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The Lady Was a Bullfighter : Patricia McCormick: 10 Years in the Arena, 1,000 Kills, 6 Gorings

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

It’s a fading memory now. The bellowing crowds, the stirring band music, the dust in the nostrils, the half-ton bull charging a swirl of fuchsia cloth, its horns low and deadly--it all so seems distant now, says Patricia McCormick.

“Some things come back vividly,” says McCormick, 59, an artist who fought bulls professionally for 10 years in the 1950s and early 1960s. “But time has made a distance.”

The gorings stay with her. Six of them. The worst was in 1954, in a Mexican border town called Villa Acuna, where she fought a “ding-a-ling” of a bull with a nasty right-to-left hook when he charged. “He’d charge the muleta (the cape), then stop and go for you, almost as if he had fought before,” said McCormick, who was once described by a distinguished bullfighting critic as “the most courageous woman I have ever seen.”

“The horn went right up my stomach,” she said, still wincing in memory after 35 years. “The bull carried me around the ring for a minute, impaled on his horns. They gave me the last rites there. The doctor said, ‘Carry her across the border and let her die in her own country.’ ”

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Modern drugs and luck saved her. “They said if it had happened before penicillin, I would have been dead,” she said. “There’s an artery that runs from the kidney to the bladder, which the horn missed by a fraction of an inch. That would have been fatal.”

Nowadays, McCormick leads a very private life in an apartment building on Orange Grove Avenue in South Pasadena, where the only immediate danger is the possibility that her 19-year-old cat, Hannibal, will knock something off a table. The apartment is cluttered with books, art supplies, memorabilia and McCormick’s sketches of horses in a myriad of poses.

Gray-haired now, a trifle stiff in the joints, McCormick pulls out her capes and swords and gives you a quick lesson in the art of bullfighting, which she learned under the great Mexican banderillero Alejandro del Hierro.

Holding the muleta , with a sword tucked into its scarlet folds, she waves the cape as if challenging a bull. “A lot of people worry about the horn that’s closest to the body,” she says. “But if you reach for the far horn, as if you’re going to shake hands, the closer horn will take care of itself.”

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She demonstrates with a couple of sweeping passes.

McCormick, whose father was a petroleum engineer, was seven when she saw her first bullfight, on a vacation in Mexico City. “My mother abhorred the spectacle, and she rooted for the bull,” says McCormick. “I wanted her to throw flowers. It had rained that day, and the ground was slippery. I fell in love with a matador who lost his shoes in the mud.”

Being a bullfighter was just one of her childhood ambitions, she says. “I wanted to be Hopalong Cassidy, too,” she says. “My greatest ambition was to be an opera singer, but I just didn’t have the voice.”

Her next experience of tauromachy was as a 20-year-old art student at Texas Western College in El Paso. She went with a group of fellow students to a bullfight across the border in Ciudad Juarez. “It was a windy day and the matadors couldn’t do much with the bulls,” says McCormick, who in 1954 wrote a book about her experiences, called “Lady Bullfighter.” “Nevertheless, it inspired me. You could say I became obsessed with bullfighting. It’s kind of like being stage struck. To go into that kind of precarious work, there has to be an obsession.”

‘I Wouldn’t Have the Temperament’

Everyone told her that she couldn’t be a bullfighter. “I didn’t have the money or the contacts,” she says. “I was a woman. I didn’t have Latin blood, so I wouldn’t have the temperament for it.”

But McCormick persisted. Del Hierro, who is from Ciudad Juarez, finally agreed to take her on as a student. “He was very skeptical and I was very shy,” she says. “But someone introduced him to me, and he took me on. I became his prodigy.”

She killed her first bull in 1951, then turned professional the following year, with a series of nine bullfights in Mexican border cities. The tall, blond Yanqui woman, striking in her Andalusian waistcoat and wide-brimmed Spanish hat, soon became a popular draw at bull rings from Tijuana to Matamoros. In 10 years as a bullfighter, McCormick, who said she was the only American woman ever admitted into the bullfighters’ union, killed about 1,000 bulls.

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McCormick struggles to explain the deep appeal of the art. The cheers of the crowd are part of it. “You have a plan to link a series of passes,” she says. “The bull’s first charges are longer, but as he repeats, the charges get shorter and shorter, and the excitement builds to a crescendo. Ole ! But you’re in control, in perfect control.”

But a big part of the appeal, she is certain, has to do with idealism. “I had very high ideals,” she says. “I loved King Arthur and the Round Table. I saw concepts of chivalry in the bullfight.”

Animal Rights Advocate

For skeptical Americans who deplore bullfighting as cruel and barbaric, it’s sometimes a hard position to defend. McCormick considers herself an animal rights advocate. “Coon hunts, clubbing baby seals, trapping animals in those terrible bear traps--I’m horrified by things like that,” she says. “Believe it or not, I don’t think I could shoot an animal.”

But Spanish fighting bulls are different from other animals. “Fighting is in the bulls’ blood,” McCormick insists. “They’re bred to keep the fighting strain pure. They’re like race horses. The family tree is carefully recorded.”

Atrocities are sometimes committed in bullfighting, particularly when women fight, McCormick acknowledges. Bulls’ horns are sometimes shaved, or they are fed laxatives to weaken them. “I just deplore anything of that sort,” she says.

That’s all part of what McCormick sees as a general decline in bullfighting. In trying to please a television-bred audience, modern bullfighters have substituted “sensationalism” for the “classic style,” she says. “And the bulls have changed,” she says. “They’re not of the same strength. They don’t last the fight. They tire very quickly.”

In her own career, McCormick insisted on fighting on the same terms as men. “For a man to be a serious fighter, he had to fight bulls of a certain size and weight, with the horns intact,” she says. “I had to fight by the same standards.”

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In many ways, bullfighting was a lonely experience. The bull ring is predominantly a man’s domain, and those who frequent it assume certain macho standards of behavior. “I had to be escorted everywhere,” McCormick recalls. “My escort was usually my sword handler or a member of my manager’s family. There was no dating or going out with the fellas. I lived as a provincial Latin woman, observing all of the Latin customs of the hacienda. On social occasions, I sat with the women.”

McCormick laughs. “When I came out of bullfighting, it felt like coming out of a convent,” she says.

She left the profession in 1962. There had been managerial problems (“I never saw a lot of the money I earned,” she says) and a nagging problem with Mexican tax collectors.

After 10 years of accolades, McCormick just sort of disappeared. “There was no farewell appearance,” she says wistfully. She did a stint as an archeologist’s assistant, then got an office job with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

But she found herself strangely out of sync with her countrymen. “There was no category for me in the United States,” she says. “It was all strange to me. I’d see people eating from TV trays while watching all this violence on television. I’d say, ‘How can you eat?’ ”

A few years ago, she quit her job and, living on a trust fund left by her mother, began indulging her other obsession: horses. “I had been horse crazy at one time in my life,” she says, nodding towards her horse sketches. “Now I’m making up for lost time.”

From all the Sunday afternoons of fighting bulls, she has been left with little more than some souvenirs and a store of wisdom. On fear: “You never get over it. You learn to live with it.” On arrogance: “Humility is better. One little bull can make a fool of you.”

And finally: “Not every Sunday will be a glorious Sunday.”


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