Precious few 20th century artists achieved the kind of fame that made them household names in their own lifetimes. Picasso, Calder, Warhol, Adams, Kahlo and Pollock come to mind. Arguably, none were more flamboyant, eccentric, diverse and downright interesting as Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dal I Domenech, Marquis of Dali de Pubol—or for those into the whole brevity thing, “Dali.”
Born in 1904 in the medieval town of Figueres in the autonomous Catalonia region of Spain, the artist earned global public and critical acclaim for his eye-popping, uber-detailed, superbly crafted surrealist paintings and sculptures. He and his wife of nearly 50 years Gala (born Elena Inanovna Diakonova) traveled the world together during their lifetimes. Those travels included many visits to the Monterey Peninsula in the 1940s.
“The scenery of the Monterey Peninsula area reminded Dali of the region of Spain he lived in,” says Pebble Beach historian Neal Hotelling, “and that made him feel at home.”
The famous artist was instantly recognizable, due in large part to his signature flamboyant moustache, and another attraction to the Monterey Peninsula was that—then as now—the locals were inured to famous faces and generally didn’t hound him for a conversation or autograph.
That left him free to work. And work he did. It’s estimated that during his many visits of varying lengths between 1941 and 1948, Dali produced 10 to 115 paintings per year and among other endeavors worked on two books, designed sets and costumes for two ballets and initiated a collaboration with Walt Disney that culminated in the intriguing animated short “Destino.”
Most Peninsula residents are aware of the party Dali threw known as “A Surrealist Night in an Enchanted Forest.” Staged at the Hotel Del Monte (a luxury resort now home to the Naval Postgraduate School), the fete was conceived as a fundraiser to benefit artists displaced and impoverished by the war raging in Europe. On September 2, 1941, the Bali Room of the hotel was converted into a Dali-esque fantasy world, conceived and realized by Dali with the help of well-known Monterey artist Bruce Ariss. The ceiling was lined with paper-filled burlap sacks that imparted a grotto-like feel to the room. A nude woman was posed in tableau that included a wrecked automobile (word is that the model was sedated so that she would sleep through the entire affair).
A centerpiece of the dinner table was a live, caged porcupine and several exotic animals from San Francisco’s Fleishhacker Zoo roamed the premises—including a young lion cub cradled by Gala. Sporting a unicorn headdress, she fed the cub milk from a Coca-Cola bottle. She and her husband occupied the place of honor at the head of the table, reposing in a huge red velvet bed.
That table was lined with celebrities of the day, including Bob Hope, former child actor Jackie Coogan (he gained fame later in life as Uncle Fester on TV’s “The Addams Family”), Edward G. Robinson, Ginger Rogers, Clark Gable, Gloria Vanderbilt, and comedian Bob Hope. A famous moment occurred when Coogan, seated next to Hope, lifted the silver dome from the entrée served to Hope, only to discover a plate full of live frogs. Hope’s bemused reaction is priceless.
Due to the enormous cost of mounting the affair, Dali’s Del Monte party failed to generate funds for its intended beneficiaries and a disheartened Dali, unhappy with the way his party turned out (for one thing, he didn’t get the giraffe he wanted) decamped for New York quickly thereafter. But his disappointment did not extend to his opinion of the Central Coast area: he and Gala returned at least 10 times for varying lengths of stay until 1948.
Initially, the couple stayed at the Hotel Del Monte, where they rented a suite for their use and for receiving guests, plus another room that Dali used as his studio. When the hotel was commandeered by the US Navy for use as a facility to train pilots bound for the Pacific Theater during World War II, the Dalis moved to Pebble Beach, where they stayed during all subsequent visits. They resided in what was known as “cottage row,” a series of bungalows arrayed along the first fairway of Pebble Beach Golf Links built by Pebble Beach Company founder S.F.B. Morse in 1916.
For the most part, the pair were happy at Pebble Beach, but at one point Gala—being more accustomed to the glitz and glamor of New York and Paris than the relatively rustic and rural vibe of the wartime Pacific Coast—complained to management about the proffered accommodations. Morse responded with a diplomatic and apologetic missive asking her bear in mind that there was a war on after all, and things were not normal. He concluded by asking her to “play the game.” Evidently the letter placated her, and the Dalis stayed on.
The year 1945 was an especially productive one for Dali. He spent nearly 10 months of that year at Pebble and produced nearly 20 paintings—an astonishing number, given the precision and detail he infused into his work. In addition, during this period, Dali illustrated a translation of “The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini,” a work originally completed in 1563 by the renowned Italian Renaissance artist. He also worked on the dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Spellbound,” released that same year.
Also in this time frame, Dali met the actor Burgess Meredith (later to portray the Penguin on the classic original “Batman” television series) and his wife Paulette Goddard. Meredith had become friendly with John Steinbeck and the author’s pal Ed Ricketts (the model for “Doc” in “Cannery Row”) while filming “Of Mice and Men.”
The actor approached Dali with the idea of producing a surrealist film and enlisted Ricketts to help scout locations in southern Monterey County. Neal Hotelling relates what happened on that journey.
“Ricketts, Dali, Burgess, and Goddard got lost and, seeing a light on in a small house next to a school, knocked on the door to ask for help. Imagine the surprise of a country schoolteacher opening her door only to see two famous movie stars and a renowned Spanish painter.” Nothing became of the film, but that teacher had a great story to tell.
Pebble Beach has never been known to be a hotbed of crime, but Gala was the victim of some malfeasance. Thomas King, a Pebble Beach Lodge night watchman, helped himself to $2,000 in cash from the Lodge’s safe and to make his getaway, he stole the Dalis’ beloved 1941 Cadillac convertible.
According an article in the June 8, 1944, Monterey Peninsula Herald, “The automobile was reported to have passed out through the Carmel-Del Monte Forest gate at about 3 o’clock this morning.” Fortunately, King was apprehended, and the Caddy was returned to its rightful owners. History is silent on what happened to the cash.
During his time here, Dali also participated in some local activities. He was a member of the Carmel Art Association at one time, and at one point served as a judge for a high school art competition.
The Dalis departed Pebble Beach in the autumn of 1948 and as far as is known, they never returned. Gala passed away in 1982, followed by her husband seven years later. While most remember the couple for that unusual party they hosted in 1941, they spent much more time here in subsequent years, and the artist produced some important work while residing at Pebble Beach.