Leon Trotsky @Stanford: it’s a long story of love, murder, and archival records


A guest post from Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Library and Archives:

The Times Literary Supplement recently republished the late Francis Wyndham‘s review of Jean van Heijenoort‘s 1978 book on Leon Trotsky, With Trotsky in Exile: From Prinkipo to Coyoacan. (It’s in the February 7, 2020, issue with the title “Love thy neighbour, Trotsky’s exile as a Feydeau farce.” )

A Frenchman with a Dutch last name, Van Heijenoort was Trotsky’s secretary and bodyguard in exile. Van, as everyone called him, observed Trotsky’s life first hand, and wrote his book to correct the many errors that were circulating in the vast literature on Trotsky and Stalin.

Van was a mathematician and compulsively accurate. Wyndham was surprised and appalled by Van’s factual description of Trotsky’s blithe bed-hopping all while the old Bolshevik and his long suffering wife Natalia were being hunted down by Stalin’s assassins all over Europe and Mexico. In 1937, Diego Rivera befriended Trotsky, often referred to as “The Old Man,” whom Frida Kahlo called “el Viejo” or “Piochitas.” Trotsky was soon initiating an affair with Frida, who eventually decided it was too dangerous. Wyndham apparently not aware of Van’s own entanglement with Frida. The “Feydeau farce,” as Wyndham styles it, only came to an end when the assassination was finally successful in 1940 in Mexico. In 1978, Van tried to correct all the accumulating errors in the historical narrative at a time when some leftists saw Trotsky as the true heir of Marx.

Meanwhile in California in 1978, I started working in the Hoover Archives at Stanford, where there is original correspondence from figures such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the papers of Bertram and Ella Wolfe. These affectionate and exuberant letters from Frida to Ella, whom she calls Ella, Linda, and Ellochka, are sometimes sealed with lipstick kisses. The archives also hold a rare home movie of Trotsky, Diego, and Frida – donated by a former Trotskyist named Alex Buchman. The film and the papers helped fuel a kind of frenzied interest in Diego and Frida. Bertram Wolfe died in 1977, but Ella carried on his legacy and generously helped scholars such as Hayden Herrara, then writing her famous biography of Frida. All of this was great fun for me, and I looked forward to the publication of Bert’s (“Boit,” as Frida called him, imitating his Brooklyn pronunciation) posthumous memoirs, A Life in Two Centuries.

Archivist extraordinaire: Elena Danielson

By 1982, Van, as everyone called him, became a presence on the Stanford campus where he was working in the Math Department on the history of logic (primarily the work of Kurt Gödel) with the department chair Solomon Feferman. While Van had mostly left his political life behind, he attended Ella’s 1982 talk about her late husband’s Life in Two Centuries (New York: Stein and Day, 1981). Van made a public comment during Q&A that drew my attention.

Van had presence: Tall, thin, precise in his speech, and unexpectedly charismatic. Van had helped with the opening of the Trotsky papers at Harvard in 1980. There were no Trotsky papers at Stanford, he knew, because he had made inquiries. I did not expect to see him again.

In 1983, in the Hoover Archives reading room, I was helping a researcher, a professor of cultural studies from York in Canada, Marlene Kadar, who was an expert on André Breton, who had ties with the Trotsky circle in both France and Mexico. I showed Marlene the Buchman film, and she got quite animated: on the flickering gray screen, behind the massive figure of Diego, the intense Trotsky, and the flamboyant Frida, was a tall, thin, strikingly handsome figure of a man in the background. “I know that man! He is here.”

She had met Van at Harvard in 1980 at the opening for the Trotsky papers. He went on to participate in her doctoral defense, so she gave him a copy of her dissertation while they were both on the Stanford campus. Marlene dashed off and brought Van to see the home movie, which much amused him: there he was himself in his earlier political life, more than four decades before. Both in 1937 and still in 1983, he was courtly and quiet, but with an intensity you could not miss.

Trotsky, Kahlo, Heijenoort, and friends

Marlene encouraged me to look for more Trotsky materials to show him, that sent me to the index of the massive Nicolaevsky papers. Nicolaevsky’s widow, who had tightly controlled access to the papers, had recently passed away. Looking through the typed list of the contents, I noticed recent handwritten additions to the index: Sedov and Trotsky in section 231. So I brought out a sample box from Fond 231. Van and Marlene were elated….these were indeed papers of the Old Man, some typed by Van himself decades earlier.

From then on for the next three years, he was often in the archives, helping us process the Hoover set of Trotsky papers. Most notably, he compiled a detailed list of all of the pseudonyms used by the Trotskyists. Van himself had operated under quite a few false names. Solomon Feferman and his remarkable wife Anita created a kind of salon, and generously included me in some of the dinners and discussions with Van and other Trotsky historians, notably Pierre Broué. Sometimes when I was supervising the reading room, it took a while to notice that Van had come in to work. He was preternaturally quiet, and wore very soft, soundless, rubber-soled shoes. He came of age evading the attention of the police and spies, and just knew how to move quietly. Old habits die hard.

From conversations with Anita, I was aware of Van’s colorful personal life, which initially seemed at odds with his reserve. However, it was not ordinary reserve, it was more like oceans of emotion held in check by a sea wall. His affair with Frida became public with Hayden Herrera‘s biography, but it was definitely not something we would talk about. He would periodically disappear without explanation, then quietly show up later, without any mention of where he had been. I would assume maybe a trip to France or Mexico.

After one of his puzzling absences, the telephone rang. Van had been murdered in Mexico. His fourth wife shot him, and then killed herself. It was chilling. He had survived Stalin, but not his wife.

It had always seemed best not to ask too many questions. Fortunately, the witty and vivacious Anita won his confidence, and she did ask questions and put the information he told her in her biography with the enchanting title Politics, Logic, and Love: the Life of Jean van Heijenoort (Boston: Jones and Bartlett, 1993). Here it is February 2020 as I’m writing out these memories, as I get email that the de Young Museum in San Francisco is opening a new exhibition on Frida Kahlo. The mystique around these flamboyant people lives on.

Read the article, “Love Thy Neighbour,” over at the Times Literary Supplement. It’s here.

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2 Responses to “Leon Trotsky @Stanford: it’s a long story of love, murder, and archival records”

  1. Elena Danielson Says:

    Van’s book from 1978 is now the standard source on Trotsky’s last years….quoted extensively….

  2. Goethe Girl Says:

    I read the piece in the TLS and am glad to see her the picture of the Dutch man. He looks like Wittgenstein.