Walking the Dream


A small freestanding building, bristling with appendages and cast in crepuscular light, rises under a swag of red velvet. It is an architecture of accretion, a pile of pink and white stucco sculpted into a profusion of niches and protuberances. Framed within its facade is a giant image of Venus: Botticelli’s breezy nude, blown up to billboard height. At her feet, real women wearing late-1930s bathing suits and beach jackets make ballyhoo by waving bamboo fishing rods. Catching your attention, they reel you toward their grotto.


Shapely gams in gartered hose flank a ticket kiosk in the form of a fish’s head. You pass between the legs, poke a quarter through one of the fish’s eyes, and enter the building.


You cannot go into the first chamber that you come to because it is filled with water. Peering through a glass wall, you discern in the depths a weird parlor. A fire roars in a fireplace, despite the aqueous atmosphere, which causes all the telephones to lift off their receivers and float on their cords like seaweed. The ubiquitous piano is open for playing; its keyboard is a supine woman. Suddenly, swimmers flash into view. One perches on the piano stool and tickles the ivory flesh. Another grabs at the phones. Others bring the rest of the room to life by typing on a sunken typewriter or milking a mummified cow, who gazes sweetly through her gauze bandages. The swimmers, all female, are in daring attire with fishnet hose and corselets. Some have spiny headgear.


Next you notice two men in the tank: the body of one is composed entirely of Ping-Pong paddles, the other is linked together from large square chains. Both are anchored to the floor. Like everything else in the room, they jiggle frantically when the ladies dive by. In the distance, Vesuvius erupts: the back wall of the parlor opens onto Pompeii.


The next chamber is long, dry, and occupied by a thirty-six-foot-long bed. Under a red satin sheet lies a beautiful Venus of a girl. While you watch her sleep, you can hear her dreaming, “In the fever of love, I lie upon my ardent bed. A bed eternally long, and I dream my burning dreams – the longest dreams ever dreamed without beginning and without end…. Enter the shell of my house and you will see my dreams.” Her peaceful slumber is protected by another girl, who emerges out of the headboard and puts a finger to her lips. Thus shushed, you notice a figure reflected in the mirror beside the bed. Her voluptuous form is cinched into a wasp waist by a merry widow; her neck is neurotically twitching and jerking, perhaps in an attempt to shake off the massive bouquet at the end of it. The woman’s head is caged in a ball of flowers.


Walking towards the foot of the bed, you notice that the coverlet is dotted with small beds of hot coals surrounded by lobsters and bottles of champagne. Above this aphrodisiac spread, and continuing out into the corridor, hundred of black umbrellas are hanging, like bats, from the ceiling. Most of the umbrellas are open. Some have hanks of human hair or a telephone receiver dangling from their tips.


The corridor is a gallery. But instead of hanging on the wall, the pictures – which are made of actual paintings and objects – are inside of it. There are two enormous tableaux, each filled with strange people and furniture. In the first tableau stand a male mannequin sporting a leopard’s head; his body is dotted with shot glasses. The drinking straws make him look like St. Sebastian pierced by arrows. The second scene is dominated by a seated gentleman in hat and cape and cloaked in at least one mystery: why is his body a birdcage? The lips on the nearby table lamp are mute on the question.


And so are your gallery guides: a pair of smiling girls dressed like the ones you saw swimming in the parlor. Not wanting to appear to ogle, you look in the direction they are pointing, at the fantastic backdrop that unifies the two tableaux: a blasted desert landscape pained in raking perspective. Lugubrious pocket watches drape and drip in the foreground. Roaming giraffes explode into flames. A woman runs screaming in terror – though not in the direction of the doorway, a monumental arch that looms obliquely in the distance of this illusory space.


Obviously, you cannot go there either. So you press on to the final chamber, where a New York taxi cab, a vintage Cadillac, is parked. The cabdriver is yet another sexy lady, this one in skintight attire. Her passenger is a dour figure whom, for some reason, you recognize to be Christopher Columbus. The cab is festooned on the outside with branches of ivy and more giggling ladies. Inside the cab it is raining.


