The famed American matador on Catalonia’s impending bullfighting ban, the art of killing well, and her friendships with Hemingway and Norman Mailer.
It’s a commonplace in American culture that the American attitude toward bullfighting is unconflicted: having once valorized it in our literature and film, we now loathe it. We consider it barbaric, blatantly cruel, despicable, an anachronistic spectacle we’ve disowned even as a fit topic for reasoned debate. We’ve relegated our involvement with bullfighting to our less enlightened past. Even when, in July of last year, history was made in the Spanish region of Catalonia, where the parliament voted 68-55 to ban bullfighting, the news received only a modicum of notice in the American media. The debate leading up to the Catalonian ban was fiercely pitched, yet elicited little or no substantial commentary in this country, even though it addressed issues of animal rights and animal suffering that have long been in the spotlight of our national discourse.
The ban is indeed historic. When the legislation goes into effect at the beginning of next year, Catalonia will become the only region on the Spanish mainland in which bullfighting is illegal. The official start date is January 1, which falls during the bullfighting off-season. The true moment of import will come this spring, when the first bull trots onto the sands of La Plaza de Toros Monumental de Barcelona. That bull will inaugurate the final season of bullfighting in Catalonia. When the season ends, bullfighting will be deemed illegal on the Spanish mainland for the first time in centuries. (The Canary Islands, another autonomous region, passed a similar ban in 1991, and the Church has sporadically imposed bans in the more remote past.) The ban will remove Barcelona from the roster of the great capitals of bullfighting culture and end fighting at the venerable La Monumental, built in 1914 and now Catalonia’s sole surviving bullfighting arena. Although attendance at La Monumental has declined in recent years, the ban signals a shift in values that goes beyond a decline in enthusiasm; it codifies the power of anti-bullfighting forces against the traditionalists in the country that is recognized as the center of the bullfighting world. It signals as well the possibility that other regions on the mainland will follow the lead of Catalonia and the Canary Islands.
As an American woman bullfighter—a rare conjunction of attributes—Bette Ford offers the dual perspective of a homegrown American and an outsider who earned respect within, and made her mark on, a Spanish tradition. She is arguably America’s most distinguished living bullfighter. She was the first woman to fight in the Plaza México, the world’s largest bullfighting arena and the center of the bullfighting world outside of Spain. In the 1950s she and a handful of other remarkable women broke gender and ethnic barriers and fought before generally hostile audiences in Mexico and elsewhere; not, though, in Spain, where at the time women were prohibited from fighting within the ring.
As regards the American side of Bette Ford’s perspective, it’s probably fair to say that she comes by it as honestly as any American woman whose career has followed a trajectory that could have been scripted by Hollywood. Bette Ford made her historic debut at the Plaza México in 1955 when she was only in her early twenties, but by then she had already ascended to celebrity as a fashion model. Having arrived in New York from a small town in western Pennsylvania, she quickly landed a trio of the most coveted modeling jobs of that era: the Jantzen Swimsuit girl, the Parliament Cigarette girl, and the Camay bride. Ford turned her back on her fashion and film prospects (MGM had offered her a multiyear contract on the basis of a screen test) and moved to Mexico to train as a bullfighting novice. Both Hollywood and New York tracked her subsequent bullfighting career. Warner Brothers made a short documentary about her training, titled Beauty and the Bull (according to Ford, it was paired in theaters with Ben-Hur). Hemingway knew of and admired her achievements, and so did Norman Mailer, who considered writing her biography and whose own writing was likely influenced by his friendship with her (see the curiously incongruous bullfighting-school passage in The Deer Park, the novel that Mailer was revising during the summer he visited with Bette Ford in Mexico City where she was living and fighting). Paddy Chayefsky, too, considered writing her biography.
After several years of fighting as a figura (a bullfighting luminary), Bette Ford left bullfighting and reinvented herself again, this time as a film and television actress. Her ability to move between worlds with ease surely owes much to her remarkable stamina and smarts. (Hemingway referred to her as one of the most intelligent women he’d met.) Both of these qualities were evident during my interview with her. Ford won’t disclose her exact age, but she’s still competing successfully for roles in an industry known to favor those younger. Her most recent film, Valley of the Sun, is currently in postproduction.
I met with Bette Ford at her home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Toluca Lake, roughly a mile to the north of Universal Studios.
—Fortunato Salazar for Guernica
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.
