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Posts Tagged ‘Diego Rivera’

About a month before doctors amputated her right leg at the knee, Frida Kahlo drew a picture of her severed feet on a pedestal. It is one of many diary entries in which she expresses her anguish at the impending operation. In public, though, she acted lighthearted, saying playfully to friends, "Did you know they are going to cut off my paw?"

From Frida Kahlo’s diary, “Why do I need feet if I have wings to fly.”

About a month before doctors amputated her right leg at the knee, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo drew a picture of her severed feet on a pedestal. Instead of healthy veins protruding from the amputated feet, dead, thorny vines snake out. The flesh is yellow, anemic, and the page is stained with her blood.

This is one of many diary entries in which Frida explores her anguish over the impending operation. She knew that she had no other choice but to cut off her leg. In truth, her right leg was skinny, crippled, shriveled, and lame. It hung from her body as if it were broken. Two toes were missing from the foot. The leg was infected with gangrene. It hurt her terribly.

Her husband Mexican muralist Diego Rivera urged her to accept her fate and submit to yet another operation. Maybe she would be able to get a good prosthetic leg, he urged, and walk a little.

For Diego’s sake, she said to the doctors,

“Prepare me for the operation!”

Then, putting on a brave face for her friends, she asked them, 

“Did you know they are going to cut off my paw?”

For more on Frida Kahlo on this blog, click here.

Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1983.
The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait. Introduction by Carlos Fuentes. Essays by Sarah M. Lowe. New York: Abradale, 1995.

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Diego Rivera shown with wife, Frida Kahlo. Frida's mother called them "the Elephant and the Dove."

Elvis Presley at his shiniest

What did Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and rock sensation Elvis Presley have in common?

They both had twin brothers who died.

Diego Rivera and his twin brother Carlos were born on December 8, 1886 in Guanajato, Mexico. Carlos, however, died eighteen months later.

"The Flower Carrier" by Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

On January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, Gladys Presley gave birth to identical twin boys. The first one, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn. Thirty-five minutes later, Elvis Aaron (Aron) Presley entered this world. Gladys told Elvis that, as the surviving twin, he had been destined for great things.

READERS: For more posts on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, click here.

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Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

At the age of six, Frida Kahlo was stricken with polio. It affected her right leg. She spent nine months in bed.

“‘It all began with a horrible pain in my right leg from the muscle downward,” she remembered. ‘They washed my little leg in a small tub with walnut water and small hot towels.'”

Once she was out of bed, her doctor insisted that Frida exercise to build up her weaker leg. Her father got her involved in all kinds of sports, a decidedly male domain in 1914 Mexico. However, Frida played soccer, boxed, wrestled, and became a champion swimmer. (1) She climbed trees, rowed on the lakes of Chapultepec Park, and played ball.

Frida Kahlo is shown at far right, with sister Cristina (l) and best friend Isabel Campos (c). The photo was taken by Frida’s father, Guillermo Kahlo, in 1919, when Frida was about 12.

Despite her best efforts, her right leg remained very skinny. To disguise that fact, she wore three or four socks on her thin calf and shoes with a built-up right heel. While some of her friends admired her stamina despite her deformity, other children teased her:

“Frida’s childhood friend, the painter Aurora Reyes, says: ‘We were quite cruel about her leg. When she was riding her bicycle, we would yell at her, ‘Frida, pata de palo!’ [Frida, peg leg], and she would respond furiously with lots of curses.'”

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at a demonstration of the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, May 1, 1929

In this photo, Frida is shown marching in a skirt that hits below the knee – thus exposing her obviously thinner right calf. Not long after this photo was taken, Frida began to wear elaborate, floor-length skirts –  to hide her emaciated leg from public view.

Frida Kahlo with pigeons, ca. 1940s by Juan Guzmán.

(1) Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York, Harper, 1983.

Now read: “Frida Kahlo Had Childhood Polio Part 2.”

READERS: For even more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

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"The Broken Column," by Frida Kahlo (1944). This self-portrait shows the artist's spine as a broken Ionic column. Frida's health had deteriorated to the stage that she had to wear a steel corset.

