Pase de la Firma
Copyright © 2011 by Richard Morris Usatinsky
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Heartfelt thanks to Abbott Chrisman and Wendy Smeets,who revised this text and offered their generous comments and suggestions.
For Aaron, Elizabeth & Bella
…my Heart, Soul & Solace
“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”
SOONER OR LATER LIFE CATCHES UP WITH US. Sometimes with the splendor of a life lived with immense passion—living every second as if it were the last—and other times lived with disappointment and resentment, time robbing us of our faith and hope, turning our lives into irreversible and unbearable misery.
I first met Juan in the autumn of 1916 in Barcelona. I went to Catalonia in search of an authentic autumn, a place where the leaves change color and fall from their branches. Where the crisp morning air arouses the spirit and the vespertine breezes of the Mediterranean can make a man’s imagination whirl, tossing his hat airborne landing it in the bushes that line La Rambla. On the contrary, autumn in Valencia, the city of my birth, is a rare occurrence; the summers are eternal in that land and the hours I would spend painting in my small studio were unbearably infernal at least until after Epiphany.
In Barcelona, I moved into a small apartment in the Barrio Gótico that belonged to a great-uncle of mine and spent my mornings painting and afternoons giving private lessons to a few aspiring artists who lived in the neighborhood.
One day a student mine, Roser Climent, came by my apartment to introduce to me a classmate of hers who was hoping to study with me. Though it sounds cliché to say it now after all these years, it was love at first sight. It was also the first time I had ever felt such strong emotions towards another human being, as I wasn’t known precisely for being the warmest, gentlest of men. But when first laying eyes upon this young man—a boy of only sixteen summers—with his full, succulent lips, creamy complexion, long eyelashes and broad shoulders, I could barely contain my zeal. In fact, my hand was trembling as I reached out to meet his there in the foyer of my apartment as we were being introduced.
Juan came by religiously every afternoon, and while he was a dedicated student, a bright boy with a good eye for detail, he was simply awful at drawing—and even worse with watercolors—and would easily become offended were I to criticize in any way his creativity. In fact, of all my students, it was Juan who showed the least promise. In contrast, however, he was the most determined to learn, often spending hours contemplating drawing a single line or rendering a simple silhouette. In the end, he quickly learned to accept my critical nature.
My feelings for Juan grew stronger as time carried on, but we lived in a time where it would have been unthinkable for me to even consider seducing this lad, tempting as it was. I was able to enjoy his company while taking my pleasures with young men I would encounter at the bathhouses off the Passeig de Gràcia, in the bar at the Hotel Astoria or during late night strolls in the Parc Güell.
Juan never knew then, nor would he ever know, of the profound love I felt for him though there were many moments, frustrating and overwhelming moments, where I nearly confessed my love. Looking back, there were times, occasions that I feel are unimportant to recall in this account, when I felt that Juan may have had…inclinations that there was perhaps more to our relationship than pencils, charcoal, canvas and endless conversation.
One day in the spring of 1919, Juan paid me a visit accompanied by a new contraption his father had brought back from his business travels in America. It was a moving picture camera, a Bell & Howell 2709, the very camera Charles Chaplin began using a year earlier and with which he filmed some of his most memorable silent films such as “A Dog’s Life, “How to Make Movies” and “Chase Me Charlie.”
Juan told me that he wanted to make moving pictures and that he wanted me—of all people—to be the protagonist of his first film.
“What could you possibly film me doing?” I asked him.
“Painting, of course,” he replied.
I admit that at first I thought the notion of Juan filming me painting somewhat absurd. I suggested that he go down to the seashore and film the waves or to La Rambla where he could observe women strolling with their parasols and bored husbands; or children playing or birds flying from tree to tree.
“But you can do that with a regular camera,” he said. “I want to capture living moments that are unique, extraordinary, not stilted or frozen in time.”
Juan made his first moving picture that very afternoon in my studio. We waited for nearly three hours until he felt that the natural light coming in from the two windows of my studio was just as he wanted it to be.
“Just keep painting,” he told me. “Just keep painting.”
About a week later Juan appeared at my studio with a letter that had arrived that morning from Segundo de Chomán, a famed film director of the time whose “El Hotel Eléctrico” was the first motion picture I had ever seen in 1906 or 1907. Juan had written to the director with the hope of working on one of his films. The letter from de Chomán was discouraging at best saying, “There are a thousand young men like yourself in Spain and France who crave to make moving pictures. And you’re all fools. Study the classics, Latin, physics, and take coffee in charming sidewalk cafés with your contemporaries. Talk about politics and literature and leave this business of making movies to madmen and Jews.”
I was obligated to return to Valencia in mid July as I was informed that my mother’s health had been deteriorating and that I was needed to work in the undergarments shop she ran below our apartment in the Barrio del Carmen.
A few weeks after arriving back in Valencia, I received a letter from Juan:
It seems like ages since you’ve been gone and we all miss you terribly. Roser has gone off to Paris, and the rest of us remain under the tutelage of your colleague, Señor Canals, who I hope you will forgive me for saying is the most dreadful man ever—he dared to throw one of my canvasses out the window! Josep says he’s a drunkard and a poof and I must admit that he does often have the foulest breath one can imagine and often looks at me with what I’m certain are wanting eyes.