[W]hen you’re out there in the ring, the bull certainly does seem to stand a chance. The unfairness seems the other way around. I’m in the ring, I weigh 90 pounds, the bull weighs 900. I have a cape and a sword. The bull has two sharp horns.
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: Yes, I’ve read those quotes, they do capture the essence of the debate about fairness and tradition.
Bette Ford: But of course when you’re out there in the ring, the bull certainly does seem to stand a chance. The unfairness seems the other way around. I’m in the ring, I weigh 90 pounds, the bull weighs 900. I have a cape and a sword. The bull has two sharp horns. The bull is a 900-pound athlete, an intelligent athlete. It’s capable of guile. A bull will try to outwit you. It will stop and hook when the last thing you expect from it is that it will stop and hook.
Guernica: Perhaps it’s partly that recognition that bulls are intelligent animals, that they’re capable of outsmarting, that gives force to the animal-rights opposition to bullfighting.
Bette Ford: I’m sure there’s some of that. Animals are complicated and so is the animal-rights opposition. It’s hard to read motives in animals, and hard to read motives in politics.
Guernica: Do you have a sense of the extent to which the protests against cruelty played a role in the Catalonian ban, among all the other factors that went into the ban?
Bette Ford: The difficulty in reading motives definitely applies here. Obviously there’s been a shift in values, not just in regard to the treatment of animals, but all sorts of issues that bear on how bullfighting is received. For whatever reasons—shifting values, economic forces—the popularity of bullfighting has declined not only in Spain but in Mexico, where for example they’ve been talking about tearing down the Plaza México. In Barcelona, attendance has been dropping for years. Soccer is displacing bullfighting as a source of potential revenue. There’s also the whole business of Catalonian autonomy, the view that Catalonians have of themselves as separate from—different from—the rest of mainland Spain. As an outsider I wouldn’t want to venture too far into an interpretation of Catalonian politics. However, I would say that my own experience has taught me not to underestimate the power of those who protest against cruelty. I’d also say that there may be a tendency to view the animal-rights opposition in somewhat distorted fashion as a new development, as the product of a very recent enlightenment about the rights due to animals. And then you have a perception of this recent enlightenment colliding with—and in the end, conquering—a barbaric and archaic tradition: bullfighting. The distortion is the view that the enlightenment, if that’s what it is, and the opposition, is recent. In fact, a powerful animal-rights opposition to bullfighting has been around since at least Hemingway’s era. There’s a long tradition of opposition. I saw it throughout my own career. When I was in the Philippines, for example, the SPCA, the American SPCA I believe, followed me there and tried to intervene with the president of the Philippines by asking him to call off my fights. I’d met the president the day before and he said to the representatives of the SPCA, “I beg your pardon, but I’ve already given the lady my permission and my blessing.” Can you imagine such a thing happening today? In one era the majority puts its faith and sympathy with the bullfighter, in another with the bull.
You read the bull, you learn to read the bull more and more accurately, and this reading of the bull is how you deploy your intelligence against the bull’s intelligence. Your accuracy in reading the bull is a weapon, maybe your most important weapon, against all the bull’s weapons.
Guernica: I wonder what you make of the French philosopher Francis Wolff’s argument regarding the bulls bred for bullfighting, an argument that became a part of the debate leading up to the Catalonian ban. Basically the argument is that a fighting bull is bred for only one purpose, to fight to the death the sole adversary that can challenge its supremacy, i.e. the bullfighter whom it confronts in the ring. Allowing any living being to realize its essential nature is inherently good. Therefore bullfighting is not only morally defensible, but morally good, because it allows the fighting bull to realize its essential nature.
Bette Ford: I hadn’t heard the argument, but I find it intriguing. Bravo Francis Wolff.
Guernica: Though if you’re on the anti-bullfighting side of the debate, perhaps not so intriguing because, after all, it’s an argument that can’t be proved empirically. You can’t inquire of the bull about its essential nature. I suspect that Francis Wolff would claim that empirical proof is beside the point, and maybe that the last place you’d want to look for empirical evidence is the bull itself. Still, it’s tempting to ask a bullfighter, who’s on the ground with the bull, if you have any sense of the bull as bringing to the arena the essential nature that Wolff ascribes to it.
