February 26, 2013

Barnaby Conrad

Barnaby Conrad

After a period as secretary to America’s first Nobel Laureate for Literature, Sinclair Lewis, Conrad brought out his own debut novel, which went the undistinguished way most such books do. However, when his friend Manolete, the most celebrated matador Spain had ever known, was killed by the bull Islero in 1947, Conrad wrote a fictionalized account of his final day in the novel Matador, which went on to sell three million copies.

It was this found wealth that allowed Conrad, who had worked as a nightclub pianist in Peru, to realize one of his many dreams and open a nightclub decorated with memorabilia from his time with the bulls called El Matador in San Francisco. It seems almost redundant to point out that this well-connected former diplomat-turned-best-selling-author, who had the added masculine cachet of being a former torero“€”albeit an amateur”€”ran a successful nightclub, but it was clearly quite a place. The cast list of his regulars and friends”€”the former always becoming the latter”€”makes up his volume Name Dropping: Tales from My Barbary Coast Saloon. It ranges from Crosby to Coward, Monroe to Mitchum.

Conrad is also an accomplished portrait artist whose likenesses of Truman Capote and James A. Michener hang in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. However, his contributions to literature about the bulls will be his lasting legacy. As someone who faced the unique breed that is the Spanish fighting bull, el toro bravo, he has both the practitioner’s as well as the spectator’s perspective. These inform the host of nonfiction books and articles he wrote about his beloved fiesta brava (“fierce festival”), including the entry for “bullfighting” for Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Although he exaggerates the mortality rate among toreros. To be precise, 533 noted professionals have died in the ring in the past three centuries.)

Despite this impressive list of achievement and accolades, there was a sense that Conrad always lived in the shadow of the true maestro de los toros in the English language, Ernest Hemingway. As Conrad himself admits in his writings, without Hemingway he would never have been at that first corrida in Mexico, let alone ever thought of getting into the arena.

While others are offering up only praise for his obituaries in The New York Times and elsewhere, it is in Hemingway’s shadow that Conrad will always remain.

While Allen Josephs, Professor at the University of West Florida, former president of the Hemingway Society, and also a noted author on the bulls, may describe his friend as “the most important author we have had,” the fact that Conrad himself didn’t quite believe this can be seen in his rather dishonorable attack on the size of Hemingway’s courage, ego, and manhood, in that order.

As Conrad described his own piano playing”€”by ear, without rhythm, training, and far from genius”€”so one may describe his literature and his art. Barnaby Conrad was not a man who could ever have written a book like A Farewell to Arms, but he was perhaps all the happier for it, dying at 90 of natural causes rather than blowing his brains out at 61.

Melancholia to the point of mental instability is not a prerequisite for great prose, but it is hard to see how this charming, bar-and-bed-hopping dilettante from a “leisure-class background” (to quote his own memoir) could have come to realize the truth of, and then compose the lines so perfectly describing, how “the world breaks everyone and afterward many are made strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.”

One abiding mystery is why Conrad”€”who knew everyone in the American literary and taurine worlds, including many close friends of Hemingway”€”never got to meet him. Did Hemingway read Matador and recoil from what amounts to a fictional potboiler with some well-researched journalese about bulls? As I know all too well, pitting yourself against so towering a figure as Papa on his own terrain is not a contest you can win.



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