The same passions that helped Frida Kahlo become a great artist are reflected in her many love affairs. These took place despite her being married (twice) to fellow artist Diego Rivera. In fact, Kahlo's husband — who wasn't faithful himself — encouraged his bisexual wife's romantic relationships with women. He did get jealous of her male lovers, but Kahlo didn't let his objections stand in her way. Over the course of her life, multiple famous men and women became her romantic partners.
PHOTOS: Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera's Colorful Love Story
In January 1937, Kahlo greeted Leon Trotsky and his wife when they arrived in Mexico seeking political asylum. Rivera and Kahlo also gave the Trotskys a place to live: Casa Azul, Kahlo's childhood home.
As the exiles settled in, Kahlo and Trotsky began an affair. One vengeful impetus on Kahlo's part may have been Rivera's affair with her sister. But Trotsky was a willing participant (he slipped notes for Kahlo into books in front of his wife). The two lovers communicated in English, a language Trotsky's wife didn't speak. Some of their assignations took place at the home of Kahlo's sister (the same one who'd slept with Kahlo's husband).
However, the relationship between the artist and the exile soon flickered out. According to one friend, Kahlo said, "I am very tired of the old man." And despite Trotsky's wife's inability to speak English, she was aware enough to confront her husband. By July 1937, the affair was over, though it would inspire a Kahlo painting. Later that year she gave her former lover what's become known as Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky. In the picture, she holds a paper that reads in part: "To Leon Trotsky, with all my love..."
Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe met in the early 1930s in the United States (Kahlo had traveled there to support Rivera). The two women had many things in common — they were both female artists trying to make their mark while married to older men (O'Keeffe's husband was photographer Alfred Stieglitz) whose reputations, at the time, overshadowed theirs. And Kahlo seems to have been charmed by O'Keeffe. Rivera would talk of seeing his wife flirt with O'Keeffe (as O'Keeffe was a woman, this delighted rather than upset him).
In 1933, O'Keeffe had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. Kahlo wrote a letter to O'Keeffe in March that said, "I thought of you a lot and never forget your wonderful hands and the color of your eyes." Kahlo also noted, "If you [are] still in the hospital when I come back I will bring you flowers, but it is so difficult to find the ones I would like for you. I would be so happy if you could write me even two words. I like you very much Georgia."
In 1995, a Vanity Fair article included an excerpt from a letter Kahlo wrote to a friend in April 1933. It read: "O'Keeffe was in the hospital for three months, she went to Bermuda for a rest. She didn’t made [sic] love to me that time, I think on account of her weakness. Too bad. Well that’s all I can tell you until now." However, there's no record of O'Keeffe's response, if any was made, so it's impossible to say if Kahlo's feelings were reciprocated in any way.
O'Keeffe and Kahlo did stay in each other's lives. In 1938, O'Keeffe was among the attendees when Kahlo's work was exhibited at a gallery in New York City. O'Keeffe also visited an ailing Kahlo in Mexico in 1951. And Kahlo's 1945 painting Magnolias was inspired in part by O'Keeffe's own work.
Rumors of an affair between Parisian nightclub sensation Josephine Baker and Kahlo have been around for years. Baker took both male and female lovers during her lifetime… so Kahlo might very well be among them.
Kahlo and Baker were both in Paris in 1939, Baker performing and Kahlo for a showing of her work. According to the 2002 movie Frida, the two met in a nightclub at this time, then became lovers. It's possible, but there's no proof of the meeting, nor evidence of an affair. However, Baker often kept quiet about her affairs with women, as that was better for her career — so she may have been involved with Kahlo without talking about the relationship.
A photo shows Baker and Kahlo together in Mexico in 1952, when Baker made a trip there. Kahlo was then quite unwell, so an affair at that point appears unlikely. And, unfortunately, the two were living in an era when people, famous or not, could see their careers and lives destroyed if they admitted to same-sex relationships — meaning definitive answers about such relationships may not exist.
Hungarian-American photographer Nickolas Muray had a social circle that included Martha Graham, Langston Hughesand Eugene O’Neill,was an Olympic fencer (winning bronze in 1932) and found success in commercial and portrait photography. Muray took wonderful portraits of Kahlo, including partially nude poses, and many well-known pictures of Kahlo are his work. And, having been introduced to Kahlo in 1931 in Mexico, they started an affair that would last, on and off, for a decade.
