question him about Wobbly strategy, Big Bill's "lid drooped over his blind eye and his heavy cheeks sagged even lower."
Emma Goldman, editor of the anarchist magazine Mother Earth and advocate of Direct Action -- she and her constant companion, Alexander "Sasha" Berkman, had served time in prison for attempting to assassinate the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick -- scolded Mabel's guests for their dilettantism and "endless quibbles and hair-splitting of issues." But though Emma warned the working men and women not to listen to the "college professors and lawyers who with the philanthropically-minded ladies" -- whom could she mean? -- "only succeed in sentimentalizing the cause and making compromises which in turn become real evils again," she showed little inclination to satisfy the guests' curiosity about the differences between the competing philosophies.
The socialist English Walling, one of the founders of the NAACP, was the most articulate speaker, everyone agreed, but also the most bland -- though with Eugene Debs receiving six percent of the vote for president in the 1912 election, socialism had never before, or since, been such a prominent voice in the American political dialogue.
Some of Mabel's guests expressed shock at the inflammatory ideologies of the speakers, others felt their minds quickened by startling new ideas, while a few felt that the debate merely exposed the innocence of the Villagers, their commitment to conversational radicalism. "They all talk like goddamn bourgeois pigs!" Hippolyte Havel cried out shrilly, and as the Evening came to an end, he embraced Mabel with tears in his eyes. "My little sister! My little goddamn bourgeois capitalist sister!"
Tonight's topic, Mabel announced a few weeks later, is Sex Antagonism. Doctrines of free love periodically surface in American life -- the practice, of course, is considerably more consistent -- but in the Village in the teens the concept flourished by allying itself with feminism, socialism, Freudianism, anarchism, birth control, and the assault on marriage as a bourgeois institution. And while it's tempting to say that never has so much ideology been called upon in support of instinct -- for nothing seems quite as quaint as the erotic rationalizations of previous generations -- this was in fact the first generation of Americans to realize the role of sexual repression in social control. As the critic James Hunecker complained, in America "the whole man ends at the collarbone." The sexual revolution of the years preceding World War I alternated between the frivolous and the fearless -- and as those who lived through the sixties can confirm, in the midst of a revolution it's sometimes difficult to discern the difference.
In 1914, to take a not untypical example, a buxom Villager named Babs, sympathizing with the plight of those young men unfortunately forced to resort to prostitutes for the happiness that was their birthright as Americans, persuaded a number of her friends to freely give their bodies to anyone who asked, a movement that proved as short-lived as it was enthusiastically encouraged. Somewhat less self-deluded, prominent Village intellectuals constantly experimented with ways to reconcile erotic independence and emotional commitment. Lincoln Steffens pretended he was married when he wasn't -- and later pretended he wasn't when he was -- while Max Eastman and his wife, Ida Rauh, who at one point denied they were married in order not to disturb the free-love ideologues, later shocked the pulpit from coast to coast by putting their names separately on their Village mailbox. Still others, like the flamboyant Hippolyte Havel and his mistress, Polly Holladay, proprietor of the Village's most popular restaurant, fell into the familiar pattern of adopting free love for themselves and bitterly denouncing their partners for exercising the same privilege. And then there were men like Hutch Hapgood, Mabel's closest confidant, who, having once been told by William James himself that he was "in thrall to the absolute," felt that he was obligated by this distinction not only to have extramarital affairs but to report their subtle effects on his soul to his resigned wife -- and even to write a book about his wanderings for circulation among his Village friends.
It was Hutch who Mabel felt would be most qualified to address her guests on the subject of the relationship between the sexes -- though it was Mabel, recently converted by Margaret Sanger to "the joys of the flesh," who came up with the unambivalent title Sex Antagonism. Still, even to discuss the topic openly, and in mixed company, was daring for the time. A little drunk, Hutch stood before Mabel's assembled guests, announced that "my wife is always telling me that love is a misunderstanding between a man and a woman," and concluded by observing that "men are the victims" -- apparently because they do not have "the vitality that the working class has, that the women have," and are thus forced to resort to clandestine affairs. "The problem is how to get the heat without the lie," he went on.
Steffens, the chairman for the Evening, remarked wryly, "Quite Steinesque" -- referring to Mabel's friend Gertrude. When Hutch elucidated his thesis by remarking that "the sex distinctions are only a thing like time and space, something by which we go through our experiences," and attempted to throw an ecumenical bouquet to the unimpressed anarchist faction by gushing that "Emma Goldman represents an infinitely greater amount of law than the government does," it was apparent that Villagers committed to the principle of free love but hoping for some guidance as to its practice were still on their own.
Undaunted, Mabel turned from sexual to aesthetic liberation. Despite the shift in cultural power from Boston to New York and the fierce assaults on moral and literary respectability in the novels of Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser (who lived in the Village but kept a sullen distance from Mabel's salon), the complacent conventions of the Genteel Tradition, so named by George Santayana only a year earlier, still ruled the American literary imagination. Within months of her return to the United States, Mabel embarked on "my own little Revolution" in literary and artistic taste by introducing Gertrude Stein to the American reading public and by serving as one of the sponsors of the explosive Armory Show of 1913.
