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.
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.
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.
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.”