Bette Ford: I would suggest that perhaps the last place you’d want to look for empirical evidence is the bullfighter on the ground. I say that because, at least in my experience, in fighting a bull you’re always aware of a paradox concerning your perceptions of the bull. On the one hand it’s your perceptions of the bull that give you the upper hand. You read the bull, you learn to read the bull more and more accurately, and this reading of the bull is how you deploy your intelligence against the bull’s intelligence. Your accuracy in reading the bull is a weapon, maybe your most important weapon, against all the bull’s weapons. On the other hand, you’re human, you have the human tendency to read into the bull things which may not actually be there. You’re very attuned to the bull, your senses are at a very high pitch, and in fact the whole business of being with the bull has a very sensory immediacy: you’re smelling the bull, you’re feeling the bull, literally, if the bull brushes up against you, you have intuitions about the bull based on your experience. You take all these sensory cues and they go into your reading of the bull. And because your senses are at such a high pitch, it’s not necessarily so easy to distinguish in your reading what is there and what potentially gives you a tactical advantage, and what you’re reading into, or projecting onto, the bull.
Guernica: With that caveat in mind, I’m still interested in hearing whether your reading accords with Wolff’s argument.
Bette Ford: I’m thinking of a particular phenomenon that I experienced that would cast doubt on my reading. And let me say parenthetically that it’s appealing to think that I was fighting an adversary with the noble background that Wolff says he has. Perhaps I was. That’s certainly a part of your reading, that you’re squaring off against an animal that’s been bred in a way that makes it a uniquely dangerous threat to you, a mortal threat. You see this 900-pound animal and what’s at the forefront of your awareness is that the bull can kill you. The bull is ready to kill you. The bull is equipped to kill you. You know the bull will kill you if it can, because you’ve almost been killed by bulls who clearly had the intention to kill you, and you’ve probably seen bulls kill in the ring, clearly with the intention of killing. Now what happens when I meet this bull in the ring for the first time, this bull that may be the last thing I see on earth? Well, I get the bull’s attention, the bull notices me, and I meet its gaze. I’m looking into the bull’s eyes for the first time, and am I seeing an intent to kill? Never. What I’m reading in the bull’s eyes is never that it wants to kill me. The peculiar phenomenon for me about this initial reading was the incongruity between what I knew the bull could do to me, and what I was seeing in the bull’s gaze. There was always a very curious, very strong impression that what the bull was projecting in its gaze was, strangely enough, trust, a kind of trustful expectation. The bull isn’t regarding me as an adversary at all but as a sort of comrade or partner. As in, we’re here together, what now? It’s waiting for me to guide it in whatever our partnership consists of. It seems to understand that there’s some deal between us: I’m here, you’re there, here we go. You lead, I’ll follow. The bull is there with you and waiting to see what develops. The bull is not projecting that what will develop is a fight to the death.
Guernica: Yet that’s exactly what does develop. And perhaps the bull hasn’t yet recognized you as a challenge to its supremacy.
Bette Ford: No, I haven’t challenged the bull yet, so perhaps it’s not so striking that I should read that trustfulness, that expectant trust, in its gaze. But what is striking, and incongruous, is that as events unfold, the trustfulness remains. You watch the bull’s eyes throughout the fight—they’re essential cues in your gaining a tactical advantage. They’re also hard to ignore; bulls have these huge, expressive eyes. That reading of trustfulness remains but it’s not as prominent in your awareness because, you know, you’re intensely focused on the direction of the gaze, and responding to the direction and predicting from it which way the bull will move. Also, you have a sense from other cues that things are changing for the bull. You have a sense—maybe from the bull’s body language, maybe from its smell—you have a sense of adrenaline coming from the bull, and irritation, and maybe anger as well. I don’t know that it’s anger—maybe wariness, mainly. At some point you do get a sense of anger. And of the intention to do harm to you. But then, the most striking aspect of the phenomenon for me, of that reading of trust, was that I would notice it even at the very end, when I was in close and going in for the kill. I’m about to plunge the sword in, and now it really is a matter of life or death, it’s down to who gets it, me or the bull, and still I’m seeing what seems like trust in the eyes of this animal which very definitely at that stage of game wants me out of the picture. It was a compelling phenomenon and I noticed it in every bull I fought. Quite possibly I projected it onto the bull to give myself the illusion of dominance over the bull. In any case, it points out the unreliability of taking even compelling evidence that you gather from observation and using it to reliably interpret what’s going on in the bull’s mind.
