Salvador Dali asks if I would gently put my hand between my legs, turn my face towards the ceiling and show him what I look like after a climax from pleasuring myself. I hold this pose for about half an hour (minus the self-pleasuring). He stands there the entire time, pencil and paper in hand, yet never draws a line. Eventually he indicates that we’re finished and asks if I would return to model for him again later in the week. Standing there naked I say “yes, of course” and then put on the silk robe he had provided me with at the start of our session. I demurely walk behind an ornate 19th century dressing screen to change back into my street clothes. After dressing I walk out from behind the screen and sit on a nearby stool to lace up my lavender suede boots (that had gorgeous flowers embroidered up and down the sides; the exact same boots Kate Hudson wore as Penny Lane in the film Almost Famous).
Whilst bent over lacing up the long line of hooks on the front of each boot I suddenly feel Dali standing behind me, his belly hovering at my back. Without warning he reaches around my head and pops a large chocolate truffle into my mouth. …I continue lacing the boot and in an effort to regain my ability to speak (yet savor the truffle) I try to manipulate the chocolate down to a manageable size.
Shoes laced and still wrestling with the truffle, I’m not sure what to do next or what the protocol is on how to take my exit. I look around for a cue and see Dali across the room amidst the creative clutter of his studio. He dons his famous black cape and picks up his equally famous walking stick, gestures for me to come over to where he is, opens the door and suggests we depart together.
So there we are, walking down the velvety purple corridor outside his suite on the penthouse floor of the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. I enjoy the poetry of how my lavender boots blend in with the purple decor. (I take it as a good omen.) We arrive at the elevator, he sweeps his cape aside and offers me the crook of his arm, chocolate still melting in my mouth, I take it. In that instant the Edwardian era elevator arrives. The operator slides the door open and the three of us ride down 18 floors in silence. We exit into the grandeur of the St.Regis lobby, made even more beautiful by the February twilight filtering in through the windows. Arm still in arm, Salvador Dali parades us past the ogling gaze of about a dozen young fans who are lining the corridor in hopes of getting a glimpse of the master. He leads me to the cashier’s window, hands me a crisp fifty dollar bill and says he’ll call in a day or so to schedule our next session. It’s the winter of 1974, I am 21, he is 69.
This surreal experience began in my acting class with renowned teacher and Oscar nominated actor, Lee Strasberg. One day after class a Bulgarian girl who looked like a supermodel introduced herself to me and asked if I’d be interested in modeling for Salvador Dali. She said the gig paid $50 ($250 in 2018 money). I was an aspiring actress at the time, a full time student at The Circle in the Square Theater School and moonlighting in Strasberg’s class on the side because, hey, he was a legend. I was working temp jobs and had a little bit of financial help from my family but usually didn’t have enough to make ends meet at the end of the month, so yeah, I was interested. I gave her my phone number and didn’t think twice about it. It was the early 70s, so that meant it was really still the 60s and anything could happen.
A few days later, while sitting in my cozy studio apartment on West 8th Street, I got a phone call from a man with a heavy Spanish accent. He said he was Salvador Dali. I thought it was a prank, then quickly remembered giving the Bulgarian girl my phone number. I was curious to see where this was going so I didn’t hang up. Dali said he wanted me to model for him and that I should come to the St. Regis hotel at two o’clock the next day. He said the concierge would escort me up to his studio. The St. Regis was a five star hotel so I figured it would be safe and went as scheduled. As I entered the hotel and spoke to the concierge, my suspicion that this might be a prank gave rise to the fact that it wasn’t.
I modeled for Salvador Dali another three or four times; it was always the exact same routine, except that now after I collected my fifty bucks, one or another of his fan boys would follow me into the hotel’s giant revolving door trying to connect with me; they thought I was a hooker.
My attitude quickly evolved as I got acclimated to the job. Fear of any sexual advances or inappropriateness from Dali evaporated, yet each session (and the episode as a whole) left me feeling degraded and dehumanized. He never touched me, except for the chocolates. He never drew anything. He never asked me about myself and I never felt permission to initiate a conversation or ask him about himself. #MeToo?
