Author Lesley Poling-Kempes | HistoryNet MENU
New Yorker Poling-Kempes became entranced with New Mexico as a child and moved there permanently after college to write about the region.

Author Lesley Poling-Kempes

By Candy Moulton
1/26/2017 • Wild West Magazine

As a child Lesley Poling-Kempes took a memorable family vacation to Ghost Ranch, the guest ranch near Abiquiú, New Mexico, made famous by the works of visiting artist Georgia O’Keeffe. New Yorker Poling-Kempes moved permanently to New Mexico after college and started the work of writing, as she puts it, “the real and imagined stories of my adopted community.” Her award-winning first book, The Harvey Girls, captured the accounts of dozens of women who worked in Fred Harvey’s chain of eateries and hotels along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe rail line. Her first novel, Canyon of Remembering, was a Western Writers of America Spur Award finalist. Her other award-winning efforts include the nonfiction works Ghost Ranch and Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico and the novel Bone Horses. Her latest book, Ladies of the Canyons, tells the stories of four remarkable women—Ghost Ranch proprietor Carol Stanley; Natalie Curtis, who recorded and preserved the music of American Indians; Mary Cabot Wheelwright, who chronicled Indian ceremonies and religious practices; and artist Alice Klauber, who received her introduction to New Mexico through archaeological excavations.

Are the women you write about trailblazers?
I do view them as groundbreakers and trailblazers, but I don’t think that was their vision of themselves. In Victorian America that is not what women did. Even educated women in that era did not want to be considered a trailblazer—but they were like that because they were passionate about some kind of creativity. In some cases they could not purse their passions. Natalie Curtis could not pursue her concert pianist career. She was depressed, she went out West, she heard Indian music and fell in love with it, and her passion refocused into this preservation of Indian music. It allowed her to become a real trailblazer about Indian music and to educate people about native America. She had the energy and somehow the fortitude to go out into Indian America and get to know the people. Mary Wheelwright was also a trailblazer. She had a strong relationship with Hosteen Klah, the Navajo medicine man who she worked with for years to preserve the Navajo songs and stories. She wasn’t looking to bring attention to herself; she just wanted to preserve what she thought was a really remarkable culture and religious way. They sort of stumbled into it. Not only did they step out of traditional women’s roles personally, their profession became a whole new way of seeing native cultures and the Southwest.

They found a place where women’s roles were less defined in a traditional way than they were back East

What drew them to New Mexico and the Southwest?
Three of the four I spend the most time on in the book were from the East Coast. Alice Klauber was from San Diego. I don’t think they knew what they were getting into when they first came here. They came as travelers. They had enough wealth that they could travel. When they did get here through their various individual paths, they fell in love with what they found. They found a place where women’s roles were less defined in a traditional way than they were back East. They could create their own way of living, and that could include their creativity. They had room for individual expression as well as exploration. Plus the landscape was gorgeous. If they didn’t like the desert and the mountains and the extreme space that is here, they wouldn’t have stayed.

How did they access the insular world of Southwest Indian women?
They had to have connections. Natalie Curtis is likely the reason Carol Stanley came to New Mexico, and Carol would go on to found Ghost Ranch, but they both had to have help to get here. They had to connect with people who already knew the landscape and how to move around in it. Natalie came with her brother out to Los Angeles. He knew Charles Lummis and his crowd of intellectuals and really the movers and shakers in the first conservation movement and also the people who were concerned with protecting native American rights. So she landed with those people, and they enabled her to go into Hopi land and Navajo land. They had to connect with people who already knew the landscape, and Natalie learned that with her brother and his friends, and then she passed that along to Alice Klauber and Carol Stanley. And then Mary Wheelwright visited Ghost Ranch. Carol loaned Mary Wheelwright her horses, guides and knowledge to move into Indian country.

What obstacles did they face?
The most obvious was that they were single women in the early 1900s wanting to do something outside of the family home. That alone was an enormous obstacle. They wouldn’t get much support for that from family and friends. They had to reach beyond the normal circle of acquaintances to pursue what they wanted to do. Everything they knew before was nothing out here. A well-connected woman from Boston or New York, when she came to New Mexico or Arizona—that meant nothing to people out here. They were really on their own.

It was challenging for an Anglo American man, but at least twice as challenging for Anglo American women. They could never travel alone; they always had a companion. They must have gone through periods of doubt about these choices. I imagine it was emotionally and physically challenging.

