Ernest Hemingway, 50 years on, and the family Ordóñez

Ernest Hemingway and Antonio Ordóñez in Madrid

Me and Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez in Sanlucar

On the 50th anniversary of the death of the great Ernest Hemingway – who was packing for Pamplona at the time just as I am now – it seems right to reprint an excerpt from my recent book Into The Arena, where I talk about ‘Papa’, Pamplona, his great friend, the matador Antonio Ordóñez, my great friend, the matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez (Antonio’s grandson), and John Hemingway (Ernest’s grandson) whom I am meeting in Pamplona later this week…

Ernest Hemingway is without doubt the greatest writer in English on bullfighting as it was in the early twentieth century. Hemingway was also a man whose life and literature resemble his subject matter in their odd combination of courage and deceit, of truth and its avoidance. The heart of bullfighting is tricking the bull into charging the cloth rather than the man, the lure rather than the predator. Even beyond that, though, it is born of the sort of pride that encourages lies. Bullfighters are among the bravest men I know, and yet sometimes even they exaggerate the dangers, poeticise the blood. Like the matador who claimed to me that a bull he killed was 1,550lb, when I know it was only 1,400. All I could think as we spoke was why he needed to add that extra ten per cent or so, when it was already one third larger than those killed by other toreros.

Hemingway was a man of astonishing literary skill, with an impressive war record and physical prowess, and yet he was riddled with insecurities – social, sexual, intellectual and artistic – which no number of wives, Nobel prizes or lion hunts in Africa could hope to quiet. So it should be no surprise that he wrote his first detailed account of a bullfight in April 1923, without ever having seen one.

Europe at the time had reopened its doors after the Great War, and cash-rich Americans flocked over to see what had survived the conflict and to admire what was left of the history. The twenty-two-year-old Hemingway, newly wed and with an infant son, had arrived in Paris as a foreign correspondent in 1921 for the Toronto Star, although he had already made up his mind to become a ‘writer’ rather than a journalist. It was there that he met his artistic mentors, like the poet Ezra Pound, who would help him refine an already economical use of words learnt in journalism, resulting in a style he used so well at the beginning, and unwittingly parodied so terribly later on.

The other defining feature of Hemingway’s writing, which also betrayed him – or was betrayed by him – in later life, was an aesthetic notion he learnt as an ambulanceman on the Western front, a notion he described as ‘grace under pressure’. This is the ability of certain unusual people to act with almost inhuman integrity and courage in the face of the sort of danger that makes other men break, and the tragic heroic beauty that is associated with witnessing such events.

This can have a simplistic, Hollywood leading man connotation, but anyone who has read Hemingway at his best, and understands what he witnessed in the Great War, realises that this idea goes much deeper. For example, on the day of his arrival in the theatre of operations, aged eighteen, a dynamite factory staffed entirely by women had exploded and Hemingway was part of the team assigned the task of picking up the bodies, or rather their constituent parts. The images with which he was left he described with a touching and horrifying exactitude in the story ‘A Natural History of the Dead’. He found it ‘amazing that the human body should be blown into pieces which exploded along no anatomical lines, but rather divided as capriciously as the fragmentation in the burst of a high explosive shell’.

His greatest mentor during his time in Paris was the modernist writer Gertrude Stein. It was she who steered him on to the great French and Russian novelists, which made up for his lack of university education. She also saw the potential in Hemingway’s concept of ‘grace under pressure’ and told him he should go to Pamplona, where the locals run with the bulls through the streets in the morning, then watch their favourite matadors dance with them and dispatch them in the evening.
So Hemingway drove down from Paris in June 1923 and entered the anarchic celebrations of the Feria de San Fermín, where wine, urine and blood flowed freely in the streets, and you started drinking the moment you woke in the morning, sitting in bars watching those who would brave the streets to run in among the half-dozen bulls and their accompanying halfdozen steers, as they stampeded the half-mile from the old train station to the bullring.

Hemingway was entranced by what he saw – booze and unsophisticated excess combined with rural masculinity and courage. Then he saw the corridas and it was then that he finally saw the matadors fight, standing their ground and making the classical manoeuvres in carefully structured series with the intention of moving the emotions of an audience, all this despite the half-ton animal trying to kill them as they did it.

