Photo: Affectionate note … the sketch Salvador Dalí drew for Wallis Simpson, the duchess of Windsor. Photograph: Hansons Auction House/PA
Along with Wallis Simpson, the painter inhabited a brittle elite world that flirted with Hitler as if the fate of millions didn't matter
It seems sadly inevitable. Salvador Dalí was nicknamed ávida dollars ("eager for dollars") by his former friends the surrealists for abandoning idealism in favour of fame and money, and suspected of far worse. He was condemned by the group for his painting The Enigma of Hitler. He later wrote that Hitler "turned me on".
Now it turns out he was friends with Wallis Simpson, who has also been suspected of Nazi sympathies. An auction house is about to sell a drawing Dalí gave to the woman for whom Edward VIII abdicated the throne. He did it at his favourite American residence, the St Regis Hotel (it's on their notepaper). Dalí scribbled an affectionate note and sketched a horseman.
It's said that Dalí did the drawing over lunch with the Duchess of Windsor – if so, what did they talk about? Happy memories of the 1930s perhaps. In 1937, just before her marriage to the former monarch, Simpson posed for glamorous photographs by Cecil Beaton in the gardens of a French chateau. This was just a few months after Edward VIII gave up the throne. Beaton portrayed Simpson as a beauty fit to obsess a king – and a subversive modern woman who contrasted with stuffy old Britain and its moralising monarchical ways.
She posed in a dress she had recently bought, designed by Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí. It's got one of Dalí's favourite symbols, a lobster, printed on it. Beaton's picture is in black and white but another example of this Dalí dress survives in all its red crustacean glory.
Quite a garment – but the late 30s was also when Dalí painted The Enigma of Hitler, and confessed to dreaming about the Nazi dictator. Wallis Simpson got closer than that.
An FBI investigation in 1941 suggested Wallis Simpson shared Dalí's strange attraction to Nazism. She was said to have given information to Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, during the German invasion of France. The FBI was told she had a relationship with Von Ribbentrop in London in 1936, and that he sent her 17 carnations every day to mark the number of times she slept with him.
Wallis Simpson and Dalí were both habitues of a brittle elite world that could flirt with Hitler as if the fate of millions of people were a sick joke. After the war, Dalí was happy and rich in Franco's Spain. In New York, he did this sketch for the Duchess of Windsor.
I used to try to see the best in Dalí, but increasingly he looks like one of the 20th century's nastiest cultural products.