I myself have decided to leave Barcelona and see some of this beautiful country of ours. I was thinking of paying you a visit in Valencia, where I have been invited to spend the rest of the summer with the family of an actor I met a few weeks ago. Julio wants me to come and make a movie of his theatre troupe and he has even offered to pay my train fare.
So it looks as though you haven’t gotten rid of me yet! Maybe you could even use some help in the shop (you must let me see where you keep the fancy stockings and bodices!).
One cloudy afternoon while having tea with my mother on our rooftop terrace, I heard someone calling to me from the street below. It was Juan. I ran down the stairs so quickly that I stumbled and had I not grabbed hold of the bannister I would have surely been done for. I reached the bottom of the stairs and opened the large wooden door. There was Juan, accompanied by a lovely, but somewhat frail looking young girl who couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen. Juan ran up and embraced me, which took me by surprise at first, but I soon felt at ease with his sudden burst of emotion for I, too, was elated seeing him again.
“May I present Amparo,” Juan said pushing the timid young girl towards me. “She is Julio’s sister, remember the actor I told you about in my letter. She said she didn’t believe that I knew a real painter.”
“Well Miss Amparo, now you have met a real painter. One who sells fine lady’s undergarments for a living.”
The young girl laughed coyly and seemed at once more at ease. We went inside and climbed the four flights of stairs to the rooftop terrace where I introduced the young couple to my mother, leaving them in her company while I went downstairs to prepare some canapés and drinks to offer my guests.
After taking refreshments and chatting for an hour about Juan’s new project, a heavy downpour forced us inside. We spent the remainder of the afternoon in my studio on the third floor of my family’s building—an apartment that was last occupied by my uncle, who had died two years earlier. I showed off some of my paintings, ones that I considered to be my best works, while Juan described in detail how he envisioned making a moving picture for Amparo’s brother’s theatre company.
“Why not make a film about the theatre company,” I suggested. “Something that documents the lives of the actors and their work rather than simply filming their performance.”
“But their lives are so terribly boring.”
“But you can make them interesting,” I insisted. “Everyone nowadays is making dramatic movies with damsels in distress, love scenes and motorcars. People want to see real life, real people, not actors in dress-up clothes with painted faces.”
“Like your paintings,” interrupted Amparo who had walked over to a half-finished portrait I had been commissioned to paint of the mayor of Valencia, Don Juan Bort Olmos.
“Why, yes, in a way. Everyone is painting landscapes and fruit bowls these days. That’s boring. Look at some of these…”
I proceeded to show the pair some of my latest sketches, street scenes, nightlife, a boxing match; workers building a bridge across the River Turia. I was intent on convincing Juan to seek a genre that would set his work apart. There was indeed a film making frenzy going on in Spain at the time and I didn’t want to see Juan getting caught up in what other people were doing when he was so capable of taking a different, more innovative approach.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Juan said. “I’d like to film a baby being born—can you imagine that? Or a cow being slaughtered for market.”
“My aunt is getting married in September, you could film the wedding,” said Amparo.
As we talked, Juan seemed delighted with the prospect of talking to Julio about filming his theatre company. I knew that the idea of doing something different would appeal to Juan. And I was right.
“I’ll film them rehearsing, smoking, taking coffee at the bar next door to the theatre, pissing on the tree in the courtyard out back” said Juan. “And I’ll film the director having one of his fits and throwing his cane at the actors on stage or kissing that young girl out in the stables when he thinks no one is looking!”
And that’s how Juan got started making documentaries, some of which are considered classics, even today in the age of color films and television—a hopeless contraption that some say will eventually become all the rage, though I reserve my doubts.
At the end of the summer I offered Juan a part-time job at my mother’s shop. I figured this way I could have time enough to paint and Juan could earn enough money to buy the expensive celluloid film that was imported from America. It also kept me close to Juan, who by now had fallen madly in love with Amparo and whom he would marry once she turned sixteen in about a year’s time. I admit the first time I saw the young lovers kissing, during a lovely picnic lunch at the Royal Gardens, I was so filled with jealousy that I ran home and burned all the drawings I had ever made of Juan.
But I soon got used to the fact that Juan would never be mine. Working together and spending late nights in the studio where I’d be mixing colors and Juan would be dilly-dallying with his camera became a cherished tradition. We would smoke cigarettes and drink absinthe until the early hours of the morning, talking about anything and everything.
Juan took a room in my mother’s apartment downstairs as opposed to my own. I had told him that she would appreciate the company, though the truth was I couldn’t stand his romantic interludes with Amparo, with whom he sequestered himself behind his closed bedroom door for hours on Saturday afternoons. At least I felt I was taking care of him in a way, having a presence and a purpose in his life.
One afternoon in November of 1919, I remember clearly that it was the first of the month as my mother and I had just returned from visiting my father’s grave at the municipal cemetery, as we did each year on All Saints’ Day, Juan showed up for lunch accompanied not by Amparo, but by a young man he introduced as Manolo, who my mother quickly, as she always did, invited to stay for lunch.
