From Abby Aldritch Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family.
By Bernice Kert. New York: Random House. 1993. 346-365.
Diego Rivera and his oeuvre became known to Abby through Frances Flynn Paine, one of the many unusual women who intersected her life in crucial ways. Professor Charles Richards, director of the Division of Industrial Arts of the General Education Board, described her as "a woman of ... quiet power and resolution, with a fine mind . . . a perfect knowledge of Spanish, [and] unusual insight into the Mexican crafts and into the character of the Mexican Indian."
Born in Laredo, Texas, Frances had spent most of her early days in Mexico, where her father was superintendent of railways and for a time, acted as American consul. As he traveled to remote parts of the country, his daughter accompanied him, acquiring a deep knowledge and appreciation of Indian arts.
In recommending her to Thomas Appleget for a Rockefeller Foundation grant, Richards wrote in 1928: "The Indians are distrustful not only of the American government but of American business methods. They consider Mrs. Paine one of their own. It is believed that in a few years Mexican and American industry will both make increasing use not only of the materials but of the art forms. As far as friendship between America and Mexico is concerned, the project is small but undoubtedly sound as a factor in strengthening the mutual appreciation and helpfulness which underlie any lasting international relations."
Appleget, a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, brought the grant proposal to John's attention. "In view of the fact ... that you have been greatly interested in Indian Art, and in further view of the fact that Mrs. Rockefeller herself made considerable purchases at the last Mexican exhibit at the Art Center, we feel obliged to refer this request to you." Two weeks later, Appleget informed Ms. Paine that Mr. Rockefeller was authorizing the foundation to pay her $15,000 over a period of three years to be used for her traveling expenses and other contingent costs.
Frances now set out to solve some of the pressing needs of the artisans: the formation of a craft guild in Mexico to which the Indians could belong and from which they could obtain small advances for raw materials; people from the guild who spoke their language to assist them with packing, shipping, etc.; and an expert on ceramics to test the clays and suggest a process for making the pottery durable. (Abby ordered from the guild pottery and other items for the Playhouse.) In one of the shipments an Indian ceramist, Pedro Padierna, sent two plates for Senior with a bust of his image on them. Frances explained that the Indians of Mexico respected two Americans-Dwight Morrow, the enlightened ambassador, and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., because of the good work of the foundation.
In 1929, at the same time that she was founding MoMA, Abby had joined Frances in organizing a nonprofit corporation to promote friendship between the people of Mexico and the United States by encouraging cultural relations and the interchange of fine and applied arts. Elizabeth Morrow, wife of the ambassador, served with Abby on the board of directors, along with Frederick P. Keppel of the Carnegie Foundation, Appleget of the Rockefeller Foundation, Winthrop Aldrich as president, Frank Crowinshield from MoMA, and others. Abby was becoming increasingly admiring of Frances Paine. "[She] seems to be doing an enormous amount of work with very little backing, thru her own sheer ability," she wrote her brother.
Alfred, Jere Abbott, and Frances Paine planned the details for the Diego Rivera Exhibition, which opened at MoMA 0n December 23, 1931. Frances tried t0 convey t0 Abby something 0f the political climate 0f Mexico as it related t0 artists such as Rivera. "In 1928 I told Dr. Richards that I felt sure that most Mexican artists, though `Reds' would cease t0 be `Reds' if we could get them artistic recognition. [At that time] Diego was the most powerful `Red' in Latin America. . . . In 1929, with Dr. Richards' help, the American Institute 0f Architects became aware 0f his painting and awarded him their highest honor. In 1930 he was expelled from the Red Ranks, and a few months later accepted a commission from Mr. Morrow for a mural in Cuernavaca. Yet he still is, sincerely and intensely for 'the peopla' but one can now reason with him and from that viewpoint much can be hoped."
Such a notion was overly sanguine, perhaps--the idea that reason would prevail with someone as flamboyant and controversial, as fond of distortion, as Rivera, an unpredictable giant 0f a man. Most 0f what was written about him seemed to have originated in his own fertile imagination, "an endless labyrinth of tales," in the words 0f his biographer Bertram Wolfe. But a few facts are incontrovertible. A champion of the worker, he was born into an upper-middle-class family with a trace 0f aristocracy. Although he idealized Mexico's Aztec heritage, he was himself only one-quarter Indian, the other three-quarters being Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese-Jewish. As Paine suggested, he was in and out 0f favor with the Communist Party of Mexico throughout his life. One year it might expel him, the next year embrace him. Neither stern ideology nor the objective evidence of history had any appeal for him. He was an exuberant and tireless artist, a lover and user 0f women, a prankster, a propagandist. "To be in the midst of some uproarious disturbance is Rivera's idea 0f heaven," Geoffrey Hellman wrote in the New Yorker in 1933 when commotion raged all about him.
