Jeffrey Lyons is a movie and theater critic with a forty-year career in television, radio, and print. In his book Stories My Father Told Me: Notes from “The Lyons Den”, published by Abbeville Press, Lyons captivates us with the glamour of the Golden Age of New York City, and with endlessly delightful anecdotes from his father Leonard Lyons’ famous column, “The Lyons Den,” which ran in over a hundred newspapers from 1934 to 1974. Of course, our author contributes his own stories, as well, to the book and to the Lyons legacy.
In Stories My Father Told Me, Jeffrey Lyons remarks: “Of all my parents’ hundreds of friends all over the world, none influenced my life as much as Hemingway,” and he recounts the Hemingways’ introduction to him of the Spanish matador Antonio Ordoñez. This week, Lyons was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Abbeville Blog about his incredible experiences studying bullfighting in Spain.
Q. How did you get interested in bullfighting?
A. In 1956, I went to Spain for the first time with my parents and we stayed in the Castellana Hilton Hotel, which had recently opened, and next door to us was a young Italian twenty-two-year-old actress named Sophia Scicolone (who changed her name to Sophia Loren), and she took a shine to me and cooked me a spaghetti dinner, which she passed over our adjoining terraces. I don’t know how she was able to cook in her hotel room, but these things stay in your mind—Mel Brooks told me at that age he thought girls were just softer fellas. We went to the set of The Pride and the Passion and my family friend Richard Condon, later to write Prizzi’s Honor and The Manchurian Candidate (in which my father is mentioned, by the way), took me and my parents to a bullfight. I had a nightmare that night and the next day I woke up changed forever. I said, I gotta learn more about this.
We also had dinner with Orson Welles, who was a very close family friend, one of the world’s authorities on the bulls, as was Hemingway. We drove up to Pamplona, where they were shooting The Sun Also Rises, and I spent time with Darryl Zanuck, who started explaining it to me. And then I didn’t come back to Spain until 1958, determined to learn Spanish—because you cannot know about the bulls only learning in English. Then in 1959, I lived the whole summer with a Spanish family outside Madrid, and they had a boy a year older and a boy a year younger. Forever after that, I never had to open a book in Spanish class. In some cases I spoke it as well if not better than the teacher. And then in 1961, I said, “Dad, you know, I really get sick on the food”; he said, “You’re going back to Spain”; I said, “No”; he said, “Yes, you are. I’ve arranged through Ernest.” This was in May of 1961—don’t forget Hemingway died July 2nd—he arranged for me to travel with Antonio. And I showed up at Antonio’s apartment, I was fifteen, going on sixteen but not quite, and we immediately—the day I got there—we got in the car with everybody and drove down to Almeria, where he fought, and that began the first of seven summers I spent with him.
Q. What were your summers like with Antonio Ordoñez?
A. I was like a brother to him, he was like an older brother to me—and this is one of the greatest, one of the most famous people, one of the greatest matadors who ever lived. He was also the most amazing man I ever knew. Antonio knew places, knew parts of Brooklyn that I’d never heard of, and he was intellectually curious about everything American. He only spoke three words: “OK, mac” in English. It was at a time when people began to high-five, and he loved that. When I traveled with him, it was like being with the Rolling Stones or touring with the Beatles—I mean, I shared a hotel room with him. There were thousands of people in the crowds, and the girls, and the women, and the driving—we’d go two thousand miles a week by car.
Hemingway had written The Dangerous Summer for LIFE Magazine, which he later turned into a book about the rivalry between Antonio and Dominguín, his brother-in-law. And then in 1970, I was going back again to spend another summer with him, and in the airport in Madrid after we landed, there was his brother-in-law Luis Miguel Dominguín, who was Eva Gardner’s bullfighter, and he had been on the Dick Cavett show the night before. Luis Miguel spoke English perfectly, and he was ridiculously handsome. And I spotted him—he knew my dad, I had a picture of them together—and he said, come travel with me for a day. So, aside from Hemingway, I’m the only other American who’s traveled with both of them.
I mean, I’ve thrown fastballs to Antonio. He was a great natural athlete—not built like a bullfighter, built like a small halfback. On his ranch, I was in the corrals with the bulls, and all the time learning, learning, learning. And then in 1971, I started bringing my wife-to-be around, and we spent six more summers with them—spending two or three weeks at a time because I was working summers, too.
Q. Were you ever tempted to get into the ring with the bulls yourself?
A. I did, once. It was a fighting cow. A fighting cow is not Elsie. A fighting cow of that size killed Antonio Bienvenida, one of the great matadors in the history of Spain, in a practice arena. I didn’t realize the danger, but I knew what I was doing. I did a couple of passes correctly and then just got the hell out of there. But I actually did it—in 1970, in the arena in Fuengirola. It was a big society coming-out party for a friend of Antonio’s, and they said, “Do you want to try this?” And like an idiot, I did. Most of the gorings are in the femoral artery, which is the right side of your inner thigh, and if that gets severed, you die. But I did. It was the muleta, which is the red cape. They change capes during the fight—they change from the big pink and yellow capote, which they use at the beginning to slow the bull down and change its charge, and then the matador brings out the muleta, which is a red, very heavy material, and on the inside it’s yellow. It’s four layers of cloth, and there’s a wooden stick sewn into it, and he always keeps that in his right hand and switches the sword between the right hand and the left hand. And when Robert Evans came by to plug his movie The Kid Stays In the Picture, I said, “I know you’re going to see Regis Philbin after this—tell him here’s something you won’t see…” and I took out and showed to him my muleta inscribed to me by Antonio. Robert Evans had played Antonio’s father in The Sun Also Rises—Hemingway based the character on Antonio’s father. So I said, “Give Regis my best.” So that’s how Hemingway influenced my life.