Salvador Dali politely asks me if I would put my hand between my legs, turn my gaze towards the ceiling and show him what my face looks like after a climax from pleasuring myself. I go along with his request and hold this pose for about half an hour (minus the self-pleasuring). He stands there in front of me for the entire time, pencil and paper in hand, yet never draws a line. Finally, he indicates that we’re finished and asks if I would return to model for him again later in the week. In my nakedness I say, “yes, of course” and then cover myself with the silk robe he gave me at the start of our session.
I demurely walk behind an ornate 19th century dressing screen, hang up the robe and change back into my street clothes. That done, I walk out from behind the screen and sit on a nearby stool to lace up my floral lavender suede boots (the exact same ones are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and were worn by Kate Hudson 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 up 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 as he dons his famous black cape and picks up his equally famous walking stick. He gestures for me to come over to where he is; I do. He opens the door and suggests we depart together.
So there we are, Salvador Dali and I walking down the velvety purple corridor 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 decor (my budding awareness of synchronicity takes it in 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 exact instant, the Edwardian era elevator arrives. The operator slides the gate open and the three of us ride down in silence, listening to the clickity click of the elevator as it descends 18 floors. We exit into the grandeur of the St. Regis lobby, made even more beautiful by the February twilight filtering in through the high 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 young Bulgarian woman 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 2019 money). At that time I was a full time drama 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 had a little bit of financial help from my father and was working part time as a waitress in the evenings 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 the 60s on steroids and anything could happen.
A few days later, at home in my cozy Greenwich Village studio, kicking back reading Ibsen or Chekhov or something along those lines, the phone rings. I hear a man with a heavy Spanish accent on the other end. He says he’s Salvador Dali. I thought it was a prank but then quickly remembered giving the Bulgarian supermodel 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 asked if I would 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/is a f-a-n-c-y hotel so I figured it would be safe and went as scheduled. Once I got there and spoke to the concierge any residual feelings I had that this might be a prank quickly gave rise to the fact that it definitely was not.
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 and left the hotel, one or another of his acolytes would follow me into the giant revolving door in an attempt to connect with me; I recall one of them asking if I was a hooker.
I got acclimated to the job and my attitude quickly evolved. Fear of any sexual advances 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 or attempted to connect with me as a person and I never felt permission to initiate a conversation or connect with him either. #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 upheaval and experimentation. Despite my youth and the fact that I didn’t have the vocabulary for it at the time, it was clear to me that my sexuality was a primal force of healing for others, as well as a delicious source of personal pleasure.
So, now that I am almost the same age Salvador Dali was when I modeled for him, it strikes me as sad and wasteful that an iconic figure, a uniquely talented person, a rebel with privilege, poetry and the world at his feet, was only interested in having a trusting, open hearted, free-spirited and curious young drama student use her talent to create a re-enactment of the sexual prison he had built around himself. …Had I known his story back then I probably would have offered him the full force of my unfettered healing powers out of charity, just to see what might happen if he manned up!
Another interesting factoid about Dali’s time at the St. Regis Hotel in the 1970s is best summed up 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 Wiki page article got me wondering; did Salvador Dali think he might extract a few acting tips from a student of Lee Strasberg’s by sheer osmosis? 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 Salvador Dali 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 any of them about it, and I certainly didn’t bother sharing this news with anyone in my family because; who tells their working class Jewish family in Detroit a story like this?
Salvador Dali in 1973
JIMMY RAY’S BAR
In the 1970s 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 a few blocks away 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,…and actors.
The owner was a retired cop, so despite the carnival roiling outside it was tranquil and cozy inside. Jimmy Ray’s smelled like the 1910s (when it was probably built). It had a wood floor, wainscoting on the walls, naked light bulbs dangling from the ceiling (painted black and peeling) and pipes (from which water would occasionally drip) crisscrossing the ceiling above the lights. -No surprise that the place burned down in 1987. I’ve searched online for photos to no avail. Entering Jimmy Ray’s from the street you had the bar on your right and a row of three enormous red leather booths to your left. The narrow walkway between the bar stools and the booths opened up into a large space 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 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. 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 despair at 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 had great secrets encoded in them; secrets about being a human being, secrets about western culture, political, philosophical and spiritual secrets that the public was hungry to hear about. The Work meant that it was our job to uncover those secrets and to bring them to life!
