For Vali Myers
A Review of Gianni Menichetti’s Vali Myers: A Memoir
Published by The Golda Foundation
By Allan Graubard
Vali Myers 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…