Salvador Dali politely asks 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. He stands there in front of me the entire time, pencil and paper in hand, yet never draws a line. Suddenly, he indicates that we’re finished and asks if I would return to model for him again in a few days. I say, “yes, of course” and then cover my nakedness with the silk robe he provided for 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 clothes.
That done, I walk out from behind the screen and sit on a nearby stool to lace up my Jerry Edouard lavender suede boots (the very same ones on display at the Met and made famous by Kate Hudson in the film Almost Famous). Whilst bent over lacing up the long line of hooks on the boots, I suddenly feel Dali standing behind me, his belly hovering at my back. Without warning he reaches around my head and pops a giant chocolate truffle into my mouth. …I continue lacing up the boots and try to manipulate the truffle down to a manageable size in the hope that I will soon regain my ability to speak.
Shoes laced and still wrestling with the truffle, I’m feeling a little disoriented; not sure what to do next or how to take my exit. I look around for a cue and see Dali standing by the door donning his famous black cape and picking up his equally famous glass walking stick. He waves at me to come over. I weave my way through the creative clutter of his studio and join him. He sweeps the door open and suggests we depart together.
So there we are, me and Salvador Dali walking down the velvety lilac corridor on the 16th floor of the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. I enjoy the poetry of how my lavender boots blend in with the decor (I take this as a good omen). We arrive at the elevator, he presses the call button, sweeps his cape aside and offers me the crook of his arm. Chocolate still melting in my mouth, I take it, and in that very instant the Edwardian era elevator arrives. The operator slides the gate open, Dali and I step into the coccoon sized car and the three of us ride down in silence, the clickity clack of the elevator passing each floor being our only distraction.
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 acolytes 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. After class one day, a young Bulgarian woman who looked like a supermodel introduced herself and in a halting accent asked me if I’d be interested in modeling for Salvador Dali. She said the gig paid $50 ($250 in 2021 money). I was a full time drama student then, attending 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 but was also working part time as a waitress in the evenings to make ends meet so yeah, I was interested. I wasn’t sure if I heard everything correctly but 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, I was kicking back on my waterbed reading Ibsen or Chekhov or something like that. The phone rings. I hear a man with a heavy Spanish accent on the other end. He says he’s Salvador Dali. I think it’s a prank but then quickly remember 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 is one of the fanciest hotels in the world so I figured it would be safe and went as scheduled.
Once I got there and spoke to the concierge any lingering thoughts 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 I could feel the gaze of his fans on my back as I walked out of the building. One time one of them jumped into the oversized revolving door with me and asked if I was a hooker. Not sure how to respond I kept silent and with the pent up energy from the whole bizarre afternoon, walked all the way home to The Village down 5th avenue.
I got acclimated to the job and fear of any sexual impropriety from Dali quickly evaporated, yet each session (and the episode as a whole) left me feeling as if there had been. I felt degraded and dehumanized. He never touched me, except for the chocolate truffle ritual. He never drew anything. He never asked me about myself or attempted to connect with me as a person and I never felt an opening 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 with either women or men. I, on the other hand, was a sexually liberated young woman making my way in the world during a time of massive social upheaval and experimentation. Despite my youth and the fact that I didn’t have words for it at the time, it was clear to me that my sexuality was a gift of life and a primal force of healing.
Now that I’m the same age Salvador Dali was when I modeled for him, and I work collaboratively with young performing artists on a daily basis, it strikes me as particularly hollow that an iconic figure like Salvador Dali was primarily interested in having a free-spirited and curious young performing artist use her talent to make a tableau of the sexual prison he was living in. Artistic to the max? Indeed! Yet had I known he was a virgin back then, I probably would have taken it to the next level and offered him the full healing force of my unfettered feminine powers just to see what might happen.
Another interesting factoid about his 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 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 grand master of Method Acting himself and ask for some coaching? Were these modeling sessions with me some sort of convoluted attempt to prepare him for his first acting job? 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 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 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 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 human, 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. This guy had a wry smile and a sparkle in his eye, and he was buzzed. I could hear 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. It was common knowledge that he wrote Hatful of Rain based entirely on improvisations 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. 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. 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 training 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. 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 information 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 it was up and running we toured local elementary schools in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday and 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. He was making his way in America by working as Lee Strasberg’s chauffeur. He was an unusual guy; thirtysomething 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.)