I’ve been gored, my back’s been broken, my hand was almost ripped off, and I’ll tell you very honestly, until the next morning after surgery, I had absolutely no pain…
Guernica: But at the same time you’re suggesting that there are reliable cues that you can go by. For example, you say that you have a sense of wariness and possibly anger by reading body language and other cues. Can you use those other cues to judge the bull’s experience of pain? The experience of pain was taken as a given by both sides of the Catalonian debate, maybe so much of a given that’s it’s worth examining. Do you agree with this basic premise that there is pain? That the bull feels pain?
Bette Ford: Well, let’s remember that what the Catalonian protesters were arguing was not just that the bull experiences pain, but that the way the pain is inflicted constitutes a form of torture. And that what most of the protesters are calling torture, or an assault on the bull, occurs before the kill. The so-called torture argument is focused mainly on the banderillas and the work of the picadors. Now with that enormous caveat about the unreliability of perceptions, I’ll just go so far as to say that one complicating factor that’s almost always overlooked is the potential effect of adrenaline. There’s certainly adrenaline on your side, the bullfighter’s side, and there’s adrenaline on the bull’s side—if that’s truly what it is for the bull. It seems to be adrenaline. On your side, you’re tremendously high on adrenaline. You’re so high on adrenaline that you don’t feel pain, which is why you see bullfighters sustain horrendous gorings, get back up and go and kill the bull. I’ve been gored, my back’s been broken, my hand was almost ripped off, and I’ll tell you very honestly, until the next morning after surgery, I had absolutely no pain: disappointment, yes, pain, not at all. Is it the same for the bull? I’d like to think so. I’m willing to accept that the bull does feel pain, and if so, I take the view that the tradition justifies the pain, but I would much prefer to believe that the bull does not feel pain.
Guernica: And as for the kill itself? In the Catalonian debate, the side arguing for the ban brought forward veterinary evidence that given the anatomy and physiology of bulls, and the way that kills occur, there is substantial pain.
Bette Ford: I can only answer from my experience, and my answer is the same as what I think any bullfighter would answer. When the kill is done cleanly, it happens extremely fast, so fast that when you’re right there with the bull, you don’t have any sense of the bull suffering. When it’s not done cleanly? Then very definitely, there’s a distinct impression of suffering and pain. Again, that’s just an impression.
Guernica: But you’re granting the possibility that the bull does suffer. And it’s interesting to hear you granting it and at the same time sympathizing with the bull as an animal that you would prefer not to feel pain.
Bette Ford: That’s really at the heart of the debate, isn’t it? You can’t get around that possibility of pain. At the very least, there are messy kills. I don’t believe that anyone connected with bullfighting would deny that what happens in the ring has an element of suffering and perhaps cruelty to it. So then it comes back to whether the suffering and cruelty is justified by its place in a tradition that has deep roots in the culture. At present, the view in Catalonia apparently is that it does not.
Guernica: Regarding the killing of the bull, you gained some notoriety early in your career from an interview you did with the Village Voice, an interview that appeared in one of the very first issues of the Voice: they’d chosen you to inaugurate what would become their weekly interview series. You were asked whether it bothered you to kill in the ring. Your answer was, “I love to kill. ” Were you being intentionally provocative?
Bette Ford: Oh, no, not at all. I was very young and raw and spoke the first words that came into my head. What I should have said is, “I’m good at killing, I’m known as a bullfighter who kills well, and that I can kill well, that I can compete technically with my male peers in my technique in killing, gives me satisfaction. ” I never took pleasure in seeing a bull die. Relief, but certainly not pleasure.
Guernica: Was there backlash from your remark? It is a sort of stunning sentence to read on the page now: “I love to kill. ”
Bette Ford: Not from the quote itself, I don’t believe so. No one has ever approached me and said, “Oh, you’re the one who told the Village Voice that you love to kill. ” When I was fighting and just afterward I did experience a certain amount of, let’s say stigmatization, which had do a lot with the fact that I was moving between two worlds, the world of bullfighting in Mexico and the Philippines, and the world outside bullfighting, here in the United States. There were some outright attacks on me, partly by animal-rights people, partly by people who were just dead set against bullfighting and who viewed me unequivocally as cruel and heartless for killing…you know, what kind of person could I be, how monstrous, how devoid of feeling, to kill an innocent animal. Mostly, though, what I experienced was a mixture of fascination and revulsion. People would view me as not of their world, as a barbarian. I’d done something that they had a hard time making sense of—I’d killed an animal deliberately, and with a sword. They didn’t know how to relate to me. At times I would feel almost like a…creature…people would actually want to touch me, they wanted to know what it felt like to touch this creature who had killed. You kill, it’s part of your world as a bullfighter, it’s a natural part of your world, and then you leave that world and it becomes unnatural.
