As a 19-year-old art student one summer in Mexico City, Barnaby Conrad attended a bullfight, and, with a whimsical bolt of Hemingwayesque bravado, leapt into the ring and challenged a bull himself, using his Brooks Brothers raincoat as a cape.
He barely escaped, but the stunt amused and impressed the famed bullfighter Felix Guzman, who had been preparing for his turn in the corrida when Conrad performed his spontaneous, amateurish veronicas. Guzman soon became Conrad’s tutor in the art of the matador — though, alas, in their first training session together with a live bull, Conrad was gored through the knee. Just about the time he recovered, he learned he’d been admitted to Yale University. His flight back to the United States crashed on the runway in Burbank, Calif.
This eventful summer vacation was a mere prelude to Conrad’s eventful life. He survived the crash to fight more than 40 bulls in Spain, Mexico and Peru, to write more than 30 books, to earn a living as a portrait painter and a cocktail pianist, to own a celebrated nightclub and to start a writers’ conference. He would descend into and re-emerge from alcoholism and befriend a long list of boldface literary names, including Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, William F. Buckley Jr. and Ray Bradbury, many of whom he painted; his portraits of Alex Haley, James Michener and Truman Capote are in the National Portrait Gallery collection. Perhaps to tempt fate, perhaps to keep it in his own hands, he also learned to fly a plane.
Conrad died Tuesday at his home in Carpinteria, Calif., near Santa Barbara, his son Barnaby Conrad III said. He was 90.
After graduating from Yale, Conrad went to work for the State Department and in his early 20s served as a vice consul in Spain, where he re-entered the world of bullfighting; became the protege of Juan Belmonte, considered among the greatest of matadors; and fought under the name “El Nino de California" — the California Kid. He wrote about the sport for Esquire and other magazines and put it at the center of his first two novels, “The Innocent Villa" (1948) and “Matador" (1952), which sold more than 2 million copies.
“Matador" was based on the famous death of Manuel Laureano Rodriguez Sanchez, the legendary Spanish bullfighter known as Manolete. It presented a fictionalized version of his final appearance in the ring in 1947, when he came out of retirement to compete with a younger torero and was fatally gored.
In 1958, Conrad himself nearly suffered the same fate; returning to the ring for a charity event, he was gored through the leg. He later wrote a memoir of his bullfighting years, “Fun While It Lasted" (1969), in which the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, whom he never met, looms palpable.
“I suppose most men who have heroes they’ve admired since youth have an itch to pass on their enthusiasm, their hero worship, to their children," he wrote in an essay in The New York Times Magazine in 1986. “In my case the hero was Ernest Hemingway. He shaped my life, changed my life and almost cost me my life."
In 1953 Conrad opened the San Francisco nightclub El Matador with money he earned from the novel. It became a city fixture where local and visiting celebrities — Hollywood stars, famous writers, politicians — would pass liquid evenings with the host. He wrote a jaunty account of his decade owning the club, “Name Dropping: Tales From My San Francisco Nightclub" (1997). Another memoir, “Time Is All We Have: Four Weeks at the Betty Ford Center," was published in 1986.