“Georgia O’Keeffe hitching a ride to Abiquiu, Ghost Ranch, 1944″ AKA ”Women Who Rode Away.” –Image by Maria Chabot @Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The painter, Maurice Grosser, visited his friend O’Keeffe’s ranch in 1944. Maria Chabot photographed O’Keeffe and Grosser on his 1938 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead. It’s an amazing image that celebrates denim, machine, and the joy of the open road. That look on O’Keeffe’s face says it all.
Initially I was interested solely in wanting to know more about the superficial circumstances around this incredible image. You know– the motorcycle, driver, etc. It soon became very clear that there was/is this unresolved, controversial account of the exact nature of Chabot and O’Keefe’s friendship that’s fascinating in itself, and added mystery and tension to this incredible shot and the close connection between the two women. There has been speculation for decades that they were involved in an intimate same-sex relationship. There are those convinced that Maria Chabot was obsessed with O’Keeffe to the point of being jealous, possessive, and an embellisher of their history together in order to paint the relationship as she wished it were. And then there are the close to 700 hauntingly personal letters written by the two women, back and forth to one another, that more than hint to something deeper than just friendship. Eventually O’Keeffe matter-of-factly requested that Chabot leave her Abiquiu house for good unless personally invited back by O’Keeffe herself. So, what really happened?
“(Maria) 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 biographers…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.”
(Lt.) Maria Chabot, Bernie & Max Martinez, and Georgia O’Keeffe, Ghost Ranch House, 1941 –Image by Jean Armstrong (Rt.) Maria Chabot, 1944 –unknown photographer
“Maria Chabot believed that her letters and photographs were important historically, and by the early 1980s envisioned publishing them. Although she made significant progress over the years, the project was far from finished at the time of her death in 2001, when she bequeathed her literary estate to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center. Under the auspices of the Research Center, editors Barbara Buhler Lynes, who is The Emily Fisher Landau Director of the Research Center, and Ann Paden, who worked for Chabot on the project from 1999-2001, were able to realize Chabot’s dream by finishing the book, which has been copublished by the Research Center and the University of New Mexico Press: Maria Chabot/Georgia O’Keeffe: Correspondence, 1941-1949.
According to Lynes, ‘The never-before-seen-images provide fascinating glimpses into the day-to-day lives of these two strong and independent women and of their camping trips to a place 150 miles west of Abiquiu that O’Keeffe called the Black Place.’ It also includes Chabot’s photographs of O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiu, which provide the only visual record of how the house looked as a ruin in 1945, but also of the various remarkable stages of its restoration. In addition, the exhibition presents photographs by other photographers who were friends with both women, such as Ansel Adams, John Candelario, Laura Gilpin, and Eliot Porter.”
Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox (her Ghost Ranch wrangler), Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937. –Image by Ansel Adams © Trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust