Oral history interview with Patricia McCormick by Sarah Darley
1715 King’s Way apt. 1704, Del Rio, Texas
Assignment for Mr. Braudaway’s American History class
Nov. 5, 2006
Patricia McCormick, “The Lady Bullfighter,” as she is known, was kind enough to sit down with me and answer a few of my questions about her beginnings, her famed career as the first North American matador, and explain some of the elements of bullfighting. She was also very enthusiastic to show and talk about some of her artwork, particularly that of horses.
Sarah Darley: First I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview, I really appreciate it. What’s your full name?
Patricia McCormick: Patricia Lee McCormick, and my mother was Owen.
SD: Where did your name come from? Was it from a relative?
PM: My Father was McCormick and my Mother was an Owen and “Lee” she just liked, she just tacked it on. I’m no relation to Robert E. Lee. I wish I were but I’m not.
SD: Where were you born?
PM: St. Louis, Missouri.
SD: How long did you live there?
PM: I was born--Mother and Dad lived in River, let’s see, they lived in Illinois and then took me across the Mississippi River and I was known to my mother as a river rat ever since. Then we moved to St. Louis during the war and lived there for about two, three-and-a-half years then came to Texas. And I thought in Texas all the cowboys wore pistols on their sides.
SD: Did you like it in Texas?
PM: Yeah, I liked it. My dad thought that there were trees in west Texas so he was miserable the first year. But Mother and I settled down, very quickly.
SD: When did you see your first bullfight?
PM: When I was--when I was seven years old. And they were--my parents were told before they leave Mexico they should see a bullfight. And we didn’t stay for the whole part.
SD: When did you realize that you wanted to be a bullfighter?
PM: I think when I went to Texas Western, which is a branch of the University of Texas. I went to see my second bullfight. And I think it just kinda slowly, like all obsessions grow. It doesn’t come overnight, it grows on you. And I decided I wanted to, I--I just wanted to fight a bull. And I think that was my impression. And I didn’t know how, or when, or how it was gonna take place. I was a student, an art student.
SD: And you said you attended Texas Western?
PM: I attended University of Texas as a music major, flunked out on music so I went on probation and the best way they thought for me to get off of probation was to go and take an aptitude test and I went into art and my dad didn’t like what he saw, what I brought home from Austin. So he decided to send me to Texas Western. It was a branch of my--of the University and my hours or units passed but there was also very well know Spanish sculpture. And I thought I would major in sculpturing, so I went there and then that’s when they, what they call “the bug” bit you , and wanted to become a bullfighter I was 20 at that time.
SD: When you decided that you wanted to be a bullfighter what was the first thing you did? Did you find a trainer?
PM: Well I--I thought it was gonna be easy to find a trainer but I couldn’t find a trainer and I didn’t have a cape so I used a World War I blanket that my dad loaned to me as a cape until I could find one. Cause I had, as I remember I had an obsession to have a cape but I couldn’t find anyone to teach me. And that was a problem so I mimicked, I bought the magazines and mimicked the passes in the photographs. So if I did find a trainer, and I had this inner feeling I would, that I could learn faster if I knew a little of the basic steps of the cape and muleta. I used a chair, for my muleta, in my dormitory and used a mirror in the dormitory to work out the passes. I was a determined little brat, wasn’t I? So I--my message is, “Don’t give up, just pursue.”
SD: Where was your first fight?
PM: In Ciudad Juárez, in Juárez.
SD: Did you fight there several other times?
PM: I fought there. Yes, I did. I fought, the first time I fought I was a guest, to do quites, that is passes with [?] women bullfighters. The second time I was invited to, as a guest to kill one bull, and then that was in ‘51, 1951 and then Alejandro [del Hierro] decided he would go ahead and manage me and then I fought as a professional, with men, January 20th, 1952. I’d already turned 22, which is late to become a bullfighter.
SD: Were there many other female bullfighters? Did you know any of them?
PM: No. There was Georgina Knowles who came, who fought on horseback and she came in later and we became very good friends. And she was the first woman who fought in the Plaza Mexico, Georgina Knowles, on horseback, she didn’t fight on the floor. And so we trained together and became very good friends. I say that because someone else is claiming to be the first woman to have fought in the Plaza Mexico and she wasn’t.
SD: And who was that?
PM: Betty Ford.
SD: What was your favorite place to fight?
PM: I fought mostly along the frontier and of course Del Rio has always been a very extremely, very, very kind, not because I live in Del Rio. But I think, Del Rio, I think Juárez was a very important fight, and Reynosa was one that was booked a lot. I had nine fights, nine corridas, or novilladas all along the frontier of Mexico. And those days the bullrings were open, they’re closed out. Del Rio was especially my favorite because of Mrs. Crosby, who always had a room separated, prepared for me when I came and that was in Ciudad Acuna. It was Villa Acuna in those days. A lot of history.
SD: What methods did you use to train? Were there any certain things that you did?
