The Setting of Death Comes, the D. H. Lawrence Ranch in San Cristobal, NM

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Aside from the connections between D.H. Lawrence and Mabel Dodge Luhan—and between the Kiowa Ranch near San Cristobal that Mabel Dodge Luhan traded for the manuscript of Sons and Lovers and her famous adobe compound in Taos—I chose to use the D.H. Lawrence ranch as one of the main settings in Death Comes because Willa Cather and Edith Lewis visited Lawrence there in the summer of 1925, because it was remote—twenty miles from Taos and the Mabel Dodge Luhan house—and because it could easily be mysterious.

Gallery: The D. H. Lawrence Ranch in San Cristobal, NM

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Cather and Lewis’ visit to the ranch in 1925 was actually the second time they met D. H. Lawrence. The first occurred the previous year in New York City, when Lawrence was in negotiations with Alfred Knopf, Cather’s publisher. Knopf began publishing Lawrence in 1925, starting with St. Mawr, followed by The Plumed Serpent in 1926, and in 1928, a heavily abridged edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Cather’s books had experienced a dramatic increase in sales after she signed with Knopf and so would Lawrence’s. But even before Knopf released St. Mawr, Cather improved Lawrence’s financial situation by suggesting to Knopf that he send Lawrence a “royalties advance,” for which Lawrence thanked Knopf in a May 4, 1925 letter.

An odd gesture for one author to make for another, especially after they had spent only a few hours together the previous year? Perhaps. But because of Cather’s partner, Edith Lewis, they knew a great deal about each other well before they met. In 1921, D.H. Lawrence met the artists, Earl and Achsah Brewster, on the island of Capri. Achsah had been Edith Lewis’s roommate at Smith College and they remained close, corresponding often, and both Lewis and Cather had visited the Brewsters in Europe.

In 1922, the year after the Lawrences and Brewsters met on Capri, the Brewsters invited the Lawrences to join them in Ceylon, India, where they had chosen to live while Earl worked on his Life of Buddha. The Lawrences stayed with the Brewsters in Ceylon for five weeks until Mabel Dodge Luhan offered to bring them to Taos, where they arrived in September 1922. Once there, the Lawrences stayed in the pink adobe, the same house Willa Cather and Edith Lewis would occupy in 1925. After Cather and Lewis moved in, Mabel Dodge Luhan drove them to meet the Lawrences at Kiowa Ranch.

I knew some of this history when I began to think about writing Death Comes, and I had more than once visited Kiowa Ranch and Mabel Dodge Luhan’s. I had also introduced myself to Kevin Cannon, who now owns Luhan’s pink adobe and invited me in to see where Cather and Lewis stayed while in Taos and where, to my surprise, D.H. and Frieda Lawrence had also stayed. Cannon showed me Lawrence’s painting of the vase and phoenix I describe in Death Comes.

In the novel, Cather and Lewis are settling in for their second stay in Luhan’s pink adobe when they talk about the vase:

“I still love this,” Willa was chatting [to Edith] through the wall as she moved about, changing the location of dishes and pots to clear a small table for use as a desk. Edith could picture the vase precisely, tall, thin and oriental with a phoenix painted on its side and a bright red chrysanthemum, whimsical with touches of yellow and orange, leaning from its mouth. It was not a real vase at all but one D.H. Lawrence had painted on the door of the room’s only cabinet the year he and his wife Frieda occupied the pink adobe. Soon after their stay in the pink adobe they had moved to Kiowa, the ranch near San Cristobal that Mabel gave them in trade for the manuscript of Sons and Lovers.

“Yes, I do, too,” Edith responded. “Maybe if Tony’s feeling up to it we could arrange for another trip to their ranch this summer.” She remembered the view of the mountains from the porch of Lawrence’s small rustic ranch house near the tiny town of San Cristobal, eighteen miles to the north and five hundred feet above the seven-thousand foot elevation of Taos.

The pink adobe is where Cather and Lewis stay during Death Comes. Luhan’s storied adobe across what is now a parking
lot is one of the primary locations for the novel’s action, but Lawrence’s Kiowa Ranch is the other. The first scene at the ranch introduces two important characters who are staying at the ranch, Adam and Maria, and sets up all that follows.

Adam hung the ax on its pegs above the door and latched the door before carrying the new bundle of kindling to the box next to the stove. It was late. The sun had been down for quite a while and he was tired. Time to build up the fire so they could heat their beans and tortillas.

