Issue 18, Spring 1958
The girl in the photograph opposite and whose drawings follow is Vali Myers. In Paris, where she lives, she goes under other names: bartenders in the little boîtes where she dances call her le chat; concierges refer to her as la bête; she is also called variously l'enfant du feu for her flaming copper-red almost orange hair, and la morte vive for her corpse-white face and heavy eye-shadow—a cosmetic oddity which started an existentialiste fashion that enjoyed a minor vogue a few years ago. She is Australian by birth. Her father is a sailor and her mother a violinist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Vali came to France just after the war. Still under twenty she became at once the symbol and plaything of the restless, confused, vice-enthralled, demi-monde that populated certain of the cafes and boîtes of the Left Bank—La Petite Source, Le Mabillon, Le Café Metro, La Chope Gauloise, Le Monaco.
She is the subject of a book entitled Love on the Left Bank (published by André Deutsch) which describes the ‘hipster’ group which frequented these cafés. The book includes a mawkish and unfortunate text, but amazing photographs—graphic studies of Vali and her friends, young faces, always sad, drug-haunted, and topped with ferocious crops of hair. The majority of the photographs are group portraits crowded with faces, but rarely faces of animation—each subject apart from the other so that often the collection seems a study of asylum inmates.
Prominent throughout the book are the photographs of Vali—close-ups of her extraordinary face, a phantom-face that befits the Paris backgrounds of the night-time empty street, the crumbling and leaning buildings of the Latin Quarter, and the dark and smoke-laden boîtes where Vali danced in a tight ring of spectators to the rhythm of African bush songs.
Her dancing is remarkable—a sinuous shuffling, bent-kneed, her shoulders and hands moving at trembling speed to the drumbeats. She wears blue jeans, a man's shirt pulled in at the waist by a wide black belt, and worn red ballet slippers that she often kicks off to dance in flat-splayed bare feet. Her audience, almost always men, stare at her rather than watch, and it is curious that their feet never tap to the splurge of African music, nor do hands or fingers tap out the time—an absorption on the part of her spectators that is solely visual. A friend explains it as follows: “I watched her dance and I never heard the music. I said to her 'Man, how can you dance like that? You must be a missing link.' And that was it. Like I guess Kiki of Montparnasse was for those people in the twenties, Vali was the same for us. You saw in her the personalization of something torn and loose and deep-down primitive in all of us—and, Man, you could see it moving right around in front of you in ballet slippers and a man's shirt.”
Vali never danced in a professional stage show. She preferred the tiny square-footage cleared for her in little clubs such as l'Escale on the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince, or the Rose Rouge; on Saturday she would invariably turn up at the vast ballroom of the Bal Nègre on the Rue Blomet—there to dance hour after hour with the Senegalese, dancers from the Cameroons, from Martinique, taking them on one after the other and leaving them staggered with exhaustion.
Occasionally, someone impressionable and rich enough would slip her a few hundred francs. But Vali, in her early days in Paris, lived on practically nothing. Her few belongings were scattered throughout the Quarter in cafes, chambres de bonnes, in studios where she would sometimes sit for an artist. She carried her prize possessions with her in a wire carrying-case shaped like a bird-cage. In it she had a bandana, her eye make-up and face powder, a volume of poetry by Thomas Chatterton, her art materials, and a curious piece of fur shaped like a miniature fox with two bead eyes embedded at one end: a keepsake she refers to as ‘the feeley’ and which she talks to from time to time, and often dusts, heavily, with face powder.
Cosmetics constitute an important part of Vali's life. It takes her over an hour to make herself up in the morning. First she slaps her face, lips included, pure-white with face powder; then with infinite care she paints an inch-wide circle of black eye-shadow around her eyes. The preparation she uses is called kohl—a combination of oil and a black dust from India. The result is not only for show; Vali likes to point out the utilitarian value of her make-up. “In the East, you know,” she says, “they use this eye stuff to keep out evil. The flies won't cross the black. It might look strange to people, but the Gods in Tibet are ugly too and they keep away the bad things.”
After Vali has put on her face she runs her hands through a twisted and unruly growth of orange hair that reaches her waist and she is ready for the day.
The aspect she presents to the outside world is naturally a most striking one; Vali can recall a number of instances when people have suddenly come upon her around a corner and have screamed. Most women are appalled by her. The writer Gabriel Pommerand points out in an essay on Vali that “women can only regard her aspect with contempt since she disobeys every last law of conventional beauty.” Some women, though, particularly from the world of fashion, are charmed by her manner and personality. They give her bolts of material out of which she makes floor-length house-robes. The reaction of men is completely human. They enjoy watching her dance; many have fallen in love with her; many are amused by her company in the sense that one might enjoy being accompanied, as Pommerand writes, by “a cheetah on a leash.”
