To get back at her much older husband for his most recent infidelity, Frida Kahlo’s odd choice of a lover was their new housemate, the even older and also married Leon Trotsky. It is a plot out of a French farce, soap opera, proper high-brow opera, or an episode of The Jerry Springer Show if he had Marxist Revolutionary Week.
The exiled 58-year-old Leon Trotsky and his second wife Natalia Sedova arrived in Tampico, Mexico on a heavily guarded Norwegian oil tanker on January 9, 1937. The muralist and dedicated Trotskyite Diego Rivera had lobbied the Mexican government to offer Trotsky political asylum. Diego, ill and hospitalized, could not be at the port to meet the Trotskys. Instead his young wife, surrealist artist Frida Kahlo, was at the dock with journalists, Communist Party members, and government officials. She accompanied the couple back to Coyoacán and the home she shared with Diego, La Casa Azul (The Blue House), where the Trotskys lived heavily protected and catered to for two years.
Still angry and hurt from discovering Diego’s affair with her beautiful younger sister Cristina, Frida lost no time in openly flirting with Trotsky, who must have been flattered as hell at the attention. That spring their emotional affair grew into a physical one. Some of Frida and Trotsky’s clandestine meetings took place at Cristina’s house, which Diego had probably bought for her, along with a suite of red leather furniture. Frida and and Trotsky spoke English in front of their spouses, whose grasp of the language was paltry to non-existent, in Natalia’s case. He sneaked love letters to Frida between the pages of books he loaned to her.
Rivera was, by all accounts, an unrepentant philanderer with the hypocritical tendency to randomly fly into jealous rage when Frida behaved similarly with other men during their stormy marriage. (Her affairs with women, like Josephine Baker, didn’t bother him.) Stephanie Mencimer wrote in Washington Monthly, “Legend has it that for American women traveling to Mexico, having sex with Rivera was considered as essential as visiting Tenochtitlan.”
Diego and Natalia eventually discovered the dalliance, which seems to have been over by July 1937. Surprisingly he allowed Trotsky to continue to live at La Casa Azul instead of coming after him with a gun. There was enough of a political falling-out between the two men, not over infidelity but over Trotskyism, to prompt the revolutionary and his wife to move out of La Casa Azul and into a nearby house on Avenida Viena in early 1939. He left behind the self-portrait she had dedicated to him, “Between the Curtains.” In the painting she is holding a document that says, “To Trotsky with great affection, I dedicate this painting November 7, 1937. Frida Kahlo, in San Angel, Mexico.” November 7th was Trotsky’s birthday as well as the Gregorian calendar anniversary of the October Revolution.
Frida and Trostky remained friends until his assassination by Ramón Mercader on Stalin’s orders the following year. She was a suspect in the murder and held by police for questioning for two days.
No passionate missives between the unlikely lovers survive. According to biographer Bertrande M. Patenaude, author of Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary, at the end of their brief relationship Trotsky asked Frida to return all his love letters so he could burn them.
Frida & Diego & Natalia & Leon: Rare home movie footage from 1938 of the two couples in Coyocoán, Mexico: