“You know, just like the two guys in the cafe in Madrid, only it was Papa Hemingway”
Guernica: Let’s talk a little about your status as someone who came to bullfighting from outside the tradition. You were a dual outsider: a woman in a profession overwhelmingly dominated by men, and a woman who was born and raised in the United States. What kinds of difficulties did you face gaining acceptance?
Bette Ford: Lots of difficulties, but that was, in a way, the whole point for me. I wanted to prove myself. I’d seen Dominguín fight in Colombia and my reaction was, I want to be able to do that. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do what he did. At the time I had this fascination with power and with proving myself. I was fascinated with the idea that I could have power in a man’s tradition—that I could appropriate some of that power for myself. For me, at the time, bullfighting was this very spiritual engagement with power, with power and death. You’re pitting yourself against a force that’s stronger than you and then you’re winning or losing. It’s power, a power play.
Guernica: Mostly, though, you’re winning. The bull doesn’t have much of a chance to walk out of the arena alive.
Bette Ford: There are two quotes I came across recently which speak to that. One is that bullfighting is a fair fight that’s unfair, the other that it’s a wrong done without lies. Yes, it’s true that the bull doesn’t stand much of a chance, but those are the cards the bull is dealt. That’s the bull’s role in the tradition. Either you buy that the tradition justifies the bull’s role, or you don’t.
Guernica: We’ve been talking as if you came to bullfighting as an outsider to the tradition, but perhaps another way of looking at it is that you came to bullfighting from an American tradition of writing about power and violence, and specifically bullfighting. You spoke of Hemingway’s influence on you, and you knew Norman Mailer, who wrote about you. What influence did Mailer have on you?
Bette Ford: I don’t recall that I’d read any of Norman’s writings on bullfighting before I became a bullfighter. I was aware that he had an interest in bullfighting. I think he was fascinated by the fact that as a petite woman, I was willing to get into a ring and challenge a bull. There was a summer that he and his wife Adele came down to Mexico and rented a house nearby when I was training there. Norman wanted to know what it felt like to be in the ring, so my manager and I took him out to a ranch and I showed him how to hold the cape and he did a few passes with a fighting cow, which may not sound as risky as it actually is—the cow can and often will knock you down if you’re a beginner. It really wasn’t until after my bullfighting career that I delved into Norman’s writing. In my bullfighting days Norman influenced me more as a person, someone who had this great strength and tenacity and braveness about him that I admired, and this very intense interest in power and violence which I felt an affinity with.
Guernica: And Hemingway? Would you elaborate on Hemingway’s influence?
Bette Ford: I’d read and was entranced by Death in the Afternoon when I was very young, and I’m sure that Death in the Afternoon played a very large part in priming me for the experience of seeing Dominguín fight in Colombia and being inspired by that. There were whole pages in Death in the Afternoon that I could recite from memory. Do you know the passage about the bullfighter Luis Freg being horrendously gored, believing he was going to die, although he didn’t, and saying something like—I hope I’m recalling this accurately—“I see death. I see it clearly. Ayee. Ayee. It is an ugly thing.” I thought of that passage last year when I start hearing about the Catalonian ban, because the goring took place in the arena at Barcelona.
Guernica: And then later, after your career, you met Hemingway?
Bette Ford: Yes, in Pamplona, not long after I left bullfighting. Hemingway heard I was there and someone brought us together. Hemingway told me that he’d followed my career, that he was proud of me, that he felt that Americans were proud as well, because I’d proven myself not just as a woman in bullfighting, but as an American. We spent a week or so there, my husband John Meston and I. John would write episodes of Gunsmoke in the morning and we’d go to the fights in the afternoon—those were the fights that Hemingway wrote about in The Dangerous Summer. Then in the evening we’d sit with Hemingway at his table. Kenneth Tynan was there, and Ava Gardner too, and of course Hemingway had his entourage and Ava had hers. Ava would come prancing in with a different man every night. Everyone would be arguing like crazy about who had fought better that day, Cordobes, Ordóñez or Dominguín. I remember getting into an argument with Hemingway about Ordóñez, Hemingway arguing that Ordóñez outshone Dominguín, my telling Hemingway that Ordóñez didn’t have the physical artistry of Dominguín, and on top of that, that Ordóñez looked like a banker. That kind of arguing—you know, just like the two guys in the cafe in Madrid, only it was Papa Hemingway.