Manolo, who appeared to be but a year or two younger than Juan, was a novice bullfighter who, Juan told us, would soon be making his debut in Valencia’s bull ring. The young man was boyish, tall and slender but with a full round face and deep dark eyes; shy but cheery, reserved and well mannered. And even more surprising was the presence of his violin case, as he was a full-time student at the conservatory of music and, from what Juan later told me, a rather excellent musician. The young violinist-bullfighter had come with a letter from his father—and a generous deposit of one thousand pesetas—requesting that I accept his offer to paint a standing portrait of his son donning his bullfighter’s costume, known for its brilliant sequins and shimmering fabric as the “suit of lights,” on the eve of his debut in his home town. I generously accepted the offer (and the money), sending the boy home with a short note of my appreciation and a receipt for their deposit.
By summer’s end Juan and Manolo became the best of friends, inseparable. I’m not sure if I was more jealous of Amparo or Manolo, but the obvious was that Juan was spending less and less time with me. The Saturday afternoon picnics we shared soon became luncheons of banquet proportions with Juan’s new friends, Manolo’s friends really, and hangers-on who seemed to always be buzzing around the young bullfighter who, despite his mere seventeen summers and the fact that he had yet to make his professional debut, attracted as many fans—mostly young girls—as a seasoned matador.
I got around to doing some early sketches of Manolo just before Christmas. He was a quiet young man, pensive and introverted, with whom I found it difficult to converse. Not having much experience in standing portraits I found it necessary to physically move him about quite a bit, which seemed to annoy him more than anything else. But I needed the right light and shadows, which were somehow always distorted by the bullfighter’s capote or an annoying ever-present reflection off of his sword. To get the best angle, I suggested—insisted—that he stand with the capote and sword in his right hand and move his body slightly to the right, something at the time he was reluctant to do saying it just wasn’t a natural bullfighting pose.
One evening after finishing some drawings in the new posture, Manolo asked if he could see how he looked on canvas. He studied the drawings with an almost perplexed look of enlightenment, taking hold of his capote and sword and trying to perfect the pose I had been instructing him to take during the last three or four sittings.
“Do you think it would be all right if I took one of these,” Manolo asked pointing at one of the drawings on the table beside the window. It seems that he quite liked the feel of the pose and wanted to show it to his trainer. He thought it might be an interesting enhancement for his performance. By the time Manolo made his professional debut, during Valencia’s traditional Fallas celebrations held each year during the month of March, he had
all but perfected a new bullfighting maneuver—a delicate right-handed pass to the same side of the bull—which he named pase de la firma, and which would become his signature maneuver, one that would make him famous and the envy of every bullfighter of his generation.
By 1921, just as Juan had predicated, Manolo, at nineteen years of age and in the span of a little more than a year, became one of Spain’s most beloved and successful young bullfighters, making his alternativa, or professional debut, as a matador in Seville’s La Maestranza bullring on the 28th of September. In all, Manolo would fight a near-record 91 bullfights that year. What Juan wasn’t able to predict, was that Manolo—out of the all the beautiful women that constantly surrounded him that he could have fallen in love with—had fallen madly in love with Amparo. And from the looks of things, Amparo was falling in love with him.
This amorous triangle, for lack of a better phrase, was overshadowed by the fact that the three individuals involved had very little time to devote to either keeping a love affair going (while fighting bulls, making films and, as was Amparo’s case, managing her brother’s theatre company full time) or maintaining a rivalry, so the three took it all in stride and decided to let destiny lead their hearts and their hearts lead their destiny. But on a day that I’ll never forget as long as I shall live, all of that changed forever.
It was just after the New Year and Amparo appeared at the shop one morning, distraught and teary-eyed.
“Juan has gone to the port to film the arrival of naval cadets,” I said as Amparo closed the door behind her.
“I haven’t come to see Juan, I came to talk to you,” Amparo said, trying her hardest to hold back a tempest of tears. “I’m pregnant,” she told me proceeding to collapse upon the shop floor.
I took her to the back room and laid her down on the sofa in mother’s office and covered her with a blanket. I wiped the beads of sweat from her forehead with my handkerchief and she soon opened her small blue eyes.
“I need your help,” Amparo said trying to sit up.
“What can I do? I asked.
“I need you to prepare a pot of steam,” she answered. “And I need you to promise me that no one will ever know what has happened here today, especially not Juan or Manolo.”
Amparo never told me who the father of that baby would have been and I didn’t have the nerve to ask. I boiled the pot of water into which Amparo sprinkled the contents of a white packet. Removing her dress and undergarments she then squatted above the pot of scalding steam until—just a few moments later—a geyser of thick, bright red blood came pouring out of her, the sight of which left me mortified and has haunted me since.
Once the blood had stopped, Amparo asked me if I wouldn’t mind helping her clean herself as she had barely the strength to sit upright in the chair at my mother’s desk. I had never touched, let alone seen, a woman in that way and the experience left me feeling awkward and confused as for a moment, while gently wiping the blood that dripped from her small mound of coarse pubic hair, I became, much to my surprise, aroused. Amparo noticed but looked away and made no mention of it. I helped her dress herself and walked her back to the sofa where she was soon fast asleep.
