May 20, 1964 what it was like to face death?

C. Michael Bennis – Author and Speaker   http://www.cmichaelbennis.com

The festival of San Isidro, Madrid’s patron saint, begins the Friday before May 15.  It lasts for 9 days of continuous partying with music, dancing, and sensational bullfights.  The Capitol is spotless, flowers boldly accentuate the beautiful avenidas and glorietas, and the warm weather is delightful.  This is a time for fun, for romance and for death in the afternoon bullfights.

In 1964, El Cordobéz was scheduled to enter Madrid’s Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas at 5:00 p.m. This is the most beautiful bullring in Spain, built in 1929 in the Neo-Mudéjar style.  Manuel Benitez Perez, a.k.a. El Cordobéz had fought in over 400 corridas to sold out crowds but he had purposely shunned Madrid, where the critics continually insulted him.  He was illiterate, he had no apparent saving grace.  Worse, he was an insult to the legend of Manolete.

Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez, a.k.a. Manolete, the most famous of all bullfighters, was killed in the bullring of Linares, Spain on August 28th 1947.  He was the darling of the centuries-old ballet of death, with his stoic, classic style where he stood unmoving, with his feet firmly anchored, as he led the bull through consecutive passes next to and almost touching his body.  Spain’s sorrow over Manolete’s death extended to General Francisco Franco, who ordered three days of “national mourning”, during which only funeral dirges were heard on the radio.

Seventeen years later, El Cordobéz, an illiterate petty criminal would enter the world’s most influential arena to challenge the venerable memory of Manolete. Half of Madrid expected El Cordobéz to fall on his ass, while the other half could already see a hero emerging.

I was studying in Complutense University during 1963–1964, when the Capitol’s conservative media penned venom with their coverage of El Cordobéz.  The bullfight critics were stunned by his disrespectful behavior. He blatantly disregarded the classic legacy from centuries of bullfighting.

The brunt of ethnic jokes, during this time in Madrid, was always a hapless Andaluz.  Madrileños perceived Andalucía as a feudal region populated by itinerant gypsies, dirt-poor unemployed and basically a no count place with the exception of their spectacular horses, the finest fighting bulls and the world’s best Sherry. Purposely overlooked was 10th century Córdoba, the most populous city in the world, and the intellectual center of Europe.  How ironic that the illiterate El Cordobéz took this as his professional nom.

The most complimentary observation:  El Cordobéz brought an unorthodox acrobatic and theatrical style to the bullring.  The worst: they called him a coward, and this accusation might have explained his outrageous actions in Madrid’s corrida.  Coward had to be the most painful slander for a young boy who learned bullfighting with a stick and a red blanket in the moonlight against huge fighting bulls that were bred for centuries to kill.

Not too long ago, Spain was Europe’s pariah.  The Spanish civil war (1936 to 1939) replaced a progressive, liberal government with totalitarianism.  Although Spain remained neutral during World War II (1939–1945), it was the last vestige of undefeated Fascism, a place where blue shirted, goose-stepping men marched down the Gran Via, renamed Jose Antonio after the founder of the Falange.  Promptly, the United Nations punished Spain’s undefeated fascism by isolating the country with a trade embargo in 1946.

Always Spain’s poorest region, Andalucía became a veritable disaster with the trade embargo.  The scornful bullfight critics said El Cordobéz was without value, which was perhaps their deepest insult.  They neglected to write how the oldest sister, Anita, raised him and four other children in a hovel with a blanket covering the front door.  Their mother had died of starvation by giving her food to her children, and the father died in Spain’s Civil War.

Certain details were purposely sponged from history.  Enter Eva Perón who was touched by the report of Spanish children living in poverty.  Her husband, Juan Domingo Perón, President of Argentina could not accept Franco’s invitation to visit Spain, however his wife masqueraded a trip to the Vatican and then flew directly to Spain.  On her arrival in Spain, Eva found a shocking discovery: the country could not feed its people.

There is a spectacular monument to Eva Perón in Madrid.  During her visit she received the Order of Isabel the Catholic, the highest award given by the Spanish government.  What did Eva Perón do?  She sold Argentine beef to Spain.  She could have given the beef, but by selling it she broke the UN blockade.  This freed the barrier to trade, investment, European tourism, and US Military bases.

El Cordobéz’s  appearance in Madrid’s Plaza de Toros was more than a fascinating bullfight.  This would be a National spectacle with television coverage and two-thirds of the population would exit work and school early to witness the corrida.

It was pouring rain, on Wednesday, May 20,1964.  Normally, under similar conditions, the bullfight might have been postponed however the hype and the excitement would not carry over to another day.  True, the arena’s sand was soaked although various attempts had some success.  They delayed the corrida over an hour.  All Spain came to a standstill.  His fans, including General Franco and most of Andalucía were silent.

I arrived early and headed through the capacity crowd of 22,5000, when I was trapped face to face in front of Audrey Hepburn, who stood beside here husband, Mel Ferrer.  I smiled and she smiled back, while her husband totally missed our exchange. Later, once I found my contrabarrera seat, I saw Orson Wells, standing twelve feet away.  The same distance away, on the other side was a tapestry draped over the barrera where Prince Rainier of Monaco and Princess Grace were seated.

El Cordobéz and his troupe entered the arena where he would alternate with the corridas ranking matador.  He would fight the first bull of the afternoon.  El Cordobéz appeared focused and serious as he studied his lethal adversary, a bull named Impulsivo. The man next to me shook his head and said, “Very bad.  This is a dangerous bull and the wet sand is treacherous.”

