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  • Gavin Whitehead

The Blue House Blues: Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, and Diego Rivera at the Casa Azul (S2BE2)

Updated: Sep 27, 2023


Thanks to the efforts of renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky gained political asylum in Mexico. In early 1937, the Russian revolutionary moved in with the painter and his wife, Frida Kahlo, at the Blue House on the outskirts of the Mexican capital. A torrid drama ensued, in which Trotsky betrayed his benefactor, at great risk to his own safety.



Above: 1937 self-portrait of Frida Kahlo, dedicated to Leon Trotsky. Held by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C.

 

SHOW NOTES


Man at the Crossroads by Diego Rivera. (Technically, this version of the painting is titled Man, Controller of the Universe.) Trotsky and other Communist notables can be seen in the lower right-hand corner of the composition, holding a red flag.


Trotsky in exile. The Russian revolutionary stands in the center of the photograph. Frida Kahlo can be seen on the left, with Diego Rivera positioned behind her.


Henry Ford Hospital by Frida Kahlo. Painted in 1932 and held by the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico City.


From left to right: Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and French surrealistAndré Breton. This undated photograph was taken shortly before the falling-out between Trotsky and Rivera.


 

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY


---van Haijenoort, Jean. With Trotsky in Exile: From Prinkipo to Coyocán. Cambridge; London: Harvard University Press, 1971.

---Patenaude, Bertrand M. Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary. New York: Harper, 2009.

 

TRANSCRIPT


At one point in time, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera numbered among Leon Trotsky’s most ardent adherents—he even painted the Russian revolutionary into one of his masterpieces. Usually referred to as Man at the Crossroads and displayed at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, this richly symbolic mural depicts various social and scientific facets of modern life. The world of the painting revolves around proletarian labor and ever-more sophisticated technologies. In the center of the composition, a workman operates machinery, his right hand squeezing a lever. In front of this laborer and about level with his chest, a disembodied fist clutches an aqua-blue globe, a cell with a see-through membrane. Two long ellipses, shaped like individual propellor blades, form a letter “X,” crossing each other behind the worker and extending outward toward the corners of the picture. Rivera painted a blazing sun inside one of these bladelike figures, subatomic particles in another. Together, they represent the discoveries made possible by the advent of the telescope as well as the microscope. Yet such technology does not always serve the common good, partly because society is divided into benevolent and malign factions. On the left side of the mural, fashionable ladies play cards, blissfully oblivious to the world’s ills. Above them, soldiers wear gas marks, brandish machine guns, and prepare for war. The right-hand side offers a counterpoint to this complacency and violence. In the lower corner, a group of prominent Communists raise a red flag, leading the masses in a May Day rally. They herald the birth of a socialist utopia. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are in the glorious cohort. Joining these giants of revolutionary history is Trotsky himself, unmistakable with his round spectacles and pointed goatee, clearly an agent of social progress.


Rivera painted Man at the Crossroads in 1933. Then, in December 1936, he singlehandedly brokered asylum for Trotsky in Mexico, after which the exile moved in with Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo.


In a sense, Kahlo painted Trotsky into one of her pictures, too. On his fifty-eighth birthday, she gave him a self-portrait as a gift. In the painting, a thirty-year-old Kahlo stands in front of an olive-green background, flanked by white curtains and tastefully attired in an embroidered dress and a fringed shawl. Her black hair is tied in a bun and adorned with red ribbons and a purple carnation. Her eyes peer out from underneath thick eyelashes shaped like batwings. Sensuous and red, her lipstick marches her fingernail polish. In her hands, she holds a bouquet of flowers along with a letter, inscribed with elegant cursive: “For Leon Trotsky with all love I dedicate this painting on the 7th of November, 1937, Frida Kahlo in San Angel, Mexico.”