Locating the Dream


The most fantastic thing about this fantastic experience is that it occurred at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. A total surrealist environment, Salvador Dalí’s Dream of Venus pavilion was an assemblage of images, objects, paintings, and sculptures, all erotically animated by seminude female performers and housed in a small stucco building that looked like a tangled, bleached mass of beach debris. In every way, from its antediluvian birthday cake of a facade to its mazy interior plan, Dalí’s pavilion appears the overwrought, anxious antithesis of the fair’s better-known architecture: the Trylon and Perisphere, the gleaming white obelisk and orb that left indelible impressions on collective memory. Abstract and streamlined, these geometric monuments embodied the sense of optimism for which the 1939 fair is famous. Alternatively, Dalí’s pavilion expressed a complex iconography based on avant-garde art and psychoanalytic precepts, showing a world turned upside down and backwards – the ruins of classical Pompeii submerged in an oneiric living room. How out of step with “Building a World of Tomorrow,” the World Fair’s official theme, could a pavilion be?

Of course, in 1939, a kind of Vesuvius was about to erupt. The contrast between Dalí’s Dream and the official fair architecture might also be emblematic of the paradoxical nature of the World’s Fair itself. Staged to kick-start the national economy out of ten long years of depression, the New York fair promoted a vision of American capitalism triumphant despite fascism’s international rise to power. In 1939, world war, not prosperity, lay around the corner. Nonetheless, it was only after the question was put to a vote that planners prudently decided against a Nazi pavilion and prohibited Germany from participating. The reality of Hitler hit the fairgrounds after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia turned that country’s pavilion into spoils of war. Orders from Germany to destroy the building went unheeded in New York, where a massive fundraising campaign enabled the pavilion to open, along with the rest of the fair, on April 30, 1939, as a symbol of unvanquished national spirit.

Another fantastic thing about Dalí’s Dream was its location. Dalí was an internationally acclaimed artist whose face had already emblazoned a 1936 cover of Time magazine. And art was everywhere part of the fair’s plan of specific zones. In the Communications Zone, buildings were devoted to exhibitions of masterpieces of art, historic works on loan from international collections and contemporary American art. Thanks to New Deal government-sponsored relief projects, murals and sculptures appeared on facades, in fountains, and in gardens throughout the fair. Even so, Dalí’s pavilion rose outside any of art’s prescribed areas: it was an attraction in the Amusement Zone, which boasted every imaginable form of entertainment. The odd zone out (many plans designate it an “area” since it lacked an ordained focal point), the Amusement Zone was a fair apart, almost equal in acreage to all of the other zones combined. On a map it appears a looping dogleg to the rest of the plan, which was a beaux-arts scheme laid out in neat symmetry on an axis with the Trylon and Perisphere, and bordered by busy roads. An underpass carried visitors beneath World’s Fair Boulevard (later the Long Island Expressway) into the amusement section. Upon emerging, one was hit by the smell of “melted butter used for popcorn, mingled with that of the crowd.”1

Besides plenty of “torrid cooch,”2 the Amusement Zone included everything from the Famous Chicken Inn (and barroom), to the Wall of Death (a motordome), to Strange as it Seems (where the Man with the Iron Eyelids could be found). Its Cuban Village boasted a “completely nude girl in its voodoo sacrifice routine at the first show of opening day.”3 Even Coney Island was out-voodooed, out-freaked, and out-peeked. (Coney inherited one of the fair’s most popular rides, the 250-foot Parachute Drop, after it closed.) The zone’s Fountain Lake was the site of the Aquacade, Billie Rose’s syncopated swimming extravaganza, the legendary entertainment of the 1939 World’s Fair and a focal point if there ever was one. In short, the Amusements Zone was a carnival midway. A surrealist spectacle in its own right, it was the fair’s unconscious, libido, and alter ego all rolled into one. And with “Dalí’s Living Liquid Ladies,” as the chlorines were called, and its bizarre tableaux, the Dream of Venus naturally fit right in. It was located at a busy intersection across from Sun Valley, where ski jumping, ice skating, and 5,000 artificial icicles were to be enjoyed under the summer sun.


  1. "Life Goes to the World's Fair" Life, 3 July 1939, 62.
  2. New Yorker, 22 July 1939, 13.
  3. "Whalen's Whale of A Show in Need of More Break-In," Variety, 3 May 1939.