TRIALS OF A YAnQUI MATADOR

Philadelphia-born John Fulton, the son of Italian-Hungarian parents, has combined the fruition of his dream to be a matador and his work as an artist to live in Spain—a country he loves and where he is accepted as a native
July 28, 1968

In all the years that men have fought and killed bulls in Spain, only one North American has ever taken the degree of Doctor of Tauromachia and had it confirmed in that country. He is John Fulton, a tall, intense and talented bachelor who was born Fulton John Sciocchetti on May 25, 1932 in Philadelphia, of all places. His father was Italian, his mother Hungarian. The father, a painting contractor, changed the last name to Short in the interest of brevity and intelligibility. Fulton dropped it altogether after he came to Spain because there is no sh sound in the Spanish language and transposed his given names.

That was the least of the sacrifices he made to become a bullfighter. The odds against anyone becoming a full matador de toros are, as Fulton once said, something on the order of those against Muhammad Ali being elected mayor of Birmingham. Until 1963, in the recorded history of the bullfight in Spain, only 671 matadors had taken their alternativas there. Of these, 537 were Spaniards, 78 Mexicans and 41 South Americans. The list trails off with two North Africans, one Puerto Rican, and one North American, Sidney Franklin, who was born in Brooklyn as Sidney Frumkin. Franklin actually took his alternativa in Mexico, but he did confirm it in Madrid in 1945, in his last professional fight there, at the ripe age of 40. One other American, a Texan, Harper Lee, took his alternativa in Mexico in 1910. But Fulton took his alternativa in Spain on July 18, 1963 in the most revered of Spanish bullrings—the Maestranza in Seville.

Fulton got hooked on the bulls when he was a student at North East High School in Philadelphia. He knew nothing of bulls and cared less until he saw Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand, then read Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. "I liked the book," he says. "Then I met a Spanish dance teacher who was helping put on a play with a flamenco theme, and I went to that and fooled around with a cape she had. Later she introduced me to a guitar-playing Spanish barber who owned one of Chicuelo's old capes and knew bullfighters who came to see him on their way from Spain to Mexico. I met some of them, too."

By the time he was 19, studying art on a scholarship at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, Fulton had decided to become a bullfighter himself. The barber taught him some passes, and Fulton sold some early bullfight paintings to a Philadelphia restaurateur, Victor Tarello, to get enough money for a frugal month in Mexico City. There he spent the mornings at the Plaza de Toros, watching apprentices at practice.

"After a while, the kids asked me if I'd like to try it," he says. "I did a couple of verónicas the barber had taught me and didn't fall over myself, and they were really surprised. 'Mira! The Yanqui is not bad!' "

Fulton saw his first real fight in the Plaza México in Mexico City. "I liked everything I saw," he said. "I decided to return to Mexico the next summer."

On his second visit he discovered that the Instituto del Arte de Allende, an art school in San Miguel de Allende, offered scholarships for American artists, and he applied for one when he returned to Philadelphia. He received a year's scholarship and in 1953 went to San Miguel, ostensibly to study art but actually to study bullfighting. "My parents weren't exactly enthusiastic about my bullfighting ambitions," he said. "I needed a cover-up and the art school was just right."

In San Miguel, Fulton killed his first bull. He had worked with Luis Procuna, a Mexican matador who traded Fulton bullfighting lessons for instructions in fencing, and with Pepe Ortiz, an ex-matador who owned a bull ranch near San Miguel and let Fulton practice there. Ortiz, during his career as a matador, had invented several passes and had one named after him.

"The bulls were reject stock from the Santa Cecilia ranch," he recalls. "My problem was I didn't have the 50 bucks to pay for the bull. The scholarship only paid tuition and I was scratching out the rest selling drawings to turistas. Finally, the other students took up a collection and made up the money."

He fought in the traje corte (a short jacket, high-waist-ed trousers, boots and a broad-brimmed hat used on ranches and in informal fights), and on the first pass the bull knocked him flat. "It made me mad and I got up and did some good things," he said. "If I hadn't messed up the kill, I might have cut an ear."

By the time Fulton had finished his year at San Miguel, he was ripe for the draft. Luckily, he was sent to Fort Sam Houston, not far from the Mexican border. Even more luckily, Brigadier General L. Holmes Ginn, in charge of his outfit, was an aficionado.