"The Broken Column," by Frida Kahlo (1944). This self-portrait shows the artist's spine as a broken Ionic column. By 1944, Frida's health had deteriorated to such a degree that she had to wear a steel corset to sit up. Her persistent health problems stemmed from childhood polio, a traffic accident, and botched spinal surgeries.

For her entire adult life, artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) suffered unbearable pain from her spine and foot. (See “Frida’s First Bad Accident.”) She endured over thirty surgeries to correct the problem (in both Mexico and the U.S), was subjected to batteries of tests, X-rays, and spinal taps, given blood transfusions, physical therapy, and strong medicine . Yet, despite such extreme measures, Frida’s health continued to deteriorate.

After 1944, Frida’s doctors prescribed months of  bed rest, encasing her tortured body in a succession of plaster or steel corsets that helped her to sit or stand. Frida described these corsets and the treatments that accompanied them as “punishment.”

“There were twenty-eight corsets in all–one made of steel, three of leather, and the rest of plaster. One…allowed her neither to sit nor to recline. It made her so angry that she took it off, and used a sash to tie her torso to the back of a chair in order to support her spine.

There was a time when she spent three months in a nearly vertical position with sacks of sand attached to her feet to straighten out her spinal column. Another time, Adelina Zendejas, visiting her in the hospital after an operation, found her hanging from steel rings with her feet just able to touch the ground. Her easel was in front of her. “We were horrified,” Zendejas recalls. “She was painting and telling jokes and funny stories….”

Yet another gruesome tale comes from Frida’s friend the pianist Ella Paresce. A Spanish doctor who knew nothing about orthopedics put a plaster corset on Frida….”[D]uring the night, the corset began to harden, as it was supposed to do. I happened to be spending the night there in the next room, and about half past four or five in the morning, I heard a crying, nearly shrieks. I jumped out of the bed and went in, and there was Frida saying she couldn’t breathe!….The corset had hardened…so much that it pressed her lungs. It made pleats all around her body. So I tried to get a doctor. Nobody would pay any attention at that hour…so…I took a razor blade…and made about a two-inch cut [in the cast over her chest] so that she could breathe….[S]he painted the corset, which is still visible in the museum in Coyoacán.” (1)

Diego Rivera kisses his wife Frida Kahlo at the ABC Hospital in Mexico City, 1950

Diego kisses Frida at the ABC Hospital 1950

In the photo here, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera tenderly kisses his wife Frida Kahlo at the Hospital Ingles ABC in Mexico City, 1950. Frida’s botched spinal fusion of 1946 began the “calvary that would lead to the end,” said her friend Cachucha Miguel N. Lira. Her leg was in constant pain. Four toes on her right foot had turned black; gangrene had set in. An amputation was advised. Frida spent a year in the hospital. In the photo, notice that Frida had painted the Communist symbols, a hammer and sickle on her plaster corset. Visitors also signed Frida’s corsets and decorated them with feathers, mirrors, photographs, pebbles, and ink. When Frida’s doctors removed her paints from her sick room, instead, she used lipstick and iodine to paint her cast. (1)

(1) Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo.New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1983.

READERS: For more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

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In this 1934 Diego Rivera mural, "Man, Controller of the Universe," Leon Trotsky makes an appearance.

In this 1934 Diego Rivera mural, "Man, Controller of the Universe," Leon Trotsky makes an appearance.

In 1937, Frida Kahlo took a new lover. He was Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary. When Frida met Trotsky, he was a man without a country. He had come to Mexico as a political refugee. He had been expelled from the Soviet Union by his archrival Josef Stalin. For nine years, Trotsky and his wife Natalia had lived in exile, searching in vain for political asylum in Turkey, France, and Norway, with no country wanting to admit them permanently, fearing reprisals from the Soviets (they threatened, for instance, to cancel their large exports of Norwegian herring).

Trotskyites all over the world were frantic with worry. Frida’s husband Diego Rivera, a well-known Communist and recent convert to Trotsky’s brand of Communism, came to the Trotskys’ rescue, intervening on their behalf with the Mexican government to grant them asylum in Mexico City.