It was two years later in Pamplona that one bullfighter in particular struck him as exceptional. Niño de la Palma had become a full matador – taken his alternativa as they say – only a few weeks before in Seville. Hemingway befriended him and followed him to Madrid, where he was to have his status as a matador confirmed in Spain’s capital city, fighting on the same cartel, ‘billing’, as the then thirty-three-year-old Juan Belmonte. He described the fight in a letter to Stein in Paris:

He did everything Belmonte did and did it better – kidding him – all the adornos and desplantes and all. Then he stepped out all by himself without any tricks, suave, templando with the cape and smooth and slow – splendid banderilleros and started with 5 Naturales with the muleta – beautiful, complete faena all linked up and then killed perfectly.

Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises (published under the draft title Fiesta in the UK), was originally written as a short story about that feria in Pamplona under the real name of Niño de la Palma, Cayetano Ordóñez, and concerned that ‘lost weekend’ in which Hemingway facilitated the young matador’s love affair with Lady Duff Twysden, to the fury of one of his enamoured friends. In the finished, fictionalised version she became Lady Brett Ashley, and Cayetano, who was from Ronda, was renamed after that city’s most famous matador, Pedro Romero.

Cayetano didn’t go on to flourish in the way so many expected after that first year, because, as Hemingway put it in Death in the Afternoon:

He was gored severely and painfully in the thigh, very near the femoral artery. That was the end of him … The next year … his actions in the ring were a series of disasters. He could hardly look at a bull. His fright as he had to go in to kill was painful to see and he spent the whole season assassinating bulls in the way that offered him least danger … It was the most shameful season any matador had ever had up until that year in bullfighting.

What is easy to forget is that recuperation from even a near fatal wound nowadays is expedited by drugs countering infection, pain, consciousness and memory itself in such a way that the psychological damage is minimised, and even then many are cursed with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

To lie sweating in a 1920s Spanish hospital for weeks with only morphine, ether and cheap brandy to addle your brain, while gangrene-causing bacilli and white blood cells war across your body, generating febrile nightmares of being swept into the air by a malicious boulder of darkness intent on your destruction: that is the true testing of the mettle of a matador.

Despite his fall from grace, Cayetano remained a wellknown matador and breeder of bulls. And, as is the way of such things, his sons followed him into bullfighting, and one son, Antonio Ordóñez, not only displayed the promise of the father, but realised it in its fullness. Antonio was also married to the younger sister of the matador Luis Miguel Dominguín.

Luis Miguel González Lucas, ‘Dominguín’, was a matador who had divided the afición where Antonio would unify it. His father was a famous matador of the era of Belmonte and Joselito, Domingo González Mateos, who fought under the name Domingo Dominguín. All three of his matador sons took their father’s name in the ring but it was Luis Miguel Dominguín who became the star, through naked ambition and an undeniable talent which some say pressured Manolete into the reckless fighting that led to his death in 1947 (at which Dominguín was present). Two years later, in a gesture shocking in its arrogance, he crowned himself ‘number one’ with a raised finger in Las Ventas in Madrid. There was no one who denied his talent, but his showy style and use of various impressive tricks in the ring lost him many fans, Hemingway included.

His life outside the ring was no less vibrant, maintaining close friendships with notables of the time, including both Franco and Picasso, despite the fact that the former had declared the latter an enemy of the state. However, the only thing that ever eclipsed his bullfighting fame was his romantic life, in which he was linked to actresses from Lauren Bacall to Brigitte Bardot, Zsa Zsa Gabor to Ava Gardner. It was Hemingway who introduced him to Gardner in 1953, while she was filming The Barefoot Contessa. Gardner was at the height of her powers at the time, had just been nominated for an Oscar, and was two years into an over-publicised firefight of a marriage to Frank Sinatra.

According to famous anecdote, having lured Gardner into bed, Dominguín got up, dressed and moved towards the door. Gardner asked him where he thought he was going, to which he answered,

‘Where am I going? To tell everyone!’

There is also a story about the time Sinatra came to Spain to get Gardner back, accompanied by a pair of his ‘Italian-American friends’. Even then there were rumours that Sinatra used his Mafia connections to get his own way, with Hearst newspapers running the story that the Chicago boss ‘Sam the Cigar’ got Sinatra out of his binding contract with the Dorsey Band by putting a revolver to band-leader Tommy Dorsey’s head and offering him a choice between giving up Sinatra or his brains. The incident even came up in the film The Godfather, with Sinatra thinly disguised under the name Johnny Fontane.