Taken together, Man at the Crossroads and Kahlo’s self-portrait would seem to imply that husband and wife had nothing but respect and affection for Trotsky. This impression is far from the truth. In episode 1 of this season, we skipped over a dramatic chapter in Trotsky’s biography, during which he stayed with Rivera and Kahlo at la Casa Azul (or the Blue House) in the Mexican neighborhood of Coyocán. We did so to fast forward to the midnight siege on the émigré’s villa, led by muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Now it’s time to fill in the gap. Today, we’ll hear how Rivera secured Trotsky a sanctuary in Mexico, how the Russian betrayed his benefactor, and how their friendship fell apart. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to buns episode 2 of Assassins . . .


The Blue House Blues: Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, and Diego Rivera at the Caza Azul


From Communist to Trotskyist


Born on December 8, 1886, Diego Rivera rose to the top of the Mexican art world in 1923. That year, he started painting frescos at Mexico’s Ministry of Education building. Inside the Ministry’s gigantic courtyard, surrounded by walkways with arches on all sides, Rivera painted images of the Mexican people at work and at play, also paying attention to native landscapes. He mounted his scaffold at dawn each day and labored until dusk, soon winning international esteem. Crowds of onlookers flocked to the Ministry to watch Rivera in action. One of these observers, Bertram Wolfe, later became the painter’s friend and biographer. Wolfe characterized his subject as a “bulky, genial, slow-moving, frog-faced man in weather-worn overalls, huge Stetson hat, cartridge belt, large pistol, vast paint-and-plaster-stained shoes.” After five years of relentless work, Rivera completed 235 distinct fresco panels, spread across 15,000 square feet.


While occupied with this enormous open-air fresco gallery, Rivera gained membership in the Mexican Communist Party. Though at first a leading figure in the organization, he eventually ran afoul of his comrades. As Rivera accepted more and more private commissions from big-money donors, he looked more and more like a capitalist fat-cat to his Marxist brethren, what his critics called a “millionaire artist for the establishment.” In 1929, the Mexican Communist Party finally expelled him on arbitrary grounds. Outraged, Rivera did what he knew would rankle the Stalin-aligned political group: he declared himself a Trotskyist.


Seven years later, in 1936, he certainly proved his Trotskyist credentials. At the time, Trotsky was languishing in a Norwegian jail thanks to diplomatic pressure applied by the Soviets. No European nation would have him within its borders. The prisoner’s U.S. allies contacted Rivera and requested that he in turn contact Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas about the possibility of extending asylum to Trotsky. Mexico had weathered a decade of revolutionary upheaval from about 1910-20, and it was hoped among Trotsky’s U.S. partisans that Mexico would open its arms to the Bolshevik upstart. By now, Rivera had amassed enough influence to obtain a private audience with President Cárdenas. When the two met, Rivera went above and beyond what was asked of him, petitioning for Trotsky’s sanctuary in his own name. Much to the muralist’s surprise, the leader granted his request, with the stipulation that Trotsky steer clear of Mexican politics while staying in the country.


Just weeks before Trotsky’s arrival, Rivera and Kahlo went to eat at Mexico City’s Restaurant Acapulco when four gunmen walked up to their table and started an argument. It became clear that this fight would culminate in Rivera’s assassination. The rationale for seeking his life is uncertain, but it likely had to do with his support of Trotsky. Just as sharp words were about to turn to gunfire, Kahlo sprang between the hit men and her husband and denounced them as cowards, drawing attention. Flustered, the aggressors retreated. Kahlo felt queasy with fear after the showdown, but her intervention had almost certainly saved Rivera’s life.


In January 1937, Rivera and Kahlo welcomed Leon and his wife, Natalia Sidova, into their Coyocán home, la Casa Azul, the Blue House. It bears this name for a reason. I happen to have toured the site, now the Frida Kahlo Museum, and it is painted the most shocking hue of cobalt-blue I have ever seen. Make sure to check out the Blue House online, but know that a photograph cannot capture the impact of seeing it in person. If ever you’re considering a trip to Mexico City, I highly recommend a visit. Anyway, the house was two stories and contained several bedrooms and studios, along with a large kitchen. Like other residences in the area, a sun-drenched patio stood at the center of the property, complete with a lush garden.


