In through the revolving doors of the staidly splendid Hotel Meurice in
Paris comes the great traveling show of Salvador Dali & Co.
As the flunkies rush from every corner to cry, Bonjour Maître, Bonjour
Maître,:in strides the master himself, Salvador Dali y Daemonic, a little gray now
at 66, a little bald but the ends of his mustached still flaming up at his eyeballs,
his printed velvet jacket gleaming lustrous cat colors, and in strides the master's
wife, Gala, now about 77 and claiming to be 105, still regal and Russian, the
Muse of the Surrealists, and then a surly 19-year-old friend of Gala's, and then
John Peter Moore, late a captain in His Majesty's forces and listed as Dali's
military attaché; meaning secretary, business agent, business partner, confidante,
who is in turn leading on a leash Babou and Bouba, the two ocelots given to Dali
by the head of a South American state, and they throw up as they go through the
revolving doors and spread a rank jungle smell through the lobby which sets all
the lap-dogs on the dowagers' laps to howling and growling, and up they all go
with trunks and flunkies to suite 108, which was once the suite of Alfonso XIII of
Spain and where already the swarm of pilgrims and parasites is forming,
including Dali's lunch date, the famous model Amanda Lear, and a photographer
who wants to take a picture of Amanda in casking whipping Dali, and starlets in
Carding breeches, and hippies in goat-skins and fringed potato sacks, and bull-fighters, music-hall stars, artists, living corpses from the Living Theater, and an
adorable little thing in a miniskirt who says demurely, "I am, the Paris press agent
for John and Yobo Lennon," and -
"Dali, Dali," cries Captain Moore, "there is a Lebanese gentleman
downstairs with ten kilos of gold in his briefcase, all in little yellow cubs like
butterpat, he wants you to illustrate a book - any book."
There is a certain stir in the suite, for there are not only disinterested art-lovers and zen-meditators here, there are grave commercial faces intent on grave
commercial deals, since the suite of Alfonso XIII is now a business showroom,
board room, counting house, the headquarters of Salvador Dali, unincorporated
but unmistakably a major art business, a half a million dollars in a bad year after
taxes, funneling into the market a constant stream of high-priced objects of all
shapes and sizes, from Dali chryselephantine candelabra to Dali ashtrays.
But Dali is on the phone by now, saying "Alló Alló; alló, this is the divine
Dali speaking, I want the restaurant at Robinson where there is the famous tree in
which Dali once intended to spend the war years painting. I know the tree is dead
now, but it still stands, and it will stand long enough to be photographed with
Dali at 6 this evening." And he invites with a glance all of the pilgrims and
parasites and businessmen to be there.
"Dali, Dali," Captain Moore is shouting from the other room. "Onassis is
in the bar downstairs. He wants to send his yacht to Cadaquès to take you to
Skorpios to paint his wife."
"If he can send his yacht from Skorpios to Cadaquès," Dali says, "he has
only to put his wife in the yacht and send her too. It is easier to move a wife than
all my paints and canvases."
The pilgrims and parasites swoon with laughter.
"What do you think of drugs, Maître?"
"I do not take drugs," says Dali, "I am drugs." And as Captain Moore
plucks the curler off Dali's left sideburn, Dali waves the gold-handled cane which
once belonged to Sarah Bernhardt and with which he will go stumping off to the
dead tree and afterwards to dinner at Maxim's.
And so he will go on, with a constantly changing cast of characters around
the periphery, from Maxim's to Lacera, from chateau to gardens, capering and
signing contracts, for two steady months (the champagne bill at the Meurice alone
will come to $5,000 for Dali, who drinks only mineral water) and then the master
retires to his house in Cadaquès on the Costa Brava, to paint all summer, and in
the fall they are back at the Meurice, and in the winter they are at the St. Regis in
New York, where Dali goes to see his dentist and pick up more commissions, and
on St. Patrick's Day it begins all over again in Paris,
And everywhere promoters will buzz in with new ideas for Dali projects.
