The artist, her caretaker, and eight years of letters
by Laura PaskusThe initial draw of Maria Chabot — Georgia O’Keeffe: Correspondence, 1941-1949 is its promise of a peek into the artist’s personal life. But the surprise of these collected letters between two women in the 1940s — one of them in northern New Mexico, cleaning out acequias, planting fruit trees and commenting on the "bloodsucker" artists in Santa Fe — is that the woman in the desert isn’t O’Keeffe, but rather the caretaker of her house.
For four years, writer Maria Chabot tended the artist’s home at Ghost Ranch while O’Keeffe was in New York. Chabot, 27 years old in 1941, appears obsessed with the 54-year old O’Keeffe: "I would offer myself to you lock, stock and barrel with no strings, at no price," she wrote. Four years later, when O’Keeffe bought a crumbling adobe in Abiquiu, Chabot oversaw its renovation. After the artist hired a new caretaker, however, the two women parted on bitter terms.
Chabot’s letters provide historical insight into the difficulty of life in New Mexico, particularly during World War II, when the government rationed everything from beef to rubber. She writes that the people of Abiquiu, lacking both radios and newspapers, hear about the war only when their young men return from its battlegrounds. When a Marine comes home on furlough from Germany and tells of going 21 days without food, the townspeople, hungry themselves, hold a 40-day devotion "to end the war."
In her letters, O’Keeffe does not sound like the mythical wild woman of the desert; she seems frail, sickly and overwhelmed with "nerves." Her letters are short and infrequent, mostly full of East Coast names and her longing for the desert. The best parts of the book are Chabot’s notes to the artist: "The wind is howling, the sand is blowing. Last night an old man died and all of the town sat up at the wake. Today they sleep — after the burial. The Penitentes sing."
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