Winner of the 2011 creative nonfiction contest selected by eula biss
A woman plunges to her death on a cool New York morning in 1938. She dressed for the suicide as she would for a date: a fitted black evening gown, a corsage of yellow flowers pinned to a breast. At thirty-three years old, she steps off the balcony of her Hampshire House apartment and tumbles through the dawn.
After Dorothy Hale’s death, her acquaintance, the celebrated Frida Kahlo, approached Dorothy’s good friend Clare Booth Luce.
Kahlo proposed painting a recuerdo of Dorothy. “I did not speak enough Spanish to understand what the word recuerdo meant. I thought it meant a portrait done from memory,” Booth Luce recalled to Hayden Herrera, Kahlo’s biographer, years later. She envisioned a serene portrait, a la Gilbert Stuart’s famous renditions of Washington, Abigail Adams, King George III, or even something like Kahlo’s Self-Portrait dedicated to Trotsky, which Booth Luce owned. A muted, pretty capture of Dorothy, styled brunette hair, cupid bow lips, the perfectly arched eyebrows modeled by every aspiring Depression-era actress. “Suddenly it came to me that a portrait of Dorothy by a famous painter friend might be something her poor mother might like to have,” Booth Luce said. A four hundred dollar portrait that would anchor a room, ruling from above the fireplace.
This was not what Booth Luce received. She nearly fainted when she unveiled the painting, which Kahlo titled The Suicide of Dorothy Hale. “I could not have requested such a gory picture of my worst enemy, much less of my unfortunate friend,” an angry Booth Luce said in response.
My own first glimpse at The Suicide of Dorothy Hale was no less stunning. I encountered it at a Kahlo exhibit at a Minneapolis museum. I had little knowledge of Kahlo prior. I knew her popularity, of course, and her sensationalized personal life: the rocky coupling with Diego Rivera, her tragic bus accident. Of her art, I vaguely knew her many self-portraits, but nothing else. Kahlo was one of those artists I thought I should know more about if I wanted to call myself a cultured member of Western civilization, so to the Walker Art Center I went on an icy January day nearing the exhibit’s end.
I’d walked through the Walker’s halls before, but never so stunned. As if drugged, I slowly absorbed the gore, the blood, the unvarnished truth that Kahlo made beautiful. I had not known a canvas could sag with so much emotion and exposure. Kahlo’s work delivered me to my early world, a world where I confronted death daily and looked into its beautiful face. At the museum, I stood so close I could feel its breath.
In the small, nineteen- by twenty-four-inch frame, Kahlo tells the story of Dorothy’s death in three acts: first, we see a tiny figure high up, Dorothy in the split second after the jump. Then, a head-first Dorothy, arms overhead, like an upside-down ballet dancer, slicing through swirling white clouds. The final Dorothy lies prone on the ground, wearing the black dress and corsage. Eyes open, she looks at us with a calm but penetrating stare, as if to say, See what I had to do? In Kahlo tradition, the frame does not contain the painting. One of Dorothy’s feet protrudes onto the bottom frame, as do drips of red paint. Kahlo had written these words on the bottom of the painting: “In the city of New York on the 21st day of the month of October, 1938, at six o’clock in the morning, Mrs. Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself out of a very high window of the Hampshire House building. In her memory for Clare Booth Luce, this ‘retablo,’ executed by Frida Kahlo.”
A retablo, like the famous Our Lady of Guadalupe, is a Mexican devotional painting usually featuring a member of the Holy Family or other such saints. The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, while technically retablo, embodies characteristics of an ex voto, or more precisely, an anti-ex voto.
In the Spanish tradition, ex voto paintings tell stories of miraculous survival, usually attributed to divine intervention. These paintings of stormy voyages, shipwrecks, and murderous attacks line church walls as a way of giving thanks to God. The colorful paintings reflect actual scenes of the danger, and most characters appear flat and wooden. The term comes from the Latin ex voto suscepto, “from the vow made.” Like The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, many ex votos contain inscriptions beneath the painting.
The Suicide of Dorothy Hale tells a story of danger without divine intervention. No one watched over Dorothy, no giant hand from the sky reached down to scoop her up. Instead, Dorothy fell.
Booth Luce was so horrified that she planned to take scissors to the painting and shred it. She called one of Dorothy’s friends to be witness to the destruction. Booth Luce, years later, could not recall who came over—either Isamu Noguchi or Constantin Alajalov—but both men were artists and friends of Dorothy. Noguchi had given her the yellow corsage the night of her death. The man convinced Booth Luce to reconsider the destruction. Giving it more thought, she decided that if she simply could have her name removed from the painting, remove all association with this horrible thing, that she would let it survive. Her friend blotched out her name with white paint, and we still see that splotch today.
