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Posts Tagged ‘Leon Trotsky in Mexico’

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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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 Claire 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 Gardiner 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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