Communicating with Vali is not easy. Yali's discernment of the world around her is on the simplest plane of sensory perception. Asked where she comes from in Australia she will not reply with the name of a town, or geographical location, or distances in miles, but will say, “Behind me is the lagoon... you can smell it... and beyond it the sea which you can't see but you can hear it no matter where you go in the bush... the bush is crazy... a tree here and a tree there... in each tree a kookaburra, a bird what laughs like a crazy jackass... and he goes into the grass... flies up again and takes the snake and whacks the head against a branch... whck... whck... whck''—this in the cockney-like Australian accent, the voice thin and slow, interspersed with the ‘hipster’ language she has picked up in the Paris cafes.
Vali has almost no general knowledge. Her interests are particular and esoteric. She knows the works of Edward Fitzgerald, Edith Sitwell, reads Emily Bronte every day, and is copying out the works of Yeats and one day will have his collected works in her childish round hand. She is devoted to the Irish poets—impressed by them, among other reasons, because she mistakenly believes them all to have died at a very early age. Almost any artist who has died young interests Vali. The great literary figure in her life, for example, is the eighteenth-century English poet Thomas Chatterton. On her bedside table she keeps a postcard reproduction of the poet's death painted by Henry Wallis—the original hangs in the Pre-Raphaelite section of London's Tate Gallery—showing the poet, his hair as red as Vali's and almost as abundant, collapsed across a bed from a fatal dose of arsenic taken just before his eighteenth birthday.
Chatterton is not a well known poet; but his failure, his precocity, his misery, the romantic turn to his verse, his suicide—all of it has had a combustive effect on Vali. She herself had plans to do away with herself on her twenty-third birthday. Her closest friends were invited to watch, to sit at the foot of her bed while she lay on it with her ‘feeley’ tucked in beside her, and, unaware of the legal consequences that would befall her audience as accessories before and to the fact, she was to swallow arsenic while they watched.
Two years ago Vali renounced some of her strange urges, married a young Austrian architect, and gave up her café-wanderings for a tiny room in a hotel on the rue des Canettes near St. Germain-des-Prés—a hotel run by a woman called Celeste who is said to have been Proust's housekeeper. Celeste, bizarre enough herself, is one of the few women who appreciate Vali. “Ah!” she says, “You are going up to see the strange one, my favorite jewel.”
With marriage Vali's life has changed. Though she continues to paint up her face and still dances—to the music of a single cracked record played on an ancient wind-up victrola—she rarely leaves her room for her old haunts. She refers to her past as ‘that old time of the cafés,’ ‘that weird time,’ and speaks of having escaped what was a ‘little like a battlefield.’ She is happy in marriage and with the boxed-in security of a little room which is lighted dully by electricity and smells strongly of Egyptian incense. She has cut herself off from the outside world. The single window facing on the street is shielded by heavy curtains which have scarcely been opened since Vali and her husband moved in. Vali has seen little sunlight in two years. She hates the sunlight and in her early days in Paris when circumstances drove her on occasion into the daytime streets she hugged the buildings, keeping to the shadows, and across open streets she would run—her arm thrown up to shield her face from the sun. The night-time, and the moon, she loves, and never leaves the hotel until long after dusk—usually at midnight, to forage with her husband in the streets and gutters for tinsel paper on bon-bon and cigarette packages. The two use the tinsel paper to make tiny and wispish mobiles which are so delicate that suspended from the ceiling in that airless room they can shudder and revolve in the force of a laugh.
Tinsel paper has also been used in the careful construction of minuscule replicas of human figures which stand on the bedside table. They are of Vali herself, her husband, the ‘feeley’, and a few of their belongings—a bed, Vali's red ballet shoes. When the two go on a trip, this family is packed carefully in a little box and goes along with them. In the manner of the pagan image-worshippers Vali takes almost a manic care of these tiny figures—their welfare closely and mystically identified with her own.
Almost all the artifacts in the room have an equivalently mystical identification. And the same can be said of Vali's drawings. She speaks of them as manifestations of an urge for peace and security. She draws mainly self-portraits—Beardsley-like reflections of herself, usually lying in a death-stiff attitude on a bed; she is asleep (or dead), composed, guarded by owls and five-petaled flowers which are among the devices she considers good luck. Five is her ‘protective number’; she insisted on room 15 in the hotel (room 5 was permanently occupied by another resident), and has tattooed on her foot a flower with five petals which she did herself with a needle and colored inks. “I need my owls and my flowers,” she says, “to keep away the bad things, I am very naughty.”
The drawings sometimes take Vali as many as two years to complete. In her early days she worked on them at the café tables, eyes smarting in the smoke as she touched an English-made fine-nibbed pen across the paper “like a fly”—each touch made with the care of a Persian miniature painter with his brush of a cat tail hair.
Once completed, Vali refuses to sell her drawings. It is not a matter of the time she has expended on them, but simply that her identification with each is such that a sale would destroy a prop she needs to support her bizarre existence. The drawings are, in effect, preservatives of life according to the extraordinary and lonely canon which she has created for herself.