Diego was hospitalized with eye and kidney problems when, on the morning of January 9, 1937,  the steamship carrying Trotsky and his wife arrived in Tampico harbor. Natalia Trotsky refused to disembark until she was sure she was safe and saw some familiar faces. She had lived for years surrounded by guards and under threat by assassination by Stalin’s agents. She was afraid to leave the boat. Finally a government cutter approached carrying a welcoming party of Mexican authorities, Communist party members, journalists, and Frida Kahlo, who was standing in for the ill Diego. (1)

Satisfied they were in safe hands, Trotsky and Natalia walked down the wooden pier to freedom. He, wearing tweed knickerbockers and a cap, and carrying a briefcase and a cane, walked with his chin held high, his stride that of a proud soldier. She, a little dowdy in a suit and looking worn and worried, watched her feet so as not to trip on the rought planks of the narrow dock. Just behind them walked Frida, lithe and exotic in her rebozo (shawl) and long skirt.” (1)

Natalia and Leon Trotsky arriving in Tampico, Mexico, January 9, 1937, greeted by artist Frida Kahlo, center.

Natalia and Leon Trotsky arriving in Tampico, Mexico, January 9, 1937, greeted by artist Frida Kahlo, center.

A train carried them to the capital where Rivera awaited them. The two great men, lovers of Communism, embraced, then all four drove quickly to Frida’s childhood home in Coyoacan called the Blue House. There the Trotskys would live rent-free, off and on for two years, with their every need and want attended to by Frida, Diego, Cristina Kahlo, friends, and Trotskyite party members who acted as guards, chauffeurs, escorts, and advisers.

Diego had the blue house turned into a fortress. The windows that faced the street were filled in with adobe bricks. Police stood guard during the day, Trotskyites by night. Diego even bought the property next door and connected the two buildings to provide a larger garden and a wing with a studio for Frida, as she would be the Trotskys’ chief  hostess.

"Fulang-Chang and I," by Frida Kahlo, 1937. At age 29, Frida was at her loveliest.

"Fulang-Chang and I," by Frida Kahlo, 1937. At age 29, Frida was at her loveliest.

It didn’t take long for both Frida and Trotsky to start making eyes at each other. Both were notorious for conducting extramarital love affairs. Trotsky and Frida spoke English to one another, which left Natalia guessing what they were saying, as she didn’t speak English (and Diego’s English was deplorable).

The two couples saw a lot of each other. Frida was openly flirtatious with Trotsky,  calling him “love”  and hoping to make Diego insanely jealous in retaliation for his affair with her sister Cristina (See previous post, “Frida Kahlo: I Can’t Live, if Living is Without You!”).

Trotsky slipped love letters into books he loaned Frida. By late spring of 1937, the two were immersed in a full-fledged love affair. They met secretly at Cristina Kahlo’s house, which Diego probably had bought her. Frida nicknamed Trotsky “Piochitas” (little goatee) for his white beard and called him also “el viejo,” as he was 58 years old while she was only 29.

By late July, though, the affair had fizzled out. Frida had proved to herself that she could still attract men and returned, as usual, to doting on Diego. The end may have come about, though, because Natalia and Diego discovered the affair (which could have been Frida’s intention all along).  Over time, Diego and Trotsky had several philosophical disagreements about Communism. Diego ceased to be a Trotskyite. Soon, the couples grew apart, although the Trotskys remained in Mexico, they moved out of the Blue House.

Frida, though, remained friends with Trotsky. She painted a self-portrait for him. The painting shows her standing between two curtains, holding a piece of paper that says in Spanish,

‘To Trotsky with great affection, I dedicate this painting November 7, 1937. Frida Kahlo, in San Angel, Mexico.’ The date was significant because it was both Trotsky’s birthday and the anniversary of the October Revolution, according to the Gregorian calendar.” (2)

"Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky Between the Curtains," by Frida Kahlo, 1937

"Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky Between the Curtains," by Frida Kahlo, 1937

Less than three years later, Trotsky was dead. On August 20, 1940, he was attacked in his home by an assassin sent by Stalin named Ramón Mercader, who buried the pick of an ice axe into Trotsky’s skull. Trotsky died the next day.

Leon Trotsky on his Deathbed, August 21, 1940

Leon Trotsky on his Deathbed, August 21, 1940

Frida was distraught. She called Diego in San Francisco to tell him the news.