Did they have any particular advantages?
Carol Stanley’s story comes to mind. She had traveled in 1915 with Winfred Douglas by train and then by wagon to Kayenta, Ariz., to the Weatherill Trading Post. Her break was that she and Louisa Weatherill really hit it off. Louisa took a journey into Indian country right after Carol arrived—searching for a Ute family and a Ute chief for a trial in Denver. Carol went with her, and that was her first experience on a horse, her first experience in the outback. I think her first night out was in Monument Valley. Carol just loved it. So her break was that she met this extraordinary woman who was married to trader John Weatherill, brother of the brothers who “discovered” Mesa Verde. Stanley was at the center of one of the most interesting, knowledgeable, influential families in Arizona when she arrived. Louisa herself was fluent in several Indian languages and trusted by all of the Native American people they encountered. From Stanley’s first visit in 1915 I think she was always seeking to do what Louisa had done—to build a home compatible with the people she was moving in next to, whether Hispanic or Native American. Carol was able to introduce other newcomers, especially other women, to the Southwest, in the same way that Louisa Weatherill had done for her.

Natalie Curtis was charismatic, easy to be around and talkative. Her personality was such it seemed everybody liked and trusted her. She immediately built good relationships with people. Everywhere she went, she seemed to connect with the important people—whether a tribe or pueblo or a community like Los Angeles. Natalie was also good friends with Theodore Roosevelt and was able to see him when he was president and ask for his help with her work to preserve Indian music. Obviously that was a big break for Natalie, and the president gave her that letter of safe passage she had to have at the time.

What legacy did they leave?
There are obvious legacies, like Mary Cabot Wheelwright’s Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. Carol Stanley built and left behind Ghost Ranch, now associated with Georgia O’Keeffe. Alice Clauber out of San Diego, part of her legacy is the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. She was one of first curators and helped build it.

Natalie Curtis should be the best known, as she did remarkable work to preserve Indian music. She wrote about it and preserved it on recordings. But she isn’t well known. I’ve learned with publication of the book that there is a lot of interest in Natalie. People tend to fall in love with her and her story. I’m delighted by that, because I felt the same way. This is a woman’s story we ought to know.

Their combined legacy is to demonstrate that when we pursue something with our heart, mind and soul, it can come to fruition in a way that either educates other people or enlightens our communities. Their fortitude was astounding. Their strength and resolve to do something even in the face of obstacles is helpful. It affirms all of us.

Georgia O’Keeffe heard about the ranch. One day she came out, knocked on the door and asked if she could spend the night. As O’Keeffe said, she never left

How did Ghost Ranch evolve?
Ghost Ranch is large, about 22,000 acres on the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, about 5–10 miles from my home here. Carol Stanley and husband had several successful guest ranches. Her husband had won the deed to Ghost Ranch (not its name at the time) in a poker game. When they divorced, the deed was put in her name. It was all she had, and she decided to move all she had in the world out to this outpost.

In the past cattle rustlers had hidden stolen animals on the property, calling it the Ranch of the Witches. After the outlaws left, no one ventured out there. Stanley was the first one to live there in about 10 years. A concert pianist, she came with her baby grand piano and built a new guest ranch she named Ghost Ranch.

Georgia O’Keeffe heard about the ranch. One day she came out, knocked on the door and asked if she could spend the night. As O’Keeffe said, she never left. Now she’s probably the most famous woman artist in the world. Thousands of people come to Abiquiú to see where O’Keeffe lived and worked. She was painting my backyard. Thus Ghost Ranch has become a world famous place.

It was Carol Stanley’s last ranch. Years later she married her foreman and sold.

How does one subject lead you to the next?
The novels always grow out of research for my nonfiction works. An example is Bone Horses. When I was researching Ghost Ranch, old-timers told me that in the 1930s, during the drought and subsequent Dust Bowl, the government wanted to remove all the wild horses. They shot them all. People described how that affected their families emotionally. Of course it affected O’Keeffe, because she saw the bones. I took the true story details and related a fictional account of how they shot down the horses.

What do you prefer to write?
I love fiction. Right now I’m working on the sequel to Bone Horses. It’s nice to be back in fiction land. It is still hard for me. Writing and constructing narrative is challenging.

But I love nonfiction, when you jump into research and everything seems chaotic but then begins to dovetail. Writing a narrative taken from the past is wonderful. The story was here all along; it just needed someone to pull it up and put it together. As a writer I go on luck and faith it will come together and become a beautiful story.

How has your work been received?
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a book coming out and being published that has so much enthusiasm and energy about it as Ladies of the Canyons. It almost seems like these women were waiting for their stories to be told. It has been the most fun representing and running alongside of this coming into the world. Ghost Ranch opened an exhibit based on Ladies of the Canyon that should be in place for about a year. It is wonderful to see Ghost Ranch want to showcase their story based around these women. There are a lot of people now exposed to Carol Stanley’s story and how she created Ghost Ranch. WW

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