The first time I went to Jimmy Ray’s I sat in one of those giant leather booths across from the bar. A new friend had brought me there, a young actor whose name escapes me now. He whispered in my ear and pointed over to a balding grey haired man draped over the bar trying to get the attention of the bartender. This guy had a wry smile and a sparkle in his eye. He was buzzed. I could hear the intent in his raspy voice as he was explaining something or other to the nonplussed bartender. …He was Michael V. Gazzo. I was awestruck! Michael V. Gazzo was a playwright, famous for his 1955 Broadway hit, A Hatful of Rain. The play was a beacon to aspiring actors of my generation because it was new and edgy and raw. (Kind of like Sam Shepard’s True West or Fool for Love is regarded now.) It was common knowledge that he wrote Hatful of Rain based entirely on improvisations with actors at The Actors Studio, which makes Michael V. Gazzo part of the DNA of the Method Acting revolution that took hold of the world at that time. A Hatful of Rain brought both Mr. Gazzo and The Actors Studio recognition and praise and commercial success.
Their groundbreaking artistic and box office achievement 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, for Oscar to smile on him again. This time it was with a best supporting actor nomination for his performance in The Godfather Part II. However, between those two major milestones, he lived in obscurity and didn’t receive the recognition or financial remuneration one might have expected based on his early success.
During the 20 years when he was off the grid 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. From the an industry POV he was a one hit wonder, but for me, sitting there in Jimmy Ray’s for the first time in my lavender lace up boots, it was thrilling to be breathing the same air as Michael V. Gazzo, no matter that he was sitting at the bar all by himself, buzzed on a few drinks, immersed in the bittersweetness of his life. -In one fell swoop his presence schooled me about the ups and downs of being a professional actor.
Michael V. Gazzo
THE ACTORS STUDIO
The Actors Studio was located a few blocks away 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. I got a part in it and loved being able to call The Actors Studio my creative home for the month or so that we rehearsed there. Part of the payment for performing in this show was becoming an ‘Observer’ at The Actors Studio.
Being an Observer was a passport to attend all of the Tuesday and Friday sessions moderated by either Lee Strasberg or Elia Kazan. It meant you didn’t have to go through the arduous audition process to become a member. Since I was also enrolled in Strasberg’s private class at his Institute in Union Square my entire week was filled with a frenzy of activity: Strasberg classes twice a week, Actors Studio sessions twice a week plus my obligations as a student at Circle in the Square; movement, voice and scene study classes. Harvey Keitel (Pulp Fiction, Mean Streets, The Piano) was in my class at the Strasberg Institute and was also a member of the Actors Studio (he had to audition more than 10 times to become a member and is now co-president with Al Pacino and Ellen Burstyn). Harvey helped me feel at ease in the ultra elite atmosphere of place. At one of my first sessions he introduced me to two time Oscar winner Shelley Winters. During the introduction he mentioned that I was her namesake. She looked at us like we were crazy and said that that detail just made her feel old. Ouch!
The entrance to the Actors Studio was through a rickety basement door that opened onto a small parlor. Every wall was covered with photographs, news articles and posters of actors and actresses who had made the place famous. There was a tiny hallway with ROMEO and JULIET designated bathrooms. The office was right next to the entrance and on session days security was tight; not for weapons, but for non-members. In order to experience a session you had to be a member, be invited by a member, be an observer, or be a special guest artist from another country. If the office manager didn’t recognize you, you had to explain what you were doing there and if you didn’t have a good story you simply couldn’t get in. Period. 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 exclusive tone of the place. Even on non-session days, The Actors Studio could be a pretty intimidating place to waltz into.
The Actors Studio
But the Christmas show had a completely different vibe; it was a lighthearted affair, meant to reach out to the community. There were about 15 of us in the show. Once the show was up and running we toured local elementary schools in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday.
We finished the run with a grand finale for members of the Actors Studio and their families. 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 cast members I befriended was a very handsome Nigerian actor named Mobo. He was the first person I’d ever met from Africa and, ever the free-spirited Midwesterner, I was completely enchanted by his accent, his beauty and his magnetism. He was making his way in America by working as Lee Strasberg’s chauffeur. He was an unusual guy; thirty+ years old taking an enormous risk to live his dreams. I appreciated and admired the chuzpa. Throughout the tour we exchanged glances and talked about our lives, our existential angst and our aspirations; so one night I decided it was time to take him back to my apartment. (To be continued.)