Salvador Dalí, is not only famous for being the most prominent Surrealist painter, but also for his magnetic, bizarre, and extraverted personality. Donning an impossibly long and severe mustache and a wide-eyed expression, Dalí was a jovial presence in whichever art scene he was in, whether New York, Paris, or Cadaqués. But, in private, he was also quiet, gentle, and inquisitive—at least according to his assistant during the '70s, Baron Roger de Cabrol.
De Cabrol is now a trilingual interior designer (he's fluent in English, Spanish, and French) and has clients around the globe. His work, which doesn't hide the influence Surrealism has bequeathed it, has been published in the New York Times, Architectural Digest, and the Washington Post. But he first got his start tagging along with one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century, and received an informal education that's informed him since.
Here, we speak with Roger de Cabrol about what it was like to spend time with Dalí, the unsavory reputation the artist had among some of his Surrealist peers, some dirt on Dalí's former wife, and the iconic artist's lasting influence on de Cabrol's work.
How did you first meet Dalí and how old were you?
Dalí was born in 1904, and I met him in the '70s when I was in my 20s. My aunt, uncle, and parents knew him for a long time in Paris. They attended things together like the Surrealist Ball. I studied in Paris at L’Ecole des Roches, and after I graduated I started working at an art gallery, Galerie de L’Ile de France. The owner was Madame de Gavardie (her daughter Gianna Sistu still runs the gallery), and she was the dealer for Surrealists like Dalí, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Hans Bellmer, and André Masson. She knew Wols and Giorgio de Chirico quite well. And in Paris in the '70s, a lot of those artists were still alive and living around Paris. The galleries were on the Left Bank and the Right Bank, so you would pass these artists on the street. After I met Dalí I started helping him. I was not paid, but I did it because it was a lot of fun.
What kinds of tasks did you do for Dalí? Did you ever get involved in his artistic projects?
I would help out with some of the dinners. Dalí used to live four months in Paris, four months in Cadaqués, and four months in New York at the St. Regis. My parents used to live in New York, I used to live in Paris, and my parents had a house in Ibiza. So, I would travel—not with Dalí on the same plane—but to meet him where he went. We traveled in the same circuit. I helped him with his last exhibition in New York at the Guggenheim that exhibited the painting of Abraham Lincoln.
What was his artistic process like? Was he painting that much in his older age?
He painted everyday, he was very disciplined in that. He would paint after tea, he would paint in the evening, and he would paint a little bit before lunch.
Did you spend time with him in his studio?
I went in there a couple of times but I didn’t like to bother him there because he was so concentrated. I had a Swedish friend who modeled for the painting of Venus lifting the ocean. She would model for him everyday (she was very pretty), and I went in there a few times—but that was it. And then he would do his photographs and sign lithographs. At the end of his life when he had a stroke, they made him paint certain things, but they were awful.
How would you characterize your relationship?
I really liked him for who he was, and I think he liked me because I was in my twenties and hip. Dalí always liked to know what was new, and I used to go out a lot and I knew a lot of people; so he would always ask me what was fashionable and who the new artists were. I would take him out to clubs because he was very interested in being at the forefront; he didn’t want to get old. I took him to Studio 54 several times, and he would just sit there and observe. He liked to be surrounded by young people, and I would let him know what was trendy; we had a good, close relationship like that. I wasn’t as intimate with him as his secretary was, but we were close. I would call him all of the time, and he was great with me—very nice and generous.
Knowing his outlandish public persona, what are some things we would find surprising about who he actually was in private?
Dalí was somebody who was extremely normal; he was only eccentric in front of the camera, or in front of other people. Publicly, he liked to shock people. He would just say whatever, any stupid thing to shock you. And people at that time took it very seriously and they were aghast. He was very happy because of the reaction. I think that contributed a lot to his legend and his persona because, as they say, there’s no bad publicity. He would have gatherings almost everyday for tea at the St. Regis or in Paris and there would be such a mix of people. There would be transvestites, politicians, rock stars, and philosophers. I met John Lennon and Alice Cooper that way. He would have all of these incredible people come and meet him and it was great just being there. During this time, New York and Paris were very much a buzz—there was a lot of creativity, it was a lot of fun!
In private he was very friendly, and an extremely generous person. A lot of people took advantage of him because of that. For example, when he was in New York, he would go out to lunch and dinner every day with around 10 to 12 people. And on Sundays he'd have dinners at Trader Vic’s, and Andy Warhol would arrive with around 40 people. Dalí was always left with the tab. He was not a good business man, so while he was a fantastic artist and draftsman and all that—unfortunately he began publishing prints and signing blanks not knowing what was going to be on them because he needed money for his over-the-top lifestyle. Plus, he was married to Gala who was not a very nice person. She was older than him, and she was a tough one.
Did you know Gala at all?
Yes, I knew her very well, but I kind of avoided her because she used to hit people over the head. She was mean and not pleasant at all. She had this boyfriend who was the singer of Jesus Christ Superstar—his name was Jeff Fenholt.
Artistically, Dalí seemed to be on his own wavelength. Do you think he was ever influenced by what was happening around him at the time or by other artists? How involved was he in the contemporary art scene besides social affairs?
Everybody thought he was a little nuts because he started doing those paintings with lobsters and telephones, and nobody understood what it was. He was a royalist—his inspiration was the old masters like Valasquez and El Greco. He wasn’t inspired at all by Picasso or Cubism or Abstract Expressionism. He hated Pollock, but he wasn’t jealous of anyone. He liked what Warhol was doing because it was right up his alley, and I think they kind of respected each other.
Dalí was his own man, he had his own style, and he was completely different from all the others. He was first in the Surrealist movement, but he was later excluded from the movement because of his extravagant lifestyle. The majority of the Surrealists were all Leftists and part of the Communist Party. They didn’t like Dalí because he made a lot of money. They called him Avida Dollars, meaning avidity of dollars—it was an anagram of his name. Gala was very ambitious, and she’s the one who told him to go to the United States to start doing portraits of the upper class because they paid well. And in Paris he was very well taken care of by the high society. They would give him a stipend to live on, and in return receive a painting every month. So, he was living extremely well compared to all of the other Surrealists.
So how did you then transition from being Dali’s assistant into becoming an interior designer?
After I worked with Dalí I went into the music business. I started producing a lot of punk bands and I had a recording studio in Ibiza. Unfortunately, it was alternative music and was always a little bit ahead of the times, so all of that went into bankruptcy. So I started working with Jacques Grange and my uncle was a very well known interior designer. Later, in New York, I started working with Valerian Rybar, and it was all very interesting so I decided that this was going to be it. And then unfortunately the AIDS crisis arrived and both of my bosses died of AIDS, and I went out on my own. Now I have a small company, and I have maybe three to five projects a year, so I can work intimately with my clients.
How has Dalí influenced your own interior design work?
The chairs in the living room of my loft, a 19th-century Carriage House in the East Village, were inspired by Dalí because they’re similar to that Mae West sofa he did for a friend of my father's in Paris. I think about him a lot. Not only has he influenced me, but all of the Surrealists were a big inspiration—and Andy Warhol too.
What is one of the most valuable lessons you learned from Dalí?
He taught me to just be yourself, to be creative, and to have no limits—and to be different!