DIEGO RIVERA -- MY ART, MY LIFE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY (WITH GLADYS MARCH)
ON MAY 24, 1940, twenty men disguised as policemen burst into the Mexican home of Leon Trotsky and his wife and sprayed his bedroom with Thompson submachine guns. The Trotskys saved themselves by dropping flat on the floor while their beds were riddled by about three hundred rounds. Questioned by the police as to the identity of his would-be assassins, Trotsky suggested that it might prove enlightening to investigate a station wagon belonging to a well-known local painter which had been seen in the neighborhood at the time of the attack.
One night, several days later, a platoon of policemen, moving silently through the street, cordoned off my studio in San Angel. I knew nothing of this action until I received a telephone call from the movie actress Paulette Goddard, whose portrait I had recently begun painting. Paulette was staying at an inn just across from my studio. Chancing to look outside her window, she saw what was happening and immediately rang me up.
"Diego," she said, her voice trembling with excitement, "if I know anything about gangster movies, brother, you're on the spot. The cops are swarming around your studio. And they look like they mean business."
Visiting my studio at the time was the Hungarian-American painter Irene Bohus. Despite the fact that I had no notion what the police wanted with me, I recognized trouble and decided to get away. Irene agreed to help me, and I quickly worked out a plan. Irene left the studio, carrying as many canvases as she could under her arms. She descended very slowly by the outside stairway, bidding me a long, loud adieu in English. After responding to Irene's first words, I left the door wide open and ran back to put on all the lights in my studio. This was to give the impression that I had resumed my work. However, I immediately ran down the inside stairway to Irene's car, safely concealed in the inner courtyard. By the time Irene, who had meanwhile been pretending to bombard me with chatter, entered the car, I was lying flat on the floor inside. She piled all the canvases she had taken on top of me, concealing me completely. Then she swung the car out of the courtyard and into the road, whisking me out from under the very noses of Police Colonel de la Rosa and all thirty of his men, alertly waiting to move in on me with drawn revolvers.
When the police finally entered my house and found me gone, they proceeded to search it for evidence. Probably angered over being outwitted, they broke some items of my valuable archeological collection. My watch and certain other personal belongings also disappeared.
They stayed the whole night, awaiting my return. By next morning, realizing that I was not going to oblige them, they appropriated my station wagon and arrested my two chauffeurs. They kept the chauffeurs in custody for two weeks, subjecting them to all the devices used by police to extort confessions, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the police laboratory had made a thorough analysis of my station wagon, but since I had had no connection with the attack, they found nothing, and their efforts to implicate me remained fruitless.
During all this time I stayed in hiding. For, in spite of my innocence, I did not want to become involved in any way in the intrigues which had come to surround Trotsky. My refuge was never discovered by the police. Paulette, enjoying her role in this real-life drama, brought me delicacies and the finest of wines on her frequent visits. Her lovely presence alone was enough to make my retreat a delight. In the meanwhile, my portrait of Paulette, as well as all of Irene's paintings, were removed from the studio and put in the custody of a good friend, American Vice-Consul MacGregor. Since both Paulette and Irene were American citizens, he was merely acting to protect their property.
What were the reasons behind Trotsky's suspicion of me and behind the eagerness of the police to act for him against a citizen of Mexico? It was I who had been instrumental in securing Trotsky's admittance into Mexico after every country in the world had closed its doors to him. I had acted only after many pleas by his supporters to use my influence. In yielding to them, I had been swayed by two considerations: my belief that a man persecuted for political reasons in his own country was entitled to refuge in another; and the fact that having been expelled from the Communist Party in 1929, I would not be betraying it.
At the same time I was aware that, if Soviet justice, having condemned Trotsky for treason, decided to impose its usual penalty for that crime, nothing that Trotsky could do would prevent its being carried out. But that was Trotsky's concern. Belonging then to a political group allied to Trotsky's Fourth International, I accepted the whole responsibility of promoting a legal asylum for Trotsky in Mexico. To this purpose I asked for an audience with the President of the Republic, Lazaro Cardenas. Cardenas received me cordially, listened to, and granted my appeal. Thus Trotsky obtained his visa.
At the time of Trotsky's arrival in Mexico in December, 1936, I was ill, and I asked Frida to welcome him and Madame Trotsky at the dock. Frida detested Trotsky's politics but, desiring to please me, she not only greeted the Trotskys as they landed, but invited them to stay at her family's house in Coyoacan, a forty-five-minute drive from my studio in San Angel, where Frida and I were living.
In appreciation, Trotsky wrote an article, published in the August-September, 1938 number of the Partisan Review, which contained the highest kind of praise for my work.
"Do you wish to see with your own eyes the hidden springs of the social revolution?" Trotsky wrote. "Look at the frescoes of Rivera. Do you wish to know what revolutionary art is like? Look at the frescoes of Rivera.
"Come a little closer and you will see, clearly enough, gashes and spots made by the vandals ... These cuts and gashes give even greater life to the frescoes. You have before you, not simply a 'painting,' an object of esthetic contemplation, but a living part of the class struggle. And it is at the same time a masterpiece!"
Trotsky went on to condemn the Stalin regime for having me expelled from the Mexican Communist Party and for having refused to let me paint frescoes on the walls of Soviet buildings.
By 1940, however, the political differences between Trotsky and myself had made any amicable relationship impossible. At our last meeting that year, Trotsky became so infuriated with me that he ordered me out of his house. Immediately before, he had remarked that he could not understand, judging by my politics, why I was not one of Stalin's best friends. In saying this, he implied that he suspected me of being a secret henchman of Stalin. The police followed the same line of reasoning in their attempt to implicate me in the attack on Trotsky's home.
The Mexican authorities had their own reasons for wishing to pin something on me. Not long before I had embarrassed them by an expose of apparent collusion with the Nazis. Late in 1939, a German liner, the Columbus, flanked by two smaller vessels, had dropped anchor in Mexican waters. Having learned that the Columbus was being used as a ship of war, I published a demand that I be allowed to search it, accompanied by representatives from the Mexican Army, the marines, and the police, as well as the British and French legations (the United States was not yet at war with Germany). I declared my readiness to go to jail and stand trial on whatever charges might be brought against me if my information was disproved.
My information, I wrote, had come from a trustworthy man of authority who had assured me that his facts were entirely accurate, and I had decided to risk personal danger to do what I felt was my civic obligation.
According to my informant, the swimming pool of the liner was being used as a fuel tank and cargo hold for servicing submarines. Beneath the pool was an apparatus by which the submarines could take on the supplies while submerged, thus minimizing the possibility of detection. Four eight-inch guns were concealed along the shaft of the propeller together with the equipment required to mount them. The Columbus could thus be converted into an auxiliary cruiser on short notice. Within the bulkhead walls, along the sides of the ship, were ammunition stores ample for a four-month campaign. Of the two smaller vessels, one was stocked with fuel and lubricants, the other with food and medical supplies.
In conclusion, I declared that, if the government did not authorize the search I requested, it could reasonably be assumed to be permitting Germany to use a Mexican port as a submarine base.
My article was printed in Hoy in mid-December, 1939. On the same day the magazine came out, the newspapers Novedades, El Graphico, and La Prensa summarized my charges. I waited at my studio all day to see what might happen, but nobody showed up.
At four o'clock that afternoon, the Columbus, without being challenged by any Mexican authority, suddenly weighed anchor and, with its two satellite vessels, headed out to sea. About forty-eight hours later, on December 19, 1939, all three ships were blown up by their crews to avoid capture by alerted British destroyers which had sighted them in Bahaman waters.
Soon after the war began, the pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic elements in Mexico, disguised, as was then fashionable, in the garb of nationalism, began to attack me. Infuriated by my action in the Columbus affair, these vermin now organized a full-scale campaign of character assassination, They even printed leaflets calling me a traitor and an agent of the Jews. One of these, following Gestapo models, contributed two rabbis to my geneaology, a grandfather from Poland and a great-grandfather from Russia. This handout was being circulated at the time the police occupied my studio.
During my self-imposed exile, I prepared statements explaining why, although I was not guilty of the attack on Trotsky's house, I refused to present myself to the police. My reasons were those I have given above. Instead of helping my situation, however, my statements so aggravated it that two loyal friends of mine, high officials in the Cardenas government, came to Frida and told her that it was vital to my safety that they see me. Convinced that they were speaking the truth, Frida, who, besides Paulette, was the only person who knew its location, led them to my hideout. There they informed me of measures that were being taken against me and then presented me with a passport already prepared for entry into the United States. I realized that they had devoted much time and effort, at great personal risk, to arrange for my escape. Accepting their advice and the passport, I quietly slipped out of Mexico and headed for San Francisco.