Believing that political, sexual, and artistic rebels were equal partners in the struggle against capitalism, Mabel invited "that sturdy old eagle" Big Bill Haywood back to address her modernist friends, including Marsden Hartley, Andrew Dasburg, Max Weber, and John Marin, at an Evening on Proletarian Art.
Artists think themselves too special, too separate, Big Bill argued with a rather condescending smile. Someday the state will recognize that everyone is an artist. Torn between sympathy with the working-class cause and dedication to their own revolution, the artists were momentarily silent -- until sculptress Janet Scudder rose from her seat, and asked, with the same scorn with which she'd address a Terre Haute matron, "Do you realize that it takes twenty years to make an artist?"
On another Arts and Politics Evening, Mabel invited both the artists who drew for The Masses, the newly founded leftist magazine (to which she contributed several articles), and the editors of the uptown Metropolitan Magazine (the most popular 10-cent periodical of the day, featuring plutocratic politics and pretty-girl covers), who had refused the artists' work because of their radical politics. But the "gatling gun talkers" of the Village, as the Metropolitan editor characterized them, left the uptowners launching even more pointed epithets -- such as "your prostitute of a magazine."
To the Poets Evening, over which Edwin Arlington Robinson presided as an owlish, grimly mute eminence, Mabel invited not only published poets, but those whose masterpieces were too "advanced" to reach print -- or in some cases paper. George Sylvester Viereck's "quite startling verses" were the most memorable, though not as memorable as Amy Lowell's shocked departure in mid-reading, leaving, as Mabel described her, "like a well-freighted frigate."
The Dangerous Characters Evening, the Sex Antagonism Evening, the Evenings of Art and Unrest -- all ended in ideological disarray.
But Mabel's curiosity combined with her diffidence, her need for self-expression with her impulse to self-effacement, to make her the perfect salon hostess. For three years, beginning in January 1913, her salon became the center of the country's radical intelligentsia. Experts on "good government" and women's suffrage appeared, on prison reform and eugenics, on unemployment and "the Mexican question," on "primitive life" and "the corrupting influence of money" -- the debaters, even in the last case, smoking imported cigarettes and sipping imported liqueurs provided by Mabel's imported servants.
She was constantly exhorted to open her rooms to discussion of such Village cults as vegetarianism and Esperanto, but in politics she focused on the labor movement, in sex she stressed women's rights, and in art she emphasized modernist painting and prose.
She managed the Evenings so skillfully, as Steffens noted, that "no one felt they were managed...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."
Feeling that she was merely "an instrument of the times," that "I'm not doing anything...I let them come, that's all. Life decides, not me," Mabel never participated in the "living themes" herself but acted as their conduit. "I had a little formula for getting myself safely through the hours without any injury to my shy and suspicious sensibilities...I never uttered a word during my Evenings beyond the remote 'How do you do?' or the low 'Good-by.'...I never talked myself except to one or two people at a time, and preferably to one."
Some Villagers were enthralled by Mabel's regal inscrutability, others felt she was concealing her incomprehension, yet most agreed with Carl Van Vechten, who recalled that "she remained in the room without being present," and that though her face was "a perfect mask," her "electric energy presided." Max Eastman, never one of Mabel's admirers -- in his heart he thought her "witchlike" -- wrote that "for the most part she sits like a lump and says nothing. She seems never to have learned the art of social intercourse...She has neither wit nor beauty, nor is she vivacious or lively-minded or entertaining...[Yet] there is something going on, or going round, in Mabel's head or bosom, something that creates a magnetic field in which people become polarized and pulled in and made to behave queerly...And they like it -- they come back for more." Mabel's fetish was other people's conversations -- and her genius at listening catalyzed an entire generation of vociferous radicals.
Carl Van Vechten stressed the way she forced her guests to test their convictions by confronting them with others who held opposing points of view, combining "dissimilar objects to their mutual benefits." As Max Eastman put it, "Many famous salons have been established by women of wit or beauty; Mabel's was the only one established by pure will power." But its very simplicity made it, as Lincoln Steffens said, "the only successful salon I have ever seen in America."
A particularly striking example of the benefit of juxtaposing apparently incongruous ideas, of the Villagers' emphasis on the importance of self-expression in both personal and public life, were Mabel's Evenings devoted to the New Psychology. It was there that many of America's leading radicals and intellectuals first heard of the theories of Freud and Jung that were to play such a crucial role -- and in some cases to create such havoc -- in their public as well as private lives.
Walter Lippmann, a rather unlikely acolyte of the unconscious, led the first Evening's discussion, and not surprisingly the conversation focused on such issues as the environmental causes of nervous disorders, the "unhealthy" aspects of the Protestant work ethic, and the repressiveness of genteel, middle-class "civilization."