For forty years after his soft watches drooping over a barren landscape made him
famous, Dali is still Everyman's idea of the mad genius of modern art, and mad
genius sells like nothing else. He has managed to go on being shocking, with his
spooky subject matter, and comfortably familiar at the same time because of his
brilliantly painstaking brushwork. He keeps up with whatever psychiatric
catchwords are currently fashionable: in the thirties he took pride in being a
Paranoiac, in the sixties he became the apostle of the Polymorphous Perverse,
which may be crudely defined as taking sexual pleasure in anything except old-fashioned sex.
However, in modern art as in other domains, sex is not everything. In
Peter Viereck's memorable phrase, Polly Morphous wants a cracker. And Dali's
crackers are pure gold.
The gold is what scandalizes the orthodox modern-art world. Dali flaunts
it in the world's face. No famous artist since Rubens has lived and traveled in
such a gaudy style. For the last couple of centuries, though it has been perfectly
proper for an artist to come from a wealthy family, like Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec, or to rake in millions of dollars like Picasso, it has been bad form to act
rich. Genius may live in super-luxury at the most fashionable addresses, but the
image it shows the world must be outcast, forlorn, rebel, defiant. Not Dali. He
loves money, he romps and revels in it. He was delighted when André Breton the
high priest of Surrealism who was in the process of excommunicating Dali
discovered that the letters of his name could be rearranged to spell Avida Dollars.
Since few people can afford the huge price tag of one of his paintings, he makes
himself available at cut, but still impressive, rates in dozens of other semi-industrialized forms. Just as the Flemish Old Masters designed furniture,
hangings, even pastries for the Dukes of Burgundy, just as Michelangelo designed
uniforms for the Pope's body-guards and Leonardo designed bridges and
fortresses for the Duke of Milan, so Dali offers himself to that master figure of
our civilization, the Consumer, as a self-induced, self-perpetuating, self-publicizing Consumer Good.
And the consumer response has been more than satisfactory.
"I don't care if he is the greatest artist in the world," said a customs
inspector in New York one day, watching Dali preening among his 20 trunks on
the dock. "He looks like a nut to me."
"He happens to have ten million bucks in the bank," snapped Captain
Moore. "Why don't you go home and be a nut like him?"
As the Captain suggests, if there is nuthood here, Dali has always known
how to make a good thing out of it. He was the spoiledest of all spoiled children.
His older brother, also called Salvador, died of spinal meningitis which the
grieving parents ascribed to the boxes they had given his little ears, so Salvador II
was brought up with no correction or discipline whatever; he assumed he was a
little king, and dressed like one, and all over his provincial Spanish home he
acted out every desire an imaginative little piece of royalty can have. As his
biographers all note, this is a key to his character.
There is another key, however. Dali's daddy was a notary, that s to say,
hard-headed, tight-fisted, skilled at both finding cash and counting it. Dali loves
his dollars both naively, with boyish enthusiasm, and in a down-to-earth notary
way. He knows his values to the last centime, and though he speaks a randomly
broken English when the talk is of politics or esthetics, he pushes the interpreter
aside when the talk is of cash.
Characteristically, a recent book - 266 beautifully printed pages with fine
color reproductions of fourscore or so works, $35 at retail, 23,000 copies of the
English-language edition sold to date - has a dust jacked modeled on the boxes
which hold the Marquise de Sévigné brand of fancy chocolates. Equally
characteristically, Dali paid nothing for having the design copied; he simply
authorized the Marquise de Sévigné to make chocolates in the form of soft
Five hundred commercial deals are proposed to Dali in an average year,
and as Captain Moore says, even if only 50 or so pan out, and some of them may
be for as little as $1,000, it all adds up, it all adds up. The deals are on when the
master's unfailing eye for money gives the high sign. They may be for flat fees or
they may be for royalties, but they always involve clinking cash in advance.
Captain Moore handles the contractual details, collects 10% as his commission
and litigates furiously if something goes wrong.
The great thing about all these deals is that there are so few expenses to
deduct from the great round receipts. Unlike the millionaires he deals with, Dali
has no problems of overhead or overstaffing. Outside of his house servants and
one technical assistant in Cadaquès, his staff consists of his wife Gala, Captain
Moore, a part-time secretary and no one else. The risks are all taken by the
various entrepreneurs; Dali invests no money. All he does is provide sketches,
prototypes, ideas; sometimes he simply rolls his eyes in front of the cameras.
