Commentary Magazine


My Days With Frieda Lawrence

Wind whispers through the pinon trees dotting the 160-acre mountaintop ranch that inspired writer D.H. Lawrence. . . . The scene is peaceful, yet melancholy: the property . . . is falling apart.

Washington Times, March 27, 1998

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It was a lovely place, that ranch, near (but not at) the top of a mountain a few miles from Taos, New Mexico, and so inaccessible that no one was likely to come upon it inadvertently. My wife and I spent our honeymoon at the ranch in 1951, when Lawrence’s widow Frieda still owned it, although she no longer lived there. We were alone, except when Frieda and Angie would come up from Taos for lunch or dinner; Angie was Angelo Ravagli, the model for the gamekeeper Mellors in Lawrence’s most famous novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), and soon to become Frieda’s husband. Alone, my wife and I could sit on the wooden steps of the “big house” and look over the sage-brushed desert spread out below us, with the Rio Grande visible—and in that clear air almost always visible—in the distance. And we could walk for hours along the crude aqueduct the Indians had constructed to carry water to the ranch and to the concrete swimming pool (built by Angie) in which we could swim, naked as jaybirds. It was a perfect place for a honeymoon.

The ranch had been owned by Mabel Dodge, a pretentious New Yorker with lots of money who came to Taos, married a local Indian named Tony Luhan (whom I never heard utter a word), and settled in to become a patroness of the arts. The Lawrences acquired it from her in exchange for the manuscript of Lawrence’s early masterpiece, Sons and Lovers (1913). I do not know what Mabel did with the manuscript, but Frieda, sole proprietor after Lawrence’s death in 1930, left the ranch to the University of New Mexico, which, as the story in the Washington Times informs us, has allowed it to “decline from asset to eyesore.”

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I first met Frieda in 1946 at the Sagebrush Inn outside Taos, where, with a friend from my wartime Navy days, I was working as a waiter and she had come to dine. That meeting led to an invitation to tea at her Taos home, and then to a visit, the first of many, at the ranch. There, usually at supper, she would ask the two of us about the Navy and the war, and, in return, speak of her “wonderful days with Lawrence,” of his precarious health, of his difficulties with publishers and editors, of their life together in Germany, Italy, the south of France, Australia, and in England during World War I, when she, born Frieda von Richthofen and a cousin of the “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen, had been suspected of being a German spy.

And she also spoke of her childhood at Metz in the Lorraine, where, during the German annexation of that territory after the Franco-Prussian war, her father, a German nobleman, had served in some official capacity. Sitting on the wall surrounding his estate, she and her two sisters would toss pears and apples from their orchard to the soldiers marching by. In the French convent school where she “did not learn very much,” one or another of the nuns would say, as she came dashing into class in her Hessian boots, “Toujours doucement, ma petite Frieda.”

She was not petite when I knew her. In fact, she was rather lumpy and could have been mistaken for a peasant as she walked around in her bare feet and apron, feeding the chickens, answering questions with a throaty German “Ja!” (or, when speaking with Angie, “Si!”), and roaring with laughter when she came upon a laundry list prepared by Angie that included, among the items, “4 shits.” Still, there was also something of royalty about her. Once, when a self-important Texas visitor to the ranch was bragging about his ancestors, Frieda replied, “Mine were Silesian kings.” And so they were.

Her younger sister Johanna (Nusch, as Frieda called her) had been lady-in-waiting to the empress queen of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and once, by way of declaring a love affair at an end, had slipped off a pearl necklace given her by her suitor and casually dropped it into the Spree (or Seine, Tiber, or Thames). To hear Frieda tell it, Nusch had had lovers everywhere, even (but not in her salad days) in Hot Springs, Arkansas. This, because it says something of importance about Frieda, is a tale worth repeating.

In 1949, on Frieda’s seventieth birthday, Nusch, at least sixty-five but doing a good job of concealing it, came to the ranch and announced that she had stopped at Hot Springs on the way and had met a “nice young man” there. Indeed, she continued, she had invited him to come to Taos and—hoping her sister would not mind—had told him that Frieda was her mother. Frieda found this hilarious; she warned me not to give the game away.

