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The Other Americans
Barnaby Conrad III
July 06, 1981
In the history of bullfighting, there have been dozens of amateur fighters from the U.S., but only eight men (curiously, four of them artists), including David Renk, have taken the alternativa to achieve full status as matador de toros, and only three of those have achieved that distinction in Spain, the mecca of la fiesta brava.
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July 06, 1981

The Other Americans

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In the history of bullfighting, there have been dozens of amateur fighters from the U.S., but only eight men (curiously, four of them artists), including David Renk, have taken the alternativa to achieve full status as matador de toros, and only three of those have achieved that distinction in Spain, the mecca of la fiesta brava.

In 1910, Harper Lee, a 26-year-old Texas-born civil engineer working for the Mexican Central Railway, became America's first full matador. He was reputedly good with the banderillas and the sword, but severe gorings, marriage and the Mexican Revolution cut short his bullfighting career, and he went into the oil business.

The second American, Sidney Franklin, was good enough to earn a special section in Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. Hemingway called the Brooklyn-born torero "brave with a cold, serene and intelligent valor." Son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Franklin (real name: Frumkin) abandoned a career in commercial art after his first trip to Mexico in 1923, when he began to fight bulls at the age of 19. His career peaked later on in Spain after a magnificent fight in Seville, but it wasn't until 1945 that he took his alternativa in Madrid's Plaza de Toros. At 42, he was the oldest man ever to become a full matador in Spain.

It had been Franklin's hope to introduce bullfighting in the U.S., but the authorities scotched his plans for bloodless bullfights in Newark in 1930. However, he was allowed to perform at the 1939 New York World's Fair. In 1959 Franklin had a final humiliating fight in the Juarez bullring when he gave his American prot�g�. Baron Clements, the alternativa. Pepe Luis Vazquez remembers it well: "Franklin was gored by his second bull and Clements couldn't kill the last bull, so I had to finish them both off, making my total four bulls for the day."

Franklin, who died in a New York nursing home in 1976 at the age of 72, fared better than his other prot�g�. Porter Tuck. Known as El Rubio de Bost�n (The Boston Blond), the intellectual Tuck had a promising start as a novillero in Spain but sustained a terrible goring in 1955. The pain of the wound led him to drugs, and 10 years later he was found leaning bolt upright against a wall in Manhattan, dead of a mysterious bullet in his brain.

During the 1950s a number of women entered the ring as amateurs. A former New York fashion model, Bette Ford, drew some interest, but most people felt that Patricia McCormick was the more promising. Neither took the alternativa. In that same decade came another American hope. Rocky Moody, who had enough guts and skill to have become a first-rate torero. However, he suffered a horrendous goring that cost him a leg, his career and almost his life.

Robert Ryan, a California artist, took the alternativa in Mexico successfully in 1967, and Diego O'Bolger followed in 1969. Both have cut ears, and O'Bolger worked with David Renk early on. Richard Cory fought in both Mexico and Spain but took his alternativa only in Spain. And, for the record, my father, Barnaby Conrad Jr., fought as a top-ranked amateur in Spain, Peru and Mexico during the 1940s. Despite fine tutelage from the maestro, Juan Belmonte, he nearly died after a bull drove nine inches of horn into his inner left thigh during an exhibition in 1958. He wisely left bulls for literature—John Steinbeck praised his Matador—and art.

The most accomplished American matador undoubtedly has been John Fulton, now 49, who is in Mexico City seeking a fight that will confirm him at the nation's capital. At 19, Fulton was an artist from Philadelphia filled with visions of Blood and Sand; in Mexico he wormed his way into bull ranches and small fights in the boondocks. He continued his quest in Spain but found himself shouldered aside by the bullfighting bureaucracy. Despite the setback mentioned at the beginning of the accompanying article, he took his alternativa in Seville on July 18, 1963.

His first bull was big enough, but his second was a monster (576 kilos)—"a veritable cathedral," wrote a critic—yet Fulton dominated the animal in magnificent fashion and rode out of the ring on the shoulders of the exuberant crowd. The dream had come true, but at 31 he was already a year older than Manolete when the latter was killed in the ring—ancient for a young man's game. The next two decades brought him few fights and much frustration, but Fulton remains the only active American to have taken the alternativa in Spain, where fighting is generally considered to be a step above Mexico in quality. David Renk's first corrida in Mexico since his successful alternativa takes place this Sunday, July 5, in the border town of Piedras Negras, where he goes mano a mano, two bulls apiece, with Manolo Espinosa Armillita, the oldest and best of the three famed bullfighting brothers. But to be recognized seriously as a matador, Renk will have to journey to Spain for confirmation.

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