By the 1930s, Rivera was considered the great muralist 0f the Western world, but he had arrived at that exalted position only after thirty years 0f artistic experimentation and many detours. He had been a child prodigy; thanks to his father he had received a sound art training with plenty of freedom. He studied in Spain, in England, and in France, becoming a feverish worshiper of Cezanne's paintings, then a disciple of Picasso, devouring his cubist phase. The detours away from art were political; he was a Marxist, a Communist, a Trotskyite, a homegrown Mexican rebel.
The revolutionary spirit that erupted in the wake of the World War of 1914-1918 inspired Rivera, not only politically, but also in his art. Cubism seemed too intellectual, too sophisticated. He began to see murals as a way of nourishing the spirit of the masses. He went to Italy in 1920, saw the frescoes of Giotto, and made over four hundred sketches. Between 1921 and 1927 he painted 184 frescoes in the patios of the Ministry of Education Building in Mexico City, portraying common people and their labors, showing agriculture enslaved by clericalism, militarism, and capitalism. This was the series that made his name famous and the Mexican art movement famous as well. In 1927, at the urging of his Communist friends, he went to Moscow to attend the tenth anniversary of the inauguration of the Russian Revolution.
"From his place on the reviewing stand against the old Kremlin wall, he watched the Red Army file through the historic Red Square... With greedy eyes he watched, notebook in hand, sketching as well on the tablets of his tenacious brain," Wolfe wrote, "saw the surging seas of crimson banners, spirited horses rearing ... caught the rattle of wheel and streak of moving line as horse-drawn artillery flashed by at full gallop, the cubic pattern of trucks loaded with riflemen, solid squares of marching infantry, then the vast banner-plumed, float-bearing serpentine line of the masses of men and women marching until nightfall through the square. All this he noted in forty-five watercolor sketches and innumerable penciled notes, out of which he hoped to build murals for Russian walls."
But the walls never materialized. A year of Soviet bureaucratic bickering held up the necessary go-ahead. Diego's artistic integrity was offended by the banality of Russian socialist realism and the unhappy knowledge that some of the most talented Russians were fleeing Soviet censorship. He returned to Mexico to be attacked as bourgeois and expelled from the party under circumstances that were both wounding and bitter. Wolfe, who was Diego's friend and a former Communist himself, wished that after expelling him they had at least left him alone to paint. Instead they carried on a noisy campaign against him.
On July 14, 1931, Frances Paine wired Abby from Mexico City that Rivera was offering a set of forty-five watercolors, the artistic product of his May Day experience, for $3,000, though in her opinion he would accept $2,500, provided the set was not broken up. On July 28, Abby wired $2,500 to the Bank of Montreal in Mexico City earmarked for Paine, who now was acting as Rivera's agent. By the end of the year, according to her art account, Abby had paid Rivera a total of $9,002.50. This would include payment for the watercolors, as well as nine oils and drawings and several mural studies. Such a sum was critical for Diego; it financed the expenses he incurred when he agreed to come to New York to create seven new frescoes, constructed on movable steel frames, for the exhibition at MoMA. And it established Abby as a major Rivera collector.
Abby responded positively to the distinctive radiance of Rivera's mature easel works, notable for their absence of political propaganda. Even his May Day sketches evoke a people's mood and a dramatic scene as much as partisan ideology. Her appreciation of folk art, with its artlessness and simplicity, may very well have prepared her for Rivera. The directness of his images, the warm, glowing colors, the strong plastic sense, the ease that cubism had brought him in his arbitrary use of form-all these characteristics permitted her to forgive the propaganda.
Abby was not the only patron of Rivera among major American families. His network was beginning to stretch across the nation. After the American Institute of Architects awarded him the Fine Arts Gold Medal, Diego was invited to San Francisco to paint a fresco at the California School of Fine Arts. The sculptor Ralph Stackpole arranged a commission for him to do a wall in the luncheon club of the local stock exchange. He was lionized and feted by artists, politicians, socialites, and financiers. His twenty-yearold third wife (Diego was then forty-four), the self-dramatizing, intense Frida Kahlo, striking in her embroidered Mexican blouses and ruffled skirts with the ribbons and jewels woven into her braids, charmed everyone. (In 1937, Frida dropped the Nordic "e" in her name as a protest against the Nazis.) Several wealthy, prominent Bay Area collectors bought his works and commissioned him to decorate their private residences.
