They were supposed to be watching the prisoners, ensuring that the men stayed out of trouble while they did time for their crimes.
Instead, four guards at Rikers Island decided to commit a crime of their own. Their scheme would ultimately end in artistic tragedy—a Salvador Dalí painting presumed dead—but it was a surreal turn of events that the master himself may have appreciated.
The seeds for the guards’ demise was planted long before they took up their posts. In February 1965, Dalí was in New York City enjoying his annual winter residency at The St. Regis Hotel. When the artist first visited Manhattan in 1934, he instantly fell in love with the city. Room 1610 at the hotel would become his winter base for the next 40 years.
And who could blame him. By all accounts, he had the hotel and the city wrapped around his little finger. “Salvador Dalí adored turning this hotel into the stage of his celebrity, his one-man theatre, his private palace and zoo,” Adrian Dannatt wrote in the St. Regis Magazine.
He would announce his entrance on the premises with a loud shout of “Dalí is here!” and he would rule the place from that moment until his departure.
“Dalí always knew exactly what he wanted and he got it. The doormen had to pay Dalí’s taxi fare. He was ‘grand’ in the real meaning of the word,” said Jack Bond, director of the documentary Dalí in New York. “He fitted New York like a glove, it was made for him, and The St. Regis was, and still is, the best hotel in the whole city. He was even able to paint there – he kept a special room as his studio.”
It was there that a 60-year-old Dalí awoke on February 26, 1965, feeling a little under the weather. He was scheduled to visit Rikers Island that day to meet with inmate artists, along with his wife Gala, his pet ocelot Babou, and a whole gaggle of press (he never left home without them).