On another New Psychology Evening, Dr. A. A. Brill, Freud's American translator and a founder of the American Psychoanalytic Association (and later to become Mabel's psychiatrist -- nothing but the best), alarmed many of the guests, who got up and left in mid-discussion, "incensed at his assertions about unconscious behavior and its give-aways." But Brill's Evening, and the awareness of the new theories that soon swept through the Village, made Freud a fad. As the playwright Susan Glaspell recalled, "You could not go out to buy a bun without hearing of someone's complex." But Freud's theories, though invariably simplified and warped to fit the Villagers' optimistic creeds, didn't just energize the sexual radicals with a new vocabulary, they also inspired modernist artists with a new muse and provoked political radicals to reconsider the premises of middle-class progressivism. As Steffens recalled after the Brill Evening, "It was there and thus that some of us first heard of psychoanalysis and the new psychology of Freud and Jung, which...introduced us to the idea that the minds of men were distorted by unconscious suppressions, often quite irresponsible and incapable of reasoning or learning...I remember thinking how absurd had been my muckraker's description of bad men and good men and the assumption that showing people facts and conditions would persuade them to alter them or their conduct."
Margaret Sanger had learned the frustrations of "showing people facts and conditions," and those who characterized as frivolous Mabel's Evenings devoted to free love, feminism, and birth control ignored the hostility, even brutality, with which such ideas were greeted in America in 1913. When Mabel's apartment was opened to meetings of the Sanger Defense Committee, Margaret had not only spent numberless nights in jail for distributing information on birth control, but had lost nine teeth when one inflamed jailer, zealously defending traditional moral values, had kicked her in the mouth. Labor unrest involved more than a cozy debate of ideologies. Mabel might feel a frisson up her spine at entertaining "murderers," but she also exhibited much courage in juxtaposing classes as well as causes. One evening in the late winter of 1914, Mabel welcomed IWW leaders "Wild Joe" O'Carroll, "Chowder Joe" O'Brien, "Omaha Doc" Roth, and "Baldy" McSween for an Unemployment Evening, "a great gathering" of nearly two hundred Village figures. A red banner hung on the wall. Feminists in bobbed hair and sandals accepted cigarettes from bankers in starched linen and tails. Society women mingled with laborers. And everyone listened raptly to the Wobblies, who'd just returned from a protest meeting that had been circled by mounted police.
When one of her guests urgently whispered to Mabel that "There are some newspaper men coming in," she promptly delegated Walter Lippmann, who had made it clear that he felt her Evenings were becoming too raucous, to act as her bouncer. As he tried to eject the intruders from the press, Mabel began to have second thoughts. "Surely we should not put them out. They are just people, too. They are part of Life trying to express Itself." So she countermanded her order, and the newspapers were also allowed to express themselves. "I.W.W. THRONG ARE GUESTS OF SOCIETY FOLK ON FIFTH AVENUE," exclaimed the headline in one New York paper. "WOMEN IN EVENING GOWNS ENTERTAIN BILL HAYWOOD, AGITATORS, AND THE UNEMPLOYED IN HOME OF MRS. MABEL DODGE." "About 200 men and women, in evening dress, and nearly all, women included, smoking cigarettes, took part in the meeting," the article reported. "Women in low-necked gowns hid behind escorts and tried to hide their cigarettes." "I.W.W. MEN STARVE AS LEADERS EAT," another paper proclaimed. "LEADERS OF I.W.W. FIFTH AVE. GUESTS MINGLE WITH MEN AND WOMEN IN EVENING CLOTHES AT MRS. DODGE'S HOUSE." "There were present some men with long, black, flowing locks, who say they are anarchists, some of the Haywood type who say they are leaders of industrial organizations, some who belong to social uplift movements in New York...[and] some women who didn't appear to have any occupations...A heavy set young man [Lippmann] came out and said that the gathering was for the purpose of discussing social problems and that all present were friends of Mrs. Dodge and that positively nothing should be published about it."
And so, with the emphasis on emblems that was rapidly moving from advertising into journalism, evening clothes transformed muckrakers and editors of The Masses into "society folk," cigarettes signaled sexual audacity, and the press responded to the incomprehensible, as it always has and always will, by adopting a tone both ominous and condescending, which would come to characterize American attitudes to the Village itself.
Long accounts of Mabel's salon soon appeared in the press almost weekly, and Mabel herself became one of the country's first celebrities. She was widely regarded by the tabloid public as a "sphinx," an appellation that, given her anathema to mystery, she loathed. Most of the papers mocked the very fame they were heaping upon her, but according to the Morning Telegraph, "If you ever get a card from Mona Mabel Dodge with the word 'discussion' in the corner, drop what you had planned to do and get on the ground floor." Recalled the widow of a president of Yale, "Simply everybody went."
Patron of geniuses or collector of celebrities? Siren of spirit or dabbler in ideas? Feeling a void at the center of her being, she became adept, as did so many women, at discerning the needs of others and then adopting a persona that would fulfill them. At first in her salon, and especially in her many love affairs, she resigned herself to living through others -- as if she could only be real to herself if she saw her reflection. "I wanted to lie back and float on the dominating decisive current of an all-knowing, all-understanding man," she confessed of her lovers, though in practice, and not at all paradoxically, this meant she aspired to be either their muse, their mother, or their master.