In December 1930, William Valentiner was in San Francisco. He wrote in his autobiography that he met Rivera through Helen Wills, the famous tennis player. "Her little green Cadillac was overflowing when it stopped for me, jammed in the rumble seat I saw a strange-looking, heavy-set man, wearing a black serape and a large Mexican hat.... Rivera's wife ... wore a large reboso [rebozo shawl], a white veil over her forehead, a red rose in her hair.... She was natural and direct, and her unfailing artistic intuition was very helpful to Diego. She did small paintings on silver... that showed a curious imagination."
Valentiner persuaded his friend and patron Edsel Ford to commission two large Rivera frescoes for the courtyard of the Detroit Museum. But first Diego and Frida went to New York to prepare the MoMA exhibition.
During the months that Rivera was working at MoMA, Abby became something of a friend to him as well as a major patron. She saw another side to him-the unexpected gentleness in the midst of explosive talent, the wit and the charm. David remembers both Diego and Frida coming to the house. "The whole family liked him," David said. "He was a likable fellow." Nelson and Tod became friends as well. Abby commissioned him to make a drawing of Babs and arranged for him to store his movable frescoes in her garage after his show was dismantled.
She watched over Frida in the way that a warmhearted mature woman would watch over a young person of unusual courage. As a bold, streetwise teenager, Frida had been badly injured in a bus accident. She suffered spinal injuries, a triple fracture of the pelvis, and a crushed foot. After a year encased in plaster, strapped to a board, able to move nothing but her hands, she then endured a series of fruitless surgical procedures. Scorning sympathy, she ignored her disability, invited danger, and found an outlet in her self-revelatory paintings. Abby had other reasons for feeling protective of Frida. Diego was a well-known philanderer, and Frida, in spite of the long insults to her poor body, was trying to become pregnant.
On January 22, 1932, Frida wrote Abby from her hotel room at the Barbizon-Plaza, thanking her for the book and the flowers. Her doctor had ordered her to bed. "After this eight days indoors," she wrote, "I am very ugly and thin.... Diego sends his love to you. Many kisses from Frieda Rivera. Pleaze excuse my terrible English."" A few days later she wrote again. "[Diego] misses very much your daughter's baby [little Abby Milton] and he told me he loves her more than me.... He is very glad that you and Mr. Rockefeller liked his drawing of Mrs. Milton and he thanks you." Nothing relaxed Abby more than good, lively art talk, which Diego supplied in abundance when he showed up. She described such an occasion in a letter to Laurance. "Thursday I had Nelson, 4 architects, Rivera & Babs & Mrs. Paine for lunch. We had an amusing and I hope worthwhile discussion. My plea was for the life we are living in the wall painting of today. We even talked of Peter Arno [the cartoonist]."
The catalyst for such a discussion was the possibility of a Rivera mural at Rockefeller Center. Abby had been involved in decisions about Rockefeller Center from the beginning, in the same way that she had been involved in the resolution of the Ludlow tragedy, the cleanup of Yellowstone, the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, and John's other major projects and problems.
In the words of Paul Goldberger, writing in the New York Times in 1988, Rockefeller Center is "not just a cluster of buildings in New York City; it is a national symbol of distinguished corporate design, far and away the finest groupings of skyscrapers ever built, the model for dozens of complexes around the world ... [no one of which] has come up to its quality." That aspect of Rockefeller Center which concerned Abby the most--its art and architecture--has been, in other words, what distinguished it from other commercial projects. If the court of last resort, to quote Fosdick, was John--his final approval was required for all matters relating to exteriors, elevations, the relations of masses, foyers, sculpture, and murals--John's "last resort" was Abby.
The feeling on the part of family members and outside observers alike is that Abby had an effect on everything she touched. One nephew, Richard Aldrich, called it giving direction to the Rockefeller projects. Alexander Aldrich, a great-nephew, feels that a major portion of the creative and public-spirited drive found in the Rockefellers of his generation is traceable to her. Wallace Harrison, the architect who worked with the Rockefeller Center team and later was the principal architect of both the United Nations complex and Lincoln Center, believed Abby to be one of the most creative women he had ever known. William Valentiner, regarded by John as an honest, trustworthy adviser, has stated unequivocally that "the influence she exerted on the architecture and decoration of Rockefeller Center in the encouragement of artists, collectors and museum workers is equal in importance to the accomplishments in the sixteenth century of women like Margarita of Austria, the great patroness of arts and letters, and Isabella d'Este, the friend and supporter of the chief artists of her period."