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After lunch on most days, Frieda would retire to her bedroom to read and take a brief nap, emerging with her impressions of what she had read. Writers, for her, were divided between those who had “zut” and those who did not. Somehow one knew what she meant—or at least I did, since in those days I was planning to become a writer myself. Nietzsche had “zut,” according to Frieda, and of course Lawrence had it in abundance; but Aldous Huxley, though she loved him dearly, did not. She loved to read Lawrence’s poems aloud, and subsequently recorded them; I have a copy of the recording still. A room in the “big house” was filled with his paintings, one of which showed a group of nuns looking furtively at a naked shepherd boy asleep under a tree.

Frieda enjoyed playing the piano, especially if we sang along with her; her specialty was a folk song that had been a favorite among the German soldiers at Metz, “Wenn ich zu meinem Kinde geh” (“When I go to my child”). Considering the fact that no tuner had ever braved the rutted road to the ranch, the piano was in surprisingly good condition. Frieda was not the only one who thought so; to cite an even better authority, Leonard Bernstein did, too, and in my presence.

Bernstein visited the ranch during the summer of 1948 because Frieda had invited the poet Stephen Spender to spend some time there, and along with Spender came Bernstein and Bernstein’s younger brother. For some reason, Frieda owned the complete score of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and, seeing it, Bernstein immediately sat down and began to play and sing his way through it. I thought this extraordinary at the time, but Frieda, who had spent the better part of her life among unusually talented people, took it in stride. As I recall, Spender’s crew lasted only a week, probably because, alone up there, they got tired of cooking for themselves or, in Bernstein’s case, of having to do without the news from New York.

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Frieda made it a practice to take fresh flowers and cedar and pine boughs to the tiny chapel where Lawrence’s ashes were buried—the Washington Times story refers to the place as a mausoleum. Angie, an expert mason, had built the chapel, and Georgia O’Keefe, who lived not far away and was a great friend of Frieda’s, had painted one of the pictures that hung in it. Famous people from around the world had entered their names in the registry that Frieda kept there.

There are interesting stories involving the chapel, but to tell one of them I have to introduce another inhabitant of Frieda’s world, the Honorable Dorothy Brett, daughter of the Viscount Esher (confidant of King Edward VII) and sister of the ranee of Sarawak (now a part of Malaysia but, before World War II, ruled by Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, the ranee’s husband and the third and last of the rajahs). Brett was a painter, and a rather good one, too. She lived in Taos across the road from Frieda, popping in on her at least once a day. She was therefore well placed to inform Mabel Dodge what Frieda was doing, and—of greatest interest to Mabel—what famous person (for instance, the poet William Carlos Williams) had visited Frieda without coming to visit her. To say the least, Mabel was jealous of Frieda and, beyond that, had persuaded herself that she better appreciated Lawrence’s genius and would make a better custodian of his ashes.

Lawrence had died in the south of France, and some years before my time in Taos, Frieda and Angie had gone there to recover the ashes. Arriving home, they were greeted by Brett, who asked, “Where’s Lawrence?” It turned out that on their return to Taos they had stopped for a cup of coffee, and the ashes had been left on the counter. (Angie was dispatched to fetch them.) This proved the last straw for Mabel. Inviting Frieda and Angie to dinner, she instructed her husband Tony and some friends of his from the Indian pueblo at Taos to go up to the chapel and steal the ashes. They probably would have succeeded had Brett, who was privy to the plot, not warned Frieda at the last moment.

In 1949, persuaded—by Frieda, among others—that I would never be a writer (I lacked “zut”), I left Taos for graduate school and became, of all things, a political scientist. Frieda died in 1956, Brett in 1975. As for Angie, the last time my wife and I saw him was in 1966 on our way to Portofino in Italy. He had returned to his native Spotorno, near Genoa, but it was sadly obvious that he no longer belonged there and had nothing to do. Of course, without Frieda and the world she had built around her, he would have had nothing to do in Taos, either.

And the ranch? I suspect that, after consulting some smart lawyers and developers, the University of New Mexico will turn it into still another of the area’s ski resorts. What they would do with the chapel is a problem, though; it is too small for a bar, and a ski resort is no place for a shrine.

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