Updated: Jan 11, 2021
Maria Chabot and Dorothy Stewart, 1933. Courtesy of the Maria Chabot Archive, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center
I've always been a fan of ghost stories. I mean, who isn't? In college, my favorite class was called "Stalking the Wild Mind: The Psychology and Folklore of Extra-Sensory Perception and Psychic Phenomena". In it we doused for water, tipped tables, practiced lucid dreaming and hunted ghosts. I would have taken that class for every required elective if I could have. Instead, they made me take French...which, mon dieu, I still can't talk right.
I've also always been a fan of love stories. Not beach reads with Fabio on the cover or the cringe-inducing Fifty Shades of Grey-ish easy readers, but the bruised, busted and real kind. Think Miranda July meets Guillermo del Toro. June Carter and Johnny Cash. Lancelot and Guinevere. Hey, even Stieglitz and O'Keeffe.
Over the last couple months, I've been immersed in the discovery of this kind of love story. The intense, exciting, globe-hopping and ultimately, soul-crushing, union of Maria Chabot and Dorothy Stewart.
Maria and Dorothy met in 1933 as both were traveling in Mexico. Maria was 19 and on a year-long journey to find herself. Dorothy was 22 years her senior -- an accomplished artist, writer and beloved hobnobber who visited Mexico often, inspired by its cacophony of colors, sounds, smells and sights.
Over the next seven years, Dorothy and Maria wound a knot of a life together. They traveled the world -- across the U.S., Europe, even Africa -- and it was Dorothy who first introduced Maria to New Mexico. In between trips and family visits, Maria began spending long months at Dorothy's home in Santa Fe and worked for Dorothy's Sister Margretta at the New Mexico Association of Indian Affairs.
Maria Chabot and Dorothy Stewart in front of 591 Canyon Road. Courtesy of the Maria Chabot Archive, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center
In 1939 the pair underwent a painful breakup -- not one either wanted, but one that happened anyway. For the next 16 years they orbited one another, neither able to escape the others gravity. On December 24, 1955 it was Maria who sat alone, holding Dorothy's hand, in a cold Mexico City hospital as a brain hemorrhage took her life.
The letters between these women -- the drawings, the poems, the pet names -- are so heartfelt and descriptive that I often felt I was right there in it with them. I was angry with Maria for being such a dolt and letting Dorothy go. I was exhausted by Dorothy's endless energy. I laughed at Maria's descriptions of Dorothy trying to have a copy of a couture coat made in Paris. I cried when Dorothy died.
But I've also had other "feelings". And this is where getting ghosted comes in.
The first time I got a "feeling" was on a visit to Los Luceros, the ranch Maria lived, worked at, and ultimately owned, for over 20 years.
It was at Los Luceros that Maria struggled with her breakup with Dorothy. It was here she beat herself up, drank her cares away, questioned her integrity, stared into the blank eyes of loneliness. This was the place that was her greatest joy and the bane of her existence -- a lone woman farming 125 acres.
She gave me a taste of this life. While alone in her house on the ranch I was exploring her bedroom when my stomach suddenly fell. Overcome with nausea, I sat on the bed only to then feel a terrible weight on my shoulders and a sharp pain in my heart. It was sickness and sadness at their most potent and I could not hold back tears - of pain, of sorrow, of emptiness. Then, as fast as it had accosted me, it was gone.
Was this what Maria had felt as she laid alone in that room? I can imagine so. I think these feelings followed her for her entire life and maybe it was their residual energy I experienced. Or maybe it was Maria telling me to get the hell out of her house. This is probably the more likely of the two.
Chabot House at Los Luceros
The second "feeling" wasn't so much a feeling as it was an olfactory experience. I was at the Georgia O'Keeffe Research Library and had, for days, been reviewing the letters between Maria and Dorothy. In one box I came upon pictures and some small personal belongings, specifically, a key to the door of Dorothy's "Galeria Mexico" studio at 551 Canyon Road. Dorothy had deeded the house to Maria after her death. As I slipped the key out of its envelope, a cloud of perfume settled around me. It wasn't unpleasant -- a slightly musty, floral scent and an uplifting of spirit. Like I was getting a big hug from my busty Grandma.
The key to 551 Canyon Road.
I looked around the library to see if someone was near me but it was just myself and the research manager, as usual. No one had passed by. No good-smelling someone was lurking. It may have looked crazy then when I started sniffing the key, its envelope, the folder, the box...nothing. But in the letters I had been reading earlier, Maria constantly mentioned to Dorothy how she hungered for her, how she longed for Dorothy's beautiful smell.
Was Dorothy letting me know she was with me as I read through their journey together? I do think so. Dorothy was a kind, gregarious, huge-hearted person who was loved by everyone she knew (and she knew EVERYONE).
I wonder, in getting so caught up in the lives of these two women if they, however it might be possible, were letting me know they noticed?
I sure hope so.