The two were very attracted to each other, with Kahlo penning letters with lines such as, "Oh my darling Nick I adore you so much. I need you so, that my heart hurts." But their relationship reached a stalemate due to Kahlo's enduring love for Rivera. In the spring of 1939, after Kahlo had traveled from Paris to New York, Muray wrote her a letter that referred to Kahlo's relationship with Rivera, saying, "Of the three of us there was only two of you. I always felt that."
This left Kahlo hurt — and alone, as Rivera soon began divorce proceedings (though they would remarry after their divorce). The break-up may have inspired Kahlo's 1940 Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, a painting that depicts her pain and suffering.
Dolores del Rio
Actress Dolores del Rio, one of the first Latin American stars in Hollywood, was friends with both Kahlo and Rivera. Though the actress has been counted among Rivera's lovers, this needn't have prevented her from getting close to Kahlo as well — the artist had a history of befriending and charming her husband's girlfriends.
In 1939, Kahlo presented del Rio with a painting that, given its subject matter, demonstrates they had a very close relationship indeed. The gift, Two Nudes in the Jungle, depicts two naked women. The fairer of the two, who's resting on the other's lap, slightly resembles del Rio.
Throughout her life, del Rio was followed by gossip about affairs with men and women, so the painting fueled speculation about the nature of her relationship with Kahlo. Yet the work may also demonstrate unrequited feelings on Kahlo's part, or simply have been intended to honor their friendship.
Kahlo and Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi became lovers in the mid-1930s after Noguchi traveled to Mexico to work on a relief mural. Their feelings were intense — Noguchi once wrote to her, "You are to me every love thought." But, Rivera continued to be jealous of his wife's male companions. This meant Kahlo and Noguchi had trouble successfully conducting an affair.
In one account, Kahlo and Noguchi tried to get an apartment together, but their plans went awry when her husband was sent a bill for the furniture. In another, Noguchi was in bed with Kahlo when her husband returned home. Noguchi ran away but left a sock behind, leading Rivera to threaten him with a gun. Noguchi may also have been threatened by Rivera — again with a gun — when he went to see Kahlo in the hospital.
Whatever the exact circumstances, the affair seems to have ended due to Rivera's jealousy. But years later, Noguchi still could look back and say about Kahlo, "I loved her very much. She was a lovely person, absolutely marvelous person."
Actress Paulette Goddard, whose husbands included Charlie Chaplin, was a star of movies like Modern Times (1936) and The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946). Like Dolores del Rio, she's been romantically linked to Rivera — and, according to some rumors, to Kahlo as well.
In August 1940, Trotsky was murdered. He and Rivera had fallen out, possibly because Rivera had learned of Kahlo's affair with the exile, so the artist came under suspicion. Fortunately, Goddard helped him elude the Mexican police and enter the United States. Kahlo wasn't as lucky — she'd met Trotsky's killer, was interrogated and kept in prison for two days, though she was eventually cleared of any involvement in the assassination.
Goddard may be another Rivera paramour who Kahlo got close to as a means of neutralizing her. But whatever the exact nature of their relationship, Kahlo and Goddard became close enough that Kahlo painted a still life, The Flower Basket, for Goddard in 1941.
Like many other women, photographer Tina Modotti was romantically linked to Rivera. Modotti may also have helped the relationship between Rivera and Kahlo, as Kahlo likely re-encountered Rivera at one of Modotti's parties. And, as with several of her husband's lovers, Kahlo managed to maintain a friendship with Modotti.
A love story between Modotti and Kahlo isn't impossible, as Kahlo's name has been linked to other Rivera girlfriends. However, though the 2002 film Frida depicted Kahlo seducing Modotti, there's little evidence to suggest she and Kahlo actually made the transition from friends to lovers.
Singer Chavela Vargas was born in Costa Rica but came to Mexico in the 1930s as a teenager. There, dressed as a man, she found fame performing traditional rancheras. After Vargas reached her 80s she publicly acknowledged her sexual identity as a lesbian and began talking about her long-ago love affair with Kahlo.
According to Vargas, after meeting Kahlo at a party at Casa Azul she went on to live with the artist. During their time together Vargas would often sing to Kahlo as she painted. Vargas also discussed their intense relationship in a special feature interview for 2002's Frida.
Vargas has said she burned her letters from Kahlo. But Kahlo supposedly wrote to a friend about Vargas, saying, "I desire her. I do not know if she felt what I did. But I believe she is a woman who is liberal enough that if she asks me, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to undress in front of her…" but the letter's authenticity hasn't been confirmed. However, photos document how close they were, and, in the end, Vargas was reportedly at Kahlo's deathbed.