READING LIVES: BIOGRAPHICAL RESEARCH (AND VD)


Back in 1994 I met one of the most delicious persons I have ever met in my life–it is very, very hard to encapsulate in just one adjective the vivacity, cheerfulness, zest for life that Prof. Lois Rudnick transmits with her presence. Now emeritus, Lois was that academic year a Fulbright visitor from the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She spent that time teaching in my Department (also in the English Dept. at the Universitat de Barcelona). Lois gave me personally many wonderful moments to remember for ever, from our seeing together Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (Prof. Rudnick is Jewish) to teaching me why contemporary dance is more thrilling than classical ballet (it’s about the freedom to create new moves, as pioneering US dancer Isadora Duncan demonstrated her whole life).

Prof. Rudnick’s academic career has been focused mainly on researching the life of literary and artistic hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan. Several of the many biographical books she has devoted to Luhan are available from Amazon.com, if you’re curious. I must say that, before meeting Lois, I had never heard of Luhan (1879-1962), a wealthy socialite from Buffalo (New York) particularly known for having chosen Taos, in New Mexico, as her home and having attracted there a long list of artists of all descriptions from 1917 onward. D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keefe are usually mentioned among her guests, but the list is far, far longer. Incidentally, her beautiful Taos home is now a bed-and-breakfast establishment–though she hated tourists. Luhan, nĂ©e Ganson, went though four marriages that gave her not only a long list of surnames to choose from but also a troubled private and public life. Her last husband, Tony Lujan (notice the different spelling) was a handsome Pueblo Indian (today native American
) whom she married in 1923, at a historical period when very few interracial unions of this exceptional kind were celebrated at all. They stayed married for almost 40 years.

Lois Rudnick’s latest book on Luhan is The Suppressed Memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan: Sex, Syphilis, and Psychoanalysis in the Making of Modern American Culture (2012). This is actually an edition of a number of autobiographical texts which Luhan did not include in her groundbreaking autobiographical tetralogy, Intimate Memoirs (1933-37), which she started writing at 45. In this 1600-page long, poignant text Luhan gave a candid account not only of her network of celebrity friends and acquaintances but also of her own personal life, with a sincerity that is to be praised. This woman was born in an American Victorian home but her life ended the year before second-wave feminism erupted with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. In these 83 years she had to learn, at a great personal cost, how to break the tight rules she had been handed down as a girl while she and the rest of the international Modernist coterie(s) re-invented love, sexuality and identity. Not an easy task.

The ‘suppressed memoirs’ that Prof. Rudkin could not access before 2000 (there was an injunction placed by author’s son, if I understand correctly, against their publication) deal specifically with the episodes in Luhan’s life connected with sex, and more particularly with how the transmission of VD negatively affected her marriages and her many affairs. Indeed, the volume even contains a nicely-packed condom–a clever reminder that VD is still rampant, despite all we (supposedly) know about gonorrhoea, syphilis and the rest. Also, a reminder that (though also transmitted in other ways than VD) HIV and syphilis connect distant periods of heterosexuality in ways we hardly pay attention to.

The paradox in Luhan’s life is that of her four husbands, three suffered from syphilis and, although she did all she could to avoid catching the feared disease (except, it seems, using condoms, for she wanted children) ultimately Tony’s infidelity was the reason why Mabel was infected and their idyll radically transformed. I am very much reluctant to reading biographical material and I have a very prudish Victorian horror of intruding into the sex lives of persons who have not entrusted their confidence to me. Fiction is fine but real-life events are not so fine. You may imagine how befuddled I felt reading the passage in which Luhan describes that she knew simultaneously that her husband Tony was a) unfaithful and b) infected with syphilis, when she noticed the stain of bloodied semen on the otherwise pristine white sheet he used to wrap his body in.

I get Lois’ point: Luhan gives unique evidence of how the Modernist sexual liberation of the 1910s-1930s was accompanied by the dark shadow of VD, so why not explore it? We do know that Victorian women (and their babies) were often the innocent victims of their husbands’ secret lives but we have little information about how women of Luhan’s generation coped with the reality of VD, once first-wave feminism introduced a certain measure of female sexual liberation. Fiction could not go very far: D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published in 1929 (privately and in Italy) was the object of an obscenity trial in 1960 and could only be published in the UK after that date. And there’s no mention of VD in it despite its frank sexuality! So, yes, I value and understand Luhan’s painful, brave testimonial. Still, I’m somehow sorry that I need to intrude into the privacy of her bedroom to grasp a truth everyone in her time seemed to be hiding. I must thank Lois Rudnick, then, for bringing that truth to us while I wonder whether that is the only way to raise awareness. Possibly.

