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Entries in ellen copperfield (48)

Friday
Aug262016

In Which Frida Kahlo Is Divorced From The Moment

 

Spine and Back

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

When Frida Kahlo was three, the Mexican Revolution arrived in full force. Her father was a European Jew, a photographer who fled his home country after his father married a reprehensible woman. Young Guillermo Kahlo suffered from frequent seizures in his new home of Mexico City.

Her mother, Matilde Calderon, was Guillermo Kahlo's second wife; his first had died in childbirth. Matilde did not love her husband, but she was already 24 and suitors were not exactly at the door. For the first few years of their marriage Guillermo was a taciturn, unhappy man. He never wanted to be in Mexico.

The girl's real given name was Magdalena. She went by Frida from the very first, spelling her name in the German fashion, Fride, until the Nazis came to power. Her older sisters were her primary caregivers. 

In the revolution the Kahlos supported the Zapatas, feeding guerrillas when they could, but in the new government, her father's photographic commissions disappeared.

The family's new poverty was handled exclusively by Frida's mother, who was a devout Catholic. "She did not know how to read or write," Frida remembered later. "She only knew how to count money."

At the age of six she contracted polio. "It all began with a terrible pain in my right leg from the muscle downard," she said. "They washed my little leg in a small tub with walnut water and hot towels."

When she recovered, the prescription of physical exercise inculcated her father's interest in her. He had no son, and encouraged her to play soccer, wrestle and swim. She shucked off her illness, but as a tomboy she was made into a social outcast.

The closeness between the two extended to Frida's growing knowledge about art. It was a form of taking control. Her father also painted, and his canvases were painstakingly realistic scenes.

In 1922 she entered the National Prepatory School, the most prestigious institution of its kind in Mexico. Girls had only recently been admitted to these environs, and Frida was one of 35 individuals in a school of 2000. Unlike other students, she always wore a backpack.

with her own students

She was also estranged from the other girls. They gathered on a second floor patio, she never gathered anywhere, just appearing unexpectedly like hepatitis. She found this new place fascinating and her photographic memory ensured she did not have to work very hard to pass her classes.

Diego Rivera had the run of the school. He was massively fat then, and she soaped stairs so he fell as a prank. She had some close boyfriends and wrote them letters as her primary means of communication. When she graduated, her job prospects were slim. Frida stayed busy, keeping accounts at a lumber yard to make ends meet.

Then, in an event that would alter every day thereafter, she was riding a wooden bus crumpled by a trolley, and she was subdued under the wreckage. It was a slow, bracing kind of accident, born of fundamental stupidity. Her "first responders" removed a handrail that had gone so deeply into Frida that it emerged from her vagina. She survived after a few days where her life hung in the balance, but her spine and pelvis were broken.

She recovered in a derelict Red Cross hospital, with a ratio of one nurse for every twenty-five patients. She briefly regained the use of her legs in 1925 until some undiagnosed spinal fractures put her back in a full body cast. To entertain herself she drew her accident, but only in pencil.

Frida married Diego Rivera, twenty years her elder, twice. He slept with other woman as a matter of routine, but seemed to view his wife in a somewhat different light. Her mother called Frida's new husband a "fat farmer." While she dealt with her first miscarriage, Diego enjoyed an affair with one of his assistants.

Expelled from the Communist Party, Diego and Frida took refuge in America. She found San Francisco an unfriendly place and struggled with her English. While Diego seduced the subjects of his portraits, she found consolation in the arms of women.

with Diego Rivera

Back in Mexico, Diego planned two houses in San Ángel, one for Frida and one for himself., that would be situated next to each other for maximum privacy and maximum closeness. (This dream was realized later.) The two came to New York in the fall of 1931 when Frida's husband received a commission from the Museum of Modern Art. Detroit, in contrast, was a "shabby little village" where Diego planned to paint the assembly line as some kind of Marxist exemplar.