When John asked George Vincent, the urbane former president of the Rockefeller Foundation and a man known for a strong measure of common sense, to reflect upon the various schemes for the decoration of Rockefeller Center, he was "plunged into futility. ... The more I ponder the subject," he wrote, "the more I find myself in agreement with Mrs. J.D.R., Jr." What exactly they were in agreement on is not known. All that seems clear is that Abby was a principal in the discussions. In June 1932, Donald Deskey received the commission to design the interior of Radio City Music Hall--thirty lobby areas, smoking rooms, retiring rooms, foyers, and lounges. In less than six months he created an Art Deco masterpiece, valued even today as a high point in such design. Deskey was Abby's designer of choice; John had had an opportunity to observe him when he was working on her seventh-floor gallery.
Deskey believed that sculpture and wall paintings by major artists should be integrated with the space. For that he turned to another member of Abby's network-Edith Halpert. Halpert did a brilliant job of persuading her artists--Robert Laurent, William Zorach, Stuart Davis, Yasuo Kuniyoshi--as well as some women whom she did not personally represent to offer their talent for meager rewards. The budget for art in the Music Hall was so stringent that for a while it looked as though it might be eliminated altogether. According to Deskey's biographer, the Rockefellers and the architects intervened, but only to the limit of $1,500 per installation.
Money was not the only problem. Two weeks before the formal opening, in December 1932, a quarrel erupted over William Zorach's Dancing Girl and Gwen Lux's Eye, both nude sculpture. The matter was resolved, however, and the integrated interior to which they belong enjoys universal praise. Rockefeller Center's patronage of art projects was a reality.
The selection of American artists to decorate Deskey's Music Hall interiors, despite a few such touchy incidents, proved to be a fairly straightforward process. But the negotiations with Diego Rivera to execute a mural at the most conspicuous interior site in the whole center--the huge interior wall facing the plaza entrance of the RCA Building--were protracted and often precarious. They began in the winter at MoMA, continued over such luncheons as had taken place with Abby and Nelson, and were building momentum as the Riveras prepared to leave for Detroit, where Diego would commence work on the murals commissioned by Edsel Ford. The architects first proposed a competition among Picasso, Matisse, and Rivera himself, which proved unworkable for obvious reasons. International superstars are not interested in competitions. Diego explained his position in French to Raymond Hood, the most creative of the architects. "I thank you," he wrote on May 9. "Ten years ago I would have accepted your kind invitation with pleasure...but since then... I am known enough to ask of each one who wants my work that he ask for it on my value. One can always have me make a sketch and take it or leave it, naturally, but no 'competition'--I am no more at that point."
Hood was ready to drop Rivera, but Nelson, an executive vice president for Rockefeller Center, intervened, and Abby backed him up. It now seemed assumed that Rivera would do the mural, even though arguments dragged on during the summer between architect and artist over Rivera's demands. Such demands were entirely sensible, according to his experience--that he be permitted to use color (only black, gray, and white had been specified) and that he do fresco in place of a canvas mural. Always it was Nelson who defended Diego, Nelson, with his diplomacy and charm and passionate love of art.
In Detroit, Rivera began to work on a Rockefeller sketch. In Paris, Hood was trying to see Picasso and Matisse about doing murals along the side walls that would flank a Rivera. Picasso was nowhere to be found. Letters and telegrams had been sent ahead, and his dealers were, of course, very anxious to locate him, but everywhere it was the same story. "He is a whimsical fellow," Hood wrote, "who often goes away from time to time leaving no trace of himself."
The hope that Matisse might be interested sprang from the fact of his friendship with Abby. But he declined, very graciously and respectfully. He was already committed to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and had reservations about his work being suitable for such a large, bustling public environment. Later he wrote to Abby, "For a long time I wished to express my regrets at not accepting the offer made to me by Mr. Hood.... As you know, my method of work is not rapid, and the harmony of line and color which are personal to me, as well as the heaviness of my work, caused my feelings to develop slowly. Mr. Hood has made known to me the special interest which you have in my painting... I was happy ... to assure him that it would give me the greatest pleasure to execute the work you have requested if the architects assign me a place in sympathy with my painting, and accord the time necessary for the execution of a work which would fully satisfy me."
Hood went on to complete arrangements with the Spaniard Jose Maria Sert and the Englishman Frank Brangwyn for the side murals. Rivera made a fuss about that too, having only contempt for the work of both. But Nelson seemed to pacify him there as well. And on October 13, 1932, he wrote Rivera that Hood and Harrison now agreed that he could use some color in his mural. "May I take this opportunity," he added, "to again tell you how much my mother and I appreciate your spirit in doing this mural under the existing circumstances. Please let me know when your frescoes in Detroit are finished so that we can arrange to come up and see them. Everybody is terribly anxious to see how you have interpreted the industrial life of Detroit."
