The Surreal Suspect: The FBI’s Brief Investigation of Salvador Dalí

Today’s post is by Megan Dwyre, Special Access and FOIA Program Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Salvador Dalí was born 117 years ago today on May 11, 1904 in Figueras, Spain. This post highlights Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Headquarters case file 100-142631 on the famous Surrealist painter (NAID 16591992).

In July of 1942, Chief of Police Delbert Moore of Winnemucca, Nevada alerted the Salt Lake City Office of the FBI that individuals spotted riding in a Cadillac Sedan appeared similar to three wanted German saboteurs. While the suspects slept at the Humboldt Hotel in Winnemucca, FBI agent Blayney J. Barton searched the vehicle and noted, “Everything had to do with paintings. There were paint brushes, paint oils, finished canvas oil paintings, etc.” As it turned out, the occupants of the vehicle were not German saboteurs, but the painter Salvador Dalí; his wife, Elena Ivanovna Diakonova; and their chauffeur, William Holstrunk, a naturalized American citizen from Germany. 

Serial 1, Page 1, HQ [Washington DC]-100-142631-v.1 [Classification-Domestic Security] [Salvador Dali] (NAID 16591992)(FOIA Tracking Number 54188); Series: Classification 100 (Domestic Security) Headquarters Case Files, 1939 – 1984 (Entry P 186); Record Group 65: Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; National Archives at College Park, MD. 

Holstrunk explained that he worked for Dalí through a New York City employment agency. The group left New York in June 1942, travelled through Chicago, where they lodged at the Lakeshore Drive Hotel, then stayed for about three weeks at the B-4 Ranch in Cooke, Montana, which was leased by the Rockefellers. Their destination was Del Monte, California, where they would reside at the Del Monte Hotel. 

When questioned about his employer, Holstrunk was surprised that the agent had not heard of Dalí, “advising that Dalí was one of the most famous portrait painters in the world and that he had just finished painting several very prominent society women in New York City for a price of $35,000 a portrait.” 

Serial 1, Page 2, HQ [Washington DC]-100-142631-v.1 [Classification-Domestic Security] [Salvador Dali] (NAID 16591992)(FOIA Tracking Number 54188); Series: Classification 100 (Domestic Security) Headquarters Case Files, 1939 – 1984 (Entry P 186); Record Group 65: Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; National Archives at College Park, MD.

The agent also interviewed Dalí and his wife and the file includes basic descriptions and biographical data about the couple. The interrogation reflected that Salvador Domenech Dalí was a native of Figuras Gerona, Spain, born May 11, 1904. He registered with the Spanish Consulate in New York City and resided primarily at the St. Regis Hotel. His occupation was listed as “painter.” He provided his Alien Registration and Social Security Numbers and Spanish passport and stated that he registered under the Selective Service Act. His wife, Elena Diakonoff Deovlina de Dalí, provided similar information; she was born at Kazon, Russia, August 26, 1894, her occupation was “housewife,” and the agent noted that she “dressed in slacks.” He also reported that Dalí “cannot speak English,” and that his wife spoke English “fairly well” and could understand it. 

Dalí and his wife had been living in the United States since shortly after World War II started. The National Archives also has custody of the passenger manifest from the SS Excambion that lists the couple, who sailed from Lisbon, Portugal on August 8, 1940, to New York, New York. The list includes name, age, sex, marital status, occupation, language, nationality, place of birth, last permanent residence, and other information. 

List or Manifest of Alien Passengers, S.S. Excambion, August 8, 1940; Microfilm Publication T715: Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897–1957 (NAID 300346); Record Group 85: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; National Archives at Washington, D.C. 

The last document in the FBI’s file is dated March 8, 1966 and consists of a brief response to a request from White House staff about Dalí’s immigration status. The FBI replied that according to the New York Office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he had not been granted citizenship status.

After the initial search and interrogation in July 1942 verified that the Dalís were in no way connected with the German saboteurs and “were apparently on a legitimate business or pleasure trip,” the agent recommended that the FBI close the case. However, the case remained open, with the focus shifting to William Holstrunk, Dalí’s chauffeur. The bulk of the file chronicles the FBI’s investigation into Holstrunk after he allegedly made “numerous pronounced pro-German statements” to a Wyoming family at a cafe in Cooke, Montana in August 1942. Local police reported the incident to the FBI office in Butte and they opened an investigation. By the time the FBI caught up with him, Holstrunk had returned to Montana to work for Marquis George De Cuevas, a Chilean-born ballet impresario and choreographer, who was married to Margaret Rockefeller Strong, granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller. The family was vacationing at the dude ranch for the summer and De Cuevas made arrangements with Holstrunk to return after he dropped Dalí and his wife off in California. 

Serial 2, Page 1, HQ [Washington DC]-100-142631-v.1 [Classification-Domestic Security] [Salvador Dali] (NAID 16591992)(FOIA Tracking Number 54188); Series: Classification 100 (Domestic Security) Headquarters Case Files, 1939 – 1984 (Entry P 186); Record Group 65: Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; National Archives at College Park, MD.


The investigation uncovered numerous allegations of pro-German, pro-Hitler, and anti-Semitic sentiments by Holstrunk, which he denied. In 1944, the United States Attorney in Los Angeles declined to prosecute a denaturalization case, citing insufficient evidence, and the FBI closed the case.


Many thanks to Christina Jones, Laurel Macondray, Tom Haughton, Cate Brennan, Elizabeth Burnes, Rose Buchanan, and William Creech for their assistance with this post.

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