Salvador Dali must have been thrilled by the Folly when he came to stay with his wife Gala in the smmer of 1936. Gerald had met them in Paris with Winnie de Polignac and was intrigued enough by the rising surrealist star to invite him to Faringdon. Though Gerald might have sensed that, like him, Dali was sexually anxious and even timid, he probably did not know about the increasingly famous artists obsession with towers. Intense insecurity about the size of his penis and in particular a terror of the ‘lion’s jaws’ of female genitalia, had led Dali to take a compulsive refuge in masturbation a recurring theme in his paintings. According to Dali’s biographer, his onanistic fantasies were usually connected to towers, with a preference for church belfries that reminded him of his adolescent frenzies. It was often by fantasising the exact position of the three belfries of Sant Pere, his baptismal church, that he could achieve an orgasm. One can only imagine the effect on Dali as he climbed to the top of Lord Berners’s impressive brick erection and, gazing out over four or five verdant English counties, pictured the extraordinary ejaculation of hreworks that had taken place there only months earlier.
It was still years before Dali would start churning out the clichés of surrealism for American commercials, when his soft watches and lobsters would become old hat. In the mid-1930s he was at the height of his creative powers and on the cusp of great fame. Though plagued by strange phobias (locusts terrified him) and preeningly unpredictable. he was certainly entertaining, which never stopped being high on the list of requirements for guests at Faringdon. Gala, Dali’s Russian
wife, was a decade older than him, though her slim, supple body and flirtatiousness belied her forty-two years. She was as sexually uninhibited as he was awkward, and while she was probably his hrst female lover, he was certainly neither the first nor the last of her male conquests. Like her husband, she was obsessed with physical beauty and couldn’t bear ugliness. Always ready to Hing her clothes off and jump into bed with someone handsome enough, Gala must surely have taken a shine to the Mad Boy. Some years later, when Robert acquired a daughter, she was given the middle name Gala. Though many would agree ‘that to know her was to loathe her’, Gala was undeniably powerful, elegant and impressive.215 Penelope Betjeman recalled having dinner with the Dali’s at Faringdon, and noted how attractive Gala was. As to Dali himself, ‘I remember sitting next to him at dinner. He liked to shock you, and never stopped talking about fur-lined wombs!’
It was around this time that Gerald took to wearing little knitted skullcaps that some compared to tea cosies, while others noted ‘a somewhat rabbinical design’. The knitter was Marie Beazley, wife of the noted archaeologist and expert on Greek vases, J. D. ‘Jack’ Beazley. Mrs Beazley was a mysterious woman with ‘iridescent blue hair . . . very black oblique eyes, a long Oriental nose and the curved lips of an Archaic goddess’. She was Jewish, wore overwhelming eastern perfumes, cooked unfamiliar Levantine dishes with rose petals and pistachios, and played Chopin on the piano with great feeling. Though Harold Acton adored her, Mrs Beazley was to some rather a figure of fun; such exoticism was a step too far for tweedy Oxford. There was talk of her decolleté, her formidable nose and even a little moustache, not to mention the tame goose that followed her around (and later died after eating the Daily Mail).
Gerald was greatly amused to hear in the spring of 1943 that Dottie had behaved disgracefully at a grand poetry reading in Bond Street in the presence of the Queen. Given in aid of the Free French, it featured illustrious poets such as T. S. Eliot, Walter de la Mare, Vita Sackville-West and the Sitwells, all performing in alphabetical order. Dottie had allegedly got so drunk that she was not given her turn (which as ‘Wellesley’ was last). There were tears, insults, and Dottie hit Harold Nicolson with an umbrella while Vita (who had already done her reading) tried to soothe her and ultimately succeeded in taking her away in a taxi. Gerald later wrote to Edith Sitwell, joking that ‘Dorothy Wellesley is suing Harold [Nicolson] for saying she was drunk -whereas it was merely a Dionysiac Frenzy. I am mad at having missed it all
Another clever beautiful young blonde woman he was close to was now in prison Diana Mosley. In May 1940, Oswald Mosley had been imprisoned under Defence Regulation 18B as a threat to national security and Diana was interned in June. Gerald and Robert were among the few people who wrote her on her first day. "What can I send you? Would you like a little file concealed in a peach?" he wrote.
Given the warnings not to misinterpret the dowdy clothes and unsoaped bodies, it must have been a surprise for these US servicemen to find their hosts not only stylishly arrayed, scented individuals who entertained beautifully, but able to place a line spread on the table. Gerald described one such evening to Clarissa. ‘Two of the officers dined the other night. One (from Carolina) agreeable and prepossessing, the other a New Yorker lamentably dull and slow of speech. Others I have met ditto. I am told that it is regarded in America as politeness not to Spare one a single detail. But it makes one feel like a motor car going up hill with the brake on.’ Despite the cultural gap, Clarissa remembered that the Americans ‘were a source of resigned amusement to Gerald’. He wrote to her again when they were snowed up, with only enough food for a couple of days: ‘If it continues we shall have to kill and eat a soldier. It might be interesting to try the major, who is thoroughly impregnated with whisky and might make an excellent haggis.’