She miscarried again at Henry Ford's hospital. Her series of lithographs about this, titled Frida and the Miscarriage, showed her at all her most vulnerable moments. Her mother died of cancer.

 

Diego wanted badly to stay in America, but Frida preferred to return to Mexico. Finally out of money they returned to their native country in 1933. Diego took Frida's sister Cristina as the primary model for his nude paintings, and eventually his mistress. When his wife found out, she cut off her hair, had her appendix removed, and then underwent an abortion.

Her drinking became increasingly obliviating. She made peace with her husband and her sister after thinking it over carefully. To retaliate she took up with other male painters. She even seduced Leon Trotsky by speaking in a language his dowdy wife did not know: English.

Their flirtation faded until he was murdered with an ice pick. Frida and her sister were interrogated for fourteen hours.

She divorced Diego and her work became the center of her life. Her shows in New York were helped by an admiring Julien Levy; in Paris she learned to hate Andre Breton with a passion unknown to her. She disliked being his pet.

Viewing her paintings now, they seem utterly divorced from the surrealist moment. They are not fantastical creations - they are instead perfectly reasonable realizations of her own life. She resided in all of these places, and when she herself could not be in them, there was another woman, resembling her in almost every fashion, who could be made to take her place.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Marlon Brando.

Friday
Jun102016

In Which There Were Too Many Homecomings For Daphne Du Maurier

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Little Points

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

Daphne du Maurier's father was convinced his line would end with him, given that he fathered three daughters, and his only brother was killed in the world war. Gerald du Maurier hated being an actor, and occupied himself by plowing young actresses between scenes.

Daphne spent a lot of time with her father; things were cold and contentious with her mother for a long time. At first Gerald concealed his indiscretions, before openly introducing his conquests to his daughters. Perhaps Daphne had sensed them.

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Daphne wished she had been born a boy, explains Margaret Forster in her sterling biography of the writer, Daphne Du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller. I It would have made her father happy, and ensured she could do whatever she liked. She called her male self "Eric Avon." Eric was a lot more like her father than she would probably care to admit.

She was a restless and unhappy teenager, quickly disgusted by the London environment she inhabited, all blue eyes and boyish shirts. When she first received her menstrual cycle, she named the flow 'Robert.' "The future is such a complete blank," she told her governess. "There is nothing ahead that lures me terribly. If only I was a man."

She judged her parents' marriage quite harshly, given that her mother knew of her father's cheating and accepted him despite it. Her father was a successful actor, and the du Mauriers were quite wealthy.

Gerald du Maurier was friends with J.M. Barrie, whose acquaintance gave Daphne the idea to start writing. She had virtually no friends her age, and was completely within herself. "I only think of myself and pity anyone who likes me," she wrote. Her parents sent her to finishing school in France, hoping she might figure things out there. The school was quite austere in comparison to what she was used to, but Paris caught her attention right away.

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A teacher named Yvon took an erotic interest in Daphne, who became her pet. She could not think of herself as a homosexual, since her father hated gays. Identifying herself as male is the only way she could make sense of her feelings. She more than liked the attention from Yvon, who was rather handsy with her.

Daphne was 18 when she went on holiday with Yvon, who had just turned 30. Things never got overly physical, but time relaxing with a hardcover copy of Katherine Mansfield's latest and a woman who loved her reassured Daphne that things were not all bad. She only loathed the idea of going back to England and living with her family again.

Daphne, right, with her sisters

She knew that in addition to being attracted to women, she also found something compelling in men. Her father did not accept this proclivity, displaying extreme jealousy when she emerged for or returned from a date. Gerald told her that he wished he were her brother, not her father, and that if he died he would enjoy returning as her son. Her father's possessive attitude pushed her further into literature. She had completed three stories; all of them concerned bullying, disreputable men.

