In 1960, while studying at the University of Madrid, I met Joe Fernandez, a forty year-old American, who was finishing up his thesis for a doctorate he’d begun at the University of Pennsylvania. He had left the program at Penn because of its “fussiness.” We’d meet only occasionally in the cafeteria because he was so busy writing the thesis.
He was engaged to be married to his cousin, a school teacher whom he had met in his parents’ natal village in Asturias. He spent many weekends in Asturias but he remained in Madrid one Sunday a month to attend the bullfights. He was an aficionado.
I had never been to a bullfight. I did see a bullfighter, not in the bullring, but in an elegant barber shop. I had arrived in Madrid the month before needing a haircut:
“Go to the shop in the Plaza de Cuba,” said the courtly Director of the Summer Program at the University. His hair was cut nicely.
The barbershop was on the second floor of a handsome 19th century building: gleaming mirrors with ornately carved frames to the ceiling; bottles of aftershave lotions lined the shelves – jewel like greens, yellows, reds; barber chairs like thrones; tall windows overlooking the Plaza; a hushed quiet and a young manicurist who put Elizabeth Taylor to shame.
“Sus cabellos son muy rebeldes,” said the barber as he ran the comb through my hair. “Your hair is very rebellious.” He wet my hair and cut it with a straight razor, the kind that looked like a long, narrow pen knife with a curlicue at the hinge for the barber’s finger. Carlo Perrone, little Chaps, getting a razor cut haircut!
On my second visit to the barbershop, the manicurist had a customer:
“An important young bullfighter,” the barber whispered into my ear.
The bullfighter’s hair lay flat on his head, like a cocker spaniel’s, with tendrils around his ears and along the back of his neck. He spoke quietly to the girl as she polished his fingernails. I could tell that he was sweet-talking her: she never lifted her head, barely nodding or negating now and then. Did she stand a chance? That hand she held, on Sundays, held a sword.
My interest in bullfights dated to my high school years when I had read all of Ernest Hemingway, but I had never been to a corrida. I was delighted when Joe invited me to go to the fights with him on Sunday. But first, he said, early Friday morning we’d go to a small building attached to Las Ventas, Madrid’s main bullring.
Inside was a circular balcony overlooking an enclosure with a hard packed dirt floor, about forty feet in diameter. We joined a number of aficionados, all men, who spoke quietly. A portion of the balcony was reserved for the bullfighters, the matadors, who were to fight on Sunday.
Each matador was accompanied by one or two members of his team, his cuadrilla, the five or six men we would see on Sunday when they’d enter the bull ring arrayed in their finery. Also stationed around the balcony were four or five men holding bamboo rods about fifteen feet long.
A muffled bell rings, we fall silent. A bull appears from under the balcony and moves toward the center of the ring. A word from the matador and one of the men holding a bamboo rod reaches out and lightly touches the bull’s right rear flank with the tip of his rod. The bull spins to his right sweeping his horns around towards an assailant that has somehow managed to get behind him. The matador watches intently. Another word from the matador, another prod of the bamboo rod and the bull spins the other way.
The matador observes closely, as if his life depends upon it. Of course it does. One of his cuadrilla says something . The matador nods. Does the bull react truly to each prod? The matador does not want a quirky bull. And so it goes all morning long until six bulls were chosen, two for each matador. These are the bulls that will fight and die on Sunday afternoon in Las Ventas, Madrid’s main bull ring.
On Sunday Joe and I had lunch at a restaurant near Las Ventas whose menu included criadillas: the grilled testicles of a bull. Eating criadillas gives you courage: cojones. As we ate – not criadillas – Joe continued my crash course in the lore of the corrida. Some years earlier, he had taken part in a bullfighting workshop in which he learned the footwork, the strategy, the handling of the capes; every thing but the sword.
He had practiced his cape work with a very young bull, a calf really, whose horns were little more than nubs. That calf would never see a bullring because he had been contaminated by the knowledge he picked up in the workshop. It was two o’clock! Time to go to Las Ventas.