Inevitably dissatisfied with floating, Mabel soon became resentful and manipulative and sought in domination the only alternative to submission. "People were always warning other people about me," Mabel said, not without a touch of pride. How could a woman so committed to following the flow be so willful? Her contemporaries did not understand, though nearly all considered themselves feminists, that with no outlet for her talent and ambition other than devoting herself to the men she hosted and the men she loved, these were the only two choices available to her. Most of the epithets directed at Mabel -- femme fatale, queen bee, sorceress, Venus flytrap, spiritual vampire, and, of course, bitch goddess -- and most of the fictional portraits of her written by fascinated and appalled novelists who considered her a kind of female principle -- resulted from her dubious relationships with men.
But it's too easy to dismiss Mabel as a "werewolfess" -- as she once characterized herself -- for the neurotic qualities that proved so disastrous in her romances made her the ideal hostess. Her psychic emptiness, her dread of purposelessness, led her not only to devour the men who, she vainly hoped, would provide her with authenticity of self, but also to crave experiences, and causes, that through her salon might provide her with a sense of identity. "That woman will drive me crazy," Van Vechten told Hapgood, more in admiration than dismay. Still, he said, "She had more effect on my life than anybody I ever met." In the freewheeling, experimental vortex that was the Village in the years before World War I, who was more perfectly suited to gather together the "movers and shakers" to debate the contours of the future? Her refusal to crystallize her commitments, her ultimate indifference to the causes she sponsored, while leaving her in a state of psychic disarray, also kept the Villagers who attended her salon in a state of ideological flux. Mabel could never cease experimenting -- but her emotional indecisiveness quickened the Village's intellectual glory.
Many of Mabel's critics dismissed her as less hetaera than "a species of Head Hunter," as she herself acknowledged -- as nothing but a dilettante of radicalism, mixing champagne and dynamite, confusing feelings with thought, regarding insurrection as entertainment, the latest in the long, ignoblesse oblige tradition of aristocratic voyeurs of bohemia, seeking titillation by flirting with revolutionary credos she had no desire to embrace. But more than any other person, Mabel recognized, if only intuitively, that the repressive traditions against which the Village radicals were rebelling -- political, economic, sexual, artistic -- were inextricably linked, and that the most immediately necessary radical act was not to focus on specific reforms but to break down the barriers between the radicals themselves, to affirm both the range and the unity of the insurgent spirit itself.
One Evening might founder in factionalism, another might degenerate into disputation, another might conclude in incoherence -- but the Lyrical Left defined itself more by its energy than by its ideas. Mabel's fabled openness to all those willing to risk "shattering themselves for the sake of their ideas" -- which led Steffens to remark that "she believed, for a while, everything," and one historian to claim that she "all but established the pattern of the 'free-lance intellectual' of the early twentieth century" -- had a greater impact than any one of those ideas, for they would not have received such vigorous mutual reinforcement had they not been disseminated at her salon. As Mabel exclaimed, "Oh, how we were all intertwined!" Without an original idea in her head, Mabel helped sow every original idea of her decade.
The catalyst of Mabel's fabled openness to divergent points of view was less philosophical curiosity than psychological circumstance -- her real need was to create and then ameliorate emotional conflict. Like most prominent Villagers, she was raised in the intellectual hinterland, but more than most, she seemed, as she said, to have a life "destined for sorrow."
Born into a wealthy family in Buffalo in 1879, Mabel was shaped by the proper Victorian gentility her remote parents adopted as a mask. Of their marriage one need know only that whenever Mabel's mother returned home from one of her frequent trips, her father honored the occasion by lowering his monogrammed flag to half-mast. Unloved, miserably lonely, and surrounded by formalized contentiousness, Mabel soon learned that the only way to avoid sinking into a pit of purposelessness was to manipulate others. Yet driven by the panic of nonbeing, and determined to flout her mother's hypocritical "respectability," she obsessively tried on roles, causes, ideas, identities -- as a teenager even flirting with a kind of chaste lesbianism, for which there was little peer pressure in late-nineteenth-century Buffalo -- then instantly dropping them when they inevitably failed to fulfill her. Neurasthenia, they called it, that feeling of placid desperation, of restless passivity all too familiar to gifted women in all ages.
At twenty-one, Mabel married a young man who, despite awakening her to what she called "fiery fountains falling on black velvet," failed to gratify the longings of her soul. Within a few months, she began an affair with an older man who satisfied her on both counts -- her gynecologist -- and when her husband was killed in a hunting accident and her illicit relationship became a public scandal, her mother shipped her off to Europe, not least because Mabel had seen her in the gynecologist's arms herself. Before the boat landed in Le Havre, a Boston architect named Edwin Dodge had fallen in love with her and they were married four months later.
