I knew a bar called Las Panderetas where bullfighters went and I had seen Nicanor Villalta sitting at a table in the corner one afternoon. I could have approached him right then but I wasn´t ready, and by the time I had figured out what I could say to him he had gone to speak to somebody and the occasion was lost.
Bar “La Taurina” in old Madrid
Bar “La Taurina” in old Madrid (photo from file)
That night and a few other times I rehearsed the conversation I planned to have if I ran into him again. And about a week later I went back to Las Panderetas and there he was again, sitting at the same table. I sipped a glass of white wine (chato de vino blanco) at the bar while I went over my questions one more time and built up courage. You´d have thought I meant to assassinate the guy.
OK. One last look. There he is now and looking in my direction. Here goes.
I walked over to him and spoke just a little too soon, before I had reached him. “¿Señor Villalta?”
His table was on a kind of podium and he bent way down to try to hear me. “¿Perdón?”
“Are you Señor Villalta the bullfighter?”
“Sí,” he said dryly and sort of defensively. Maybe he thought I wanted to sell him something or ask him for a dime.
Opposite him at the table was an old guy who took a deep interest in this interview and made me nervous with his watching.
“I´m American,” I began.
“Sí,” said Villalta again. He was hard of hearing and listened with a grimace and a squint and one ear towards you.
“Last week the American bullfighter Sidney Franklin died. Do you remember him?”
He didn´t hear me or understand me but fortunately the old guy with him at the table told him what I had said.
“Yes,” said Villalta, starting to look inside himself while he remembered. “He was very brave. Muy valiente.” I wondered if he meant this as a false compliment. Bravery was a lot more common than quality fighting. Maybe he was saying that Franklin was brave but no good.
“He was left-handed,” he went on. His statements came out one by one, decisively, the way old people often make them. “He did all the pases the other way around. It was very curious. But it worked. He was all right. Yes, I remember him.”
I could see that that was about all I was going to get out of him on the subject of Franklin. He hadn’t asked me to sit down: I was still standing at the foot of his table/podium and sweating heavily. Always so nervous. But I tried to relax and make this conversation look casual. “Would you let me buy you a drink?” I asked.
“No.” Bad luck. He wasn´t enjoying this conversation much.
“And Hemingway, do you remember him?” The other guy at the table explained that I wanted to know about Ernest Hemingway, the writer.
Ernest Hemingway’s 1923 passport photo (public domain)
“I think they introduced me to him once,” said Villalta. You could see he had something against old Hem.
“You are in his book on bullfighting,” I said.
“Yeah, he called me I don´t know what kind of insect.” I saw the misunderstanding right off. Villalta cut a strange figure in the ring (and outside of it). He was disproportioned: tall as a basketball player, with a wee little head on a long neck. There was something stilt-like about his legs, something stiff about his way of walking. Though he performed all the pases competently, he wasn´t pretty to see. “He has a kind of praying mantis style,” wrote Hemingway.
“But Hemingway admired you, ” I said.
“Do you know he named his son after you?” This last wasn´t rehearsed. It may not even be true. I knew one of Hem´s sons was called Nicanor and deduced.
But Villalta wasn´t appeased. He had made a judgment on Hemingway years before and that was that. He went back to Franklin. “Your Franklin wasn´t around very long,” he said. “I remember an awfully big cornada (horn wound).”
“Did you get many?”
“No!” He almost shouted it. He looked exasperated, as though for years he had been fighting a recurrent lie. “Very few. None.”
Not every bullfighter sees gorings in the same way. Some brag about them. Villalta seemed to think that you got gored out of incompetence, mostly, and poor judgment. That if you understood bulls you didn´t get gored except now and then from bad luck–the wind, the bull´s distraction.
He was one of the very greatest of bullfighters. He still has the record for ears in the Madrid ring. He must have made big money in the early ’30s but by the time I knew him he was so poor he had to ask for help. I went to a benefit fight for him. He came down into the ring to take the applause of the crowd and one last time made a trip around the ring and even tried to run a little–sideways like they do, with his arms outstetched. But his old legs were too stiff and he had to give it up and just bow. In his old suit which was too big for him he looked like a tall scarecrow, or with his little head, like a …praying mantis.
So that’s how I begged an old guy for change. What he had he gave in the ring to the people who paid for it then. I won´t be such an ass as to complain that what I made him give me out of his old pocket wasn´t worth much.
Here is some of what Hemingway says about him in Death in the Afternoon:
“…When he does a great faena [performance, the torero’s work] it is all valour; valour and that magic wrist, and it makes you put up with the greatest awkwardness…You are certain to see him looking as awkward as a praying-mantis any time he draws a difficult bull, but remember that his awkwardness is caused by his physical structure, not cowardliness.
photo of Nicanor Villalta y Serrés (1897-1980) from Death in the Afternoon
Because of the way he is built he can only be graceful if he can put his feet together, and where awkwardness on the part of a naturally graceful bullfighter is a sign of panic, in Villalta it only means that he has drawn a bull which he must spread his legs apart to work with. But if you ever see him when he can put his feet together…then you will forgive him the neck God gave him, the muleta the size of a bed-sheet that he uses, and his telephone-pole legs, because his strange mixture of a body contains enough valour and pundonor [moral imperative, sense of honor and responsibility] to make a dozen bullfighters.”
Though I only guessed about it at the time, it is a fact that Hemingway named his first son after Villalta. (“If the baby had been a girl we would have named her Sylvia. Being a boy we could not call him Shakespeare. John Hadley Nicanor is the name. Nicanor Villalta the bullfighter.” Letter to Syvia Beach, Nov. 6, 1923)
Hemingway put in a long afterward about Sidney Franklin in Death in the Afternoon. He says things like this:
“Franklin is one of the most skilful, graceful, and slow manipulators of a cape fighting today…He is a better, more scientific, more intelligent, and more finished matador than all but about six of the full matadors in Spain today, and the bullfighters know it and have the utmost respect for him.”
Sidney Franklin (1903-1976) public domain photo by Carl Van Vechten
Hemingway was proud of his friendship with Franklin, who taught him much about bullfighting. Franklin died in a New York nursing home in 1976.