Secret Rivera

CCSF's cramped Diego Rivera Theater is a

In the spring of 1940, thugs stormed the suburban Mexico City home of Leon Trotsky, in a failed attempt to assassinate the exiled Russian revolutionary. Trotsky escaped by hiding under his bed. (He was killed during a second attempt on his life that August.) But the intruders kidnapped his young American aide, Sheldon Harte, whose mutilated body was found beneath a farmhouse a few days later. The attempt on Trotsky's life unnerved famed muralist and artist-on-the-left Diego Rivera, a neighbor and one-time friend of Trotsky. Although they had had a well-publicized falling out, Rivera was convinced that the long arm of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was at work in the murder attempt, and that as a Stalin critic he — Rivera — would be the next assassination target.

But leaving Mexico immediately wasn't practical. Actress Paulette Goddard, the wife of Charlie Chaplin and a woman billed as having “the most beautiful body in the world,” had just arrived at the Rivera home in Mexico City's Coyoacán neighborhood to sit for an oil painting. A friend of both Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, Goddard later reported only one disagreement with Rivera. He wanted to paint her nude. She resisted. As a compromise, they settled on a classic boudoir scene with the vivacious Goddard sporting a white blouse and short skirt and attended by a naked Indian girl.

Early in June, as the actress and Rivera worked late to finish the portrait, they were interrupted by the sound of screeching brakes. Goddard walked out to the street to find several cars filled with suspicious-looking men. The actress reported that at least one of them had a gun. Walking past them, she rounded a corner, jumped in a taxi, sped to a phone booth, and called to warn Rivera.

Hiding on the floor of his station wagon, Rivera was spirited away by an aide a few minutes later, avoiding plainclothes police who wanted to question him about Harte and — at the very least, the artist feared — frame him for the attempt on Trotsky's life. Rivera wired prominent San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, at whose behest he had agreed to execute a monumental art project at the 1940 world's fair being held on Treasure Island, to have him contact the American consul in Mexico City to facilitate Rivera's leaving the country right away. “In your communication to the American Consul here please say to him that I should leave here for California at once in order to be able to comply with my work at the Exposition,” Rivera wrote. “I want to make clear to you that the difficulties that have been created for me within the last few days are the result of the work of Mexican agents of the Stalin-Nazis, who want to avoid my going to the States, to injure me here in every way, and assassinate me if possible.”

Rivera's arrival in San Francisco was instant news. Pflueger was at the airport to whisk him away to a house on Telegraph Hill (42 Calhoun Terrace) that would be Rivera's home-away-from-home for the next five months. With the artist's encouragement, newspapers reported how Goddard had saved his life. In plain view of enthralled fairgoers, Rivera got to work immediately on a massive mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition. Life magazine dispatched a photographer to chronicle the great artist at work. From a public relations standpoint, the mural project could have scarcely begun with more fanfare. There was certainly nothing to suggest that upon completion the piece would fall quickly into oblivion.

Universally regarded as among the most important pieces of art created in San Francisco, Rivera's fresco Pan American Unity, painted in a hangar on Treasure Island, celebrates the fusion of artistic impulses from north and south of the border with Mexico. The last of his several major works in the United States — including two others in San Francisco, at the Art Institute and the former Stock Exchange — it is the largest of the legendary artist's free-standing murals, encompassing nearly 1,800 square feet.

Although museums have coveted it over the years, since 1961 the mural has resided in obscurity in a small performing arts theater on the campus of City College of San Francisco, which owns it. Incredibly, for nearly 20 previous years it was kept in crates in a campus storage shed. Intended as the centerpiece of a college library envisioned by Pflueger after the close of the fair, the mural was all but forgotten when the outbreak of World War II and Pflueger's subsequent death caused the library plans to be shelved.

“The mural is a San Francisco treasure and is without doubt one of the best-kept secrets in art,” says Julia Bergman, a City College librarian among a cadre of admirers long intent on seeing the painting receive the attention it deserves. Until two years ago, it was impossible to get into the building to view the mural except during theater events. Even instructors complained about the doors being locked when they tried to take students there. San Francisco muralist Raymond Patlán calls the piece's disappearance and subsequent low profile at the college “a really sad situation. From an artistic standpoint, what happened to that mural is almost a crime.”

