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Dinner with the Dalís


Meeting Salvador Dalí over a slab of offal
Brian Sewell Writer
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We had two rooms and a kitchen, and a bathroom, and so it made sense to look after ourselves. And the first morning, I realised what I’d let myself in for, because I was travelling with three sluggards who didn’t get up. I’m up at seven o’clock in the morning. So… and then the following morning, oh at some point, I made friends with a couple of dogs, beach dogs, and called them Hannibal and Scipio. And a day or two later, I’d gone out very early to do some marketing and I wanted something to feed the dogs with, because they were quite clearly, you know, not being fed by anybody.  And I went to the butcher, who was right at the end of the little main street, and asked for something for the dogs.

And he thought for a moment, and came back with the complete windpipe and lungs of some quite large animal, covered in blood and all in a piece. So he gave me that, and I came away, and the two dogs were absolutely slavering at my heels, and went to the local café, which had tables outside, and sat with my great ugly thing from inside the animal. And at that point in my life, I always carried a knife with me.  And, so I started hacking away at this, and I had the lungs, the windpipe, a cup of coffee and a glass of brandy on the table, and the two dogs here, and whisper-quiet, an enormous green Cadillac of 1938-39 vintage just came to a halt 20 yards away. A four-door drop-head coupe, very beautiful, special body. And out got two people, whom I immediately recognised from photographs and all the rest of it, as Dalí and Gala. And they sat at a table, two or three tables away, and were immediately fussed over by the people in the restaurant. So I didn’t take much notice. In fact, I took no notice at all, and went on trying to cut bits off the lungs to feed these two dogs. My hands were completely bloody. You hold on to this slippery thing, which is squelchy. You try to cut it, and you need a razor-sharp knife, and mine wasn’t quite sharp enough. Anyway, the dogs seemed to be perfectly happy at the progress. And then I became aware of somebody standing here, and it was Dalí. And he said, 'Do you know who I am?' And I said, 'Yes, of course, you’re Dalí'. And I think he was disappointed right at the start, because I watched him later playing the same trick on other people.

And the answer was, to the question, 'Do you know who I am?' Was always, 'No'. At which point, he would swell slightly and say, 'I am Da-!' And they would then pretend that they were astonished and so on. So… but it developed from that. I was asked to go and have dinner with him that evening, and I said, 'Well, where do I go?' And he said, 'Oh...', you know, an extravagant gesture to the northeast. So I did find out where he was and I found the house and so on, and I enjoyed his company, and I think I was good for him, because I was absolutely direct all the time. He wanted flattery, he didn’t get it from me. And I think he found it very useful for… his career was in the doldrums. He had been put on one side and forgotten. I’m talking about 1967, '68, '69. New York wasn’t interested in him, London and Paris were not interested. They had, as it were, rebelled against his rather corny success and written him off. And my friendship with him came to… let’s say it withered when he… when New York began to adopt him again. And the moment he was taking the ship to New York, then I was no longer useful. And I don’t reproach him. He loved adulation and he needed a daily dose of it, and if he didn’t get it, then he was prepared to settle for my kind of scepticism. But he would rather be adored.

So after 1970, I didn’t see him again. And he came to a rather sad end, really. Both of them did. Gala first. And then Dalí sort of… an invalid in bed, fading away. And he was already fading when I knew him. But there was quite a lot of life left.

Born in England, Brian Sewell (1931-2015) was considered to be one of Britain’s most prominent and outspoken art critics. He was educated at the Courtauld Institute of Art and subsequently became an art critic for the London Evening Standard; he received numerous awards for his work in journalism. Sewell also presented several television documentaries, including an arts travelogue called The Naked Pilgrim in 2003. He talked candidly about the prejudice he endured because of his sexuality.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Cadillac, Salvador Dalí, Gala Dalí, Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, Hanibal, Scipio, Elena Ivanovna Diakonova

Duration: 6 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2013

Date story went live: 04 July 2013