Barnaby Conrad: Author, Matador, Bon Vivant, and Thorn in Hemingway’s Side
March 4, 2013 | by Lesley M.M. Blume
My brief acquaintance with Barnaby Conrad, one of the bon vivant-iest of all modern bon vivant writers, happened because a stranger decided to wear a certain necklace one evening last fall. I’d been invited to a Fashion Week trunk show in one of New York City’s trendier hotels. I almost didn’t go. I hate trunk shows. But I did go, and the designer greeted me at the door. There was a lovely starkness about her: those gaunt cheekbones and long hands and limbs; Modigliani likely would have loved her. Dangling from a chain around her neck: a charming little brass charm in the shape of a bull.
“My father was a bullfighter,” explained the designer, who’d created the charm herself. “American. You’re an author, right? Then you probably know him: Barnaby Conrad, the writer.”
I did not, as a matter of fact, know Barnaby Conrad. Shame on me: as it turned out, Truman Capote had known Barnaby Conrad. So, for that matter, had Noel Coward and Eva Gabor and William F. Buckley. Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Alex Haley, and James Michener: they all knew him well. And Hemingway too—although, at one point, he apparently wished that he’d never even heard of Barnaby Conrad.
The first thing that you learned about Mr. Conrad, even when you met him in abstentia: he was charming and very appetite-driven. Two weeks ago, he died at the venerable age of ninety, having authored more than thirty-five books detailing, among other topics, his descent into alcoholism, the secrets of Hemingway’s Spain, and the hijinks of the international bon ton in midcentury San Francisco. He was a Renaissance man with a talent for dwelling at epicenters of rarified, exclusive realms: as one of history’s few high-visibility American bullfighters (while in Spain, he went by the name “El Niño de California,” i.e., the California Kid), the proprietor of a who’s-who nightclub, and also as an accomplished artist (several portraits of his famous friends hang in DC’s National Portrait Gallery).
Within a month of the bull-charm/trunk-show evening, I was seated across from the California Kid himself at his beachside Santa Barbara home, interviewing him for a book project. The house consisted of a wonderful warren of rooms festooned with mementos of a life lived to the hilt. On one wall hung a mounted bull ear, a trophy earned in a Spanish bullring decades ago. On the living room coffee table lay the guest book belonging to Conrad’s San Francisco nightclub, El Matador, named for his bestselling 1952 novel, Matador, and reportedly funded by its success. Adorations and salutations to Conrad had been scribbled by practically every glamorous fifties and sixties luminary you could think of; El Matador was, after all, the West Coast’s answer to the Stork Club. Wallis Simpson, Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra: they had all drunk and smoked and glowered there. I spotted Vivien Leigh’s signature. What had she been like?
“She was beautiful and cool,” recalled Conrad with equal sangfroid. Sitting in a wingback chair with my first-edition copy of Matador open in his lap, he covered the front pages with drawings and sketches throughout the course of our hours-long chat, laying down the pen only when a platter of cheese and crackers made its appearance. Bull rings, bulls horns, matadors: the ink from the illustrations bled into the book pages and made them wavy.
Barnaby Conrad was likely always destined to live a voracious life, and yet one can’t help but feel that he wouldn’t have been possible without the existence of Ernest Hemingway—a debt Conrad is quick to acknowledge. “Everything he wrote had a huge influence on me,” said Conrad, who first read A Farewell to Arms at fourteen. “I guess every boy wanted to grow up and be an intellectual yet physical person. We thought of writers as being bespectacled professors, and along comes Hemingway, who’s a boxer and a bullfighter ... so macho and chest-thumping.”
Like countless Hemingway-worshippers of his generation, Conrad took up boxing. Yet while most of his contemporaries eventually swapped out the ring for more conventional life paths, Conrad forged in the opposite direction, taking up bullfighting—first in Mexico and later in Spain. It’s unclear whether Hemingway heard of the California Kid before Conrad began writing successfully about the bullfighting world, but by then, the hero-worship had gone a bit too far for Papa. Even though the two men never met, they fell into a bit of a rivalrous spat.
