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A Partnership Larger Than Marriage: The Stunning Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell

“You are like the Great Spirit, who befriends man not only to share his life, but to add to it. My knowing you is the greatest thing in my days and nights, a miracle quite outside the natural order of things.”

A Partnership Larger Than Marriage: The Stunning Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell

Nearly a century after his death, the Lebanese-American painter, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) endures as one of humanity’s most universally beloved voices of truth and transcendence. But there would have been no Gibran as we know and love him without the philanthropist and patron of the arts Mary Elizabeth Haskell — his greatest champion, frequent collaborator, and unusual beloved.

Haskell and Gibran met on May 10, 1904, at a friend’s studio. He was twenty-one and she nearly thirty-one. Impressed with his art, Haskell soon offered to send Gibran to Paris to study painting, with a stipend of $75 a month, equivalent to about $2,000 today. He accepted. In a letter to a friend written shortly before he departed for Paris in 1908, Gibran described Haskell as “a she-angel who is ushering me toward a splendid future and paving for me the path to intellectual and financial success.” Shortly after arriving, he wrote: “The day will come when I shall be able to say, ‘I became an artist through Mary Haskell.'”

But the open hands of Haskell’s generosity branched from an equally open heart, from some larger kindness of which Gibran soon became enamored. He came to see her as more than a benefactress — a kindred spirit, a woman of uncommon tenderness, and, above all, a person willing to descend into the deepest trenches of his psyche and climb to its highest mounts in order to understand him, which he considered the greatest measure of love. It was through her generosity that he survived as an artist, and it was through her selfless love that he found himself as a man.

Mary Haskell and Kahlil Gibran. Portrait and self-portrait by Gibran.

Their relationship, like that of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, defies classification and the containment of simplistic labels, but one unquestionable postulate radiates from the dazzling richness and complexity of their decades-long emotional entanglement: the enormous and eternal love they had for one another, which blooms to life in Beloved Prophet: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell, and Her Private Journal (public library).

In one of his first letters to Haskell from Paris, Gibran captures what is perhaps the greatest gift of love, whatever its nature — the gift of being seen by the other for who one really is:

When I am unhappy, dear Mary, I read your letters. When the mist overwhelms the “I” in me, I take two or three letters out of the little box and reread them. They remind me of my true self. They make me overlook all that is not high and beautiful in life. Each and every one of us, dear Mary, must have a resting place somewhere. The resting place of my soul is a beautiful grove where my knowledge of you lives.

On Christmas Day that year, he writes:

I think of you today, beloved friend, as I think of no other living person. And as I think of you Life becomes better and higher and much more beautiful. I kiss your hand, dear Mary, and in kissing your hand I bless myself.

Over the year that followed, their relationship intensified. Haskell records the pivotal sequence of events in her journal the day before her thirty-seventh birthday in 1910:

Kahlil spent the evening. Told me he loved me and would marry me if he could, but I said my age made it out of the question.

“Mary,” he said, “whenever I try to get nearer to you in speech, to be personal at all — you fly up into remote regions and are inaccessible.” “But I take you with me,” said I. And I said I wanted to keep our friendship enduring, and feared to spoil a good friendship for a poor love-affair. This was after Kahlil had explained what he meant.

The next afternoon Kahlil was here a while and I told him yes.

But the following spring, their relationship took its single most defining and transcendent turn — the decision, absolutely radical at the time, not to get married after all but to remain each other’s most intimate partner in life. The reason for it, which Haskell articulates with remarkable poeticism in another diary entry from April of 1911, was her grandest gesture of magnanimity:

It seemed to me that it was the moment of the opening of the door between Kahlil and the world that shall love him and into whose heart he shall surely feel he is pouring his work. I think his future is not far away now!

And so I made up my mind to follow what seems to me the final finger of God — I put definitely to myself the possibility of being his wife. And though every waking hour since has been drenched with inner tears, I know I am right, and that the tears mean joy, not pain, for the future. My age is simply the barrier raised between us and the blunder of our marrying. Not my age constitutes the objection — but the fact that for Kahlil there waits a different love from that he bears me — an apocalypse of love — and that shall be his marriage. His greatest work will come out of that — his greatest happiness, his new, full life. And it is not many years distant. Toward the woman of that love, I am but a step. And though my susceptible eyes weep, I think of her with joy — and I don’t want to have Kahlil, because I know she is growing somewhere for him, and that he is growing for her.

Kahlil Gibran, “Four Faces,” heavily inspired by Haskell.