"He saw me practicing one morning," John says. "He watched awhile and told me he had seen Sidney Franklin fight. I was getting offers to fight novilladas along the border and he helped me by giving me an unofficial O.K. Later, when the inspector general complained about a GI fighting bulls, the general pointed out that enlisted pharmacists moonlighted in San Antonio drug stores and that ended the complaint." With the general's connivance, Fulton fought eight or 10 times along the border in Reynosa, Villa Acuña and Matamoros. By now he was a novillero, having complied with the requirement of the bullfighters' union that he appear on 10 cartels as a novice.

"You had to get on 10 cartels to get in the union," he says wryly. "And you had to be in the union to get on a cartel. So I had to work in nonunion, undercover fights. Same thing happened when I went to Spain. They had a rule for a while that a foreign bullfighter had to show 10 cartels in his native country before he could fight as a novillero in Spain with picadors. That's tough when you come from the U.S. Later they changed it so you were allowed 10 fights in Spain without picadors."

In 1956 Fulton decided to go to Spain to complete his taurine education, and he arrived in Seville in April, on Thursday of Holy Week, during the fiesta, with $400 in his pocket and no prospect of earning more. He found a room in the Hotel Roma, a modest establishment not far from the bullring, then set out to look up a man named José Mu√±oz Corpas, a manager of matadors and novilleros. He had a note from a friend on one of Corpas' cards saying, "He is a good egg." Corpas was easy to find. He turned out to be the son of the woman who owned the Hotel Roma and, unfortunately for Fulton, he became John's first manager in Spain. Corpas was a bad egg.

"Corpas was a disaster," Fulton says. "I didn't know anything about the scene in Spain, and my Spanish wasn't good enough to decipher a contract. Pepe Hillo [Corpas' nickname] signed me to a five-year contract with a half-million-peseta indemnification clause. That meant that if I wanted to get out of it, I paid the half million. Four years later I broke the contract with the help of the union, but I had to put up with Pepe in the meantime."

Pepe was certainly no better and may even have been worse than most managers who prey on young fighters. The world of the bulls in Spain is an incredibly sordid one. Bullfight critics pay their papers for the privilege of writing columns, and they make their money on bribes from the matadors. Bulls have, in the past, had their horns shaved to save the fighters, and leading matadors still demand and get calves instead of mature animals in their corridas. John saw little money from Pepe for the few fights his manager got for him. After a fight in Casablanca, Pepe came home with a new watch and new luggage but told Fulton there was no money for him. It had gone in expenses, he said. "You learn to expect that," Fulton said. "The manager can give you a list of expenses and include so much as a bribe for a critic, and there's no way you can check on him."

In those early days John trained with Tito Palacios, a young Mexican he had met in Villa Acuña. On rainy days they worked out by running up the ramps in the tower of La Giralda, near the cathedral in Seville, running in the early morning to avoid the turistas. Sometimes he worked out on a fútbol field in Camas, on the outskirts of the city, with Spanish beginners. "Curro Romero was a novillero then," he says. (Romero was to become one of the best swords in Spain.) "Paco Camino worked out in short pants at the same time I did, and his dad was a banderillero for me in some of my early fights." (Camino is generally ranked among the top two or three matadors today.)

Living was not expensive. John and Tito ate in small bars at noon, buying a glass of vino tinto and eating a free tapa. The wine cost three cents, American. The tapa varied with the café—it might be fish, cheese, a shish kebab of four small bits of veal on a skewer or a tortilla. For about eighty cents a day, Fulton ate enough to live.

"Once I thought I had some kind of vitamin deficiency," he recalls. "In the early afternoon I'd feel dizzy. So did Tito. We were going to a place called El Barril, in the old area, and drinking piscinas. [A piscina is a glass of wine and carbonated water called a 'swimming pool' because of its size.] I finally realized we were getting smashed on the piscinas. We didn't have enough in our stomachs to take that much wine."

He cut an ear in his first fight in Spain, in Alcalà. He fought along the Costa Brava and Costa del Sol, wherever there were American tourists. Pepe Hillo appropriated most of the money while Fulton earned his living primarily from his painting and from selling bullfight lithographs through the PX at Air Force bases. He felt lucky when he broke even on a fight.

"And the fights did not come easy," he said. "The Spaniards were tough. If an American proved he could really fight, they ignored him. If you showed an ounce of professionalism, they cut you off and made it nearly impossible for you to fight." Given the opportunity, Fulton fought well. He had four or five fights in Puerto de Santa Maria, a big ring not far from Seville, and cut ears and was carried from the ring on the shoulders of the crowd each time. But the bookings were still difficult to get.