Beautiful as it was, the Blue House was far from a semitropical paradise. To begin with, it could hardly accommodate the Trotskys along with the various helpers who joined them there. Then there was the problem of home security. The Blue House was by no means a fortress, and Trotsky’s followers worried that Stalinist assassins might storm the property with machine guns and easily fell their target, along with anyone else who strayed into the line of fire. The night of Trotsky and Natalia’s arrival in Mexico, Rivera took security measures into his own hands, retrieving a Thompson submachine gun from his personal arsenal. Rivera had carried firearms for years, but he had recently expanded his collection due to the bungled attempt on his life a few weeks earlier.


The Frida Affair


In the early summer of 1937, Rivera hopped in an automobile and tooled off to the countryside to paint by himself for the next few months. Soon thereafter, Trotsky jumped into bed with his wife.


Frida Kahlo had many charms. The daughter of a German-Jewish immigrant father and a Mexican mother, she embodied a certain exoticism to the Russian. In addition to her beauty, she was blessed with a fierce intellect and a delectably scurrilous sense of humor. According to an American friend of her and her husband, the mistress of la Caza Azul had accumulated “the richest vocabulary of obscenities I have ever known one of her sex to possess.” Adding to her impressive character was her unflagging resilience. Stricken with polio at age six, she had grown up with a withered right leg. In 1925, aged eighteen, she narrowly survived a tram accident that gravely damaged her pelvis, spine, and right foot. These injuries plus the multiple surgeries meant to treat them left Kahlo in almost unceasing pain. As part of her treatment, in the last ten years of her life, she went through a succession of twenty-eight orthopedic corsets.


A lifelong admirer of the arts, Trotsky appreciated Kahlo’s painting, too. When the two met, she had yet to win widespread recognition as an artist—many simply thought of her as Mrs. Rivera. She began painting seriously while bedridden, convalescing after that catastrophic traffic wreck in 1925. In 1932, five years before she hosted Trotsky in her home, Kahlo brought forth her breakout picture, Henry Ford Hospital. That year, while living in Detroit with Rivera, Kahlo delivered a dead male fetus at the titular hospital. Earlier, she had sought an abortion, concerned about her ability to bring the baby to term on account of her medical history as well as about whether Rivera would prove reliable as a father. In the surreal self-portrait, painted with oil on a metal canvas, Kahlo lies in a levitating hospital bed, naked, her breasts and pubic hair exposed, tears streaming down her face. The section of the mattress underneath her midsection is red with blood. A half dozen tethers evocative of umbilical cords extend from her body, connecting her to six symbolic totems, three of them above the bed and as many below. One of these is the fetus itself, central in the frame, scarlet in hue, and almost alien with its pointed, hairless head, elongated torso, and thin, little legs. Other imagery in the painting is more opaque, such as the purple snail floating to the right of the fetus, “a private allusive reference,” according to scholars D. Lomas and R. Howell. Poignant and intensely personal, Henry Ford Hospital is a rare study in reproductive bereavement. As Kahlo gained international attention, her disabilities and chronic ill health would remain intimately entwined with her artistic output.


Despite living in nearly constant physical discomfort, Kahlo demonstrated both vivacity and stamina when it came to bedroom capers. Most of what we know about the Trotsky-Kahlo affair derives from Jean van Heijenoort’s 1978 memoir, With Trotsky in Exile: From Prinkipo to Coyocán. Nicknamed Van, the memoirist served as the revolutionary’s personal secretary and archivist, bearing witness to many of his boss’s trials, tribulations, and sexual indiscretions while in Mexico. According to Van, Kahlo articulated her view on life as “‘Make love, take a bath, make love again.’” As Trotsky’s biographer Bertrand M. Patenaude points out, moreover, Kahlo may have readily indulged her lust because Rivera had cheated on her on multiple occasions. He had even had a fling with her sister, Cristina, two years prior to the Trotskys’ arrival. Two could play at that game, and Mr. and Mrs. Rivera certainly did.


