Young Women, Fast Cattle and Dyed Moustaches

The Ballad of Baby Doe is about the heartache that can happen when dreams are both won and lost.  The opera mainly focuses on the love triangle of Horace Tabor, Augusta Tabor and Baby Doe.  It’s easy to approach the opera’s story as a tabloid feature.  But to find the truth of the opera, we need to dig much deeper.  This digging starts with one simple question: Is the base of the Tabor Love Triangle a midlife crisis? Here are my thoughts…

What’s worse? Never achieving your life dream, or, achieving your life dream to discover that you don’t like the reality of it? It’s a tricky question that begs another tricky question. Whether you achieve or fail is the result the same – do you feel betrayed by life?

In The Ballad of Baby Doe, Augusta and Horace Tabor have been chasing a dream for twenty seven years; to become rich through gold mining.  The opera picks up the story at the point when the couple is achieving their dream and Horace meets Baby Doe.  In telling the tale from this point the opera highlights a fascinating fact about the Tabors; although it took twenty seven years of their married life to achieve their dream, it took just 2 years to destroy their marriage.

Some may say this is fate: 'When the Gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.' (Wilde, An Ideal Husband).  Others may think that the breakdown of the Tabor marriage began at the very point when the dream was not equally shared: 'Whatever dies was not equally mixed.' (Donne, The Good Morrow)  If you put me in a small dark room, tie my hands behind my back and shine a bright white light in my eyes, I will confess my thoughts on the matter:  The Tabor marriage was fated because the dream wasn’t equally shared.  The Tabor’s dream was Horace’s dream and he ran it on his terms.

Baby Doe
The catalyst for the break-up of the Tabor's marriage was a girl who looked like a Dresden Doll and was young enough to be Horace's daughter. She wasn't the first, but she was the last. An older man chasing after a much younger woman begs the question, was Horace facing a mid-life crisis? Can it be argued that Horace Tabor was the oldest swinger in Leadville? Was his vanity and sense of mortality the key to Baby Doe, Horace and Augusta becoming the most talked about love triangle in the West?

Horace cast Augusta as the Joan of Arc he needed to rally his courage and resources to achieve the riches and political status he desired. Augusta played this part brilliantly. In the name of love, she exchanged her once smooth hands for rough hands by digging land and smashing rocks to build a homestead. Her fair skin became rough and worn from camping out in the wilderness and riding solo across the western frontier - her gender providing the camouflage needed to pass under the gold-thirsty bandit’s radar and ensure the gold tucked into her undergarments was securely transported.

As soon as Horace struck gold and became rich beyond his wildest dreams, he wanted to recast Augusta. He no longer wanted a wife that was Joan of Arc. He wanted a wife that was a pliable Venus. A woman all men desired.  A woman that all women envied; even if they didn't like to admit it.  In short, Horace wanted a trophy wife.

Having played Joan of Arc with great success and as a result changed as a woman, it was now impossible for Augusta to be a trophy wife.  Augusta had never really felt beautiful or used her sexuality as a currency.  Most importantly, on an emotional and intellectual level, she wasn’t prepared to play it.  And so the fall and decline of the Tabor marriage began. This conflict was the final straw that broke their marriage's back.  But this breakdown didn't just suddenly happen over the course of a few years, the origins date back to their courtship...

Horace Tabor
Augusta Tabor
Horace had big ideas and a big ego. He was the embodiment of the new American Dream, where social mobility could be achieved through fighting on the side of anti-slavery and prospecting for gold. Confident, sociable and single-minded to the point of selfishness, his talks of making a new life in the West were inspiring. A working class man drunk with ambition, Horace left home at nineteen to escape his stepmother’s nagging and to make something of himself. Augusta was frail, shy and sharply intelligent. A devoted Unitarian who believed in the equality of man and woman, she was as determined as Horace was ambitious. A middle class educated woman whose cousin was the then President of the USA, Franklin Pierce, Augusta was already somebody. Augusta and Horace's differences had all the makings of a magnificent union, it should have created a unique bond. But like all differences, if you don’t respect and align them, you create a time bomb.

The time bomb ticked slowly at first. The arguments were always the same. Horace didn’t fully understand that Augusta’s worry came from the insecurities of a sheltered upbringing and a childhood wracked with illness. Instead, he received her worry in the same way he received his stepmother’s nagging. In his mind, he had escaped one nagging woman only to run into the arms of another. Did Augusta understand that Horace’s Faust like ambition for money and power derived from his need to prove himself and rise up from his working class roots?  Did she realise that this is why he belittled her achievements - her incredible achievements as a middle class woman now living and working in a male dominated working class community in the mid to late nineteenth century?  At some point she did - but she did nothing to facilitate it, probably because she didn't know how, maybe she couldn't be bothered, or perhaps she was too afraid that she might lose him. Let's face it Jung wasn't about at the time to open up a conversation about their behaviours and shifting gender roles.