At any given moment there may be hundreds of people working on Dali
artifacts, 50 or so women weaving gold thread into his tapestries at the Aubusson
factory, 30 glass-blowers in Nancy working on glass beads and tableware, 30
bronze-casters working on bronze heads and tableware, half a dozen skilled
jewelers turning out psychedelic flowers and other objets d'art which periodically
make the social charity circuit of America and dazzle all the ladies there, and 18
craftsmen at the Paris Mint casting Dali-designed medals which are snapped up
as soon as minted, to be worn on watch chains or stuffed into those French
mattresses along with the gold napoleons and the $20 pieces. There are scores of
printers and bookbinders in Europe who steadily work on Dali books - fancy
items for the bibliophile trade selling from $35 to $15,000 a copy, and always a
sell-out whether the copy be The Bible or Alice in Wonderland, Venus in Furs or
Twenty-one Poems by Mao Tse-Tung. There are card-makers turning out the Dali
deck of cards - $25 a deck and some 5,000 sold so far. It adds up.
Dali once suggested the hats in the form of shoes that Schiaparelli turned
out. He has designed shirts for a Barcelona shop, calendars, ashtrays for Air India,
ties, stamps for Guyana, bathing suits, gilded oyster knives.
Some of the master's ideas - such as his design for kangaroo shoes which
would enable pedestrians to leap from sidewalk to sidewalk over the intervening
traffic - are just a little too far ahead of their time; and not every idea that is
proposed to the master meets his favor. Once a man came to him and said. "I
want to buy the second letter of your name" For once caught off base, Dali could
only say, "What?" "The second letter of your name,"repeated the man. "I am a
prominent food merchant n the U. S. A. and I want to open a chain of stores to be
called Dalicatessens." "The man is crazy," said Dali, "throw him out."
Imagine Dali calling anyone crazy," says Captain Moore, who is still not
convinced that it might not have been a very good idea.
There are plenty of ideas to replace it. Dali recently picked up $10,000 for
a 15-second commercial, appearing in the evenings on French TV just before the
talking caterpillar Ploom, in which he rolls his great saucer-eyes and ejaculates, "I
am mad, completely mad...about Lanvin chocolates." He picked up $10,000 for a
spot TV appearance announcing his devotion to Braniff Airways, though as he
announced afterwards he has never flown in an airplane and never intends to.
There are quick deals like selling a collection of doodles to decorate a
British liner, and long-range ones like building a nine-foot-high coffee-pot with
built-in library shelves, TV and coat-hangers. There are also deals that don't work
out. The bathing-suit manufacturer never made a bathing suit. The bronze bust of
Dante with a wreath of golden spoons in its hair has been a jinx from the start: the
day after an Italian sub-minister of culture promised to buy it, the Italian
government fell; a publisher who was going to do a book on it went bankrupt; one
day all the spoons fell out. Dali is down on Dante. .
Even Babou, the elder ocelot, has his business uses. Once Dali was
visiting a well-known art gallery in Pars, and the owner came up screaming,
"Your god-damned cat has made a nuisance on my priceless 17th-century
engravings," "A nuisance of Dali's," said Dali, "can only increase their value."
And sure enough, the dealer not only made a deal with Dali to commission a few
hundred lithographs, but he also jacked up the price of his stained and now
doubly historic engravings by fifty percent.:
In his early days Dali was frequently forced to go out and more or less
hustle his pictures to pay his hotel bills. One evening, in the men's room of the St.
Regis in New York, he ran into a machinery manufacturer from Cleveland, A.
Reynolds Morse. Their minds met, and Mr. Morse bought a Dali on the spot for a
piddling sum, a thousand dollars or so. He also said, as Dali tells it, "Any time
you need another thou, send me a picture." Dali sent him a good many in the
course of time - Morse came to own about 400, and would build a private
museum in Florida to display them. If he had chosen to dispose of them at market
prices, from being a minor-league Cleveland millionaire he would have become
one of the 57 richest men in the world.
