When Dali Met Sally 

Salvador Dali's design would have been the first female on Monument Avenue. The story behind Richmond's shocking and surreal monument that got away.

click to enlarge Surrealist master Salvador Dali with his pet ocelot, Babou. Richmonders invited the Spanish-born artist to design a monument to Confederate Capt. Sally Tompkins in 1966.

Library of Congress

Surrealist master Salvador Dali with his pet ocelot, Babou. Richmonders invited the Spanish-born artist to design a monument to Confederate Capt. Sally Tompkins in 1966.

In her 20s and eight months pregnant, Richmonder Margaret Reynolds Mackell was at home in her Upper East Side Manhattan apartment. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in the late spring of 1965. The telephone rang.

A cousin eight years her senior whom she adored, Roland Reynolds, was on the line. As she'd come to expect, the marketing director of Richmond-based Eskimo Pie Co., a subsidiary of Reynolds Metals Co. — of which her father was president — was up to something intriguing.

"He was the original bad boy, but a fun one," Mackell recalls of her cousin recently in a phone interview. "He was utterly charming and in those days knew all of the Orange Bowl princesses. A few years earlier he'd phoned me at college to say he'd been standing next to [French President] Charles de Gaulle at President Kennedy's funeral."

This time, he was at the bar of Pierre Hotel having drinks with Salvador Dali — and wondered if she'd join them, she says: "Roland wanted to run an idea past me."

"I don't get nervous meeting famous people, but I wasn't used to meeting Salvador Dali," Mackell says. "He was very different but he spoke English. And he was just like I thought he would be — a caricature of himself. He was so affected I was trying not to laugh. He was swinging his cape around and twirling his mustache. They had been drinking before we got there and already had two or three drinks."

Her cousin prompted her, "Come and tell me what a good idea it'd be to have Dali design a statue on Monument Avenue."

click to enlarge Confederate Capt. Sally Tompkins.
  • Confederate Capt. Sally Tompkins.

The person to be honored was Capt. Sally Louisa Tompkins, a Virginia-born Civil War-era nurse and a singularity — a commissioned female officer in the Confederate cavalry.

"I'm visualizing a weeping clock and am thinking, oh my God, Monument Avenue is not the place," Mackell recalls. "That's not going to go over with Mrs. Bocock." The late Elisabeth Scott Bocock was a formidable historic preservationist and civic leader. "I tried to give them a tactful opinion. I told them that while it might be interesting, it probably wouldn't fly."

A Dali monument in the 1960s would have broken the all-white male parade along Monument Avenue. It would have brought international-tinged whimsy to the classical. It would have been a jaw-dropping sight.

But as things turned out, Mackell was right. The effort to salute Captain Sally, as she was known, half a century ago with a surrealist sculpture on Monument Avenue veered so far off the track during the centennial observance of the American Civil War that even the official Women of the Confederacy Memorial Committee, which Roland Reynolds spearheaded, dropped the idea like a hot potato.

The cautionary story is especially worth recounting on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and emancipation, while the city prepares to establish a tangible memorial to another formidable woman who made her mark here, Maggie Lena Walker.

click to enlarge Dali and his wife were guests at Hampton Manor near Bowling Green in Caroline County from August 1940 to April 1941. Specifically for a Life magazine feature on the couple’s stay, the Spanish-born artist staged a scene, “The Effect of Seven Negroes, a Black Piano and Two  Black Pigs on the Snow.”
  • Dali and his wife were guests at Hampton Manor near Bowling Green in Caroline County from August 1940 to April 1941. Specifically for a Life magazine feature on the couple’s stay, the Spanish-born artist staged a scene, “The Effect of Seven Negroes, a Black Piano and Two Black Pigs on the Snow.”

In 1961, Richmond began its four-year commemoration of the Civil War centennial. The programs included the renovation and upgrades of the National Parks Service-operated Richmond battlefield parks system, lavish exhibitions at museums and musical concerts of jaunty and period martial music. Even the city's dueling department stores, Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, had created specially designed display windows to embrace the occasion.

