60 something

Priest of love D.H. Lawrence suffered for all

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Women fought over D.H. Lawrence, but when he died, his ashes were unceremoniously dumped

Last week, while re-reading Out Of Sheer Rage (1997), a hilarious book in which the author Geoff Dyer visits all the places that D.H. Lawrence had stayed at, in the hope of writing a "sober study" of the literary legend, I was reminded of my own pilgrimage to Lawrence's memorial in Taos, New Mexico.

Back in 1992, I took a flight from San Francisco to Albuquerque, one of the key cities in New Mexico, then rode a bus to Sante Fe, the capital. I spent two days in Sante Fe, charmed by its town square full of Indian vendors and tourists, and bought myself a pair of Navajos moccasins.

On the third day, I hired a taxi to take me to Taos, 114km up the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. My driver was a middled-aged woman and when I asked her if Sante Fe and Taos were really artists' colonies, she said: "We've got all types here, from astrologers to Zennists."

In fact, Taos has been an artists' colony since Lawrence's time. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was also a place where consumptives went. Its high, dry and clean air was just what the doctor ordered.

The road up was beautiful, lined with ponderosa pines and the view from the top of the Taos valley was breathtaking.

As Lawrence declared on his first sight of the Taos valley in 1922: "I think New Mexico was the greatest experience I have ever had... the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Sante Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend."

When I finally arrived at the memorial, 32km north-west of Taos on Lobo mountain, at 2,600m above sea level, I was shocked by its neglect and lack of ceremony. The so-called memorial was a roughly hand-made white plastered shrine, the size of a Housing Board's utility room, with a steeply angled roof with Lawrence's symbol, a phoenix, carved at the apex.

Inside, there was a concrete altar inscribed with the initials D.H.L. and which supposedly contained Lawrence's ashes.

There was just another visitor, a middle-aged German man. He wrote in the guest book, which was filled with all manner of paens and insults - "Lawrence, how did you do it, all these women fighting over you?".

Actually in Taos, there were only three women - Mabel Dodge Luhan, the American heiress and patroness who invited Lawrence to New Mexico; his German wife Frieda; and his hanger-on, a shy, gawky aristocrat Dorothy Brett who had just lost her long-preserved virginity - she was 39 - to Lawrence's friend John Middleton Murray and had been unceremoniously dumped by him.

The three women did fight over the writer.

In 1939, when the poet W.H. Auden visited the place, he described the scene: "Cars of women pilgrims go up every day to stand reverently there and wonder what it would have been like to sleep with him."

Yet, many latter-day women have dismissed him as a misogynist. As I saw an entry in the guest book written by a woman from Oxford - "I've always thought your writing is sexist and inept, DHL" - although she added, "but you deserve better than to be interred in this tasteless coal bunker. Nottingham's better. Frieda, how could you do this?".

Lawrence died from tuberculosis in Vence, France, in 1930, and his body was buried there. Frieda and her lover and then third husband, Angelo Ravagli, moved to live in the Taos ranch that Mabel Luhan had given to the Lawrences.

The couple, who didn't like feeling indebted, had in return given Luhan the original manuscript of Lawrence's Sons And Lovers. It was a move the peripatetic couple would later regret when they discovered that, although the ranch was their first real home, it was worth US$1,000 whereas the manuscript might have fetched US$50,000.

In 1935, Frieda dispatched Ravagli to Vence to exhume Lawrence's body and cremate it and arrange for the ashes to be brought back to Taos. But the former Italian captain failed to carry out his commission. After Frieda's death in 1956 (she was buried in a grave in front of the Taos memorial), he confessed that he had thrown away Lawrence's cinders, probably in Marseille, and perhaps into the harbour.

But Frieda was none the wiser because he brought empty to New York the "beautiful vase" that she had wanted and filled it with ashes when he arrived.

To add insult to injury (or so according to one legend), it was not until after Frieda and friends had met Ravagli at the train station in Lamy, the nearest to Sante Fe, and had taken the train, that they realised they had left the vase at the station. They had to go back and retrieve it.

At the memorial, I thought about Lawrence's short life - he died at age 44 - and what Frieda had said: "this lonely, uncompromising fearless man, who had travelled so far, and lived so hard, and died still so young".

I also thought about what Aldous Huxley, a devoted friend of the great writer, had said about how Lawrence's great responsiveness to the world came from the way "his existence was one long convalescence, it was as though he were newly reborn from a mortal illness every day of his life".

One could say the priest of love suffered for us all.

ricklim@sph.com.sg

Richard Lim is on leave. His column resumes on May 10.