Should we be allowed to read famous people's love letters?


Claire Cohen

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo Photo:

"Last night I felt as if many wings caressed me all over, as if your finger tips had mouths that kissed my skin." These words were written by the painter Frida Kahlo on in August 1946 to fellow artist José Bartoli.

They – along with details of their passionate love affair – remained hidden for almost 70 years. Until now.

For, next Wednesday, the collection of 25 letters – more than 100 pages of sensual, and at times erotic, correspondence – is to be auctioned in New York. They are expected to fetch over $230,000. 

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo Photo:

What price love, eh?


Kahlo and Bartoli met in New York, where the 39-year-old artist was having surgery on her spine. It seems they fell madly in love and wrote to each other as she convalesced in Mexico. Her words are beautiful – filled with tender longing. They're enough to rouse the romantic in any of us.

"I tried to get as close to you as I could in order to sense you, to enjoy your incomparable caress, the pleasure that it is to touch you," she wrote in September 1946. "If I do not touch you my hands, my mouth and my whole body lose sensation. I know I will have to [imagine you] when you are gone."

A collection of unpublished Love Letters Written to Spanish Artist Jose Bartoli Between 1946-1949.

A collection of unpublished Love Letters Written to Spanish Artist Jose Bartoli Between 1946-1949.

But they also make somewhat uncomfortable reading. For I can't help but think that such intimate love letters – those the senders went to great lengths to hide (Bartoli signed himself 'Sonja', to evade notice by Kahlo's husband, the artist Diego Rivera) – should remain private. After all, their abandon is a function of that privacy.

To rip apart a deeply-felt, clandestine love affair and unveil its steamy details to the world seems to me a gross violation, no better than picking the lock on Kahlo's diary.

Today, in this age of instant communication, our love affairs are conducted electronically. The details – pet names, remembrances, and moments of deep yearning that squeeze the gut and tear at the heart – are transmitted via text message, email and social media.

Whatever happened to our sense of the personal, private and cherished?

It was not like this with the love letter. In times past they were the hidden heart, the sacred texts of a relationship. Forget throwing an unwanted engagement ring at your former beloved's feet. For centuries, spurned (and spurning) lovers simply returned neat little bundles of love letters to their sender. It was a potent message: I am over you.

For some, even that wasn't final enough. Daphne du Maurier famously burnt a collection of her husband's love letters. Dante Gabriel Rossetti set fire to piles of juicy missives from Jane Morris (the wife of fellow Pre-Raphaelite William). Charles Dickens torched his entire cache of correspondence in 1860, no doubt including some from his mistress Ellen Ternan.

Many love letters from the great and good have passed through the hands of auction houses. In December last year, correspondence from Joe DiMaggio to Marilyn Monroe sold for £53,000. We have even been privy to the early passions of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Love letters are almost as old as the written word itself. Examples from Ancient Egypt, Imperial China and Rome gather dust in historical archives. Even poring over these can feel, somehow, voyeuristic.

Their declarations of love still resonate ("Bathe me in thy presence," one anonymous Egyptian woman wrote, "that I may let thee see my beauty in my tunic of finest royal linen when it is wet"), and the historical insight gained from reading them only barely seems to justify the intrusion.

With Kahlo's letters, it's harder still to make this case. They hint at previously unknown events in her life, including a pregnancy. But they also contain intimate detail: locks of hair, mentions of her perfumed blouses and tiny sketches meant only for Bartoli's eyes. We should avert our own, for the sake of romantics everywhere.

Telegraph UK