Diego was having a glorious time interpreting the industrial life of Detroit. His fascination with technology was eclipsed only by his emotional identification with the workers who could be exploited by it. As his fears and his hopes collided, in the end he gave the city an entire history of scientific progress, contrasting the benefits with the evils--preventive medicine versus poison gas, passenger planes versus bombs. The usual controversies swirled about him. Church functionaries attacked him for a so-called Nativity scene in which a child is being vaccinated with serum made from the blood of cows and horses shown in the foreground. Local artists resented a foreigner being given the commission. Competing auto tycoons were angry that the Ford plant was enjoying the publicity.
Standing by Rivera's side throughout the controversy was Edsel Ford himself. Abby and Ford had become friends as neighbors on Mount Desert. They shared a passion for modern art. One day he would become a trustee at MoMA. A modest, sensitive man, he protected Rivera against his antagonists, gave him extra funds as he needed them, and in the process preserved a splendid legacy for his city.
For the Riveras personally, however, it was a sad time. Frida, finally pregnant, grew pale and nauseated in the Detroit heat. On the night of July 4, she began to hemorrhage badly and by the next day had lost the baby. According to Wolfe, Diego temporarily abandoned his negligent ways to treat her with great tenderness. Frida battled her depression by going back to painting now and then, "strange, witty... fantastic" things totally unlike anything that Rivera was doing. She wrote Abby something of it over the winter. "I am painting a little bit too. Not because I consider myself an artist . . . but simply because I have nothing else to do here, and because working I can forget a little all the troubles I had last year. I am doing oils on small plates of aluminum... I made two lithographs which are absolutely rotten. If I do some others and they are better I will show them to you in New York." In 1984, in recognition of her preeminence, the Mexican government declared Kahlo's art to be a national patrimony.
On November 5, Diego sent Abby a penciled composition study (the sketch), on brown paper, for the Rockefeller Center mural painting, with a separate copy for Nelson. He inscribed Abby's copy as follows: "Avec mes hommages tres respectueux et affectueux a Madame Abby Aldrich de Rockefeller." (In 1935, Abby gave it anonymously to MoMA.) In his accompanying letter he made another fervent plea for fresco instead of canvas (the plea was granted), his argument resting on the premise that since it would occupy such a prominent place in the complex, it must be of monumental character. "I assure you that in any case," he wrote Abby, "I shall try to do for Rockefeller Center, and especially for you Madame, the best of all the work I have done to this time. Permit me to thank you now for this wonderful opportunity which you have given me and this, added to all the good things for which I owe you already in aiding my work."
Two days later Diego received a telegram from Hood indicating Nelson's approval of a written synopsis or text. In January 1933, Hood traveled to Detroit to sign off on the drawing without, according to three Rivera assistants, doing more than glancing at it. Diego then signed his contract with Rockefeller Center Inc. The fee was $21,150 to cover a space of 1,071 square feet. "You better have your lawyer see it," said Hood. Diego replied, "You signed my sketch without looking it over. You trust me. I trust you!"
If Nelson had paid close attention to Rivera's synopsis, if he had had some experience with Marxist ideology, perhaps he might not have been quite so surprised by ensuing events. The language was long-winded and only slightly less pompous than the theme suggested to Diego by Rockefeller officialdom-Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future. But Diego's vision of a "new and better future" was a Communist heaven, and read as follows: "... my panel will show the Workers arriving at a true understanding of their rights regarding the means of production which has resulted in the planning of the liquidation of Tyranny... It will also show the Workers of the cities and the country inheriting the Earth."
The sketch, on the other hand, gave no hint of political iconography, but then it had none of the imagination and excitement associated with a Rivera mural. What Hood approved was a rather static rendering of figures engaged in various states of activities--sports, science, agriculture, industry, maternity. Abby, who understood that art was a process, not a rational hypothesis, was confident that however verbose his synopsis or however sterile his drawing, when Rivera mounted the scaffold he would create something magnificent. She was right about his artistry. What she did not understand was his character. And what she could not anticipate--no one could--was that outside forces would overtake the event itself.
