When Barnaby Conrad was nearly killed in a 1958 bullfight, his celebrity pals were buzzing about it at Sardi’s in New York.
“Did you hear about poor Barnaby?” Eva Gabor asked Noel Coward in her thick Hungarian accent. “He was terribly gored in Spain.”
Shocked, Coward soon realized he’d misheard.
“Oh, thank heavens,” he sighed. “I thought you said he was bored.”
That would have been a surprise.
Barnaby Conrad Jr. — bullfighter, bon vivant, portrait artist, saloonkeeper to the stars, author of 36 books, and founder of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, led a life that was anything but boring. Ninety years old, he died Tuesday in his Carpinteria, Calif., home after a battle with congestive heart disease.
“He wasn’t necessarily the world’s best novelist or the best bullfighter or best artist or best piano player or best nightclub owner, but he was very good at all of them,” said his son Barnaby Conrad III. “He was like a pentathlete.”
Conrad’s last work of fiction, a novel about presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, was published when he was 88. Months later, he came out with his last work of nonfiction: “101 Best Sex Scenes Ever Written: An Erotic Romp through Literature for Writers and Readers.”
While most of his work was nonfiction, Conrad was best known for his 1952 novel “Matador,” one of the many books that were generated by his love of bullfighting. He knew the greatest bullfighters of his day and fought bulls himself as “El Nino de California” — the California Kid — at 47 corridas in Spain, Mexico and Peru.
Born into a wealthy family in San Francisco on March 27, 1922, Conrad attended the Taft School in Connecticut and studied art at Yale, where he graduated in 1943. His charcoal portraits of literary friends like Truman Capote and James Michener hang in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. He also painted Sinclair Lewis, the novelist he briefly served as a personal assistant after World War II.
Taking art classes one summer in Mexico City, Conrad was swept away by the lure of bullfighting.
“Fueled on youth and tequila, he jumped into the bullring one afternoon and caped the bull with his Brooks Brothers raincoat,” his son said. “He was lucky he didn’t get himself killed.”
Instructed by seasoned bullfighters, Conrad kept at it and was gashed so severely in his right leg that he was declared unfit for military service. Instead, he joined the State Department and was named vice consul in Seville, Spain. The job gave him the chance to write and chase bulls — a good combination in an era when Ernest Hemingway set the tone for young men who wanted to write.
Conrad’s first novel, “The Innocent Villa,” published in 1948, drew little notice. His second novel, “Matador,” a fictional account of the last day in the life of the legendary Spanish bullfighter Manolete, sold 3 million copies and was translated into 28 languages.
At 30, Conrad was flying high and opened a glitzy San Francisco nightspot he named after his best-seller. Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist, said it was fortunate that Conrad’s publisher had made him change the original title.
“Who’d ever go to eat at a restaurant called Day of Fear?” Caen asked.
Night after night, El Matador drew A-list patrons: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe, William Randolph Hearst. Conrad, who wrote that he played “what might generously be called fraternity piano,” sometimes entertained but more often simply mingled.
Even as a club owner, Conrad continued to write. Years later, he received a fan letter from crime writer Elmore Leonard, who told Conrad that the opening sentence of “La Fiesta Brava” was the best he’d ever read.
It was about the death of Manolete: “On August 27, 1947, a multimillionaire and a bull killed each other in Linares, Spain, and plunged an entire nation into deep mourning.”
Tired of the surging sleaze in San Francisco — symbolized for Conrad by a topless shoeshine stand down the street from his club — he and his family moved to the Santa Barbara area in the early 1970s.
By then, his machismo was so established that Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith wrote of meeting him: “I was pleased to see he was growing bald. It eased the envy.”
In 1972, Conrad founded the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, an annual extravaganza bringing together agents, writers, publishers and, over the years, literary legends such as William Styron, Joan Didion and William F. Buckley Jr. Conrad sold the conference in 2004, but it continues today.
Conrad wrote what he knew. In the 1980s, he chronicled his battle with alcoholism in a book called “Time Is All We Have.”
Over decades, he settled into a daily routine of painting and writing — in longhand. Triple-bypass surgery in 2010 improved his health but, his son said, he started declining last year.
Bedridden but still sharp, he was reading a book when his doctor told him he had just three or four weeks to live.
“I guess I’d better read faster,” he said.