Friday, March 17, 2017

The Eyes of Taos

While exploring the vast contents of the Harry Ransom Center in Austin during a month-long sojourn one joyful March a few years ago, I was captivated by the diaries of a little-known writer named Spud Johnson. These journals document the Taos art scene, as well as American gay life in the 30s and 40s, in a way I had never come across before.

The collection includes hundreds of photographs documenting Spud's life in Taos. There are pictures of him posing with Frieda and D. H. Lawrence (anachronistically dressed in thick woolen suits in the desert); Mabel Dodge and Tony Luhan; young men like Haniel Long, Joel Lacey, Lucius Kutchin, artists Loren Mozley, John Goldmark, as well as local youths Rafael and Patricio who resemble models handpicked by Edward S. Curtiss.

I actually had first heard of Spud Johnson ages ago back when I was obsessed with anything to do with D. H. Lawrence, especially his days recovering from tuberculosis in Taos, New Mexico. As a college student, enthralled with Lady Chatterley's Lover and the like, I read all about Lawrence's life among the pueblos and his wacky circle of friends there, in particular Mabel Dodge Luhan, the heiress who had rocked the world with her torrid love affair with John Reed, then settled down with an American Indian in Taos.

One of her closest friends was a little known poet and publisher, Walter Willard Johnson, nicknamed Spud, who occasionally put out a much-admired journal called Laughing Horse. A recent book about that venture, Spud Johnson and Laughing Horse, by Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall, describes him as "the aesthetic and intellectual conscience of Taos." But it reveals very little about Spud Johnson's colorful personal life.

I found out more on my own. He was born on June 3, 1897 in Mount Vernon, Illinois but grew up in Greeley, Colorado. His father John Smith Johnson was from Fredonia, Kentucky and had built up a successful lumber business. His mother, (née) Susan Wiggington, was also originally from Kentucky. Spud had a brother Van Elbert and a sister Helen Gladys. His cousin Lila Wheeler was adopted by the family and raised as a sister. From an early age, Walter was dubbed "Spud" by his family. In fact, that is the name he used on his Social Security card. He studied at Colorado State Teacher's College in 1916, where he wrote for the school paper and worked as a cub reporter for the Greeley newspaper. He then attended the University of Colorado in Boulder, and found work at the Pueblo Chieftain where he apprenticed in journalism.

Eager to broaden his horizons, he moved to the University of California in Berkeley. There, with friends, he started up a small press pamphlet, Laughing Horse, known for its biting and flippant tone, which immediately raised the hackles of university authorities by opposing certain school programs. Spud became the companion of one of his poetry teachers, Witter Bynner (below), a noted writer who also taught at UCLA. Bynner helped Spud find a job as a secretary at the esteemed but highly secretive Bohemian Club.

By 1922 the two traveled to Santa Fe, NM, where Spud met D. H. Lawrence through Bynner and traveled with the storied author and his wife Frieda to Mexico. In a short time he had relocated with Bynner to Taos, the hub of a lively burgeoning literary scene, where he soon fell in with the indomitable Mabel Dodge Luhan, who'd first put Taos on the map. (Mabel, Frieda and Dorothy Brett, below.)

Spud became Mabel's private secretary and settled down there permanently. He eventually built a small adobe home, La Placita, where he lived for 40 years until his death in 1968. It later became a popular, if funky, bed and breakfast, The Laughing Horse Inn.

In those early years in the 20s, Spud wrote constantly and his work was published in Poetry, Pan, Echo, Palms, and The New Republic. Rydal Press published a selection of his works in 1935, entitled Horizontal Yellow. Later he would toil in Manhattan for a year at The New Yorker, penning pithy "Talk of the Town" pieces. He preferred the Southwest and hurried back to Taos.

But it was primarily as a friend of the famous that Spud achieved lasting notoriety. He appears sporadically as a character in books by Lawrence and Mabel Luhan and Dorothy Brett, and was frequently sought out by visitors who relished his connections as well as his hospitality. He was an enigma to many. Lady Dorothy Brett wrote of him: "There is something oddly Chinese in the narrow shape of the face, of the features, that are more chiseled bones than flesh. He might be a Chinese ascetic from some old, old Mandarin family: the dark, smooth hair should end in a pig-tail, I think to myself. And not only to look at, is he Chinese to me: he has also something of their reserve; he keeps his inner life hidden away, carefully guarded."

That inner life was not hidden in his date books and journals. These diaries, carefully preserved at the Harry Ransom Center, cover a wide turf, starting off in the 1910s, and contain a startling "Declaration of Independence" in 1918, which sounds oddly like a defiant statement of coming out. Several pages are torn out of the diary in those early years, but as they progress they become more confident and far more candid. Spud details his affair with Myron Brinig, the now nearly forgotten writer who at the time was ranked alongside Thomas Wolfe.

Brinig was living with his boyfriend, artist Cady Wells, at the time but that did not preclude several jumps in the hay with Spud which the latter described as "bedroom athletics." He seemed to genuinely love Myron, below, his "ape-like" "Roumanian Jew."

