Selma Burke:
Girlfriend of David Goodis

By Louis Boxer

Selma Burke, photograph by Jack Rosen, photo courtesy James A. Michener Art Museum, purchased with funds provided by Anne & Joseph Gardocki

One name has not been mentioned this weekend. That is Selma Burke.

Selma Hortense Burke was born in 1900 in Moorseville, North Carolina . She died in 1995 in New Hope, Pennsylvania. What happened during these 95 years of life is absolutely fascinating to me because it involves David Goodis.

Selma Burke attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania right here in Philadelphia and became a registered Nurse in 1924. She became the private duty nurse of the heiress of the Otis Elevator Company and lived in the lap of luxury during the depression.

Selma desperately wanted to study art. In 1935, she became a model at Sarah Lawrence College in New York . She posed for world famous photographer, Alfred Stieglitz.

In 1937, Selma won a scholarship to Columbia University to study art. But before starting Columbia she spent a year abroad where she took private art lessons with Henri Matisse. She returned to Columbia where she became life long friends with Margo Einstein, daughter of Albert Einstein. She graduated from Columbia University in 1941 with a Master’s degree in Fine Arts.

In 1945, the chief engraver of the U.S. Mint, John Sinnock used Selma Burke’s portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the dime. (Look at a dime and you will see the initials JS and the famous profile designed by Selma Burke).

You are probably saying what the hell this have to do with David Goodis. Well I will tell you. (Thank you Philippe Garnier.) The last chapter of Philippe Garnier ’s French biography of David Goodis entitled, A Life in Black and White is a phone conversation that Philippe had with Selma Burke about her “love affair” with David Goodis. Mind you the book was finished, the manuscript corrected and was ready to be printed at this point.

“I have a collect call for Philippe Garnier from Selma Burke of New Hope , Pennsylvania , do you accept the charges?” Naturally, he accepted the charges. He had given up on talking to Selma Burke but now he was suddenly able to do just that. He was able to talk to the large, black sculptress that had had a love affair with David Goodis. As we have heard, large black women were something David enjoyed, but Selma was anything but dirty.

Louis Boxer

She said, “You wanna talk about David Goodis?”

David was introduced to Selma at a party. It was love at first sight. Selma ’s second husband was on his death bed at the time. She said, “I needed to change my ideas (thoughts).”

David was “funny, adorable and very sensitive. He stayed with at our house two or three days. Sometimes he would be gone for a month or two; He went to Bangkok or elsewhere in Thailand. He traveled a lot. We continued to see each other like this for 5 or 6 years. It was during the fifties.”

Selma’s brother lived five blocks from David’s house in East Oak Lane .

He was always well dressed. He always had beautiful shoes. When he was going to see her, he was always dressed to kill. He cooked for her. “He made the best oyster stew that I ever tasted. He was always looking for live crabs and oysters in a special spot he knew in South Philly.”

Goodis kept their relationship separate from his social and private life. Selma and David always left parties in a crowd of their black friends. He even tried to hide the nature of their relationship from Selma ’s brother for fear of tarnishing his [David’s] reputation with her. Goodis greatly feared the thought that his parents would one day discover their liaison.

Once Selma was very ill and she had telephoned David at his home and Mollie Goodis, his mother answered. Mind you he was in his mid 30’s by this point. Goodis came to the hospital as soon as he could.

Burke describes Goodis as having a “sensitive nature, a tormented and creative spirit, which he always sought to hide from others in order to protect himself.”

“With her, he let himself go a little bit more. He suffered enormously from the indifference of the American public towards his books.

Their relationship ended amicably in 1956.

Selma met a man who wanted to marry her, but Goodis did not want to marry and he told her that she should not marry either. “He said that I [ Selma ] must be married to my art.”

David told her about his disastrous marriage with Elaine Astor. “That bitch” as he called her. He had suffered so much and he said that an artist must never marry.

“He was truly attractive, almost handsome, [with] fine features, dark eyebrows and a beautiful mouth.”
He was always “charming, disarming and tender hearted.”

Selma concluded the telephone call with Garnier saying the David she knew, who had abandoned his “shell” when he was with her. He was this will of the wisp whom she loved and knew as the “true David Goodis”.

So when you look at a dime again it is my hope that you will always remember David Goodis, Selma Burke and GoodisCon.

This essay appeared in the GoodisCON program book..