Barbara Buhler Lynes and Ann Paden, eds., Maria Chabot -- Georgia O'Keeffe Correspondence, 1941-1949, 542 pp., University of New Mexico Press and Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, 2003, $45
For the past three decades, at least, biographers had trudged up to door of Maria Chabot's modest home in Albuquerque, New Mexico and begged for interviews.
Chabot had lived with Georgia O'Keeffe off and on between 1941 and 1949. She was the de facto contractor in the building of O'Keeffe's adobe home in Abiquiu. In 1946, when O'Keeffe was informed that her husband Alfred Stieglitz had had a serious heart attack, it was Chabot who drove her directly to the Albuquerque airport so she could take the next flight to New York and O'Keeffe got to see Stieglitz before he died. The next day, Chabot flew out with suitcases of O'Keeffe's clothes so the artist could stay in New York and take care of the estate. In short, Chabot had lengthy and privileged access to the immensely private artist. O'Keeffe and Chabot wrote regular letters to one another, letters that were kept a closely guarded secret by both parties despite the efforts of those same biographers, including myself, to get a look.
Chabot refused to share her treasure, claiming that she was using O'Keeffe's letters to write her own book on the artist. Chabot had aspired to be a writer and her letters prove her style and observations to be lively. Yet, no book materialized. She died on July 9, 2001, at the age of 87. Her letters were left to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center, whose director Barbara Buhler Lynes is author of the O'Keeffe catalog raisonne. Lynes and Ann Paden then completed the book that Chabot never finished, compiling copious and often fascinating correspondence between the two women. Along the way, Lynes discovered that many of the stories with which Chabot had regaled biographers were apocryphal, at best.
Chabot clearly saw her years with O'Keeffe as a high point in her life. She had gone on camping trips with the artist and watched her paint her canvases of the rolling ebony hills she called the Black Place. Chabot was only 26 when she met the 53-year-old artist. She was looking for guidance and O'Keeffe provided it in letters that offer a rare insight into her own philosophy of life. After O'Keeffe's death, however, Chabot embellished and expanded her role in the artist's life, re-writing the history as she wished it had been. The letters and Lynes hard-headed commentary clarify what aspects of Chabot's lively saga are actually based on facts.
In gossip and in biography, there have been assumptions for a long time that O'Keeffe had bisexual tendencies, assumptions largely based on her friendship with Chabot. Lynes states frankly that Chabot was intimately involved with another woman for several years before she met O'Keeffe. It is clear from their correspondence that Chabot was in love with O'Keeffe. It is equally clear from the correspondence that O'Keeffe had no such inclination and tried to quell this young woman's infatuation.
She was able to douse the flames but Chabot's obsession with the artist continued to smolder. Chabot spent three years on the reconstruction of the crumbling adobe that the artist purchased in Abiquiu. She oversaw the cutting of timber, the mudding of walls, the placement of windows, the lay-out of the rooms while O'Keeffe remained in New York to settle Stieglitz's estate. She regularly told O'Keeffe that she would accept no payment for her work, that she did it out of love and respect. O'Keeffe paid her anyway, sometimes with works of art, and attempted to maintain some sort of relationship.
Chabot struggled to control her obsession with O'Keeffe and wrote to her in February, 1949 that she was "becoming a person who can walk with you without gravitating toward you. . . While obliging you I could never again really be obliged. This is a new slavery in which we may both rejoice. . . I have a kind of reverence for you that began before you had ever to. . . forgive me." As the house was completed that summer, however, Chabot could not hide her jealousy of O'Keeffe's new assistant, Doris Bry. That fall, O'Keeffe told Chabot not to return to the Abiquiu house unless invited. Chabot's luck with powerful women continued. She worked for the wealthy Bostonian Mary Wheelwright, who adored her and ultimately bequeathed to her a sizeable New Mexico ranch, Los Luceros.
This valuable book documents an important decade of O'Keeffe's life, the period of transition from wife to widow, from New York to New Mexico. In addition, it chronicles an important if eccentric relationship and provides a lucid and unprecedented view of the rough life O'Keeffe was willing to endure in order to live in Abiquiu. The book includes Chabot's photographs of O'Keeffe camping, painting and the construction of the house. Many are as candid and unguarded as their letters to one another. This fascinating book is currently the subject of an exhibition, "Moments in Time, Photographs by Maria Chabot," at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., Feb. 6 to June 1, 2004.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP has written Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, to be published by W.W. Norton in September 2004.