Salvador Dali flew crosscountry to have sex with Mae West. But could he? 2,648 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Mae West, shop-worn goddess of stage and screen, was in deep Tinseltown hibernation. Whenever her name was mentioned, though it seldom was, the masses dimly recalled a tough Brooklyn babe who cracked wise. Flesh-and-blood Mae had started screwing at twelve and never got what she wanted, or not enough. Whoever still wanted her really only wanted an idea of sexual freedom that had nothing to do with sex or freedom. Sex, ideas and freedom vanish the instant they become story, image, memory. They don’t come back. Mae’s sexual moment was long gone.
A certain crowd still worshipped her, but invisibly, and in silence. Mae depended heavily on dinner invitations from interior decorators, but even those had grown fewer and farther in-between. She often went to bed hungry, but Hollywood tourists still asked for autographs whenever she went out for a toddle around the block. Her rooms at the Ravenswood Apartments on Rossmore Boulevard remained firmly in place on the Movie Star Homes map.
However dark and cold the Hollywood night, Mae West was still a star.
Not many people knew that Salvador Dalí was a fantastic driver. He could’ve given Juan Miguel Fangio a run for the money, but brush and pigment were a better escape from hard reality than pistons, spark plugs and gasoline. Hard reality, in Dali’s case, was erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation. Hard reality drove Dalí insane. His sexual obsessions drove him to Los Angeles.
Dalí had traveled incognito on the Constellation night flight from New York because he didn’t want any Americans to recognize the world’s most famously lunatic painter. He’d shaved off his trademark handlebar moustache in the airplane’s cramped restroom but resisted the temptation to take off his eyebrows, too. He de-greased his hair, cut short for the occasion. His Marcel Marceau-influenced attempts to lose his bug-eyed stare in the mirror over the tiny steel sink were unsuccessful. He gave up and slid nondescript gold frame Ray-Bans on his interesting nose instead.
He practiced an American slouch. The limp pose came all too easily.
When Dalí stepped off the plane, he strode to the nearest auto rental desk at LAX and requested a Mercedes 300 SL. The clerk asked Dalí to remove his sunglasses to make sure the client was not intoxicated. Hunched and unsunglassed, Dalí passed the auto rental stare test. But then the Hertz flunkies had to scramble to find him a 300 SL. International art stars forget that not everyone can supply hot and cold running dreamboats on demand. Dalí had almost asked the rental clerk for a 300 SL with a more discreet paint job. Silver-flake gray, for instance. Then he’d remembered it was better not to ask too much of reality. Three quarters of an hour later, Dalí was at the wheel of a blood-red gullwing coupé.
Dalí felt instantly at home. Driving 160 mph seemed languorous. There were no speed limits or heavy traffic then. Freshly laid asphalt felt positively erotic. Life was easy and automatic in America, he thought, including the sexual life.
He double-clutched and then shifted down for a smooth semi-hourglass leftside pass, and literally blew the doors off a Cadillac Eldorado. American cars were bulbous sex dreams on wheels, he thought, with bulging black rubber breasts on the bumpers. But they were slow.
Dalí had wet dreams about Mae West. He always woke up happy after he had them. By contrast, his Russian wife Gala daily popped his virile bubbles with a sadistic smirk. “At least you can still stuff coffee in a pot, little man. Go make Gala breakfast. Now!” If Gala found out about his Hollywood sexcapade scheme, he was dead. He’d told her he was meeting with producers at 20th Century Fox. Gala’s eyes blazed neon dollar signs. Dalí had married Gala for sex. But she only lusted after money. She was impatient. He was impotent.
Dalí made bizarre dream-life real on canvas. He wanted to make his Mae West wet dreams come true in real life.
Mae West knew dick about art and cared even less. But she could smell hot comeback possibilities from a mile away. When internationally famous art star Salvador Dalí telephoned to ask for a date, her built-in showbiz star power antennae perked up hard. The Watts Towers were ancient refrigerated carrots by comparison.
Dalí had already immortalized Mae’s steamy sex-gaze. He’d transformed her formerly fabulous face into an eccentric millionaire’s apartment. He’d turned her bee-stung lips into a soft velvet loveseat. Dealers and decorators made fortunes with Dalí’s dizzying designs. Smoldering Mae got precisely zilch on the Dalí deal. So he owed her one.
So Mae was disappointed when the big-deal artist specified strictly no publicity for the meeting with her. She relished publicity. She loved being a star. Even more, she would’ve loved to stop worrying about the rent and the grocery bills and use Dali to become hot in Tinseltown all over again.
She applied a Halloween mask of glittering thalo-green mascara. Her earrings were dehooked rubber squid lures, lifted from the fishing tackle shop on Santa Monica pier. Mae squinted bedroom eyes at the mirror, then settled on a Carmen Miranda-style fruit basket hat of plastic ants, spiders and scorpions on her sparse dye job and wig-extenders. Her dress was a soft watch number, custom-tailored by Sol The Sawtelle Seamster for $29.99. Old Sol taped up autographed movie star pix on his dress shop Wall of Fame. He got low-grade publicity from being Mae West’s personal bra-and-girdle engineer, but he always made her pay upfront. Because movie stars were also famous for settling their bills late or not at all.
