By Catherine Reef
Do you think it would be more dangerous to abort than to have a child?… If, on the contrary, you think having the child might improve my condition, then, in that case, I’d like you to tell me if it would be preferable for me to go to Mexico in August and have the baby there in the company of my mother and sisters, or whether it might be best to wait for it to be born here. … Doctorcito, you have no idea how embarrassed I am to bother you with these questions, but I see you not so much as my doctor as my best friend, and your opinion would help me more than you know.
Excerpt of a letter from Frida Kahlo, in Detroit, to Stanford surgeon Leo Eloesser, MD, May 26, 1932.
From Querido Doctorcito (El Equilibrista, 2007).
She would later emerge as one of the world’s greatest self-portraitists, but in December 1930 Frida Kahlo was unknown. She had come to San Francisco with her husband, the famous muralist Diego Rivera, who was there to paint frescoes, including one for the San Francisco Stock Exchange. Kahlo was 23, and this was her first visit to the United States.
Plagued by a chronically painful right foot, she consulted Leo Eloesser, MD, a noted thoracic and orthopedic surgeon at Stanford’s medical school. He proposed little in the way of treatment beyond rest and healthy living, but Kahlo was grateful enough to paint his portrait. In it, the short, dark 49-year-old stands with his head jutting characteristically forward. Beside him is a model sailboat, emblematic of his passion for nighttime sailing on the bay.
With that gift of a painting, a loving friendship was born — one that would enhance two remarkable lives.
“I hate domesticity,” said Leo Eloesser. “Conventions were no bother to Leo,” wrote his biographer. Neither were they to Frida Kahlo.
The letters and journals that Kahlo and Eloesser left behind reveal a bond that went far beyond the doctor-patient relationship. She wrote him passionate missives confiding not only her physical pains but also her deeply private emotional suffering. He was a ready listener, offering medical and moral support along with a generous dose of affection and playful wit. He even served as a go-between in her turbulent relationship with Rivera. He was awed by her talent, intelligence and audacity, and he found in her a kindred spirit, someone acutely interested in the world’s cultures and in helping those who were less privileged.
Kahlo, a native of Mexico City, disliked most of the Americans she met. “They are boring and they all have faces like unbaked rolls,” she complained in a letter to a Mexican friend. Eloesser, however, seemed different. He spoke fluent Spanish and had an intensity and intelligence that attracted her, notes art historian Hayden Herrera in her biography Frida (Harper & Row, 1983). Also, his left-wing political views were compatible with hers, as she was an ardent communist.
Eloesser, for his part, “had a true love of art and artists,” observed his friend and biographer, Harris Shumacker Jr., MD, in a 1984 article in the medical journal The Pharos. He took special pleasure in the company of painters and sculptors, calling them “a carefree lot, generous and liberal in recognition of their fellow artists as well as in their readiness to help,” as noted in Shumacker’s biography, Leo Eloesser, M.D.: Eulogy for a Free Spirit.
Eloesser was leading a full life when he and Kahlo crossed paths. He was chief of Stanford’s surgical service at San Francisco County Hospital (now SF General) and clinical professor of surgery at Stanford’s School of Medicine, which was then in San Francisco. A famed diagnostician, he had a thriving private practice and operated at five other city hospitals. “Leo was a workhorse. He had no concept of time, night or day,” said a junior associate at the county hospital, according to The History of the Surgical Service at San Francisco General Hospital (2007). He played viola with members of the San Francisco Symphony in an ensemble that met in his apartment each Wednesday. He frequently took out his sloop, the Flirt, often with a companion, often female. He deflected questions about his single status with statements quoted in Shumacker’s biography such as “I hate domesticity.” Commented Shumacker, “Conventions were no bother to Leo.”
Neither were they to Kahlo. She rejected current fashions, preferring the folkloric costumes and long skirts of the Tehuantepec region of Mexico, garments that tactfully hid her legs from view. Kahlo had spent long stretches as an invalid since the age of 6, when polio permanently weakened her right leg. As a teenager she survived a bus accident that all but shattered her skeleton. Her spine broke in three places, her right leg sustained 11 fractures, her right foot was crushed and a steel handrail skewered her pelvic region. In addition, Eloesser noted signs of a congenital condition — scoliosis according to some sources, spina bifida according to others. She was nonetheless an attractive woman in her own unconventional way. In his journal Eloesser described her as “a girl of unusual beauty” whose “hair was a lustrous black; her dark eyebrows almost met over her straight nose; her skin was of a faint, light-coral pink.”
Kahlo started to paint while convalescing from the bus accident. As soon as she could walk again she tracked down the widely celebrated Rivera, who was at work on a series of 124 murals in Mexico’s ministry of education. In no way intimidated, she demanded that he climb down from his scaffolding and look at her paintings. Rivera was taken with both the art and the artist, and in August 1929 the two married.
