When I saw the painting for the first time I thought it must be a fake. It hung on a small wall at the entrance to a cavernous formal dining room where you could almost miss it: an alleged 1954 painting by Salvador Dali entitled Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity.
It can’t be real, I thought. After all, this was a quarter of a century ago when I was just a teenager struggling towards sophistication and the painting hung on the same wall as a canvas that was too drippy to be a real Pollock, in a room that must have been decorated by someone who had visited Hearst’s castle and come away with a checklist: Persian-looking rugs? Check. Mahogany-like walls? Check. Dizzifying ceilings, furniture made for only the eyes to rest on, and art objects whose provenance and price is instantly recognizable? Check, check, check. The whole shebang was just way too over-the-top to be believed and so I stood in there smirking and winking at the canvas. Oh, sure, I said to myself. A Salvador Dali, how perfect.
Then I took a closer look. Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity is a small 12 by 16 inch oil of a lovely naked woman standing with her elbows propped upon a parapet and her back turned to the viewer. I thought she was lovely because she has the body of an ideal pin-up girl, not because I could see her face, obscured by golden curls. She gazes innocently off at the bland horizon while behind her, by some surreal sleight of hand, her legs have been simultaneously splayed and chopped into phallic chunks which hang in the air like fleshy torpedoes aimed at her ass.
Boy, was she in for a surprise, I thought. I was a precocious nineteen-year-old who believed I had more than enough experience to know all sorts of things. For example, I thought I could recognize a lie when I saw it, that I was wise enough to get the joke, that I was lucky to be standing there in that room, and that the future I was headed toward was as clear and definite as a painted line.
I identified with but also scorned that painted girl. I was pretty, too, but I thought myself much more realistic. She was oblivious about what she was wishing for and, in a moment or two, her wish-fulfillment might push her over the edge. But I knew that wouldn’t happen to me. I could take care of myself.
Is Dali’s painting cerebral porn? High low art? Whatever it is, I can still feel that shock of surprise and the jolt of erotic violence I felt when I discovered the Virgin hanging in the dining room. And when I read the title, it felt like an omen. I turned around slowly to survey the room behind me and imagined that somewhere close by an invisible man—or men—had me in the crosshairs. Because I was at the Playboy mansion in Beverly Hills and I, like Dali’s clueless dreamer, had no realistic concept of what I was doing there or what I wanted other than a vague notion that I was in L.A. to do some test shots to see if they wanted to put me in their magazine.
Certainly, I was far from chaste, but I was also certainly naïve. It is possible to be exposed and sheltered at the same time. I grew up in Marin County, an exclusive cultural enclave in Northern California, back when the dreams of the 60’s were still alive. I knew atheists, agnostics, hippies, Sufis, Muslims, millionaires, Buddhists, pagans, wiccans, Jews, and even a couple Christians, but didn’t understand that in the outside world these people weren’t always cozy neighbors. In my town, kids felt safe enough to try everything or anyone they could get their hands on. I had tried it all and, although I was much more expert with the substances than with the sex, I dressed like Madonna so no one would mistake me for a virgin.
When I saw that painting hanging at the mansion, I knew more about Dali’s oeuvre than Playboy’s. I had seen a magazine or two over the years but I was more familiar with the dog-eared copy of The Joy of Sex on my mother’s bookshelf and my father’s vintage underground comix collection. I didn’t know that men bought Playboy to jerk off. I had some misty notion that they worshipped and admired those glossy girls—okay, maybe there was an orgasm involved but afterwards, they always fell in love, just a little. Like everyone I knew, I had at least a tenuous understanding of what a “playmate” was. After all, this was the 1980’s and a by then a Playmate was a well-defined brand of woman, an icon of our popular culture just as Coca is cola (since cocaine has no label), Trojans are rubbers, and ZigZags are for rolling the weed you pinched from the plant hanging in the pantry and dried in the toaster oven. I thought the world was a giant amusement park and I wanted to try it all.
A boyfriend had taken pictures of me naked to send in to the magazine as an introduction but I don’t think it was his idea; I think it was mine. The conversation might have gone something like this:
(I lean over his shoulder while he’s studying a centerfold): Hey, do you think I could do that?
Would you like to see me in a magazine? (I try to insert myself between him and the page.) You know… naked?
(He tilts his head and shrugs with one shoulder.)
Me: I bet they pay a lot of money…
He: Yeah… (Staring soulfully into my eyes.) I wonder how much?
As a teenager, I just wanted to be looked at. I thought that if people look at you, then you must be worth attention, and the longer they looked, the more important or interesting you must be. I wanted to attract as much fascination, surprise, admiration, awe, and/or longing as I could. I wanted someone to fall in love with me. Of course I had daddy issues and deeper forces were obviously at work but for now, let’s just say I wanted attention and could definitely use the money. So someone picked me up at LAX and conveyed me through the flashy city, up the winding driveway, past the guard, through the gates and up to the grandiose gothic-tudor façade of the mansion where a butler showed me to my room and, voila, there I was.
Besides a cadre of silent butlers, the place seemed deserted. I was permitted to wander the grounds and the longer I walked, the surrealer my situation appeared. The rooms of the various buildings were redolent of cocaine-fueled orgies and echoing with a disco beat. Upstairs in the main house the hallways were crammed with framed photographs of all sorts of famous people who had come to “party” and I imagined their naked bodies rolling over every nook and cranny of the underground grotto filled with chlorine fumes into which one might swim from the swimming pool. I saw their famous ghostly shadows flopping around the tomblike underground gym and on the giant tanning bed that looked like a prop from Barbarella or Woody Allen’s Sleeper. I was possessed by the spirits of all the young women who had stood there dazzled by the sights, filled with hope for the future. Near the edge of the property, a cage full of small green monkeys stared at me while peacocks screamed in the distance.
