Mabel Ganson was born in Buffalo, New York, on 26th February, 1879. Her first marriage, at the age of 21, was to Karl Evans, the son of a steamship owner in 1900. He died in a hunting accident two-and-half years later leaving her a widow at the age of 23.
In 1903 Mabel married Edwin Dodge, a wealthy architect. The couple lived in Florence, Tuscany, for over seven years. According to her autobiography, Intimate Memories (1933), she had a series of affairs with both men and women. Some of her friends included Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and André Gide. After one failed relationship she tried to commit suicide by eating figs with shards of glass.
After leaving her husband in 1912 she moved to a apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue. Mabel Dodge's friend, Bertram D. Wolfe, later recalled: "Wealthy, gracious, open-hearted, beautiful, intellectually curious, and quite without a sense of discrimination, she was Bohemia's most successful lion-hunter."
Her apartment in New York City became a place where intellectuals and artists met. This included John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, Robert Edmond Jones, Margaret Sanger, Louise Bryant, Bill Haywood, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Frances Perkins, Amos Pinchot, Frank Harris, Charles Demuth, Andrew Dasburg, George Sylvester Viereck, John Collier, Carl Van Vechten and Amy Lowell.
Bertram D. Wolfe explained: "Sometimes Mrs. Dodge set the subject and selected the opening speaker; sometimes she shifted the night to make sure that none would know of the gathering expect those she personally notified." Dodge pointed out in her autobiography, Intimate Memories : "I switched from the usual Wednesday to a Monday, so that none but more or less radical sympathizers would be there." Ella Winter later wrote: "Mabel... was a strong, dominating woman who had always been wealthy and who used her money to make a personal bohemia.... I admired her intense vitality and energy even while I distrusted the anarchic uses to which she put them.
In his book, Autobiography (1931), Lincoln Steffens claimed: "Mabel Dodge, who is, in her odd way, one of the most wonderful things in the world; an aristocratic, rich, good-looking woman, she has never set foot on the earth earthy... With taste and grace, the courage of inexperience, and a radiating personality, that woman has done whatever it has struck her fancy to do, and put it and herself over-openly. She never knew that society could and did cut her; she went ahead, and opening her house, let who would come to her salon. Her house was a great old-fashioned apartment on lower Fifth Avenue. It was filled full of lovely, artistic things; she dressed beautifully in her own way.... Mabel Dodge managed her evenings, and no one felt that they were managed. She sat quietly in a great armchair and rarely said a word; her guests did the talking, and with such a variety of guests, her success was amazing."
Mabel Dodge began an affair with John Reed. She later described their first meeting: "His olive green eyes glowed softly, his high forehead was like a baby's with light brown curls rolling away from it and two spots of shining light on his temples, making him lovable. His chin was the best... the real poet's jawbone... eyebrows always lifted... generally breathless!"
Paterson was known as the "Silk City of America". More than one-third of its 73,000 workers held jobs in the silk industry. In 1911 silk manufacturers in Paterson decided that workers, who had previously ran two looms, were now required to operate four simultaneously. Workers complained that this would cause unemployment and consequently, would bring down wages. On 27th January, 1913, 800 employees of the Doherty Silk Mill went on strike when four members of the workers' committee were fired for trying to organize a meeting with the company's management to discuss the four-loom system. Within a week, all silk workers were on strike and the 300 mills in the town were forced to close.
John Reed decided to report on the Paterson Strike and took Mabel Dodge with him. He was soon arrested and imprisoned in Paterson County Jail. When the police found that he was embarrassing them by writing articles on prison conditions, they released him. Other left-wing journalists such as Walter Lippman arrived to show solidarity with Reed and to support the demand that reporters should be free to report industrial disputes.
Reed, Dodge and John Sloan organised a Paterson Strike Pageant in Madison Square Garden in an attempt to raise funds for the strikers. Dodge later wrote: "For a few electric moments there was a terrible unity between all of these people. They were one: the workers who had come to show their comrades what was happening across the river and the workers who had come to see it. I have never felt such a pulsing vibration in any gathering before or since." However, the strike fund was unable to raise enough money and in July, 1913, the workers were starved into submission.
However, as Bertram D. Wolfe pointed out: "It is hard work to fill Madison Square Garden. The dollar and two-dollar seats remained almost empty until workers and strikers were let in free or at ten cents a seat. Instead of making money, the pageant ended with a deficit". The strike fund was unable to raise enough money and in July, 1913, the workers were starved into submission.
The day after the Paterson Strike Pageant, Dodge and John Reed left for a tour of Europe. He told his current girlfriend, "Rose, I don't love you: I love Mabel Dodge." However, the relationship was stormy. After one argument Reed sent her a parting letter: "Goodbye, my darling - you smother me. You crush me. You want to kill my spirit. I love you better than life but do not want to die in my spirit. I am going away to save myself. Forgive me. I love you."
A pacifist, Mabel Dodge contributed articles to the radical journal, The Masses, during the First World War. She was also active in the Women's Peace Party. In 1916 she married the artist Maurice Sterne. After the war, Mabel Dodge, her husband and Elsie Clews Parsons, a sociologist, moved to Taos, New Mexico, and started a literary colony there.
In 1922 D. H. Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence, stayed at Taos where he wrote The Plumed Serpent (1926). The main character in his short-story, The Woman Who Rode Away, was based on Dodge. In 1923 she married Tony Lujan, a Native American. The couple visited the recently married, Lincoln Steffens and Ella Winter in 1927 at their new home in Carmel, California. Winter later wrote: "Tony was broad-shouldered, square, brown-skinned, and wore Western clothes, with cowboy boots and a colored Navajo rug, tog alike, over his shoulders. He was illiterate and childlike, and liked to play darts or gather shells on the beach with the children. He brought his big Navajo drum to parties, and when he got bored, would take it out and thump on it an Indian lament."
© John Simkin, May 2013