Mae sat patiently on the shabby sofa in her living room. Her clingy faded-glitter dress had grown tight and uncomfortable. The live lobster necklace she’d wheedled from a nostalgia-crazed fishmonger on Fairfax Avenue scratched, itched and twitched. She had made her name on double entendre one-liners. “I like two kinds of men,” she famously quipped. “Domestic and imported.” But Mae didn’t really like men, though. The hump-and-jiggle part with them was OK. It was their company she could live without.
Salvador Dalí executed a squealing powerslide into a parking spot smack-dab in front of the Ravenswood. He raced the engine and slipped the keys from the slot. No roving paparazzi in sight. Dalí peeled off his perforated fingerless driving gloves and flung them, with an effete limp-wristed gesture, onto the shotgun seat. They sprawled there, clutched in futile prayer. He knew Mae West was upstairs, and that made him extremely nervous. His beady eyes darted up the Ravenswood’s Deco façade to the windows of Mae’s love-nest lair. He lit a thin cigarette with a skull lighter, custom-made by Cartier, and waited for his hands to stop shaking. He felt no arousal at all. The hardest thing about him at that moment was the soles of his Gucci loafers.
Mae West’s female physique jitterbugged in deep-freeze slow motion, an hourglass-shaped bottle that leaked expired perfume. For her, the idea of sex, and the build-up, were so much better than the act itself. Camera follows screen goddess through set bedroom’s fake door, stops and pushes focus on the silk-and-gold swan bed, captured in lurid black and white. The star takes off her earrings. That means she’s ready. Iris in on her kissing lips. Fade out.
Real sex was different.
Mae knew enough about real sex to keep it hidden. The fragile but profound mystery of love can’t survive any display harder than suggestion.
The Ravenswood’s elevator was a hall of mirrors. Dalí’s colon clenched as it rose. He felt as though he had a hot date with a guillotine, not an obsolete screen idol. I won’t make excuses this time, he thought. I won’t resort to pseudo-oneiric gibberish.
An ectoplamsic rhinoceros horn intruded on his concentration.
The elevator stopped. The doors slid open with a swoosh.
Mae heard the elevator bell bong on her floor. She gulped. Her dentures clacked together, a sound she despised. She wished she had a maid to receive Salvador Dalí. She wished she could afford one. A whole career in showbiz, and no servant to help clinch a comeback deal with a hot-shot weirdo artist. The animated mummy rustled uncomfortably towards the door, a coffin-lid of movie stardom. On the other side was an artist who sold fake dreams for hard cold cash.
“Hello, Dalí.” Mae nailed the corny line. She was a pro. She practiced hard.
“Mae, you look good enough to eat.” Dumb dialog from a dirty movie. A double entendre from a nervous nellie who couldn’t please women the usual way so he tried to please them another, no matter how distasteful he found the process.
Mae’s scent hit Dalí like a fist.
“Funny you should say that, Sal — may I call you Sal? Anyhoo, I dreamt I was carved from a solid block of Baked Alaska. The ants came. Their antennae tickled me… Won’t say where, but it wasn’t Alaska. I turned down a gig in Nome once because I heard an Eskimo kiss is rubbing noses. Listen, Dalí, my maid took the day off. So we got the penthouse to ourselves in case you want to misbehave. Why don’t I knock you up a cocktail before the misbehavin’ mis-begins?”
“A drink’d be great. Thanks. Nice place you got here.”
“Nice is not how I got here.” Mae couldn’t staunch the flow of one-liners.
She couldn’t tell Dalí to help himself, either. He was a guest. Mae West didn’t get many guests anymore, and she never had much liquor around much less top-shelf hooch. “Howzabout a Mae West-tini, Sal? Straight shot of Chanel No. 5 with a 10-karat diamond in the glass. And a French kiss for a chaser. Only you’re some kinda Spaniard, aren’t you?” Mae West bent over to mix bargain-brand gin and tonic. She jiggled and couldn’t stop.
Dalí fought the urge to run to the open window for a final flying Yves Klein-style leap. If he survived the fall, he’d crawl to the blood-colored 300SL and drive off the nearest cliff. For him, sex was hell. Sex was a nightmare. And he’d traveled halfway around the miserable world to have sex with Mae West.
Ice cubes clinked. Mae’s hands shook, but not from nerves. Her nails were as red and shiny as the 300SL cooling down at the curb outside. “Ooh, Sal, is that a throbbin’ lobster in your pocket or are you glad to see me?” She dropped the line the way a Mafia hitman drops a gun at a gangland crime scene.
“Please, no lobsters,” he pleaded. “I’m totally sick to death of lobsters. They’re so ugly and primitive.”