Having got that off my chest that, I have other issues to raise. You can, by the way, listen to Prof. Rudnick herself discuss her book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibTHhgQ74ew. One of these issues is that, obviously, only educated, upper-class women like Luhan were articulate enough to offer an insightful portrait of private life (and even so, she mostly wrote her texts for the psychologists and psychiatrists treating her all her life). The anger and disappointment with which she receives evidence of infection (and hence, of betrayal) must have also been part of the life of less privileged women but, then, we will never have their testimonial. They’re just statistics, if at all.

Another issue is that, from what I gather, early 20th century women who, like Mabel, appeared to be liberated and even had a notorious reputation as men-eaters, did not really find much satisfaction in sex, which was not even the main point in their search for romance. Reading Luhan’s account of the affair she had with Dr. John Parmenter during her first marriage, it seems that she fell in love above all with a certain patriarchal ideal of protective masculinity, paradoxical as this may sound. The pain which she felt when this idealized man turned out to be incapable of abandoning a wife he didn’t love seems to come directly from the Romantic period rather than the 1910s. This is Jane Austen with sex and not the post-second feminist wave accounts of bedroom misencounters we are used to now.

In fact, and this is what kept me reading–apart from Prof. Rudnick’s manifest passion for her subject–the suppressed memoirs function as a chronicle of a lost struggle against infidelity. Decades into their marriage, and even though Mabel knows that Tony has had liaisons with other women, she feels again a deep Romantic pain caused by the budding relationship between her husband and a younger woman, Millicent Rogers. A celebrity in the circles of fashion and art, Rogers moved from Hollywood to Taos in 1947 intent on imitating the much admired Luhan, to the point of also obsessing with Tony. Luhan never acknowledges that she is in the same position as Dr. Parmenter’s wife back in the first of the suppressed memoirs, either because she is mortified by the comparison or because she cannot see the parallelism. I don’t mean that infidelity necessarily leads eventually to some kind of retribution but, rather, that Luhan must be one of the first modern women to describe how monogamy and sexual liberation clash–a situation we are very far from having solved.

Thus, the most painful memory Luhan narrates is not her chagrin at realizing that, despite her caution, she has syphilis but her realization that she can do nothing to stop Tony from loving this Rogers woman, the upstart whom Mabel so hates. Much more so because unlike Dr. Parmenter, who acts as a cowardly child with both wife and mistress, Tony assumes with all the serenity he can muster that he loves Mabel but also Millicent (she eventually left him for his nephew, Benito). Encountering that type of deep Romantic pain in a book about venereal disease gives Lois Rudnick’s exploration of American Modernism a strange twist, for my impression is that in current discussions of sexuality love (which is what Mabel feels) occupies in the end little room. I may be ranting and raving at my worst today but, beyond the clichĂ©s of romance, is there any serious current attempt at considering love? Don’t we talk too much about sexuality, too little about feeling? And how come I notice this void in a book about syphilis?

There is also a subtle subtext in The Suppressed Memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan which has do to with race and class. As a rich, white, female intruder in the Pueblo community Luhan is not particularly well-liked; her affair with Tony, which begins when both are still married, is less than welcome and she even more or less acknowledges that her money bought this Pueblo man just as she purchased Taos land. Eventually, Mabel convinces the Pueblo Indians indirectly through Tony (by then her husband) and, if I recall correctly, the intervention of John Collier–later Commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in President Roosevelt’s administration–to test the adult community members for syphilis. Among those who refuse to be tested is the husband of Tony’s mistress, the woman who passes syphilis onto him. If you add two and two, Rudnick is hinting at a plot of revenge aimed at putting the Yankee interloper in her place. The impulse to do biographical research exposes, thus, patterns in History we might never be aware of.

I recall conversations with Lois, worried already in 1994-5, before the internet really exploded, about what would happen with documentation in the future and how biographers would work. Funnily, if Luhan were alive today, she would most likely be an influencer with a heavily documented life in the social networks. And/or perhaps one of those novelists that write narcissistic auto-fiction, though I wonder whether there is a single grain of truth in the sub-genre. As for the truth we get from Luhan’s ‘suppressed memoirs’ (and ‘suppressed’ here means both unpublished and self-censored), it is necessarily biased towards a zeitgeist obsessed with sex and very much reluctant to consider love–and the models we follow in our lives. At one point Mabel throws a tantrum at her husband, she writes, not so much because she is uncontrollably angry but because she intends to seduce her man back into her arms as the heroines of romance do. Impassive, Tony responds coolly ‘You’re tearing my trousers’ and the whole edifice of romantic seduction comes crashing down. At least, Mabel knows which model is failing her. As for us, how do we love (or fail to love)? I wonder.

By the way, you might be surprised to know that in the USA, ‘During 2017, there were 101,567 reported new diagnoses of syphilis (all stages), compared to 39,782 estimated new diagnoses of HIV infection in 2016 and 555,608 cases of gonorrhoea in 2017’, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (https://www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/stdfact-syphilis-detailed.htm). Just in case you thought syphilis was a thing of the distant Victorian past and not of post-modern sexuality.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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