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Know the West

What happens when "True Grit" meets "Easy Rider'


Utopian Vistas: The Mabel Dodge Luhan House and the American Counterculture

by Lois Palken Rudnick, 1996,

University of New Mexico Press, 416 pages, $35.

Lois Palken Rudnick's Utopian Vistas is almost enough to send me back to my native New York. But it's probably too late. After more than two decades here, I'm unlikely to do more damage to this rural place than I've already done.

Rudnick's book is about the middle-class invasion of northern New Mexico, and the unintentional destruction that invasion has wrought. The book's centers are the Mabel Dodge Luhan house in Taos and the artists, glitterati and hangers-on she attracted.

For the most part, it's a chronicle of urban expatriates with too much money or too many drugs or too frothy a view of life, or all three, moving into northern New Mexico to live close, but not too close, to real people - the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish-speaking residents. Most of those Luhan brought to Taos wanted the inspiration that comes from observing, from a distance, the lives of poor people scraping by in the rural and picturesque West.

Inspiration they got. Heiress Mabel Dodge Luhan was a cultural catalyst of the first order, Rudnick says, practicing her art first in Italy, then moving west to New York City's Fifth Avenue, and finally, in another leap West, relocating to Taos, on land bordering the Taos Pueblo, from 1918 to 1962.

She attracted first-rate writers and artists: D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Ansel Adams, Georgia O'Keeffe, Willa Cather, Leopold Stokowski, Martha Graham, Carl Jung, John Collier and an army of lesser lights.

The house she built - and the stories about the house that circulated after she moved out - kept her legacy alive. After a period of neglect, the house was bought and refurbished by filmmaker Dennis Hopper, who made Easy Rider. The intellectual crowd was replaced by a Rolling Stone magazine crowd: the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. But the game was the same. Rudnick writes that Hopper saw himself competing with Luhan.

The newcomers' interaction with the surrounding community is a fascinating yet dismal tale. Mabel Dodge, according to one witness, got off on the wrong foot by paying off Tony Luhan's first wife to allow him to sleep with Mabel.

True or false, she never was accepted by the native Taosenos. It was worse with Hopper. The Mabel Dodge Luhan crowd was seen by the Taosenos as eccentric and lazy and lost, but at least they had money and manners. Not so with Hopper and his cohorts. Drugs, sex, welfare and violence came with them: Hopper pulled a gun on a group of Hispanic youths who were hassling him; the "hippies'" appetite for food stamps mocked those really without resources and led the county to impose tougher regulations, which hurt some of the poor.

All that was nothing compared t the damage wreaked by the rising real estate prices and general inflation the Anglo movement into northern New Mexico caused. Whatever their goals, the artists and counterculture turned out to be stalking horses for the high-priced amenity crowd.

Rudnick's book can be maddening as she discusses ghost sightings and their cinnamon odor as just another historic datum. And her journalistic account of the present phase of the Luhan house as an educational nonprofit called Las Palomas is written from the perspective of a loyal, understanding friend of the founders, and is best skipped.

Otherwise Rudnick performs an admirable high-wire act, balancing admiration for Mabel Dodge Luhan with a recognition of her vampire-like approach to the culture and landscape.

She also finds a middle ground between her admiration for what the 1960s brought - opposition to the Vietnam war and nuclear power, the shift toward natural and health food, and the flowering of rock and roll - and its inability to carry out the decade's proclaimed mission - the creation of a functioning society based on love, mutual respect and non-materialism.

What happened between the Anglos, Pueblo Indians and Spanish-speaking residents of northern New Mexico is unique because of the ethnic mix and because the region is the West's economic equivalent of the Mississippi Delta.

But qualitatively, it is no different from what is happening throughout the Anglo West, as middle-class urban émigrés come to towns that don't have the defenses of skin color, language and extreme poverty to keep us from blending in even as we try to take over.

The movement into the inland West has led to conflict everywhere, whether we are talking about the displacement of Spanish-speaking people in Santa Fe, the struggle over grazing in Catron County, or the fights over trees in the Northwest. In each case, an urban culture with urban sensibilities has gotten a glimpse of a desirable landscape and a desirable way of life, and has attempted to take over both, always with the best intentions.

There's more to the story of this newest West than the clash of cultures. But the culture clash gets the least attention. Instead of all sides admitting that we can't stand being in the same county with each other, we sublimate our cat-and-dog hostility into fights over spotted owls, off-road vehicles, clear-cut logging and dam building. Ecological and economic issues are part of the fight, of course. But we might move more quickly toward solutions if we were to admit that everything is made more difficult because we hated each others' values on sight.

Ed Marston is the publisher of High Country News.