Over the winter, Frida continued to write Abby from Detroit. "We were very sorry to hear that you were sick, but your letter brought good news and we are so glad that you are feeling better. 1116 This was the period when Abby's doctor first sent her to bed because of the so-called nervous breakdown. Diego and Frida returned to New York in March 1933. Franklin Roosevelt had just been inaugurated. The banks were closed-the famous "bank holiday" devised by the president to restore some kind of public confidence. Long lines of the unemployed stood in breadlines, and Rockefeller Center was the only significant urban development being built in the entire nation.
On April 4, Diego's crew of assistants finally was able to prepare his wall for him. The only firsthand account of the actual creation of the mural comes from the diary of Lucienne Bloch, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of Ernest Bloch, the composer, and an artist herself. When Lucienne met Diego at a MoMA party she offered to grind his colors for him. He accepted, and she became a permanent member of his crew, both in Detroit and in New York. She recalled the first night at 3o Rockefeller Plaza when the layers of plaster were being applied for the section that Diego had marked to paint. He painted an average of thirty square feet at a time, and if the next day he did not like what he saw, the crew scraped it off and the process was repeated.
Here are two entries from Lucienne's diary:
Like schoolboys the union workmen arrive, streaming in lazily, staring at the wall, some of them very angry that a non-union man is doing this ... and all night too! [The Center had struck a deal with the Plasterers Union that Diego's workers could plaster if one union man was hired to stand by.] ... At twilight ... Diego was still painting. It represents war and fascism-airplanes, gas masks, death rays, men in green-gray, masked contraptions looking futuristic...
.... today he sure loosened up! He's on the right side of the wall painting communism, with women in kerchiefs singing, and red flags all over-and they're RED.... Diego had been expelled from the Communist party three years earlier for refusing to toe the line. He wanted desperately to return to the fold, but on his own terms, so it is to prove to them that he is not afraid of any capitalists that he paints the Moscow May Day with gusto and with plenty of Venetian red.
By April 10 he was back on the fascist side. Weird tones of red and orange represented the germs of syphilis, gonorrhea, and other such evils of capitalism. With the end of Prohibition, Lucienne's sister was able to bring beer to the scaffold. The pace picked up as the crew worked twenty-four hours without rest. When it was time to paint in the decadent ladies playing bridge, Diego called for live models.
Abby in Hot Springs wrote Anna Kelly on April 24 that Babs might be able to find a young blond woman to model for Mr. Rivera. "I'm sure I don't know of anyone," she added. Frida told Lucienne that Abby visited the lobby and climbed the scaffold and was delighted with what she saw. Frida was mistaken. It was Tod who visited the scaffold; Frida referred to the wrong Rockefeller. Frida also told Lucienne that Abby wanted Diego to paint a copy of his fresco from Mexico showing the millionaires, John D. (Senior), Morgan, and Ford, sitting at a table, looking at the ticker tape, holding champagne glasses, except John D. with his glass of milk. Geoffrey Hellman in the New Yorker gave a variation of the same bit of apocrypha.
On April 21 , Rivera painted the scene of police on their horses ready to club desperate workers. On April 24, a reporter for the World-Telegram, Joseph Lilly, broke a story that described the mural in some detail under a provocative headline: "Rivera Perpetrates Scenes of Communist Activity for R.C.A. Walls-and Rockefeller Foots the Bill." Three days later another article appeared, this one an interview with Communist artists and journalists denouncing Rivera. Now Diego painted Lenin into the mural, lifelike and dominant, the strongest face in the fresco. The mural, in all its power, was revealed to a public that crowded around to gawk.
"It was breathtaking: a vortex of color vibrating," Lucienne wrote. "The disk of television, the electric generator swirling in a dark center, rays of poison spray at the left facing a chorus of singing people, the violent fresh-red ellipse of microbes swinging boldly across balanced by the ellipse of stars and nebulae."
Twenty-five-year-old Nelson Rockefeller, with his ingrained optimism and confidence that he could resolve any disagreement, was the family member who had tried to represent Diego's interest to the project managers and theirs to him. In the respectful tone of a well-brought-up scion, Nelson wrote Diego on May 4 about the sticky question of Lenin. "The piece is beautifully painted," he readily conceded, "but it seems to me that his portrait appearing in this mural might very easily seriously offend a great many people. If it were in a private house it would be one thing, but this mural is in a public building and the situation is therefore quite different. As much as I dislike to do so, I am afraid we must ask you to substitute the face of some unknown man where Lenin's face now appears."
