Anarchists of Style: Vali Myers

Vali always hated lavatories. She liked to go like a wild animal and she could pee standing up…when she she would piss out in the garden, Fanny the donkey would come and piss nearby. We all pissed together.

–Gianni Menichetti

Vali in Paris Photo by Ed van der Elsken courtesy of Nederlands Fotomuseum

Dancer, poet and artist Vali Myers loved poetry, animals and cages. She had a cage in her home; but it was not for her animals (of which, she had more than 25 dogs, as well as pigs, rabbits, goats, foxes and field mice). “She considered the ribcage a cage that protects the heart, and she never had any illusions about freedom,” explained her long-time lover, friend and biographer Gianni Menichetti. “Even the brambles outside were, to her, bristly cages to protect the wild creatures who lived within them.”  

The wild creature who lived within Vali Myers found comfort in her cage. Mick Jagger once came to her home. “Vali stayed in her cage, and Mick sat outside the cage on the bed for the whole visit.” (They spoke for a long while about ancient poetry.)

Is this kooky? Perhaps, but it also feels the essence of Myers, who throughout life re-imagined cultural symbols to meet her own spiritual perspectives.  The continuity and success of her quest is at the heart of her true artistry.

  

  

 

@Marco Bakker

 

  

Her Story

Vali and Jibo, 1972

Born in Sydney, Australia on August 2, 1930, Vali dropped out of school by 14, and worked full time to support dance classes; before she was 20, she had become the leading dancer of the Australia’s Modern Ballet Company.  After a move to Paris in 1950, she fully embraced the spirit of the alternative, dancing at cabarets and—as she couldn’t afford rent—spending after-hours sketching at all-night cafes with other “vagabonds.” Even in those poverty stricken days, she was hesitant to sell her pictures, which she would carry around with her wherever she went.

Vali, 2001 Photograph by Salvatore di Gennaro

According to Menichetti, it was during her Paris years that Vali learned how to tattoo; but she wouldn’t tattoo just anyone—only those she felt were special.  In the 1970s, during her days at the Chelsea Hotel, she tattooed a lightning bolt on Patti Smith’s knee, in honor of Crazy Horse. (92)

Faced with immigration issues, in 1955 she married Rudi Rappold, a Viennese student of architecture. She had hoped a change of name would enable her to get back into Paris, but the tactic didn’t work. By 1958, she and Rappold had relocated to the valley Il Porto, close to Portofino in Italy. On this wild, untamed natural habitat, there was a small, decrepit house. The house and the land soon became the “Kingdom of Vali” where she looked after an ever-growing menagerie of animals.

Vali's Kingdom, 2006 Photo by Yvette Forster

Meanwhile, she drew.

And she fought with Rudi, whose alcoholism was becoming worse.

And 19-year-old Gianpiero (soon to be renamed Gianni because Vali willed it so) came to Il Porto.  “I looked like a medieval page,” he remembers, “quite properly dressed. But that didn’t last long.”

Gianni, Il Porto, 1972

In 1970 she flew to New York for the first time. There she met Salvador Dali, who told her “They’ll love you in New York if you’re famous.” As her fame grew, she began to follow Andy Warhol’s advice: don’t sell originals, just reproductions.  This was good advice for an artist who took many months to complete a single work: in her lifetime, she finished approximately 130 drawings.

While she was in New York, Gianni stayed behind to take care of the animals. With a few exceptions, he was rarely to leave again. Rudi eventually left for good.

As her star grew, Vali traveled often. One monumental trip was to Niger, where she lived with the Wodabe tribe. In a testament to the open relationship shared between Vali and Gianni, the latter writes warmly of during this time, Vali “was with a very kind herdsman called Jibo.”

In 2002 she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. She died on February 12, 2003. From her deathbed she told an interviewer, “I’ve had 72 absolutely flaming years. It doesn’t bother me at all, because, you know, love, when you’ve lived like I have, you’ve done it all. I put all my effort into living; any dope can drop dead…I’m in hospital now and I guess I’ll kick the bucket here. Every beetle does it, every bird, everybody. You come into this world and then you go.”

Vali and her beloved Foxy Photograph by Flame Schon

Her Style

It’s no surprise that Vali’s pure physical presence inspired reactions in others. One of her favorite poems was handed to her during her London days by a young boy named Patrick.  “This is like you,” he said.

