I was 10 years old and I didn't understand why Emmy Lou, my new stepmother, was crying. It was New Years Eve in Mendocino, and as I had found some old Mexican 78's up in the attic. I thought some lively mariachi music might prove festive. Wrong.
Her crying surprised me, as her personality seemed of steely discipline: perfectly decorous and well-organized. Later, she explained to me that the music had reminded her of "lost times long ago," and nostalgia had overwhelmed her.
Back then, of course, I had no idea who Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were. I gradually learned from books that Diego was considered the greatest muralist of his time: the 30's and 40's (maybe of the century), He was enormously famous. Not just for his genius but also for frequently fiery brouhaha's with wealthy patrons, including the Rockefellers. A profoundly sincere and uncompromising Communist, he couldn't resist sneaking portraits of Marx and Engels into his vast murals, or portraying the rich in a satirical light: often as rapacious grotesques. The constant uproars made great copy. (Note: Look for a portrait of Emmy Lou Packard in his mural at San Francisco City College).
Frida Kahlo was only known as Diego's extraordinarily exotic and fascinating wife but certainly not his artistic equal; despite the fact she was greatly admired by the leading Surrealists of France.
Emmy Lou Packard used to do some things that struck me as odd as a child. She would wind brightly-colored strands of yarn into her long, pinned up braids. She frequently wore very ethnic looking clothes: spicy-colored dresses and shawls with beautiful, simple Mexican peasant accessories; and this in the late 50's! I didn't know they were remnants of what must have been an incredible adventure for a conventionally-raised young lady.
Now, Frida's caterpillar eyebrows rivet us from a plethora of books, calendars, posters, and postcards. Both Diego and Frida have become legendary: the subjects of many movies and videos. Their artwork, particularly hers, commands the highest price of any artist, living or dead, in this hemisphere. It now costs $13 million for a small self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, on the rare occasions they are available for sale.
I interviewed Emmy Lou in the San Francisco institutional convalescent hospital that is her home now. It is primarily a place where the very old are taken to die. Emmy Lou is there because she needs constant surveillance of her diabetes. It must be very hard to live in such surroundings.
Every time I visit she has two new and very old roommates, semi-coherently mumbling, moaning, and screaming. She has the third of the room next to the window, with a sheet hung for privacy. On the walls are pictures of her and the Riveras (she took many of the photos you see in book store postcards) along with numerous artist's awards and citations. A collection of fanciful, sparkling toy toads lines her windowsill.
In 1993 the Women's international League for Peace and Freedon re-printed Peace is a Human right as as a note card, with the following inscription on the back: On this, the 30th anniversary of the original printing, we are honoring the well-known Bay Area artist. Emmy Lou was a protogˇ of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and her work has been indispensable in the struggle for peace and the equality of all peoples. She has been a source of inspiration to young local artists whose murals have transformed San Francisco's Mission District into an outdoor art gallery. We salute Emmy Lou Packard who has done so much to enrich our lives.
She also was instrumental in saving the magnificent Mendocino headlands from being blanketed by little pink stucco retirement homes. (A forest-land trade was arranged with the lumber company that owned the area). The townspeople have erected a plaque in her honor, discretely placed on a log above the pristine cliffs.
It was a gallant effort on her part to give an interview in her extremely frail condition. Her answers aren't particularly linear. I knew she had a brief affair with Diego (His Last word on the subject: "Merde! Caca!" In a letter to Emmy Lou) Strong suspicions of one with Frida, given her tastes and libido. I was hoping for some illumination, but what I got was a few glimmers; blurred glimpses of her time with them.
Goblin Magazine: How old were you when you first met Diego and Frida?
Emmy Lou Packard: When I was about ten years old I went with my mother to Mexico city, I'd asked them to come to get the Mexican water and dust so that the many men were out getting, they couldn't live with just the sand, so they got behind the river and got people to run the river clear around to different places. (This is less Gertrude-Steinish when you know that Emmy Lou's father, who was a professor of Agriculture at Berkeley, was in Mexico with Emmy Lou and her family engineering a river diversion to water what was previously an arid plain).
When I was fairly young Diego saw me with a picture I made. He was up on the scaffold painting, but in a few minutes he got down and looked seriously at my drawing. He said, 'You never saw my work before, did you?' I said 'No.' And he said, 'Well, people will tell you that you're copying me because you're seeing things the way I see them.'"* (Afterwards Diego made weekly critiques of her drawings and advised against her going to an art school where she would be taught to conform to academic styles: "He wrote notes about the drawings like he did with everyone else. When I left he wrote a lot of things about how great I was in Spanish.")