In researching for this book I was shocked to learn that Salvador Dali, although married to the same woman for over 50 years, was most probably a virgin. His biographers say that as a child, Dali’s father showed him graphic images of the ravaging effects of venereal disease which instilled in him a lifelong fear of sexual intimacy. I, on the other hand, was a sexually liberated young woman finding my way down the road less travelled during a time of massive social change and experimentation.
Despite my youth and the fact that I could not articulate it at the time, it was clear to me that sexuality was a primal force of healing as well as a delicious source of personal pleasure. So now that I am almost the same age Dali was when I modeled for him, it strikes me as sad and wasteful that an iconic figure, an elder, a blessed person, a rebel with privilege, poetry and the world at his feet, was basically interested in having a free-spirited, open hearted and curious young drama student use her talent to do a re-enactment the sexual prison he had built for himself. …Had I known his story back then I probably would have offered him the full force of my unfettered femininity out of charity, just to see what might happen.
Another interesting factoid about Dali’s time at the St. Regis Hotel is best conveyed by a direct quote from his official Wikipedia page:
“In the mid-1970s, film director Alejandro Jodorowsky cast Dali in the role of the Padishah Emperor in a production of Dune, based on the novel by Frank Herbert. According to the 2013 documentary on the film, “Jodorowsky’s Dune”,Jodorowsky met Dali in the King Cole Bar in the St. Regis hotel in Manhattan to discuss the role. Dali expressed interest in the film but required as a condition of appearing that he be made the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. Jodorowsky accordingly cast Dali as the emperor, but he planned to cut Dali’s screen time to mere minutes, promising he be the highest-paid actor on a per minute basis. The film was ultimately never made.”
So, this article on his Wiki page got me wondering; did Salvador Dali think he might extract a few acting tips from a student of Lee Strasberg’s by sheer proximity? Was he too proud to reach out to the wizard of Method Acting himself and ask for some coaching? Were these modeling sessions with me a convoluted attempt at preparing for his first film role? Was Salvador Dali my first student!?
Nobody took ‘selfies’ in those days so I have no record of the encounter. I told a few of my friends at the time because, well, who wouldn’t? When I saw the Bulgarian girl again in class she asked how it went but we didn’t hang out or unpack the experience. There were about 15 other people in the class but I didn’t tell anyone about it and I certainly didn’t bother sharing this news with anyone in my family because, well… who tells their working class Jewish family in Detroit a story like this?
Jimmy Ray’s was a bar/restaurant in the heart of New York City’s Theater District, at the corner of 46th Street and 8th Ave. My first apartment was at 52nd and 8th, so it was a quick walk there for lunch or dinner. When I moved to New York in 1972, you could get a burger, fries and a beer at Jimmy Ray’s for less than $2.00. The neighborhood was (and still is) called “Hell’s Kitchen”. It was gritty, a mix of hookers, pimps and sad looking locals. The owner was a retired cop, so despite the carnival roiling outside it was tranquil and cozy inside.
Jimmy Ray’s smelled like the 1920s. It had a wood floor, wood paneled walls, naked light bulbs dangling above your head and water pipes (from which water would occasionally drip) crisscrossing the ceiling above them. Walking into the place, you had the bar on your right and a row of three giant, red leather booths (round) to your left. The narrow walkway between the bar stools and the booths opened up to a large room with a dozen or so small tables covered in red and white checkered tablecloths. Along with Joe Allen’s, which was a couple of blocks away and was a whole lot fancier (and still exists), Jimmy Ray’s was one of the most popular watering holes for working actors in New York City at that time. It was as much a part of my education as Emerson College, Circle in the Square or Lee Strasberg’s class ever was. The place was thick with pathos. The desperation for success or shock at finding it (or losing it) coursed through the air.
‘The Work’ electrified the atmosphere. The Work!. It had its roots in the lingua franca of the Actors Studio and it meant that great scripts held secrets about being a human being that the public was hungry to hear, and bringing those secrets to life by writing them or acting them was our job.
The first time I went to Jimmy Ray’s I sat in one of those giant red leather booths across from the bar. I was with a friend, a young actor whose name escapes me now. In a hushed tone, he pointed over to a balding grey haired man who was draped over the bar. He had a wry smile and a sparkle in his eye and I could hear his raspy voice asking the bartender for something or other. It was Michael V. Gazzo. I was awestruck! Michael V. Gazzo was a playwright, famous for his 1955 Broadway hit, A Hatful of Rain.
