In the summer of 1937 Leon Despres, then 29 years old, went with his wife, Marian, on a three-week vacation to Mexico. A lawyer friend, Albert Goldman, had asked them to deliver a letter and some clothing to one of his clients, Leon Trotsky.
Trotsky had been living in exile for seven years, and he and his wife, Natalia, were struggling. At the time they were living in a suburb of Mexico City in the "Blue House," which belonged to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. "Rivera had been a member of the Communist Party," says Leon, now 94 and still practicing law in Chicago. "I don't know if you could call him a Trotskyite. He wasn't a man that could accept the discipline of the Stalinist party. He felt a strong affinity to Trotsky. I think when we were there there was a great friendship."
After they arrived in Mexico the Despres went to the house to deliver the letter and clothing. They expected to be there for only an hour.
Trotsky came to meet them, along with one of his secretaries. "Trotsky seemed quite old to us at the time--he was 51," says Leon, who'd once been a member of the Socialist Party. "He was very impressive. He had a black beard, and he had an impressive head." He adds, "He had been a general of an army in the civil war--and here he was, getting a suitcase full of clothes from us."
The Despres mentioned that they were interested in buying some Mexican art, and Trotsky's secretary suggested that they have Rivera do a portrait of Marian, because he would give the fee to Trotsky. The couple agreed and arranged to come back another day.
Rivera, who'd been given a one-man retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art several years earlier, chose to draw Marian using pastels. "When Diego Rivera was in France he used to do portraits for money," says Leon, "and he had pictures of women with all sorts of doodads to make them interesting. He didn't do that to Marian." But he did make her look Mexican.
Leon watched Rivera draw for a while, then took Kahlo to see a movie. He remembers her as "very lively, humorous, good-humored, and an interesting person. Very pretty."
Rivera finished Marian's portrait that afternoon, and everyone sat down to have lunch together. Marian recalls Rivera as "a very large man who didn't talk much, but what he said had shape." Leon remembers him saying, "I don't take cream in my coffee. The cream spoils the taste of the coffee." He says he's taken his coffee black ever since.
It was rumored at the time that Trotsky and Kahlo were having an affair, but the Despres saw nothing to make them believe that. "Trotsky and his wife seemed to be very close," says Marian. "They had gone through all kinds of difficulties together--the exile from Russia and the pursuit and persecution. And the relationship between Frida and Trotsky didn't suggest anything of a sexual nature."
One of Trotsky's secretaries invited the Despres to accompany the Trotskys to Taxco for five days, and they accepted. Once there, the two couples played cards and kickball, went horseback riding, and spent time sightseeing in the mountains. Everyone spoke French, even though Trotsky read the New York Times daily and spoke English fluently.
Trotsky, says Leon, was "a man of very great intellect. I think he's the most outstanding person I've ever met." He and Marian agree that Trotsky's the only true genius they've met in person. "We talked about everything," says Leon. "We talked about the nature of the United States and Mexico. We talked about the civil war in Russia. He had very penetrating observations about everything."
Whatever the couples did, everyone had to be concerned for Trotsky's safety. Leon recalls that his secretaries "had to be watchful all the time for fear he would be assassinated--which of course he was in the end." Leon offered to take a shift guarding him at night. The secretaries, he says, "asked me to come out at four o'clock in the morning and handed a gun to me. They said, 'If you see anything suspicious, just shoot!'"
The Despres brought Marian's rolled-up portrait home with them on the train, but because of the political environment at the time--the House Un-American Activities Committee was established the year after they returned and promptly began investigating leftists--they rarely spoke of their trip. The portrait, along with several other drawings by Rivera that they bought later, still hangs in their front hall.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.