I recently downloaded years’ worth of old photos – everything since I’ve had a digital camera, which was early 2001 – from a semi-forgotten hard drive onto my laptop.  The images flashed on the screen in front of me as they were imported into iPhoto, and it was sort of like a near-death experience, life flashing before my eyes!

I must say, one of the most memorable and fabulous episodes in that life is the trip I took with a lively and creative group of people to Italy, on the occasion of the burial of the ashes of the poet Gregory Corso in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.  After the events surrounding the interment, we drove south to Positano, to visit Vali Myers.  Born in Australia, Vali was a ballet dancer and artist who moved to Paris as a young girl – a phase recorded in the 1954 photography book Love on the Left Bank, by Ed van der Elsken, available in reprint here.  

She had later lived, at times, in the Chelsea Hotel in NYC, which is how various people in our party knew her, before retiring to her tiny homestead high in the mountains above Positano with a flock of little white dogs, some chickens, and her considerably younger lover and major domo, Gianni.  Vali was seventy years old at the time that I met her.  I was entirely intimidated by everything that I’d heard about her – friends with Cocteau! with Salvador Dali!  subject of films and a book! –  but she turned out to be extremely nice.

The approach to Vali’s hideaway.  This was quite a challenging journey, possible only on foot, and of course we were laden with a picnic and numerous bottles of wine.  In certain spots, if you’d slipped, you could have broken your neck.  I think I took this photo about halfway up.

Vali’s remarkable compound sat in a ravine, at the foot of a cliff and at the edge of another.  Her tiny, domed house, I was told, had been built as a folly by a local aristocrat in the 18th century.  Vali had a sleeping loft in the folly, and Gianni had his own annex.  There were various outbuildings for livestock, whose numbers had gradually dwindled over the years.  Especially, there had been a donkey.  It was very sad when the donkey died, and getting rid of the body had also been extremely problematic.  I think there may have been a similar problem with a pig friend.  

photo by James Rasin

Vali in her house, with dear friend Bobby Yarra, who led us on this visit.  Bobby brought a cassette tape of Tin Pan Alley songs to play on Vali’s battery powered boom box, and they danced outdoors as they used to do at the Chelsea (there was no electricity at Vali’s folly).  You can see why the locals supposedly called her the Witch of Positano.  I would hope that this was an affectionate nickname, because she really was a dear, kind lady.  She called everyone “love”, in her Australian accent.  

She took us up to her sleeping loft and showed us some of her intricate, meticulous, rather shamanistic, pen and ink drawings.  She explained that they could take months or years to complete.  As I recall, all the shading of the forms was composed of infinitesimally tiny dots.

photo by James Rasin

Gianni Menichetti, outside his annex.  He was very quiet in person, but later published a well-received book, Vali Myers: A Memoir, available here.

The view from the front door.

More of Vali’s compound.  I think the stone structure in the foreground must have been an oven, and I do remember that the vine-covered recess in the cliff at the rear housed the little trickling waterfall that was the household’s source of water.  

Some chickens – and notice the curious pink animal pen (I think) that was sculpted to look like you’re looking up someone’s nose!  I wish I had asked about this. 

Two of the cheerful little dogs, by the fireplace in the folly.  Vali had famously lived with a fox as a pet in the past, but the fox was long deceased by the time of this visit.  

Farewell to the folly.  It was essential to leave before dark, because of the precipitous journey down  into town.  Of course we had been having such a good time that the light was starting to get dim, so Gianni kindly conducted us back.  

A dramatic and rather terrifying cavern along the path back down.  It is moving to reflect that Vali, in her extraordinary life in “Vali’s valley”, must have been the latest part of a lineage of interesting and mysterious goings-on in the area that stretched back to the time of the Romans and earlier. 

Within two years, Vali had passed away.  She came down with stomach cancer and moved back to Australia, where she died.  A few weeks beforehand, as I’ve just found on Wikipedia, she was profiled from her hospital bed in Melbourne’s newspaper, The Age; the article concluded with her quote:

“I’ve had 72 absolutely flaming years. It doesn’t bother me at all, because, you know love, when you’ve lived like I have, you’ve done it all. I put all my effort into living; any dope can drop dead,” she says.

“I’m in the hospital now, and I guess I’ll kick the bucket here. Every beetle does it, every bird, everybody. You come into the world and then you go.”

To read more about Vali Myers and to view her art, visit the website of the Vali Myers Art Gallery Trust, here.  I am so glad to have met her.