Settling into a Florentine villa constructed by the Medicis in the fifteenth century -- its courtyard designed by Brunelleschi, and one of its inhabitants, Raphael -- Mabel immediately adopted the pose of voluptuous Renaissance lady. "I will make you mine!" she addressed Florence from a Tuscan hilltop. "Questo angelo vestito di bianco" ("this angel dressed in white"), the local merchants called her. Already as unhappy in her second marriage as she'd been in her first, she indulged in a series of not-quite affairs (one with her Italian chauffeur, whom she transformed into "a knight, a page, a courtier"), attempted a series of not-quite suicides (in one instance mixing figs and broken glass), embarked on a fully consummated affair with her son's tutor, and, in a last effort to save her marriage, designed a bedroom with a trapdoor in the ceiling from which descended a silken ladder that could facilitate more episodes of "fiery fountains falling on black velvet" -- though Edwin used it only once, to certify that it wasn't a safety hazard. Wealthy, well connected, intelligent, charming -- when not indulging in her pose of elegant ennui -- Mabel had no difficulty collecting both objets d'art and objets de personnalite;, and the Villa Curonia soon became a prominent international salon -- a "constant carousel," in the words of Artur Rubinstein. Emotionally immobilized by her lack of any sense of self, she frantically surrounded herself with the vibrant intellects who might provide it. Among her many guests were Bernard Berenson, Roger Fry, Gordon Craig, Eleanora Duse, Andre; Gide, Norman Douglas, Paul and Muriel Draper, and Lord and Lady Acton, and she flattered everyone with a passive yet desperate curiosity that seemed to say she'd discovered the one person who could answer the questions about the nature and purpose of existence she'd been vainly asking all her life.
Mabel, in short, was precisely the kind of person Gertrude Stein was willing to bestow her presence upon, and when Gertrude visited Florence in 1911 they immediately became friends. "She has a laugh like beefsteak," said Mabel. Fascinated by Mabel's enigmatic, volatile moods, Gertrude wrote "Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia," one of her series of cubist word portraits of prominent figures of the first years of the century. (Among her other subjects were Picasso and Matisse, though it was her portrait of Mabel that Oliver Gogarty liked to read aloud in a Dublin pub, where it may have been heard by James Joyce.)
Mabel wanted to transform her life into a work of art, but when this proved beyond her talents, she began to see herself as a muse who would accomplish her purpose through others -- Gertrude's was the first of many portraits of Mabel by entranced if not always admiring writers, including novels by Carl Van Vechten and Max Eastman and several stories by D. H. Lawrence. Focusing on the discontinuity of Mabel's moods, with touches of sexual innuendo (her bedroom was next to Mabel's, the walls were thin), Gertrude found Mabel the ideal subject for her emphasis on the fluidity of personality. "So much breathing has not the same place when there is so much beginning..." "There is that desire and there is no pleasure..." "There is no action meant..."
Mabel wasn't entirely sure what such sentences signified, but she was sure that what she regarded as her unstructured personality could be interpreted as dynamic rather than passive. Gertrude helped Mabel understand that no metaphysic, no aesthetic could substitute for an absent identity, and that perhaps she could findond her talents, she began to see herself as a muse who would accomplish her purpose through others -- Gertrude's was the first of many portraits of Mabel by entranced if not always admiring writers, including novels by Carl Van Vechten and Max Eastman and several stories by D. H. Lawrence. Focusing on the discontinuity of Mabel's moods, with touches of sexual innuendo (her bedroom was next to Mabel's, the walls were thin), Gertrude found Mabel the ideal subject for her emphasis on the fluidity of personality. "So much breathing has not the same place when there is so much beginning..." "There is that desire and there is no pleasure..." "There is no action meant..."
Mabel wasn't entirely sure what such sentences signified, but she was sure that what she regarded as her unstructured personality could be interpreted as dynamic rather than passive. Gertrude helped Mabel understand that no metaphysic, no aesthetic could substitute for an absent identity, and that perhaps she could find herself in the disorderly present more easily than in the formalized past. So, still dissatisfied with her life, with her husband, and, most of all, with herself, Mabel abandoned the search in Europe and resumed it in America.
Even before beginning her salon, Mabel had three hundred copies of Gertrude's portrait printed and bound in Florentine wallpapers for her friends, and when a copy found its way into the hands of one of the organizers of the 1913 Armory Show, he asked her for permission to distribute it at the show and to write an accompanying article explicating Gertrude's genius. "There will be a riot & and revolution & things will never be quite the same afterward," Mabel wrote Gertrude in Paris.
"Gertrude Stein is doing with words what Picasso is doing with paint," she concluded. "She is impelling language to induce new states of consciousness." Gertrude's introduction into the world of American letters had turned both women into perhaps the earliest examples of what was soon to become a staple of the twentieth-century media, the incomprehensible celebrity.
"Everyone is saying, 'Who is Gertrude Stein?'" Mabel reported to Gertrude. "Who is Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia?" Despite Mabel's effusions, however, their friendship soon cooled. Mabel attributed Gertrude's withdrawal to Alice Toklas's jealousy over some innocent flirting -- she was one of those fortunate people who find flattering explanations even for flagrant rejections -- although the more likely explanation was advanced by Gertrude's brother, Leo. "In Gertrude Stein's mind," he said, "there had begun to be some doubt as to who was the bear and who was leading the bear." Mabel was never a self-starter, but once started she was unstoppable. Soon she became the vice president of the Armory Show, one of its financial backers, its most indefatigable publicist; she even contributed her chauffeur. "The most important public event that has ever come off since the signing of the Declaration of Independence," she called the exhibition in a letter to Gertrude. "I think it the most important thing that ever happened in America, of its kind," she added less grandiosely. Indeed, it was one of her rare understatements, for the Armory Show was the most important art exhibit of the twentieth century and detonated like a bomb in the national consciousness. The most controversial painting, of course, was Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, which was called, in perhaps the best example of philistine wit in the history of art criticism, "an explosion in a shingle factory."
