Dorothy Hale’s Life, Painting and Death

The Mesmerizing Journey with Dreams, Dramas and Revelations

My intrigue with Dorothy Donovan Hale began when I saw The Suicide of Dorothy Hale by Frida Kahlo. I was deeply moved by this painting and wanted to know more about Dorothy and why Frida painted her. As an art curator, Iʼm well aware of the pop culture fame of Frida Kahlo. I assumed there would be many stories written about the painting. It turned out there was only one story cemented in history. It was told by Clare Boothe Luce who commissioned the painting. I had no reason to doubt Clare Luceʼs account, until I did some general research on Dorothy and found major discrepancies in her story. Then I stumbled upon an interview with a prominent official in President Franklin Rooseveltʼs administration. He revealed that Dorothyʼs death was reported by the press under the direct supervision of Harry Hopkins, FDRʼs top advisor. I did not find any accounts from Dorothyʼs family and wondered what they thought about the high visibility of the painting, the incorrect story printed worldwide and Harry Hopkinsʼ role with the press.

I was surprised to learn that no one ever interviewed the Donovan family about Dorothy or the painting. I located Dorothyʼs niece, Penny, who tried for years to correct the account left by Clare Luce. She wrote numerous letters and also expressed that the Donovan family did not believe Dorothy committed suicide. No one responded to what she had to say.

I shared my findings with Penny, including the information about Hopkins which she knew nothing about. The Donovan family had very few personal items belonging to Dorothy, but they had many important stories to tell that were handed down to Penny by her grandfather, Dorothyʼs father. Penny graciously shared and entrusted these stories with me.

My interest in Dorothy and Frida Kahloʼs painting of her took me on a captivating journey of discovery that lasted well over a decade. I have no definitive answer on the cause of her untimely death. It could be argued to be either a suicide or a murder. The reason the mystery exits is that Dorothy allegedly left behind letters on the evening of her death. These letters have yet to surface. What did surface over the years of research was the many facets of Dorothyʼs richly layered life, which stand in chilling contrast to the shallow narrative and inaccurate statements left behind by Clare Luce and Harry Hopkins.

Extraordinary art ignites a quest for higher truth. Frida Kahlo unknowingly left behind an eerie liberation for Dorothy Hale by memorializing a story that would one day be uncovered. The masterful painting of complex beauty and tragedy, mirrors its artist and its subject in revealing a parallel story of personal triumph and riveting humanity.

Myra Bairstow