They would eat in silence, Adam at the table, Maria on her stool near the open shelves storing their few dishes. He expected nothing different. It had been a week since he arrived at Kiowa and found the ranch house broken into and still occupied by a huge young man with shaggy blond hair, an unshaven beard, and a dark scar that ran from the left side of his forehead to his right ear. Adam flinched when he said his name was Blade.

That’s about all the man did say. Adam hurried to explain that the owner had sent him to live at the ranch as a kind of caretaker. His rush of words felt lame even to Adam, and Blade resisted leaving until Adam offered him a couple of dollars to clear out quietly. But once Blade gathered up what he had strewn about the few rooms and called to someone outside, Adam learned that his problem was larger than Blade. Maria, blouse torn at the neck, skirt caked with mud and dried grass, sandals loose on both feet as though they belonged to someone else, emerged from the tiny cabin behind the house. Adam could not see her face because her long brown hair fell across it and she did not look up but pressed against the cabin’s exterior and splayed her hands across its logs as if expecting to be hit. Adam moved toward her, but Blade spun him around and said just two words. “She’s mine.”

Stunned, Adam stood a very long time in what felt like a stupor until he came up with two words of his own. “Sell her?”

Blade dropped his grip. “Ten dollars.” Exactly the amount Adam had in his pocket.

When Blade left, Adam fitted the doors with inside bars to serve as locks and gathered what scrap wood he could find to barricade the windows. Then he, with Maria, cleaned the two cabins. Maria said nothing. Adam could understand only a few words of Spanish and he was not sure Maria knew English. He was sure that she remained too frightened to speak. Adam would have to check this situation out with Spud when he finally went down the mountain for supplies. Spud would know what to do. Spud had, after all, sent Adam to the ranch so he would have a place to stay and paint his mountain landscapes until Lawrence returned.

Willa Cather’s Visit to Taos, NM in 1925

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Willa Cather and Edith Lewis occupied this small house, “the pink adobe,” across from the “big” house at Mabel and Tony Luhan’s in Taos for two weeks during the summer of 1925 and (probably) 1926. It had five rooms and two kiva fireplaces. They enjoyed staying there so much in the summer of 1925 that Willa asked to return the following summer.

Cather insisted on paying for their room and board, suggesting an arrangement similar to what they had at Whale Cove on the island of Grand Manan. Cather’s insistence was unlike what was true for D.H. and Frieda Lawrence, who lived in the same pink house when they first arrived in Taos in 1922. Mabel had paid their way from India and did her best to make them permanent guests, but they slipped away for a trip to Mexico with Witter Bynner and Spud Johnson and then moved to the Kiowa Ranch.

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Excerpt from Death Comes: A Willa Cather and Edith Lewis Mystery:

The pink adobe was pink, of course, only because of the paint that trimmed its windows and the porch that shaded its doors on the east, the traditional direction for doors at the pueblo, meant to face the sacred mountain and greet the morning sun. Aside from the Victorian gingerbread that decorated its porch and the Florentine door handles Mabel brought with her from Italy, it was a small and unpretentious house with thick adobe walls inside and out. Each room had multiple windows and doors, more windows and doors than Edith had ever seen in one dwelling. And the doors, even the front doors facing east, were like windows, their raised sills and low lintels required simultaneous climbing and stooping to pass from one room to another or move from inside to out. Tradition, Tony told them. From the pueblo. Keep everyone safe. No enemy can be strong when stooped.

Pueblo workers built the house under Tony’s supervision, just as they had Mabel’s main house, where the steps leading to the bedrooms upstairs required the same sort of simultaneous climbing and stooping. But the pink, Edith guessed, might have been Lawrence’s addition. Adobe houses were always the color of the mud that formed them, and in Taos most of the doors were blue. Tradition, Tony told them again. Just like doors at the pueblo, blue to ward off evil spirits. Mabel’s big house, one of the only multiple-story houses in Taos except for the five-story pueblo, was trimmed in bright turquoise.

The house is currently owned and occupied by artist and musician Kevin Cannon. See more photographs of Mabel and Tony’s “pink adobe,” as well as a large house on the property, here.

Portraits of Willa Cather by Lèon Bakst and Nicolai Fechin

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Lèon Bakst (1866-1924) and Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955), both born and educated in Russia, produced the two portraits of Willa Cather known to have been painted during her lifetime.