"It should be borne in mind," editorialized the New York Times in a typical media response to the Armory Show, "that this movement is surely a part of the general movement, discernible to all the world, to disrupt, degrade, if not destroy, not only art but literature and society too...the Cubists and the Futurists are cousins to anarchists in politics." On one level, this reaction marked the beginning of a common phenomenon of the twentieth century -- success measured not by praise but by notoriety. On another, it acknowledged the unity of art and politics and hinted that art no longer served a comfortable cultural function but expressed an alienation from society. And on yet a third level, while superficially just another instance of philistine incomprehension, it actually articulated the goals of modernist art as clearly as any of its supporters. Disrupt, degrade, destroy? -- wasn't that precisely what the artists intended?
As for Mabel, she could at least take some of the credit for introducing Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Ce;zanne, Gauguin, Braque, Brancusi, Seurat, and Kandinsky to the New World. "Many roads are being broken -- what a wonderful word -- 'broken'!" she exulted. "Nearly every thinking person nowadays is in revolt against something, because the craving of the individual is for further consciousness, and because consciousness is expanding and is bursting through the molds that have held it up to now." But while she found a characteristically dizzying and detached gratification in her overnight notoriety -- "if Gertrude Stein was born at the Armory Show, so was 'Mabel Dodge'" -- she remained self-effacingly committed to "my own little revolution," the credo of her salon.
Not all the guests at Mabel's salon were movers and shakers. Indeed, the It that Mabel idolized occasionally revealed Itself in eccentrics and out-and-out crackpots. Bizarre behavior, whether annoying or amusing, came to symbolize freedom and authenticity, and "unconventional" became just as much an ideal for the Villagers as "conventional" was for the bourgeoisie they despised. Among the pioneers of individuality were those who discovered nothing but their own idiosyncrasies -- but whether outrageous, lunatic, or merely pathetic, they joined the ranks of Legendary Village Characters.
Hippolyte Havel! Outrageous, lunatic, and pathetic, first of a noble breed. Raised in Hungary by his Gypsy mother, confined as a teenager in an insane asylum and released at the advice of Krafft-Ebing himself, Hippolyte embraced anarchism in late Victorian London, moved to Chicago to edit an anarchist newspaper, and, after a less than delirious stint as one of Emma Goldman's many lovers, surfaced in New York, in the words of Max Eastman, like a "ragged chrysanthemum."
When not berating Mabel's guests as "goddamn bourgeois pigs," which sometimes seemed the full extent of his radicalism, Hippolyte could usually be found either as a short-tempered cook, waiter, and dishwasher at Polly Holladay's restaurant on the west side of Washington Square or standing on street corners shouting anarchist slogans at bewildered passersby. As for Polly, she found no fault with his cooking, but was severely disappointed in his companionship. He keeps breaking his promises, she complained to a friend, explaining that on more than one occasion he had promised to kill himself for her but as yet had failed to keep his word.
One night, over drinks with two friends at the Brevoort bar, Hippolyte suddenly suggested a Trimordeur evening. Trimordeur? Trimordeurs, he explained impatiently, were knights-errant of the spirit of wine and dance. So they drew up an announcement of a meeting of the Trimordeurs at an Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street and sent postcards to ten or fifteen friends. On the night of the party, friends brought friends and friends of friends -- was it the knight-errant grapevine? -- and by midnight over seventy Villagers were celebrating the spirit of wine and dance, one of the first occasions when Villagers began to form their own bohemian community. "Goddamn bourgeois pigs," yelled Hippolyte, stroking his goatee, grinning.
On one memorable occasion, Hippolyte relieved himself in the gutter at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 8th Street at 3:00 A.M. and raved at the policeman who arrested him, "You mean I don't even have the rights of an ordinary horse?" Yet Mabel fondly welcomed Hippolyte to all her Evenings, even if his only contribution was "Goddamn bourgeois pigs!"
Mabel became muse to a Village variation of the prototype -- the After-Working-Hours Genius. A copy editor at the New York Times by day, Donald Evans turned to the Quest for Immortality at night, differing only from most night-dreamers in that he actually published his effusions, an achievement somewhat diminished by the fact that his publishing house, Claire-Marie Press, one of the first of those small, avant-garde enterprises, was owned, managed, and staffed by a single person, Donald Evans himself. Reading his letters to Mabel ("You opened up avenues of joy today for me...The vision of your freedom was intoxicating...You yourself are ineffable; Your name will be blessed above the Virgin's") and the poems she inspired ("She tried to rouge her heart, yet quite in vain...Her hidden smile was full of hidden breasts"), it's not entirely clear whether he was trying to give expression to infinite yearning or just wanted to get laid. As a potential lover, Donald had -- how to put it? -- a kind of vegetable magnetism, but Mabel concluded that "this fin de siècle attitude of his was rather boring" -- an opinion she expressed of several other Village men who fell in love with her. Undiscouraged, Donald informed Mabel of "the golden voyage I have embarked upon, a thousand and one sonnet portraits of you," of a "slender vol." describing in verse a dozen ways of commiting suicide. Of the latter, one way was all Donald needed, however -- unsuccessful in his poetic projects, he proved all too successful in taking his life.
