Culture

The amazing story of the White sisters

Dr. Nancy Owen Lewis plans lecture on their intriguing legacy

By Dena Miller
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 9/3/19

Swimming pool, billiards room, tennis courts, custom canine kennels replete with vigas - no, we're not describing the latest posh resort in Northern New Mexico. This sprawling Santa Fe …

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Culture

The amazing story of the White sisters

Dr. Nancy Owen Lewis plans lecture on their intriguing legacy

Posted

Swimming pool, billiards room, tennis courts, custom canine kennels replete with vigas - no, we're not describing the latest posh resort in Northern New Mexico. This sprawling Santa Fe enclave dates to the early 20th century when two socialite sisters, Elizabeth and Martha White, descended upon the city during a cross-country road trip and looked to get their hair done, but instead decided living there surpassed their need for a proper shampoo.

As frivolous as this may sound, the White sisters were far from scatterbrained.

The two remained in Santa Fe and established themselves as among its most influential, albeit anonymous, philanthropists. And Paul Figueroa, the program chair of the Taos County Historical Society, thinks it's time for you to hear the White sisters' amazing story.

Join him Saturday (Sept. 7) at 2 p.m. when special guest lecturer Dr. Nancy Owen Lewis presents "The Artistry of El Delirio: The White Sisters' Remarkable Legacy" at the Kit Carson Co-op Boardroom.

Learn about the Whites' journey from a privileged life in New York City to their graduation from the illustrious liberal arts college, Bryn Mawr, where the notion that women's roles in society could be powerful, substantive and based upon social justice and reform was accepted as truth. The two wealthy young ladies first demonstrated their embrace of empowerment by volunteering as nurses in Europe during World War I.

Follow them as they built a home they named El Delirio ("The Madness") on Garcia Street, Santa Fe, which expanded over time as they acquired the property to do so. Be entertained by the stories of their lavish costume parties to which the creme of Santa Fe society were invited, held poolside -- the city's first -- at their home.

Then, absorb the enormous endowment of these sisters, which remains a powerful force in the city decades after their deaths.

"The two, and other Bryn Mawr graduates who relocated to Santa Fe, successfully defeated the Bursum Bill, whose effective purpose was to steal Pueblo land from the Natives," said Figueroa. "In addition to preserving this land they fought for centuries of Native art and culture and awareness of it throughout the rest of the country, and even donated the land that the Wheelwright Museum [of the American Indian] was built on."

The sisters never married but did love their Irish wolfhounds and Afghans, several of which were bred from pups by the comic actors the Marx Brothers. When younger Martha died of cancer in 1937, Elizabeth continued work in Martha's memory, funding Santa Fe's first animal shelter and working with the U.S. Army to develop World War II's sentry "Dogs for Defense" program here in New Mexico.

She also continued their work with the Indian Arts Fund, the Old Santa Fe Association and the DeVargas Development Company, among other civic organizations. And upon her death in 1972, Elizabeth bequeathed El Delirio to the internationally recognized School for Advanced Research, still its present location and where lecturer Lewis remains a scholar-in-residence after a 20-year career with the institution.

"When I was hired by SAR, part of my responsibilities was to conduct tours of the campus. I, like our visitors, was intrigued by the idiosyncrasies of the property, like the dog cemetery. The more I delved into the White sisters' story, the more fascinated I became," Lewis said.

"Yes, they were very social and loved a good party, but what's extraordinary is how they parlayed those contacts and their own personal wealth into such an enormous body of philanthropic work. When Martha was still alive, they were a powerhouse of reform in Native issues. After Martha's death, Elizabeth continued that work and also took up animal welfare and related issues," Lewis continued.

Lewis, herself, has fond memories of the many days spent at her grandparents' cattle ranch in New Mexico, though she grew up in the Midwest. Having attended the University of New Mexico, she received her doctoral degree in anthropology from the University of Massachusetts. "My parents had since built a home in Santa Fe and I knew I wanted to move here, but not without a job."

Lewis' ultimate pathway to that job is as colorful a story as the White sisters'. "I had been contacted in 1980 to look into cattle mutilations happening in Arkansas, and from there I contacted Ken Rommel, the district attorney from New Mexico's 1st Judicial District, who was investigating the same issue here." Her research and opinions on the matter had The New York Times pursuing her, and, "I had mobile television vans in my driveway."

She was even named to U.S. President Bill Clinton's cattle mutilation investigatory council. "No," she laughed, "we didn't find UFOs or the devil at work." But her work on this issue landed her a role in investigating the notorious New Mexico State Penitentiary riot of the same year. "That led to work in witness security and the municipal courts. When SAR advertised a vacancy for director of scholar programs I said to myself, 'Time to get back to anthropology.'"

The lecturer is the author of two well-received books and a myriad of research papers. She is currently working on her third book, via grants from the Office of the State Historian, on Elizabeth' White's "Dogs for Defense" program.

"It's amazing, if you think about it, how much influence women have had in New Mexico's history," Figueroa mused.

Lewis said, "Maybe not. New Mexico has always had some of the strongest rights for women, including being able to inherit property. Of course, that attracted women from all over and brought us the best."

Sponsored in part by the Historical Society of New Mexico and its Speakers' Bureau, the free program, open to the public, promises to be a thoroughly enjoyable round of anecdotes, historical images and questions and answers.

"The Artistry of El Delirio: The White Sisters' Remarkable Legacy" takes place in the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative Boardroom, 118 Cruz Alta Road, Taos. For more information, call (575) 779-8579 or visit taoscountyhistoricalsociety.org.

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