There is a joke about a British tourist who visits a restaurant in the Andalusian mountaintop town of Ronda and is intrigued by the pungent stew being served to the table beside him.
“What’s that?” he asks his waiter as great dollops of meat and vegetables are ladled out. “It is the house specialty,” the waiter says. “Cojones de toros, or bull’s testicles. This is fiesta season and each day, when fighting has finished, we castrate the victims and cook them with tomatoes, peppers, and chilis. It is very popular here.”
The tourist is intrigued and asks for a portion but the restaurant has sold out. “There are more fights tomorrow,” the waiter says. “If you come back, I shall keep you some.”
So the tourist returns, orders the special, and wolfs it down. “That was delicious,” he declares. “But I noticed that the meat being served yesterday seemed much larger, why was that?”
“Ah, sir,” the waiter replies apologetically. “Some days the bull wins.”
Some days, but rarely. Bullfighting is not as popular as it was when General Franco declared it Spain’s national sport in the middle of the last century, but many thousands of the beasts are still slaughtered each year in Spanish rings, while Death seldom lays his hand upon the matador’s shoulder. Injuries happen occasionally, but when Victor Barrio was fatally gored in 2016, it was the first notch on the bulls’ scorecard in more than 30 years.
For two of Spain’s most celebrated bullfighters, Barrio’s misfortune will have stirred painful memories of their father’s similar death, in 1984, which was retold in the Spanish newspapers this autumn as the brothers launched a bitter legal action against their stepmother, one of Spain’s most celebrated singers, to reclaim the fallen matador’s armor.
Francisco and Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, aged 46 and 43, respectively, are bullfighting royalty, as popular in Spain as film stars and footballers. Francisco’s first wife was the daughter of the 18th Duchess of Alba, who with more than 40 hereditary titles to her name had blood of the very deepest blue; Cayetano’s flamboyant outfits have been designed by Giorgio Armani.
Their great-grandfather, Cayetano Ordóñez, began his fighting career at the age of 13. While still a teenager he was carried in triumph through the gates of the Maestranza bullring in Seville. He was the inspiration for the young matador in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. His son Antonio was a friend of Orson Welles’s, whose ashes were scattered on his estate. Antonio faced more than 3,000 bulls in his career and is buried beneath the bulls’ entrance at the world’s oldest bullring, in his hometown of Ronda.
Francisco and Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez are bullfighting royalty, as popular in Spain as film stars.
It was inevitable that Antonio’s daughter Carmen would marry a bullfighter. Her husband, Francisco and Cayetano’s father, was the great Francisco Rivera Pérez, better known by his nickname, “Paquirri.” In the mid-1970s he was Spain’s leading matador, commanding $10,000 a fight. Swarthy, with sharp cheekbones and piercing blue eyes, he never lacked female attention; when things didn’t work out with Carmen, he turned that gaze upon Isabel Pantoja.
The daughter of a well-known flamenco dancer, Pantoja was performing folk songs by the age of seven and released her first record in 1974, aged 18. She had branched out into sentimental pop by the time she met Paquirri and was a fixture of Spain’s gossipy “pink press.” The wedding of the torero and his tonadillera was the celebrity event of 1983, but even though they quickly had a child, their marriage would be a very brief one.
On September 26, 1984, Paquirri arrived in Pozoblanco, a medieval town in the province of Córdoba, for his final date of the season. Now 36 and carrying a bit of weight, he had told friends that he would retire after one more year. As he prepared for what proved to be his last feria, as recounted in Edward Levine’s vivid travel memoir, Death and the Sun, he was heard telling his assistants that it had been a blessed season. “Not one injury among us!”
He dispatched his first bull of the evening without trouble. Then entered Avispado. Not much to look at, twice rejected by fight organizers for being scrawny and ugly, the bull whose name means “wasp-like” was end-of-season fodder, an easy prey for far less talented matadors.
Perhaps Paquirri got cocky; maybe Avispado got lucky. But as the matador went through the traditional series of passes, flicking his cape to anger the animal, something went wrong. Avispado clipped Paquirri on the charge, spinning him round and off balance so that he was unable to get back in position for the return. Avispado sank a horn deep into Paquirri’s right thigh, then with a jerk of his head tossed him into the air.
The bullring at Pozoblanco now has an intensive-care unit, but in 1984 the infirmary had just two tables, a sink, and a shrine to the Virgin Mary. A television cameraman filmed Paquirri being carried in, drenched in blood and calmly telling the doctor where the horn had traveled. “I place my life in your hands,” he said, then asked for water before the tape ends. Avispado had already been killed and cut up for the local restaurants by the time Paquirri was placed in an ambulance. He died before reaching the hospital.
As the matador went through the traditional series of passes, flicking his cape to anger the animal, something went wrong.
Spain went into national mourning. Paquirri’s body was carried round the bullring in Seville to the chant of “Torero! Torero!” before a televised funeral. The papers dubbed Pantoja “Spain’s widow.” Meanwhile, the 10-year-old Francisco had woken to the news of his father’s death. According to his mother, he looked at her and declared: “I am going to be a bullfighter.”
Years passed. Francisco and his brother Cayetano went into the family business. Pantoja, after a suitable mourning period, released her first record after her husband’s death, which sold one million copies. A brief acting career followed, and in 1996 she adopted a baby daughter from Peru. It was around this time that her stepsons asked to be given their father’s bullfighting memorabilia. Pantoja told a court that it had all been stolen.
In 2003, she began a relationship with Julián Muñoz, a former waiter who became mayor of Marbella and was soon involved in an embezzlement-and-bribery scandal. Though she protested her innocence, Pantoja was handed a two-year prison sentence in 2013 for laundering money for her boyfriend. She has since rebuilt her public standing as a judge on a Spanish musical-talent show for children.
Paquirri’s body was carried round the bullring in Seville to the chant of “Torero! Torero!” before a televised funeral.
The mystery of Paquirri’s missing memorabilia took a twist this summer, however, when Francisco José Rivera, Pantoja and Paquirri’s D.J. son, known as “Kiko,” visited his mother’s estate and found that a room that was normally kept locked was open. Inside, he claims he found piles of capes, medals, swords, the traje de luces (the “suit of lights” that matadors wear), even a portable chapel. He reported this to his half-brothers, who lodged a legal request for their return.
“Their value in monetary terms is almost nil,” their lawyer said, “but they are of very important sentimental value. I appeal to the common sense of this senora.”
Yet Pantoja refused. Though now conceding that the matador’s belongings had not, after all, been stolen, she insisted they had been legally left to her. Muddying the waters further, Kiko has firmly taken the side of his half-brothers, saying that his mother has deceived them all. “Do what you should have done many years ago,” he said in a television message to his mother. “You still have time. Take Daddy’s things and give them to his children. You will feel better.”
In early December, the brothers agreed to give Pantoja one month to think about whether she should do the moral thing and return the heirlooms—if not, they would launch another lawsuit. “I am willing to sign a document that’s satisfactory to both sides to ensure that she doesn’t come off as the bad guy,” their lawyer said.
It must have made for a fraught family Christmas—and will fascinate lovers of Spanish celebrity gossip—yet such is the soap-opera world they all inhabit. As Hemingway once wrote about their industry: “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters.”
Patrick Kidd is the editor of the “Diary” column in The Times of London