Distancing herself from her father, Daphne learned to sail. She put aside writing and supervised the construction of her boat, which was to be called the Marie-Louise. It was then that she met her first boyfriend, Carol Reed. Together they smoked in cafes and observed other people. Reed reflected her moodiness, and was just as capable of doing something rash out of nowhere. She was 22 when she and Carol fucked for the first time.

with her first child, Tessa

Carol immediately began to take the relationship with the utmost seriousness, a development that frightened Daphne. Carol ensured he would stay around by praising Daphne's writing; her former teacher Yvon told her that her stories proved Daphne would never achieve anything. To get her away from Carol Reed, Daphne's parents secured her a quiet cabin for the summer, where she was to focus on her writing.

In was in this setting, consistently decimating the marital hopes of Carol Reed, that she wrote her first novel, The Loving Spirit. This melodrama is clearly an early effort, and it is mostly in du Maurier's prose style itself - effortless and clear — that we recognize her distinctive way of saying something was so. 

Reading The Loving Spirit today is quite a struggle, but for the time it was an advanced work from a writer with no advanced training. Her second novel, I'll Never Be Young Again, was a clear measure ahead of her first effort, using a strong first person voice to create her first ghostly effect. Rebecca West called it "a whopper of a romantic novel in the vein of Emily Brontë," which was almost, but not quite, a backhanded compliment. But hey, Daphne du Maurier was just 23.

Daphne's ideas about everything changed when she met Frederick Browning, known to his friends as Tommy. Browning's service in the war had traumatized him plenty — it took him a good six months to work up the courage to even enter battle. Once he became a career man, he never left. Even stricken as he was with PTSD, Browning was a quite attractive 34 year old man.

At first Daphne was reluctant to commit. "It will take at least five brandy-and-sodas, sloe gin and a handkerchief of ether to push me to the altar rail," she claimed, before proposing to Browning herself. The wedding took place in the middle of July, and her parents gave them a cottage as a present.

Six months later, Daphne was pregnant with her first child, a girl named Tessa. She stopped breastfeeding as soon as she could: "The child hiccups most of the time and kicks me in the stomach. But then I never was sentimental." Daphne suffered from postpartum depression, and struggled to bond with her daughter. The strains of her marriage wore on her, too. Browning was in Surrey when she was at home, and she felt adrift.

Then her father died. Daphne did not go to the funeral, and fantasized she saw her father as a ghost. She channeled her grief into a monograph about her father entitled, Gerald: A Portrait, which managed her best reviews yet. Her new publisher was Victor Gollancz, and under his encouraging influence she began the novel which would become her first solid hit: Jamaica Inn.

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Just as she was achieving her largest public response to date, her husband's service took them both to Egypt. She loathed the city of Alexandria, feeling confined to a scrubby house since there was simply no place where she could realistically walk. After giving birth to a second daughter, Flavia, she decided not to return to the country. Yet it was in this inharmonious setting where she would conceive the idea for her next novel, "a rather sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower."

Rebecca was slow in emerging from Daphne's brain. Initially, Daphne trashed the first 15,000 words of the manuscript and began again. In a new house in Hampshire, she finally found the routine she needed. Servants handled her children while she focused on her new book. "It's a bit on the gloomy side and the psychological side may not be understood," she worried to Gollancz. Rebecca became instantly popular in England, but it was a smash in the United States.

in her writing room

Daphne felt a bit confused. She had a full family to fear for whenever her husband started repeating his predictions of a Europe hurtling towards war. She expected her kids to lead quiet lives where they expressed their inner imagination. Instead, Tessa and Flavia could be loud and disobedient like any children, and Daphne disapproved of this behavior. "Instead of thinking my children are marvelous, I am super-critical," she told her mother.

Disgusted by the film version of Jamaica Inn, Daphne attempted to construct a version of Rebecca that might play well on the stage. As war came to London, she refused to send her children to America, fearing she would never see them again. Instead, she had a third child, a son they named Christian.

her friend Ellen Doubleday

Depression was a feature of her everyday life, though she loved her son in a way she had never felt close to her daughters. She felt distant from Browning and resented their many weeks apart. She was, however, finding herself as a a mother. "I am very grateful for being given the power to deal with all these little domestic worries," she wrote, "and I am sure it has been a discipline. I've always shirked responsibility before. Now I find I can bear it. I seem to know the children more through looking after them. God is testing me out on those little points."