Guernica: Do you experience any of that same stigmatizing now?
Bette Ford: Less so now, but of course I don’t kill now. There’s been controversy because of my career in the ring, and I have no doubt I’ve lost opportunities, acting opportunities, because of it. Maybe a few opportunities. But the experience now is mainly that people are curious, not so much repulsed. People are interested especially in what it was like to be a woman in a man’s profession. That’s the focus of the curiosity now, not the killing.
Guernica: You and Patricia McCormick and a handful of others might have been expected to open the door for women to take a place in bullfighting, yet there are very few women bullfighters fighting now, several decades later, especially in Spain. And this touches on an interesting aspect of the debate around the Catalonian ban, namely the tension between bullfighting conceived as a tradition and bullfighting conceived as an art form. In the debate, it was defended as both, and then subsequently Madrid reacted to the ban by legally protecting bullfighting explicitly as an art form. Yet it doesn’t fit comfortably into the “art form” category. For one thing, unlike most art forms, it hasn’t accommodated radical innovation. I’m thinking partly of the current scarcity of women bullfighters. I’m thinking also of the contrast, specifically with regard to Catalonia, to the radical innovation in culinary arts that’s taken place in Barcelona and elsewhere in Catalonia in the last decade.
Perhaps Madrid will go the way of Catalonia eventually. And then what’s next…banning the Catholic church? Soccer? It’s almost impossible to imagine bullfighting abolished from Spain entirely.
Bette Ford: Is cooking an art form? Cooking certainly has some of the elements of an art form. Same with bullfighting—what exactly is it, what category do you put it into? It has some of the elements of a sport or contest, and in the United States most people think of it as a sport, an unfair sport. If you’re in Spain or Mexico it’s absolutely not a sport; it’s not thought of as a sport and it’s not written about as a sport. It has elements of public spectacle, but then so does, for example, the Super Bowl. It has elements of a deeply entrenched, deeply conservative tradition, a tradition that resists change, as you pointed out. It’s anachronistic—you enter into a bullring and you’re leaving behind the values of the world outside the ring. I suppose that what I would want to acknowledge is that perhaps the tension, the crucial tension, isn’t necessarily between the view of bullfighting as a tradition versus as an art form, but between the values inside the ring and the values outside the ring. In places like Madrid there’s perhaps more of an alignment between those values inside the ring and outside the ring than in Catalonia.
Guernica: Is there, though? It’s true that Madrid has protected bullfighting as an art form, but there’s been a groundswell of animal-rights protest in Madrid following the Catalonian ban.
Bette Ford: Perhaps Madrid will go the way of Catalonia eventually. And then what’s next…banning the Catholic church? Soccer? It’s almost impossible to imagine bullfighting abolished from Spain entirely. Values do change, though. One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is how the change in values makes the survival of the old values, where they do survive, all the more striking. There are pockets of the old bullfighting world that exist more or less intact, both in Spain and elsewhere. Scott [Bette’s husband] and I were in Madrid recently, sitting in a restaurant with the owner and a guest and they were arguing about [Enrique] Ponce and Jose Tomas, and were about to come to blows. It was so physical and adamant, like, “How could you possibly think Ponce was better than Tomas?” And all of a sudden this beautiful woman in a red dress, this woman at another table, stood up and stamped the floor with her heel and started doing a flamenco dance—truly, a flamenco dance—completely out of nowhere, and it just dumbfounded everyone, and the two guys dropped their argument and went and danced with her. Now there’s a pocket of the old values for you. And on a larger scale, Madrid reacting with the forceful protection of bullfighting as an art form is an example of that survival of the old values.
Guernica: As for the shift in values in Catalonia, are you at all conflicted about the impending ban? What was your reaction when you heard that it had passed?
Bette Ford: Conflicted, absolutely not. I was a bullfighter. I’d like to see the tradition continue. I’m sorry that Catalonia is robbing itself of a tradition that belongs in Catalonia. I was saddened when I heard that the ban had passed, but by that time not especially surprised.