“They killed old Trotsky this morning,” she cried. “Estupido! It’s your fault that they killed him. Why did you bring him?” (1)

Frida had met the assassin once in Paris and had invited him to her house in Coyoacan to dine, which placed her under suspicion. She was picked up by the Mexican police and interrogated for 12 hours, before being released, two days later, without charge.

(1) Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1983.
(2)Zamora, Martha. Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish. San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1990.

READERS: For more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

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"Fulang-Chang and I" by Frida Kahlo, 1937. Fulang-Chang was Frida's favorite spider monkey.

"Fulang-Chang and I" by Frida Kahlo, 1937. Fulang-Chang was Frida's favorite spider monkey.

As discussed in a previous post, “Frida Kahlo: A Few Small Nips,” Frida was devastated to learn of her husband Diego Rivera‘s affair with her younger sister Cristina. No one really knows exactly when Diego and Cristina began their affair, but, by early 1935, Frida had moved out of her San Angel house she shared with Diego and, taking her favorite spider monkey, rented an apartment in the center of Mexico City. Frida was determined to try and create and independent life for herself. She had not yet become a celebrated artist and was financially dependent upon Diego.

But Frida couldn’t make the break. Although Frida had a strong life force, she became desperately insecure without Diego around to praise her talents and beauty. Although she had moved out to get away from Diego, she continued to see him constantly, he keeping some of his clothes in her apartment and buying her a set of blue leather furniture just like the red set he’d given Cristina for her place. 

Frida was so mixed up and unhappy. Both living with Diego made her miserable and living without him made her miserable.

Cracks began to appear in the brave face Frida showed her friends. Old boyfriend Alex Gómez Arias visited her at her flat one day. Frida, glancing out the window, spotted her sister Cristina at a gas station across the road. Frida flew into a rage.

Look!” she cried. “Come here! Why does she come and fill up her car in front of my house?”

Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera

Finally, in early July, Frida packed and took off to New York with friends. After confiding her troubles, she came to a decision. She could not live without Diego. She reconciled herself to the fact that, should she stay married to Diego, he would continue his skirt-chasing. On July 23, 1935, she wrote him a letter:

[I know now that] all these letters, liaisons with petticoats, lady teachers of ‘English,’ gypsy models, assistants with ‘good intentions,’ ‘plenipotentiary emissaries from distant places,’ only represent flirtations, and that at bottom you and i love each other dearly….

All these things have been repeated throughout the seven years that we have lived together, and all the rages I have gone through have served only to make me understand in the end that I love you more than my own skin….”

Frida returned to San Angel to live, once again, with Diego. Diego continued his philandering ways. Frida herself began a flurry of affairs with a number of people, both men and women. The relationships were often fiery and fleeting. She was fascinated by great men and women.

Diego was not jealous of Frida’s women lovers but was extremely jealous of the men. One of Frida’s lovers included the American sculptor Isamu Noguchi who had come to Mexico to do a mural.

When Rivera discovered it, he was so enraged that he sped to the Coyoacán house, where the lovers were in bed. Frida’s mozo (houseboy), Chucho, warned his mistress of Diego’s arrival. Noguchi threw on his clothes, but one of the hairless dogs pounced upon a sock and ran off with it. Noguchi…abandoned the sock, scrambled up the orange tree in the patio, and fled over the roof. Of course, Diego found the sock and did what Mexican machos are supposed to do under such circumstances.

As Noguchi tells it: ‘Diego came by with a gun. He always carried a gun.'”(1)

Diego demanded that Frida and Noguchi end the affair.

(1) Herrera, Hayden.  Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: HarperCollins, 1983.

READERS: For more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

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Click here to read “Frida Kahlo’s First Bad Accident” before reading this post.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, their wedding photo, 1929

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, their wedding photo, 1929

Frida Kahlo once said to a friend, “I have suffered two serious accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar ran over me….The other accident is Diego.”