“Lobsters mate for life,” Mae replied. “Sounds like the life for me.”
She handed him a batwing glass with a staring eyeball pattern. Dalí dropped the glass. It shattered. Mae dropped her drink, too. She thought smashing highball glasses was the Surrealist toast. She knew Surrealists were odd, but showbiz life had taught her that eccentric quirkiness was all just an act, too. She hadn’t mopped the floor too well. Mop-work was hell on Mae’s arthritic knees and hands. Maybe Dalí would hand her enough dough to cover maid service at least one day a week. Surrealist art patrons were millionaires, billionaires, and crowned empty heads.
“What’s with the soft watches, Sally? When you called, I was kinda hoping you’d give me a hard time.”
“That exactly what I want. Mae — may I call you Mae? — I need help. Gala doesn’t understand me. I need a hand…”
“Give you a hand? Bravo, bravo!” She clapped. The sound got a rise out of Dalí. She noticed. “Oh, you bad little boy. Mommy Mae’s going to have to take you —firmly — in hand.”
Dalí dropped his pants. He didn’t know what else to do. He was stuck in a surreal sexual nightmare of his own creation, based on a condition he couldn’t control. Sex was a game played according to incomprehensible rules, without reason or justice. Pants tailored in France dropped on English shoes burnished with rhinoceros horn. Gala often spanked Dalí with his shoes to punish him for his failings as a man. (“Paint, you wretch. At least your puny little brush is hard enough to push pigment around. More art means more fame means more money for Gala.”)
Hardly anyone besides Dalí had ever noticed Mae’s hands. Mae West was lips, bedroom eyes, glittering gowns stretched over bosoms, a Brooklyn-flecked voice that tossed off dirty one-liners. No one had ever painted her hands, or turned them into furniture for sale. Only Dalí had spotted the perfection of Mae West’s mitts. Strong, soft, firm, moved by an old showgirl’s sense of timing, they shook in Parkinsonian polyrhythms.
“Please,” he croaked. “Mastur… masturb…”
“Master bedroom? It’s over there, uh, big boy. You don’t look like you’re quite ready for bed yet but…”
Dalí’s eyes bulged. Mae’s liver-spotted crab-claws reached for him. He felt his blood flow in inadequate but insistent short-waves. She grabbed his hand and pulled. He shuffle-walked like a baby elephant waving its trunk. She flung her boudoir door open with a sclerotic Rockette flourish.
Dali experienced anew an ecstatic sensation from childhood, felt a masculine surge. His wave exploded instantly. Reality was merciless.
So was Mae. “Mmm. This’ll go down as the shortest date in history. You oughta apply for membership at the Groucho Club, Sally. May I call you Sally? How about Petunia? Groucho gives his disappointed girlfriends fifty bucks up front. What’re you gonna give me, Dalí baby? A surreal movie deal? I’m ready for my close-up, Sally Dalí.”
Mae West drew too close for Dali’s comfort. She peeled off her bizarre soft-watch dress. Sequins popped and floated floor-ward like dandruff. She was nude underneath. Too many secrets were revealed at a blow. A red triangular dye-job blazed in a beam of light from the blood-poisoned L.A. sunset.
Dalí’s lobster-brain ganglia took control. He hoisted his pants, fumbled in his pockets, pulled out a wad of greenbacks and peeled off dollars. They fluttered to the floor like electrocuted butterflies. Mae was indignant. “I’m no whore, Dalí. I only play madams in movies, if I accept the part. Keep your chump change, baby. I want to be back in the act for real.”
Dalí smashed a Dalí-shaped hole in Mae West’s door.
He put a death grip on the 300 SL’s riveted rosewood steering wheel. No time to slip on the driving gloves. He hit 220 mph in under ten seconds. The engine screamed in pure sexual pleasure as the car rocketed past a flaming hell of oil rigs pumping and pumping. He fought the urge to ram an oil derrick with his gorgeous rental hot-rod. “Phanstasmagorical Fireball Immolates Oddball Artist.” He froze the headline-worthy image in his mind’s eye for a painting worth a million bucks.
Survival was the only surreal suicide.
Later, back on the Constellation, Mae West’s disembodied lips whispered a kiss like bloody wings at Dalí’s face pressed into a porthole on the starboard side of a sunset-stained stainless steel air-o-plane.
At the Ravenswood Apartments, management overcharged the senescent star for a replacement door. Mae West tried to sell her surreally damaged portal to the L.A. County Museum. But the canny curators sensed a con job dreamed up by an aged movie idol starved for cash. They did treat her to lunch at the museum’s cafeteria, even letting her take seconds on dessert, but refused to buy her surrealist sculpture. Dalí’s solid-wood escape route wound up in a garbage truck, where it was chewed, crunched, digested and excreted for deep-sea burial. Lobsters crawled on the waterlogged fragments in their never-ending quest for edible scraps.