A Hatful of Rain was a beacon to aspiring actors because it was edgy and raw. It was common knowledge that he wrote it based on improvisations with actors at The Actors Studio. It brought both Michael V. Gazzo and The Actors Studio recognition and praise for their groundbreaking artistic and box office success. It was quickly made into an Oscar nominated film starring Shelley Winters and Ben Gazzara. That said, Michael V. Gazzo had to wait another 20 years, until 1975, to rendezvous with Oscar again. This time it was a best supporting actor nomination for his performance in The Godfather II. Between those two milestones he didn’t receive the recognition or financial remuneration one might have expected based on his early success. In the intervening years he wrote and acted in Off-Broadway productions, wrote a couple of low budget screen plays, taught acting classes and participated in projects at The Actors Studio. He was a one hit wonder, so to speak.
So here I was, a new arrival to NYC, sitting in Jimmy Ray’s wearing my lavender Penny Lane boots, gawking at Michael V. Gazzo who was sitting at the bar all by himself, immersed in the bittersweetness of his life. -In one fell swoop his presence schooled me about the ups and downs of being an actor.
THE ACTORS STUDIO
The Actors Studio was located just around the corner from Jimmy Ray’s, in a converted church on 44th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue. The first time I went there was to audition for their annual Christmas show. (It was the fall of 1973, about a year after I discovered Jimmy Ray’s.) I got a part in it and loved being able to call The Actors Studio my creative home base for the month or so that we rehearsed. Part of the payment for performing in this show was becoming an‘Observer’ at The Actors Studio.
Being an Observer at The Actors Studio was a dream come true. It was a passport to all of the Tuesday and Friday sessions moderated by either Lee Strasberg or Elia Kazan. I was also enrolled in Strasberg’s private classes at his institute in Union Square, so for an entire a year my weeks were filled with Strasberg’s classes on Monday and Thursday, and sessions at The Actors Studio on Tuesday and Friday. Harvey Keitel was in my class at the institute and was also a member of the Studio (he is now co-president with Al Pacino and Ellen Burstyn) and he kindly helped me feel at ease in the ultra elite atmosphere of The Actors Studio.
The entrance was through a rickety basement door that opened onto a small parlor. Every wall was covered with 8”x 10” photographs, news articles and posters of actors and actresses who had made the place famous. There was a tiny hallway where the ROMEO and JULIETTE bathrooms could be found. The office was right next to the entrance and on session days security was tight; not for weapons, but for outsiders. In order to experience a session you had to be either a member, invited by a member, an Observer, or a special guest artist from another country. If whoever was manning the office didn’t recognize you, you had to explain what you were doing there and if you didn’t have a good story you couldn’t get in.
The excluded included journalists, agents, managers, casting directors and actors who were not hooked up in some way or another with somebody who was a member. This protocol set the tone of the place, so even on non-session days The Actors Studio could be a pretty intimidating place to waltz into.
But the Christmas show was a little different; it was a lighthearted affair. There were about 15 of us in the show. We toured local elementary schools during the run up to the Christmas holiday. We wrapped up the run by putting on a grand finale for members of the Studio. To tell the truth, I have no memory of the storyline or the part I played. We sang, we danced, we bonded. One of the people I befriended was a very handsome Nigerian actor named Mobo. He was the first person I’d ever met from Africa so, ever the Midwest girl, I was completely enchanted by his accent his beauty and his magnetism. He was also Lee Strasberg’s chauffeur so I figured he must be trustworthy as well. I admired his resolve to journey from Africa to New York City to become an actor. It was unusual to meet someone past the age of thirty who would take such a risk for their dreams. Throughout the tour we talked about our lives, our existential angst and our aspirations; so one night I decided to take him home.
Home was my new studio apartment on W. 8th Street. It measured about 14’ by 25’, had a hardwood floor, a galley kitchen, a wood burning fire place, a window with a fire escape that I could sit on if I wanted some fresh air and, of course, a waterbed. (To be continued…)