The following day, Haskell delivered her emotionally ambivalent yet intellectually firm decision to Gibran and said to him, “My heart longs to be overpersuaded. Still I know in the end I should not be persuaded.” She reports his response in her diary:

He wept and I got him a handkerchief. But he could not speak. Near the beginning in one of my many pauses he said brokenly, “Mary, you know I cannot say things, when I am this way,” and hardly another word. The only comment he made was to love me. When it was over I opened my arms to him — but he soon had me in his, and the heart is not flesh that would not have been comforted…. When it grew late I put his right palm to my lips — and then indeed the tears came — but they drew me simply nearer to him. I kissed that wonderful hand as I have often longed to do, but as I have not before, because a mere touch on it moves him so. It answered like a heart… Again at the door I cried a little — while he wiped my eyes, saying only, “Mary — Mary — Mary.” And as he went he said as well as he could, “You’ve given me a new heart tonight.”

Upon my tears after I went to bed it was suddenly as if a great peace and light broke — and he and I were in it — so that I cried, “Thank you, God, thank you!” again and again. I was so ineffably happy. That I have given him up I realize. But it has not parted us — it has brought us even much nearer together.

“I’ve always known our relation was permanent,” Haskell would later reflect on the decision. “I wanted continuity of conscious togetherness.” This notion, arising from the enormous magnanimity of her nonpossessive love, would eventually lead Gibran to his superb and timeless advice on healthy relationships.

A month after the decision against marriage, Gibran channels precisely such a “continuity of conscious togetherness” in a letter to Haskell from New York:

Just came from the museum. O how much I want to see these beautiful things with you. We must see these things together someday. I feel so lonely when I stand alone before a great work of art. Even in Heaven one must have a beloved companion in order to enjoy it fully.

Good night, dear. I kiss your hands and your eyes.

Kahlil

Bedridden in June with one of his frequent bouts of illness, he writes to Haskell, who spent her summers in solitude in the mountains of the West:

Now, Mary dear, I am going to rest. I shall close my eyes and turn my face to the wall and think and think and think of you — you the mountain climber — you the life hunter.

Good night, beloved.

Kahlil

Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

As the months wear on, his letters grow more and more animated by that uncommon blend of infatuation’s restless longing and the solid togetherness of an unperturbeable partnership. He writes to her on October 31, 1911:

Your last letter is a flame, a winged globe, a wave from That Island of strange music.

[…]

Do you not know what it is to burn and burn, and to know while burning, that you are freeing yourself from everything around you? Oh, there is no greater joy than the joy of Fire!

And now let me cry out with all the voices in me that I love you.

Kahlil

Alongside Gibran’s passionate proclamations is a calm bellowing tenderness emanating from the depths of his being, which he articulates beautifully in a letter from early January of 1912:

Now I will say goodnight, as any other time. I kiss you and then I say goodnight and then I open the door and then I go out to the streets with a full heart and a hungry soul. But I always come again to kiss you and to say goodnight and to open the door and to go out to the street with hungry soul and full heart.

With equally poetic passion, Haskell writes to Gibran the same week:

Dear Hand, dear Eye, dear Thought, dear Fire, dear Love —

[…]

All I am ever finally impelled to say, rather than not say, to you of yourself seems resolvable into, “Kahlil, you are in my heart — you are in my heart, Kahlil.” When I look back over the years, it seems always to have been that — with changes only of depth and heat of your heart-place.

The following month, she writes:

God lends me His heart to love you with. I asked for it when I found my own was too small, and it really holds you, and leaves you room to grow.

In the spring, Haskell writes to Gibran in New York, channeling her unselfish love and her longing in parallel in a letter that could well be a poem:

What are you writing — and how does it go? And what are you thinking about — and how does it go? And what do you want to talk with me about? — and how do You go?

And why aren’t your arms six hours long to reach to Boston?

[…]

And when will You come to me in a dream and make night sweeter than night?

That October, Gibran repays the “continuity of conscious togetherness” that Haskell had always trusted would bloom between them even though, and perhaps precisely because, they chose not to marry:

The most wonderful thing, Mary, is that you and I are always walking together, hand in hand, in a strangely beautiful world, unknown to other people. We both stretch one hand to receive from Life — and Life is generous indeed.

In another letter, he captures one of the small enormities that define love:

I love to be silent with you, Mary.

A few days later, responding to Gibran’s concern that his physical illness and its attendant creative block might disappoint her, Haskell sends the most beautiful and generous assurance a person who is loved could hope for:

I don’t even want you to be a poet or painter: I want you to be whatever you are led or impelled to become.

[…]

Nothing you become will disappoint me; I have no preconception that I’d like to see you be or do. I have no desire to foresee you, only to discover you. You can’t disappoint me.