I cleaned up the back room and just as I had finished rinsing out the last blood-soaked towel, Juan entered the shop.
“Have you seen Amparo? Juan asked.
“Yes, she’s asleep on the sofa in mother’s office. She came by the shop about an hour ago and felt unwell,” I said not knowing whether or not Juan knew something about Amparo’s condition.
“I’ll take her home,” he said while walking into the back room where he remained for about a quarter of an hour before emerging with Amparo, who looked as lovely, young and frail as on the day we met.
“Thank you,” she said kissing me gently upon my cheek, Juan shaking my hand without as much as saying a word or making eye contact. The two young lovers walked out of the shop and disappeared into the crowd of shoppers and merchants that lined the street on market day. Until now I have never told a soul about what happened that morning in the shop and it was never mentioned again, neither by Amparo nor myself.
My mother passed away just days before Fallas and my dear friend, the French playwright, Georges Feydeau, with whom I exchanged correspondence for more than twenty years, died in a French insane asylum two months later on the fifth of June.
What was also most memorable about bittersweet 1921 was that Juan had finally begun attaining the recognition he so rightfully deserved as a serious filmmaker. He finished the year with a documentary paying homage to the famed Spanish writer Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. Juan was also awarded a substantial financial grant from Spain’s Culture Ministry to begin working on a series of documentaries about Valencia’s Fallas celebrations which would be exported throughout Europe and the Americas to, as the ministry put it, “entice the world to the beauty and mystique of our land and popular festival.”
But despite his success, Juan was tormented by the growing number of filmmakers who were beginning to set up shop in Valencia, and even more so by the continuing rivalry between himself and Manolo over Amparo, a rivalry which by then had begun to, at times, lead the two men to relentless arguments and—on at least one occasion in my presence (and unfortunately in the presence of Amparo)—to a bout of fisticuffs that left both men bloodied and bruised for weeks with Amparo refusing to see or speak to either man until they made their peace and agreed once and for all to stop fighting over her.
I decided to close my mother’s store for good in July of 1921 and rented a cottage in Navajas, a small village about 60 kilometers north of Valencia. I needed some time alone away from the city and away from Juan who, despite my love and affection for him, was beginning to try my patience with his insecurity and childish behavior regarding his film projects and his foolishness regarding Manolo and Amparo. It wouldn’t be long, however, before I sent for the three of them—four including Amparo’s brother Julio—to join me in Navajas for the remainder of the summer.
It was there in Navajas that August that I set into motion perhaps the most diabolical and wretched thing I—or perhaps any man—could have possibly conceived. I could no longer stand to see Juan suffering. Suffering from the ups and downs and frequent disillusionment he had been experiencing with his filmmaking career and from Amparo’s indecision to marry him that autumn. And distressed over the growing rift between him and Manolo leading to an almost non-existence of what had been, just a year earlier, a blossoming friendship and seemingly impenetrable camaraderie.
What Juan needed was a plan, one to elevate his status among not only his fellow documentary makers, but also on the national level. To do that, he would need to devise an extraordinary work of creative novelty. He would need to make a film that would stand out among the hundreds of films which were now being made each year in Spain. But how could such a novelty be devised? What could he film that had never been filmed and that only he could film? The answer to that question was never more than a few meters away. The answer was Manolo.
At Christmas Mass in 1921, I was introduced by a mutual acquaintance to a young soldier, Esteban, who had just returned from Morocco, where in August he had fought in the Battle of Annual during the Rif War under General Manuel Fernández Silvestre in one of Spain’s greatest military debacles, which left more than 13,000 Spanish and allied Moroccan troops dead or wounded.
Esteban was visiting his family in Valencia before returning to Zaragoza where he would be completing his last year of veterinary school before moving to Madrid, where he had been offered a position as an associate veterinarian at bullrings in Toledo, Chinchón, Madrid and occasionally Valladolid.
I took an immediate liking to Esteban—and the feeling was mutual—and we spent the next few weeks together until his return to Zaragoza. He confessed to having a lover during the war, another soldier from his regiment who was captured by Abd-el-Krim’s Berber militia at Villa Sanjuro, and was never seen or heard from again. Looking back I find it odd to recall precisely why I failed to pursue my feelings for Esteban. Perhaps at forty-five my inclinations then were slanted less towards the sexual aspects of a relationship and more towards companionship and to filling the void of intellectual stimulation that had been growing deeper within me since my return to Valencia years earlier. That and the fact that I was terribly lonely and the one I had truly loved was beyond my reach.
But I had other interests in Esteban, beyond the carnal, beyond the visceral, for Esteban would come to play a key role in the real-life moving picture that I would create—that I would write, produce and direct—and now there was nothing stopping me from putting all the pieces together: the actors, the plot, the location and, most important, the ending, one that would catapult Juan to the heights of fame, fortune and glory and, if luck was to be on my side, demonstrate to him once and for all that my love for him was immeasurable and unwavering. Juan was my destiny and, as destiny is but a transient and capricious enemy of mortal men, time was running out. All there was left to do was to make a movie.
