The Day I Tried Bullfighting With My Friend Ernest Hemingway

For a collaboration between HuffPost UK and The Moth, novelist A.E. Hotchner recalls standing in as a matador in 1950s Spain, at the request of the famous author
A.E. Hotchner
Courtesy of The Moth
A.E. Hotchner

I’m going to take you back to Spain in the summer of 1959, when the big event was a mano a mano bullfight between the two great matadors of that era – Luis Miguel Dominguín and Antonio Ordóñez. There hadn’t been such a bullfight, a mano a mano, in thirty years, and there hasn’t been one since then. So it was a great event.

And my longtime friend, Ernest Hemingway, called me and said, “I’m going to go there and cover it for LIFE magazine. Why don’t you come on over, and we’ll have another adventure?”

I had met Ernest when I edited his novel Across The River And Into The Trees, and afterwards I had adapted many of his short stories and novels for television and for the movies.

So I went to Valencia where the first mano a mano was held, and both bullfighters were marvellous. The second mano a mano was in Malaga, where they were even better. And afterwards, we all adjourned to the Miramar terrace, where we had a great deal of red wine and tapas and had a good time.

“I had met Ernest when I edited his novel Across The River And Into The Trees... We’d had some great adventures together.”

And during the course of it, Antonio, who was Ernest’s favourite bullfighter of all time, said, “You know something, Pecas, I think you should be in the ring. What do you think, Ernest?”

He called me Pecas, that was his nickname for me. Pecas means “the freckled one,” which I was at that time.

Ernest said, “That’s fine. Hotch, you should be a matador, and I’ll be your manager!”

And we drank a lot of red wine, and we’re having a great time. I’m extrapolating over where I’ll fight, and I know that’s just red wine talking and nothing is going to happen. And before we leave, Antonio says, “Tell you what, the next mano a mano is in Ciudad Real. You can be the sobresaliente, and I’ll put you in one of my suits.”

I didn’t think anything more of this.

When we got to Ciudad Real to see the mano a mano, we went up to the hotel room where Antonio was, to wish him suerte (“good luck”), and on the bed there was a bullfight suit, and it was Antonio’s.

He came over and said, “I thought you’d like the colours. They’re ivory and black with a touch of red. I think it goes with your complexion.”

I said, “My complexion right now is white and getting whiter.”

So they proceeded to dress me.

Spanish matador Antonio Ordonez (R) chatting w. his friend, author Ernest Hemingway, in arena before bullfight. (Photo by Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Loomis Dean via Getty Images
Spanish matador Antonio Ordonez (R) chatting w. his friend, author Ernest Hemingway, in arena before bullfight. (Photo by Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Now, I want to tell you, a bullfighter’s costume is no laughing matter. The undergarment is pulled on you, and it’s like new skin. Then they give you your traje de luces, which is your outer garment. It’s like an anvil being put on your back. So I was dressed up in my suit. There was no way really to move in any direction—I was mummified! You have to be suited like this because if you go in a ring and there’s a breeze, a little wind, and you’re wearing anything that moves, the bull is going to go for you instead of the cloth that you’re waving at him. So I am now put together, and I thought: Well, you know, this is one of those bibulous jokes. They’ve got me dressed up and then ‘ha ha’ they go to the ring. And they leave me here in the room in this ridiculous costume. I’m not going to be in a bullring.

As the hour approaches for the fight, everybody leaves except Antonio and me. We’re alone in the room. Antonio goes over to a table where he has some religious objects, and he starts to pray over them. I’m in my corner wishing to hell I had something to pray over.

I am now in the van, we’re on our way to the bullfight, and I’m sitting next to my manager, Mr. Señor Ernest Hemingway.

And he says to me, “You know, this is my first time as a matador manager, and I’m rather nervous. How about you?” At that moment the van is going by the bullring, and outside the edges of the bullring is a poster bigger than this room. At the top it says “Mano a mano Dominguín versus Ordóñez” and underneath, “Sobresaliente, El Pecas.”

“Antonio goes over to a table where he has some religious objects, and he starts to pray over them. I’m in my corner wishing to hell I had something to pray over.”

Now, I want to tell you what a sobresaliente is. It’s a substitute sword, and this matador, who’s the third matador, only goes in the ring if the other two have been blasted off the face of the sand, either by a goring or some other calamity.

We go under the stands now. We’re prepared for the pasello. You’ve all seen in the movies the pasello, where everybody goes across the sand—the horses and the matadors and everybody else. I’m standing there with these two great matadors. They have fixed my ceremonial cape so it’s exactly right.

And Antonio says to me, “Listen, be careful when we walk the pasello over to the judges’ stand where the presidente is, follow me exactly because of what happened when the matador, Letri, took young Count Teba in as his sobresaliente as a joke.

But Count Teba was a little bit wobbly, and the warden spotted him. They arrested him, and he spent a week in jail.”

And I thought, Now’s the time to run.

But off we went. The horses first, then the two matadors, then El Pecas, and then the rest of them. Walking from there over to the president’s box felt like four miles. I did everything I could to be just like Antonio, and I guess I pulled it off. I didn’t wind up in jail. We doffed our hats to the president. I went into the callejon, which is the little alley between the wooden barrera and the first row of seats.

Hemingway's close friend and biographer A.E. Hotchner recounts the story of how he came to perform as a matador in a bullfight at the urging of Hemingway as he looks at a 1959 photograph taken at the event, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Westport, Conn. In the photo, Ernest Hemingway is at far left, and Hotchner is second from right. The real matadors are Luis Miguel Dominguin, second from left, and Antonio Ordonez, far right. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Associated Press
Hemingway's close friend and biographer A.E. Hotchner recounts the story of how he came to perform as a matador in a bullfight at the urging of Hemingway as he looks at a 1959 photograph taken at the event, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Westport, Conn. In the photo, Ernest Hemingway is at far left, and Hotchner is second from right. The real matadors are Luis Miguel Dominguin, second from left, and Antonio Ordonez, far right. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

My manager is standing there. He says, “You know, there’s something I forgot to tell you.”

