“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony.” —Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)
Juan José Padilla is tall for a matador, five foot ten inches on his stockinged feet in the ring, and saber-thin. His body is an interwoven mesh of scars: the bull’s horn in Pamplona that bisected his neck, fracturing two vertebrae; the strange half-orange-sized boss of bone that grows out from his hip which he never explained to me; the long, deep lacerations on his legs, as though someone had taken a bullwhip to a patch of sand; all capped by the dozen or so titanium plates in his skull and the black patch covering an empty socket from a bull that tore half his head off in 2011. That last one bounced round the world, rendered in slow motion: images of a man getting to his feet holding his face in the palm of his hand like so much meat. He was back in the ring six months later. This was the man who taught me to fight bulls when I was researching a book on the topic, and, although I can’t claim he actually taught me to drink—I blame my parents for that—he certainly gave me a thorough examination on the topic.
I first met Padilla, the picture of elegance in questionably colored cloth, while he was giving a talk alongside our mutual friend, Adolfo Suárez Illana. (Adolfo is another formidable figure: best shot in Spain, best gentleman amateur in the bullring, Madrid and Harvard-trained lawyer, and eldest son of the now-Duke of Suárez, first prime minister and co-founder, with his friend the King, of Spain’s democracy.)
A few months later Padilla got in touch to invite me out to a ranch belonging to the Domecq family, who sold out of the family sherry and brandy business in 1994 for billions and poured the proceeds into their other love, the breeding of toros bravos, Spanish fighting bulls. At the time, I was very much on the fence about the spectacle (whatever you do, don’t call it a sport; it’s a scripted performance centering on a ritual sacrifice). However, it was after seeing nature reserves like these in which herds of these great-horned beasts roam forests and meadows, running, fighting, and building muscle and skill until they are five years old so they may be killed in high-adrenaline combat in 20 minutes in the plaza de toros, all paid for by the audience they die to serve. I think the 34 million cattle killed annually in the U.S. at 18 months, 78 percent of which are factory-farmed and never see the light of day, would pay good money for such treatment. (Of course, animals killed for food we don’t nutritionally need but like the flavor of, are, by definition, killed for entertainment.)
I watched Padilla caping two-year-old cows. The bulls themselves cannot have contact with humans lest they learn to go for the man rather than the cape in the ring. Thus the breeders call in the matadors to test these mothers of future bulls for speed, stamina, agility, ferocity, fortitude, and so on, sending those who don’t pass muster the way of all bovine flesh: to the slaughterhouse. Padilla was formidable in the ring, dominating everything and everyone around him with that Spanish flamenco elegance with which he cut his machismo. His suavity of gesture with the cape, making the cattle dance elegant figures of eight around his never-moving feet, was astonishing. They may sound harmless, but at two years old they weigh a quarter-ton, have foot-long needle-sharp horns, and have been the end of their share of toreros, including the superstar matador Antonio Bienvenida in 1976.
After this thirsty work we sat down to lunch with a half dozen members of the Domecq family—noted horseback toreros and breeders all—in a dining room that seemed modern back when Ferdinand and Isabella were buying into Colombus’ “the world is round” shtick. Several sherries and some unfortified Spanish wines later, I was fast asleep in the back of Padilla’s four-wheel drive, next to the great man himself, speeding through the countryside, the wheel in the hands of his mozo de espada, or sword page.
However, when I woke up, it was not to the orange tree-lined streets of Seville, but the small town of Jerez de la Frontera, and Padilla shouting happy greetings at passers by who recognized him through the lowered window. This was where he was born, the town from which sherry wine takes its name. I had thought we were heading home after such a tiring morning. At that point in time I had no idea what manner of man Juan José truly was.
First, he demanded a detour to a little place he owned called Lalola, named for Lola Flores, a famed dancer and singer from the town. It turned out to be a nightclub on three floors, not unexpectedly closed at three in the afternoon, but it was soon opened and lit at Padilla’s insistent banging on the doors. He fetched some glasses from behind the bar—we were in the company of my constant companion in those days, the photographer Nicolás Haro—and poured out an entire bottle of Barceló Dominican rum between the three of us, and we sat back to watch on a giant flatscreen some of the more epic moments from his career on the sand. Then he opened another bottle.
