Dorothy Hale (January 11, 1905 – October 21, 1938) was an American socialite, aspiring actress, and Ziegfield showgirl. Hale was considered a remarkably beautiful woman with less remarkable talents, who was introduced to high society and luxury living by her husband. After his sudden death in an automobile accident and a series of failed relationships, Hale found herself dependent on her wealthy friends.
In the early morning hours of October 21, 1938, Hale was found dead on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building, the Hampshire House, on Central Park South in New York City. Her death was quickly ruled a suicide. Twelve days later, Hale's friend—editor, playwright, politician, journalist, and diplomat—Clare Boothe Luce, met famed surrealist Frida Kahlo at the artist's first solo exhibition in New York City. Both Luce and Kahlo knew Hale. Kahlo was asking questions about the suicide when Luce spontaneously surprised the crowd at the Julien Levy Gallery and hired her to paint a portrait of Hale as a gift for her grieving mother. After much deliberation, Kahlo painted one of her most famous paintings, El Suicidio de Dorothy Hale.
Luce imagined Kahlo painting an idealized memorial portrait of Hale and was doubtless expecting a conventional over-the-fireplace portrait for her $400. The completed painting arrived in August 1939. Luce claims she was so shocked by the unwrapped painting that she "almost passed out." What Kahlo created was a graphic, narrative "retablo," detailing every step of Hale's suicide. It depicts Hale standing on the balcony, falling to her death, while also lying on the bloody pavement below.
Luce, who intended to give the painting to Hale's mother, was so offended that she seriously considered destroying it; but instead she had the sculptor Isamu Noguchi paint out the part of the legend that bore Luce's name. Luce simply left the work crated up in storage. She donated it anonymously to the Phoenix Art Museum, where it was eventually outed as a Luce donation. The museum retains ownership, although the painting is frequently on tour in exhibitions of Kahlo's works.
At the bottom of the painting, blood red lettering details the tragic event (the section of the work painted over by Noguchi is underlined) :
In New York City on the 21st of October 1938, at 6:00 in the morning, Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself from a very high window in the Hampshire House. In her memory painted at the request of Clare Boothe Luce, for the mother of Dorothy, this retablo was executed by Frida Kahlo.
|The Suicide of Dorothy Hale (1938)|
Oil on Masonite with Painted Wooden Frame | 23 3/4 in. x 19 in.
Phoenix Art Museum | Phoenix, Arizona