Through work, exhaustion and a cycle of belittlements the love and passion of their marriage fell away leaving only the mechanics of their dream. The void that this created Horace filled with tours of bordellos; Augusta turned a blind eye.  Drinking, gambling and loose women must've helped deaden the pain of Horace's failed placerings. Meanwhile, Augusta's entrepreneurship was successful and brought in the steady income that allowed Horace to keep following his dream of finding gold and becoming rich.

By the time Horace was in his fifties, the time bomb's explosion was imminent. For twenty five years Horace and Augusta’s differences battled it out in the wilderness and the homesteads. Horace’s dream finally came true through a lucky grubstake and overnight they became millionaires. Horace no longer felt a kept man - their money came from his initiatives, not Augusta's.  More importantly, the wealth he accumulated overnight was far greater than Augusta had ever achieved in twenty five years of marraige.  Augusta never truly understood this aspect of Horace's psychologically in the same way that Horace failed to understand that Augusta couldn't go from pioneer to trophy. In the 26th year of their marriage, Horace and Augusta's egos battled it out like never before.  He was the hero, Augusta didn't want to play the damsel and why should she, if it wasn't for her entrepreneurship the family wouldn't have survived for twenty five years. 

As the status and power in their relationship shifted, neither of them could deal with it and so their marriage quickly declined.  Against this descending backdrop, their differences were magnified.  Horace wanted to spend. Augusta wanted to save. Horace wanted to feel young. Augusta felt old. Horace was Mayor but wanted to be President. Augusta just wanted to settle down and have a modest life. As far as Augusta was concerned, they had achieved their dream. Horace had different ideas.

Horace’s dream forced him to abandon his youth and become a man before his time. With the riches and social standing his dream had brought, he no longer wanted to feel old, he wanted to feel young. He wanted to enjoy the part of his life he'd never had time to enjoy. Horace had a problem though. Augusta made him feel old. His dower and socially awkward wife no longer provided the leverage he needed to achieve his next ambitions: more money and more power. So Horace started to fine tune his dream without her. He dyed his hair, developed a terrible taste in lavish clothes and jewelry and commenced a string of affairs with young women who made him look powerful, virile and young. The final and devastating affair that led to Horace and Augusta’s divorce was Baby Doe, a beautiful girl who was a few years younger than their own son. She had many of the strong qualities Horace once admired in Augusta. Except Baby Doe was younger, prettier and willing to dote on his every word. No doubt about it, Baby Doe made Horace Tabor feel like a hero. 

We can’t lay all the blame on Horace. Augusta knew from the very start the sort of man she was dedicating her life to. Her family had voiced concerns that Horace’s blind ambition and weakness for life’s pleasures might lead to trouble later on. Augusta was prepared to handle. I wonder if Augusta ever believed Horace would succeed in striking gold and becoming rich. I think there were occasions in their marriage when she got an insight into what life would be like if they were rich and hoped it would never happen. Why did she choose to ignore it? What other choice did she have? She couldn’t divorce him. And besides she didn’t want to, she loved him. In this conflict stands the truth of the Tabor marriage: Augusta looked after the family and provided the business to support Horace’s dream. Horace looked after his dream. But there is a fatal flaw in this design, there’s nothing in the middle to bind the family and the dream together. No wonder the marriage caved in.

So my current thinking pushes me in the direction that the Tabor marriage isn’t just about a mid-life crisis. It’s Don Quixote and Sanchez. It’s Faust. It’s about one of the very first lessons I ever learnt off my mum: the art of sharing in order to make room for others. My lesson was easy – it involved a bag of 1p sweets. The Tabor’s lesson was tough – it involved their marriage.

It could so easily have been a different story.  Why didn't they share the dream equally?  Simply because they were living at a time when the man 'knew best'.  It was Horace's dream and therefore Augusta willingly did what society expected of her.  But there is a catch.  Augusta in being the dutiful wife re-defined what it was to be woman.  The only problem was....Horace hadn't redefined what it was to be a man.

Augusta died alone, a rich divorcee, a respected woman. Horace died at the side of his young wife, Baby Doe, poor and with his reputation in tatters. On their respective death beds neither got what they wanted. Horace didn’t have his money, youth or power. Augusta didn’t have Horace. Futile? Not quite. Their achievements created a legacy far greater than the difficulties of their marriage. Horace’s experiences and ambition transformed the social and architectural design of mining towns. Augusta’s struggle helped empower women in mining towns. And, although they didn’t find the middle way as a couple, they did create it in the form of their respectable and responsible son, Maxcy.

The Ballad of Baby Doe; Moore-Latouche - Chappel; 1958
Augusta Tabor: Her Side of the Scandal; Caroline Bancroft; Johnson Pub., 7th Edition; 1972
The Silver Queen; Jane Coleman; Leisure Books; 2009
The Historic Tabor Opera House (post image).  For more information click here


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