“I suppose that he felt I had invaded his territory, which I had,” said Conrad, etching the tidy finishes on a matador’s hat into my book. “He felt that he owned bullfighting, and I think it hit a nerve that I dared to write about bulls.” Framed on a nearby wall: 1950s missives from Hemingway in which he gripes about Conrad to his editor, Wallace Meyer. The letters are typed on paper bearing the evocative header:
Finca Vigia San Francisco de Paula, Cuba
The primary cause of Hemingway’s upset seems petty, but hints at larger issues. Conrad said that he had commissioned, for $750, a short For Whom the Bell Tolls excerpt for one of his writings; Hemingway subsequently regretted granting the permission and even referred to the excerpt as having been “stolen.” He wrote to Meyer in May 1957: “I wished to have nothing to do with [Conrad] ... To put my stuff in his is like salting a worthless claim.” He acknowledged that his antipathy to Conrad ran even “deeper,” stating that “my quarrel with him is what he has written about friends of mine and snide tricks he has played”—although the letter doesn’t specify the nature of said snide tricks.
(About a week later, Hemingway wrote to Meyer apologizing for letting “Conrad anger me,” adding that his “temper is a little rough” due to “that bastard [David] Selznick sabotaging [the film version of] A Farewell to Arms,” one of “2 pictures being made over which I have no control (and receive nothing).”)
Recounting the dispute, Conrad turned over a page of Matador and began another picture. Hemingway’s grumpiness with him, Conrad speculated, may have been more nuanced than literary territoriality or Hollywood-induced irritability. After all, Conrad said, Hemingway may have introduced bullfighting to the English-speaking world nearly a century ago, but Conrad—an upstart twenty years Hemingway’s junior—far surpassed the master writer’s depth of physical immersion in bullfighting culture. As a young envoy in postwar Spain, Conrad had the fortune of becoming protégé to Juan Belmonte, widely considered one of history’s greatest matadors.
“Belmonte was beautiful, but beautifully ugly,” said Conrad. “He stammered and he was little. But when you saw this little guy go out into the ring, he’d suddenly grow about five inches.” The men trained in Belmonte’s private bullring: “His living room opened up onto the ring, which was attached to the house.”
Belmonte was documented in Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s iconic 1932 book about bullfighting (Belmonte could “wind a bull around him like a belt,” he wrote), and has been described as a close friend and even a hero of the writer’s. One biography states that Belmonte dedicated one of his bullfight bulls to Hemingway and his first wife Hadley during their 1925 pilgrimage to the Pamplona bullfights, even presenting a bull’s ear to Hadley after the fight. (Yet a different account states that another bullfighter actually did this: Cayetano Ordonez, said to be the main inspiration behind Pedro Romero, the young matador hero in Hemingway’s 1926 debut novel, The Sun Also Rises).
However, Conrad believed that the friendship between Hemingway and Belmonte may have been exaggerated: “I thought they were bosom friends. But once I said something about Hemingway to Belmonte, and he said, ‘Oh, yes—the writer.’ I said, ‘I thought you were intimate friends,’ and he said, ‘I met him several times, but that was all.’”
With hindsight, it’s clear that if Hemingway genuinely had been worried or jealous about Conrad’s intrusion on his personal and literary turf, he didn’t have a great deal to be nervous about in the long run. Conrad’s Matador book sold impressively—between a reported two and three million copies, and was on the New York Times Best Seller List for a year, according to his daughter. (John Huston optioned the rights to the book; Ray Stark was to be the producer, but the film was never made). And Conrad did loom large in the literary world for decades, not only as an author and friend-of-famed-authors (he was briefly Sinclair Lewis’s secretary as well), but also as founder of the prestigious Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Yet with both Hemingway and Conrad now gone, it’s clear who’s considered to be the greater influencer—and the tauromachian Hemingway legend certainly remains intact. Even the New York Times’s obit of Conrad described his bravado as being “Hemingwayesque.”
It’s a shame, in a way, that Hemingway was so humorless about his would-be protégé: after all, Barnaby Conrad was a pure, impressive example of the pervasiveness of Hemingway’s influence not only as a writer, but also as a lifestyle icon. As James Wolcott recently wrote in the London Review of Books, “[Hemingway] established the co-ordinates of celebrity and masculinity that turned literary life at the highest level into a spectator sport.” Few of Hemingway’s disciples melded these elements together with more reverential gusto than Conrad, who once quipped, “Hemingway shaped my life, changed my life and almost cost me my life.”
Conrad outlived Hemingway by over half a century (both Hemingway and Belmonte shot themselves, in 1961 and 1962 respectively), yet that relationship and his bullfighting years continued to define him for decades.
“When you were in front of a bull, you courted death but you defied it too,” he told me, closing the copy of Matador at last. “Everything else in life has been anticlimactic since.”
Lesley M. M. Blume is an author and journalist based in New York City. She is currently working on a book about Ernest Hemingway and the writing of The Sun Also Rises, to be published by Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2016.