Spud's explicit diary entries are extremely daring for their day and an invaluable guide for any scholar of so-called "queer studies" looking into the mind-set of homosexual life at the time. Despite the prevailing prudishness, Spud pulls no punches and reveals all. Some of his observations are campy and self-revealing, primarily plaintive regrets that he wasn't promiscuous enough, and had failed to pick up a stray boy on the street. The picture he paints is one of a very active and amusing gay scene of transients and trend-setters, but also a lonely life of yearning and regret.

In August 1934 Spud describes vividly having sex in the lobby of the Sagebrush Inn with a young man who worked there. Not long after he reveals seducing one of Mabel's native American cowboys, "topping" him in a tepee during a camping trip. Lust became an obsession for him: he keeps thinking of "white-limbed boys and dark-skinned lads" and "muscles that get hard when you touch them." (Below, Bynner and two local youths, Patricio and Rafael, from New Mexico.)

The diaries reveal a world of endless intrigue, drunken debauches, and constant fights with female admirers such as Alexandra Fichen, but also of boredom. This was before television and evenings were usually devoted to listening to radio, or spent at local dances, in bars or playing games like Anagrams and Charades or Solitaire. Spud expends a great deal of energy trying to "vamp" the local boys. He compares his notes to a schoolgirl's diary, especially after a failed attempt to pick up a drunken pal at a dance. A few weeks later, he yearns for a friend who instead has "hot pants" for some "tramp".

What comes through most in these diaries is Spud's sweet sense of humor. He's provocative, such as the time he threw flowers at the feet of a native Indian boy he fancied as he passes by during a parade. Much of the time, Spud generously takes in strays and younger men who are just passing through town and treats them with respect and an almost maternal care. But he clearly relishes his privacy and few of them stay very long.

By the mid 30s, he asks why he has no lovers? "I know I'm no longer either young or attractive, and yet everyone seems to like me." But soon he is befriended and bedded by Forbes Cheston, a wealthy Englishman who would later become a dominant figure in AA. There's also the episode in 1937 when he picks up a "strangely Aztec" bar boy and has wild sex with him under the moonlight behind a chapel, adding characteristically, "He practically nailed me to the old church wall."

The diaries, when not revealing the gay subterranean set, also revel in the literary life in New York which he visits in 1934. He hangs out with Carl Van Vechten and Effie Stettheimer. He describes Virgil Thomson in unflattering terms as pudgy with pop eyes and a high voice. "Didn't like him very much." Driving back to Taos, he picks up a hitchhiker with such bad body odor that he has to drive with the windows wide open. All of his road trips are sagas of overheated water tanks, flat tires and blow-outs.

Patrick White, above, the noted Australian author, visited with Spud in the late 30s and began an intense romantic affair with him on the eve of World War II. Some of his love letters are quoted in Spud's diaries and are very touching. But ultimately White met the man he would spend the rest of his life with and moved on, never looking back. Spud was left once again alone.

Max Evans, the author of the recent novel Bluefeather Fellini, describes him: "Spud had a cadaverous face, even in his youth. This made his brownish black eyes prominent indeed. At first glance, Spud's eyes said they had seen too much and done too little about it. They could be interested, amused, and in agreement, with moods changing so fast that the projections could be lost on the viewer."

In time the diaries change tone and are less graphic. This is most likely due to Spud's advancing age and his busy work schedule. By 1948 he admits having no delusions about making a name for himself as a writer. By then he still had only published Horizontal Yellow. He seems to have accepted his fate as being a local "gadfly" and even published a local column under that name. Later diaries document trips he took to Mexico with Georgia O'Keeffe where they met Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and a journey to Europe with the painter Earl Stroh in which he finally met Alice B. Toklas, below.

By the 60s, Spud talks ominously about the "hazards of fraternization." He is alone and seems to prefer it that way. In his later years, Spud, who wrote regularly on the arts and cultural life in New Mexico for El Crepusculo, became increasingly eccentric. He affected a series of obvious toupees, one of which looked like a dead skunk. Or he might sport a beret and smoke an elaborate pipe. He would sometimes dress as a monk in robes and ride a donkey through the streets, the "St. Francis of Taos."

His thin wizened features gave him the air of a Renaissance saint. He'd sit in the local square selling books out of a makeshift cart he designed out of an old bicycle. The townspeople adored him and treated him like a living monument. He took up painting and was often seen outside capturing landscapes with his brush. He used his columns to fight over-development and to decry the mindless tearing down of trees to build more parking lots. He was ahead of his time in that regard and no doubt the changes to Taos and Santa Fe must have been difficult to witness having seen what it was like when it was first discovered by the cognoscenti in the early 20s.

And yet Spud never lost his enthusiasm for the place and championed the arts until his last breath. In fact, an art show he was organizing at the time he died was turned into a retrospective celebrating his career. His obituary appeared prominently in numerous newspapers. He had outlived all his friends and achieved a measure of renown all his own. And luckily he left us his collection of photographs and diaries which are a revealing and priceless glimpse into a fascinating lost era.