Indeed, the college has always had a kind of love-hate relationship with its unlikely treasure. Despite years of promotional neglect, and the college's inability even to insure an acclaimed artwork that experts say would be valued in the many millions of dollars were it to go on the market, the school has steadfastly refused to part with it. In recent years both the de Young Museum and San Francisco's Mexican Museum have made plays for the mural, each wanting to include it in new facilities now under construction.

Although the museums sought to get the college to donate the mural as opposed to buying it, CCSF Chancellor Philip Day insists that money was never the issue. “Whether one makes the argument that the mural has been neglected in the past, and that certainly can be said, it's an integral part of the identity of this college, and to let it leave here is not something that's up for discussion,” he says. These days when Day mentions a new home for the mural, he's talking about ambitious plans to house it on campus in a state-of-the-art Center for Pan American Unity and Study, while acknowledging that it could take years for that to happen. [page]

Meanwhile, there has been a resurgence of interest in the mural, thanks in part to a wealth of archival material Bergman has spent much of the last decade assembling for the college library. Among the prized documents contained in the archive are letters, memos, contracts, and diaries belonging to Rivera and his artist wife, Frida Kahlo (who were famously remarried in San Francisco in December 1940 after divorcing a year earlier).

Perhaps most intriguing are dozens of hours of oral histories donated by the estate of artist Emmy Lou Packard, Rivera's chief assistant on the mural. With unanticipated encouragement from persons connected with Rivera, including the artist's daughter, Guadalupe Rivera Marin, what began as a quest to fill in the blanks about the mural's quirky history at the college has turned into perhaps the definitive resource on Rivera's San Francisco experience. “There's enough here for a book or two,” says Bergman. “The question is whether I'll have time to write it.”

Painted on a grand scale in the manner of the Italian Renaissance masters, Pan American Unity depicts a melding of pre-Columbian Mexican artistic themes with North American motifs of modern engineering marvels, merging a panorama of the Bay Area with scenes from the Valley of Mexico. Rivera painted the mural from June to November of 1940 as part of a program called “Arts in Action,” which allowed fairgoers to observe him and other artists as they worked.

It was his third stint in San Francisco. In 1930, sculptor and painter Ralph Stackpole, who had been commissioned to create sculptures at the Stock Exchange and who had been a fellow artist with Rivera in Paris during World War I, had suggested to Pflueger, the Exchange's architect, that Rivera paint a fresco at the building. The following year Rivera returned to paint the Art Institute fresco, titled The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City.

The most celebrated Mexican artist of the 20th century, Rivera imbued his works, which are viewed as icons in his native country, with leftist and revolutionary themes. But unlike some of his earlier murals, the one he produced for the fair is of a decidedly milder tone. Having arrived in San Francisco with little more than a concept of “Pan American Unity” as the subject, Rivera spontaneously included topical events and people he met here in the piece.

“There's an almost zany quality about the mural, compared to some of his earlier work,” says art historian Anthony W. Lee of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and a former instructor at UC Berkeley. As Rivera painted the mural, Germany had already conquered most of Europe, Stalin was still allied with Hitler and Mussolini, and Rivera was intent on doing his part to nudge the United States into the war against Germany and in defense of the Americas.

Using scenes from Hollywood movies, including three involving Goddard from Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, Rivera attacked the tyranny of the Axis powers. A figure of Stalin holds a bloody ax in an obvious reference to Trotsky's assassination. There's a man sitting at a table wearing a “Wendell Willkie for President” button in honor of the Republican nominee who opposed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940, a nod to Willkie's “One World” theory of international cooperation. But there is little of the satiric edge found in some of Rivera's Mexican murals featuring U.S. subjects. Instead, the mural pays homage to American icons such as Henry Ford, standing above his V-8 engine, and Thomas Edison, shown with his phonograph and light bulb.

At the urging of his patron, Pflueger, Rivera arrived intending to finish the mural by the fair's end in September. But as Pflueger's plans for the library expanded, so did the mural. Rivera and his assistants worked two months beyond the Exposition's close to complete the work. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving — two days after an “invitation only” unveiling for the city's social elite — more than 30,000 people streamed to the island to see the mural before it was packed away.

After Trotsky's murder, Rivera moved between Treasure Island and his quarters on Telegraph Hill accompanied by a bodyguard. Yet, there is nothing to suggest that security concerns deterred the A-list of literati and other celebrities who kept the artist company during his stay, including writer Aldous Huxley, actor Edward G. Robinson, and the voluptuous Goddard.