I wonder, though, if Booth Luce’s public revulsion masked a quiet respect for the painting’s stoic beauty amid the morbidity. Booth Luce—a cultured playwright and wife of Time editor Henry Luce—must have recognized that you shouldn’t destroy art, even art that forces you to turn away. Perhaps she called the friend because she wanted to be talked out of the destruction. In her pause, she may have seen the reason to keep a painting such as this: to look death’s truth squarely in its unblinking eyes.
I witnessed beauty in death, as my dad worked as a gravedigger in small-town Minnesota. This is what I saw: redolent flowers of all types—roses, lilies, carnations, tulips—that filled funeral home viewing chambers. Headstone photographs, like the one of an apple-cheeked teenage girl named Vicki that I imagined could be my older sister. The casket spray that Dad always let me arrange carefully on the sod after he laid the casket to rest. I carried the flowers like a heavy weight, slowly kneeling down in the grass to position it perfectly at the center of the gravestone. I smoothed the ribbon, the one that said “Mom” or “Dad” or “Grandma” so anyone who walked by could read it, though no one would but me and Dad and Mom.
No retablos or ex votos here, but plenty of recuerdos—mementos. Mostly on the baby graves. Dad also maintained the cemeteries, and he didn’t like a lot of fuss on the graves because the clutter made it difficult to cut grass close to the headstones. Though this was rarely a problem: the descendants of northern Europeans in these parts were not prone to excessive displays of emotion, especially in death. With one exception: the baby graves.
Woodville Cemetery on the edge of Waseca had a section just for babies. It wasn’t marked as such with a sign or archway. No arrows pointed you there. But you knew. You knew by the sudden pattern of flat, tiny markers that broke the landscape of knee-high granite tombstones. You knew by pinwheels blurring whirls of primary colors in the wind. You knew by the lamb statues that anchored the corner of a stone. You knew by toys left there, teddy bears and dolls and cars. You knew by balloons tethered to wooden posts stuck in the ground. A couple of dozen babies were buried there, their markers filtering in and around a few bigger gravestones of adults that formed a sort of protectorate, ersatz aunts and uncles and grandparents who kept watch. Their trinkets appealed to me. I thought I could clear the graves and take home a balloon, or a teddy bear, maybe put it in my room. But Dad, who usually wanted everything off all graves, quietly gave me a new directive: Don’t take anything from the baby graves.
Dorothy Hale is alone. Despite the fact that she died on a busy New York morning, in a city that never sleeps, she’s the only figure in the painting. No signs of life. No taxicabs, no policemen, no sidewalk gawkers who certainly must have gathered around her body. She steps off her balcony, alone. She plunges alone. She lies on the ground, alone. She’s not even on a sidewalk, on which she landed. No entrances or exits to lead people in and out of the painting. It’s a series of three moments, isolated, connected to nothing beyond the frame. Kahlo removed all traces of other life.
Kahlo famously inserted her autobiography into most paintings, even those at the surface that appeared to be about something else. Like the essayist who probes her own life as a way to understand the larger world, Kahlo used canvas to make meaning for herself and the world around her. A simple portrait of Dorothy Hale would have said nothing. Kahlo perhaps thought paint and canvas and her time too valuable to waste, too important to not convey story. Kahlo has something to say. She has something to tell us. And tell she does, if we listen.
At the time Kahlo painted The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, she was lonely, too. Literally alone, separated from Rivera. But loneliness clouded her entire life. A bout with polio at age 6 forced her into isolation for months. The same isolation after her infamous accident forever marred her body. The loneliness that came with desperately wanting a child but unable to carry one to term. Her recuerdos for babies not graveside trinkets but representations of blood, naked exposure, the truth that imbued so much of her work.
Dorothy Hale understood loneliness. Her first husband, Gilbert Hale, showered her with gifts and provided her an opulent lifestyle. When he was killed in a car accident, Dorothy didn’t have a way to sustain the rich routine to which she had been accustomed, instead living off the largess of friends and fleeting admirers. A love affair with a member of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration ended in ugly publicity in the pages of gossip columns. Booth Luce had always thought Dorothy deserved a break. “We all believed that a girl of such extraordinary beauty and charm could not be long in either developing a career or finding another husband. Unhappily, Dorothy had very little talent and no luck,” she said.
Kahlo infused The Suicide of Dorothy Hale with fairy-tale imagery. The Hampshire House rises into the sky like a king’s castle. The clouds swirling around Dorothy are fluffy and white against a pale blue sky. Dorothy herself, even in death, has the princess qualities of quiet beauty, her fall like a delicate ballroom dance. A dance before midnight, a dance before the world forever changes.