The festivities were capped in June 1965 with an ambitious outdoor pageant at Dogwood Dell, "Richmond Under Two Flags," produced jointly by City Council and the Richmond Civil War Centennial Committee with an impressive cast of 150 performers.

Elsewhere in the nation, sentiments, realities and politics were fast changing. The March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, was held in August 1963. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 passed the next year.

But maintaining its segregated and cultural bubble, and to solidify Richmond's Confederate legacy, the Richmond Planning Commission endorsed a plan in fall 1965 to install seven more Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.

It had been 37 years since the last statue, honoring Matthew Fontaine Maury, was erected in 1929 at Belmont and Monument avenues. Further, it was suggested that two statues, the Jefferson Davis and Jeb Stuart monuments, be substantially repositioned to be viewed more easily by motorists driving downtown from the West End.

The general consensus among city officials and historians was that the first person to honor in this next round of monument building would be Tompkins (1833-1916). The 1960s saw the beginning of the women's rights movement and the time had come to recognize women's role during the Confederate years.

Born in Mathews County to a wealthy veteran of the Revolutionary War, Tompkins lived in Richmond when war broke out, and she witnessed the wounded being brought into town from the first Battle of Bull Run. She prevailed upon a Richmond judge to let her convert his house at Main and Third streets into a private hospital — where the Third Street Diner now sits. Tompkins was assisted on her mission by close friends and fellow lady parishioners from St. James's Episcopal Church.

Later, when private hospitals were outlawed and new policy required military hospitals to be administered by Confederate officers, President Jefferson Davis commissioned her as a captain in the cavalry. Tompkins thus became the first female commissioned an officer during the war.

Of the 1,334 patients she treated, only 73 died, the lowest death rate of the Confederacy. Although she was known as the Angel of the Confederacy, years later she claimed, "We did it all with whiskey and turpentine."

If white Richmond had agreed on a worthy candidate to honor on the occasion of the centennial, it also assembled a monument committee with plenty of bold-faced names. Members included both Virginia United States senators, Harry F. Byrd Jr. and A. Willis Robertson; Lt. Gov. Fred Pollard; Brig. Gen. Edwin Conquest, longtime chairman of the city Planning Commission; Virginia Sargeant Reynolds (Roland Reynolds' aunt and the wife of the Reynolds Metals president); Clifford Dowdey, author of many books on the Confederacy; Inez Freeman, wife of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, and historian and editor of the Richmond News Leader, Douglas Southall Freeman; Margaret Cabell, wife of the celebrated and often controversial Richmond author James Branch Cabell; Emilie Budd, the wife of a prominent physician; and India Thomas, former curator of the Museum of the Confederacy. The ebullient Roland Reynolds served as chairman — none of his bevy of beauty queens was included.

By the 1960s, Reynolds Metals was bestowing an annual Richard S. Reynolds Excellence in Architecture Award for innovative use of aluminum in building. Such internationally known architects as Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Pei Cobb Freed were honored. In 1957 the company had dazzled Richmond when it completed its architecturally trailblazing new corporate headquarters on West Broad Street. Designed by Gordon Bunshaft of the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill firm, it anchored the region's first suburban office park — and now serves as headquarters of Altria.

In addition to offering wide recognition, the annual architecture award included a work of sculpture by a well-known contemporary artist — cast in aluminum, of course. This had put Reynolds officials in touch with Dali.

Roland's father, Louis Reynolds, recently had spoken with the Spanish-born artist about plans he had for a never-realized Daliland. Although documentation is scant, the project was proposed for Florida and the Disney operation may have been interested in making it part of its still-in-the-works Disney World.

For Dali, who was already world-famous for his surrealist paintings, a Sally Tompkins commission in Richmond was a chance to build on what had become a new direction for him in the mid-1960s, highly visible public art projects.

click to enlarge LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
  • Library of Congress

click to enlarge Conversations about Richmond's next monument were held with artist Salvador Dali (top)who had recently sculpted a likeness of President John F. Kennedy using paper clips.
  • Conversations about Richmond's next monument were held with artist Salvador Dali (top)who had recently sculpted a likeness of President John F. Kennedy using paper clips.

