State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
On Father’s Day in 1996, my new son Sammy was a 9-month-old blob with a bright orange tuft of hair atop his perpetually smiling, fat-swaddled little head. My wife and I were over the moon and laughing like fools at our good fortune. Our dear friend Leslee surprised me with the book Matador by Barnaby Conrad, an original 1952 edition, its paper jacket torn and fraying, the pages inside yellowing slightly, but still crisp and fragrant. To my utter amazement, on the first blank page inside Conrad had dashed off a brilliant ball-point pen portrait that he’d titled “The Old Bullfighter for Jeff”. On the opposite page, sometimes called the Half-Title page of a book, he’d written “Best Wishes to Jeff – A GOOD FATHER! – on Father’s Day from Barnaby Conrad June 1996.” I nearly swooned. By then, I knew what the old fellow was made of.
Barnaby Conrad may have charged through this life like a heavens-rending celestial event, but he was not a guy you would necessarily pick out in a crowd. Bald, slightly stooped by the time our paths crossed in the mid-90s (he’d seen some action, as I’d later learn), huskily barrel-shaped in these, his autumn years, he was not a singular figure. His flyaway gray fringe always appeared to have been mussed in a sloppy fistfight, the kind that obliges the pugilists to frequently lean against each other in a cooperative grapple while catching precious breath.
I was one of three managers of the Earthling Bookshop at the time and knew Barnaby first as this somewhat weathered-looking, older gentleman-friend of the bookstore owners, Penny and Terry Davies (unofficial gatekeepers of the town’s shambling literary scene), and knew him next as a member of the mischievous, smart-ass writer’s salon that frequented the place and could often be found hanging about the store like loitering teenagers, cracking wise around the stone fireplace in the bookshop’s center, occasionally doing readings. Shelley Lowenkopf, Paul Lazarus, Fran Halpern, Walt Hopmans, and the others, they comprised a sort of loose-knit family in the Earthling during that glowing epoch when a bookshop was a building which writers and readers would inhabit like the chummy congregants of a speakeasy. In that time, Barnaby Conrad seemed to be one of the leading lights of the gang that gathered there.
Like a Bull in a Bookshop
Born in San Francisco in 1922, just as the spark-throwing Jazz Age was ramping up and Scott Fitzgerald was in early rehearsals for his heart attack, by the age of 19 Conrad’s wanderlust and fascination with bullfighting saw him to Mexico City, where he studied art at the university and, one sunny afternoon, tipsily leaped into a bullring, introduced himself to the surprised crowd with a flourish and, reportedly swirling his raincoat like a cape, charged a thoroughly baffled bull. The impetuous kid from California thus began an unlikely career as an American bullfighter, billing himself, of course, as (wait for it…) “El Nino de California”. Yeah, the California Kid. Barnaby Conrad’s ridiculously cinematic Life on Earth proceeded apace.
He later worked for the U.S. State Department as vice consul in Spain with posts in Seville and in Barcelona, all the while training as a hopeful bullfighter with master toreadors of the period in what spare moments he had. When he wasn’t doing the Tango with a charging, maddened animal the size of a boxcar, Conrad was typing. He’d begun a writing habit (after the fashion of his own idol, testosterone experiment Ernest Hemingway) that soon enough bore fruit in the form of a little-noticed first novel.
His second novel met its mark, though, and the young vice consul’s bullfighting potboiler Matador captured the world’s imagination, and not a little of its cash, selling several million copies and sufficiently enriching its author that Conrad, on returning stateside, was able to plow the book’s proceeds into a San Francisco society bar that quickly became the epoch-defining North Beach grotto for the day’s cocktail-quaffing demigods, an A-list that included Sinatra, Tyrone Power, Marilyn Monroe, Crosby… yeah, that gang. On entering Conrad’s El Matador Club, they would find its proprietor delightedly tickling the ivories in the lushly appointed shadows, or drifting from table to table to lavish genuine and loving attention on the patrons, A-list and otherwise. Conrad blossomed during this period, adding “Beloved Bon Vivant” to his Technicolor CV.
By the early 70s, though, the unmediated energy of the City by the Bay began to wear him down. He was a family man by then, and moved the clan to Santa Barbara, where in 1972 he contrived to convince a handful of top-tier authors to attend and help launch the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference (SBWC), Conrad schmoozing each with an unsecured promise of attendance by the others; a pyramid scheme of tactical flattery. It worked, of course. The conference was off and running, its early Miramar Hotel years reportedly characterized by Olympian tippling (think Irwin Shaw roaring by lamplight in the wee-hours hotel bar) and other varieties of behind-the-scenes bedlam.
Later, the SBWC would mellow. Inevitably so would Barnaby Conrad. Having very publicly achieved both apogee and a measure of perigee, Conrad would settle into a period of what looked to this writer like a long-sought contentment, a twilight whose elegiac roseate glow yet suggested something of the fires and neon that had so characterized his peripatetic journey to that point. He would reframe himself as a quiet, literary man-about-town, and headmaster of that erstwhile writer’s salon whose unofficial tree house was the Earthling Bookshop.
California Kid, Between the Lines
While on a trip to D.C. in the mid-90s to visit my brother and his family, I visited a nearby community center where the residents had been asked to empty their garages for charity. On entering the place, I bee-lined for a nearby table piled high with old books and stacks of magazines, and on scanning the piles of stuff I saw Barnaby Conrad’s face staring up at me from the cover of a dusty magazine. The magazine, Argosy or Real Adventure or some such (I’m sorry to say the name escapes me), had articles by both Barnaby Conrad (on bullfighting) and screen actor-seafarer-adventurer Sterling Hayden, and both guys’ faces were on the cover, small, above brief story slugs, Barnaby looking baby-faced and hawk-eyed, his skin cleaving to his neck and jawline as neatly as the velour on a newly upholstered love seat. I bought the mag.
On returning home, I immediately got Conrad’s contact info from Penny Davies and let him know by e-mail that I had, by some truly odd miracle that at this writing still wows me, stumbled upon this totem from his past, and several thousand miles away. Would he like to have it? He arranged to come into the store some days hence, and when he did come in he seemed to be affecting an almost endearingly inept show of nonchalance. By way of compensating me for my troubles, he almost churlishly, it seemed, tossed onto the counter a copy of his moving and frank recovery memoir, Time Is All We Have. His demeanor helped me realize in a flash then that the whole transaction put him in an indefinably odd position. I produced the magazine without further ceremony, and his face – I remember this very clearly – his face became minutely animated, threw off some sudden light. I knew that whatever he was feeling, I was getting the Reader’s Digest condensed version.
“Well… thank you very much, Jeff. I thank you.” He was looking down, but I saw that he was not looking down at the magazine but at his own fumbling hands, it seemed. Then he almost sheepishly met my eyes, briefly, without saying anything more. I flushed with gratitude and said some idiotic thing about feeling privileged to reunite he and the magazine. He looked down and mumbled thanks again, we shook hands, and he took the magazine and walked out of the store.
I watched him carefully. The guy had fought bulls and written novels, had talked smack with Frank Sinatra, and seen the world by candlelight. He was now this older guy with a spotted scalp and uncertain shuffle heading for a bookstore exit door; a muleta disguised as a doily. He exited the bookstore and passed into sunlight, hung a right, and walked along State Street, and I watched him walk all along the glass front of the bookshop. I felt oddly like an intruder and continued watching anyway. The California Kid moved slowly. As he walked, he wore an expectant expression, his face inclined, and he began gingerly to leaf through the frail old magazine, his hands trembling.