Jan/Feb 2012 Nonfiction

An Afternoon with Salvador Dali

by V.K. Reiter

Photo by Marc Riboud

Photo by Marc Riboud, courtesy of Barbara Chase-Riboud

One summer we found ourselves at Cadaquès, on the Costa Brava, two couples temporarily united for a photo shoot of Salvador Dali. One husband was to produce the photographs; the other, the text. The wives were along for the sun and sea and local wine. The French photographer was world famous; his wife was American, tall, filiform, and black. We were from Hollywood, which was exotic but of a lower caste.

Outside Cadaquès is a small village named Port Lligat, where Dali had his summer home: an agglomeration of fishermen's houses he had transformed into a stronghold with red roofs and blaring white walls.

When we arrived, a turquoise boat lay close in on the waters of the little bay. A young man, his back to the shore, was working the oars while Gala Dali sat perched on a stool in the bow, her loosened hair and diaphanous sleeves floating in the breeze.

The heavy front door opened, and Salvador Dali appeared looking like himself. After introductions, the photographer indicated where he meant Dali to stand while he took the photographs, but the spot was not to Dali's liking and he chose a portion of wall lined with sparse, drying bushes. Composing himself for the shoot, Dali said, "Wait, wait," and took careful inventory of his attributes: the silver-topped walking stick, the oily hair smoothed flat, the needle-pointed moustache, the leg perched on a handy rock, the embroidered cowboy shirt hanging wrinkled just so over the shorts.

"Now," he said and struck a pose, head back, eyes bulging, cane raised.

Photographs were taken, the pose was adjusted, and variations on his persona were introduced. I was reminded of photo shoots I had overseen in Hollywood where fastidious actresses, careful of their image, made certain no beer cans were visible in the frame.

The shoot ended. The photographer used up another roll of film taking pictures of each of us with Dali, souvenirs of the moment.

When my turn came, Dali took my hand and said, "Botticelli." This was unexpected. Whenever we were on a shoot with the photographer and his wife, it was she who was most often the center of attention. "Botticelli... at the Tate," Dali said. "When you are in London, go to see yourself: a portrait of a young man in half profile."

"Botticelli" was flattering but "portrait of a young man" was unusual.

Dali invited us into the house. In the entry, a polar bear, front paws forward, neck encircled by heavy strands of blue beads, stood holding a tray for visiting cards. Behind him and to one side was a small room filled with very small chairs. One had to stoop to enter it, and Dali explained that this had originally been an oven for baking bread and roasting animals.

My husband, who had grown up in the entertainment industry in Hollywood, had worked as a screenwriter, as a publicist, as a magazine writer and editor, and had always professed a deep disdain for the whole business, was looking at Dali with an expression I had never seen before and that made me uneasy.

Dali led us through the house and up a stairway set between the outer and inner walls that encircled the structure. Each landing held a sculpture: larger than human-sized figures made of rags, huge kites, and other bright-colored ephemera. Windows and bowman's slits in the inner wall looked down onto the house and its many roofs.

Dali then took us into a bedroom, a circular space with a circular bed, surrounded by windows hung with red cloth curtains that he drew to show us how the light coming through them turned the entire room red. Some evenings, he said, people would perform on the bed while an audience stood in the corridor outside, watching through the windows.

"May I draw your wife?" Dali asked. The unfamiliar expression on my husband's face intensified, and suddenly I recognized it. This man who, from having worked so hard at inventing them, despised false personae and their accompanying planted items, had turned into a fan. "Of course," said my virulently possessive husband, not seeing, or ignoring, the look I gave him.

Having received my husband's permission, Dali gripped my hand and hurried me from the room.

We circled through the house, down one level and up another until we reached a vast studio. High-ceilinged and grey, it was bare except for a table covered with paints and brushes and pencils and a stack of sketch pads. One wall held a large canvas. A year or so later it would be declared an important painting, but at the moment it was unfinished, showing four figures in traditional Arab dress holding rifles, standing in a wide, off-kilter square, shooting at each other.

I looked at it for a long moment and then said, "Ah, yes." My appreciation evidently made Dali content, for he said: "Take off your clothes... I will draw you."

I hesitated, made dumb by my husband's descent into fandom and his acquiescence when Dali asked to borrow me. This was a man who would, at a party, immediately insinuate himself into any conversation I might be having, who would never allow me to meet with a publisher or producer if he was not present, who insisted on endlessly discussing any book or story I thought of writing so that the notion inevitably died. The resentment I had long ignored overcame me.

The ensuing struggle in my mind lasted near ten seconds. Then I took off my clothes. Holding my hand, Dali led me up a steep stairway, placing me at the top before descending the steps again. A large pair of predator's wings hung on the wall behind me. From his perspective, I was now a naked angel or a bird of prey or some such iconic figure. Holding a large artist's sketch pad in one hand and a carpenter's pencil in the other, Dali drew.

I stood there.

"Sit down on the step and spread your legs," he invited.

"No," I said.

"For the drawing. Maybe I give you something to hold between your legs." Eagerly, Dali came up the steps and tried to hand me a jeweled rhinoceros horn.

"Forget it," I said.

He raised the rhinoceros horn to his lips. "May I kiss it?" he asked.

"I don't care what you do with it," I said and retrieved my clothes. When I was dressed, he showed me the drawings he had made of me: it was recognizably Dali's hand, but the figures could have been done by an art student.

Five minutes later we were back with the others who were waiting, with the polar bear, in the entry. I glared at my husband, trying to let him see that all was not well.

"Thank you, Maestro," he said to Dali, and shook his hand gratefully. The fan expression had reached his shoulders, turning his posture obsequious.

Once outside, my husband asked, "Did he give you the drawing?"

"What drawing? He just wanted to see me naked."

My husband stopped in mid-step, paralyzed by betrayal: Dali's, and his own of himself. I could see him tempted to return to Dali's house, but hesitating what to do. Then I saw him decide not to say anything, decide to be rational even as his profound, well-known jealousy ate at him.

Over the next few days he would ask me to describe everything that had happened, to repeat every detail of my 35 minutes alone with Dali. He had timed it. During our trip home he managed to transform the episode into an amusing story he would tell at parties: "The Time Dali Drew My Wife."

That afternoon, and his endless recounting of it, helped end the marriage, although it took three years before the legalities were finished.

Later, long after my divorce, I met Dali one more time, outside the St. Regis Hotel in New York. We recognized each other. He peered at me and said, "I know you."

"You made drawings of me in Port Lligat."

"Yes," he said, "I remember," but it was obvious he had made so many similar drawings in that studio, this particular one was in no way memorable.

A black car drove up, and its door opened. Still staring at me, Dali edged toward the car, and as he did, he raised his cane, his head went back, his eyes bulged. He did not mention Botticelli.


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