That's when I went to Mexico city for the first time. My mother took me to Diego Rivera, she didn't know about them, she'd just heard about them. They looked at my drawings and said "oh my, goodness. She's an artist. That's all she'll do for the rest of her life." Then when I was twelve. I became a diabetic, my mother and father said we better put her in a place where she can paint and do what she wants to do.
EP: My mother didn't want me to marry any man, and told me there was a place in Palo Alto where I could play (act). I was interested in being a player. I saw people looking at a tall man across the room (Burton Donald Cairns) . I said, "he looks interesting." And then I began to look around and pretty soon this man came to me and said, "I was kind of interested when I looked at you. Who are you; what is your name? I'll have you in the Palo Alto Playhouse." (Cairns was directing a production there) He suddenly was trying to get me to play tennis, and I said: 'We're going to do something awful. We have to go to Las Vegas. And if we don't go to Las Vegas and get married something awful is going to happen!' My father wasn't pleased but Donald was a great man. Then we had a wedding and I moved to San Francisco with my new husband.
One night it was late and getting later, and we were given to being murderous when there was a bell on the door. I rang the bell to the streets, and the door opened and my mother and father were there both crying. (Her husband has just been killed in a collision with a Greyhound bus) I screamed and I screamed and my mother and father came and tried to calm me.
GM: When did you start living with the Riveras?
EP: That was when my husband was killed. (Six years after the original meeting) After the accident my mother asked Diego if I could stay with him. My mother was going to the Golden Gate expedition and said "Emmy Lou is going to kill herself if she stays here. I know it, I know it." I had tried to jump out the window. So we went to see Diego at Treasure Island. She asked Diego if he thought I was good. He was getting ready to paint and he said, "She's an artist and we will take her up a whole year."
GM: Was the atmosphere tense in the Rivera household? Any fighting?
EP: No. Frida knew when he'd get mad and what he didn't want. She was a diplomat. But Diego, I don't think I've told this, he was going out with the people who would stay with us to make things, to a nice little place where he could have his fun. She was aware of that but she would never let him know.
But when I saw in the paper that Frida Kahlo had died of an embolism I went straight up to Mexico city to a place where no one would know where I was, and called up Diego. Apparently the name went through, "I said this is Emmy Lou, what happened to Frida?" And he said, "I'll send my car." The limousine came almost immediately. I said the reason I came here is because I wanted to know what happened to Frida. He said, "Until she died I didn't know how much I loved Frida," then he cried.
GM: So they never argued in Public?
EP: No, he would get very very mad. She knew what to do for him and so did I. He didn't get mad at me because I was drawing. Although no one knew, there was a place where they had boxers, and she took me with her. She was with a man Diego had never heard of and he was so mad. Then she'd throw little pills at the men who were boxing, and it was great when a boxer slipped on a pill, it made everyone laugh. I think she had another man in that ring but Diego would have killed her if he found out. There was no agreement between them. He did what he did and she stayed silent.
GM: You said that in public she was very animated and entertaining but her actual nature was accommodating and shy.
EP: Well, Frida had lots of friends but I didn't know what she did with them away from me. It always helps to have a wonderful cook. As for Diego, when he went off to see people I would stay home and draw.
GM: I heard she was involved with women sometimes in intimate ways.
EP: I never saw anything like that. She would have to hide them but she wouldn't hide them from me. I had my own little studio (a little blue house) but often I was allowed to go into the big one. But sometimes it was locked, and there was one of his women with him. He could be funny, but I never got very close to him. He would get very mad if I was familiar with him.
GM: Being such a young girl from the midwest, were you taken aback by such an exotic metropolis as Mexico City?
EP: He'd take me to a nice place in Mexico City, the Mayan temples. He knew all about it. I walked around the streets quite a bit. I lived in the studio across from Frida Kahlo's house (In Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico city.)
EP: GM: What was it like dealing with Frida Kahlo when she was depressed?
EP: She would talk to me about it when she was depressed. Diego didn't like depressed people. So she would hide it from him. She had a broken leg. Diego took a picture of Frida and me in Coyoacan.
Readers wishing to send a good will card to Emmy Lou may addresss it to Room 4c San Francisco Ca. 94116-1298, 2043 19th Ave.
*Qouted from "Memories of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera," by Macia McKean, published in Art West.
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