When Rivera finished the work that had brought him to San Francisco in 1930, he and Kahlo moved on to other U.S. cities where he had commissions. Kahlo’s earliest missives to Eloesser from these places were chatty and entertaining, offering an outsider’s irreverent impressions. New Yorkers, she wrote, were “irritable, as if they live in an enormous dirty chicken coop.” Before long, however, her correspondence turned serious. She had a hard choice to make and needed frank advice. “I am now two months pregnant,” she wrote from Detroit in May 1932. Although she welcomed motherhood, she worried that her body was too badly damaged to carry a child to term. Her Detroit physician assured her that she could safely continue the pregnancy, but Kahlo had serious doubts and was considering an abortion. “What I want to know is your opinion,” she wrote, “because you know my situation better than anyone.” Eloesser’s reply has been lost, but what he wrote hardly mattered, because Kahlo decided on her own to keep the baby, with grave results. On July 4 she began hemorrhaging and was rushed to a Detroit hospital. She experienced a spontaneous miscarriage that necessitated 13 days of hospitalization.
Kahlo’s grief over this disaster led her to a creative breakthrough. She painted Henry Ford Hospital, a dreamlike work in which she lies naked and bleeding on a hospital bed against a barren landscape. She holds strings — or umbilical cords — that connect her to an unborn child, a snail and other objects. Kahlo emerged from the ordeal as an artist who depicted her physical and psychological state in a rich allegorical language. “I paint my own reality,” she told an interviewer in 1938. “She pierced through events and appearances to seize the deepest layers of that reality,” wrote biographer Herrera.
Not everyone grasped this aspect of Kahlo the artist. When she wanted to paint her lost child, her Detroit physicians refused to lend her an obstetrical text, fearing the images might upset her. Rivera, knowing better, bought her one to use as a reference. “You are not dealing with an average person,” he told the doctors, according to Herrera’s book. In 1941, Eloesser presented her with a fetus preserved in formaldehyde, which she kept in her bedroom alongside her doll collection. It was a strange gift, but one in keeping with Kahlo’s need to examine her life minutely. “Never did a painter, man or woman, so successfully transfer his (or her) emotions to canvas,” Eloesser wrote in his journal.
The 1930s were busy years for Eloesser. In 1935 he described the surgical technique for which he is best remembered. Designed to drain acute tuberculous empyema, an infection between the layers of membrane surrounding the lung, this “little piece of operative gadgetry,” as he called it, involved making a U-shaped incision that permitted drainage while preventing air from entering the chest cavity. Antibiotics later eclipsed the need for the Eloesser flap, although it still has some value in chronic cases.
Eloesser also followed the leanings of his strong social conscience. He paid for round-the-clock nursing for a prisoner upon whom he performed surgery, and was known to give his Christmas dinner to indigent patients. In August 1937, he went to San Quentin State Prison to examine the political activist Tom Mooney, who was serving time for a 1916 bombing that killed 16 people in San Francisco. Mooney was then in the hospital with an inflamed gallbladder. Believing he had been wrongly convicted, the American left was monitoring Mooney’s incarceration and treatment, so the prison physician wanted a politically liberal doctor to decide whether he needed surgery. Eloesser determined that the procedure could be postponed, and he performed it himself years later, after Mooney gained his freedom.
Also in 1937, Eloesser took a leave of absence from Stanford and went to Spain as a physician with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a unit of American volunteers fighting on the Loyalist side, against Franco, in the Spanish Civil War. He performed lifesaving surgeries behind the front lines in a makeshift hospital lacking heat and electricity, often examining wounds by candlelight. “When wounded begin to pour in, one has to take things as they are and make the best of them,” he reported in January 1938 to the New York-based Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy.
He kept up his correspondence with Kahlo, now back in Mexico, whose condition was deteriorating despite surgeries, casts and corsets. “My foot continues to be sick,” she wrote. “‘Trophic ulcer,’ what is that?” Eloesser, who questioned the value of the many procedures carried out by Kahlo’s Mexican doctors, recommended a simple regimen of healthful habits. He particularly counseled Kahlo to limit her drinking, which had become habitual. At one point she assured him that she had given up “cocktailitos,” writing, “I’m having a beer once a day and am a little stronger and in a better mood.”
But the most striking aspect of their correspondence was unrelated to health. Wise, caring, trusted — and far away, Eloesser was the ideal confidant when Kahlo needed to unburden her heart. Rivera was perpetually unfaithful, having affairs with models, starlets and wealthy tourists. Among his lovers were the American sculptor Louise Nevelson and the Mexican film star María Félix. Although Kahlo, too, had been untrue, her husband’s roaming pained her deeply, especially when he became involved with her own sister. “You have no idea what I suffer,” she told her “querido doctorcito,” her beloved little doctor. Life with Rivera became intolerable, and in 1939, when she was 32, they divorced.