Guernica: You mentioned at the start of our interview that seeing Dominguín fight inspired you to leave your career as a model and actor and become a bullfighter. I want to return to that in the context of the view we’ve just been discussing of bullfighting as an art form. Could you talk a bit about viewing bullfighting as an art form through the lens of an outsider, as you must have when you started your career as a bullfighter?
Bette Ford: Well, you’re correct, my view certainly was as an outsider at the beginning. I knew very little about the technical aspects of bullfighting. I’d seen Dominguín fight and I’d read Hemingway, and that was almost all I knew at least about the technical side—it wasn’t as if I’d snuck into pastures to fight calves in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where I’d grown up. The transition was abrupt to say the least. I had to learn everything from scratch, the most basic of the fundamentals, how to avoid getting killed first of all, also how to handle the fear of getting killed. Even my Spanish was rudimentary at the time. I think the abruptness of the transition, and how little I knew about technique, shaped how I perceived bullfighting as an art form once I was there and in the middle of it. I latched onto what was familiar to me as a way of making the transition. And what I latched onto were the elements that stand out if what you mostly know is modeling and acting. The three-act structure of a bullfight, for example. That was something I understood and that was salient for me. Also of course the costumery, but mainly the theatrics and the idea that you’re in the spotlight, you and the bull, that there’s a supporting cast around you, and most important, that you’re building toward something through the first and second acts, you’re building to a culmination in the third act. I think that’s one of the reasons that I learned to kill well. As an actor you understand the importance of the culmination, drawing everything together cleanly in the third act. So that became a goal for me in the beginning and something I worked hard on, to kill cleanly.
Guernica: You spoke of handling your fear. How did you do that? Was there any way at all that you were able to use your experience as an actor, your experience in mastering anxiety around performance, when you became a bullfighter?
Bette Ford: Mostly I went with my father’s advice, which was, if you fear something, walk into it. I sort of threw myself into it, actually [laughs]. I really was very young and reckless and in retrospect, very lucky. There were a lot of people who expected me to be killed. When I started out fighting, promoters used to say, if you want to make money in a border town, get Bette Ford to fight. Because Americans would come in droves to see me killed. I’d be down, the bull would be going at me, and the crowd would be shouting, “Kill her, bull, kill her.” They expected me to fail, this American woman, girl almost, who thought she could fight bulls.
Guernica: To turn the question around, then, when you went back to acting after your career in bullfighting, did you find that your experience of handling fear in the ring, and your experience of performing in the ring, informed your experience performing as an actor?
When you’re in the ring you don’t even have to think about focus because the danger is so imminent. Imminent. You train and you prepare and then the adrenaline kicks in and drives you into focusing intensely. You’d better focus, right? Or else you’ll make your exit on a stretcher.
Bette Ford: Well, I became much more aware of the differences in focus, in how you focus. Acting requires focus, too, but acting doesn’t, you might say, demand focus. When you’re in the ring you don’t even have to think about focus because the danger is so imminent. Imminent. You train and you prepare and then the adrenaline kicks in and drives you into focusing intensely. You’d better focus, right? Or else you’ll make your exit on a stretcher. There isn’t any pressure to push yourself to whatever place it is where you find that focus—no pressure, because it just happens. You don’t have to worry about it happening or not. The danger, the imminence of the danger, puts you there. So the difference in acting is basically—there’s no stretcher. The dangers are there, they’re imminent, the intensity is there, and in a way it’s life or death, but then again it isn’t. You can tell yourself that it’s life or death, but your body—unfortunately—realizes that it’s not. Your body makes a reasonable assessment of what the stakes are. And then it decides, okay, no stretcher, no reason to boost you way up high with adrenaline. You don’t get automatically pushed into that focused place. You have to find your own way. And once you get there, it’s a different quality of focus than in the ring. In the ring, the focus takes over completely. Nothing displaces it, it’s that automatic and intense. But when you’re acting, once you find your focus, if you find your focus, you’re always aware, a part of you is always aware, that you can lose it. You’re vulnerable to distraction. Not just external distraction, like someone coughing, but your own internal distractions. Insecurity, what went wrong at home that morning, etcetera. For me, the paradox was that I’ve felt more vulnerable at some auditions than I did when it was a matter of either: I kill the bull or the bull kills me.
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.
Guernica: Do you have any plans to see a fight in Barcelona before the ban goes into effect?
Bette Ford: I plan to, but then again I hope to be so busy working that I won’t have the time to go to Barcelona.
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