Kahlo may have been predestined toward fairy tales. Her father, Guillermo—aka Wilhelm—grew up in Baden-Baden, Germany, not far from where the Brothers Grimm recorded their country’s tall tales a century before. All cultures have their stories, passed down from generation to generation around the fire. But the Brothers Grimm went to great lengths to record the tales told by imaginative brethren. Perhaps imagination can be genetic, threaded through strands of DNA like the codes for eye color and height. Story and ideas and philosophy saturated Kahlo’s very being, the many stories that filled her father’s treasured, but small, book collection. Kahlo biographer Herrera contends that Guillermo favored Frida; he allowed her to read his books, the tragedies and melodramas and evil bargains that mark the works of Schiller and Goethe.
Fairy tales end with the prince and princess heading to their castle to live happily “ever after.” But not “forever.” Note the difference: the latter much more declarative than the former.
The endings leave us in a kind of netherworld, one in which they will always be happy as long as they live, but not one where we can assume they never die. Their deaths obscured, the truth of their endings kept from us. Dorothy Hale exists in this netherworld, too, a world both dead and undead. She’s dead but with eyes open, challenging us. Her gaze is not the glossy stare of the dead, but the stare of one who is fully aware. Her foot enters the frame, set free from the canvas, an intruder into our world, the world of the living. We interact with this suspended Dorothy. We want to save her, but it’s too late. We want to jump into the frame ourselves. If Dorothy can slip a bit of herself into our world, can we not enter hers? We could enter just before the first “frame” of the painting, the one in which she has just jumped, turn her around and guide her back through the door. A fairy tale hand from above that reaches out and plucks her from the sky.
Kahlo puts her subjects in fairy tale, fantastical worlds, but her people are very real—they bleed, they experience pain, they die. They are exposed to us, raw, like her famous self-portrait of her broken spine. The juxtaposition of the real among the fantasy.
Kahlo’s many female subjects face fairy tale dangers updated for the 20th century. They don’t encounter witches or wizened trolls. Instead, they’re haunted by turbulent love, poverty, physical pain. Dorothy Hale had been jilted. When her men left, so did her money. Kahlo herself lived in tumultuous love with her husband. In Dorothy she likely saw a kindred spirit, or as one prone to depression and heartache, perhaps a future that could be hers.
Anyone raised in religious ritual has, at some point, believed the unbelievable. People rise from the dead, virgins give birth, water turns into wine, bread and fish magically reproduce, bodies become bread, dead saints refuse to submit to decomposition. This magical realism helps make anything believable. Santa Claus can deliver presents around the world in one night. Angels walk among us. Extraterrestrials have ways of visiting our planet. Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts—they all exist. And fairy tales are real.
I devoured fairy tales. By second grade, one after another. The ones by the Brothers Grimm—Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Rumplestiltskin, Hansel and Gretel.
They were all perfectly plausible. Fairy tales were an extension of the miracle world that existed within the walls of our St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. I recognized it as an alternate world—one that did not exist with mine, but one that could exist. Or, more believable to me, one that had existed. The fairy tales all had that medieval quality of forest beings and castles and carriages. I just assumed that these events had happened in a magical past. Like how there had been a virgin birth and a resurrection, but that was 2,000 years ago and by my virtue of being born in 1974, I had missed it. I rued my unfortunate timing. History illumined so much more vibrancy than my boring life. I had to be content to simply read about it and wish I were there.
I saw beautiful death once. A fairy-tale queen and her blond princess. The queen waited tables at our small town’s Main Street café; her princess, five years old.
The night of Cheryl and Dawn Tuttle’s wake, Dad drove our powder blue boat of a Cadillac into Waseca, Mom in the passenger seat and me in the back. The street lights flickered on as the wan March sun went to bed in the western sky. Dad trolled for a few minutes looking for a parking space; cars hugged curbs continuously on the streets surrounding Kinder Home for Funerals. We found a spot a few blocks away and walked to the funeral home; dirty city snow crunching under our boots. At the front door, we tromped on the floor mat and wiped our feet. Dad entered the heavy wooden door first, holding it open for me and Mom and a few people straggling in behind us. Dad, Mom, and I moved slowly through the mass of people in the foyer. Most everyone in town knew Cheryl from the Busy Bee.
I entered the viewing room squarely sandwiched between Dad and Mom. People filled the room. I’d never seen so many people at Kinder’s. They flowed like sand into spaces among chairs covered with padded beige and planted their feet into soft carpet. They spoke quietly in groups of twos and threes, words mixing together to create one low hum. In their hands, they twisted visitation cards and Kleenex into ersatz origami.