I remember mostly Gregorio Sanchez, the star matador that afternoon, who was popular in Madrid because he was from Castile. Sanchez was stately in bearing as he dominated both bulls. He moved the first bull around masterfully with a brilliant display of cape work that ended with a quite, that abrupt downward stroke of the cape that transfixed the bull. Sanchez turned, to bow gravely to the crowd, the bull’s horn inches from his back. He killed both his bulls quickly and bravely, volapie, over the horns.
The other two matadors that afternoon were competent, although the younger man had trouble with the kill. Instead of planting the sword into the withers, the matador, at the last instant, flinched sidewise away from the horn, driving the sword into the bull’s ribcage. Three or four inches of the sword emerged from the bull’s side, dripping blood. It was not a mortal wound. The stony-faced matador flicked the sword out of the bull, using his cape like a lasso or a whip, and he finished the job to the crowd’s approval.
At day’s end I was charged up and tired. The spectacle was grand, the teamwork of the cuadrillas was impressive, the bravery of the matadors was inconceivable. Sanchez worked so close to the bull that he was was repeatedly bumped by its flank as it barreled past him. His shiny costume, his “suit of lights”, became streaked with blood, the bull’s, not his.
I didn’t tell Joe, but I vowed never to see another fight, never again see those bulls so tormented. I left Madrid early that summer because I realized I was no longer interested in Spanish literature: I had lost my aficion. I had rediscovered Italy four years earlier and Margie entered my life in 1959.
I never saw Joe again but we wrote, exchanging Christmas cards for many years. Joe got his PhD and he married his sweetheart. He accepted a job offer from a college in Greensboro, North Carolina where he initiated its Spanish program. He hired his wife and for many years, they constituted the college’s Spanish department. They retired to Madrid after twenty years and then we lost touch.
Winning the Cruz de Beneficiencia
Occasionally, in Spain or Mexico, a bull that is being carted to the bullring will escape for a terrifying run through the city streets. More often than not it will be an ordinary steer en route to the slaughterhouse; whichever, the bull’s taste of freedom will be cut short by a policeman’s bullet.
The tabloids, especially the sporting ones, always note these impromptu corridas, which are reported tongue in cheek, in the most arch tauromachian style. The authors of these pieces inevitably invoke the name of a long dead matador de toros, Diego Mazquiaran, El Fortuna.
Diego was born in 1895 in Viscaya where his father worked in the coal mines of Bilbao. A coal miner’s wage was hardly enough to support the family, so Diego, at age
fourteen, was apprenticed to a foundry man in the steel mills of Los Hornos. That was a soft job compared to his father’s but Diego didn’t take to it. Like many poor boys in Spain, he was drawn to los toros corridos, the fighting bulls.
By the time he was twelve or thirteen, he and a like-minded friend were frequenting the rustic bullrings in the villages surrounding Bilbao and by night they were stealing into the corrals of the breeding ranches, to run and observe the bulls. It was in Castile that he earned his nickname, El Fortuna (Mr. Lucky).
On their jaunts to distant bullrings Diego and his friend would board the trains surreptitiously, avoiding the ticket collectors by keeping on the move and hiding in the space between cars.. In Valladolid they were standing between the cars as the train pulled into the station, whereupon it was hit from behind by an errant train. His friend was killed but Diego was spared. Lucky.
Upon recovering from his injuries, Diego drifted down to Andalusia, the heartland of the corrida. In Sevilla, he became a delivery boy for a neighborhood bakery. Whom should he find among his customers: the famous Gomez brothers. Joselito and El Gallo, who were two of the stars in Spain’s triumvirate of great matadors. The third was Juan Belmonte. Lucky.
Diego revealed his aficion to the brothers and they took a liking to him. El Gallo advised him, taught him a little, and got him booked into the village ferias where
Diego fought bravely and he gained notoriety. In contrast to the gypsy elegance of the Gomez brothers, Diego had an unadorned style. He relied more on his knowledge of the bulls than on fancy cape-work, although his cape-work was more that adequate. He excelled with the sword, killing in the classic and dangerous volapie style, up and over the horns.