But why make love and take baths with Trotsky? Almost twice her age, the fifty-seven-year-old may not appear the most predictable amour for the young and spirited Kahlo. Yet what he lacked in youthful vigor, he more than made up for in gravitas. This dauntless visionary had helped galvanize the October Revolution and shepherded the Red Army to victory in the ensuing civil war. In so doing, he had secured his place in history. Trotsky was also a brilliant and ferocious public speaker. Shortly before the erotic entanglement commenced, while living at the Blue House, the exile had ingeniously defended himself against spurious charges that the Soviets had leveled against him during a series of frame-up trials in Moscow. He made these rebuttals as part of the highly publicized Dewey commission, presided over by U.S. intellectual John Dewey. Simply put, Trotsky had it going on in his own way.


In any case, the lovers consummated their passion for each other at Cristina’s house, which stood a few blocks away from the Casa Azul, a setting they deemed discreet enough for their trysts.


Before long, however, the affair set off alarm bells. Yes, the adulterers enjoyed each other’s company in a secret location, but they might as well have been fooling around in the Blue House patio. Everybody knew what was going on. An awkward tension suffused the atmosphere of the Coyocán property. According to Van, “Late in June the situation became such that those close to Trotsky began to get uneasy. Natalia was suffering.” Indeed, Natalia’s misery was written on her face, legible even to perfect strangers. An American writer who visited to the Blue House described Natalia’s as “one of the saddest faces I’ve ever seen.” Yet there was more at stake than Trotsky’s marriage. After all, he was cuckolding Rivera, his sponsor and friend. Rivera was ignorant of his wife’s infidelity at the time, and he may have never found out about it. If he did discover the truth, however, he could cause serious problems for the displaced Russians. He could evict Trotsky from the Blue House, in which case he would need to find new digs—and fast. Or Rivera could threaten—and perhaps even commit—physical violence against him. Kahlo knew from past experience that her husband’s jealousy could lead to brazen acts of intimidation. In 1935, she had cheated on him with a Japanese-American sculptor. Rivera discovered one of his socks at Kahlo’s house and went berserk. According to the sculptor, “Diego came by with a gun. He always carried a gun. The second time he displayed his gun to me was in the hospital. Frida was ill for some reason, and I went there, and he showed me his gun and said: ‘Next time I see you, I’m going to shoot you!’” Finally, Trotsky’s associates worried that word of the liaison could leak out around the Mexican capital and cause a scandal, potentially inflaming the Mexican Communist Party more than the presence of Stalin’s arch-nemesis in town already had. Who could predict what that might lead to?


By July 7, Trotsky could no longer stand it at the Blue House, so toxic had the air grown in the past four or five weeks. That day, Leon left Coyocán for an hacienda owned by a friend of Rivera’s, situated approximately eighty miles northeast of Mexico City. Trotsky’s ill health supplied a pretext for this change of scenery—a countryside sojourn would prove recuperative, he maintained. Four days after his departure, on July 11, Kahlo made the four-hour drive to the plantation, accompanied by Rivera’s brother-in-law from his first marriage, a medical man, lending the trip a sense of propriety. They were just going to check up on the ailing man’s wellbeing. Little is known about what transpired upon Kahlo’s arrival at the hacienda. However, from Van’s perspective, the two must have agreed to end the romance. The memoirist writes, “Now, in view of the circumstances, it was impossible for them to go further without committing themselves completely. The stakes were too high. The partners drew back.” Later, Kahlo reportedly complained that she had grown “tired of the old man,” perhaps suggesting that she no longer pined for her paramour. Whatever the case, after this rain-soaked hacienda daytrip, the summer liaison fizzled out. Within about a year, Leon and Natalia had reconciled, though not without considerable heartache.


Farewell to the Blue House


In the fall of 1938, however, Trotsky grappled with a new conundrum: his host was starting to get on his nerves.


Trotsky had respected Rivera’s painting long before the two met. The war commissar of the Red Army saw in the muralist’s work an intrinsically Mexican sensibility. At the same time, Trotsky argued, Rivera’s creativity sprang from a revolutionary fervor that aligned him with the October uprising of 1917. According to Trotsky, Rivera “remained Mexican in the most profound fibers of his genius. But that which inspired him in those magnificent frescos, which lifted him above the artistic tradition, above contemporary art, in a certain sense above himself, is the mighty blast of the proletarian revolution. Without October, his power of creative penetration into the epic of work, oppression, and insurrection would never have attained such breadth and profundity.”