The following year, as Gibran continues to struggle, she grants him the ultimate gift of love — the equal embrace of his inner darkness and his inner light:

Your work is not only books and pictures. They are but bits of it. Your work is You, not less than you, not parts of you… These days when you “cannot work” are accomplishing it, are of it, like the days when you “can work.” There is no division. It is all one. Your living is all of it; anything less is part of it. — Your silence will be read with your writings some day, your darkness will be part of the Light.

Kahlil Gibran, “Spirit of Light”

With a sensitivity to Gibran’s growing mastery of English, she adds:

It is like the resolution of greatest dissonances in great music. You know the use of that word resolution in music, don’t you? — so deep and beautiful. — And it is like the reconciliation of life. And do you know Reconciliation used in that way? To me it is one of the profoundest and fullest of our words.

A few months later, having pushed through his creative and spiritual stagnation, Gibran attempts to put words around the immensity of his gratitude for this supreme gift of being seen, and loved, in his wholeness:

I wish I could tell you, beloved Mary, what your letters mean to me. They create a soul in my soul. I read them as messages from life. Somehow they always come when I need them most, and they always bring that element which makes us desire more days and more nights and more life. Whenever my heart is bare and quivering, I feel the terrible need of someone to tell me that there is a tomorrow for all bare and quivering hearts and you always do it, Mary.

Four years before the American publication of Gibran’s slim masterpiece The Madman, in which he wrote, “I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us,” he sees Haskell as the sole counterpoint to that conviction and writes to her in the summer of 1914:

You have the great gift of understanding, beloved Mary. You are a life-giver, Mary. You are like the Great Spirit, who befriends man not only to share his life, but to add to it. My knowing you is the greatest thing in my days and nights, a miracle quite outside the natural order of things.

I have always held, with my Madman, that those who understand us enslave something in us. It is not so with you. Your understanding of me is the most peaceful freedom I have known. And in the last two hours of your last visit you took my heart in your hand and found a black spot in it. But just as soon as you found the spot it was erased forever, and I became absolutely chainless.

The hundreds of letters collected in Beloved Prophet are a transcendent read in their entirety. Complement them with Gibran on the seeming self vs. the authentic self and the difficult balance of intimacy and independence in love, then revisit the stirring love letters of Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Hannah Arendt, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Mead, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, and James Thurber.

BP

Philosopher Martin Buber on What Trees Teach Us about Being More Human and Mastering the Difficult Art of Seeing Others as They Truly Are

“Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.”

Philosopher Martin Buber on What Trees Teach Us about Being More Human and Mastering the Difficult Art of Seeing Others as They Truly Are

When Walt Whitman contemplated the wisdom of trees, he saw in them qualities “almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic,” and found in their resolute being a counterpoint to the human charade of seeming. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse rhapsodized in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” A century and a half earlier, William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.”

But to truly see and listen to a tree — or to any being beyond ourselves — as more than a teaching, more than an object of envy or worship or desire, more than a metaphor for our own lives, requires a special kind of regard — the kind to which Ursula K. Le Guin alluded in contemplating the difference between objectifying and subjectifying the universe.

This unsolipsistic orientation to another’s reality does not come easily to us, being such colonizers of the experience and essence of others as we are. What it takes to cultivate it is what philosopher Martin Buber (February 8, 1878–June 13, 1965) explores in poignant passage from I and Thou (public library) — his 1923 existentialist masterpiece, laying out Buber’s visionary lens on what makes us real to one another and extracting from it abiding insight into the meaning of love and presence.

Martin Buber

Buber illustrates the distinction between I-It and I-Thou relationships — the redignifying shift of perspective at the heart of his philosophy — with the example of how one regards a tree:

I consider a tree.

I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.

I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air—and the obscure growth itself.

I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.

I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognise it only as an expression of law — of the laws in accordance with which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or of those in accordance with which the component substances mingle and separate.

I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation.

In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.

To effect this it is not necessary for me to give up any of the ways in which I consider the tree. There is nothing from which I would have to turn my eyes away in order to see, and no knowledge that I would have to forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and type, law and number, indivisibly united in this event.

Everything belonging to the tree is in this: its form and structure, its colours and chemical composition, its intercourse with the elements and with the stars, are all present in a single whole.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood; but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it — only in a different way.

Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

Decades before scientists came to uncover what trees feel and how they communicate, Buber adds:

The tree will have a consciousness, then, similar to our own? Of that I have no experience. But do you wish, through seeming to succeed in it with yourself, once again to disintegrate that which cannot be disintegrated? I encounter no soul or dryad of the tree, but the tree itself.

