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The 7-Word Autobiographies of Famous Writers, Artists, Musicians, and Philosophers

John Irving, Joan Didion, David Byrne, Rem Koolhaas, Madeleine Albright, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Sullivan, Ed Ruscha, Brian Eno, and more.

Since 2005, the LIVE from the NYPL program masterminded and anchored by intellectual impresario Paul Holdengräber — one of the most interesting people to ever encounter, should you be so fortunate — has transformed the New York Public Library into a wonderland of stimulating conversations on literature and life with some of today’s most celebrated writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, musicians, and other luminaries. Among Holdengräber’s signature touches are the 7-word autobiographies he asks each of his prominent guests to provide, to be read as he introduces them. Here is a selection of the best such personal micro-biographies — the literal, the abstract, the sarcastic, the poetic — from the entire run of the series so far:

Tom Wolfe at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Tom Wolfe drops some delightful vintage lingo:

Ace daddy, gym rat, Balzolan reporter, Ph.D.

Cheryl Strayed at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Sarah Stacke courtesy NYPL)

The magnificent Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and is one of the best existential favors one can do oneself, goes for truth-by-way-of-its-opposite, offering “seven words that won’t define [her]”:

Reticent.
Boney.
Mahout.
Indifferent.
Tame.
Archipelago.
Republican.

Daniel Dennett, man of infinite wisdom and endlessly quotable insight:

Philosopher, professor, author, sailor, New Atheist

Jim Holt, whose Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story remains indispensable and who has previously shared some mind-bending insight on the nature of “nothing”:

Failed mathematician who happily declined into journalism.

David Byrne at LIVE from the NYPL, December 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

David Byrne, who knows a thing or two about how music and creativity work, appears blissfully oblivious to the 7-word-limit brief:

unfinished, unprocessed, uncertain, unknown, unadorned, underarms, underpants, unfrozen, unsettled, unfussy

Daniel Kahneman in conversation with Nassim Taleb at LIVE from the NYPL, February 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Daniel Kahneman, whose Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the most insightful psychology books in recent history, compensates for Byrne’s excess with his own sub-quota answer:

Endlessly amused by people’s minds

Brian Eno at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Brian Eno, sage of timeless insight on art:

I like making and thinking about culture.

Andrew Solomon in conversation with Paul Holdengräber and Krista Tippett at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2010 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Andrew Solomon, whose meditation on horizontal vs. vertical identity and the power of love is a soul-stirring must-read, goes for something his mother used to say to him:

Good listeners: more interesting than good talkers.

Paul Holdengräber, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rem Koolhaas at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Hans Ulrich Obrist, legendary curator and art instigator:

Catalyst
Conversation
Curating
Curiosity
Junctionmaking
Protest against forgetting

Malcolm Gladwell, overlord of the contrarian:

Father said: “Anything but journalism.” I rebelled.

William Gibson in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, April 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

William Gibson, champion of “personal microculture” and a solid daily creative routine, offers an answer somewhere between Yoda and Gertrude Stein:

Postwar. Cold War. Stop the War. Later.

Elizabeth Gilbert in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, May 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Elizabeth Gilbert playfully riffs off the title of her modern classic:

Eats/Loves too much…should Pray more.

Ed Ruscha in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Ed Ruscha, who does indeed have a soft spot for sign painting:

Lapsed catholic
Newspaper carrier
Hitchhiker
Sign painter
Printer’s devil
Daydreamer
Artist

Rufus Wainwright with Lucinda Childs at LIVE from the NYPL, September 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Rufus Wainwright, music god, rebels against humility with his characteristic charming irreverence:

According to Elton John world’s greatest singer-songwriter

Sherry Turkle in conversation with Steven Johnson at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Sherry Turkle stays true to her technodystopia:

Technology doesn’t just change what we do; it changes who we are.

Errol Morris in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Errol Morris, documentarian extraordinaire and bastion of photographic truth:

autodidact, necrophile, voyeur, filmmaker, opinionated writer, father

Don DeLillo at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Don DeLillo, who also abides by a rigorous writing routine, goes for a beautiful format:

       Bronx boy
wondering
       why he is here.

