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Barnaby Conrad: A life well-lived

| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

One of my sons sent me a New York Times obituary, with a personal note about its subject that said, “What a well-lived life!” The headline in The Times was, “Barnaby Conrad, Man of Many Hats and a Cape, Dies at 90.” Obits are one of the few journalistic duties still done well by the failing Times.

Barnaby was one of the most talented men of his generation, an old-money WASP who created an exciting life of adventure and accomplishment.

Barnaby was a skilled portrait painter. Some of his works hang in Washington's National Portrait Gallery. He wrote 36 books. His greatest was a novel called “Matador.” It is about the last day in the life of his friend Manolete, the world's most famous bullfighter, who died before a screaming crowd in Spain. Manolete and the bull had killed each other.

Barnaby took some of the cash generated by the book (and a movie by John Huston) and used it to buy an old Mexican dance hall on Broadway in North Beach to start his San Francisco nightclub, El Matador.

Herb Caen, the newspaper chronicler of San Francisco life for 50-plus years, was a friend of Barnaby's. Herb noted that Barnaby's first choice for a title for the novel had been killed by the publisher, who insisted it be called “Matador.” Said Herb, “Who'd ever go eat at a restaurant called ‘Day of Fear'?”

As a young man, Barnaby was the captain of the University of North Carolina boxing team but left school to become a bullfighter in Mexico, Spain and Peru, calling himself “El Nino de California,” the California Kid.

After being badly gored in the ring, he went back to America and graduated from Yale in 1943. His injuries kept him out of the war but the U.S. government sent him to Spain as vice consul, where he once again took up bullfighting. In 1945 he appeared on the same program with the legendary Juan Belmonte and was awarded the ears of the bull for his courage.

Barnaby played the piano and sometimes the guitar in the joints he owned. He was self-deprecating about it but he was an excellent musician.

I first met him at the Matador in the fall of 1962. It was Sunday night and the two Staffler sisters, Susan and Candy, lovely native San Franciscans with whom I was very friendly, had suggested we go and see the bullfight movies played there at 9 p.m.

It was dark as the inside of a skull in the Matador. A middle-aged fellow with a tan, who turned out to be Barnaby, was playing a Hoagie Carmichael song on the piano when we walked in. A giant macaw, four feet long with feathers of iridescent blue and yellow rings around its eyes, was perched on the piano. It squawked, “Hello. Macgregor here” and offered a foot and claw to shake.

An enormous bull's head was on the wall. Smoke was puffing from its nostrils. (I learned later that Barnaby had run a rubber tube through the wall into the bull's nose, and the bartender, who had the end of the tube behind the bar, would blow cigarette smoke into it when new customers came in.)

My lady friends had been there a few times before. They showed me the red leather guest book, busy with signatures and drawings from customers (some of them famous — Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Henry Fonda, Lucille Ball, etc).

I came to know Barnaby better in his new saloon, Barnaby's, on Fillmore Street a few blocks from my house in Pacific Heights, opened after the Matador closed around 1963 or '64.

Barnaby was a fine and charming storyteller: “When I opened the Matador I had a Picasso. We hung it on a wall. Picasso had given it to me. There was a lot of talk about that painting. One night an old lady walks in. We've got a brand new bartender on duty. She says to him, ‘Where's the Picasso?' He says, ‘Second door on your right. I think there's somebody in it.'”

Barnaby was almost killed in a 1958 bullfight. He was badly gored. Eva Gabor, the Hungarian-born actress, was in Sardi's restaurant in Manhattan. She had heard about the near-fatal injuries and told the composer and playwright Noel Coward, who was sitting nearby and also knew Barnaby, that Barnaby had been gored. Coward first misunderstood but then figured out what she had said.

“Oh,” he replied, “Thank heaven. I thought you said he was bored!”

Not likely in that well-lived life.

Richard W. Carlson is a former U.S. ambassador to the Seychelles and the former director of the Voice of America.

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