Sinatra found out where Dominguín would be fighting one day, and followed him to a taurine bar after a successful corrida. Flanked by his soldatos, Sinatra approached the Maestro, who was sitting, elegantly dressed, with a glass of sherry. Sinatra said, ‘Do you know who I am?’
Dominguín looked at Sinatra and the two men behind him, and then stood up, the world’s tallest matador facing its shortest crooner.
‘Yes, Mr Sinatra, I know exactly who you are. In this place, you are no one.’

As he said this, half a dozen of the Maestro’s team who were sitting drinking at the bar also stood up, each with a knife on their belt as was the way with such men in those days, and each with the violent confidence of having already faced death that day, survived, and had a couple of strong drinks after. Sinatra and his men left in silence. A matador, to quote The Godfather,  ‘ain’t no bandleader’. Of course, the truth of this story is unconfirmable.

Dominguín, having killed 2,300 bulls and become a millionaire several times over, retired in 1955 aged twenty-nine and married the film actress and former Miss Italy, Lucia Bosé. However, when in 1958 people were talking of his brother-inlaw Antonio Ordóñez as perhaps the greatest matador since Belmonte, and at least since Manolete, Dominguín declared his intention to re-enter the ring the next season to teach Spain a lesson: he, Dominguín, had retired by choice rather than necessity and could still outfight any young pretender to the throne.

This incendiary combination of rivalry, family, fame and bullfighting had such potential for ‘grace under pressure’ that Life magazine commissioned Hemingway to follow the two matadors around Spain and write about their duel in the rings, sometimes with a third matador present, sometimes just the two going mano a mano with three bulls each.

The magazine had asked Hemingway for 4,000 words, but through a combination of intense inspiration and failing powers to edit his own output he wrote more than twenty-seven times that. In the end, they published 30,000 words in three instalments in 1960, and a longer version was published posthumously as the book The Dangerous Summer in 1985.

Hemingway followed the consensus in stating that Antonio Ordóñez was the better matador, both in the technicalities and in the overall style, which was deeply classical. Not that both didn’t perform brilliantly; for example, in their mano a mano in Málaga – always an important ring – they were awarded ten out of twelve possible ears, along with four tails and two hooves. Of course, both matadors were gored as a result of the contest, Dominguín almost fatally so.
Hemingway´s clear favouring of Ordóñez, however, was as much to do with his adoration of the young matador – which at times borders on the homoerotic in his writing – as it was the younger man’s superior toreo. There is also a clear masculine rivalry with the prouder and older Dominguín, a challenge to Hemingway’s ego which he couldn’t defuse by playing the patrician.

