As the body of Salvador Dali - who died in 1989, aged 84 - is exhumed as part of a bizarre paternity case, Mick Brown recalls the surreal weekend he spent with the artist 40 years ago
When I was introduced to Salvador Dalí, in the summer of 1973, he was committing an act of fraud. To his detractors, Dalí’s whole life was a fraud, a great talent prostituted for personal fame and gain. But this was real fraud.
I had been shown into his suite at the Ritz Hotel in Barcelona to find him seated at a table, pen in hand, in front of a large pile of blank sheets of lithographic paper. As Dalí signed each sheet, his business manager, a dapper Englishman named Captain Peter Moore, pulled it away to reveal a clean one. It was quite the production line.
At the time I was puzzled, and intrigued – not least when Dalí’s companion and muse, Amanda Lear, joked that “that’s another $100,000 Dalí has made this morning”.
It was only years later that it would be revealed that Dalí was flooding the art market with blank, signed sheets, perpetuating the business of fakes and fraudulent “limited editions’’.
It was the poet André Breton – who led the expulsion of Dalí from the Paris Surrealist group in 1934, prompting Dalí to retort “I myself am surrealism” – who coined the anagram “Avida Dollars’’: greedy for dollars. And it is true that Dalí loved money, almost as much as he loved himself.
At the heart of his work and philosophy was what he called “paranoia-critical method” – recording his thought-processes and his existence “with eyes lucid and wide-open, unashamed and without remorse’’. A monumental narcissist, he believed in the “prideful exaltation of self’’. There was not a day when he did not wake up astonished at the sublime nature of every facet of his existence, to the point of wondering how anybody else could possibly survive without being him.
It was Amanda, an acquaintance of mine, who had invited me to spend the weekend with Dalí. He was 71, and his great years as a painter were behind him; but his talent as an exhibitionist, and a creator of stunts, was undiminished.
In the few months before our meeting he had been in Paris, insisting on driving around in a car covered with grass; in New York he had incurred the wrath of the animal protection league after reports that he had been hurling cats around his room at the St Regis Hotel; and he had agreed to paint General Franco’s daughter – but only on condition that she was portrayed as being pregnant and sitting on a white horse.
In those days, Dalí would often travel from his home in Cadaqués, on the Costa Brava, to Barcelona, where a suite at the Ritz was kept on permanent reserve. A man named Claude Du Barry ran an agency that provided Dalí with young models, and that evening he hosted a party to audition candidates.
Dalí was dressed in what he described as “my rock and roll jacket’’, electric blue and studded with sequins – a present, he explained, from the American singer Mitch Ryder. The upturned prongs of his waxed moustache quivered like antennae as he moved among the throng, like a prospective buyer at a slave-market, gesturing with his cane to the young people he wished to remain behind.
Some half a dozen were selected, the rest dismissed, and we adjourned for dinner. An idea of what lay in store at the end of the evening could be gleaned from a set of photographs taken on Dalí’s previous visit, which were circulating among the party. These showed him half-hidden behind a pillar, peering into the suite’s sunken bath in which three naked boys were steamily disporting themselves.
By his own admission, Dalí was “one very fantastic voyeur’’. He had a phobia about female genitalia, and what his compatriot, the poet Lorca, once described as the “jungle of blood” – intercourse. He was a virgin until the age of 25, when he met his wife and principal muse, Gala.
They had been together for 44 years, but led largely separate lives. Gala, Dalí explained, was presently at the castle that he had bought for her “with Jesus’’. This, it transpired, was not Our Saviour, but an American actor named Jeff Fenholt, who had played in Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway, and was the latest addition to Gala’s extensive collection of young lovers: “But in my case, no kind of jealousy.”
I was not invited to the orgy. But the next morning I was granted a formal interview. This, I was told, would be brief – Dalí was awaiting the arrival of the Sun King. He spoke of his deep love for Vermeer and Velasquez, and offered that of all modern painters he, Dalí, was the greatest. “Not because Dalí is so good, but because the others are so bad.”
He told me he was sure that Mao Tse-tung was a secret member of the Catholic lay organisation, Opus Dei. “We must always remember that the Chinese revolution was not a peasant’s revolution, but one of the extreme Right.”
He spoke of his fondness for Alice Cooper and his “exploding snakes’’, but said that he preferred David Bowie. And he enthused about his ideal political system. “One king that rule very strongly the country, and underneath the maximum of anarchy! One ruler, the more authoritarian as possible, with one crown decorative and symbolic to put on every magazine cover.”
Our conversation was interrupted by a commotion at the door. The Sun King had arrived. He was actually a she – an imperious-looking woman in late middle-age with an abundance of golden Louis Quatorze curls falling around her shoulders. Dalí flung himself to his knees, kissing her outstretched hand and murmuring
“El Rey, El Rey ...’’. Taking this in her stride, she glided gracefully into the room and sat down in the chair most resembling a throne.
I still have no idea who she was.
We adjourned to a restaurant for lunch. Our party had swollen in size – the models, Amanda, the Captain, the Sun King, some others whose role was hard to distinguish. But Dalí seemed in need of other diversions. Did I happen to know of any giants, dwarfs or physical freaks in Barcelona who might wish to join us, he asked? “Perhaps someone with a limb or finger missing...”
I wondered if he had noticed that one of our party was actually lacking a digit himself. I suspected he had. “There must be a circus ...’’, the Sun King mused. Dalí picked a raspberry from his plate and flicked it in a graceful arc across the table, where it landed with a satisfying plop in her glass of champagne.
That afternoon, we set off in a chauffeur-driven limousine for a tour of Barcelona, taking in the buildings of his great hero, Gaudí – “also a genius’’. In the Ramblas – “the flocking part of town’’, as Dalí put it – he instructed the driver to pull over. He stepped from the car, acknowledging the applause and the cries of “maestro” from passers-by with a regal wave of the hand. In a bookshop he selected a handful of art books, which his chauffeur paid for. Gala, he said, forbade him from carrying money.
We adjourned to a pavement café for coffee and madeleines. A display in a department store caught his eye – enormous silver heads in profile, suspended in mid-air by taut strands of wire – a construction strongly reminiscent of his own eerie painting, Sleep, depicting a disembodied head supported on crutches.
Dalí crossed the pavement, beckoning me to follow, and positioned me against the window, tracing the contours of my face against the silver heads and addressing the bemused crowd that had gathered around. “See!’’ he exclaimed, delighted at my embarrassment. “Exactement!”
Two days later the display would be changed and Dalí’s suite at the Ritz was filled with 20 enormous silver heads in profile, courtesy of the department store management.
That evening we attended the theatre. I have no recollection of the play, only that Dalí seemed not to enjoy it. The exertions of the weekend had fatigued him, and it struck me then that he was someone for whom the clowning, the exhibitionism, the sexual diversions – all were ways of trying to stave off boredom, and avoiding contemplation of his greatest fear of all: death.
Back at the hotel, I asked how he would like to be remembered. He admonished me sharply. “That is one very bad question. Perhaps you believe, but myself, never believe that I will die in any way. This is essential.”
In the end, of course, he would achieve immortality only through his painting. He died in 1989, aged 84, of heart failure, while listening to his favourite recording of Tristan und Isolde.
“No more,’’ he said, dismissing me with a wave of his stick. “Now you make very long and just put in whatever you like...’’