Former model and photographer of celebrities Bettina Cirone says that someone snatched personally-inscribed Dali prints and Warhol photos from her apartment
Upper West Side Even in an apartment plastered with paintings, signed prints and photographs of famous artists, actors, models, singers and politicians, Bettina Cirone noticed immediately when one went missing.
Several items, in fact, were missing from the walls above her bed. One was an original hand-drawn piece by Salvador Dali, of a blue lion, and an inscription and signature: “Pour Bettina.” It remained in the same frame in which Dali had bestowed it to his one-time model and friend. Also missing was another Dali print with an original sketch drawn on the bottom, and two photographs of Andy Warhol standing next to an ebullient-looking Tennessee Williams, chest hair sprouting from beneath the open neck of a wide-lapelled leisure suit, at Studio 54 – both photos taken by Cirone and signed by Warhol.
Cirone is now 80 and gets around the neighborhood surrounding her Central Park South home with the help of a walker. But her apartment is stuffed with visual reminders of a past life, first as a vivacious model in the 1960s and then – and still – as a prominent photographer of celebrities and luminaries, many of whom she also counts as friends. The photographic and artistic evidence is everywhere in her apartment, filling rows of filing cabinets and lining the walls. Here is a collage of photos of Jacqueline Onassis – Jackie backstage with Liza Minnelli, with Ted Kennedy, with her son John Jr., her daughter Caroline, with Aristotle, with her last boyfriend, alone and strikingly gorgeous – and next to it is a framed, recent shot of Mary Tyler Moore holding Cirone’s cat; over there is a snapshot of George Clooney with a friend, underneath a black-and-white print of Mia Farrow surrounded by her young children, across the room from a shot of Mayor John Lindsey with an inscription promising to smile next time (Cirone was his official photographer for two years).
It is the portfolio of an exceptionally glamorous Manhattan life, still kept in thick books of black-and-white prints from modeling shoots all over the world, and torn-out magazine clips from her editorial spreads and ads that appeared in every major fashion magazine in the 1960s. But the unfortunate risks of keeping an analog trove of priceless work have weighed heavily on Cirone her whole life, and never more than now, with this latest loss.
Cirone has seen entire collections disappear over the years, a result of moving, flooding, a bedbug scare, tussles with an unsympathetic landlord and a few mysterious vanishings she can’t explain. But this latest one she pins on a neighbor, who held keys to her apartment to help care for her Siberian cat, Kitty, when she had a brief hospital stay recently.
“It has to be my neighbor, because he’s the only one that had the key, except for the doorman, and the doorman wouldn’t even know a Dali from anything else, and the doorman wouldn’t know where to find the Warhols,” Cirone said. She confronted her neighbor, who denied taking the pieces. She reported the theft to the police, but there is little they can do.
She’s sold various pieces over the years, and recently received a $4,000 cut from the auction of Dali’s book “Diary of a Genius,” which he autographed and inscribed to her. She’s willing to part with others, depending on the price she can get. She gave her neighbor snapshots of the now-missing pieces, to get them appraised at his suggestion, but said he never mentioned anything about them again.
“He loves the cat, he’d come in here to play with the cat even when I wasn’t here, and I didn’t mind, except that he, you know…I came home one day and they weren’t on the walls. He put two other photos on the walls to replace them. Isn’t that weird?” Cirone said.
Cirone is distressed, not just at the loss of her treasured possessions, but at what seems to be a string of bad luck. A few weeks ago, she was spending the afternoon at the Williams-Sonoma at the Time Warner Center, where a guest chef was giving a cooking demonstration and samples. When she turned to get a small cup of the coffee on offer, someone grabbed her purse from her walker, making off with her ID, credit cards, photo memory cards, $280 in cash and two expensive professional cameras.
She also says that she’s been battling her landlord over various efforts to get her to move out of her rent-stabilized apartment, but she has no plans to leave her home of 21 years.
Cirone, who still keeps her hair long and a shade of red that once was her signature, has a story to accompany every piece of art in her apartment. One of her favorites is how she met Dali and fell in with his charismatic, eccentric crowd.
She was attending the opening of an exhibit of Dali’s work at the Huntington Hartford Museum (now the Museum of Arts and Design, on West 57th Street), walking around taking photos, when she noticed that Dali himself was following her.
“I just didn’t pay attention, I was looking at the work. And then I walked down the stairs, and he walked down the stairs, and he followed me all around the gallery,” Cirone remembers. “I was about to leave, and he goes, ‘Je veux que vous poser for moi toutes nue!’” she said, breaking into a giggle. “Pointing at me! He had to do something in character, you know.” His declaration in French translates to “I want you to pose completely nude for me.”
“And I said, ‘Mais, je nai que des oses!’ – I am nothing but bones,” she said. “He took my hand and kissed my hand and looked up at me and he said, ‘J’adore les oses.’”
“So then I said, ‘Si vous poser pour moi,’ because I was interested in photographing. And he agreed. I didn’t ask to photograph him nude.”
Cirone began visiting with Dali and his wife Gala when they stayed in a suite at the St. Regis Hotel every winter, along with their pet ocelot and a revolving crew of art world guests. “Warhol used to be a Dali groupie, you know,” she said with a laugh.
Once she was comfortable, she began to pose nude for him, though the works he made based on her never really resembled the model, in his typical surrealist style.
“It took a while, he and Gala would invite me to dinner across the street from the St. Regis Hotel, and whenever they had a little party or gathering they would invite me over,” Cirone said. “I didn’t go to any of the orgies though.”
She met Warhol in the same crowd and began photographing him around the city; at one point he asked her to contribute a column to Interview magazine, but Cirone said she never got around to it before Warhol died. She kept photographing celebrities, though, and her shots would appear in Newsday, the Daily News and People magazine as well as international publications. She still makes an income from her photos, receiving royalties whenever they’re reprinted.
Cirone has no idea how much the stolen Dalis and Warhol photos are worth; she suspects they’d each be priced at upwards of $10,000. But so might other pieces hanging on her walls. The loss isn’t so much about the money as it is about fragments of her past that can’t be replaced, and the heartbreaking possibility that the person who may have taken these treasures doesn’t see them that way at all.
“He was always asking me about the Dalis and the Warhols, that was so important to him,” Cirone said about her neighbor. “I told him about the Erté here, I guess that wasn’t important. [It was only] the ones that could fetch something. I had a bunch of Peter Max’s, he didn’t care. I had a Jordi Aluma, who is a known artist in Spain. But his only interest was Dali and Warhol. And those are the things he took.”
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