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
name has not been mentioned this weekend. That is Selma
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.
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
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
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
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
This essay appeared in the GoodisCON program book.