Madeleine Albright echoes Helen Keller:

Optimist who worries a lot; Grateful American

John Irving at LIVE from the NYPL, January 2013 (Photograph courtesy NYPL)

John Irving, crusader against censorship, employs a strategic semicolon:

Imagined missing father; wrestled, wrote, fathered children.

Irving was apparently so delighted by the exercise that he took the liberty of writing a few more seven-word bios for other notables:

FOR DICKENS (THE WRITER):
Had many kids; wrote about unhappy childhoods.

FOR THE OTHER DICKENS, MY DOG:
Best dog ever — she had a family.

AND THOMAS HARDY:
Fate, the universe driver; stopped writing for idiots.

NATURALLY, I COULDN’T RESIST MELVILLE:
More than a postal worker; knew whales, too.

Edmund de Waal in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Edmund de Waal has some fun with it:

Actually, I still make pots you know.

Rem Koolhaas stays true to form:

Mystic rational sober baroque patient immediate

Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan in conversation at LIVE from the NYPL

Andrew Sullivan, who is one of the living reasons to love the internet and whose decades-long advocacy has been critical in the historic attainment of marriage equality, follows Strayed’s suit with anti-descriptive sarcasm:

French, straight, single, Anglican, diabetic, illiterate, slut.

Then comes Dan Savage, whose own tireless advocacy can’t be overstated:

asshole, blond, slut, shy, sunny, father, husband.

Anish Kapoor offers what’s arguably the most beautiful, in sheer poetics of language, answer:

As if to celebrate I discovered a mountain

Joan Didion at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2012 (Photograph courtesy NYPL)

But my favorite comes from notebook-lover Joan Didion, who has a rare gift for wry self-awareness and unwavering self-respect:

Seven words do not yet define me.

Paul Holdengräber (Photograph by Jocelyn Chase)

And, of course, this omnibus wouldn’t be complete without Holdengräber’s own 7-word autobiography, as pointedly brilliant as the man:

Mother always said: Two ears, one mouth.

See the full conversations on the LIVE from the NYPL Vimeo channel, treat yourself to one of the upcoming live events, and join me in supporting NYPL programming, which, like Brain Pickings, is made possible by patron donations.

BP

The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol

It’s hard not to love a good book trailer. Enter this fantastic new trailer for John Wilcock‘s The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol. (The second Warhol-related gem to drop this year.)

Granted, the book isn’t actually as much an autobiography so much as it is a biography collaged through interviews with 20 people close to Warhol at the end of the 60’s — from Nico to Taylor Mead to Lou Reed — trying to “explain” and make sense of the pop art icon. Still, it’s a remarkable piece of cultural history offering a rare glimpse of a man full of contradictions.

A lot of people really misunderstood him then and indeed still do, although there’s hardly a day when Andy’s name is not mentioned in the paper. He’s become a kind of icon, kind of representative of what the 60’s were.” ~ John Wilcock

Wilcock is a self-admitted expert on Warhol — he used to go to The Factory, Warhol’s famous studio, two or three times a week during the sixties and early seventies, and accompanied him to the sets of his first films.

Andy taught me an awful lot about life. I learned that artist and poets who hang around together basically tell the future, and even though they maybe explain it in words or in images that you’re not quite clear about, somebody interprets that. And, to some extent, I felt that was my role — to hang around artists and try and explain what I thought was some of the meaning.” ~ John Wilcock

The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol is as wondefully written as it is beautifully art-directed, full of rare images that make it double as a priceless stand-alone photography book. See for yourself — you can preview it on the book’s website.

via Flavorpill

BP

Maria Mitchell’s Telescope and the Kickstarting of Popular Astronomy: The Heartening Story of the World’s First Crowdfunding Campaign for Science

“Patient thought, patient labor, and firmness of purpose are almost omnipotent.”

