Life with Master Diego Rivera Was Unwedded, Unbedded Bliss Says His Model-Muse Lola Olmedo
updated 01/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
The 70ish Olmedo has turned her 12-acre hacienda, built by an Aztec king in the capital suburb of Xochimilco, into a veritable shrine to the painter. The walls are covered with the world's largest collection of his works, and the drawing room is dominated by a colossal bust of him. Her vault is crammed with Rivera's love letters and jewelry he designed for her, including a gold pendant with a small frog sitting on a blood-red heart inscribed, "All the love of Diego Rivera to Lola Olmedo." The frog, Lola explains, is Rivera's symbol for himself, "because he looked like a frog, and it is gray because gray frogs are rare and he was rare. So when he wanted to talk about himself in relation to me he used to paint a gray frog."
Rivera first encountered Lolita, whose accountant father died when she was an infant, in an elevator when she was 11. Struck by her dark beauty, maestro Rivera immediately asked her mother's permission to paint the child. "In the next four years he made 20 nude drawings and paintings of me," she recalls. At 15, Lola married for the first time, but Rivera continued to paint her (thenceforth with her clothes on, though he later did nudes of her daughter). He died in 1957 of cancer. Reflecting on her years as Diego Rivera's inamorata, Lola says that, although he proposed many times, "I was wise not to marry Diego. I would have been just another wife. I had an affair with Diego all through my life. It was the most important thing in my life. He has proved it was the most important affair of his life too." But, she maintains, "I never went to bed with him."
Rivera's marriages were all turbulent. "Diego's wives never liked me," says Lola, "and I never liked them." Lola made that clear when the dying Rivera came to her Acapulco villa and she got rid of his hapless fourth wife, Emma Hurtado, by slipping live snakes among her nightgowns.
Lola's first husband, Howard S. Phillips, an English magazine publisher, was wealthy but "very, very stingy," she recalls. "I had four children with him. I wanted to make sure that I had money to give them a good education. I soon started working. First I baked bread and sold it to schools. I also started baking bricks. And soon that turned into a big industry. Then I used my own bricks to start building and went into construction."
She eventually became one of the country's richest women, able to travel the earth in search of Rivera paintings. (She now owns 130.) Her eldest son, Alfredo, is director of the Bank of Mexico, and her other children are prospering outside the nest. Keeping her company on the Xochimilco estate are 16 dogs, swans, deer, parrots and painter José Juarez, 40.
He may not be the only artist in residence. "One night I was depressed and lonely in this huge hacienda," re-counts Lola. "My last ex-husband happened to phone. I was crying over the phone and on the verge of telling him to come and see me. That precise moment I saw a little gray frog crossing the floor and jumping onto my desk. I had never seen a frog in my house before," she continues. "From the desk he jumped right into the palm of my hand and looked at me. Well, that was the end. I got the message and didn't ask my ex-husband to come."