"When you don't fight regularly you don't fight well," Fulton says now. "And when you're a foreigner you're judged by the most rigid, classic rules, while the rules for the native fighters are flaccid. I got the feeling that the public didn't believe it when I fought well. I know when I do well, and often I did not get credit. It was frustrating. I had to try things in the ring with bulls instead of in a tienta with small cows because I couldn't even get the tientas most Spanish fighters did."

During these early days in Seville, Fulton met two of the legends of Spanish bullfighting—Juan Belmonte and Rafael El Gallo. They were old men by then, sitting quietly in a small café called Los Corrales, sipping coffee and lighting each other's cigars and accepting the admiration of the young aficionados and aspiring novilleros. Fulton was to become very friendly with both of them before their deaths a few years later.

By 1961 Fulton felt that he was ready to take his alternativa. Antonio Ordó√±ez, Spain's No. 1 fighter and a friend, promised to help him. "Get a fight in Seville in June," Ordó√±ez said. "I'll set it up to give you the alternativa in July." Unfortunately, Ordó√±ez was gored, his season cut short, and Fulton wound up appearing in only one novillada that summer.

Early in October he got a call from the impresario in Madrid on a Monday, offering him a fight in the capital the next Sunday. Although he knew he had not had enough work, Fulton accepted.

"If I turned him down, I might never get the chance again," he said. "My American friends in Madrid were anxious for me to fight there. My Spanish friends in Seville knew it was a mistake."

To get some practice, John bought a bull for $210. It turned out to be blind in one eye and reluctant to charge. "I fought it anyway," Fulton said. "This was on Tuesday. I didn't get much useful work from the animal, and when I went in to kill I dropped it on the first sword." Late Wednesday night Fulton got another call, from the impresario in his good-luck ring, Puerto de Santa Maria. He was offered a fight the next day as substitute for a novillero who had been injured.

"It meant two more bulls to work with," he said. "At first I was overjoyed, but before I went to sleep I began to worry. What if a bull stepped on me or gored me seriously enough so that I wouldn't be able to fight in Madrid?"

As usual, Fulton cut an ear and was carried from the ring in triumph in Puerto the next day. But his first bull knocked him down and he sprained his ankle, and by the time he got back to Seville it was too swollen and sore to walk on. Despite emergency treatment from a doctor at the air base, he could barely put his weight on the foot by the time he had to leave for Madrid.

The afternoon was rainy and cold, and Fulton's luck matched the bad weather. "I suppose that was the low point in my career," he says now, ruefully. "A few days before the fight a group of American servicemen had got drunk and nearly caused a riot in downtown Madrid by shouting insulting remarks about Franco and offending some Spanish women in the worst way possible. When I got out of my car at the plaza the crowd was thick and angry, and they yelled things like, 'Go back to Chicago, gangster!' and 'Yankee, go home!' "

Fulton could not afford to bring a full cuadrilla with him from Seville. He had brought only one picador and one banderillero, and the pickup help he got from the pool in Madrid was incompetent. He had sent his sword handler around to the critics with bribe money, and one critic sent the envelope back after examining the contents. "Tell your matador, 'Ese no es mi dinero,' " the critic told the sword handler, saying in effect, "This isn't my kind of money. Not enough."

"It's my kind," Fulton said and pocketed the cash. He never tried to bribe another critic.

Unable to move easily on the bad ankle and handicapped by the inept pickup help, Fulton was something less than Manolete. The public audibly thirsted for his blood and, to cap the disaster, he could not kill his second bull within the time limit.

"It was a nightmare," he says now. "I didn't do badly with the cape and the muleta, but the first time I went in with the sword I hit bone. The next time I got a media estocada [the sword half buried], and the bull coughed blood and wet itself. Usually a bull hit like that will go down eventually, but this damn animal grew stronger and stronger."

Sweating, tired and with the bad ankle aching, Fulton went in 26 times trying to kill the bull. Ironically, the bull dropped to its knees and died just after the last warning had sounded. Fulton could barely hold back his tears as he walked out under a rain of cushions.

The critics were even cruder than the crowd, and the man who had spurned Fulton's offering was particularly vicious. "I suppose it was to be expected with so many tourists in the stands," he wrote. "Eventually one of them had to overflow into the ring, and that is what happened last Sunday."

It was on Belmonte's ranch near Seville that Fulton regained his confidence after his horrific debut in Madrid. "I was really down," he says. "I talked to Ordó√±ez and told him I was going to stick it out, and he said the deal about the alternativa was still on. Later, at his suggestion, I turned down an offer for the alternativa from another matador. But Ordó√±ez never carried through on his promise, an arrangement with Jaime Ostos to give me the alternativa fell through when he was very badly gored."