After taking up residence at the Blue House, Trotsky became more than a fan of Rivera; he counted him as a friend. In Van’s estimation, the refugee conversed with Rivera with greater warmth than with any other member of the household. The muralist became the only outsider who could show up at the domicile, unannounced, and while Trotsky typically insisted that a third party (often Van) be present whenever someone wished to speak with him, the Russian made an exception for Rivera. Trotsky clearly trusted the painter.


As Patenaude notes in his biography of the exile, contrasting personalities had achieved unexpected harmony. Patenaude offers this evocative though unflattering juxtaposition: “the rigid, prickly, angular Trotsky and the reckless, riotous, gargantuan Diego. The lion and the elephant.” Rivera saw no need for bathing regularly and seldom turned up to appointments on time. Trotsky, in contrast, was more of a neat-freak and a stickler for routine. It must not have surprised some observers when the two began to clash.


Part of the problem lay in Rivera’s wish to prove his loyalty to Trotsky, which occasionally backfired. Van recounts an embarrassing misstep that sprang from Rivera’s impish sense of humor. On November 2, 1938, the muralist stopped by at the Blue House, “[l]ooking as mischievous as an art student who has pulled some prank.” Mexico was celebrating the Day of the Dead, a national holiday, and in a festive spirit, Rivera created a skull sculpted from purple sugar. Written on the forehead in white powder was supposedly the name of its owner: “Stalin.” Rivera’s darkly comic confection did not amuse Trotsky, who refused to acknowledge it while the two exchanged pleasantries. As soon as Rivera left, the Russian instructed Van to destroy the macabre offering.


At the same time, much of the issue stemmed from the fickleness of Rivera’s politics. One day, Van remembers, the painter would proclaim his desire to become secretary of the Mexican Trotskyists, “though he was the least gifted person in the world to serve as secretary of anything whatsoever.” The next, he would declare his wish to leave the group entirely so that he could dedicate himself to painting. This continuous flip-flopping irritated Trotsky. He grumbled to an associate, “A tremendous impulsiveness, a lack of self-control, an inflammable imagination, and an extreme capriciousness—such are the features of Rivera’s character.”


After weeks of strain, the friendship collapsed on account of two squabbles. The first came about because Rivera wanted to write a letter to French surrealist André Breton. At his house in San Angel, Mexico, the painter dictated the missive to Van, who occasionally pulled double duty as Rivera’s stenographer. In this letter, Rivera criticized Trotsky’s “methods.” The Russian became aware of his sponsor’s critique and requested revisions. Rivera refused, enraging Trotsky. After this spat, the presidential election of 1938 led to yet another acrid disagreement. Trotsky reached out to Kahlo for support, but she sided with her husband.


By January 1939, the Russian immigrant could no longer put up with Rivera and could thus no longer rely on his hospitality. He, Natalia, and the rest of their team vacated the Blue House and moved to a villa on Avenida Viena, where Trotsky would suffer a mortal blow to the head on August 20, 1940, at the hands of his assassin, Ramón Mercader.


Years later, Rivera made clear that the hard feelings were mutual. In a fine illustration of his protean politics, the muralist renounced Trotskyism and went crawling back to the Mexican Communist Party, pledging fealty to Stalin. After bearing Trotsky’s standard for years and perhaps nearly giving his life for that reason, this prodigal son would have to work overtime to win back the trust of the Communists. As Patenaude puts it, “[H]e had to perform more than the usual amount of groveling and self-criticism required on such occasions.” Rivera was notorious for shooting off his mouth and spewing hogwash to impress others, and during one application process, he made a false claim that he hoped would score points with the higher-ups. It concerned his motives for arranging political asylum for Trotsky in the first place: according to Rivera, he had lured the exile to Mexico for no other reason than to have him assassinated.


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