It was sometime in the mid 70′s, and I must have been 7 or 8 years old. My brother Chris was 11 or 12. We were two New York kids, lucky enough to find ourselves in a tiny chocolate shop on 57th Street, a couple of doors down from the old Russian Tea Room. Our fantastic mother was prepared to buy us any chocolates we wanted. Oh . . yes! Wooo hooo! It doesn’t get any better than that! Righteous Mom.
Chris and I were in a chocolate-dipped, toasted coconut, creme-filled, sugar-coated, nuts, nougat, caramels, and sweets heaven, literally like kids in a candy store! What to choose, what to choose. How about a hundred of everything? But my Mom suddenly got distracted by a strange man who was also in the store. A really odd, eccentric looking character. He wore a weird hat, a weird cape (yes, a cape!), and carried a cane. Weird moustache, weird face. Weird all around. Why did my Mommy care about this freak, I thought. We’re supposed to be buying chocolates!!!! How dare she direct her attention elsewhere. The nerve of that woman. But she kept eyeing him. Watching him.
My mother, as I have mentioned before on this blog, is an artist. In addition, she is probably the sharpest and quickest observer of recognizing famous figures in public places of anyone I’ve ever known. She spots people like a hawk. In crowds. In restaurants. On the streets of New York. So clearly she knew who this man was. Ok fine, Chris and I thought. The man is famous in some way. Big whoop. Can we get candy already???? My brother and I were going into sugar withdrawal symptoms at this point! The weird little man paid for his purchase, and walked out of the store with his bag of chocolates. My Mom had not attempted to speak to him, as he was not especially approachable. He just left the store, and walked out onto 57th Street. “That was Salvador Dali”, my Mom said. Huh? Dali who? Neither my brother nor I knew or cared who he was other than the jerk who delayed our candy indulgence. Can we get chocolates now, Mom?? Damn.
Yes, that was our little “brush with greatness”. Encountering Salvador Dali in a tiny chocolate shop which, sadly, is no longer there. Given how our city has changed, it’s probably some wireless T-Mobile store now. Or a Domino’s Pizza take-out.
Like all the famous artists I feature here on Museworthy, Salvador Dali had a muse; his wife, Gala. By all accounts, Gala, the daughter of Russian intellectuals, was a shrewish, domineering woman who was profoundly disliked by most people who knew her. Except for Dali, who was infatuated. He even went so far as to call her “mythological”. Gala certainly inspired him artistically, as we can see in this very interesting nude painting Salvador did of her. I have to say, I’m quite intrigued by it:
Gala managed Dali’s career and finances, and did so ruthlessly. Her crafty tactics worked like a charm, and even Dali’s father admitted that while Gala was not the warmest, most sensitive lady on earth, she handled and promoted Salvador’s art career with a great deal of business savvy. He said that were it not for her “my son would have ended up under a bridge in Paris”. Perhaps she is reason that Dali is so well-known not just to art experts, but to the general public. He is not “just another surrealist”, but an iconic art figure of the 20th century.
My research of their marriage was, let’s say, a little discomfiting. They weren’t Ozzie and Harriet, that’s for sure. The Dalis were more like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald on acid. I don’t know, that metaphor works for me. Just as the Dalis’ marriage seemed to work for them. And who am I to judge? Relationships are forged for all sorts of reasons. And as far as art is concerned, a muse is a muse. When an artist finds inspiration as potent and addictive and compulsive as Gala was for Salvador, you hang on to it. Because you are inexplicably drawn to it. Because you have no choice. And so, you create . . .
Gala Dali died in 1982. As per her wishes, she was buried in her favorite red Christian Dior dress.
Salvador died in 1989, in his hometown of Figueres, Catalonia in Spain, just three blocks from where he was born. To me, he will always be the peculiar man who bought a bag of chocolates, in that little shop on 57th Street.