August 31, 2007

Bullfight World
By Lyn Sherwood

Sixty Years Ago, The King of Toreros Died

It was Aug. 28, 1947. Linares was celebrating its traditional Feria de San Agustin. And, as no great feria is complete without bullfights, the Linares plaza de toros would feature “The Monster,” Manolete.

Expectations were high. Everybody wanted to see the Córdoban genius, the one man who could make people forget about the war years.

The empresario, Pedro Balaña had organized a pair of taurine events, the most important of which would be that in which Manolete would torear on a card with the young Luis Miguel Dominguin, facing a herd from Miura.

Due to a change at the sorteo, Manolete’s first bull was rather small animal from Gitanillo. His second bull would be Islero, from Miura, #21.

Manolete was applauded for his performance to Gitanillo. Dominguin responded by cutting an ear from the third bull of of the day. Then, it was Islero’s turn. That which occurred, thereafter, has become historic.

Islero was a dangerous bull. Some say that its horns had been shaved. The matador’s manager, Camará, advised his torero to be brief with the animal.

The performance was, indeed, brief, but intense. When it came time to kill, Manolete profiled and entered over the bull’s head. But, one of those deadly horns found its mark and delivered that which would prove to be a fatal wound. The following morning, Manolete left this world, leaving a memory that no aficionado from any era would ever forget.

Manolete, the “Monster of Córdoba”, was dead. Penicillin might have saved him, but it had yet to be invented. But, even if it had been available, it’s doubtful that Manolete would have survived, for years later, one of the surgeons who had attended him admitted that he had administered the wrong blood type.

“Are my eyes open? I cannot see.” Those were the last words that Manolete spoke. They would be immortalized as the final words of perhaps the greatest torero that the world has ever known.

Since that time, literally hundreds of thousands of words, in a variety of languages, have been written about Manolete. His life and death was immortalized by Barnaby Conrad, in his book, “The Death of Manolete.” It was a great book, but the “Playhouse 90” TV documentary that followed, years later, was a disaster. It’s hard to imagine Jack Pallance as Manolete, but somebody apparently decided that it was a match. Somebody was very wrong. Even Conrad condemned the production.

This reporter’s own TV documentary, “Death of a Martyred Genius,” managed to attract an Emmy nomination. It didn’t win, but the documentary got high ratings.

The fact remains that Manolete revolutionized bullfighting. His stoic style, the scar that accented his sad countenance, his determination to always give his best, under all circumstances, his serious approach to the world’s most dangerous profession, and above all, the tragic manner that robbed the afición of his presence, are the things that contribute to our memory of him.

But, was his death, by the horns of Islero, truly that tragic? Would Manolete still be remembered with such reverence had he been run over by a taxi, or died of a heart attack? I don’t think so. Manolete was born to be a tragic figure and to die a tragic death. Islero was the instrument of that tragedy. Manolete’s death could have been predicted. It’s as if the two of them were born to sacrifice their lives, that terrible afternoon in Linares.

Sixty years ago, the King of Toreros sacrificed his life. Manolete is dead. But, his name will be remembered, forever.

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