At the beginning of 1922, while Manolo’s star was shining more brightly than ever, Juan’s career as a filmmaker was in a downward spiral. He began drinking heavily and disappearing for days at a time, leaving us all concerned for his well-being. Amparo had told me she had begun thinking seriously about marrying Manolo. She said at times she felt jealous of all the young girls who would be swarming about and, though she loved Juan dearly and really did want to marry him, she was beginning to lose faith in the possibility of having a future with him, especially in his present unpredictable state of mind. She thought Manolo might be the more promising of the two young men.
Just after Fallas in 1922, I asked Juan to accompany me to an exhibition of my paintings I was invited to give by Joan Baptista Parés at his Sala Parés gallery in Barcelona, which was celebrating its 45th anniversary. I wanted to use the opportunity to spend some time alone with Juan and try and give him some direction and hopefully well calculated advice.
We spent the week in Barcelona at the Hotel Agustí—in separate rooms—where Juan would return late at night in the company of sometimes two or three women, prostitutes I imagined or young women whose fancy he would catch while strolling along Barcelona’s tree-lined boulevards with his moving picture camera. We would take our breakfast at a quaint café on the calle Petritxol in front of the gallery where I would spend the mornings meeting with prospective buyers of my paintings and receiving old friends from my days in Barcelona. In between visits I would discuss with Juan my plans for executing a series of carefully orchestrated events, as I called them, that would serve to once and for all help establish himself as a legitimate filmmaker, not only in Valencia, but in all of Spain—Europe, the Americas and perhaps beyond.
“Why have you never filmed a bullfight?” I asked Juan one morning over breakfast.
“You mean why have I never filmed Manuel, he responded wryly using the bullfighter’s Christian name.
I told him that filming a bullfight for the bullfight’s sake—or for the bullfighter for that matter—was not what I had in mind.
“I’ve been telling you for years,” I said to Juan, lifting his head up by the chin with my fingers forcing him to look me in the eye, something, for some reason, he rarely did. “You have an eye for detail, look beyond the image. How many times did I tell you that back in my studio when you were my student?”
“But I’m not your student anymore,” Juan responded sharply. “So what are you suggesting, that I film the great torero himself stuffing his prick into his tight costume or shoving his violin bow up his backside?”
“No,” I replied, removing my fingers from his chin. “What I’m suggesting is that you film what has never been filmed before.”
I went on to tell him about my befriending Esteban, the young veterinary student, and how he told me that on occasions bulls are given an assortment of drugs to either make them feistier or, on the contrary, more docile, depending on the desired result (and on who was paying off the veterinarian and other bullring employees). At first Juan was against employing deceitful tactics in order to gain notoriety, but I soon convinced him that what I had in mind was just a bit of what I called innocent manipulation. I also convinced him that at no time would anyone be in danger—and I say this now as I said it then with utter conviction. Had I been able to foresee any of what occurred on that fateful day in Madrid, I would have never gone through with my plan or any plan like it.
Juan and I returned to Valencia and I immediately set off to Madrid to pay a visit to Esteban, who had settled into the capital taking an apartment on the calle Bailén. I told Esteban what my intentions were and that I would be prepared to pay any sum of money required to buy the confidence and discretion of anyone deemed necessary. He explained to me that if my intention was for putting on a good show—with a bull worthy of a torero like Manolo—he could concoct a tonic that would have a stimulating effect on the bull’s nervous system, making him more agitated but not necessarily more aggressive. We were also in agreement that the bullfighter—Manolo in this case—would know nothing about the tampering. He was surely capable enough of handling any bull, tonics or not, and there was no need letting him in on our little secret. This was about Juan, about a young documentary filmmaker who was about to make history for filming—for the very first time—a real-life account of the most spectacular bullfight ever witnessed by human eyes.
I returned to Valencia a week later, on the first of April, and after the all-night train ride from Madrid I arrived at my apartment to find a note slipped under the door:
The lovers have made for Andalucia and I fear we shall never see them again in this wretched city of yours. Such deceit, such betrayal I have never imagined nor would I have thought the human soul capable of such barbarity. And what will become of me now? I am left with neither friend nor lover. And what of your plan? Are we too late? I must leave this place at once for fear I shall die here. Have pity and promise me that my final resting place is somewhere—anywhere—other than this cesspool of despair.
I didn’t know what to make of Juan’s letter, but it upset me to no end and after running upstairs to his room I found it unusually tidy—his camera was there as were the rest of his personal effects, his pocket watch, cigarettes and flask. I thought I knew Juan well enough to know that he would never take his own life, no matter how bad things became—he had a zest for life and was not one to be easily defeated by challenges large or small—but the sight of his room void of his presence nearly made me sick to my stomach. Whatever was ailing his mind (and heart), surely there would be a simple solution. But first I had to find him, and I hadn’t a clue where to start looking. Or perhaps I did.
I rode my bicycle to Quart de Poblet, a small village about eleven kilometers from Valencia, where Juan’s grandfather had a small farm. I remember Juan telling me that he used to spend summers there as a young boy and that every now and again he would go and help his grandfather tend to the livestock and keep the old man company.
