Secret Rivera

Four decades after it was rescued from a storage shed, Diego Rivera's magnificent City College mural remains a hidden treasure

Although her interest in the mural never waned, Packard, who died in a San Francisco nursing home in 1998 when she was 84, never talked much with her son about the work or Rivera later in life, he says. But letters she left behind are insightful of the special relationship she shared with both Rivera and Kahlo, with whom she lived for a year after the couple returned to Mexico from the fair. "I am so happy he is near you," Kahlo wrote to her from New York in October 1940, not long before coming to San Francisco to marry Rivera for a second time. "I can't tell you how much I love you for being so good to him and being so kind to me."

Bari Miller, 56, of Santa Cruz, is someone else for whom the mural holds great personal interest. Her mother is depicted on each side of the piece as a swimsuited diver, Rivera's way of harmonizing time and space. Helen Crlenkovich, a national diving champion in 1939, went on to be a dive double for Esther Williams in the movies before dying tragically of cancer at age 34 in 1955. "Klinky," as she was known, was 19 and in training for the (later canceled) 1940 Olympics when Timothy Pflueger introduced her to Rivera at the Fairmont Hotel's pool, where she trained.

Miller lost track of the mural until three years ago when her daughter ran across a college Web site devoted to it. "I'd remembered my grandmother showing me pictures of it in Life magazine when I was a kid," says Miller, whose father, the late stuntman Robert Morgan, married actress Yvonne DeCarlo after her mother died.

CCSF's cramped Diego Rivera Theater is a 
less-than-ideal venue for a mural of nearly 
1,800 square feet.
Paolo Vescia
CCSF's cramped Diego Rivera Theater is a less-than-ideal venue for a mural of nearly 1,800 square feet.
Rivera and Frida Kahlo take out a marriage 
license at San Francisco City Hall, Dec. 5, 
1940.
Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley
Rivera and Frida Kahlo take out a marriage license at San Francisco City Hall, Dec. 5, 1940.

She's made the pilgrimage to see the mural twice since then.

The last time, with her husband, she encountered a class researching the artwork. "This one student was having trouble making up her mind which figure [from the mural] to focus on for a presentation, and a docent says, 'Why don't you pick the diver?'" recalls Miller. "It was a wonderful little moment. I spoke up and said, 'I think I could help you with that.'"

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