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Barnaby Conrad: Author, Matador, Bon Vivant, and Thorn in Hemingway’s Side

March 4, 2013 | by

Barnaby as matadorMy 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.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). Read More »

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Immoderation: On Sharing an Idol

September 17, 2012 | by

Last year, I was given the birthday gift of a lifetime: I got to spend the occasion with Diana Vreeland. A friend, who has long been close with the Vreeland family, took me on a weeklong pilgrimage to the Marrakech home of one of Vreeland’s sons. Our hosts, aware of my longstanding obsession with Diana, settled me into what is alternately known as the “D.V. Room” and the “T.V. Room,” for it boasted a rather ancient television set that looked like it might electrocute anyone who dared near it. Above it hung the splendid William Acton portrait of Vreeland that graced the first edition of her memoir, D.V. (edited, incidentally, with gusto by Paris Review cofounder George Plimpton). The painting lovingly depicted her trademark red talons, lacquer-black hair, and the leather thong sandals she claimed to have had recreated from those donned by a slave perfectly preserved (in coitus, no less) by the ashes of Vesuvius. For Vreeland, inspiration came from the most unlikely of sources.

The local souk held countless wonders for the other houseguests, but the sprawling, glamorously disheveled Vreeland house engrossed me far more. The D.V. imprint was everywhere. First of all, nothing quite made sense—at least to the orderly, pedestrian mind. You had to resign yourself to wandering the labyrinth and surrendering to the various unexpected delights along the way, such as a turret room festooned entirely with leopard print, or a dark hidden library, filled with hundreds of Vreeland’s books, many (if not most) of which had been inscribed to her by their authors. In yet another room stood one of her famed Louis Vuitton traveling trunks, her initials D.D.V. emblazoned in imperial red ink on one side. One evening, after too many bottles of Moroccan wine, our party took a vote and elected to open it up. The candles in the room blew out as we lifted the lid. Vreeland was clearly present—and making it known that she could only tolerate so much reverential curiosity.

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