The idea of winter in Taos no doubt conjures images of steep snow-covered mountains with skiers and snowboarders careening down at break-neck speeds.
British novelist and poet D.H. Lawrence is likely not part of that winter visage, but he should be, says Larry Torres, an associate professor of foreign languages and cultures at the University of New Mexico’s Taos campus, and the unofficial resident expert on all things Lawrence.
Lawrence lived on and off in the Taos area for a number of years in the 1920s, along with his wife, Frieda, and their friend Dorothy Brett, eldest daughter of the second Viscount Esher, one of Queen Victoria’s closest advisers, Torres says.
Several years after D.H. Lawrence’s death in France, his ashes were brought to New Mexico, mixed with concrete and shaped into a memorial stone housed in a small covered shrine on what is now known as the Lawrence Ranch, at San Cristobal in Taos County.
Lawrence, his wife and Brett lived in cabins on the ranch, originally owned by Mabel Dodge Luhan, a patron of the arts.
“If you want to find the spirit of D.H. Lawrence, visit the Lawrence Ranch in the winter,” says Torres. “That’s when he would have been in his cabin writing and Dorothy Brett would have been typing up his handwritten manuscripts.
“Winter was a favorite time of year for D.H. Lawrence, a time that inspired the introspection so evident in his writings, and the time of year when visitors would most likely find him because he wasn’t out traveling to Mexico or Guatemala or Europe.”
How Lawrence wound up in New Mexico and having his ashes entombed here is a tale worthy of the novelist who penned such fare as “Sons and Lovers” and “Women in Love” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which Torres says was “considered a dirty book and banned by Scotland Yard.”
Born in England in 1885, David Herbert Lawrence was the son of a coal miner father and a former school teacher mother.
In 1912 he met Frieda von Richthofen, a distant cousin of Germany’s famed “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen. At the time, she was married to Ernest Weekley, Lawrence’s former modern languages professor at Nottingham University. She abandoned Weekley and their three children for Lawrence, “pretty daring for a woman of that era,” Torres notes.
The couple went to Metz, a garrison town then in Germany near the disputed border with France, and where Lawrence was accused of being a British spy; they returned to England and married in 1914 as World War I was getting under way and where British authorities suspected Frieda Lawrence was a German spy, Torres says.
Not surprisingly, Lawrence and his wife spent as little time in England as possible, preferring to travel throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, Mexico and Australia.
Arriving in New Mexico
In 1921 the couple were in Italy when they received an invitation from Luhan to come to Taos, where she had started a literary colony. They arrived in New Mexico in 1922, but clashed with Luhan and stayed only a short time, says Torres.
They were lured back in 1923, again by Luhan, and were accompanied by longtime friend Brett, an artist and Lawrence disciple. This time, Luhan enticed them to stay, offering a piece of property she owned in San Cristobal in exchange for Lawrence’s handwritten manuscript to “Sons and Lovers,” Torres says.
The property, then called Kiowa Ranch, included two small cabins in disrepair. The Lawrences lived in the larger one and Brett in the smaller one.
Among the frequent guests to the Lawrences’ home was artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who later created “Lawrence Tree,” a painting of a large pine in front of the cabin under which D.H. Lawrence used to spend hours writing. The tree still stands and a historic marker highlights it.
In Taos, Lawrence’s reputation for sexual dalliances had become a source of irritation to his wife, says Torres. Suspicious that her husband was involved with both Luhan and Brett, Frieda Lawrence insisted that she and her husband leave New Mexico.
They wound up in Italy in 1927, where D.H. Lawrence continued to write and renewed an interest in oil painting. Among his paintings were 13 with thinly veiled sexual themes. The works were embraced by the Italian public, but a showing at the Warren Gallery in England didn’t go as well, Torres says.
“Scotland Yard confiscated the paintings for being obscene and pornographic and Lawrence could get them back only by agreeing to get them out of the country,” says Torres. “Where else would you take pornographic paintings at that time but Taos, New Mexico, where people love artists, free thinkers and bohemians?”
Known as the “D.H. Lawrence Forbidden Art Collection,” nine of the paintings are on display at Hotel La Fonda de Taos.
It was in Italy that Frieda Lawrence became involved with Italian artist and former infantry officer Angelo Ravagli, and D.H. Lawrence is said to have discovered the two of them “flagrante delicto,” Torres says. Many D.H. Lawrence scholars believe “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was in part based on Frieda Lawrence’s infidelity with Ravagli, Torres says.
D.H. Lawrence was in France and in failing health when he died from tuberculosis in 1930. He was buried at a cemetery in Vence. After his death, Frieda Lawrence returned to the home in Taos, joined by Ravagli, who had abandoned his wife and three children in a scenario echoing Frieda’s abandonment of her family when she took up with D.H. Lawrence many years before, Torres says.
In 1934 Frieda arranged to have D.H. Lawrence’s body exhumed, sent to a crematorium in Marseille and the ashes shipped to the train station in Lamy, N.M.
According to one account, Torres says, Frieda Lawrence, Ravagli, Brett, and Luhan and husband Tony Luhan piled into a car and drove to retrieve the ashes from the station. En route, however, “they got schnockered on Mabel’s famous bootleg gin that she’d made in her bathroom with local juniper berries.” The drinking continued at the train station and the group returned to Taos, forgetting the container with Lawrence’s ashes.
Upon realizing their blunder they rushed back to Lamy only to find that “a Harvey Girl had found the ashes, and thinking it was garbage swept it up into a pile along with piñon shells, apple cores and food scrapings from plates,” Torres says. “Instead of returning to Taos as the literary Messiah, Lawrence returned as a doggie bag.”
A final indignity to the writer occurred when Frieda Lawrence learned that Luhan and Brett were planning to use D.H. Lawrence’s ashes “in a re-enactment of Palm Sunday,” and then scatter the ashes, Torres says. Frieda, however, intended to have the ashes placed in an urn and permanently housed in a small chapel-like memorial building that had been constructed on the ranch for that purpose.
“She supposedly commented to Ravagli: ‘They had him in life and I’ll be damned if they’ll have him in death,’” says Torres.
To make certain the ashes couldn’t be removed, Frieda Lawrence had them mixed with concrete and formed into the centerpiece memorial altar stone. The stone is adorned with D.H. Lawrence’s initials and his personal symbol, the mythological Phoenix.
IF YOU GO
The D.H. Lawrence Ranch in San Cristobal, Taos County, is about 12 miles north of Taos off N.M. 522, past Arroyo Hondo. A marker on the side of the road just before the village of San Cristobal directs visitors down a 4.5-mile dirt road to the ranch.
The site is on the National Register of Historic Places and the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties. it was bequeathed by Frieda Lawrence to the university of New Mexico. There is no admission fee, but the ranch is undergoing preservation work.
Larry Torres, an associate professor of foreign languages and cultures at the university of New Mexico’s Taos campus, organizes a limited number of winter tours to the D.H. Lawrence Ranch. Call the ranch at 575-776-2245 or Torres at 575-737-6200.