Tuesday, January 4, 2011

When Huntington Hartford invited me as a guest to his namesake Huntington Hartford Museum at Columbus Circle that now houses the Museum of Arts and Design with its first exhibit circa 1961 Dali’s paintings were the Stars. I was photographing as a hobby at the time, so I proceeded to photograph him with wife Gala and with Isabelle du Fresnes a.k.a. Ultra Violet. As I walked around absorbing his many intriguing works, I noticed Dali was following me. When he continued to follow my every move, I turned and looked directly at him without lifting my camera. He said plainly: “Je veux que vous poser for moi toutes nue!” ("I want you to pose completely nude for me.") Although aghast, I blurted out: “Mais, je nai que des oses!” (I am nothing but bones) which I thought would be discouraging enough, and still a kind if self effacing way of refusing. He retorted as though taken aback at my insinuation that he may have preferred a chubette a la Renoir: “J’adore les oses” (I adore bones.) as he reached for my hand and air kissed it.

In late 2009, I sold at auction one of the few gifts I had left from Salvador Dali. It was his biography, Diary of A Genius in which he had drawn in ink a figure on a beautiful horse and a female figure standing in the distance. He signed the book “Pour Mon Ami Betina” (stet)). I had been told by two art auctioneers five years before that I should cut the two pages out of the book and frame them side by side for a more profitable sale but I preferred to leave the book intact and it appeared in Bonham’s December 2008 catalog. I was pleased then with my $4,100 some odd proceeds of the sale since I was offered only $900 to sell it outright to a notable rare book dealer. Why did I sell it? Because I didn’t want to lose it as I have so many material possessions in fires, floods and robberies which included other signed gifts from Warhol, Erte and Dali. Holding onto it only to own it and bring it out maybe once or twice a year to look at it and reminisce seemed fruitless and chancey. Like most of my cherished possessions, the book was in everpresent danger of becoming lost, damaged or stolen. The miracle is that it wasn’t.

After some months of fully clothed meetings with him where he held court at the St Regis Hotel’s King Cole room, I summoned up the courage to disrobe after a pleasant dinner and good wine and found him to be a completely trustworthy, gallant gentleman, so I was not averse to continuing to pose au nature on several occasions. The sketches were often done in his jeweler Carlos Alemany’s office, also at The St Regis Hotel. When Dali told me I would appear in some of his works with a figure with a tree growing out of its head and branches coming out of the torso which he described by forming an imaginary tree over his own head. When he saw my baffled expression, he clarified: “Not you. The man.” And there was that man he described before my eyes nearly half a century later standing next to a bronze Terpsichore that I was the model for. He also had told me I would be in a portrait of Three Graces which I saw some years after I posed as a limited litho edition in an NBC producer’s home.

I was kinda bowled over and delighted to see these small scale replicas of my past selves, albeit sometimes slightly distorted by Dali’s signature surrealism scattered about the public areas of The Time Warner Center which opened this Fall and continues thru April 2011.

Why could I not bring myself to introduce that former me of half a century ago to the Dali museum curator and collectors at the opening cocktail reception this Fall? Was I afraid that this humble elderly lady five inches shorter who depends on a rolling walker now might be scorned as a dotty old pathetic hag who bears such incredibly little resemblance to the model whom Dali frequently complimented after having done quick renderings of me in motion: “Bettina, vous avez une tres belle corps” (you have a very beautiful body) he would tell me as he likely had done to boost confidence in each of his models. During those years Dali often invited me to dine with him at Le Cote Basque together with wife Gala and Peter Moore. One morning he asked me to join him where he held court at the St Regis Hotel with Andy Warhol who later invited me to his birthday party at The Peachtree in Atlanta, Georgia accompanied by Tina Turner and Tom Cruise and a handful of newspaper and wire photographers. I was so exhausted on that trip I blew those amazing photo ops by falling asleep throughout the entire bash.

Dali had two beautiful wild cats that in fact belonged to Captain Peter Moore and his wife Cathy. The marguay and the ocelot loved to play with my long red virgin hair. (That’s what George Michael called it because it had never been touched with any color enhancements.) They took turns leaping from the floor, grazed gracefully past my face, and as they whizzed past me, they licked my nose and played with my hair as though I were a weeping willow tree. They would kiss my nose and cheek like I was their kin which had everyone in eyeshot laughing at their antics. One morning at 7:00 a.m. In 1965, Dali had summoned me to come to his suite at The St Regis Hotel to photograph him with the astronauts who were being heralded in a ticker tape parade shortly after their successful moon landing. The astronauts were expected to meet with him at 8:30a.m. so I was resting on a couch in Dali’s St Regis Hotel suite when the marguay, Bibu, came directly to the sofa after deftly opening the doorknob to DalI and Gala’s bedroom, climbed over me, gently licked my nose and rested his head in the nape of my neck and fell asleep full length on top of me. His behavior was identical to my little black cat Pandora’s who was at home except Bibu was ten times her size.

One June circa 1975 or so after I left my photography job at the Mayors Office of Lower Manhattan Development I was commissioned to work for a month in Paris so I sublet my penthouse apartment at 57 west 58th Street. When I got back, my entire collection of Dali photographs, original negatives and color slides plus some of his signed renderings and posters Dali had gifted to me were gone. I never recovered them. The only pix I had left of Dali, the ocelot and the marguay were a tiny selection that Photo Researchers, my photo agency, had been holding. I found a dozen of those poorly preserved negs with a black and white contact sheet a few days ago that include Dali, Gala, the ocelots and me but all on separate frames of the contact sheet.

Year after year Dali had invited me to stay at his home in Port Lligat, Cadaques near Barcelona, and every one of those years in Summer I was fully booked day after day all day to model every garment and accessory throughout the hundreds of pages in JC Penney, Sears and Montgomery Ward fashion catalogs. Other than nudes which paid me $1,000 per hour, the catalog season was my biggest moneymaker which gave me a steady stream of enormous income year after year while the editorial spreads in Harpers Bazaar, Vogue, Mademoiselle and Glamour provided prestige in the fashion world, the income derived from them was minimal. Ads paid pretty well, especially when I got full year long campaigns but steady catalog season in summers were a huge bonanza of income. My priorities were often misplaced throughout my life as in these instances which make me regret that I never took the time to accept Dali’s invitations to summer in Cadaques, Spain.

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