Today I pulled a book from the shelf to take with me in case there was a line at the post office. I chose A Pageant of Old Scandinavia, which once belonged to Vali Myers, in which she had written: ‘Vali, Chelsea Hotel, April 1’ on the title page.
Before I ever went to visit when she lived there, I remember hearing stories about the debauched scene going on in her room at the Chelsea every night with the crew of wild young Irish boys she had crammed in there with her. There was a story about a particular night when someone brought a pretty-looking young cop up from 23rd Street, got him drunk and then apparently they all played Russian Roulette with his service revolver and fired a bullet into the ceiling.
My friend Liza had introduced me to Vali, and during a quiet time while Vali was recovering from a brain seizure she’d had after one especially crazy night, Liza pestered me to go over and visit her by myself. She said I’d be glad I had later, and as usual, she was right. I finally forced myself to go over to the Chelsea and call Vali from the brown house phone in the lobby, and I will always remember hearing her warm and lovely voice say, “Come on up, Love.”
On the door to her room was a brass knocker in the shape of a fox’s head, and I used it to tap on the door. Her foxyknocker, she called it, and for some reason hearing Vali say ‘foxyknocker’ always struck me as funny. Her room felt like the inside of a gypsy wagon, so brightly painted it was in checkers the colors of an El Pico coffee can. One of the Irish boys was there, with long curly hair pulled back and tied with a rope. He stood at the stove making tea, and Vali patted a pillow beside her for me to come sit on. She said, “Hello, Love. This is Sheba,” and I petted her pretty dog. Vali’s eyes were blazing blue and when she smiled, her tongue came out and curled up at the end in a way that made it impossible for me not to laugh. And she laughed too. “Hello, Love,” she said again.
I gave her the little bouquet of flowers I had brought and she said, “Thank you, Love.” She said to the Irish boy, “Have we got a jar, Love?” A little TV was on next to Vali with the sound off, and she said, “I’ve been doing nothing but looking at the bloody TV.” A commercial came on for a cleaning product that showed a lady in a suburban-looking kitchen.” Vali said, “Wouldn’t you just die if you had to live in a place like that, Love?” I said I would, which was true, and she laughed and said, “Hello, Love.”
It was calm in Vali’s room. She opened a portfolio and showed me some of her drawings, the most beautiful, delicate, fine works of art I had ever seen. I can still picture so vividly her hands, tattooed like lace, as she turned over each one of the drawings, and all her pretty rings.
I went to visit a lot after that first time, in the late afternoons or early evenings, every few days, for the rest of the time she lived at the Chelsea. Often I had her all to myself, shared only with Sheba and the little pile of books she was currently reading, full of stars in their margins. She showed me her diaries, into which she pasted photographs and made drawings and wrote descriptions of everything she liked in the world. She copied her favorite poems into the diaries, and wrote lines such as, “It’s not a mustache, it’s a whisker.” One day she read me a story from A Pageant of Old Scandinavia called ‘Wolves or Seagulls?’ And she told me about a Dutch girl she had known once who looked like a seagull and wore dark glasses to bed.
When Vali eventually left the Chelsea to go back to Italy, Stanley Bard gave her a break on the back rent for a drawing, and Vali took Sheba the dog and went back to her wild mountain garden. I remember that on the day she left she was blue because someone had stolen her brass foxyknocker right off the door during the night. She gave me a few keepsakes, including A Pageant of Old Scandinavia, and invited me to come visit her in her wild valley, where she said every night was a starlight hotel.
When I opened the book in the Old Chelsea Station today, a letter fell out from Vali, written in her garden full of animals on the 26th of September 1997. While I waited on the line to buy stamps, I read part of it:
“It’s early morning here and I’ve just taken dear Fanny the Donkey outside of the garden so she can graze—the roosters are crowing and it’s still cool and fresh and I’ve just had my first coffee. Back here, it’s been a luxury to take care of the creatures again and make things beautiful around the place—the Pavilion and all I’ve painted Bombay Pink, I’ve cleaned out behind the house, so as one can see the waterfall again, and have managed to complete a new small painting called “Lamia” inspired by the beautiful little water snakes living by the stream and some lines from a poem of John Keats—
‘so rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
she seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.’
It’s not easy, Love, that world out there.”
And then I heard the clerk calling, “Step down!” and it was my turn to buy stamps. I felt very lucky to get the friendly lady instead of the one who always seems so put upon whenever she has to open the stamp drawer.
9 November 2011
I would like to dedicate this to one of the most wonderful of all New York ladies, Fedora Dorato. Rest in peace, Mrs. Dorato.