Vali Meyers first comes to us in Love on the Left Bank, a book of photographs
by Ed van der Elsken, who graced his cover with her portrait from the early
1950s. There she is at 20 gazing at herself in an old corroded mirror.
Audacious, beautiful, with a certain flair for the streets she lived on for eight
years and an honesty about herself and her desires that will not desert her,
Vali captures, and captivates for us still, that post World War Two bohemia.
Lucky for us that Vali was much more than what these photographs frame.
And until she passes in 2003 from stomach cancer at the age of 73, she will
not let us forget who she is, what she creates, and how she loves. Along the
way, constantly perfecting her art, living always as she wishes, she will touch
within us a pulse that animates perpetually, and which we leap toward if
only to gain its strength as our own.
So it is fortunate now that Gianni Menichetti, her companion of 30 years,
has written this memoir. Who, other than Gianni, can tell her story - this
man who knew her so well. And who, other than Gianni, can offer it all
as a gift to Vali's friends (those with us), the many others who know Vali
through her art, and those first meeting her in his words. But be warned:
Vali's appeal is infectious.
And thus, her life: She is born in 1930 in Sydney, Australia, of blue-blood
stock; her father's ancestors, convicts both, being brought to the continent
in 1790 and 1792, when danger was a byword and England a memory. At
5 her family moves to the outback, and the wild countryside there begins
to shape her. Vali is a precocious and rebellious child, and her love for
drawing and dancing distinguish her, even so early on. By 14 she leaves
home, working in factories for rent money and to pay for lessons at the
Melbourne Modern Ballet Company. She quickly claims eminence as their
premiere danseuse, and her future seems bright. Adventure though
is another lure, and in 1950 she chucks it all and sails for Paris, where she
settles finally on the Left Bank. This is not café society for Vali by
any means or her version of the young artist on the lam. It's poor, rough
and tumble, and Vali ekes out a living dancing in local cabarets while
continuing to draw. Her crowd balances on its daily tightrope between
stinging hunger and passing starvation, witty pleasure and cruel despair,
and the kind of brio that keeps them vivant: artists, hoodlums and roustabouts
alike. For her first exhibition there's a police station; a private viewing by
cops who had just arrested her on their regular sweep for vagabonds.
But Vali puts it best in one of her letters that Gianni excerpts for us:
"We lived on the streets and cafes of our Quarter like a pack of 'bastard
dogs', and with the strict hierarchy of such a tribe . . . a world without
illusions, without dreams . . . [but with] a dark stark beauty like a short
Russian story by Gorky that one doesn't forget."Prison, murder, suicide,
and insanity are not unknown here either.
Paris is a mecca then, and Vali meets up with a good number of notables.
There is the Israeli painter, Mati Klarwein, a real compatriot, and
Cocteau and Genet, who she consorts with. Gabriel Pomerand (cofounder
of Lettrism with Isadore Isou, a leading, if momentary, avant-garde
in the city) writes an essay on Vali, now unfortunately lost. It is this essay
which George Plimpton uses for his famous Paris Review, spring
1958 number, where he publishes Vali's black and white drawings. Django
Reinhart, the great jazz guitarist, embraces Vali completely and considers
her one of the family. And, of course, she meets others, the Dutch painter
Karel Appel (of COBRA fame, which later inspires the Situationists) and
poet Simon Vinkenoog. During the latter part of these years Vali's
addiction to opium consumes her, and she retreats for long spells to her
cheap hotel room, where she dreams and draws, draining herself, as
Gianni puts it, "to skin and bones." Lammas Tide, a drawing she
works on for six years, is the pivot.
By 1958 she's had enough and heads south to Italy and the Amalfi coast,
landing in a town that goes by the name of Positano. That she enters the
town barefoot, no longer having any shoes to wear, seems perfectly
natural, what else was she to do, though it scandalizes the natives who
want to throw her out. Of course, they don't. Tennessee Williams
and Stella Adler, erstwhile traveling companions, who have come to
the town for a spell, take to Vali. Later, in Orpheus Descending,
as Gianni notes, Williams will base Carol Cutrere, one of his most
intriguing minor characters, on Vali; a play that some of us know by
its film version, The Fugitive Kind. Needless to say, any woman
who lies back in a graveyard to rest after a night of jooking - and
hears the dead whispering "live, live!" - is a woman close to my heart.
Near the town, though, is a steep gorge with tall cliffs that harbors an
"ancient abandoned garden," il Porto, that suits Vali perfectly, and which
she discovered four years prior. She elects to live there in impoverished
splendor, with her husband, Rudi, then Gianni, and her menagerie of
animals; a menagerie she cares for with exceptional dedication. Queen
here is Foxy, a foundling fox cub, who Vali raises as a mother does her
child. For 14 years, Vali and Foxy live side by side, until the fox dies.
If day in il Porto meant work, tending to the animals and other chores,
night meant art; her drawings, and the definition of an oeuvre that would
soon attract leading curators in Europe and New York, where exhibitions
proliferate. Her time in New York, where she roosts at the Chelsea Hotel,
brings to her other poets, revolutionaries and performers, from Ira Cohen,
to Abbie Hoffman, Debbie Harry (our "Blondie") and more. Bobby Yarra,
a friend of Gregory Corso's, also grows close to Vali. It is Bobby, in his
role as immigration lawyer, who aids Vali when legal issues erupt about
her status in the US. And it is Bobby who arranges, through the auspices
of the Golda Foundation, the publication of Gianni's memoirs.
It would be silly of me to record Vali's life further because the book is
here for that, with its many insights and funny stories gained from years
of intimacy between Gianni and Vali. But I will say this, Vali Myers
was an artist who lived her creations and whose art, in response,
transfigured her life, and the men and women and animals and
places she touched enduringly.
I can only hope that more and more readers pick up this book and take
to heart this stunning, fiercely independent woman; and that in her native
Australia, which she returned to at the end of her life, her art will reach
the people she hailed from; preserving her legacy in a fashion equal, at
least in part, to how she created it: from her shoeless feet up, turning
dog shit into stars. . .