By the way, I’ll tell you one thing he told me in that wagon, that I glossed over, but you should know.

I said to him, “When I get to the ring, I’m not conversant with what a matador does. Give me some advice, you’re my manager!”

He says, “You only have to do three things. Number one: look tragic. The bullfighters are very serious, so you should look like you’re serious.”

I said, “Have you looked at me?”

He says, “Number two: when you get to the ring, people are watching you. Don’t lean on anything; it’s ugly for the suit. And number three: if the photographers come towards you, put your right foot forward—it’s sexier.”

So there’s my manager, who now says to me, “There’s something I forgot to tell you. There’s a fourth thing, and that is that you have to show yourself to this crowd. The sobresaliente always must make his presence known.”

Whatever blood was left unfrozen, froze. At this point Dominguín had already fought the first bull.

Ordóñez got the second bull. He did a couple of cape works with him, and then he fixed him, so the bull was motionless. Then Antonio walked over to the barrera and motioned to me.

“If you can imagine yourself on a railroad track, and there’s a locomotive coming right at you, that was that bull.”

I came out. I doffed my hat to the crowd, and I was ready to leave, my cape was over my arm.

The fixed bull decided not to be fixed. If you can imagine yourself on a railroad track, and there’s a locomotive coming right at you, that was that bull.

Ordóñez said to me, “Pecas, don’t move!”

Don’t move? I was frozen stiff.

As the bull approached us and got within striking distance, Ordóñez, who was to my right, swiped his cape, pulled him away, and did a faena. And the sobresaliente, whose cape had slipped down, pulled it up. I guess the crowd thought I was making a pass. At any rate, I stiff-legged out of there, and that was my only experience in the ring.

Antonio was terrific with the last bull, his third bull. It was a faena like nobody had ever seen. The crowd went crazy. They waved their white handkerchiefs to influence the judges. And the judges gave him the ultimate award—both ears of the bull, the tail, and a hoof. And they also demanded a tour.

So now we do a tour of the ring, and Antonio comes out and brings me with him. So El Pecas, the sobresaliente, is now going to make a triumphal tour of the ring with this great matador. The aficionados in Spain are very appreciative of a great performance, and they throw all manner of things to the matador— cigars, bottles full of wine, tiaras, shoes, hats, money, shawls, decorated fans, and so forth.

So this cornucopia is falling down on us, and Antonio says, “Pecas, pick up the ladies’ shoes, nothing else. My men will get the rest.”

So I’m following him, and I’m picking up ladies’ shoes. Now, if you’ve got a tight jacket on, and you can’t really get your arms around, and your pants are so tight they feel like you’re going to fall over every time you bend down, picking up ladies’ shoes is not easy. And also, it’s not very fulfilling. Not for a matador. So we circle the ring, and my arms are full of ladies’ shoes.

(AP Foto/Kathy Willens)
Associated Press
(AP Foto/Kathy Willens)

We finish, and as is often customary, a group of men came out and they lifted Antonio up onto their shoulders, and they paraded him out to the streets to the hotel, and the band followed them. And left alone, in the centre of the ring, was the sobresaliente with his arms full of shoes. I didn’t know I could move as fast as I did to get back to that van as it was pulling out.

I got back to the hotel, and I went to Antonio’s suite, and Antonio said, “Hey, Pecas! You were wonderful. Just throw them on the bed.” So I dump the shoes on the bed.

He said, “Come on, the wine is flowing, and we’ve got tapas!”

I went over. I had a glass of wine. Ernest was enjoying himself.

There was a knock on the door, and Antonio said, “Pecas, you get that.”

I open it up and there is the most gorgeous señorita you’ve ever seen. She’s in stocking feet; she’s holding one shoe.

She says, “I come for my other shoe.” She selects her shoe, and I put it on her dainty foot. And Antonio and Ernest come over and invite her for wine.

So we were all having wine and tapas, when there’s another knock on the door, and another knock on the door, and another knock on the door. And in they came. They reclaimed their shoes; they joined the party. It was wonderful. It was a marvellous party. They stayed until the wee hours.

And the next day, the photographer for LIFE magazine who had been with us and taken pictures of the day before, he came with his prints. And there was a big eight-by-ten of a beaming El Pecas with the two great matadors of the world on his right and left.

“Ernest came over and said, 'Ah, that’s wonderful, Hotch, you found your true profession.'”

And Ernest came over and said, “Ah, that’s wonderful, Hotch, you found your true profession.”

I said, “Just a minute, it may be wonderful to you, but look at the front of their pants, those significant humps, and then look at the insignificant thing that I have!”

He said, “How many handkerchiefs did you use?”

I said, “Handkerchiefs! You’re my manager, you didn’t tell me to use handkerchiefs.”

He said, “Well you’ve been to a lot of bullfights with me, didn’t you see that all these matadors have nice humps in the front of their pants?”

And I said, “The subject never interested me until now!”

He said, “All right, look, I can make it up. Antonio has his next fight in Ronda. He wants you to be there as his sobresaliente again. And this time, we’ll make a level playing field out of it.”

I said, “How?”

He said, “I’ll tell you what we’re going to do.”

And then he paid me one of the greatest compliments I ever got, he said, “While they’re dressing, they’ll be using two handkerchiefs, but Pecas, you only need one.”

¡Olé!

A. E. Hotchner is the author of nineteen books and numerous plays for Broadway and television. The Moth’s latest book, Occasional Magic, is available here.

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