By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
6:45 PM PDT, April 13, 2013
When Patricia McCormick realized she didn't have a future in music, she chose a career as filled with drama, passion and death as any of the operas she longed to sing.
She became a matadora, breaking long-standing barriers against women and Americans in machismo-saturated Mexican bullrings and performing before enthusiastic crowds in more than 300 fights. In 1963, Sports Illustrated wrote that McCormick "may well be the greatest woman bullfighter who ever lived."
Over more than 10 years, she was gored six times, once so brutally that a priest administered last rites over her mangled body. But she recovered and fought a few more years before finally exiting the arena in the early 1960s, complaining, among other things, that the bulls had become too small.
She spent the rest of her life far from the public eye, pouring herself into her watercolors of horses and bulls and working as an administrative assistant at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design.
In failing health for several years, McCormick died March 26 at a care facility in Del Rio, Texas, her cousin Thomas McCormick said. She was 83.
Although a small number of women had been drawn to the bullring over centuries, McCormick was among the first in Mexico who were allowed to perform in much the same manner as men — on foot, rather than horseback, and with bulls that were fully grown. But for all her skills, the tall, elegant, Missouri-born McCormick never was allowed to take the alternativa — an initiation ceremony that would have signified parity with the top male bullfighters of her day.
She couldn't afford the steep fees, and no man then in the ring would endorse her bid.
"It would have become a vicious circle in the end," she once said. "For once I became a full-fledged matadora de toros, the recognized matadores would have refused to appear with me. I couldn't win for losing!"
Still, she fought on the same bill as some of the arena's most accomplished men, facing more than 600 bulls at dusty rings in Mexico and Venezuela. While some toreras were viewed as little more than novelty acts, McCormick had a legion of fans among aficionados, said Fred Renk, a breeder of fighting bulls in Texas.
"She was prestige," said Renk, whose matador son David is one of only a handful of Americans to have taken the alternativa. "She was real prestige. When she walked into the bullring, people cheered and she'd just bow her head."
Patricia Lee McCormick was born in St. Louis on Nov. 18, 1929, and moved with her parents to Big Spring, Texas, when she was 13. The only child of a petroleum engineer, she graduated from high school in 1948. After a discouraging time studying music at the University of Texas, she took up painting at what was then Texas Western College in El Paso.
For McCormick, El Paso's secret allure lay just across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez. When she was 7, she had attended a bullfight with her parents in Mexico City and it stuck with her. Later, she recalled "falling in love" that day with a matador who lost his shoes in the mud but continued to fight.
Never repulsed by the ring's raw violence, the 20-year-old art student persuaded Alejandro de Herrera, a Juarez bullfighter, to train her.
Realizing that news of the gringa's upcoming appearances would be broadcast, she reluctantly told her parents. They were appalled, and they rushed to El Paso for a meeting with her school's president
"Mother was all in tears: 'How could you? How could you have kept this a secret?'" she said in a 2006 interview for an oral history project in Del Rio.
But McCormick was adamant. "I had a manager, I had a sponsor, I had an impresario and a contract with nine fights," she said. "That's hard to beat."
It was the start of a brilliant career that in some ways was doomed from the outset.
"She was of an era that was very, very difficult for women," retired bullfighter Honey Anne Haskin, also known as Ana de Los Angeles, told The Times. "There were other women who were very, very good, but the one everyone talked about with respect and admiration was Patricia McCormick."
Such acclaim went only so far. McCormick was not allowed to wear the male matador's glittering traje de luces, or suit of lights. While praising her valor, her discipline's biggest names were sometimes bruisingly condescending toward her.
"She fights larger bulls than does any other woman ... and she kills well," Carlos Arruza, a renowned torero who died in 1966, once said. "Her only defect is that she is a woman."
Worn down by injuries, conflict with her manager and financial problems, McCormick moved to Los Angeles in 1962.
It was a time when stars would drive to Tijuana for a day at the bullfights, and McCormick gained a following in Hollywood. Her 1954 book, "Lady Bullfighter," sparked some talk of a movie based on her career, but friends said she wasn't much of a self-promoter. Despite her friendship with Gilbert Roland, who played the archetypal Latin lover in numerous films, nothing came of the movie idea.
McCormick never married and had no children. She is survived by her cousin.
After leaving her job at the Pasadena art school in 1979, she moved to a gated community in Pebble Beach. In the early 2000s, she made her way back to Texas — first to Midland, where her father was retired, and then to the border town of Del Rio.
People there still remembered her, said her friend Cookie Gulick.
"She was just kind of a household name here in the '50s," Gulick said. "You constantly heard about her on the radio and you'd see the posters for her fights in the windows at the five-and-dime."
In Del Rio, McCormick gingerly stepped back into the limelight. A broadcaster named Tumbleweed Smith filmed her for a 2007 documentary, "The Texas Torera." She demonstrated her cape technique at the Heritage Museum of Big Spring, which set up a display of her memorabilia. She was a guest of honor at the Running las Vacas festival in Ciudad Acuna — the sister city of Del Rio where a bull almost killed her in 1954.
With her increasing frailty, she declined other invitations. According to friends, she was reserved by nature and never expected any attention after she stepped out of the ring for the last time.
As she wistfully told a Times reporter in a 1989 interview about her bullfighting career: "Not every Sunday will be a glorious Sunday."
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