He fought twenty-three times in 1914 and in the 1915 season he was judged the best matador de novillos – immature bulls. Some of those “immature bulls” were really difficult mature ones spurned by well established matadors. In 1916 he received his Alternativa – bestowal of senior status: Matador de Toros – from the hand of his sponsor, El Gallo.
Diego, El Fortuna, was a headliner for the next nine or ten years, scoring successes in Spain, Mexico and South America, occasionally on the same card as El Gallo and Juan Belmonte. Joselito Gomez was gored to death in 1920.
Like many young matadors, Diego worked close to the bulls, a risky practice he should have relaxed as he got older and wiser. But he didn’t. Consequently he was gored almost every season, the most serious injury in 1921 when he took a horn in the intestines On that same afternoon the second matador was gored in the buttock and the third man stabbed himself in the foot,
Diego’s injuries took their toll. He was beset by periods of severe depression, milder symptoms of which had first appeared when he was still a boy. In the bullring his performances veered from the occasional triumph to absolute disaster. As he increasingly fell prey to fits of nerves, the disasters began to outnumber even the few workmanlike performances.
As his popularity declined, so did his bookings. He appeared in six corridas in 1926 and only three in 1927. His mental problems worsened and he spent some time in a mental hospital. Discharged from the hospital in late 1927, Fortuna went into involuntary retirement; he was available but the impresarios never called. His luck had run out.
On the morning of January 23, 1928, a bull, perhaps a fighting bull – the reporter’s account is ambiguous – escaped from the van that was carrying it to the slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Madrid. Avoiding its captors, the bull penetrated the city limits via the Segovia bridge, “sewing panic” – the reporter’s phrase – as it went. Unaccountably it roamed the streets for about five hours, trampling several people and seriously wounding a woman.
At about one o’clock in the afternoon, the bull burst onto the Gran Via, Madrid’s busiest boulevard, thronged at that hour with strollers taking the mid-day paseo. The crowd scattered but one figure stood firm. It was Fortuna, who was taking a walk with his wife. He whipped off his coat and at great risk, he drew the bull’s attention to himself, bringing it to a halt with a deft quite of his overcoat. The street was wet and Fortuna, wearing dress shoes, slipped, fell, and recovered, never taking his eyes off the bull.
By now the crowd had returned and it cheered Fortuna as if in the bullring. His eyes on the bull, Fortuna called out to his wife, asking her to go home – it was nearby – and bring back one of his swords. When it arrived, he folded his overcoat to the size of a muleta, he lined up and move in to the kill, volapie, planting the sword halfway in. In the words of chronicler: “The multitude that had gathered around him – which made his heroic act more difficult – erupted into an emotional ovation, and waving their handkerchiefs wildly, requested an “ear” for the providential matador.”
Fortuna ignored the crowd. Using his overcoat like a lasso, he flicked the half-buried sword from the bull’s withers, and retrieving it, he dispatched the dying animal with a deeper thrust into the bull’s withers. In the bullring that act of mercy would have cost him the ear, his if he had allowed the mortally wounded bull to topple unassisted. Fortuna, in the bullring and on the Gran Via,was not one to let the bull suffer unnecessarily.
He was awarded Spain’s highest civilian medal, La Cruz de Beneficiencia. The impresarios of Spain’s bullrings rediscovered him and for three seasons he fought with some success before friendly audiences. But a storybook ending was not to be.
Fortuna’s mental problems returned, in the ring and out. The friendly multitudes turned merely polite and then indifferent. He made four appearances in 1932, two in 1933, one in 1934 and none in 1935, The 1936 season found him in Peru. After a couple of disasters in Lima’s bullring, the authorities, with his wife’s permission, committed him to an insane asylum.
Oblivion. Except on those rare occasions when an errant bull roams the streets of a city in Spain, Mexico or South America.