Maria Mitchell’s Telescope and the Kickstarting of Popular Astronomy: The Heartening Story of the World’s First Crowdfunding Campaign for Science

To be human is to live suspended between the scale of snails and the scale of stars, confined by our creaturely limitations but not doomed by them — we have, after all, transcended them to compose the Benedictus and eradicate smallpox and land a mechanical prosthesis of our curiosity on Mars.

Our most pernicious creaturely challenge is not one of the imagination, which soars so readily when given half a chance, but one of perspective, so easily contracted by the fleeting urgencies of the present. On the scale of our individual lives and on the collective scale of the human future, there are few more gladsome correctives for our limitations than learning to take the telescopic perspective of time — which is why, for the past few years, I have poured my heart and every resource into the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory as a democratic dome of perspective and possibility for generations to come, and why I inscribed into its mission statement an aspiration irradiated by Whitman’s words: to make this cosmic calibration of perspective available to “all souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different… all nations, colors… all identities that have existed or may exist on this globe.”

Portrait of Maria Mitchell (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

But it was Whitman’s contemporary Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — America’s first professional female astronomer and a key figure in Figuring (from which this story is adapted) — who furnished the foundational inspiration for the endeavor: her quiet intellect, her indomitable spirit, her discomposing experience while visiting the most venerable observatories of the Old World — an experience that no human being should have along the vector of their talent and their dreams — and the way she emerged from that experience with the absolute determination to eradicate it from the world’s repertoire of exclusion.

Already an international scientific celebrity after the world-renowned comet discovery she had made while still in her twenties, Mitchell had spent a working as the first woman employed by the American federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill” as a “computer of Venus” — a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe — all the while saving up for trip to visit the astronomical bastions of Europe and meet the scientists and poets who were her living heroes. In the summer of 1857, after the hardest winter of her life, she rounded up her savings for a transatlantic ticket, made the arduous journey from her native Nantucket Island to Manhattan, and boarded a steamer to Liverpool. Having narrowly avoided a collision with another ship during the ten-day crossing, it arrived in England on her thirty-ninth birthday.

With a prized letter of introduction from Sir John Herschel — the era’s most esteemed astronomer, who had played a key role in the birth of photography a quarter century earlier and had applauded Mitchell’s comet discovery — she hastened to meet her greatest scientific hero: the polymathic Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville, for whom the word scientist had been coined two decades earlier and whose amiable genius left Mitchell feeling that “no one can make the acquaintance of this remarkable woman without increased admiration for her.”

From England, with the help of Nathaniel Hawthorne — who had taken the post as American consul after his ill-fated almost-romance with Herman Melville — Mitchell set out to visit some of Europe’s intellectual luminaries, including her favorite poet, and to look through humanity’s finest telescopes. In Italy, she headed for the Observatory of Rome, mecca of the latest research on spectroscopy, but was jarred to learn that the observatory was closed to women. Somerville, by then revered as Europe’s most learned woman, had been denied entrance. Even Herschel had failed to arrange entry for his scientifically inclined daughter.

Solar System quilt by Mitchell’s contemporary Ellen Harding Baker, made over the course of seven years to teach women astronomy when they were barred from higher education in science. Available as a print and a face mask. (Smithsonian)

Mitchell recorded wryly in her diary:

I was ignorant enough of the ways of papal institutions, and, indeed, of all Italy, to ask if I might visit the Roman Observatory. I remembered that the days of Galileo were days of two centuries since. I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, — that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.

Mitchell was eventually allowed to enter with special permission from the Pope, obtained after American diplomats pressed on her behalf. An hour and a half before sunset, she was led through the church into the observatory, where she marveled at the expensive instruments the papal government employed in studying the very motions for which they had tried Galileo two centuries earlier. She had hoped to see nebulae through the observatory’s powerful telescope, but she was informed that her permission did not extend past nightfall and was hastily sent away. A woman of uncommon clarity about the art of knowing what to do with one’s life, she must have resolved, as soon as the back door spat her out into the narrow alley behind Collegio Romano, that when she built her own observatory, it would welcome any and all who hungered to commune with the cosmos.