Without the daily presence of the man she still loved, Kahlo entered a dark emotional state and drank more than ever. She painted herself wearing a necklace of thorns in one self-portrait, and with her heart exposed and dripping blood in another. And she was very ill. Her Mexican doctors put her in traction and suggested more surgery. In three months, she lost 15 pounds.
More ominously, she woke one morning “to find four toes of her right foot black on the ends.” He scribbled the word “gangrene.”
This time it was Rivera who consulted Eloesser. As luck would have it, Rivera was in San Francisco, painting a mural for the Golden Gate Exhibition. He was worried about Kahlo, so far away and unwell, and asked their friend the doctor for advice. Eloesser in turn telephoned Kahlo and urged her to come to San Francisco to put herself under his care. He followed up with a letter addressing the root cause of her suffering: “Diego loves you very much, and you love him.” Acknowledging that Rivera “has never been, nor ever will be, monogamous,” he went on to propose that she remarry him, accept him as he was and channel her energy into work. He closed by saying, “Reflect, dear Frida, and decide.” Meanwhile, he convinced Rivera that remarriage would help safeguard Kahlo’s fragile health, something the doctor honestly believed. “She really needs me,” Rivera told one of his assistants, the American artist Emmy Lou Packard, Herrera wrote. He also admitted that a reconciliation would be better for him, too. Living apart “was having a bad effect upon both of us,” he stated in My Art, My Life, the autobiography he wrote with Gladys March.
So in September 1940 Kahlo flew to San Francisco. Eloesser had her admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital to rest and “dry out,” and watched her health improve. During Rivera’s visits to her hospital room, the couple discussed getting back together. Before anything could be settled, however, she took off for New York to meet with a gallery owner and, while there, had a whirlwind affair with a young German art lover. It was late November when Kahlo, still in New York, at last made up her mind to remarry Rivera — but the new marriage must be a union of two souls, she stipulated, with no physical intimacy. “I was so happy to have Frida back that I assented to everything,” Rivera wrote in My Art, My Life. Kahlo returned to San Francisco and stayed in Eloesser’s home until a brief marriage ceremony could be held in a city courtroom.
Again she expressed her thanks with a painting, this one a self-portrait dedicated to “Doctor Leo Eloesser, my physician, my best friend. With all my love.” At home in Mexico she produced more self-portraits, painting herself in the company of parrots, monkeys and insects.
By 1945 Eloesser was ready for a change. He retired from Stanford and went to Nanjing, China, with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to train doctors in thoracic surgery. His Chinese colleagues noted his careful attention to patients’ well-being before, during and after surgery, and his often-repeated rule, “If you don’t respect the tissue, then the tissue won’t respect you.” He also wove basket-like bamboo prostheses for patients who had lost lower limbs. In 1949 he moved to New York to work with UNICEF.
Kahlo’s life during these years was defined by unrelenting pain in her spine and right foot as her disability worsened. When Eloesser visited her in January 1950, she was about to enter Mexico City’s English Hospital for a stay that would last a year. In his notes Eloesser recorded that Kahlo had consumed “No alcohol in three years.” This was good news, but over the same period she had been taking “much Seconal.” More ominously, she woke one morning “to find four toes of her right foot black on the ends.” He scribbled the word “gangrene.” By August 1953, the amputation of her leg below the knee could no longer be postponed. “This is going to kill her,” Rivera rightly predicted. Kahlo lingered for an anguished year until July 13, 1954, when she died at 47. She had written in her journal, “I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to come back.”
Eloesser, at 70, settled in Mexico with Joyce Campbell, a friend who also worked for UNICEF; she became his partner for the rest of his life. He operated a clinic in Tacámbaro, in the state of Michoacán, and concerned himself with rural health problems, especially tuberculosis and infant mortality. He trained rural midwives and published a manual on midwifery. He continued to see patients until his heart gave out on Oct. 4, 1976. He was 95, but his death took Campbell by surprise. “That morning he had been optimistic and even cheerful and I know he had no intention of dying,” she wrote in a passage included in Shumacker’s biography.
Eloesser had saved the letters he received from Kahlo. After his death, Campbell entrusted them to her friend Juan Pascoe, a literary printer. He in turn contacted María Isabel Grañén Porrúa, president of Apoyo de Desarrollo de Archivos y Bibliotecas de México, an organization dedicated to the recovery and preservation of historical documents. Curiosity impelled Grañén Porrúa to start a search of Kahlo’s home outside Mexico City (now the Frida Kahlo Museum) for Eloesser’s letters to her. Their discovery led to a 2005 exhibition at the Kahlo museum and a book, Querido Doctorcito, containing all the existing correspondence between Eloesser and the patient he held dear.
Catherine Reef has written more than 40 books for children and adults, most of them works of biography and American history. Her book Frida and Diego: Art, Love, and Life will be published in spring 2014 by Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.