She was referring to her husband, Diego Rivera (1886-1957), the world famous painter and active Communist. He painted large-scale murals in Mexico, New York City, Detroit, and San Francisco. Diego was 21 years older than Frida and their marriage in 1929 offered Frida, a budding artist, to move not only in elite Mexican artistic and intellectual circles, but those in Europe and America as well. But the price Frida paid for marrying a renowned “lady chaser” was high. Their marriage was tempestuous. They divorced once and remarried a year later; they were separated several times.

Many people were surprised by what they considered a strange match. Frida once told a journalist:

When I was seventeen, Diego began to fall in love with me. My father didn’t like him because he was a Communist and because they said he looked like a fat, fat, fat Breughel. They said it was like an elephant marrying a dove. Nevertheless, I arranged everything in the Coyoacán town hall for us to be married on the twenty-first of August, 1929.”

"The Flower Carrier" by Diego Rivera, 1935

"The Flower Carrier" by Diego Rivera, 1935

Frida was 22, Diego, 43. It was Diego’s first legal marriage, although, by then, there had been many women and two long-term relationships. For ten years during the 1910s, he lived in Paris with the Russian artist Angelina Beloff. Together they had a son who died young. Then, in 1922, he married the Mexican Lupe Marín, with whom he had two daughters. Though a serious commitment, Diego and Lupe had not legalized their relationship with a civil ceremony so Diego was free to marry Frida without divorcing Lupe.

Frida’s recollection of her wedding to Diego gives an idea of how difficult a man Diego was to be married to:

I borrowed petticoats, a blouse, and a rebozo from the maid, fixed the special apparatus on my foot so it wouldn’t be noticeable, and we were married. Nobody went to the wedding, only my father, who said to Diego, ‘Now, look, my daughter is a sick person and all her life she’s going to be sick. She’s intelligent but not pretty. Think it over awhile if you like, and if you still wish to marry her, marry her, I give you my permission.'”

"Frida and Diego Rivera" by Frida Kahlo, 1931

"Frida and Diego Rivera" by Frida Kahlo, 1931

Diego added that her father mentioned that she was un demonio – a devil. Frida continues, describing her wedding reception:

Then they gave us a big party in Roberto Montenegro’s house. Diego got horrendously drunk on tequila, waved his pistol about, broke some man’s little finger, and destroyed some things. Afterward, we got mad at each other; I left crying and went home. A few days went by and Diego came to get me and took me to his house at 104 Reforma.'”

Despite their stormy relationship, Diego and Frida loved and needed each other.

NEXT: Frida Kahlo: A Few, Small Nips

READERS: For more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

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"The Bus," by Frida Kahlo (1929). Frida painted her recollection of the last moments aboard the bus before the terrible accident that robbed her of her health. She is pictured on the far right. Notice that she is not dressed in traditional Mexican costume. She adopted that exotic look later, after her 1929 marriage to flamboyant Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

“The Bus,” by Frida Kahlo (1929). Frida painted her recollection of the last moments aboard the bus before the terrible accident that robbed her of her health. She is pictured on the far right. Notice that she is not dressed in traditional Mexican costume. She adopts that exotic look later, after her 1929 marriage to flamboyant Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) once said that she suffered two bad accidents in her life. The first one occurred on September 17, 1925. It would transform her life forever. Frida was only 18.

It was a gray day. A light rain had just fallen. After spending the afternoon wandering among the street stalls of downtown Mexico City, Frida and her boyfriend Alex Gómez Arias caught a bus that would take them home to Coyoacán. The new bus was brightly painted with two benches along the sides. It was nearly full but Alex and Frida found seats together near the back. The bus driver sped off to cross the busy streets on his way out of town.

As the bus driver began to turn onto Calzada de Tlapan, a street trolley approached. The bus driver rashly tried to pass in front of the turning streetcar. He didn’t make it. Alex remembers the point of impact:

The electric train [streetcar] with two cars approached the bus slowly. It hit the bus in the middle. Slowly the train  pushed the bus. The bus had a strange elasticity. It bent more and more, but for a time it did not break. It was a bus with long benches on either side. I remember that at one moment my knees touched the knees of the person sitting opposite me. I was sitting next to Frida. When the bus reached its maximal flexibility it burst into a thousand pieces, and the train kept moving. It ran over many people.

I remained under the train. Not Frida. But among the iron rods of the train, the handrail broke and went through Frida from one side to the other at the level of the pelvis.”

