by Barb, on a deadline again, (actually two) Portland, Maine
A couple of weeks ago, I was in St. Petersburg, Florida for Bouchercon, the worldwide mystery conference. It was an excellent conference at an historic hotel, and of course, it’s always great to see my mystery tribe.
I was busy at the conference, with a Sisters in Crime board meeting, a panel, and a terrific Kensington Publishing sponsored book signing, but I wasn’t so busy that I couldn’t play a little hooky. Bill and I asked local author Cheryl Hollon where we should go and she responded without hesitation, the Dali Museum.
So visit we did. We had a really great docent, and I don’t think I’d really understood or appreciated Salvador Dali until I took the tour there. My friend, Julie Hennrikus, aka, J.A. Hennrikus, aka Julia Henry wrote a post about our visit to the museum here.
And, visiting the Dali Museum gave me a chance to pull out a memory I haven’t thought about in years.
My grandparents had a house in Water Mill on Long Island. There was a rental house, kitty-corner across our sandy lane and the tenants changed over fairly often during my childhood. I spent the entire summer of my sixteenth year with my grandparents and I think the story I’m about to tell happened then, which would have been 1969.
The house across the way had by that point been rented for a number of years by a man called Carlos Alemany, who was described to me as, “Salvador Dali’s gem cutter.” There was some curiosity about him among the neighbors, but not as much as you might think. He was a bachelor in his sixties who occasionally had model-ly looking women about a third his age staying for the weekend, which caused some speculation. Eventually, he bought the lot across the lane from his rental house, adjacent to my grandparents’. He never built anything on it, but on Saturdays and Sundays, he would sit out on this lot full of brush and scrub pines, goldenrod and queen anne’s lace, in one of those old-fashioned canvas, sling-type folding chairs. People thought that was curious.
One weeknight, at the cocktail hour, when friends were visiting, my grandmother picked up the ringing telephone. It was a reporter from the ABC affiliate in New York who wanted to ask questions about a “murder in our compound.” My grandmother assumed it was a prank call and hung up. She told the guests about it, and we all thought it was hilarious, especially the part about “the compound.” My grandparents lived in a classic, three-bedroom, mid-century ranch house, which had been built, along with three other houses, on the edge of an enormous estate. (The fifth house was the children’s playhouse that went with the estate, which had been modified to turn it into a modest cottage. Close readers of the Maine Clambake Mysteries may recognize something familiar about this.) Anyway, this grouping of houses was in no way, shape, or form “a compound” in the manner of the Kennedys’ at Hyannisport.
Then my grandfather, who was endlessly curious and could never leave well enough alone, called the station back and went through the switchboard, asking for the reporter by name to see if he really worked there. Once connected, the reporter told my grandfather that our neighbor, Carlos Alemany, had been “dining out all over New York all week,” telling the story of finding a murdered body in our house. My grandfather assured the reporter there had been no murder in our house and that was the end of the call.
We did spend a little time trying to figure out what had provoked this. Had we been absent from the house for more than a few hours at a time? No. Could he have seen my grandmother, who was a champion napper, sleeping on the couch in the living room? Seemed unlikely. I’m sure my grandfather must have asked Alemany about it, but no satisfactory explanation was forthcoming. The whole incident remains a mystery.
Being at the Dali Museum brought this strange story back to me. I wondered if the parts I believed to be true were even true. Was Carlos Alemany really even Salvador Dali’s “gem cutter?”
Some googling found the answer easily. An obituary from 1993 in the New York Times titled, “Carlos Alemany, 88, Surrealistic Jeweler,” tells the story of a former conductor of a touring tango orchestra, who settled in New York in 1947 and learned the jewelers’ trade. Far from being a “gem cutter,” he was the artist who translated Dali’s drawings and visions into intricate pieces of jewelry. Their collaboration lasted for decades, though Alemany twice almost went bankrupt because of the money he’d laid out for the jewels for the pieces. The best story I read about the working relationship between the two men was in a 1970 article, “The jeweler behind Dali’s ‘Art in Jewels,'” by Mitchell Gilbert from Jeweler’s Circular-Keystone.
With the arrogance of youth, I saw Alemany, the same age then as I am now, as a funny little man who sat in a canvas chair on an overgrown vacant lot. But the stories he could have told me if only I’d thought to ask.