When I arrived at the farm I found Juan drunk in the corral, naked and tormenting (the only word that comes to mind) an old disinterested bull with what appeared to be an old curtain and a broomstick.
“She wants to fuck a bullfighter. I can fight bulls as well!” Juan shouted, confirming his distasteful state of inebriation and obvious lack of bullfighting skill. Just then, Juan approached the bull and slapped it on its hindquarters. The bull in turn swiftly turned its head, catching a horn on Juan’s buttocks and throwing him slightly airwards until he landed on the ground, nearly hitting his head on a post. As he slowly picked himself up from the filthy ground I noticed that he was losing blood rapidly as he walked towards me collapsing in my arms.
With his grandfather’s help we were soon able to stop the bleeding, observing that the wound wasn’t as bad as it looked. While I stayed with Juan, his grandfather walked into the village to call on the doctor. I watched as Juan slept naked on his grandfather’s bed. He lay face down, slightly turned to one side, with his broad tanned back glistening with sweat. I wiped the dirt from his legs and as I gently spread them apart to clean the drying blood from his inner thighs, I noticed he had a partial erection. I continued moving the cool damp cloth closer and closer to his genitals until his penis was soon stiff and swollen. I continued cleaning the blood and dirt from his naked body, drying him thoroughly and covering him with a clean white cotton sheet as he slept, completely unaware of my presence or of the beauty of his sustained erection.
His grandfather returned about an hour later with the village doctor. Juan was awake and coherent by then, and the doctor stitched the wound and left us with an ointment to be applied three times a day when changing the dressing. The doctor told Juan that he was lucky this time as the wound was close to a major artery (not to mention his genitals) and he could have very well bled to death if it hadn’t been for a mere few centimeters.
We all felt it best for Juan to spend a few days recuperating at his grandfather’s farm, though Juan was reluctant and was eager to get back to Valencia. I told him that tomorrow I would return to look in on him and bring him some of his personal belongings and some chocolate cakes from his favorite bakery. I asked him if he wanted to have his camera and he told me that I might as well throw it out the window for all he cared. I touched his leg, which he quickly withdrew, and I walked out of the room. I bid farewell to Juan’s grandfather and rode my bicycle back to Valencia, arriving home just after nightfall. I was surprised to see Manolo waiting at my front door. He was with a young woman—a handsome blonde with pale skin whose long, thick hair was wrapped in a tight bun. Manolo said that he and Amparo had had a terrible falling out and that they never even made it past Murcia before Manolo left her at an inn and returned to Valencia. I told him what had happened to Juan and at that moment decided to rethink my plan. I couldn’t help but recall the blood pouring out of Manolo (and Amparo) like a gusher and dreaded to think that something similar—or worse—could possibly happen to Manolo in Madrid as a result of my little stunt.
The following week I suffered a bad fall while storing some homemade preserves and boukha (a sweet brandy made from figs from a recipe passed down to my grandfather from Tunisian relatives, Jews I’d been told, nearly a century ago). I badly injured my right hip and was unable to walk or stand for long periods of time. Juan came around every day helping me in my studio, preparing lunch and helping me down the stairs so we could take evening strolls through the barrio, which quickened my recovery.
By then, Juan had spoken with Manolo about his idea of filming him at the bullring in Madrid next month. Manolo was fairly indifferent about the idea, saying that there were always movie cameras, photographers and journalists on hand whenever and wherever he happened to be. Not that Manolo was being arrogant, he wasn’t. He was in fact, surprisingly, the least arrogant young man I had ever known, although he most certainly would have been well within his rights to be somewhat cocky. But he was not. Perhaps when playing the violin, but not when it came to bullfighting.
By the end of April Amparo had returned and had made her peace with Manolo, forgiving him for abandoning her in Murcia and telling him that she had decided to accept Juan’s marriage proposal. Manolo seemed to take it with his usual indifference and youthful politeness. He had his mind solely focused on Madrid, where he would be sharing the bill with Juan Luis de Rosa and Marcial Lalanda, who he considered less experienced and less popular than himself. He felt somewhat offended at being placed in the middle slot when he would have preferred to be the day’s grand finale. He was also somewhat apprehensive about the prospect of facing bulls from the famed Veragua farm, known for being extraordinarily fierce and pugnacious. Though he had never fought a Veragua bull, he had heard stories about bullfighters being thrown clear out of the bullring by these monsters or gored clear through the thigh. But he welcomed the challenge as one of his own personal favorite bullfighters, Rafael González Madrid, popularly known as “Machaquito,” brilliantly fought a Veragua bull during his debut in the same bullring in Madrid in September of 1900.
While Manolo trained from dawn until sundown, Juan would spend his afternoons in Valencia’s empty bullring—using Amparo as a stand-in for Manolo—trying out new filming techniques and especially working with the difficult and uncooperative afternoon sun and stubborn shadows. I spent my days alternating between the bullring, where I would sketch Juan the filmmaker, and Juan’s grandfather’s farm where Manolo had all but sequestered himself, receiving no visitors other than myself and a young woman he introduced as Beatriz, a small, emaciated waif with long, straight hair that she wore in an English braid. Trying to make small talk with the girl one morning Manolo came over and told me that the girl was a deaf mute. (While she may indeed have been deaf, the screams and interminable moans that reverberated from within the barn where the two disappeared after the midday meal suggested that her vocal chords were quite capable of producing sound).