A man of limitless sexual proclivities, Rivera was rumored to have included the actress among his conquests during his stay. (He was famous for keeping a list of his liaisons and rating the women he slept with by denoting either a plus or a zero.) Emmy Lou Packard, his young assistant, recently widowed at the time, “took pride in saying she was the only woman close to Rivera whom he never succeeded in getting into bed,” recalls her son, Donald Kairns.

If Rivera's San Francisco experience was high drama, the final act was shared with Kahlo, whose haunting self-portraits (not to mention scandalously tempestuous relationship with Rivera) have — long after her death in 1954 — helped her attain cultlike status.

Having divorced Rivera in 1939 for “artistic differences,” Kahlo nonetheless put in a brief appearance in San Francisco before leaving for New York. There, before returning to remarry him in a municipal judge's chambers at City Hall, she wrote letters to her friend and confidante Packard, brooding over Rivera's health and a book deal that his second wife, Guadalupe Marin, had signed with an American publisher, which Kahlo deemed money-grubbing. “She is absolutely a son of a bitch,” Kahlo wrote in a letter that is part of the college archive. “Everything she does is so low and dirty that sometimes I feel like going back to Mexico and [killing] her. … Sometimes I wonder why Diego could stand that type of wench for seven years.”


Unlike some of his predecessors at the City College helm, Philip Day immediately appreciated the mural's real and potential value to the school — and the extent to which others wanted to get their hands on it. Within two months of becoming chancellor in 1998, he received an unexpected invitation to have lunch with Harry Parker, director of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, which include the de Young. Day had just arrived from being head of a college in Florida and had no idea who Parker was.

The lunch was arranged by Day's predecessor, Del Anderson, who — perhaps portentously — had been invited a short time earlier to join the de Young's board of directors. Parker wanted to acquire the mural for the new de Young, now under construction. “I just looked at Del and said, 'Look, you know the issue with that. If I offered my cooperation I would be the shortest-lived chancellor in the history of the college.'” Day says that “it was all very pleasant, but in less than five minutes there was nothing more to talk about.”

It wasn't the first attempt by a museum to acquire the mural. In fact, it wasn't the de Young's first try. According to Robert Gabriner, the college's dean of research, planning, and grants, Parker and another de Young official put out a feeler in 1995, just as planning for the museum's new facility in Golden Gate Park was taking shape. (Parker did not respond to interview requests.) “They said they were interested in using [the mural] prominently near the entrance in some fashion,” Gabriner recalls. “They really wanted it.”

So did Peter Rodriguez, founder and former executive director of the Mexican Museum, whose overtures ruffled feathers at the college. Gabriner had an idea for promoting the mural after seeing an information kiosk at a museum in Italy while on vacation. With help from a multimedia company, his idea morphed into a portable reproduction of the mural that the college sends to educational conferences and school and civic events.

During the unveiling of the traveling exhibit at a reception hosted by the college in 1995, Rodriguez created a stir by criticizing CCSF's stewardship of the mural, saying it ought to be housed at the Mexican Museum. “It's a great work of art, and I wanted it where people are going to see it, and still do,” says Rodriguez, 77, now retired.

Two members of the museum's board — Guadalupe Rivera Marin, the artist's daughter, and John Pflueger, Timothy Pflueger's nephew — have important ties to the mural. But the museum's current director, William Moreno, calls the ties “purely coincidental” and insists that “as much as we might have loved to have had it, the mural is pretty much off our radar screen now.” (Rivera Marin, in fact, continues to be highly supportive of the college's own plans for the mural's future, Day and others say. Attempts to contact her for this article were unsuccessful.) Gabriner says that “after so many years of inattention, to suddenly have so much institutional interest was an eye-opener for us.” Even a former Mexican consular officer in San Francisco got into the act, he says, briefly promoting an idea to house the mural at San Francisco International Airport.

It isn't difficult to see why the college's role in caring for the mural has come under fire. Even in the four decades since its rescue from the shed, the piece has been housed in a performing arts theater — renamed the Diego Rivera Theater in 1993 — that is a less-than-ideal venue for such a monumental work. Because of the lobby's shallow depth, it is impossible to glimpse the mural from afar. Instead, viewers are thrust against it, creating a viewing experience akin to sitting in the front row of a movie theater. Although the mural's 10 panels were intended to be viewed as a contiguous flat surface, to accommodate the limited space available when the lobby was designed, the panels rest against the wall in a distorted, slightly circular fashion.

