THEIR TRUE SELVES
“New Women” of the Southwest
IN the first decades of the 20th century, as Santa Fe became an art colony for Anglo transplants, a certain kind of woman ventured into the American Southwest. She was most likely from a traditional upper-class Victorian upbringing — educated, curious, creative. She was financially able to travel in comfort. And she was usually considered past her prime for the marriage market in the world she came from. Before deciding to set up residency on the rugged frontier, these women explored New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah on horseback and in Model Ts, sleeping under the stars, their true selves unbridled by the vast mountains and mesas and a sudden lack of limits on exactly who they were supposed to be.
The best-known of these women are Mabel Dodge Luhan and Georgia O’Keeffe, both of whom are considered patron saints of the arts in New Mexico. The former was among the founders of the Taos art colony in the early 1920s, and the latter is forever connected to the landscape of Abiquiú and her home at Ghost Ranch, where she moved in 1940 after falling in love with the area several years earlier. Popular imagination paints Luhan and O’Keeffe as pioneers, but other less-heralded women came before them, paving the way for their lifestyles and lasting fame. In Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest (published this year by University of Arizona Press), Lesley Poling-Kempes traces the lives of Natalie Curtis, Alice Klauber, Mary Cabot Wheelwright, and Carol Stanley. Poling-Kempes speaks about the women in her book on Wednesday, Dec. 2, at a Brainpower & Brownbags Lecture at the New Mexico History Museum.
The four women pursued interests that have come to define key aspects of industry and culture in the Southwest: fine arts, anthropology, and hospitality. Wheelwright founded the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in 1937 to preserve and showcase Navajo culture and religion — a goal that was considered “nonscientific” by the male academic establishment in Santa Fe. Klauber was a painter from San Diego who had studied at the Art Students League in San Francisco and in Spain with Robert Henri. She was a devoted friend of Curtis’, and though Santa Fe wasn’t her primary residence, she was intimately involved with the modern artists who came to town in support of the Museum of Art (now the New Mexico Museum of Art), which opened in 1917. Curtis was an ethnomusicologist who transcribed the singing of hundreds of tribes for The Indians’ Book: Songs and Legends of the American Indians, first published in 1905, long before she married the painter
The four women pursued interests that have come to
define key aspects of industry and culture in the Southwest: fine arts, anthropology, and hospitality.
Paul Burlin. And Stanley — who lost her family fortune to bad estate management and then lost her self-made fortunes to two gambler husbands — was a brilliant pianist and educator who founded Ghost Ranch. If not for her, O’Keeffe never would have lived there and never would have immortalized in oil paint the cliffs beyond Abiquiú.
“If Carol hadn’t built Ghost Ranch from the ground up, so many stories would be different. I probably wouldn’t be here,” Poling-Kempes said. She first came to Ghost Ranch with her parents in the 1960s. The native of Pleasantville, New York, went to college at the University of New Mexico and spent a summer working at Ghost Ranch, where she met her husband. They settled in Abiquiú, down the road from Ghost Ranch; he ran the ceramics program there for more than 30 years. Poling-Kempes has written several nonfiction books about the area, including Ghost Ranch; Valley of Shining Stone: The Story of Abiquiu; and The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West. When she realized Ghost Ranch had been founded by a woman who had since been lost to history, she began researching Stanley’s life and found that several other important women intersected with her time in New Mexico. “There were so many stories and so many women who all knew each other. There was so much to find. As I went to get Carol’s story, it enlarged into the extraordinary story of Natalie Curtis, and then her friend Alice Klauber, who was also Carol’s friend. It just kept branching out.”
Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Louisa Wade Wetherill, Charles Fletcher Lummis, Will Shuster, Walter Pach, and Theodore Roosevelt are just a few of the people who interacted with Poling-Kempes’ subjects. But first the book winds from New York’s Greenwich Village through Indian Country, as Curtis ingratiates herself to the Hopi, finding her calling in preserving music on paper that she was sure was on its way to extinction, due to the federal government’s prohibitions on Indians using their language and customs. On Thanksgiving weekend in 1917, Curtis spoke about her work with Native music at the St. Francis Auditorium in honor of the opening of the Museum of Art. She had recently married Paul Burlin; the couple lived in a small adobe on the corner of Old Santa Fe Trail and Buena Vista. Later, the poet Witter Bynner bought the house and added on to it, and today it is the sprawling Inn of the Turquoise Bear (342 E. Buena Vista St.). Mabel Dodge Luhan first appears in Ladies of the
Canyons when she stops in Santa Fe for tea with the Burlins and the poet Alice Corbin in mid-December 1917. Luhan is a blustery and unfriendly presence, passing judgment on her hosts as “tiresome,” a recollection Poling-Kempes pulled from Luhan’s own words. In Edge of Taos Desert (1937), Luhan refers to Curtis as a “little old doll that had been left out in the sun and the rain” and describes Burlin as much younger and fresher than his wife. “He had curly red hair above a round forehead, and the absent, speculative thoughtful look of an intelligent Jew,” she writes.
“Here she is with Alice Corbin, who is this remarkable poet, and Natalie, with whom she shares a number of friends, but it just didn’t resonate at all with Mabel,” Poling-Kempes told Pasatiempo. During her research she spoke with several historians and scholars who confirmed that Luhan wanted her own place to make her mark. “Santa Fe was already inhabited by some strong and creative women, and Mabel didn’t want to be part of a group of women. She went on to Taos and found her own place. It would have been fun to be able to ask Natalie and Alice Corbin what they thought
of that meeting and what Mabel did in New Mexico.”
Stanley, who was from Massachusetts, married Roy Pfäffle, a lifelong New Mexican, in 1916, and together they ran the Rancho Ramon Vigil on the Pajarito Plateau near present-day Los Alamos. A stay there was Wheelwright’s introduction to New Mexico in 1917. The couple sold the ranch in 1918 and opened Bishop’s Lodge, at Bishop’s Ranch, in Tesuque, capitalizing on the post-war influx of tourists. In 1920, they went on to own the San Gabriel Ranch in Alcalde, which attracted a veritable neighborhood of “New Women,” including Wheelwright, who bought and renovated a property in the area, called Los Luceros, from the Pfäffles, as well as Elsie Clews Parsons, author of a scandalous 1906 book called The Family, which recommended “trial marriage” and advocated for women’s personal and professional development.
Stanley divorced Pfäffle in 1931 and moved to a haunted homestead on the northern edge of the Piedra Lumbre basin that she named Ghost Ranch. She was the first Anglo woman to ever live at what the locals called the Ranch of the Witches and the first person of any gender to live there in more than 30 years. She put together a staff and started construction on a new guest ranch, ever motivated to offer hospitality and lodging to intrepid explorers of the Southwest. O’Keeffe first arrived in 1934, just as Stanley, at age fifty-five, was falling in love again — with a cowboy who would gamble away her money. She sold the ranch in 1935.
When she moved there permanently, O’Keeffe lived on a very small parcel of Ghost Ranch, but she claimed the place so fully that she expected to be involved with all ranch decisions, even if they didn’t affect her. That she was difficult and prone to outrage is well-known at the ranch, so it didn’t surprise Poling-Kempes to discover that O’Keeffe never mentioned Stanley in any of her writings about her adopted home.
“I knew that’s how O’Keeffe was,” she said. “The ranch was very much hers.”
▼ Leslie Poling-Kempes lectures on “Ladies of the Canyons: Remarkable Women of the Southwest” ▼ 12 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 2 ▼ New Mexico History Museum, Meem Community Room, 113 Lincoln Ave., 505-476-5090 ▼ No charge
Carol Bishop Stanley, Ghost Ranch founder, circa 1924, Collection of Carol Stanley
Mary Cabot Wheelwright, Collection of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian
Roy and Carol Stanley Pfäffle, San Gabriel Ranch, circa 1922, Collection of Carol Stanley
Theodore Roosevelt at Walpi, August 1913, Collection of Harvard University; right, Snake Dance, Walpi, August 1913. Theodore Roosevelt and Natalie Curtis (in white hat) are in the center of the second row, NAU Cline Library Emery Kolb Collection
Natalie Curtis and Tawakwaptiwa in Riverside, California, 1907, Collection of Natalie Curtis Burlin Archive