Bakst was already well-known as a scene and costume designer associated with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russe in Paris. He was also a portrait painter. When the Omaha Society of Fine Arts asked Cather to choose a painter for a portrait they wanted to hang in the Omaha Public Library to commemorate her 1923 Pulitzer Prize, she happened to be in Ville d’Avray for a long visit with Isabelle and Jan Hambourg. Ville d’Avray is close to Paris, and the Hambourgs suggested she ask Bakst to do the portrait.

Cather enjoyed Bakst during the approximately twenty sittings it took for him to finish the portrait in his Paris studio, but she was not feeling well at the time and found the process difficult. In fact, she took three weeks off near the end to go to Aix-les-Bains for a restorative break. She already thought the “likeness” of her face “unusual” when she left for Aix-les-Bains and worried that people in Nebraska would not like Bakst’s portrait when it was finished (August 27, [1923] letter to Duncan Vinsonhaler, Selected Letters of Willa Cather, University of Nebraska Press, 2013, p. 344.). And the truth is, neither Cather nor the good people of Nebraska were pleased by the finished product.

Portrait of Willa Cather by Lèon Bakst (1866-1924)

Courtesy Omaha Public Library, Omaha, Nebraska.

Continue reading …

Willa Cather with Edith Lewis: Grand Manan Photographs

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on February 18, 2014

For twenty years Willa Cather and Edith Lewis spent their summer months at Whale Cove Cottages on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada. They reached Grand Manan by ferry. Current ferries are considerably larger and better equipped than the one Cather and Lewis used. The Grand Manan V pictured below just passing Swallowtail Lighthouse is capable of carrying semi-trucks and busses as well as cars and passengers.

Grand Manan V passing herring weir and Swallowtail Lighthouse.

Grand Manan V passing herring weir and Swallowtail Lighthouse. Photo by Sue Hallgarth, 2013.

Continue reading …

Memories of the “Cather Cottage” on Grand Manan

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on November 4, 2013

When I first visited Grand Manan in the 1990s and found the restored Cather Cottage at Whale Cove, this is what it looked like from the edge of the Red Trail (one of the many hiking trails on the island). Situated a few hundred feet from the edge of a cliff, the cottage faced the Bay of Fundy whose fifty-foot tides quietly rose and fell at the base of the cliff.

Willa Cather and Edith Lewis cottage, Grand Manan

While there I taped several long conversations with Kathleen Buckley, who at that time owned and managed Whale Cove Cottages and took care of what has become called the Cather Cottage for Jim and Helen Southwick. Continue reading …

Grave Matters: Willa Cather and Edith Lewis

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on September 9, 2013

Grave marker of Willa Cather.

It is unclear why James Woodress twice chose to refer to Isabelle McClung as the “great love” of Cather’s life. But doing so set the stage for identifying Cather as a lesbian: a lesbian jilted by McClung, who by implication “returned” to the heterosexual fold through her 1916 marriage to the violinist Jan Hambourg. Ostensibly leaving Cather to mourn her “lost love” and settle for the devoted—and implicitly chaste—companionship of Edith Lewis.  Continue reading …

Romantic Notions: Willa Cather and Isabelle McClung Hambourg

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on July 18, 2013

McClung Family Home

Cather had romantic “crushes” on her female school friends, fell deeply in love with a striking Pittsburgh girl, Isabelle McClung, and, after Isabelle’s marriage, spent much of her life with a devoted companion (and Cather’s first biographer), Edith Lewis. There are very few love letters in the Selected Letters, since Cather destroyed all her letters to Isabelle and seems hardly ever to have written to Edith.
—Hermione Lee, “Willa Cather: A Hidden Voice,” The New York Review of Books, July 11, 2013

•    •    •

In her July 11, 2013 review of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather,[1] Dame Hermione Lee reminds us of the full range of critical battles over Cather’s life and work during the twenty-four years since Lee published her own Willa Cather: Double Lives (NY: Pantheon, 1989). The battles she describes range from frequently homophobic “hagiographical reverence” to views of “a Cather who belongs to the international modern world.” Lee sides with the modern world. On the issue of Cather’s “crushes,” however, Lee demonstrates an unfortunate acceptance of outdated assumptions: that Isabelle McClung, the Pittsburgh patroness with whose family Cather lived for five years, was the “great love of her life,” and that Edith Lewis, with whom Cather shared the last forty years of her life and who worked closely with Cather in shaping and editing her fiction, was merely her “devoted companion.” Continue reading …

Telling Lives/Telling Lies: Willa Cather Biographers

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on May 31, 2013

An excerpt from an Interview with Andrew Jewell, co-editor of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (Knopf, 2013) by Rebecca Cross in “A New Peek at Willa Cather’s Private Life,” The Big Read Blog, May 21, 2013:

What do you think the anthology reveals about Cather, both as a writer and as a woman?

