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 Domenech, a little gray now at 66, a little bald but the ends of his mustaches 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 now 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 catskins whipping Dali, and starlets in Cardin 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 Yoko 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 cubes 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?" asks someone.
"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 Lasserre, 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 jacket 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 watches.
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 and cheese!"
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 government."
"It is all the same,' said Dali, "they might as well be printing them directly for me."
©1969 Robert Wernick
reprinted from LIFE magazine, July 29, 1969