I will avoid describing the beginning faena, and la suerte de varas, which involves picadores and banderilleros.  Everything proceeded as planned yet there was an undercurrent of extreme suspense.

The time arrived for the matador’s dedication.  This is a solemn act, with an awkward position for the person receiving the dedication.  Epithets, cushions and even bottles could rain down upon this hapless individual if the matador disappoints the crowd.  I could hear a very audible gasp from the crowd when El Cordobéz dedicated his performance to Princess Grace of Monaco, and extended his matador’s hat to her, which she accepted.  The gesture was arrogant, conceited and socially incorrect.  It was also proof that this torero would lie dead in the sand before embarrassing the princess.

It was time for the action to start.  The bull was alone on the far side of the bullring and the massive black animal turned slowly to face El Cordobéz, who stood still on the other side of the arena in his brown suit of lights braided in gold.  They faced each other: the bull had been bred for centuries to kill, and the matador had lived twenty-eight years for this moment — the final stage in the tercio de muerte

What happened next mesmerized 22,500 now standing to watch as the bull locked onto the man as El Cordobéz stood casually with his hands on his hips, the cape and the sword at his side.  Time stopped.  People waited.

El Cordobéz was standing in front of me when he gestured dramatically with his hands in the air, holding the red cape and sword.  In the next instant, the bull charged and El Cordobéz sprinted toward the approaching bull — two adversaries on a collision course in the center of the bullring.  Seconds before contact, El Cordobéz dropped to his knees and raised the cape overhead, and the massive 1,900-pound bull leaped easily over the torero.

Afterward, El Cordobéz began a series of natural left-handed passes with the cape but without the aid of the sword to prop it up.  His feet were mostly unmoving, he had style and presence and he worked the bull closer and closer to his body.  The front of his suit-of-lights was soon covered in blood. Cries of Olé popped up here and there until it soon thundered from the crowd after each pass.  El Cordobéz had impressed 22,500 spectators, and he had to be as giddy as they were.

Perhaps in the incredible moment of glory he forgot the treacherous quirks of this bull that was learning after each pass.  Little by little the bull was able and to differentiate between man and cape.  The crowd sensed the danger and Olé was replaced by massive shouts in unison: “NO!”

El Cordobéz ignored the shouts of “No!”  Yet he had to know sense the bull had separated the man from the cape.

The bull uses his horns as a boxer uses his fists.  On the next pass the bull exploded a fuerte embestia, using his horn in a right hook into the man’s groin.  Soundlessly El Cordobéz was thrust helplessly upward, and then pummeled into the sand.  His mouth twisted into a grimace as the bull’s horn impaled through the femoral and entered deeply into his abdomen.  He held desperately for moments onto the bull’s horn and tried to pull himself upward by grasping the bull’s other horn.  He was loosing strength and his attempts to free himself diminished as help arrived.

The other bullfighters came to rescue with capes flapping crazily before the bull’s eyes, but the animal refused to let go of his prize.  One thought had to run through everyone’s mind:  Manolete’s death.  In that moment, El Cordobéz — lying helplessly and bleeding in the sand — stole everyone’s hearts.  After indeterminable moments, the other bullfighters carried El Cordobéz with somber tension into the infirmary.  Afterward, the seasoned matador had a difficult time putting the dangerous bull down for this animal could now separate the cape and the man.

That evening all of Spain, in homes and bars, could not separate from the television.  They were in mourning.  Truly, medicine had advanced since Manolete’s death, and El Cordobéz was in the Capitol, not in some remote province, yet a matador’s death in the corrida was always a possibility

Thankfully, the man lived and he was back inside a bullring in twenty-two days.  No one would ever again question his courage, but the critics regularly faulted El Cordobéz’s form, style, acrobatics and sensational behavior.  Nevertheless, he would always be the highest-paid matador in the world when he retired in 1971.

Strangely, El Cordobés returned to bullfighting in 1979, after eight years of retirement.  The press went crazy.  What brought him back?  He owned an immense ranch in Andalucía, he was photographed with famous people, he owned and flew an airplane, beautiful actresses sought him out, and friends and family surrounded him, including his many illegitimate children.

The same year, the Der Spiegel magazine sent several journalists to interview El Cordobéz in order to discover why the man who had everything would risk death again in the bullring.  Their visit was friendly and their host was cordial and personable, yet he ignored their endless questions.  They persevered but got nowhere.

Later, he took the journalists in his private airplane for an areal tour of his extensive ranch. The frustrated journalists had given up ever learning the answer to why he returned to bullfighting.  Unexpectedly, while guests in his plane, one of the journalists asked, “What is it like to face death.”

El Cordobéz turned slowly, looked at the man, then returned to gaze into the control panel, where he extracted the airplane keys.  Then he threw the keys violently into the back seat.

The journalists laughed, “Of course you have another set of keys?”

He answered, “No.

“Without the keys, what will happen,” they asked.

‘The plane will crash,” he said.

The plane began loosing altitude.  The ground was coming up rapidly.  The journalists scrambled hysterically.  They pulled the seats apart.  They searched frantically for the keys.  With seconds to spare they located the keys and El Cordobéz started the engine and the plane rose upward.

The journalists were livid. “Why did you do that?”

“You asked what it was like to face death.”

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