Now Fulton was seriously considering giving up the bulls, but Belmonte came to his rescue. He had a tienta (testing of the cows) at his ranch and invited Fulton to participate.

"I decided to go and do my best and then ask Belmonte if he thought I could ever be even a lousy bullfighter," Fulton recalls. "If he said no, I'd give it up."

But Fulton's luck changed and he excelled. "That afternoon I fought as well or better than I ever had," John says. "You don't kill the cow, but when the time came for the estocada I threw away the sword, profiled, went in over the horns and put my hand on the cow's back where the sword would have gone in. To give the impression that you have followed through enough to bury the sword to the hilt you try to keep your hand on the animal as far along her back as you can. On this one I slid my hand all the way back until I grabbed her by the tail. When I finished, Belmonte and the guests were standing and applauding. I can't tell you how I felt."

Later Belmonte said, "If it were not for his name, you would never know that this young man is not a Spanish bullfighter."

Kind words helped, but what Fulton needed was money; he had no regular work. At one point Ernest Hemingway, probably remembering his own tours of Spain with Sidney Franklin, gave Fulton and a friend, Photographer Bob Vavra, a $100 traveler's check to tide them over. A group of Texans offered to put up $10,000 in return for half of his earnings in perpetuity. "We were just signing the papers," John says now, grinning. "Then one of them had the bloody nerve to say, 'But what do we do if you are killed by a bull?' I told him what he could do and that ended that."

One of the rare benefactors who came through was Randy Burke, a wistful character with dreams of glory. "He was 52 when he decided to be a matador," Fulton says. "He took lessons in Mexico City, then came to Seville. He was expecting to inherit two million bucks, and he lived on what he could borrow on his expectations. One evening we were talking about the difficulties of becoming a bullfighter and the expense, and he said, 'Would a thousand dollars help you?' I said, 'Sure.' He wrote me a check for $500 and his wife matched it and then they gave Bob Vavra $500 to help him along. They didn't know either of us well. On the way home Bob and I laughed, figuring they got their kicks writing phony checks. But the checks were good."

The offer of the alternativa came suddenly. One of Fulton's friends was Don Felix Moreno de la Cova, a bull ranch owner who is now mayor of Seville. He invited Fulton to a tienta on his ranch and John accepted, although the bulls of the ranch were no bargain and the cows were almost as bad.

At the tienta Fulton performed well. At one point one of the Spanish youngsters who haunt tientas for a chance to cape a cow tried his hand. "He was a real gorila," Fulton said. "Don Felix said, 'Stop. Let an American show you how.' When it was over, he asked me if I would like to take my alternativa in Seville with his bulls. I had seen one big gray bull of his that was very good and, in spite of the size of the others, I accepted."

The fight was set for July 18, and again Fulton's bad luck came through. At a tienta 10 days before, he stretched a tendon in his left knee and was confined to bed until the day of the alternativa. "All I could do was lie still," he said. "I wasn't sure I would be able to stand up for the fight, but I damn sure was going to try."

The day before the fight some of John's friends went to see the bulls. They came back to his apartment with the air of mourners at a funeral. "They didn't say anything," Fulton recalls. "They didn't have to. The bulls were cathedrals. Real elephants." One of his banderilleros suddenly remembered a previous engagement and left town. Tulio Vàzquez, a close friend of Fulton's and a rancher, died the night before the fight. Jaime Ostos, the matador who had offered to sponsor Fulton for the alternativa earlier, was severely gored.

"I slept all right the night before," Fulton said. "I'm not superstitious. Once the same funeral crossed my path three times on the way to a corrida and my cuadrilla was ready to quit, but I cut two ears that afternoon. So I slept. I always do. I worry sometimes about goofing up and looking ridiculous, or I may think of trying a difficult pass and being caught, but I don't fear the possibility of physical injury."

Early in the evening a friend came by and offered to relieve Fulton of the pain in his knee for the duration of the fight. "Ignore the knee," he said. "I will concentrate. If you ignore the knee, the pain is free and I can accept it." Whatever the reason, the knee was all right for the fight.