Frida said that the “handrail pierced me the way a sword pierces a bull.” Alex continues:

When I was able to stand up, I got out from under the train. I had no lesions, only contusions. Naturally the first thing that I did was to look for Frida.

"Accident" by Frida Kahlo (1926)

Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her, they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer.

I picked her up….and then I noticed with horror that Frida had a piece of iron in her body. A man said, ‘We have to take it out!’  He put his knee on Frida’s body and said, ‘Let’s take it out.’ When he pulled it out, Frida screamed so loud that when the ambulance from the Red Cross arrived, her screaming was louder than the siren. Before the ambulance came, I picked up Frida and put her in the display window of a billiard room. I took off my coat and put it over her. I thought she was going to die. Two or three people did die at the scene….others died later.”

"Self-Portrait for Alejandro Gomez Arias," by Frida Kahlo (1926)

Frida’s condition was so grave doctors didn’t believe they could save her. They thought she would die on the operating table. Her spinal column was broken in three places in the lumbar region. Her collarbone was broken and her third and fourth ribs. Her right leg had eleven fractures and her right foot was dislocated and crushed. Her left shoulder was out of joint, her pelvis broken in three places. The steel handrail produced a deep abdominal wound, entering through the left hip and exiting through the genitals. She convalesced for two years though she would never fully recover.

It was while she was confined to bed that Frida began to paint, using a small lap easel her mother bought for her. Frida had a mirror hung overhead in the canopy of her bed so she could use her reflection as a beginning subject for portraits.

Next: Frida Kahlo: The Other Accident

READERS: For even more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

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"The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Me, Diego, and Mr. Xolotl," by Frida Kahlo, 1949.

"The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Me, Diego, and Mr. Xolotl," by Frida Kahlo, 1949.

In the lower left of Frida Kahlo‘s painting, “The Love Embrace of the Universe” (above), a little dog is sound asleep in a huge hand. The dog is Frida Kahlo’s favorite pet dog, Mr. Xolotl. Mr. Xolotl (show-low -tul) was a xoloitxcuintli (show-low-eats-queen-tlee) dog. Frida had several of these unusual-looking dogs, a hairless breed with an ancestry that is traceable back 3,000 years to the Aztecs, hence their appeal to Frida, enormously proud of her MesoAmerican heritage. Xolos (show-lows), for short, are related to Mexican hairless chihuahuas. The Aztecs both revered and ate xolos.

"Frida Kahlo and her Itzcuintli Dogs," photo by Lola Alvarez Bravo, 1944

"Frida Kahlo and her Itzcuintli Dogs," photo by Lola Alvarez Bravo, 1944

Nowadays, xolos are prized for the enormous amount of heat their bodies generate, although they do not have a higher-than-average body temperature. As a result, many sufferers of rheumatism and arthritis keep xolos as pets, claiming the dogs relieve their pain by acting as canine heaters.

The xolos are sometimes referred to as Colima dogs. They may range in size from 3 pounds to 60.

READERS: For more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

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Artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

Artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

By the summer of 1938, Frida Kahlo was on her way to being discovered as an artist in her own right, rather than only being referred to as the wife of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. That summer, actor and art collector Edward G. Robinson had traveled to Mexico City just to see her paintings and had paid $200 each for four of them. Frida was thrilled. She had sold only a few of her paintings so far and had been content to just give them away. She later wrote of the Robinson sale:

“For me it was such a surprise that I marveled and said, “This way I am going to be able to be free; I’ll be able to travel and do what I want without asking Diego for money.”

She and Diego had become increasingly estranged because of his many illicit extramarital affairs, including one with Frida’s sister Cristina. Frida was heartsick by Diego’s infidelities and retaliated by having multiple affairs of her own, with both men and women. Despite their discord, they remained deeply in love. Frida and Diego made up one of those married couples who could neither stay together nor apart. By the summer of 1939, they would be divorced – only to remarry a year later.

"Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (Between the Curtains)" 193

“Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (Between the Curtains)” by Frida Kahlo, 1937

That November, Frida Kahlo traveled to New York City for her first one-person exhibition of her paintings, held at the Julien Levy Gallery, confident in her new status as celebrated artist. As always, her exotic Zapotec clothing and heavy jewelry created a buzz in the press. Her show was a great success. Time magazine noted that “the flutter of the week in Manhattan was caused by the first exhibition of paintings by famed muralist Diego Rivera’s…wife, Frida Kahlo.” Frida Kahlo’s hand, bedecked with huge rings, adorned a cover of Vogue.

Notables such as artist Georgia O’Keeffe attended the gallery exhibit as did playwright and former editor of the fashion magazine Vanity Fair Clare Boothe Luce.

Claire Booth Brokaw (Luce) (1903-1987) as photographed by Cecil Beaton for the August 1934 issue of Vanity Fair

Claire Boothe Brokaw (Luce) (1903-1987) as photographed by Cecil Beaton for the August 1934 issue of Vanity Fair

Luce remembered the occasion well:

“The exhibition was crowded. Frida Kahlo came up to me through the crowd and at once began talking about Dorothy’s suicide [Dorothy Hale was a friend of both Kahlo and Luce’s].…Kahlo wasted no time suggesting that she do a recuerdo of Dorothy. I did not speak enough Spanish to understand what the word recuerdo meant….I thought Kahlo would paint a portrait of Dorothy in the style of her own self-portrait [dedicated to Trotsky][see above], which I bought in Mexico….

Suddenly it came to me that a portrait of Dorothy by a famous painter friend might be something [Dorothy’s] poor mother might like to have. I said so, and Kahlo thought so, too. I asked the price, Kahlo told me, and I said, ‘Go ahead. Send the portrait to me when it is finished. I will then send it on to Dorothy’s mother.’”

Dorothy Hale was a sometime actress, Ziegfeld showgirl, and socialite. Hale’s life had gone downhill seven years earlier after her husband Gardner Hale was killed when his car drove off a 500 foot cliff in Santa Maria, California. Hale’s career as an actress was drying up; she was failing her screen tests. She was in severe financial trouble and living on charity from friends.  On October 20, 1938, Hale assembled her close friends for a party at her New York apartment and announced that she was taking a long trip. The farewell party lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Hale stayed up writing good-bye letters to her friends and drinking the last of the vodka. A little before  6 a.m. on the 21st,  Hale put on her black velvet dress and pinned on it a corsage of small yellow roses sent to her by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. She then climbed onto the windowsill of her luxury high-rise apartment suite and jumped to her death.

"The Suicide of Dorothy Hale" by Frida Kahlo, 1938/39

“The Suicide of Dorothy Hale” by Frida Kahlo, 1938/39

From the encounter between Luce and Kahlo at the gallery exhibit arose one of Frida Kahlo’s most shocking and controversial paintings, “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale” (1938/39). Kahlo painted Dorothy Hale as she jumped, fell, and landed, dead and bloody, on the concrete walk outside her apartment building. Blood-red lettering at the bottom of the retablo details the tragedy in Spanish:

“In New York City on the 21st of October 1938, at 6:00 in the morning, Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself from a very high window in the Hampshire House. In her memory, this portrait was executed by Frida Kahlo.”

Luce recalls the horror she felt when the painting was delivered to her home and she first laid eyes on it.

“[W]hen I pulled the painting out of the crate…I felt really physically sick. What was I going to do with this gruesome painting of the smashed corpse of my friend, and her blood dripping down all over the frame? I could not return it – across the top of the painting there was an angel waving an unfurled banner which proclaimed in Spanish that this was ‘The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, painted at the request of Clare Boothe Luce, for the mother of Dorothy’. I would not have requested such a gory picture of my worst enemy, much less of my unfortunate friend.”

Luce wanted to have the painting destroyed, but was dissuaded by friends. Instead, she had sculptor and friend Noguchi paint over the angel with the banner and gave the painting to a friend.

Luce couldn’t have known at the time that Kahlo was in a desperate state of mind as she always was when she was afraid of losing Diego. At the time she painted “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale,” Kahlo herself was having repeated thoughts of committing suicide.

READERS: For more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

For more on Dorothy Hale, read my post, “Dorothy Hale and the Dymaxion Car.”

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