Dali had recently created two large portrait sculptures. One was a bust of Dante for the Italian government, a three-faced depiction of the Renaissance writer — in purgatory, heaven and hell — crowned with a laurel wreath fashioned of gold spoons. Another work, a private gift to the French government, was a likeness of recently assassinated John F. Kennedy. Dali used paper clips to fashion the slain president's hair and face in a sympathetic recognition of the bureaucracy of governance.

Dali was no stranger to Richmond. In 1939 the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had performed the artist's ballet, "Bacchanale," at the Mosque (now the Altria Theater). It created a sensation with its dancers' suggested nudity — although there was no actual nakedness.

And during Thanksgiving weekend in 1940, Dali had visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and made other stops in Richmond while he was an extended guest of a wealthy patron in Bowling Green in Caroline County

In Richmond he told a Times-Dispatch reporter that he was working on a breathing armchair. "I have always been interested in fantastic furniture," he said. "This chair will have life. It will breathe. There will be a mechanism which will follow the human body. You will pour yourself into it, and rest as in a cradle."

The newspaper also reported of Dali, "He was just as interested in a silver cream pitcher by Paul Revere as he was by the most modernistic still life the VMFA had to offer." Upon leaving the museum, Dali announced he was headed to a local antique shop to buy a present for his wife, Gala, who'd stayed behind in Bowling Green.

During his seven-month Virginia residency, the artist worked on his autobiography, "The Secret Life of Salvador Dali." He also played host to journalists from Life magazine, who followed up with a lavish spread that included shots of the artist and his wife and host enjoying after dinner coffee in the parlor with a cow from the estate seated at their feet.

click to enlarge J. Peter Moore, Dali’s assistant, and the artist’s ocelot, Babou, posed for a photographer on Monument Avenue in April 1966 when Moore presented the artist’s concept for the Tompkins statue. - VCU LIBRARIES
  • VCU Libraries
  • J. Peter Moore, Dali’s assistant, and the artist’s ocelot, Babou, posed for a photographer on Monument Avenue in April 1966 when Moore presented the artist’s concept for the Tompkins statue.

When Dali's work was presented to the Tompkins monument committee April 18, 1966, reporters were waiting.

But for the presentation of the concept, the master himself didn't appear. He sent an emissary, "Captain" J. Peter Moore. Dali's assistant was an Irish-born filmmaker and self-proclaimed "military advisor."

Upon arriving in Richmond with the artist's famous ocelot, Babou (sans the bejeweled collar for which the cat was famous) man, beast and Moore's female companion — identified only as Lisa — were whisked off to Monument Avenue in a black limousine for a photo session at the Jefferson Davis monument. The chauffeur reportedly shut the interior window between driver and passengers.

"The most dangerous part of my job is looking after the ocelot," Moore said. "He is always with me because the habits of an ocelot do not coincide with the habits of a genius — so the assistant genius keeps the ocelot."

click to enlarge Surrealist Salvador Dali’s proposed monument to Confederate Capt. Sally Tompkins would have been a play on St. George slaying the dragon. This sketch of the never-built sculpture was drawn in 1966 by Bill Wynne, a Richmond art director. - VIRGINIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
  • Virginia Historical Society
  • Surrealist Salvador Dali’s proposed monument to Confederate Capt. Sally Tompkins would have been a play on St. George slaying the dragon. This sketch of the never-built sculpture was drawn in 1966 by Bill Wynne, a Richmond art director.

Addressing the reason for his visit, Moore told reporters: "Dali sees [Tompkins] as a kind of modern St. George and the dragon. The facial likeness would be as near as possible to Captain Sally, but the form of the actual body would depend on whether she wore the uniform or not. And she would probably carry a shield inscribed with the Confederate flag." He went on to say that Tompkins would be depicted slightly larger than life, and that "the dragon will be an enlarged microbe of some kind, not the standard dragon of medieval times."

The image also was a clever gesture toward corporate patron Reynolds Metals, which in January had announced a gift of 1,000 pounds of aluminum castings for the project. St. George slaying the dragon appears on the Reynolds corporate logo.