Fulton got out of bed to dress about two hours before the fight, assisted by his sword handler, Manolo Tovar. Like most matadors, Fulton is meticulous in preparation. He has modified the traje de luces (suit of lights) in some ways. Under his talequilla (pants), he wears silk tights instead of linen drawers. The tights do not bunch around the legs and a bull's horns are less apt to catch in skintight fabric. His talequilla is fastened with hooks and eyes, not laced at the bottom. When a fighter is ready to give his all in a corrida he tells his boy, "¬°Apretad los machos!" or "Cinch up the laces!" But Fulton feels that the tight laces tend to cut the circulation in his lower legs and slow him down. His black leather pumps have elastic at the instep, not laces, and the sewed-on bows are always impeccably in place. Seville's aficionados are very critical of the niceties of dress.

Fulton dedicated his first bull to his father and to Harper Lee and dedicated his second to Don Marcos Orueta, a building contractor who had helped arrange the alternativa. The first bull was cowardly, but Fulton, staying near the fence to give the animal courage, fought it well. He was awarded a vuelta—a triumphal circuit of the ring—but not an ear, because he had had to go in twice to kill. At the entrance of Fulton's second bull, the crowd gasped and three of John's friends left the ring rather than watch the slaughter.

"I saw that monster come out, and come out, and come out!" one of Fulton's friends said later. "Unbelievable!" It weighed 576 kilos and had the curly hair of age over its face and neck. Many bulls fought in Madrid weigh 100 kilos less.

Fulton watched the big bull carefully.

"A good bull will charge the cape well and follow through after it," he explained. "It will lower its head slowly and steadily in the charge, not box with its horns. It will bang the burladero with its horns when the banderillero ducks behind it."

But this bull cut in to the right on its charges, ripping a cape from Manolo Navarro, one of Fulton's banderilleros, and splitting it in two. With Navarro on the bull's left, it charged well.

So Fulton went deep into the ring to pass the bull on its left side, turned completely to take the second pass on the left, working very close and linking several passes, all on the bull's left, and the crowd went wild. Bad luck on the kill spoiled Fulton's chance for an ear, but he got an ovation and his debut was a success.

On the strength of his Spanish ranking as matador de toros, Fulton fought fairly often in Mexico, but his success had come a little late. "In 1961 I probably could have made it big," he says. "By 1964 the novelty of American bullfighters was gone, the syndicate had taken over and you fought for what they wanted to pay you. The risks are the same, so now I just won't fight for peanuts anymore." Fulton confirmed his alternativa in Madrid on October 27, 1967. He had not fought in a long time; he had had one other corrida in Olivares, in late July, and had cut two ears and he had fought in festivals before that, but he was rusty.

"In comparison with the reviews from my debut, most of the critics were fair," he said. "I did not cut any ears, but I gave a sound professional performance."

With the confirmation of his alternativa in Madrid, Fulton accomplished almost all he had set out to do. "I would like to appear in the Plaza México in Mexico City as a full matador, because that's where it all started," he says. "I can look back and be proud of what I have done, not sorry for what I haven't."

He drives a new Mercedes-Benz, a symbol of the successful matador, and lives in a villa in Seville now, a house once occupied by the daughter of Juan Belmonte. He is well known and respected, and he earns a good living as an artist. He paints bulls in their own blood, and the blood comes from bulls he has killed; the first such painting he did was for Adlai Stevenson, and now his paintings are owned by James Michener, Peter O'Toole, His Highness the Maharajah of Cooch Behar, the Yale University Art Gallery and the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED library, among others. They are beautifully executed and done from a viewpoint no other artist can command—in front of the bull. He has also collaborated with Vavra on a child's book called Little Egret and Toro, and he has produced a magnificent volume called Lament for The Death of a Matador, a lush evocation of the poetry of García Lorca commemorating the death of Ignacio Sanchez Mejías.

John Fulton is a kind, generous man, endowed with duende, a distillation of the charm, honor, generosity and grace of the best of the Spanish character. Michener has written of him: "I know of no foreigner in Spain who has shown me duende except that extraordinary American, John Fulton Short.... One night during the fair in Sevilla, in a high attic where some dancers, guitarists and singers had gathered, Short danced in such a way that duende shone upon him. It was something to see."

At a flamenco party he gave recently, it shone upon him again. He danced and recited Lorca in Spanish and he is a graceful, assured flamenco dancer, as fluent on his feet as he is in Andalusian. When he finished, a Spaniard made a little speech.

"We dedicate this next song to our friend John Fulton," he said. "Matador, painter, dancer and, above all else, Andalusian. He is one of us."

So he is.

PHOTOROBERT VAVRA PHOTOROBERT VAVRAIn the world-famous Madrid ring John Fulton executes a "pase de pecho." PHOTOROBERT VAVRADuring a testing of the young bulls, Fulton rides with the late Juan Belmonte.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)