If I make the lashes dark

And the eyes more bright

And the lips more scarlet

Or ask if all be right

From, mirror after mirror,

No vanity’s displayed:

I’m looking for the face I had

Before the world was made.

 

—from Before the World Was Made by W.B. Yeats.

 Vali considered her extreme makeup her war paint.  Vermillion red lipstick; homemade kajal rubbed with her fingers in large circles around her eyes—the latter she believed offered protection from evil. Even in the wilds of Il Porto, the only occasion that could disturb her extended makeup ritual was a disturbance with the animals. Only for them, would she leave the home sans maquillage.

Vali, 1989 Photograph by Carol Beckwith

According to Menichetti, “applying her makeup was finding her real face.”  She treated her glorious golden-red mane with equally ritualistic devotion: Once a month, she untangled her hair, which had become knotted and matted as a result of her refusal to use a comb. This was a solitary process, alone on her bed she would quietly work for hours until her locks reached enormous volume.

She abhorred the idea that makeup was method of attracting men. [58] In her fashion sense as well, a glorification of the pagan and colorful, she defied the objectification of purely female styling. This is highlighted by the reaction she generated during her many Naples excursions. Often, crowds of children would gather around her yelling “Carnivale!” or “Masculo or femmena?”  Of this, “Vali never minded.” [160] One can easily imagine she in fact enjoyed it.

 

(Monica and Lisa are partners in The Anarchists of Style.)

(Author’s note: Vali Myers: A Memoir, written by Gianni Menichetti, her lover and friend of decades, won me over in its first lines. “To write a straight biography of Vali Myers would be not only impossible,” he begins, “but something I would find almost profane, as following the events of her life is like following the footsteps of a fox or getting lost in a labyrinth. “ His personal experience with Myers —and the words and tone the author generates on the page—seemed to embody something essential in his longtime companion. For this reason, I chose to use his book as a singular source for this posting, and would highly recommend this lyrical memoir to others interested in this iconic individual.)  

Source

  1. Menichetti, G. Vali Myers: A Memoir. The Golda Foundation, Fresno, CA, 2007.

Additional References:

Plimpton, G. Vali. The Paris Review, #18, Spring 1958. 

Van der Elsken. Love on the Left Bank. Andre Deutsch, the Netherlands, 1958.

Rochlin, S. Vali (documentary), 1965

Vali-A Portfolio, The Paris Review, #64, Winter, 1975.

Cullen, R. The Tightrope Dancer (documentary), 1989.

Cullen, R. Painted Lady (documentary), 2002.

Vali, Il Porto, 1990 Photograph by Carol Beckwith

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6 Comments

  • Jenna March 17, 2011 07.01 am

    Amazing! Well done Lisa, so glad to see Vali featured.

     
  • David Artisan April 01, 2011 09.19 am

    I really enjoyed looking at this site – especially the photo of Vali with Foxy. Vali is truly inspirational. Her love for people and life really moves me.

     
  • Flame Schon May 22, 2011 04.03 pm

    to David Artisan
    thank you for liking my photo of Vali and Foxy. It’s one of the most beautiful that I’ve ever been privileged to take. Flame Schon

     
  • flame schon July 04, 2015 02.08 am

    I neglected to mention that my former name was Diane Rochlin, and that I became Flame Schon after leaving the marriage with Sheldon Rochlin and marrying Jyoti Schon. The black and white photos of Vali were taken by me during the filming of our 16mm film Vali (the Witch of Positano) 1965

     
  • DonJonVonavich June 04, 2017 02.33 pm

    Flam, my name is DonJon. I lived in the Chelsea Hotel for six years beginning in 2000. I am in the process of writing a fantastical epic novel that explores the mysteries of “Our Fair Lady Chelsea” and all her magical inhabitants. I was doing research on Vali for the creation of her character in the work. While I lived there a small self-portrait hung on the landing just before the lobby. I was always mesmerized by it when I took the stairs down. Also, I know Tony who stewards her old apartment. I was wondering if you would have a dialog about Vali and possibly you could review my abstract of her. Please feel free to email me at modonjon(at)gmail.com.

     
  • Tom Stappers June 05, 2017 07.27 pm

    I knew Vali from the photographs and stories of Ed van der Elsken. He wanted me to meet her, but he fell ill and died some time after. She came to Edam for his funeral, but looked unapproachable then. So I like to read about her, thanks for the article. Once I was in Paris staying in the same hotel room where she had lived; I write about it on my website blog.

     

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