Complement this particular fragment of I and Thou with Henry David Thoreau on the language of trees and biologist David George Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most unusual trees taught him about the art of relationship, then revisit bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer on how to regard non-human life with dignity.

BP

I and Thou: Philosopher Martin Buber on the Art of Relationship and What Makes Us Real to One Another

“The primary word I–Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I–It can never be spoken with the whole being.”

I and Thou: Philosopher Martin Buber on the Art of Relationship and What Makes Us Real to One Another

“Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,” the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature — wrote in contemplating human nature and the interdependence of existence. Relationship is what makes a forest a forest and an ocean an ocean. To meet the world on its own terms and respect the reality of another as an expression of that world as fundamental and inalienable as your own reality is an art immensely rewarding yet immensely difficult — especially in an era when we have ceased to meet one another as whole persons and instead collide as fragments.

How to master the orientation of heart, mind, and spirit essential for the art of sincere and honorable relationship is what philosopher Martin Buber (February 8, 1878–June 13, 1965) explores in his 1923 classic I and Thou (public library) — the foundation of Buber’s influential existentialist philosophy of dialogue.

Martin Buber

Three decades before Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts cautioned that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Buber considers the layers of reality across which life and relationship unfold:

To the man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.

The attitude of man is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words which he speaks.

The primary words are not isolated words, but combined words.

The one primary word is the combination I–Thou.

The other primary word is the combination I–It; wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.

Hence the I of man is also twofold. For the I of the primary word I–Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I–It.

In consonance with poet Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful insistence that “we encounter each other in words… words to consider, reconsider,” and with bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s conviction that words confer dignity upon that which they name, Buber adds:

Primary words do not signify things, but they intimate relations.

Primary words do not describe something that might exist independently of them, but being spoken they bring about existence.

Primary words are spoken from the being.

If Thou is said, the I of the combination I–Thou is said along with it.

If It is said, the I of the combination I–It is said along with it.

The primary word I–Thou can only be spoken with the whole being.

The primary word I–It can never be spoken with the whole being.

[…]

Every It is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds.

When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf — a tender tale of transformation through relationship

Each battery, Buber argues, has a place and a function in human life — I–It establishes the world of experience and sensation, which arises in the space between the person and the world by its own accord, and I–Thou establishes the world of relationship, which asks of each person a participatory intimacy. Thou addresses another not as an object but as a presence — the highest in philosopher Amelie Rorty’s seven layers of personhood, which she defines as “the return of the unchartable soul.” Buber writes:

If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I–Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.

Thus human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbour, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light.

Buber offers a symphonic counterpoint to the presently fashionable fragmentation of whole human beings into sub-identities:

Just as the melody is not made up of notes nor the verse of words nor the statue of lines, but they must be tugged and dragged till their unity has been scattered into these many pieces, so with the man to whom I say Thou. I can take out from him the colour of his hair, or of his speech, or of his goodness. I must continually do this. But each time I do it he ceases to be Thou.

[…]

I do not experience the man to whom I say Thou. But I take my stand in relation to him, in the sanctity of the primary word. Only when I step out of it do I experience him once more… Even if the man to whom I say Thou is not aware of it in the midst of his experience, yet relation may exist. For Thou is more that It realises. No deception penetrates here; here is the cradle of the Real Life.

“Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you.” Illustration for The Velveteen Rabbit by Japanese artist Komako Sakai.

To address another as Thou, Buber suggests, requires a certain self-surrender that springs from inhabiting one’s own presence while at the same time stepping outside one’s self. Only then does the other cease to be a means to one’s own ends and becomes real. Buber writes:

The primary word I–Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, nor can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou.

All real living is meeting.

[…]

No aim, no lust, and no anticipation intervene between I and Thou. Desire itself is transformed as it plunges out of its dream into the appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only when every means has collapsed does the meeting come about.

I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith, is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with physicist David Bohm on the art of dialogue and what is keeping us from listening to one another, Amin Maalouf on identity and belonging, and Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of real human communication.

BP

Frida Kahlo’s Passionate Love Letter to Photographer Nickolas Muray, Who Took Her Most Famous Portrait

“Through your words I feel so close to you that I can feel your laughter, so clean and honest.”

Frida Kahlo’s Passionate Love Letter to Photographer Nickolas Muray, Who Took Her Most Famous Portrait

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.

Frida Kahlo by Nickolas Muray (Brooklyn Museum)

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.

Nickolas Muray by Miguel Covarrubias

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:

Nick,

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.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940. (Harry Ransom Center)

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.

Nick and Frida. (Catalina Island Museum)

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.

BP

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