This is all starting to sound like some narrative classic rock song (think of The House of the Rising Sun or or the Eagle’s Hotel California. When I was there I always had the feeling I was being watched, by mirrors, windows, butlers, ghosts, peepholes, telescopic lenses, suspicious fixtures or potted plants. I walked around posing for the hidden cameras, feeling like it was all some weird allegorical test, an anti-hero’s journey. Anyway, I’m fairly certain the Eagles were on the jukebox in the game room, right next to the Playboy pinball game depicting Hef wearing his satin robe, sandwiched between a blonde and a brunette. I had that game room all to myself for days. At some point I finally met the man himself and he looked just like his picture on the pinball machine—a smile stretched between the marionette lines and eyes shifting from the blonde to the brunette. He uttered some unctuous one-liner, barked a laugh, then skipped woodenly out of the room, as if on strings.
On some evenings the place would come to life when Hef would screen a not-yet-released movie and all the girls-pretending-to-be-grown and women-acting-like-girls and men acting rich and powerful would converge and fill the huge room with their puffed-up chests and their noise like a yard full of clucking, crowing poultry.
The play of posing blended into the work of posing and eventually, someone came to pick me up for my test shoot. I remember they put me in a sexy costume and so much makeup that I almost didn’t feel naked. In a big white van headed back to the mansion, the photographer drove and his assistant sat in the passenger seat while I perched on the storage cabinet between them. The photographer was handsome, if you like them sleazy. In his northern European accent he told me that he worked freelance for several different magazines and it was his job to test the model to “see how far she would go.” If he could get something really salacious (I think “porno” was the word he used), he would nudge that model towards one of the more hard-core magazines. He turned to his assistant and said, “She is perfect for Playboy, huh? Just what they’re looking for.”
I leaned forward between them. “Why?”
He looked at the assistant and grinned. “Because you don’t know what you’re doing.” They both laughed.
At that point, I probably brandished all my bad-girl props—tousled my striped hair, ripped another hole in my stockings and stuck out my bright red lips—before I asked, in a churlish voice, “Whaddaya mean?”
He shrugged but kept his eyes on the road. “You’re the girl next door.” He took a deep suck of his cigarette and exhaled slowly. “You’re a good girl. Aren’t you.”
It was one of those statements that hangs in the air like a challenge, like a bodiless penis aimed straight at you.
I didn’t ask what he meant. I guess I was either smart or stupid enough not to argue.
Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity is a portrait of a good girl and a projection of what some people would like to do to her. In 1958, Dalí wrote, “Paradoxically, this painting, which has an erotic appearance, is the most chaste of all.” For the moment she is untouched, but her chastity is a wild bull charging headfirst, prime for the gore. As observers, we are encouraged to enjoy the spectacle because she did it to herself—Dali’s title tells us so, insists that her adversary is merely her own manifest desire. So, in rooting for the bull, we applaud her fulfillment. (“She asked for it.”) Her imminent rape will be self-induced, autonomous, and immaculate (never mind the artist who paints it or the bystanders who look).
If the painting had included the image of a man standing behind her with his beret cocked to one side, nicotine-stained fingers, a curling moustache, and buggy eyes, then it wouldn’t be okay anymore, that would be just be wrong. But she’s alone, all alone. And look—she’s still a virgin. What happens next is all in your own (dirty) mind. And it’s not real, anyway; it’s fantastic. Dreamers are allowed to do all sorts of things they wouldn’t do in real life.
I suppose for many onlookers, the excitement and tension of this spectacle hinges on the girl’s naiveté. If she knows what’s coming, it won’t be quite so fun. Her lack of knowledge and control is so exciting it’s like watching a child pick up a jack-in-the-box and turn the crank for the first time. What will she do when the clown explodes from the box? Will she squeal with excitement or will she burst into tears? It doesn’t matter; either way will be gratifying for some. So in order to fully appreciate this painting, one must possess a modicum of experience, one must be slightly jaded, because it was painted for those who have turned that crank before, who know what’s going to happen and have tired of the game. For them, her innocence revitalizes the thrill and vicarious surprise.
I didn’t know what was going to happen, either. Eventually, the pictures were published. By then I was travelling around the world by myself and the term “playmate” seemed such an unsuitable word for that huge, bizarre, ignorant, courageous thing I had done. My boyfriend and I broke up, my father didn’t know me any better, and I can’t say those photographs ever inspired love, at least not the kind I was hoping for. For awhile I was really lost: I really had no idea who I was. But the money was significant and I spent it on my education. Years passed when I didn’t even think about that surreal episode in my youth but the other day when my husband and I were cleaning out our garage, he motioned me over to a mildewed cardboard box.
He asked, “What do you want to do with this?”
I glanced over to where our little girls were squabbling over a box of toys before I picked up the magazine and slid it under my sweatshirt.
That evening, after the girls were asleep, I sat down with a cup of tea. When I found the fold-out picture in the middle, I felt a little jolt of recognition but I also felt a sense of objectivity. The girl stands at the edge of a swimming pool wearing only a silly yellow bathing cap and a see-through net, ostensibly about to jump in. She gazes into the camera lens as though it’s a distant horizon. I think she is lovely, but not because she is naked but because of her innocent, doe-eyed expression. She is me but not me, more innocent than I ever felt, the girl I could have been if I fell for that fantasy, a girl who looks just like my daughters. She’s just a kid who clearly has absolutely no idea what’s happening. I want to throw my arms around her shoulders and squeeze, hard. I want to hold her close and warn her, “Girl, are you in for a surprise.”