But such considerations are quibbles compared to the mural's earlier handling: For years it was nearly impossible to see the work, even assuming one knew where to find it. “At one point I came within an inch of bringing up for censure the [theater arts instructor] who held the key [to the theater],” recalls Masha Zakheim, who taught English at the college from 1966 until 1991 and whose father, Bernard Zakheim, was among the muralists whose work is displayed at Coit Tower. “Talk about frustrating. We had this wonderful work of art on campus, and you couldn't get access to it.”

Bergman, the librarian, recalls the time two European tourists came into the library asking for help finding the mural and her having to persuade campus police to open the door. “We get scholars, diplomats, you name it, from all over the world, who come here to see it,” says Will Maynez, director of the college's physics lab, and another of the mural's fans. But they're the exception. Among the public, the mural remains obscure even on campus, which has no signs to direct visitors to it.

The college's rekindled interest in the mural can be traced to the late 1980s and a controversial plan to move it from the theater into a new college library, which opened in 1995. Although nothing like the library Timothy Pflueger once envisioned, the current library was designed with a soaring four-story atrium specifically to accommodate the mural. [page]

Opponents of the move, who expressed concern that the mural might be damaged, prevailed. In hindsight, even some who favored the move say things may have worked out for the best. Although the new library would have been a better venue than the theater, they say, the atrium still would not have allowed for optimal viewing. “It was a blessing in disguise,” says Bergman. “If the mural had been put there, that's undoubtedly where it would have stayed.”

Since then, its protectors have had loftier goals.

During a brainstorming session in 1999, Guadalupe Rivera Marin challenged the college community to “think big” about the mural's future, suggesting that CCSF make the work the centerpiece of its own building. Chancellor Day seized on the idea, and the dream of a Pan American Center was born. “His attitude was, 'Sure, we can do that,'” recalls Bergman, who was present at the session. “It was a transformational moment.”

Timothy Pflueger had grand plans for the mural. San Francisco's leading architect and one of its most important arts patrons during the first half of the 20th century, Pflueger had made his mark in the 1920s, designing the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. headquarters (at the time the city's tallest structure) and the Stock Exchange building. Pflueger's friendship with Rivera blossomed in 1930 after he arranged for Rivera to paint his Allegory of California at the Stock Exchange.

When finished, the Exposition mural was to have become the cornerstone of Pflueger's next project, the futuristic library he intended to build at San Francisco Junior College (as CCSF was then known). The library would complement a hilltop Science Building, also designed by Pflueger, and which remains the college's most imposing structure.

To accommodate the move from Treasure Island to the campus near Balboa Park, Rivera conceived the mural as portable, its 10 panels attached to steel framing. Portability appealed to him for reasons other than logistics. In 1933, his unfinished mural at New York's Rockefeller Center was tragically desecrated after Rivera and John D. Rockefeller came to an impasse over the latter's insistence that he remove an image of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.

As letters between the men contained in the archive reveal, Pflueger's library plans became more ambitious as Rivera's arrival neared. Pflueger envisioned the mural as covering the entire south interior wall of the library's reading room. Facing north off the hill in the center of the campus toward Judson Avenue, the mural would be visible from afar through the building's solid glass front. By the time Rivera was halfway finished, Pflueger had proposed an even grander idea. Although it would mean nearly doubling the scope of the work, why not have the artist cover the reading room's east and west walls as well? Rivera agreed. He would execute the nearly 1,800 square feet of mural envisioned for the Exposition and return once the library was constructed to complete the painting.

But with the United States' entry into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, steel that might have gone into the building's construction was instead used for Liberty ships. Within months of the war's end, the architect dropped dead of a heart attack on a downtown street.

The war and Pflueger's death contributed to the mural's fading into anonymity. Even now, the details surrounding its disappearance, as revealed in archival materials, are not widely known. Placed in temporary storage in a military hangar on Treasure Island after the gala unveiling in November 1940, the mural soon became a source of friction between the Navy, which wanted it moved, and the San Francisco Unified School District, which — while hoping to see it placed in Pflueger's planned library — had no idea what to do with it in the meantime.

Incredibly, the de Young Museum passed on the chance to take the mural in 1941 after determining that the panels were too large to fit through its doors. Museum officials balked at spending the $4,800 it would have cost to lower the work piece by piece through a skylight.