For a few years, a Donald Evans cult sprang up. As the poet Arthur Davison Ficke wrote in the foreword to a proposed book called The Donald Evans Legend, "Probably no figure so mythical as that of Donald Evans has ever had even an imaginary existence. Faust, Til Eulenspiegel, the Wandering Jew, and Haroun al Raschid are all solid, demonstrable, and documented persons in comparison. Already the Evans-Legend has assumed large proportions; in fact, we must even today make a discrimination between the archaic -- or as I shall call it, the Ur-Legend -- and the latter and doubtful form, which I shall call the Neo-Legend." The book was never completed, however, and very soon Donald Evans became a nonlegend.
Mabel sometimes showed as little understanding of the significance of her salon as the newspapers that hooted at its "radical chic" -- an epithet that surfaced fifty years before the sixties. But her ingenuousness gave her courage, and she never faltered in her quest for emotional or intellectual adventure. Even if Mabel had never hosted a single Evening, she would have entered Village lore, for in one of her more prescient experiments, she threw the Village's first peyote party.
In the spring of 1914, when Raymond Harrington, a visiting cousin of Hutch Hapgood, told them about a strange medicine he had discovered while doing ethnological research among the Oklahoma Indians that enabled the mind to pass beyond ordinary consciousness, Mabel announced that they must all try it.
Harrington and Hutch and his wife, Neith Boyce, were the first to be invited. Max Eastman and Ida Rauh were always eager to try something new. Her old friend Bobby Jones, the famous set designer. Andrew Dasburg, the pioneering modernist painter. Genevieve Onslow, an actress and friend of the Hapgoods -- one of those familiar Village figures who, though embarked on a quest for ultimate wisdom, had difficulty expressing the simplest idea. And of course Terry.
Another figure in the gallery of Legendary Village Characters, Terry Carlin, a true anarchist, had vowed as a young man never to earn so much as a dollar under the exploitative capitalist system. A man of his word, he lived on the verge of starvation, but since he was an ingratiating conversationalist, his many friends gave him money for food, and since he was an alcoholic, he spent it all on booze. With his huge thatch of iron-gray hair, sparkling Irish blue eyes, "beautiful skeleton, and splendid head with noble features" -- Mabel's phrase -- Terry would sit for days in various bars, the Hell Hole on 8th Street and Sixth Avenue in particular, spinning tales until he dropped. One of those helplessly charming dreamers called poets though they've never written a word, he became one of Eugene O'Neill's closest companions.
So one evening -- having fasted, as Raymond insisted -- they gathered at Mabel's and sat cross-legged on her living room floor. Holding an arrow in one hand and eagle feathers in the other, Raymond stationed himself behind the "fire" -- one of Mabel's Chinese silk shawls draped over an electric bulb. He popped a peyote button into his mouth and soon began to howl like a dog. The others took pieces of peyote and gulped them down. "The mere presence of that peyote seemed already to have emphasized the real nature in us all," Mabel recalled. "I was laughing, but Neith looked down at the fire, distantly grave and withdrawn, beautiful and strange. Hutch appeared rather boyish, like a boy in church who lowers his head and peeps over his prayer book at another boy. Bobby's face was simulating a respectful attention, while it hid his thoughts. Ida looked more like a superior lioness than ever, cynical and intolerant; Max grinned amiably, and Terry seemed more remote than the others as he contemplated the end of his cigarette...Genevieve Onslow's frog-like eyes were brilliant and intense...Andrew's brows twitched as he gave and yet did not give himself to the occasion; a half smile played over his sulky lips, but it was an irritated smile. Only I seemed to myself to be just exactly as usual, unaffected by anything and observant of it all."
Raymond motioned everyone to join his howling song, but only Hutch obeyed, then motioned everyone to take a second button. This time everyone obeyed but Mabel, who, finding herself more affected than she'd realized, palmed the button and placed it on the floor behind her. "Everything seemed ridiculous to me," Mabel continued -- "utterly ridiculous and immeasurably far away from me...Several little foolish human beings sat staring at a mock fire and made silly little gestures. Above them I leaned, filled with an unlimited contempt for the facile enthrallments of humanity, weak and petty in its activities, bound so easily by a dried herb, bound by its notions of everything -- anarchy, poetry, systems, sex, and society."
Hutch, who liked to describe himself as "God drunk," wasn't one to so readily scorn "the facile enthrallments of humanity." "It didn't seem strange to me when Raymond left his seat and ascended through the air to the ceiling," he recalled. Soon afterward, however, he left his seat and knelt before the toilet watching lurid flames dart out of his mouth, then lay down in one of Mabel's bedrooms and turned into an Egyptian mummy, "making a complete review of my whole life, applying to it an intense criticism, which amazed me for its complete unworthiness." As for Raymond, he reported that he had departed on "a long voyage to wander for months in a tropical valley full of huge birds and animals of hitherto unknown colors."