We set out for Madrid on Monday morning the first of May in the 1919 Hispano Suiza H6B Cabriolet that belonged to Manolo’s father. Manolo was up front in the passenger seat and Juan and Amparo sat behind in the rear compartment with all of Juan’s machines and gadgets while our suitcases were secured to the luggage rack mounted on the back of the car.
The ride to Madrid was splendid. We stopped for a few hours near a field of sunflowers where Juan wanted to film Amparo walking through the tall stalks and where I took some photographs of the three of them with a camera that was a gift from a fellow artist and dear friend of mine, Julio Peris Brell, for my forty-fifth birthday. Julio said he wanted me to start taking pictures so that I might see that “life isn’t so dark and dismal,” as he and many of my contemporaries constantly harangued me about concerning my often dark and heavily shaded paintings.
We spent the night in Cañaveras, in the province of Cuenca, where Amparo had some family who were expecting our arrival just before sundown and who greeted us with a lovely candlelight dinner in their garden. Amparo’s uncle, a burly and bearded man, prepared roast boar on a spit and ears of the sweetest most succulent corn I had ever tasted. We stayed up late drinking and dancing till nearly dawn. It was a night that I have kept locked away all these years as one of the most pleasant moments of my entire life. I spent most of that evening merely observing the three of them, as well as the others—Amparo’s family and other friends from the village—who had come by to catch a glimpse of the famous torero. I reflected upon my life and contemplated the future. I wondered if I hadn’t made too many mistakes and if I had, was it too late for me—now beyond the midway point in my life—to make some adjustments; to remix some colors, to re-stretch the canvas of my life more taut and smooth. I wondered about the trip back to Valencia. Would we stop again in Cañaveras, triumphant, to be treated to a hero’s welcome? The matador with his prize bull’s ears and tails; the young film director with his celluloid masterpiece; the charming girl with her beau and her lucent future; and the aging painter, who had just finished his life’s most splendid work of art: a real life portrait of lives which were beginning to take form, their colors blending into brilliant hues saturated with the illuminated splendor of a creation worthy only of its subjects, its creator merely a witness to the exuberance…
We arrived in Madrid and went directly to the Hotel Inglés on the calle Echegaray, where years earlier I had become acquainted with the British novelist Virginia Woolf and her sister, the painter, Vanessa Stephen, who, in a calamitous misadventure attempted—unsuccessfully—to seduce me in London during the summer of 1911 shortly after her marriage to Clive Bell (oh, the stories I could tell about that summer).
After leaving our things in our rooms we went for a carriage ride and enjoyed a walk through the Retiro Park and Botanic Gardens, finishing the day roaming the dark galleries of the Prado. The rest of the week was spent more or less on our individual projects: Manolo trained day and night, Juan and Amparo took in the sights—I lent the couple my camera so they would have some souvenirs recalling their visit to Madrid—and I visited friends and galleries and took the opportunity to do some sketching and spend some time alone. The four of us would meet up at the hotel at nine for dinner, spending the evenings conversing and making plans for our futures once we returned to Valencia.
On Saturday evening my dear friend Alcocer Ribacoba, a well-known political figure who would become mayor of Madrid the following year, entertained us in his home with suckling pig, champagne and Cuban cigars. Juan and Alberto discussed politics while Amparo and Manolo sat near the open bay windows enjoying the breeze and talking about the bullfight, which was now less than twenty-four hours away.
We all attended Sunday Mass—except for Juan, who was up at the crack of dawn cleaning and fussing over his camera—and then we returned to the hotel to relax and dress for the day’s main event. Manolo was picked up at the hotel by a long black motorcar that looked like it belonged to a king or head of state, hardly intended for a boy of merely twenty who was going to dance around the dirt with a 500 kilogram bull for fifteen minutes.
We arrived at the bullring at five p.m. and took our seats in the grandstands just below the president’s box. It was a picturesque day, the sun shining brightly and casting dramatic shadows out over the bullring. The smells of bitter tobacco and manure filled the air and the crowd was abuzz with anticipation.
The first bullfighter to take the ring was Marcial Lalanda, a year younger than Manolo, who had made his debut in the same bullring as Manolo in Seville a year earlier. Lalanda put on quite a good performance and pleased the public. After his graceful kill, he was awarded a trophy ear, cut from his challenger before it was dragged off the dirt ring. As the groundskeepers smoothed out the trampled bloody surface, a brass band played a paso doble by the Valencian composer Eduardo López-Chavarri, who, coincidentally, was married to the soprano Carmen Andújar, a distant cousin of mine on my mother’s side of the family.
