In the hottest month of 1913, the Stockinger Printing Company in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, hired as a colorist and engraver a twenty-one-year-old Hungarian artist who had just arrived in America as a refugee with $25 and an Esperanto dictionary in his pocket. Having grown up looking in on the fencing academy in his neighborhood that only the privileged could attend — a separation the boy saw as emblematic of the antisemitism that swarmed his childhood — he had escaped into beauty, into dreams of seeing “all the paintings in the world.” In pursuit of that dream, he studied color separation and photochemistry in Germany and wandered the hallways of the great European art museums, absorbing the classics in the marrow of his imagination and growing especially enchanted by the seventeenth-century Dutch painters’ mastery of color and light. Like other visionary artists of his ancestry and generation, he fled across the Atlantic when the situation of European Jews grew grim on the cusp of the world’s first global war.
Born Miklós Mandl, he became Nickolas Muray (February 15, 1892–November 2, 1965) upon landing at Ellis Island with an English vocabulary of four dozen words and the unassailable determination to become an artist. Within a decade, he became one of the most celebrated portrait photographers of all time, doing for color photography what Julia Margaret Cameron had done a century earlier just after the invention of photography, turning a new technology regarded as a crude tool of chemistry into a medium of fine art and a portal to beauty. The soirees at his Greenwich Village studio drew such dignitaries of creative culture as Langston Hughes, Martha Graham, Eugene O’Neill, and Jean Cocteau. He would live into his seventies and die a triumphant artist and a fencing champion, having competed for the U.S. Olympic team twice and having photographed some of the most recognizable faces of the twentieth century.
But none of his work would be more significant, to Muray or to the world, than his portrait of one of the most original and influential artists our civilization has produced — the great unexpected love of Muray’s life.
Nickolas Muray met Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) in 1931, while visiting the prominent painter, caricaturist, and art historian Miguel Covarrubias in Mexico. Muray had befriended him fifteen years earlier when the nineteen-year-old former student of Diego Rivera’s arrived in New York on a six-month stipend from the Mexican government and instantly captivated the art world with his singular caricatures; Covarrubias had used the platform of his own visibility to lift his friend up, becoming instrumental in Muray’s ascent to recognition.
Shortly after Covarrubias married another Mexican friend of Muray’s, the photographer traveled to visit the enamored couple, partly to restore his own faith in love after his bitter divorce from an advertising executive he had married a year earlier. That year, shortly after their own wedding, Frida and Diego had moved to San Francisco, attracting the attention of the city’s vibrant creative community as much with their art as with their vivacious and devoted open marriage. It as there that Kahlo and Muray first crossed orbits, but it was only when she returned to Mexico alone and ahead of Diego that they connected and commenced the decade-long romantic relationship that would eventually become a lifelong friendship.
Whatever transpired between Frida and Nick that spring in 1931, unwitnessed and unrecorded like all the great atomic passions, it imprinted them both deeply. What does survive from their first encounter are two parting gifts she gave him — items as curious for their intimacy as they are for their orthogonal messages. The first was a paper dolly, the kind used for serving sweets, inscribed with a dictionary-assisted attempt at Hungarian, broken and touching:
I love you like I would love an angel
You are a Lillie of the valley my love.
I will never forget you, never, never.
You are my whole life
I hope you will never forget this.
Beneath the date — the last day of May, 1931 — she added in English a passionate insistence that he return to Mexico that summer as he had promised he would, then sealed the note with the lipstick print of a kiss, beneath which she wrote:
This is specifically for the back of your neck.
The second parting gift was a small self-portrait, almost a line drawing, in which Frida depicted herself holding Diego’s hand, with the faint outline of a fetus drawn over her dress. It foreshadowed the great heartbreak of Nick’s life — the abyssal mismatch between his longing to be her husband and her wish that he be only her lover. But at the elated outset of infatuation, we see only what we wish to see, turning a willfully blind eye to the very signs that would eventually spell the end of love. Nick could not have known it then, nor would he have wished to believe it, but Frida’s otherworldly bond to Diego — to whom she wrote her most soulful and passionate love letters — would survive their multiple sidewise passions and even their divorce, eclipsing their multiple respective affairs with its unparalleled totality of devotion. Nick knew none of this at the dawn of their love, and perhaps nor did Frida. We hardly know where our hearts will go in the future, or where they will return. He would come to terms with this sadness only a decade into the relationship and only in facing the stark fact of Frida’s remarriage to Diego after their divorce. They would remain close friends for the remainder of Frida’s life. He would take more portraits of her than of any other person beyond his children. She would give him, straight from the easel, one of her most arresting and disquieting self-portraits, which would hang in his family living room for the remainder of his life.
