When Alfred Stieglitz found out that his protégé Georgia O’Keeffe had accepted a commission to paint the women’s powder room at Radio City Music Hall without his approval he was furious.
Having met Diego Rivera and his wife Frieda Kahlo and was entranced with the idea of working on a monumental scale. Stieglitz on the other hand referred to such works as the ‘Mexican Disease.’
Donald Deskey, the interior designer of the new Radio City Music Hall thought her by then well known floral designs would be a perfect fit for the women’s powder room of that masterpiece of art deco architecture and invited her to do the murals. He was aware that Stieglitz would probably object and had Edith Halpert negotiate with her directly.
The fee he could offer, $1500.00 was nominal even in the days of the Great Depression but it was the same amount he had been allotted for all of the artists working on the project.
When he returned to New York and discovered what he described to their friends as ‘a betrayal’ he went to Deskey and demanded that her fee be increased. Deskey refused, pointing out that the contract had been signed and was binding.
Stieglitz responded by claiming that O’Keeffe was a “child” and not responsible for her actions but Deskey held his ground.
In the summer of 1932 O’Keeffe decided to forgo her usual trip to New Mexico and stay in New York to work on the mural design and keep her eye on the frequently straying Alfred.
The work came to symbolize the ongoing power struggle between the two headstrong artists and when neither would yield became a non-verbal war.
When they went to their vacation house at Lake George to escape the summer heat of the City, Stieglitz invited a coterie of younger writer friends including Ralph Flint, Frederick Ringel, and Cary Ross with the sole purpose of undermining O’Keeffe’s determination to go through the mural.
In her journal she wrote, “No one in my world wants me to do it, but I want to do it.”
Throughout the summer, Stieglitz kept up the pressure and when she returned to the City she was also distressed to discover her sister Catherine Klenert was displaying her own flower paintings that were noticeably similar to Georgia’s.
In October Georgia returned to Lake George to be alone for the month where she wrote, “My Gawd won’t I get Hell if I can’t make a go of it.”
The powder room was not ready until November 16th, sis weeks before the scheduled Christmas opening of Radio City. While she and Deskey were in the powder room discussing her ideas the canvas surface that had been applied to the walls for her mural began to peel away from the walls.
“O’Keeffe became hysterical and left in tears,” Deskey reported. “The next day Stieglitz telephoned to say that she had had a nervous breakdown, was confined to a sanitorium and hence would be unable to fulfill her contract.”
He brought in Japanese American artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi to complete the mural that is still in place today:
On March 1st, 1933 Frieda Kahlo wrote this letter to her fellow artist Georgia O’Keeffe. The American artist had been hospitalized with ‘psychoneurosism’ and been despatched to Bermuda to recover. She would not paint until 1934 after a 13-month hiatus.
Kahlo, staying in Detroit while her husband Diego Rivera worked on 27 frescoes at the Institute of the Arts, heard of O’Keefe’s malaise.
The artists had met in 1931, when Kahlo and Rivera can come to New York for a retrospective on Rivera’s paintings at the Museum of Modern Art.
Kahlo, who had not long before miscarried, been hospitalised and buried her mother, wrote in the spirit of comradeship:
Was wonderful to hear your voice again. Every day since I called you and many times before months ago I wanted to write you a letter. I wrote you many, but every one seemed more stupid and empty and I torn them up. I can’t write in English all that I would like to tell, especially to you. I am sending this one because I promised it to you. I felt terrible when Sybil Brown told me that you were sick but I still don’t know what is the matter with you. Please Georgia dear if you can’t write, ask Stieglitz to do it for you and let me know how are you feeling will you ? I’ll be in Detroit two more weeks. I would like to tell you
every thing that happened to me since the last time we saw each other, but most of them are sad and you mustn’t know sad things now. After all I shouldn’t complain because I have been happy in many ways though. Diego is good to me, and you can’t imagine how happy he has been working on the frescoes here. I have been painting a little too and that helped. I thought of you a lot and never forget your wonderful hands and the color of your eyes. I will see you soon. I am sure that in New York I will be much happier. If you still in the hospital when I come back I will bring you flowers, but it is so difficult to find the ones I would like for you. I would be so happy if you could write me even two words. I like you very much Georgia.