Frieda and D.H. Lawrence in Chapala, Mexico in 1923.
I made my first trip to New Mexico in the summer of 1987. It was a pilgrimage of sorts, since a friend who had lived there for a year and then left for reasons entirely unrelated to his extreme love for the state had spent so much time enthusing over it. In part I was intrigued, in part actually so sick of hearing second hand about the glories of the Southwest that I wanted to see it for myself. Also I had become a great fan of D.H. Lawrence during the preceding year, oddly enough not through his writings but through my very enthusiastic viewing of a film made from his 1923 novel ‘Kangaroo’, about Lawrence’s sojourn in Australia with his wife before traveling to New Mexico via San Francisco. It was the New Mexico part which interested me, however, and not Australia, despite my positive reaction to the film and its setting.
We were several days getting to Santa Fé and several days getting home. Since it was a month-long vacation, that left nearly three full weeks in New Mexico itself, a trip which seems to have stayed with me for life. All across the desert, and all the way back, we took turns reading aloud, usually from Christopher Miles’ book on Lawrence’s life with his wife Frieda, though sometimes from the works of Lawrence himself. By the time I got to New Mexico, I was ready. We spent two entire weeks at the remote desert home of friends in the depths of the unbelievably imposing Chama River Canyon, and about a week wending our way between Santa Fé and a very large number of tiny New Mexican villages. Taos was at the top of the list.
I have never really liked Taos. I find something dark and brooding about it, something distinctly melancholy and even ominous. It was the place to which Lawrence and Frieda, following and preceding many other artists and writers of renown, came at the invitation of the socialite Mabel Dodge Sterne, later Mabel Dodge Luhan, a Buffalo, New York heiress who had previously conducted a well-known artistic salon in Florence, Italy, where she had surrounded herself with creative people and supported some of them. It is Mabel’s relatively little known book, ‘Lorenzo in Taos’ (1932), however, and not all the various biographies, hagiographies and villainographies of Lawrence, which anyone interested in the man and his story should read. Written in the form of letters between Lawrence, Frieda, Mabel and the poet Robinson Jeffers, another of Mabel’s guests, it is the story of the incredibly intense and stormy relationship between Lawrence and Mabel. At times utterly hilarious, as in a section in which another guest convinces Mabel that Lawrence has decided that their hostess is so dangerous that she must be killed at once, it is also a thoughtful and first-hand glimpse into the personal lives of all concerned. I wish I had had this book back in 1987. It is far better than anything else I have ever read by or about these people. I am not fond of Lawrence as a writer of fiction, by the way. I think he was far better as a travel writer. ‘Kangaroo’, in fact, is sometimes categorized as travel writing, and such books as his ‘Mornings in Mexico’, the first thing I ever read by him and I believe the best, ‘Twilight in Italy’, and ‘Sea and Sardinia’ are really perfect literary creations, long unjustly overshadowed by all the fiction set in an England which Lawrence truly hated and which I don’t believe reflects his personality at all. He said in later life that New Mexico was the greatest experience he ever had of the outside world.
He is buried outside Taos, in fact, in a tiny chapel built by his wife and her third husband years after Lawrence’s death on a ranch given to Frieda by Mabel in exchange for the manuscript of ‘Sons and Lovers’. Or at least his ashes are there. Afraid of the apparently very real possibility that Mabel would steal them, Frieda had them mixed into a rectangular vat of wet cement, and the resulting block is the centerpiece of the chapel, set on a steep slope of the ranch. When we entered it, my friend got down on his knees (the block enclosing the ashes is low to the ground) and put his arms entirely around the tomb, resting his head atop it and pressing his heart up to the block. I couldn’t resist doing the same. Whether it was my viewing of ‘Kangaroo’, the Miles’ biography, my reading of ‘Mornings in Mexico’ and the fiction, or just the dense aromas of desert sage and piñon and the infinite sweep of New Mexico sky to which Lawrence had always intended to return, I had become utterly devoted. It would be hard to imagine my own life now without that experience of having been, in my own unique way, at home with Lorenzo in Taos.