Art from What Miss Mitchell Saw — a picture-book biography of Maria Mitchell

Upon returning from Europe, Mitchell was greeted by an extraordinary gift — a five-inch refractor telescope, on a par with the instruments of the world’s greatest observatories, purchased through what may have been the world’s first crowdfunding campaign for science.

Elizabeth Peabody — who had coined the word Transcendentalism, revolutionized education, and introduced America to Eastern philosophy with her translations of Buddhist texts — had envisioned the project and spent years raising the $3,000 for the telescope through a subscription paper, rallying the women of New England to contribute: Kickstarter and Patreon rolled into one, a century and a half before either existed. Just as Mitchell was departing for her European journey, Emerson — the emperor of American intellectual life, whose unexpected praise had just lifted the struggling young Whitman out of despairing obscurity — had lent his voice to the crowdfunding effort on the pages of his popular magazine:

In Europe, Maria Mitchell would command the interest and receive the homage of the learned and polite, while in America so little prestige is attached to genius or learning that she is relatively unknown. This is a great fault in our social aspect, one which excites the animadversion of foreigners at once. “Where are your distinguished women — where your learned men?” they ask, as they are invited into our ostentatiously furnished houses to find a group of giggling girls and boys, or commonplace men and women, who do nothing but dance, or yawn about till supper is announced. We need a reform here, most especially if we would not see American society utterly contemptible.

Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell

While touring Europe’s iconic astronomical institutions, Mitchell had been dreaming up an observatory of her own. The crowdfunded telescope came as a wondrous surprise after a particularly difficult stretch for her, marked by the death of her great love, Ida, and her once-brilliant mother’s terrifying descent into dementia. The instrument became the first physical building block of her dream. Behind the school resembling a Greek temple where her father had once served as founding schoolmaster, she erected a simple eleven-foot dome that rotated on a mechanism made of cannonballs. A month before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, her observatory opened its doors and Mitchell began welcoming boys and girls. The crowdfunded telescope is still housed at the more recently built observatory across the street from Mitchell’s humble childhood home in Nantucket.

But beyond its material impact, crowdfunding bequeaths upon its beneficiary something even more powerful — a tangible token of solidarity and faith by a vast number of fellow humans, solidarity and faith that made all the difference to Mitchell as she endeavored to blaze a brand new path. Within a decade of the gift, she became the only woman on the faculty of the newly established Vassar College. She immersed her all-female students in an unexampled curriculum marrying mathematical physics with observational astronomy — something the all-male Harvard, which had dropped its mathematics requirement altogether in 1851, would later replicate. Mitchell’s students became not only the world’s first class of professional women astronomers but the first generation of Americans trained in what we now call astrophysics. Some of them went on to join the ranks of the famed “Harvard computers,” who revolutionized our understanding of the universe long before they could vote.

Maria Mitchell, standing at telescope, with her students at Vassar

Occasionally, Mitchell punctuated her astrophysically ambitious lectures with glimpses of her life-tested credo, which must have sculpted her students’ spirits as much as her mathematical-astrophysical rigor sculpted their minds:

I am far from thinking that every woman should be an astronomer or a mathematician or an artist, but I do think that every woman should strive for perfection in everything she undertakes.

If it be art, literature or science, let her work be incessant, continuous, life-long. If she be gifted above the average, by just so much is the demand upon her for higher labor, by just that amount is the pressure of duty increased… Think of the steady effort, the continuous labor of those whom the world calls “geniuses.” Believe me, the poet who is “born and not made” works hard for what you consider his birthright. Newton said his whole power lay in “patient thought,” and patient thought, patient labor, and firmness of purpose are almost omnipotent.

Complement with more excerpts from Figuring, exploring the little-known humanity beneath celebrated legacies that have shaped our lives, then revisit Mitchell on how friendship transforms us and consider lending a friendly hand in the endeavor to honor her legacy by building New York’s first public observatory.

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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