He reminded Rivera that no one had hitherto restricted his subject nor his treatment. The family was not challenging the celebration of Soviet-style Communism in Venetian red, nor war as a distinct product of capitalism, nor venereal disease as related to an American civilization that revolved around nightclubs and card games. Apparently both Abby and Nelson (and John, too, who had to deal most closely with the hard-nosed builders) were willing to live with broad strokes of ideology. But tenants could not be expected to ignore so defiant an icon as the portrait of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In one of the murkier subplots, Clifford Wight, an English sculptor who signed on as an assistant, wrote a letter in December 1932 to Ralph Stackpole. It seems that Diego told Wight that it was Abby who asked him to include a portrait of Lenin, saying that he hadn't given Communism enough importance. Considering the individual involved-an artist of wildly fluctuating moods who was also a Communist trying to zigzag successfully according to party discipline--any such evidence that relates Abby to the portrait of Lenin is less than convincing.
On May 6, Rivera replied to Nelson. He protested that he had merely given a specific face to a generalized figure. As far as he was concerned, Lenin was not negotiable, but he might consider substituting some great American, such as Abraham Lincoln, for the women playing cards. On the morning of May 9, Hugh Robert--son of the management company took over in place of Nelson. One of Nelson's biographers, Joe Alex Morris, wrote that he had been "conveniently sent out of town on another mission." Abby, according to her letter to Lucy, planned to reach New York from Virginia on May 7, with only a week in town before leaving for Boston and Providence.
Frances Paine delivered Robertson's letter in person to Diego. "There was not the slightest intimation," Robertson stated, "either in the description or in the sketch that you would include in the mural any portrait or any subject matter of a controversial nature. " He was right about the sketch, wrong about the description (synopsis), but that point was never raised. After a year of wrangling, neither he nor his partners was in any mood to bend to Diego's will. They were heavily involved in a $125 million sparsely rented piece of real estate. There was too much controversy already. In the evening they called him into the on-site office, paid him in full, and dismissed him from the project. Workmen nailed canvas across the fresco and then board it up. Diego seemed unfazed. "Maintenant c'est bataille," he shouted, as he tried to comfort his distraught young crew.
The outcry was immediate and intense. Demonstrators, carrying. picket signs, swarmed outside Radio City demanding the unveiling of the mural. Messages of protest poured into the Rockefeller offices from artists and intellectuals and even apolitical art lovers. The Communist Party, according to Wolfe, was caught in "no man's land." "A revolutionary painter for millionaires," he wrote, "a millionaire patron of revolutionary painting, and a Communist Party silent on the fight between them, constituted a triple absurdity."
Not everyone who deplored the dismissal defended Rivera. To Holger Cahill, who had supported him in the Detroit imbroglio, Diego was an incorrigible publicity hunter. "He would do anything for publicity," Cahill said, "and the Communists certainly muddied things up." To William Valentiner, his staunch friend among museum people, it was simply incongruous that he should paint a portrait of Lenin opposite the entrance to a building bearing the name of Rockefeller. Thoughtful people reached around for some compromise. Walter Pach, the critic, wrote Abby on May 11 that perhaps Rivera should be allowed at least to finish the work, then a committee would be selected to view it, in that way silencing professional troublemakers (presumably referring to the Communists). Pach even suggested that perhaps John could override the objections of the business agents and deflate the whole episode. Abby never replied personally to Pach's letter. So far as is known she maintained a strict silence. A formal statement was devised for all queries and sent in the form of a telegram to Pach: "Your letters May tenth and eleventh to Mrs. Rockefeller have been referred to the Managing Directors of the Rockefeller Center." Signed, Anna Kelly, Secretary."
Summer came on, the crowds' attention wavered, Abby and John left the city for Maine. In September, Walter Pach tried again. "I cannot tell whether it's right to write you again about the Rivera fresco at Rockefeller Center. It may be only an annoyance, if the matter is one that you want to leave in other hands; it may not be fair to suggest your taking it in hand if it could make complications with the managing directors, to whom your telegram referred me in May. But I did see them after that and have twice asked since for their decision-being told on all three occasions that none had been arrived at."
This time he received a personal letter, though still signed by Anna Kelly. "Mrs. Rockefeller wishes me to thank you for your letter and also for your article on `Modern Art in Perspective' which she greatly enjoyed reading. Mrs. Rockefeller has been not at all well for some time and I am taking care of her mail for her. Mr. Rockefeller is most anxious that she should not become involved in any way in the controversial question mentioned in your letter, particularly as the whole matter is in the hands of Todd, Robertson, Todd Engineering Corporation, Managing Directors of Rockefeller Center, who have full data on the subject. Mrs. Rockefeller hopes to be very much better by the latter part of the winter, when she trusts she can see you and Mrs. Pach."
