After his return from his honeymoon, Nelson threw himself into the operations of Rockefeller Center. Derided by one architect as a "graceless bulk," it was rising into the skies above midtown Manhattan. To many, the erection of the Center's five buildings--particularly its seventy-two-story skyscraper--in the midst of the Great Depression was itself a travesty, the giant proportions of its architecture symbolic of the previous decade of sin. Nelson worked feverishly to attract tenants in a city that simply did not need new office space. Rumors soon began to fly of Nelson's aggressive ways.
Junior's misgivings grew. There had been other disagreements in the family office, including Nelson's decision to accept a seat on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, Special Work, his real estate firm for the Center, had become Nelson's excuse for escaping the staid office and its constraints. If his older brother, John 3rd, wished to accept a life sentence, so be it. But Nelson had bigger dreams.
His mother, Abby, had always encouraged those dreams in her favorite boy. A lover of the arts and one of the founders of the Museum of Modem Art, she backed Nelson's election to the museum's board in 1932. It was through this shared appreciation of modern art, which his father loathed, that Nelson first came in contact with Mexico's most celebrated artist, Diego Rivera. He did not foresee that the part-Indian artist would be the catalyst for his first confrontation with Latin America's spreading revolution.
Nelson did not come up with the idea of a Rivera mural for the Center. That suggestion came from a representative of the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico, Mrs. Francis Flynn Paine. Through Paine's influence, Rivera had been commissioned to paint the murals in the San Francisco Stock Exchange and Henry Ford's Detroit Technical Institute. Impressed by the power of his work, Paine recommended Rivera to Abby, sure that his murals would conform to the orthodox version of American history and "progress as accelerated by the discovery and large use of petroleum."
Junior, as usual, objected futilely. Backed by his mother, Nelson prevailed. Abby was intrigued by Rivera. High spirited and possessed of a streak of bohemianism, Abby had little trouble asserting her independence from her husband when it came to art.
Nelson had reasons beyond art for selecting Rivera, business reasons. Diego Rivera represented exactly the kind of mix of controversy and quality that the new Rockefeller Center needed to draw crowds of tourists.
As soon as Rivera arrived in March 1933, a furor of speculation erupted over what he was going to paint. Day after day, Nelson would pass by the painter's tall scaffolds in the Center's lobby and crane his neck to watch Rivera's assistants sketch the outline of a great scene across 63 feet of wall 17 feet high. At first it was difficult to make out the shapes. But contrary to his later claims, Nelson knew most of what would appear. In November, Abby had approved Rivera's sketch for the mural and its accompanying synopsis. The mural was to be a salute to science, with Jupiter capturing lightning as a source of electricity and the "Man of Science" presenting "the scale of Natural Evolution, the understanding of which replaces the Superstition of the past." It was also to present a vivid political portrayal of tyranny, war, and rebellion by the laboring classes. "My panel will show the Workers arriving at a true understanding of their rights regarding the means of production," Rivera wrote Abby "It will also show the Workers of the cities and the country inheriting the Earth... .
"... on the left, a group of unemployed workers in a breadline. Above this group ... an image of War, as in the case of Unemployment, the result of the evolution of Technical Power unaccompanied by a corresponding ethical development."
Rockefellers, of course, had another, less concrete vision: "Our theme is NEW FRONTIERS," they wrote Rivera during the negotiations, ". . . Man cannot pass up his pressing and vital problems by 'moving on.' He has to solve them on his own lot. The development of civilization is no longer lateral, it is inward and upward. It is the culmination of man's soul and mind, and coming into a fuller comprehension of the meaning and mystery of life."
It was, in many ways, a statement reflecting its time. The Great Depression was viewed as the punishment of an angry God against a decade of hedonism. Reform, personal and national, was now the order of the day, the New Frontier having become internal and spiritual, rather than external and materialistic.
Junior and the Center's executives had chosen black and gray stone for the lobby to convey conservative dignity. To Rivera the lobby looked like a tomb. Upon his return from Italy, he had rediscovered the "great force and genius" of pre-Columbian Indian art and was influenced by the "barbaric" colors found on the walls of Mayan and Aztec pyramids."
After a few days of self-restraint, he could bear it no longer. Suddenly, the giant wall sprang alive with colors and sweeping shapes, causing a sensation in New York's art world. Hundreds of artists and students came to watch the -Mexican paint his great allegory of the world war and the Roaring Twenties. Nelson, never one to let an opportunity for promotion pass, issued about a hundred tickets a day. One day in April, Abby came by and climbed up the metal scaffold to watch the artist work. She was enthralled.
Whatever Nelson's initial feelings, his opinion changed after an article appeared on May 3 in the New York World Telegram under the headline, RIVERA PAINTS SCENES OF COMMUNIST ACTIVITY AND JOHN D. JR. FOOTS BILL. The Telegram attacked the mural for vividly depicting "poison gases used in war" and "prostitutes infected with venereal diseases so placed as to indicate them as the results of a civilization revolving around nightclubs." The reporter saw red everywhere, "red headdress, red flags, waves of red," and "iron-jawed policemen, one swinging his club" at what the reporter described as "a Communist demonstration." The article created the impression that the Rockefellers had been duped. Nelson responded immediately-to Rivera. He wrote Rivera that while visiting "Rockefeller Center yesterday viewing the progress of your thrilling mural, I noticed that in the most recent portion of the painting you had included a portrait of Lenin. The piece is beautifully painted but it seems to me that his portrait appearing in the mural might very seriously offend a great many people." Nelson asked him "to substitute the face of some unknown man where Lenin's face now appears."
A figure of Lenin had been included in Rivera's earliest sketches. Nelson's sudden turnabout convinced the artist that something terrible was afoot. His response was to work at a frenzied pace. He wanted to finish his painting before it could be aborted. He offered to add a portrait of Lincoln surrounded by abolitionists and the slave-revolutionary Nat Turner. But he would not destroy any part of his painting, including the portrait of Lenin. It had been there for a month without any previous objection by Nelson or his mother and represented to the artist a prophecy of an anti-Nazi alliance between Russians and Americans.
Nelson was not amused. He pressured Rivera with personal pleas, but Rivera kept painting.
A week later, matters were taken out of Nelson's hands. Rivera received a letter from Hugh Robertson, executive manager of the Center, insisting that there had been "not the slightest inclination either in the description or in the sketch."
At 9 P.M. the next night, a messenger scurried up the scaffold with a smug smile and summoned Rivera, still working, to Robertson's office. There Rivera was handed a check for the $21,500 contract and ordered to leave. Demonstrations immediately broke out in front of the RCA building, demanding that Rivera's art be saved. The Rockefellers promised that "the uncompleted fresco of Diego Rivera will not be destroyed or in any way mutilated." But the public was not allowed to view it, nor were photographs permitted. A drab canvas was draped over the entire wall, like a shroud. Most understood its meaning.
Almost a year later, at the lonely hour of midnight, February 9, 1934, workmen appeared under orders to chip the painting off the wall. In its place, a politically safer mural in sepia was done by Jose Maria Sert. This time, it was Robertson who did the hiring.