Nearly a decade into the relationship, Frida’s love for Nick was as aglow with tenderness and passion as it had been that ecstatic first May. In February 1939, just after the centennial of the science-driven invention of the artistic medium that brought Nick into Frida’s life, she sent him a long and beautiful outpouring of heart, found in Salomón Grimberg’s altogether wonderful I Will Never Forget You: Frida Kahlo and Nickolas Muray (public library).
Affectionately calling Nick her “child” despite his being fifteen years her senior, she writes to him in New York from Mexico:
My beloved Nick,
This morning I received your letter after so many days of waiting. I felt such happiness that I started crying even before I read it. My child, I really should not complain about anything that happens to me in life, so long as you love me and I love you. [This love] is so real and beautiful that it makes me forget all my pain and problems; it makes me forget even distance. Through your words I feel so close to you that I can feel your laughter, so clean and honest, that only you have. I’m counting the days until my return. One more month! Then we’ll be together again.
In a passage bespeaking the boundless sweetness between them, she adds:
Darling, I must tell you that you’ve misbehaved. Why did you send that check for 400 dollars? Your friend “Smith” is imaginary. It was a very nice gesture, but tell him that I will keep his check untouched until I come back to New York; we’ll discuss this matter then. My nick, you’re the sweetest person I’ve ever met. But listen, my love, I really don’t need the money now. I still have a little bit from Mexico; plus I’m a very rich bitch, did you know that? I have enough to stay one more month. I already have my return ticket. Everything is under control; it’s true, my love, it’s not fair that you spend extra money… I any event, you don’t know how thankful I am for your willingness to help me. I don’t have the words to describe how happy I am, knowing that you tried to make me happy and that you are so good and adorable… My lover, my heaven, my Nick, my life, my child, I adore you.
With a playful petulance, she proceeds to give him a winking list of instructions on his conduct until her return to New York, invoking objects in his home she had given him over the years as tokens of her love:
Listen, my child, do you touch every day that thing for fires that hangs on the stair landing? Don’t forget to do it every day. Also, don’t forget to sleep on your little cushion, because I really like it. Don’t kiss anyone while you read the signs and names on the street. Don’t take anyone else to our Central Park. It belongs to Nick and Xóchitl [Frida’s nickname for herself, Aztec for flower] exclusively… Don’t kiss anyone on the couch in your office. Blanche Heys is the only one who may massage your neck. You can only kiss Mam as much as you want. Don’t make love to anyone, if you can help it. Do it only in case you find a real F.W. [fucking wonder], but don’t fall in love. Play with the electric train every once in a while if you aren’t too tired after work.
In an expression of tenderly touching selflessness, in light of her own lifelong bodily devastation after the accident on an actual electric tram that had nearly killed her as a teenager and sent her into a series of brutalizing spinal surgeries, she adds:
Darling, don’t work so hard if you can help it, since it makes your neck and back tired. Tell Mam to take care of you and make you rest when you’re tired. Tell her that I’m much more in love with you, that you are my darling and lover, and that when I’m not around she has to love you more than ever to make you happy.
Is your neck bothering you a lot? I am sending you millions of kisses for your beautiful neck, so it will feel better, and all my tenderness and all my caresses for your body, from head to toe. I kiss each inch from far away.
In consonance with her contemporary and admirer Susan Sontag’s insistence that “music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts… and the most sensual,” Frida ends the letter with one final instruction:
Play the Maxine Sullivan record on the gramophone very often. I’ll be there with you listening to her voice. I can imagine you lying on the blue couch with your white cape on… and I hear your laughter — a child’s laughter… Oh, my dear Nick, I adore you so much. I need you so much that my heart hurts.
Complement with Kahlo on the meaning of the colors and her searing protest letter to the President of Mexico about art and the freedom of expression, then revisit other masterpieces from the canon of great love letters by luminaries of creative culture: Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert, Vladimir Nabokov to Véra Nabokova, Tove Jansson to Tuulikki Pietilä, Iris Murdoch to Brigit Brophy, Hannah Arendt to Martin Heidegger, John Cage to Merce Cunningham, Kahlil Gibran to Mary Haskell, Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Oscar Wilde to Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.