With her husband away, Daphne flirted with a family friend so much their relationship became a bit of a scandal. There was no sex, only a connection that evaporated both of their marriages. She wrote a book about the man's family called Hungry Hill. It was her husband's glider accident that wrecked his shoulder and returned him to her. Nursing him back to health effectively ended Daphne's infidelity.

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After the war, when Browning came back to the family for good, he did not want Daphne anymore. The pain of the rejection stung, and abandoned them to separate beds, where each barely slept. "If Tommy just looks upon me as a dull old thing he is fond of, the outlook is dreary," she confessed to a friend. Browning's drinking made it impossible for him to get an erection in any case.

In America for the first time: Daphne was there unwillingly, forced to defend herself against charges of plagiarism that were focused on Rebecca, a story so old it could properly be called a fable. She won the case and left as quickly as she could, but not before developing a crush on the wife of publisher Nelson Doubleday. It could never be consummated, but she wrote the woman as many letters as she could.

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Too much had gone on since she had married Tommy. She saw an older man who barely knew his children, grew frustrated at the first moment his oldest daughter was not what he expected. His strangeness with his own blood only made it less likely he could ever be close to Daphne, and she resented that he did not even make the effort, that there had been no homecoming whatsoever. He had brought a young girl with him, in fact, his war secretary, in her twenties. Daphne found her beautiful.

She was not happy, and every person in her life could tell.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing in these pages here.

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Thursday
Apr212016

In Which Edouard Manet Lives Like A Mollusk In The Sun

Gangrene

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

Until the last years of his life, Manet never read novels.

Midway through the year 1876, Manet's left foot troubled him. The pain was intense, as was the frequent numbness. The symptoms of severe syphilis had not emerged until now, but they were out in full force. He wrote off the constant aches and pains to bouts of rheumatism. By the end of the year his only desire was to find a doctor that could abate whatever was wrong with him. Various homeopathic remedies were attempted without success; he tried hydrotherapy in order to restore nerve function in the limb.

He was not really able to leave his new Paris studio, so his friends had to come to him. Surrounded by the canvases of his career, it was easier for Manet to avoid work by socializing into the long hours. His legs could not carry him anywhere else by then.

Manet became fascinated by the daughter of Paris' finest jeweler, a girl named Isabelle Lemonnier. Her wrote her short messages with little sketches of things. In 1879 she was enraptured enough by his attention that she sat for six portraits. Manet's wife and mother were sick, and he needed a distraction.

Near the end of the year he collapsed in a Paris street from pain. His hair loss was often commented on, and he used up four to five hours a day at a clinic said to treat circulatory disorders. For the first time critics were giving his work the semblance of a proper appreciation, but his ill health soured everything, giving him the revolting idea that he would only become famous after death. He was 50.

Optimism was farfetched. He wrote to a friend in 1880, "As you put it so well, time is a great healer. And so I am counting heavily on it. I live like a mollusk in the sun, when there is any, as much as possible outdoors, but without any doubt, the country has charms only for those aren't forced to stay there."

Novels provided a welcome relief from his constant pain. His friend Antonin Proust suggested that "he did not seek in his reading literary pleasure but distraction from the pain of ataxia." He knew now that he was nearing the end. He was reduced to simple portraits of flowers; anything else was beyond his current capabilities. Against his better judgment, Manet began to feel sorry for himself.

His left leg turned entirely black. Doctors took a week to decide whether it was even worth operating on, but eventually they decided to amputate. The nails on his foot flaked off at the gentlest touch. All that was left were his deep blue eyes. He was barely aware of the operation occurring, but eventually seemed to grasp the absence of the limb, raising the sheet to observe that it was missing. He finally gave up on April 30th of 1883.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording.

"Heading Home" - Julianna Barwick (mp3)