After publication, Dominguín remarked that Hemingway was ‘a commonplace bore … a crude and vulgar man’ who ‘knew nothing about fighting bulls’. One assumes that this was not a view he held when he stayed with Hemingway in Cuba in the early 1950s. Antonio Ordóñez, on the other hand, claimed his literary patron was more knowledgeable about bullfighting than any other non-Spaniard and most Spaniards too. The truth, in my opinion and those of most aficionados who have read him, lies somewhere in between. He claimed more than he knew but knew a great deal, was partial to those whom he liked, or felt he should like, and described it all with the literary voice of an angel. As another famous American aficionado, Orson Welles, remarked about Hemingway in an interview on the BBC:
He was a very close friend of mine … but we never discussed bullfighting because we – except on the subject of Ordóñez – we disagreed profoundly on too many points and he thought he invented it, you know. He really did think he invented it. Maybe he did.
And although this last was delivered tongue-in-cheek, since the man who made Citizen Kane had actually trained as a bullfighter in Seville for four months, fighting in pay-as-you-go corridas under the name El Americano (I have no idea how large the bulls would have been), I think we can take his overall statement as having some weight.
Antonio Ordóñez and Hemingway remained close friends until the writer’s suicide in 1961 (Orson Welles was also a close friend of Antonio). Antonio’s daughter Carmen, a woman of strident beauty and emotion, married the twenty-four-year-old matador Francisco Rivera, ‘Paquirri’, when she was only seventeen, only to divorce him on their fourth wedding anniversary. Paquirri’s star went on to rise and be snuffed out while still in the ascendant by the bull Avispado in 1984.
The couple had two sons who fulfil the tragic-heroic Spanish ideal of the bullfighter to the point of stereotype. Having suffered first their parents’ divorce when young, and lost their father to the bulls not long after, they were sent by their mother to be educated in North America in the hope that they would avoid a similar fate. Francisco Rivera Ordóñez returned first, training with his grandfather, who became his first manager. Fran, an impossibly good-looking young matador, soon married the daughter and heir of the largest landowner in Spain, the Duchess of Alba, a title which can descend in the female line (although I have no idea about her other seven duchies, eighteen marquessates and God knows how many others). They had a daughter, Cayetana.
In 2002 Antonio Ordóñez died, a few weeks later Fran divorced his wife, and a few weeks after that, so did his younger brother Cayetano. Carmen Ordóñez, whose life had always been both unhappy and unstable – and publicly so, not least because of her endless charitable work with the poor of Triana, where she still has a status second only to the Madonna – went into a steep decline, frequently ending up in various rehab clinics until she died of a heart attack two years later, aged fortynine. A few weeks after that, her other son, Cayetano, left his home in Los Angeles, where he had studied media and film, and came back to Spain, in order to become a matador as well.
With that background, and the modern Spanish media, it is little wonder that the spotlight shines so brightly on these matador brothers as to obscure the details. Their skill in the ring, and the horrors they have undergone within it and beyond, are either unheathily inflated, or totally ignored by those who would focus on the fact that both currently date former Miss Spains and that Cayetano – if anything better-looking than his brother – is the face of Armani in Spain. As a result, their fame has spread far beyond Spain, and before I saw either in the ring I had seen the 60 Minutes documentary about them called ‘Blood Brothers’ on CBS.
So when The Times commissioned me for a short interview with a matador – any matador – in their ‘A Life In The Day’ slot, which has covered everyone from Nelson Mandela to Muhammad Ali, I got in touch with Cayetano’s press people and lined up an interview to coincide with his fight in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. When Nicolás and I set off from the Botanical Gardens on one of his ageing BMW motorbikes (he won’t enter the ring with a bull, but he rides like a maniac), I knew more than was normal about the subject of the interview and knew exactly how I wanted the interview to go.
We arrived at a four-star concrete bunker of a hotel in the  centre of town, where Cayetano had taken a room for the day,  and were met in the lobby by his mozo de espadas, his manager  and other members of his team. I left Nicolás to explain what  I was doing in Spain as a small crowd gathered in the lobby,  expecting, like me, the arrival of the Killer.
When he arrived, with a beaming smile and vigorous handshake,  I was struck by two things. The first was that he was  shorter than I expected – average height by Spanish standards,  but still shorter than his appearance in the ring and on television  had led me to believe – and that he was very, very good at  dealing with journalists.
‘This place is crowded, my friend, shall we move out to the  swimming pool to talk?’ he suggested in English, with the accent  of California. Which we did, and I laid out my dictaphone and pad as Nicolás – playing his role with aplomb – explained in  Spanish to Cayetano and his people that I was actually in Spain  to write a book rather than ‘mere journalism’ and had faced the  fighting cattle on ranches, including Saltillo, which raised even  Cayetano’s eyebrows.
‘You have faced Saltillo?’ he asked, and when I nodded, he  continued, ‘How did you find them?’
‘Difficult.’ He laughed at this.
‘Every bullfighter must find the right bull for him. Your  friend Padilla – I admire him for what he does, but what he  does is fight Miuras, like your Saltillos. For me, it is the bulls of  Domecq, especially of Fernando Domecq.’
I explained that I had met Fernando in Jerez, and his  extremely pretty daughter María. He smiled at this.