There is no lack of material for people to buy. Dali is a very self-conscious hard-working artist, he is working all the time he is not on the public
stage. At the Meurice and the St. Regis he starts drawing at dawn. In his house in
Cadaquès he starts painting at dawn, sitting like a king in his armchair while the
canvases, obeying an electronic console of his own devising, rise though a slit in
the floor and position themselves for his fine sable-hair brush-strokes. His
paintings have grown in size over the years, as fantastic as ever, less mischievous
perhaps, more weighted down with a whirligig of philosophical notions. They
have longer titles too: Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus,
Galacidalacidesoxiribunucleicacid (Homage to Crick and Watson), names like
that. The people who buy the latest Dalis are major-league millionaires indeed,
including H. J. Heinz II, chairman of the H. J. Heinz Company and the French
liquor magnate Paul Ricard, who once sailed his yacht into Cadaquès harbor to
buy a couple of water-colors and ended by buying a mammoth 11x14-foot
painting of the bloodiest of all tuna-fishing scenes, for $280,000.
The paintings are generally commissioned and sold under terms worked
out by Gala, whom he adores as motive force, godmother and impresario. Her
great haunted eyes are legendary, and so is her business sense. Jean Cocteau used
to love to tell how, when one of his boy-friends absconded with his favorite Dali
painting, Dali said magnanimously, "Never mind, we will give you another one,"
and Gala immediately concluded his sentence with the words, "...for only the
price we would charge a dealer."
A poor Catalan painter came to him once at his home in Cadaquès and
sad, "Take me with you to New York, Dali, I will eat only bread and cheese, but
take me to New York." "You are crazy," said Dali. "If you had said caviar and
foie gras I might have taken you - these things are free in New York. But bread
Alas for mortality, Dali cannot really enjoy all that free caviar. Cruel Time
scores even that vainglorious face. The eyes are pouched, the cheeks wattled, the
tips of the mustache tend to bifurcate. He has drunk only Vichy water for the last
twenty years. The obsessive sexuality - the floor strewn with lithographs that look
like coats of armor or cast-off de Koonings but which when viewed in a convex
mirror turn into human genitals - is the dreaming of a tired old man.
Still - graying, balding, the aging clown - he goes on swirling and whirling
and twirling the gold cane that once belonged to Sarah Bernhardt.
A wheel-barrow is coming down the corridor of the Meurice with 1200
lithographs to be signed for the French National Railroads. Babou has been
drinking too much of the Captain's beer and has liver trouble, must see the vet.
The French Line is complaining that the first-class cabin the ocelots occupied on
the last crossing has absorbed half the perfumes of Arabia and still is unfit for
human passengers; next time they must be confined in the ship's brig. There is an
interviewer from Radio Somewhere. "No," says Dali, "Dali does not take
hallucinogens. Dali hallucinates." "Dali Dali," says Captain Moore, "here is the
first model for the Pants of Genius." The Pants of Genius are reproductions of a
pair of blue jeans Dali wore one season while painting, they are marked with little
round dots where he tested color from new tubes, and down the sides run long
yellow streaks left by Dali's golden fingers. They will be on the market any day
now selling for $25.
Here comes the gold Napoleon mounted on a rhinoceros which Dali is
about to present to President Pompidou.
"I understand," says Dali, "that there s fortune to be made in shrimp. Why
don't we start a shrimp farm in Cadaquès?"
"Ten kilos of gold," says the Lebanese publisher. "Any book you want to
do, Maitre, Lady Chatterley's Lover...the Talmud..."
One day Dali was driven up to a printing house in Paris to examine color
reproductions for a new book. A detachment of armed guards was drawn up
outside."They are here to greet me," said Dali, remembering the crown he used to
wear as a little boy; "how appropriate." "No, no, Dali," said Captain Moore, "they
are here because the printer is also printing a packet of bank-notes for the French
"It is all the same," said Dali, "they might as well be printing them directly
©1969 Robert Wernick
reprinted from LIFE magazine, July 29, 1969