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BUFFALO'S FIRST LADY OF ARTS ENJOYS REVIVAL OF INTEREST

D.H. Lawrence modeled his heroines after her.

Gertrude Stein did her portrait.

"Reds" journalist John "Ten Days that Shook the World" Reed loved her.

As Buffalo anticipates the celebration of the Pan-American Exhibition centennial, it is apparent that few have captured Buffalo's Golden Age better than its wealthy first lady of the arts -- Mabel Ganson Dodge Luhan -- back when Buffalo was the eighth largest city in the country.

"Mabel Ganson, who grew up in the high noon of the Gilded Age, lived in a city of 244,000 on a street that housed the economic elite of Buffalo and in a neighborhood where many of its 60 millionaires resided," noted Lois Palken Rudnick, an American studies director, who has just edited Dodge's "Intimate Memories" memoir. "They lived in the city with the baronial splendor of a landed gentry, only two or three miles from the industries, wharves, row houses, and slums of the inner city -- the 'other America' that housed the working class and indigent, who suffered greatly in the two serious depressions that occurred during Mabel's childhood."

But let's hear Mabel tell it. In Buffalo "there came to be many queer characters and people with curious ways." Life doesn't change in the City of No Illusions.

"Although everybody knew everybody else and all there was to know about everybody else, yet by a kind of mutual agreement they all pretended to ignore each other's inward lives," she writes in her autobiography dedicated to Buffalo.

Her wittily skewed work, for the first time, is in one highly readable volume.

Some of those Buffalo characters: "Donald White could be found hanging to the gas fixture in his bedroom, naked except for a pair of white gloves," Dodge reports. "Caroline Thompson would suddenly be seen no more among her friends and her mother would not mention her absence. But people would whisper: 'They say they had to take her out to the insane asylum -- and she would never been seen again.'

"We used to drive out to Forest Lawn, the new cemetery that took the place of 'the old burying ground' on the corner across from our house that held the first graves of people -- many of them Indians."

In the tradition of the Victorian cemetery viewed as a peaceful place, they "used to be allowed to take things out to eat and picnic there in Forest Lawn sometimes, and once we forgot to notice the shadows growing longer as we played behind a tomb, and when we realized it was late we made a dash for the gate and found it locked! Three small girls not yet in their teens and locked up in the cemetery for the night! We were instantly filled with a thrilling, delightful terror.

"Buffalo always grew northwards and people were beginning life down on lower Delaware Avenue or Franklin Street, where my grandparents first lived in Buffalo and where I was born in 1879."

Her square and cupolaed home was "red brick and half covered with ampelopsis vine. in the summertime. The tulip bed was a symbol for the rest of our house. It was all ordered and organized, nothing was left to fortuitous chance and no life ever rose in it taking its own form."

Little Mabel was an emotionally abused child.

"I have no recollections of my mother's ever giving me a kiss or smile of spontaneous affection, or of any sign from my father except dark looks and angry sound."

Her mother came from "the purest Anglo-Saxon blood." Her grandfather, James Ganson, worked "in his bank all day until the middle of the afternoon, the Marine Bank of Buffalo.

"We never had any talk in our house at meals or at any other time. My parents, like everyone else in their set, had dinner parties all the time. The women were occupied all day with housekeeping, and children, and sewing, and driving out, and the men were all downtown working.

"Then when the evening came there would be many dinner parties in Buffalo society. It was all divided up into sets and each set dined together a great deal. The dinners were usually of 12 people and the tables were loaded with glass and silver and lace centerpieces. People ate and drank very well in Buffalo."

Buffalo then was a grand place, with visitors like Oscar Wilde, who "gave a lecture to the ladies upon how to do over their houses."

Mabel's "father flew the British flag on the lawn all the time he was there. (Oscar Wilde) caused a profound movement, a kind of upheaval, through Buffalo society and everyone was talking about him and trying to get him to visit them."

Wilde toured "one house, stuffed with 'decorations.' All the woodwork was twisted and tortured and varnished and everywhere there were 'drapes' and bunches of gilded cat-o'-nine-tails tied together with great satin bows of ribbon."

His hostess "looked up at him and cried, 'Now, Mr. Wilde, what do you really think I should do with my house?' And she waited for the seal of his approbation. , But alas! It is reported that he gazed at her in a somber fashion and replied: 'Burn it madam!' and then seized his hat and fled.

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