Funeral home air is different than other air. Palpable grief thickens the atmosphere; it’s like an August day in a swamp. Bodies breaking down infuse the space with zinging, invisible currents of energy. The living give something off, too, releasing grief out of their pores. I breathed that invisible weight into my nose and mouth, and it traveled down my chest like a rock and settled in my lungs.
At this wake, the charged air interfered with my hearing and vision, like lightning that made our AM car-radio crackle. Voices started to grow far-away and dreamlike, including Dad’s, as he glad-handed and chatted with others (Do you know how the fire started? Have you talked to Bill? How’s he doing? This is just a shame; they’d only been married five months…Cheryl was just the nicest thing and that daughter, gosh, what a cutie…).
We inched our way forward. The processional filing toward the caskets moved slowly, and the line behind us soon wound out of the visitation room, out of the foyer, out through Kinder’s front door. I lost track of those around me. The caskets would not let me see others in the room. I saw only Cheryl and Dawn, the soft funeral home lights trying desperately to cast pink upon their pallid faces. I floated forward, holding my gaze steady upon them. Dad and Mom fell away from my periphery. I sensed them but could not see them, as in my mind Cheryl and Dawn became larger and larger until they swallowed up the entire space in the room. The three of us were the only people here. It was just me, and death.
In the smaller casket, Dawn’s blond ringlets splayed out on the white pillow. Kinder’s wife, Edie, had a flair for doing the hair and makeup for the dead. With Dawn, Edie had tried to recreate a princess. Dawn wore the flower girl dress she had worn a few months before at her mom’s wedding to Bill Tuttle, a local banker.
After my few quiet moments in front of Dawn, I stepped to my right, in front of Cheryl’s casket. I came to within inches of her face, cocked my head, and leaned in. Death did not quell her beauty. Her hands were sculpted into a folded position on her stomach. She wore her wedding dress; it shimmered. She was a medieval maiden, surrounded by the silky whites of the casket fabric. Though her face waxy and flat, she still radiated a hint of beauty, like in the days I remembered her alive. I did not smell death. I smelled only sweetness from nearby bouquets.
There was not a mark upon Cheryl or Dawn. They died of smoke inhalation rather than burns. It was as if God himself did not want to mar his perfect creations or scar their skin. Cheryl looked no different than pictures of Sleeping Beauty in my fairy-tale books. I wanted to believe that’s who she was, resting there quietly because she pricked her finger on a spindle.
Dad nudged me. I emerged from my reverie, looked around and realized I was holding up the line. I moved on. As I walked out of the visitation room behind Mom and Dad, I turned around for a last look. That night the casket lids closed on much more than just the bodies of Cheryl and Dawn.
Shortly after the wake, I put the fairy tales away. It was not a conscious move; I was too young to make such a deliberate statement. I simply drifted away from the stories; they held no intrigue any more. I desired the here and now. The truth. The reality of life. In third grade, I declared boldly to my teacher that I only checked out books from the nonfiction side of the Hartley Elementary library. Ms. Peterson made me return my current cache with the order to come back with fiction. I did so unwillingly and in protest, did not read the fiction she forced me to check out.
Within a couple of years, I had graduated to the gritty and gory. Night of the Grizzlies, about a 1968 deadly bear attack in Glacier National Park. Saved! the story of the Andrea Doria sinking in the Atlantic in 1956. At a garage sale when I was 11, I bought Helter Skelter for a quarter. I read it front to back, stopping only to eat and sleep. My eyes settled on the gruesome crime scene photos. Sharon Tate, her body excised from the photo, too bloody to reproduce. But the white outline showed me how her arm laid over her head, and the big belly showed me that it used to hold a baby. Another princess death, a 1969 repeat of the 1938 non-fairy tale, to be repeated in 1983 in my small town.
At the Kahlo exhibit others ceased to exist, as at the Tuttle wake, even though it seemed everyone in Minnesota gathered there. They faded to my periphery, hummed with energy, but blended together as a shadowy mass. It was as if I had my own private showing, led by Kahlo herself, pointing me to where she wanted me to look, what she wanted me to see.
The Suicide of Dorothy Hale did not mirror the slick, shiny gravestones of my youth. But it reflected the way in which I knew beauty to die. The painting was both the fairy tale of my youth, and the moment in which I put the fairy tales away. I swelled with admiration for a woman who would rob death of the silence it forces upon us, give it a name and a voice.
After Dad’s sudden death in 1990, I left the sheltered world of the cemetery and had rarely returned. I learned to adjust to a world in which death is mute and lives on the fringes. Kahlo dragged me back in, and I wondered why I had ever left.