I SHOULD point out here that back in those days, I literally had two dozen words of Spanish: enough to stay out of jail, as they say. And Padilla’s sole phrase seemed to be “my English brother”; more a term of necessity, I think, than endearment. So it is hard to say exactly what we spoke about, but by all accounts we spoke a great deal. I gleaned that his father had been a failed bullfighter before returning to the family trade of baking (a “padilla” is a grill-fronted wood-fire oven.) His brothers were banderilleros, assistant toreros, to other matadors. The move from bread to bulls had cost a great deal of blood and sweat, Juan José breaking into his father’s shop at night to illicitly bake a batch to sell for his course fees at the local bullfighting school.
At some point, God knows when, hunger and extreme drunkenness began to overwhelm me and I suggested we get some dinner. Padilla, on the other hand, had merely grown more animated on the rum. However, he agreed—or appeared to agree—to giving us mere mortals a break. We loaded up into the car again and wended our way through the back streets of the white-walled Andalusian town until we came to a great dark doorway. I asked if it was a restaurant, and Padilla nodded. Then the door opened and inside was a dance studio belonging to his childhood friend, and internationally renowned flamenco dancer Antonio “El Pipa.” Another bottle of Barceló appeared with terrifying inevitability.
Antonio and Padilla then began to instruct me—at this stage barely able to stand—in the finer points of flamenco dancing, which shares with toreo, the “art of bullfighting,” an obsession with solemnity, line of body, fluidity, and the centrality of death to all things. Of course, this was only comprehended in retrospect. At the time I was just trying not to fall over or collapse into a fit of the giggles as they explained the concept of duende, the dark spirit of the song, best described as “the wind that crosses the graveyard, comes in through the window of the bar, possesses the performer, and makes the hairs on the audience stand up like a dog’s.”
By this point, the idea of food had departed my mind and survival became a more dominant theme. Given that none of us were in any state to drive ourselves, getting back to Seville without the chauffeuring of Padilla’s peón was impossible.
Which was ironic as the next step on our endless journey into night was a hotel on the outskirts of town where Nicolás and I sprinted into the restaurant to order the last two burgers before the chef closed up shop. Meanwhile, Padilla went in search of a fellow matador and close friend from their younger days whom Antonio had said was in town. Padilla was furious that this torero, by the name of Finito de Córdoba, had failed to call him and was not now answering his calls. Reception said that Finito was in his room, but when Padilla went up there, no one answered the door. Not one to be so easily deterred, he stole a master key from a member of staff and let himself in, but, as he recounted when he joined us in the restaurant, although the bed had been slept in, there was nobody there. (Months later, when I was receiving instruction from the two of them with my own calves in a ring, Finito told me that Antonio had warned him Juan José was coming, and had hidden under the bed from his formidable friend. Even other matadors were scared of this man on a bender.)
Reinvigorated by the food, we did not demur too strongly when Padilla suggested a drink at his own grand house in the neighboring town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. And it was at his private bar at the end of the garden that my memories, and thus my story, come to a close. Outside the bar—in fact a wood cabin complete with veranda outside and kitchen and beds within—there hangs a sign which says, Aqui… sin problemas: “Here… there are no troubles.” This is my favorite bar in Spain, which I have visited since—a story for another day (and a suitable candidate for another entry in this famous column).
My only memento of what went on that night is a photograph of a torero’s cape, written upon by many past and present matadors who have visited that same bar. In barely legible handwriting, in my own native English and a memorized phrase in Spanish that I borrowed from the poet Federico García Lorca, it says this:
To my Spanish brother, a maestro of elegance and generosity. When he enters the ring,
La gente van suspirando,
con las guitaras abiertas.
“The people will sigh,
with gaping guitars.”