by Richard Jackson
“Salvador Dali will see you now!” …… Fantastic. Magic words. Open sesame. The door was about to open for me at last.
Dali had kept me waiting in the St Regis Hotel for three days, and I suspected that the delay was manufactured purely to build up the suspense and to make him seem even more God-like and unobtainable. The St Regis was one of New York’s oldest and finest – old-style, old-money and fabulously expensive. They clearly knew when they were onto a good thing and gave Dali and his entourage (which I had heard included a fully-grown puma!!), the entire 17th floor of the hotel for free, so that they could bask in the reflected glory of having probably the most famous – infamous – artist in the world staying with them when he was in town.
Salvador Dali. Enfant terrible. He of the twirling upturned moustaches, the showman’s silver-topped cane. Dali, the great surrealist, portrayer of melting pocket watches and strange, mind-bending “surreal” landscapes. Dali, the darling of the chattering classes, the cognoscenti, the illuminati, the intelligencia, the haut monde and the beau monde. Everyone, in fact, who was anyone. Before the days of the celebrity, he was perhaps the greatest celebrity of the western world, and it was clearly worth the St Regis’s while to treat him like a prince. Unfortunately, their largesse did not extend to me, and it was costing me a fortune to stay there while he was playing hard to get.
He had his own personal guardian/doorkeeper/manager – a man of military bearing with the protective instincts of a Rottweiler, who kept me at bay by constantly rearranging my appointment. I had come to New York to commission a painting from the great man, to persuade him to stoop to the world of commerce and paint a picture which would be used to launch a new, ultra-sophisticated and expensive perfume. My idea was that this perfume (from the Lenthéric company) – to be called “Lenthéric 12,” would be inspired by the twelve most famous artists in the world and their vision of feminine beauty. I was a fairly junior executive in a West End advertising agency, and this was my baby, and now it was up to me persuade twelve “real” artists of world renown to undertake this commercial work. It wasn’t going to be easy.
I had had Salvador Dali in my sights from the beginning. I had just spent three years at university studying Fine Arts and Architecture, and this was the opportunity of a lifetime for me, not only to make a name for myself in the ad agency, but – more importantly for me – to actually meet the great man and get some real insight into the Surrealist movement, straight from the horse’s mouth. I had prepared, earnestly and thoroughly, with what I told myself was a list of intelligent and searching questions. I felt encouraged to approach Dali, not only because he was famous, but also because I knew that he had a weakness where money was concerned. No less a figure than André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, had discovered to his delight and amazement that the words “Salvador Dali” actually formed a perfect anagram of the words “Avida Dollars” in his native Spanish. (“Avida Dollars” can be loosely translated as “greedy for money”!!) Would you believe it? Yes. Lo and behold, several phone calls to the Rottweiler and some tempting mentions of the cash that was available had soon secured me an appointment with Dali at the St Regis, and I flew to New York the next day.
And here I was at last on the 17th floor. A deep breath, and a bold rap on the door and I was ushered into the princely presence. Somebody should have warned me. This was like walking into one of his paintings. The puma crouched on one of the chairs, curling an elegant fang and emitting what might have been a low growl, or hopefully, a purr of welcome. Bizarrely, this terrifying, but beautifully groomed creature was swathed in Dali-designed jewellery hanging around its sleek neck and rippling shoulders. Trying to appear assured and sophisticated, I did my best to ignore it, and the trio of very pretty girls who were similarly decorated and similarly sleek, and only marginally less terrifying.
Dali himself was busy striking a pose by the window, doing his bit to play the greatest artist in the world, haughty and disdainful, while the Rottweiler guided me to a table and chair and disconcertingly got down to business with indecent haste. I quickly got the impression that my visit was not scheduled to last long! He had studied my proposal, he said, and although Dali was far too great an artist to do this kind of thing etc etc, he would be prepared to enter into an agreement, provided I agreed to certain conditions. “Avida Dollars” – clearly!
The three most important conditions he had drawn up were:
1. Size of painting specified 14” x 10”. Watercolour.
2. Price ….. never to be disclosed under any circumstances.
3. The painting never to be sold at auction.
I was to return in 48 hours to sign the agreement and to pass over the money in cash and collect the painting. And with that, in no time at all, I found myself back in the elevator and down in the familiar surroundings of the lobby. I had scarcely spoken to the great man, and had gained zero insight into Surrealism. I vowed to do much better on my return. And so it was that two days later I was back on the 17th floor, anxious to see the painting, of course, but much more anxious to get the inside story on Surrealism that I was after.
The painting itself was, if truth be told, rather bland for a Dali. Reproduced here, it shows a girl (possibly one of the sleek young ladies there in the hotel room!), intertwined sinuously with a rose. Anyway, the job was done. I had got what I came for and even a bland Dali was going to be enough to wow the perfume market. It was going to be the central showpiece of the 12 paintings – all of which were going to be exhibited as a collection at a mammoth launch in Monte Carlo the next summer. The world’s beauty press were being jetted en masse into Monaco from all corners of the globe and put up in the fabulous Hotel de Paris overlooking the harbour. The exhibition of my paintings was to be opened by Princess Grace of Monaco and my Dali would be the centre of attention alongside work by Peter Blake (designer of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album cover), and Annijoni (the Queen’s portrait artist), and nine other wonderful paintings from around the world.
Now, with the precious painting safely rolled up and stored away in my briefcase, I struck out with my first question: “Mr Dali,” I began, “about the Surrealist ….” Dali immediately interrupted me with a stream of Spanish and then, very slowly in hesitant English and watched with some mounting anxiety by the Rottweiler, he went on – to my amazement – to mostly destroy his own myth.
“These are thousands of artists in the world,” he said. “I knew I was more accomplished than most, but I was a young man, and a young man has to make his mark in the world if he is going to get on. He has to be noticed, has to do something different. It was not what I wanted to paint. Now I can paint what I want to paint. I like to paint reality. Look at the Christ of Saint John of the Cross.” The puma and the girls looked bored, but the Rottweiler clearly didn’t like what he was hearing. This was neither the intellectual or the artistic image that he wanted to share with the world, and it was not long before I was being hurried out of the room and back into the elevator again, as impressed by Dali’s honesty as I was disillusioned by his cynicism.
Could Dali really have been telling me the truth? He was, after all, the world’s greatest prankster. Everything he did was for effect. Maybe he was just teasing me and I was just the latest victim. It makes you wonder.
There are Dali museums in Figueras in Spain, Florida in the United States, and Paris in France, with permanent displays of more than 1000 works by Dali – paintings, sculptures, installations and films. The Spanish museum alone attracts more than 1,000,000 visitors a year.
In 1980 there was a huge retrospective exhibition of Dali’s work at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Lenthéric is one of the oldest perfume companies. It was founded in 1875 in the Rue Saint Honoré in Paris.
The Lenthéric collection was exhibited in Monte Carlo and then the Lenthéric boardroom until 1998, when the company changed hands. Its whereabouts, including “my” Dali, is now unknown.