Meanwhile, the mural came perilously close to being destroyed while in the Navy's care. As he helped douse a hangar fire in 1941, a fireman pierced one of the crates with an ax, leaving a 20-inch gash in a section of the mural that depicts a woman embroidering beside a young girl. Pflueger wrote to Rivera, who was back in Mexico, to tell him about it, prompting Rivera to volunteer to repair it upon his return. In a letter, Rivera asks Pflueger to send him a photograph of the mural — “one of the whole thing, and some details. Everybody is asking for them, and I have none.” That was shortly before the library plans were halted. Rivera was never again to see the mural.

For a long time, neither was almost anyone else.

Early on a June morning in 1942, a convoy of trucks made its way across the Bay Bridge from Treasure Island to the college, coming to a halt at the foot of a hill. There, against the wall of the men's gym, workmen carefully offloaded the precious cargo, placing the crates vertically side by side. The next day a team of carpenters arrived to build the shed against the gym to cover the crates.

The move was well planned. Pflueger had seen to it that the panel damaged by the ax was put in place last. After the shed was built, a makeshift “door” was positioned against the spot so that Emmy Lou Packard, Rivera's mural assistant, could repair the damage in accord with Rivera's wishes. A memo reveals that Packard, accompanied by Pflueger, examined the damage in the summer of 1942 but decided against attempting the work, thinking it best to wait until the mural was moved for display. [page]

Little did anyone suspect that that wouldn't happen for nearly 20 years. “That shed was part of the scene for as long as I can remember,” says Jim Keenan, 60, whose father worked at the college and who remembers playing next to it as a child. Keenan is now the college's buildings and grounds superintendent. “We used to throw baseballs against it. There was never any thought about what might be inside.”

If not for Timothy Pflueger's architect brother, Milton, who in 1957 was commissioned to design the City College performing arts theater, the mural might have never seen the light of day. That December, a month after Rivera's death, Milton Pflueger presented the Board of Education, which governed the college, with a bold idea to rescue the mural from the shed. He sought permission to reconfigure the theater lobby, making it a few feet taller, wider, and deeper to accommodate the artwork. It wasn't an easy sell.

A conservative board member railed against Rivera as a communist. A spokeswoman for the teachers' union warned of the mural's bad influence on impressionable young minds. But calmer heads prevailed after board President Bert Levit suggested that if all artwork was judged by the artist's political and moral standards, the nation's galleries might be empty.

Although there were news stories in 1961 when the mural was unveiled in its new home, the buzz from the “rediscovery” of one of Rivera's monumental works didn't last long. Emmy Lou Packard was brought in to repair the ax damage of two decades earlier. (In one of her letters, she notes with pleasure inviting Mona Hofmann, another of Rivera's assistants on murals in San Francisco and at the Detroit Art Institute, to view the restoration; Hofmann was unable to determine that the panel had been damaged.)

Packard, a noted painter whose credits include the student union parapet at UC Berkeley, went on a campaign to promote the mural, with little success. She wanted a tour bus company to include the mural as a regular stop, but it wasn't interested. Having weathered McCarthy-era opposition to providing the mural a home, college officials also weren't keen on promoting it.

Despite a flurry of publicity about the mural's installation, before long remarkably few people seemed aware of its existence. Even Bertram Wolfe, Rivera's biographer, didn't know where it was. In 1962, while preparing to update Rivera: His Life and Times, Wolfe wrote to Milton Pflueger for help in finding the mural. “[It] was supposed to be put up in some building at San Francisco State College,” he stated, erroneously. “Has that been done?”

Of all the people who've rooted for the mural to emerge from obscurity, Donald Kairns may have the most personal motive. The son of the late Emmy Lou Packard, Kairns, 68, a retired insurance broker from Philadelphia, is the last known living person among the many real people whose portraits Rivera included in Pan American Unity. He was 5 at the time.

Kairns occupies a prominent spot in a middle panel, kneeling at the foot of a ceiba tree, the Mayan Tree of Life. “I remember hating the fact that I had to wear shorts that day,” he says. To his left a few feet away is one of several Rivera self-portraits in the mural. He is holding Paulette Goddard's hand. Near them stands Frida Kahlo, depicted in traditional native dress and wearing handmade earrings that were a gift from Pablo Picasso. To the right of Kairns is Timothy Pflueger. In his hands are the plans for the library that he would never build.

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.

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.'”


View Comments