JEWELL: To my mind, it upends a lot of the stereotypes about her. Many people saw her as sort of reserved, sometimes isolated and grumpy, and as a writer that didn’t have much to do with the world. I think the reality that the letters reveal is just the opposite. She was very vibrant, she was very connected to a wide circle of friends and family. She was funny in ways that people find surprising. You can’t deny when you read the letters the life you feel there on the page. It’s a nice counterbalance to some of the portrayals that have been in her biographies. I think the reason for that [portrayal] in her biographies is partially—consciously or subconsciously—what emerged from the inaccessibility of her correspondence.

•    •    •

Problematic Sources

The most reliable sources for information about Willa Cather have always been Cather’s surviving correspondence and the memoir Willa Cather Living by Edith Lewis, the woman who lived with Cather and shared her life for almost forty years. But until the recent publication of The Selected Letters, neither the letters nor Lewis’ memoir carried much weight in countering the stereotypes that have defined Willa Cather since her death in 1947 and all but buried her life partner, Edith Lewis. Continue reading …


Upcoming readings and signings
Death Comes: A Willa Cather and Edith Lewis Mystery

May 8, 2018
7 pm reading / signing
Yellow Dog Bookshop
8 South Ninth Street
Columbia, Missouri

Events Archive

January 21, 2018
Bookworks Bookstore (Albuquerque), Reading / signing with Kathleen Hill

November 2017
Op.Cit.Books, Santa Fe, NM, visiting author event, with Hampton Sides, Valerie Plame, Anne Hillerman, and more…

October 2017
Corrales Community Library, Corrales NM, Reading & Signing
Op.Cit.Books, Taos NM, Mystery Book Club Discussion & Signing
Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse, Santa Fe NM, Reading & Signing with Author Mary Oertel-Kirschner
Bookworks Bookstore, Albuquerque NM, Reading & Signing, audio recording of this event

October 2014
Women’s Week Ptown: Womenscrafts / Provincetown Public Library, Book Signings

July 2014
Grand Manan Museum, Reading & Book Signing

April 2014
Well-Read Books, Fulton MO, Reading & Signing
Columbia Public Library, Columbia MO, Reading & Signing

December 2013
Friends of the Library, Corrales NM, Author Book Signing
Sue at the booth

October 2013
Micawber’s Books, Reading & Book Signing (St. Paul MN)

September 2013
Womencrafts book signing (Provincetown MA)

July 2013
Grand Manan Museum Reading and Signing (Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada)

June 2013
Princeton Public Library Reading and Book Signing (Princeton NJ)

May 2013
Moby Dickens Mystery Club Selection/Luncheon (Taos NM)
Southwest Book Fiesta Reading (Albuquerque)

April 2013
Bookworks Book Club Selection/Discussion (Albuquerque)
Corrales Book Club Selection/Discussion (Corrales NM)

March 2013
Book Culture Reading and Signing (New York City)

February 2013
Iris Studio & Gallery Signing (Albuquerque)

January 2013
Northwinds Gallery Reading and Signing (Port Townsend WA)
American Library Association Midwinter Conference (Seattle WA)
Corrales Community Library Launch, Reading and Signing (Corrales NM)

The Harris House

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on May 9, 2013


Built in 1901-1903 for Sarah Fisk Bacon Harris (1821-1912), the Harris house was new when Willa Cather met Edith Lewis in Harris’ parlor. This house replaced Harris’ earlier Italianate house at the same location: 1630 K Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.

In the introduction to her memoir, Willa Cather Living (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953) Edith Lewis describes their meeting:

I first met Willa Cather in the summer of 1903. I had come home, having just graduated from an Eastern college [Smith], to Lincoln, Nebraska, where I was born and brought up. Willa Cather was spending that summer with her family in Red Cloud. On her way back to her teaching job in Pittsbugh, she stopped off for a few days in Lincoln to visit Sarah Harris, the editor of the Lincoln Courier, and it was at Miss Harris’ house that I first met her. Continue reading …