I recently had the opportunity to visit the D. H. Lawrence Ranch near San Cristobal, New Mexico, north of Taos. It was an interesting visit and it would appear that Lawrence was literally lost in the mountains and maybe wanted it that way. I’ve always had trouble with the self-absorbed writers from the early 20th century – maybe the “Lost Generation” writers. I’ve read a few like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and a little Cummings but never really got into it. The period between Joseph Conrad and John Steinbeck is somewhat lost on me. I am by no means well read by any measure and I may be missing some gems from that period that I would really enjoy. Suggestions would always be welcome.
When a list of the Paris-based “Lost Generation” writers is compiled it is interesting to see who is included and not included. For various reasons, D. H. Lawrence doesn’t make the list although he was born into that generation and spent enough time in Europe and encountered the Paris group members on occasion. Lawrence seems to have had some literary success earlier, before WW-I, as Sons and Lovers came out in 1913. Lawrence’s personal life and attachments probably kept him apart and he doesn’t seem to be much of a joiner but would probably rather be the center of attention. He met Frieda (Baroness Von Richtofen) Weekly in 1912 and they married in 1914 and they stayed in that relationship until his death in 1930.
Lawrence lived in a different world. The war was coming, and Lawrence and Frieda were living in Germany with her Prussian aristocratic connections (she was a distant cousin to the “Red Baron”). They moved to Bavaria and later to Italy but returned to England just before the war broke. Things did not go well in England. Frieda was a divorcee who abandoned her English family, including two kids, to run off with Lawrence so there was a scandal waiting for them. Frieda’s Prussian background may have played a part, but Lawrence ran afoul of the local military authorities and the Defense of the Realm Act, which put him in deeper trouble.
After the war, the couple traveled in Europe but just as the writers were gathering in Paris and gaining some experience and notoriety, Lawrence packed up and went to America in 1922. He eventually landed in Taos, New Mexico, at the bidding of Mabel Dodge. Dodge was the wealthy “matriarch” of a cluster of writers and artists working in and around Taos. The Lawrences lived with Dodge, briefly, but Mabel and Frieda were less than compatible. They then moved out of town to the 160-acre Kiowa Ranch (owned by Dodge) in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Dodge eventually deeded the ranch to Frieda in exchange for Lawrence’s manuscript of Sons and Lovers.
The ranch was the only place the Lawrences ever owned, and Frieda mostly lived there until she died in the 1950s. Lawrence had a vision of creating a writers’ colony called “Rananim” at the ranch and, while on a trip back to England, tried to enlist some of his literary and artist friends to join him. Although he generated a good deal of interest, only Lady Dorothy Brett, an aristocratic artist, took him up on the offer. Aldous Huxley and a few other notables visited the ranch, but the colony never developed beyond Lawrence, Frieda, Dorothy Brett, and the cow, Susan. The Lawrences lived in a two-room log cabin covered with cement stucco. Dorothy Brett lived in a small one-room cabin close by. Amenities were sparse, and it was four miles down a dirt road to the closest “real” road. There was a barn and a small corral for Susan. D. H. Lawrence was writing all through this period and often sat out at a work table writing under a huge pine tree that still stands. Dorothy Brett typed up some of his manuscript pages.
The Lawrences lived together at the ranch for two years but the author’s failing health prompted them to move back to Europe where they settled in Tuscany. Lawrence had TB and came down with malaria on a trip to Mexico while living at the ranch. He died in 1930 while traveling in France and was initially buried in Vence in the south of France near Nice.
After Lawrence died, Frieda returned to the ranch with Angelo Ravagli, later her third husband. A newer and sturdier cabin was eventually constructed which made life easier in the mountains. Frieda wanted a memorial built on the ranch so Ravagli brought back Lawrence’s ashes from Vence. The memorial sits, shrine-like, on the hill above the cabin. Lawrence’s ashes were incorporated into the concrete altar-like structure inside the small memorial building. During Frieda’s lifetime, she welcomed several notables to the ranch including Marlena Dietrich, Leonard Bernstein, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Lillian Gish. Dorothy Brett lived on at the ranch for a while but later moved into Taos.
The D. H. Lawrence Ranch still exists and is owned by the University of New Mexico. It gets about 900 visitors a year – those that can find the place. It is a miracle that the place survives. Lawrence was a horrible carpenter, but his handiwork must be kept as he left it since this is considered a national historical site. The cabins have been rented out on occasion to casual visitors. Sadly, there has been poor security at the ranch in early caretaker years and no real inventory taken so much of the Lawrences’ belongings have vanished over time.
What I know about D. H. Lawrence and his health problems and writing workload makes me think that he would be one of the last people to move to a ranch in the New Mexico wilderness and try to cobble together an existence with wood stoves and spring water and the daily chores. This is no easy task now for a fit person but must have been much more difficult in 1924. His photos don’t portray him as an outdoors type at all. New Mexico’s climate made it a mecca for people suffering from TB and many two or three generation state residents can point to an ancestor who came here for “the cure”. There were a dozen or more sanitariums in Albuquerque and Santa Fe back in the early 1900s. The group of visitors that found their way to the ranch is also an interesting bunch. Seeing the ranch, I can’t imagine Truman Capote there. I wish I was a fly on the wall during that visit. Tennessee Williams, another visitor, tried to write a Lawrence-themed play while living in the old cabin but was overwhelmed by Lawrence’s spiritual presence.
Today, the University of New Mexico is trying to breathe life into Lawrence’s dream of the Rananin colony associated with the ranch. It is an on-again, off-again thing. Funding seems to be a perpetual problem and the ranch requires considerable upkeep. The link included below offers an overview of what the plans were in 2014. The summer program has changed since then.
Since 2014, there have been some added problems with holding summer ranch programs – hantavirus is detected in the area on occasion and the national forest is sometimes closed due to fire danger. As of 2014, there have been 41 deaths from hantavirus in New Mexico since 1993 and the fatality rate is about 36% according to the Center for Disease Control so it is a serious threat if an outbreak occurs.
Georgia O’Keefe was part of the Mabel Dodge Lujan artist and writers’ group in Taos and later lived in Abiquiu, New Mexico. She visited the ranch in 1929 (the Lawrences were back in Europe) and painted a now-famous painting of the D. H. Lawrence Tree. The current caretakers are making a special effort to preserve the health of the tree despite the frequent droughts in this region. So far it looks reasonably healthy, surviving almost ninety years beyond D. H. Lawrence.
There is a University master plan in the works for the ranch property which will include a visitor center. Preservation is an immediate concern as well as documentation of the structures and contents.
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