Oh — and because aluminum could be anodized any color, Moore suggested that Richmond might expect to find Sally Tompkins depicted in metallic pink on Monument Avenue.

Like any good military adviser, "Captain" Moore took the offensive: "This is an obvious extension of tradition — not just a crazy hamburger nouveau riche idea." He said Dali wanted to "pay tribute to America this way — a kind of Statue of Liberty, you know."

A few days later, Dali himself communicated with the committee that the base would float 20 feet in the air, supported by a replica of the artist's index finger.

The only known sketches of the proposed statue were drawn by Bill Wynne, a Richmond art director who worked with Wayne M. Usry, whose advertising agency handled the Eskimo Pie account.

In late April 1966, when the image was published in the newspapers, response was quick.

"Dali is about as suitable an artist to do a statue of a Confederate Captain Sally Tompkins on Monument Avenue as Cleopatra would be as a candidate for half-back on the Green Bay Packers," a newspaper editorial writer blasted.

Maurice Bonds, a Richmond artist and chairman of the art history department at Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) wrote, "Let's tie a bow on Traveller's tail [a reference to Robert E. Lee's horse] and hold a happening in Capitol Square."

By the end of the month, the project was headed south.

"It is safe to say that local sculptors may soon be competing with Salvador Dali," wrote a reporter in an article that appeared on the front page of the Times-Dispatch. "At this point, Dali is not on the best of terms with the group of Richmonders attempting to encourage the erection of a statue to Captain Tompkins. … Dali's preliminary concept for the state does not appeal to the group."

"If this is what we're putting up, I won't have anything to do with it," huffed committee member Conquest in an interview. The civic-minded World War II veteran died of a heart attack two weeks later.

And when the project's charismatic champion, Roland Reynolds, died tragically after walking into the propeller of his airplane in the early autumn of 1966, any talk of a Dali on Monument ceased.

click to enlarge The 1929 statue of Matthew Fontaine Maury, an oceanographer and Confederate naval officer, represents a softer, intellectual approach to the Southern cause. Thirty-seven years later, Richmond proposed honoring a woman on Monument Avenue. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The 1929 statue of Matthew Fontaine Maury, an oceanographer and Confederate naval officer, represents a softer, intellectual approach to the Southern cause. Thirty-seven years later, Richmond proposed honoring a woman on Monument Avenue.

On the balmy evening of April 1, 2014, in the undercroft of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, a few dozen folks settle into folding chairs. They sit directly beneath the sanctuary where the Rev. John Jasper, a storied Richmond pastor at the turn of the last century, periodically delivered his famously stirring sermon, "The Sun Do Move."

But the focus of tonight's Public Art Commission community meeting is how to establish a monument to another historical icon, Maggie Walker.

Born in 1867 to a slave, Walker became a remarkable and wealthy entrepreneur and an early and effective civil rights leader here. And as the 150th anniversary of her birth approaches, there's a movement afoot among city officials and others to seize the occasion and memorialize her at a prime location in once-segregated Jackson Ward.

As the proceedings in the church basement unfold, commissioners and their staff are excruciatingly methodical in how they gather and record both blue-sky and specific input from the general public as well as the smattering of other prominent voices. The latter include some historians, a number of Walker's descendents and well-known figures in the local art scene — including Paul DePasquale (the sculptor of the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue) and Lisa Freiman, director of the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU. Attendees are urged to record their sentiments using überslick computer keypads and later, verbally, in old-school breakout discussion groups.

Although the participants are encouraged to express general themes, not specifics, for the monument — "Should the work should be inspirational, educational or enlightening?" — most attendees have already developed ideas. Some want a traditional or classical treatment, to see Walker cast in bronze. Others advocate a more ethereal, abstract treatment that speaks to the values of thrift, faith and unity that the successful entrepreneur and early civil rights leader espoused.

Whatever the eventual outcome, the meeting exemplifies bottom-up community involvement at its textbook best. Maybe we've learned something since half a century ago, when Dali met Sally. S

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