Next, the familiar fanfare announced the imminent entrance of the next bullfighter. Manolo walked onto the bullring to thunderous applause. His “suit of lights,” a new creation that he was wearing for the first time today, was stunning; a deep burgundy beautifully set off with gold embellishments and trimmed with blue ruffles and delicate pearl buttons that glistened in the afternoon sun. He carried a magenta and gold capote and wore the traditional black montera on his head. He approached the side of the bullring where the president’s box was located and raised his montera in a gesture of respect to the president of the bullring who in turn signaled with a symbolic nod that the torero may now commence.
The bull, Pocapena, or “little mercy,” from the famed Veragua farm, was released from the pens and stampeded out to the center of the ring, coming to a stop in a cloud of dust. Manolo turned and sized up the massive 500-kilo beast and was eager to get started. Just then he spotted Amparo in the grandstands and made deliberate eye contact with her observing, as I had been, a single glistening tear falling from her eye and we both knew then that it was Manolo who she truly loved.
I think about it all, how everything could have turned out so much differently had I only had the vision and the courage years ago upon meeting Juan in Barcelona for the first time. Looking back now, I think in his own way he did indeed love me. Perhaps not in the way I wanted him to, but loved me in a more profound, sentimental way. If only I had displayed the proper temperament and bravado back then, perhaps all our destinies would have played themselves out with very different consequences.
Manolo was preparing to approach the bull for the first time, laying his montera down in the dirt at his feet then adjusting his sword and capote while walking to center of the ring. The band played an interlude as the picador rode into the ring where he pursued the bull thrusting his lance deep into its back drawing blood for the first time. Next, the two bandilleros entered the ring to further rile up the bull by harpooning it with their lances adorned in ribbons of colorful cloth. However, this bull needed no extra riling.
Manolo was now prepared to face his opponent. Alone. The bull made for him almost immediately in a ferocious charge that sent the spectators to their feet. Manolo executed an elegant open pass to his left side as the bull rushed past. For the next ten minutes—a fairly long period of time by bullfighting standards—Manolo mesmerized the crowd with a display at a level that neither I nor most people present that day had ever witnessed. His performance was as brilliant as was the bull relentless, charging time and time again.
Finally, as the warm afternoon breeze wafted through the bullring, the band began playing a titillating interlude as Manolo prepared to make his last approach. As he was adjusting his capote and sword, the bull suddenly charged. Manolo, still perfecting his new maneuver (born from my suggestion that evening in my studio in Valencia), moved quickly and with a broad thrust executed his pase de la firma, a simple and elegantly dramatic right-hand pass to the inside where the bull rushes just to the inner flank of the bullfighter, close enough to make contact and, in Manolo’s case on this day, allowing him to brazenly swat the massive animal on its hindquarters with the flat side of his saber.
The spectators again rose to their feet cheering. Manolo was now prepared to finish his performance and took a firm, grounded stance just a few paces from the where the bull stood panting, blood streaming from the wounds made earlier on the ridges of his massive back and shoulders. Once again Manolo adjusted his capote, lifted his sword and shouted something at the bull, which was inaudible from where I was sitting in the grandstands. Manolo charged the bull with lightning speed and when he attempted to insert his sword smoothly between the bull’s shoulder blades. The sword struck bone and went flying from his hand. The bull, enraged more than ever, charged. Manolo lifted his capote up to ward off the bull. The animal had lowered its head and while lifting it again to look up, caught the back of Manolo’s jacket, lifting him slightly off the ground and forcing him to stumble backwards. Before he could regain his balance, the bull lunged, goring him in his right thigh, throwing him clear to the boards where he struck his head on the wooden planks leaving him disoriented and barely conscious. Before his entourage was able to run out into the ring and distract the bull, it charged the helpless matador mortally goring him through his right eye.
The bull was eventually distracted and ushered away, Manolo rushed to the infirmary, but it was too late. The horn had penetrated the eye directly and reached the brain; and the young man, a boy of twenty-two, a bullfighter and violinist, was dead.
I cannot recount the events that occurred after that moment, as they are as much of a blur now as they were more than thirty years ago. What isn’t a blur is the guilt and remorse that I have carried inside me all these years, for I have felt in many ways responsible for Manolo’s death. This account of the events, as best as I could remember them, is a testament to the reality of the evils men are capable of perpetuating upon each other.
As for me, these past three decades have been filled with calamity and despair and I shall be glad to welcome their passing, and mine. Juan and Amparo married and Juan became somewhat of a pioneer in the Spanish film industry. Surprisingly, his fame came not with the film he made that godforsaken day in the bullring in Madrid—which was far too graphic for most people to bear and has since been lost—but with a solemn documentary filmed days later of Manolo’s funeral at Valencia’s municipal cemetery. He went on to make a series of successful documentaries and theatrical films and secured a place for himself in the annals of cinematographic history when he directed the first sound film to be released in the Valencian language, El Faba de Ramonet, in 1933.
Manolo’s legacy was carried on by other young bullfighters of his day, and his graceful pase de la firma continues to be used by nearly every bullfighter in Spain, a constant reminder of his contribution to bullfighting and one that has left me with profound sorrow, disgrace and self-loathing that I shall never in this lifetime overcome.
R.V.R. Valencia, January 1954