It is unlikely that Abby's silence was due to her illness. It may have slowed her down for a week or two at a time, but she had a way of popping up again rather quickly. This was the season that she was consulting closely with Goodyear and Alfred about the Bliss collection and the endowment for MoMA. She was working with Beatrix Farrand in the garden. She was entertaining college presidents and high government officials. And the assumption, if the recent past was any indication, is that Nelson was reporting all intrigues to her as they occurred.
One can only imagine how she felt about Rivera. She had trusted him, offered him and Frida her friendship, supported him as an artist. His was an act of betrayal. He had a different agenda and he pursued it recklessly, some would say ruthlessly. But then there was the art, the fresco, which had legitimate qualities of greatness, propaganda notwithstanding, and it deserved to be seen and preserved. She was known to support unpopular art. Considering Diego's insolent behavior, she could hardly be blamed if she retreated into an injured silence. But if Nelson and others were right about her-that she loved a good fight-perhaps her silence was not an entirely voluntary retreat. Since she was the one who had foisted the crazy Mexican on management in the first place, and now they were well rid of him, there was a rough logic in management muzzling her.
But what if she had not moved to the sidelines? What if she, and not Robertson, had faced down Diego? Had he not made his original commitment to her? It is possible that she could have shamed him into keeping his end of the bargain. Not likely, but anything is possible. Her tact and negotiating skills had been honed over lifetime. It would have been an interesting confrontation. A comparison between the Detroit situation and the Rockefeller Center dispute has often been drawn to the credit of Edsel Ford and the discredit of the Rockefellers. But such a comparison is deceiving. Edsel Ford was defending a mural, not in a commercial complex, but in a museum, where controversies over art are inevitable facts of life. Ford, when asked how he, as president of the Arts Commission, could allow such blasphemy on the sacred walk of the museum, simply replied that he liked the murals. Abby and Nelson, while they may have liked the Rivera frescoes, were backed into quite a different corner.
During the fall and winter, Nelson and Abby and people from MoMA were trying to find a way for the fresco to be removed intact and transported to the museum. On December 16, Nelson wrote a detailed letter to Alan Blackburn, MoMA's executive secretary, that seemed to represent a significant breakthrough:
This morning I received a note from Mr. John R. Todd that he had discussed the mural situation with the managers and that they are all favorably inclined towards the idea. In his letter he suggests the following method of handling the situation.
The Museum of Modern Art should write a letter to Rockefeller Center requesting them to give the three murals to the Museum, stating that if Rockefeller Center will be willing to do so, they will be glad to remove the mural from the building at their own expense. (I am sure Rockefeller Center will be willing to advance the money to the Museum for this work.) Rockefeller Center will then apply to the latter accepting the Museum's proposition and covering all the details of the situation very carefully. These two letters can be given to the press and will form the basis of whatever publicity there is concerning the matter. Mr. Todd suggests further that it might be well for the Museum to arrange with Rivera to touch up and finish the work before they ask Rockefeller Center for it. However, this is a point which I am not quite sure about myself...
The less said the better about this situation for the time being. I certainly wouldn't get in touch with Rivera until we have had further talks.
The idea was noble, but no technique for removing the fresco safely proved to be workable. At midnight on Saturday, February 9, 1934, the mural was destroyed and the chunks of plaster loaded into fifty-gallon oil drums. There were fresh howls of rage. It was one thing to cover up the mural, another to smash it to bits. In less than two weeks the first Municipal Arts Exhibition was scheduled to open in the same building at Rockefeller Center. Nelson had persuaded management to construct thirty-one galleries at a cost of $50,000. Many artists threatened to withdraw from the show. But Edith Halpert, who mounted the exhibition, persuaded most of them, after heated arguments, to remain. Diego probably made her task easier by stating to the United Press that as far as he was concerned the issue was purely political. There was the belief, in the art community, that Abby was not culpable. "I cannot believe," John Sloan wrote in the New York Times, "that either Mr. or Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was consulted about this deplorable act [destruction of the frescoes].... I think the matter must have gotten out of their hands." William Valentiner quotes Abby as having told him that the frescoes would not have been destroyed if the architects had not insisted on it. Forty years later, Nelson was still lamenting that both he and his mother "lost ground" on the Rivera mural.
Diego, in Mexico City, made certain that the whole world could see what had been destroyed. On a wall in the Palace of Fine Arts he painted a modified version of the RCA Building fresco, adding a few additional figures, among them Trotsky and Marx. Peering down at the card game, directly under the germs of venereal disease, holding a martini glass, is John D. Rockefeller, Jr.