Hours passed; Max and Ida quietly went home. Long after midnight, Mabel discreetly retired to her all-white bedroom. Hutch, Neith, Andrew, and Bobby departed to Mabel's guest rooms, leaving Raymond, Genevieve, and Terry in their oblivious trances.
Mabel lay in a fitful half-sleep, trembling with rage. "To think that that was going on there in my house and I could not stop it." "Oh, Great Force, hear me!" she prayed, and in almost immediate response she heard Andrew stalking furiously into the living room, where he opened the windows, threw out the remaining buttons, and cursed the entranced trio.
Mabel heard a dreadful cry, then silence, then a tap at her door. Genevieve stood before her like an apparition. "Oh Mabel!" she moaned. "It is terrible!" Mabel hurried to the living room. Raymond, horrified at the defiling of a sacred ceremony, was trying to restrain Andrew when suddenly they noticed that Genevieve had disappeared. By this time, the others had been awakened. The sudden startling ring of the telephone. "Genevieve is here," Max said. "We heard her crying under our window. We'll put her to bed and see you in the morning."
The participants were suddenly sobered. "Mabel," Hutch said with his usual solemn exultation, "I have learned tonight something wonderful. I cannot put it into words exactly, but I have found the short cut to the Soul." "What is it?" Mabel asked eagerly. "The death of the flesh." "I saw what Sex is," Andrew contributed. "And it is a square crystal cube, transparent and colorless, and at the same time I saw that I was looking at my Soul."
Max soon showed up with Genevieve, gibbering and rolling her eyes, and Hutch rang up Harry Lorber, a discreet Village doctor. After a quick examination, Lorber offered his half-amused, half-chiding diagnosis -- "Dope, hey?" The word brought Mabel crashing down. She had failed to achieve the visionary consciousness reported by Hutch and Andrew -- or even Genevieve, who was now mumbling tearfully about God -- and felt compelled to take the public stance that "such gatherings...were the antithesis of all I wished to stand for. The level of my life, at least in my own eyes, was infinitely raised above such sordid sensationalism." Mabel took some measure of solace, however, in the fact that "every one of the others who had been at the apartment that night talked about it for years...undoubtedly that legend has encircled the world."
Terry? Terry finally spoke for the first time since nine o'clock the previous evening. "I have seen the Universe," he exclaimed with what Mabel was forced to describe as "the most illumined smile I have ever seen," and "man!," he concluded, "it is wonderful!" -- whereupon he walked out without another word, and, in all likelihood, repaired to the Hell Hole for his morning pick-me-up.
Mind cures," spiritualism, astrology, New Thought, Divine Science -- Mabel tried every cult with the same blend of promiscuous enthusiasm and disenchanted skepticism with which she listened to Wobblies advocate revolution or watched Villagers pop peyote. In the years 1912 to 1917, such therapies seemed to hold out as much healing potential as the rather implausible "talking cure" recently introduced from Vienna. What all the various new therapies shared, and what made the radical intellectuals flock to them with evangelical ardor, was the conviction that mind could triumph over matter, that the environment could be mastered by the will.
Mabel's motives were less ideological. Sunk in emotional paralysis, she gave herself over to each of the new cures with the wholeheartedness and detachment that allowed her both to explore every idea of her generation and commit herself to none.
Dear Hutch wrote of "my sister Mabel," "Her eager, sometimes graceless searchings...her inability to let go of anything even for a moment casually within her domain, all this seems often ugly and reprehensible. But to me it is not so at all; for I know that even the harsher more unattractive elements of her activity are there because of her eager love of 'It' -- the infinite -- with which she wants to be naturally, strongly connected." Why not try to connect herself through the as yet unfashionable science of psychiatry? Even if Mabel felt the new doctrine from Vienna was "apparently a kind of tattle-taleing," hadn't her New Psychology Evenings been among her most provocative? So Mabel became one of the first Americans to undergo psychoanalysis, and not the last to change analysts. Mabel's first psychiatrist, Smith Ely Jelliffe, America's leading Jungian and the man who coined the word "psychosomatic," quickly arrived at his diagnosis. Mabel obviously suffered from penis envy and responded by trying to castrate men, a conclusion that not only followed inevitably from her confession that she wanted to cut off her hair, but had the added advantage of being applicable to all women. Mabel expressed her willingness to see gender as one of the sources of her emotional disturbances -- an intuitive feminist, she recognized all too clearly that she derived her sense of self largely from her identification with the achievements of men -- but this organ business seemed dogmatic and about as healing as "the Intense Inane." "I am afraid I did not learn much about myself with Jelliffe," said Mabel, "but I did get a very complete line on him."
So Jelliffe didn't work out? Go for the best. Go for Brill. When Brill informed her he was too busy to see her until fall, she told him she simply couldn't survive until then. Brill well understood that one of