‘Yes, she is, isn’t she? You know, you remind me of a story  my grandfather Antonio once told me. He had a friend who  was a philosopher and he wanted to get into the ring to face  the fighting cattle for the experience, like you. My grandfather  arranged it at his farm, a tentadero, and was very impressed  that the philosopher seemed so fearless as he watched the cow  he was going to face attack the padded horse, the fighters, the  walls, everything. Then it came to his turn to enter and he  turned to my grandfather and said, “So where’s the padding?”  “The what?” said my grandfather. “You know, the body armour  you wear to go in.” “Hombre, you go in as you are.” At this  the philosopher turned pale and started to sweat, then he said,  “No, that will not be possible. I wish to have the experience so  that I can write about it. I have to be alive to write!” You did  well, Alex.’
From there we segued into the interview, and I found him  helpful, intelligent, fluent and open. I explained that I felt like  a fool asking him his daily routine when what defined him was  the work in the ring – and the work his forebears had done  and suffered to be done to them in the ring – but if Mandela and Ali could handle it, I guess he could too. He took it in his  stride speaking of training the body and the mind – especially  the mind – for what to expect from a bull, and then how to  craft that expectation into a form that fits the performance  the matador might wish to give. He also dwelt at length – far  greater length than The Times required – on the sensations the  bull induced, of the warmth a great bull could inspire in him,  of his sadness at killing.
‘It is like a friend at that point. You do not want to kill it, but  you have to, and that is your tragedy, your sadness. But it is your  bull, only you can deliver death to it, for only you have risked  your life to face it. And then, that, the moment of the kill, is the  most important moment of all. For fifteen minutes the bull has  been charging you, and now you must charge it with the sword.  This is the only moment the matador himself charges the bull.’
I looked at my watch then and realised that we had been  talking for over two hours, and that he was already late to dress  for the fight. I apologised for keeping him for so long – his  manager and mozo were pacing up and down nearby, neither  following a word of our English therefore totally unable to steer  the interview as they would normally – and as we said goodbye  he turned back.
‘Thank you for the interview, it was good. Are you coming  to see the fight?’
I replied that we had tickets.
‘No, you must see it properly, you must come with me in the  callejón, then you will really feel the fight. See you at the plaza.’
So, an hour or so later, Nicolás and I went to the ring on  his motorcycle, his wife Carla and other friends of hers going  separately to enter the family box next to the president’s (her  great-grandfather had built the ring). The crowd outside the  ring was three times what I expected, one third being people  with tickets, the other two-thirds being the screaming young  female fans of Cayetano. José Tomás may draw the afición, but the women of Spain are firmly in the hands of the Rivera brothers  and, nowadays, especially the younger one.
We fought our way to the main gate and then had to stand  among the heaving mass of Andalusian femininity as they  waited for a glimpse of their hero. Despite the fame of the other  two more senior matadors working, El Fandi and Manzanares,  we knew when Cayetano had arrived by the shrieks of delight  deafening us. Luckily, while his team formed a moving circle of  arms around him as the girls literally threw themselves on him,  Cayetano spotted us in the crowd and came over to grab us and  take us through the door.
I felt  humbled by the whole thing,  which is not to say I was star-struck. The crowds and the adulation  were impressive, yes, but I could sense the incredible  concentration Cayetano was trying to achieve – maintaining  an internal equilibrium, while being gracious to an aggressively  affectionate mob, while also thinking about what he had to do.  And despite this, he was going out of his way to be generous  and make sure that the impenetrable gate that keeps performers  of his level apart was held open long enough to include  myself and Nicolás, both figuratively and literally (every security  guard along the way tried to close doors on us, and every  time Cayetano would turn back and demand it was reopened). I  could see that he was fighting against his own instinct to ignore  everything around him, and was grateful for it.
We reached the inner sanctum, the plaza de cuadrillas, where  he and the other two matadors and their teams were assembling.  Padilla walked through – he lives in Sanlúcar and no one would  close a door on Padilla – giving all present a hug for luck. Then  Cayetano walked into the small chapel all bullrings have, to  prepare himself (I watched through the window and was oddly  touched watching Fandi help Cayetano arrange his tie, a matador  of ten years’ fighting assisting one of two). Then they all came  out and lined the walls, waiting for the signal for their entrance ceremony, the paseíllo. With long experience of being backstage  in an environment where reputations but not lives were on the  line, I took my notebook, found an empty piece of wall to lean  against and tried to become as unobtrusive as possible.
However, Cayetano, either because he dislikes the loneliness  that importance always brings, or through some natural affability,  came over and began to crack a series of very funny jokes in  English, none of which, sadly, I remember. Midway through his  routine, though, he looked up into the ring with a serious face  and, fixing his gaze on some distant object, said, ‘That! That is  what I hate.’
I followed the direction of his eyes, and could see only the  flag of Spain fluttering above the ring.
‘The flag of Spain?’
‘No, the wind that makes it fly. The wind, that is what kills  you.’
And that, in a single moment, showed me the entire difference between backstage at a theatre and a bullring. Only in the latter can a man whose father died in such a place look with dismay at the possibility of his own death, admit dislike, and still walk on to that stage. Which he did…

You can read on in my book, Into The Arena, which can be found at all good book stores and online shops. Links, more details and  reviews can be found by clicking here.

About fiskeharrison

English author and journalist, broadcaster and conservationist. Author of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, shortlisted for Sports Book Of The Year 2011. Editor & Co-Author of Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona. Author of 'The Unbroken', finalist for Le Prix Hemingway 2016
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