PM: Well I think the first thing if I were training you, I would put you on the cape, the opening of the cape. I think the most difficult pass is the veronica and that’s when the timing to open the cape right when the bull lowers his head. That’s very difficult and that’s why it’s a difficult pass. I also learned the muleta simultaneously. The muleta’s easy but that’s when the bull is already, his attention is fixed into the [?] and that’s when you expose yourself as much to the bull as the muleta. So you learn the bull, you learn what they call salon toreo. And there’s a reason.
SD: For somebody like me, I’ve never seen a bullfight before, how would you describe the different motions like you said, the passes that you go through? What are the different stages?
PM: I would say the different stages, there are three stages. One’s the picador, which is very necessary so don’t boo him to the matador which is the cape when he takes the bull away from the horse and does wonderful quites. All the matadors are able to do quites. The second would be the tercio the second tercio. Third part would be the banderillas, so you’ll see the placing of the banderillas. They correct what the picador wasn’t able to do, it was more for pageantry than anything else because it’s under the skin. And then the third was the star part, which would be the matador and that’s with the muleta, the sword in which the matador is obligated to kill at the end. Which he hopes to kill, to cut ears and tails, that’s his reward. A bad kill you won’t cut ‘em. So that’s what you’ll see and that’s what you’ll be looking for. And you “olé” when they do something well.
SD: You had several injuries when you were fighting, can you tell me about some of those?
PM: Yes, I had three by bulls and three by cows. And I think the worst one was in Del Rio, or Ciudad Acuna, which they gave me the last rites of the church. And then the second one was in Caracas, Venezuela which was a very bad goring it went in the same direction as in Acuna. Up through the leg into the intestines and towards the middle of the back, that took a little bit of while. It was right in the middle of a revolution, they were having a revolution at that time. So that was kind of exciting for me. And then the third one was in--where was the third one? Oh, I think that was the one I dedicated to Gilbert Rollin I think that was in Ciudad Juárez. I’ll take that back if I remember, but those three were the ones done with bulls. The other three were on tientas where they test the cows. And the cows are smarter than the bulls because they learn faster. And these are cows that are tested to see if they’re worthy to be the mother of fighting bulls. These are a fighting breed, they are not the ordinary cow and bull, as you see around here. They can be quite mean, but these are, if you pass a fighting bull or cow, he’ll turn around and repeat that charge and see if he can get you a second time. That’s a difference.
SD: How did your family feel about it?
PM: Well they were against it in the beginning when they learned that I had been going across the river taking lessons they came down in a huff and Dad went to the president of--this was in El Paso, Texas Western--he went to the president of Texas Western and asked if he knew anything about me and if I was passing grades. My mother stayed home, stayed in the hotel room with me trying to talk me out of it. I was very cool, complacent, I remember ‘cause I had a manager, I had a sponsor, I had an impresario, and a contract with nine fights. That’s hard to beat. So I promised Mother, “Let me try the nine fights, and if it doesn‘t work out or somewhere in between I‘ll come back and I‘ll come back to school as an art major.” But Mother said, “How could you when you love animals so?” And she came from the Quaker stock, so this just didn’t quite go with it. And my dad came back, “Well she’s passing grades, not with the very best but she’s still passing.” So they let me see what happens and that initiated my career.
SD: So by the time they found out, you were already well established?
PM: I was well established, I had those five people and I felt it was important to have those people behind me before they found out and our radio found out because being the first North American it made news. And before they heard out about it on radio--we had radio then, we didn’t have TV--I thought maybe I’d better put a phone call in to them and let ‘em hear it from me first. Mother was all in tears, “How could you? How could you have kept this a secret?” and all that. And they came racing down, and then they heard news, media. I did not intend it, I didn’t know I was the first American bullfighter, I just wanted to do what I wanted to do, and I thought American women had done it before so I was surprised to hear that I was the first one from North America. But I did not know at the time so I don’t want people to think I did this because I wanted to be the first. And I tell Americans who want to get in I say, “Don’t worry about being the first, be the best at what you do, you may not make it, but at least you‘ll be on the top.”
SD: That’s good advice. Did you have any rituals or routines that you would do before a fight to prepare?
PM: You know the bullfighter’s very superstitious. No, I always went to church, if there was a church in town I went to church in the morning and then afternoon we fought the bulls and I had one, I was a practicing Roman Catholic so I had one virgin I was particularly interested in. I hope she was protecting me and I wanted to see if she was in that church, and that was La Virgin of Carmen. And I thought that was a good omen if that virgin was in the church I went to, I remember that. But God, some of the superstitions that some of the bullfighters have I just shake my head I said, “No, I can’t be burdened by all of that.” That’s enough for me and that’s a tall one too.
SD: What about the clothing that you would wear and your paraphernalia?
PM: Well, I wanted to wear the traje de luces, the suits the likes that the men wore. But they said no, and remember now this is the early ‘50s, they said no, you’ll wear the traje corto because it has more dignity for a woman. Traje corto is worn for both sexes and it looks more elegant and the men accepted it because they felt that I fought apart, actually I wasn’t apart, but I liked the cordován hat. I think the hat really sold me, two little pompeiis that they wear. So I went along the traje de corto as advised by my other bullfighter friends and stuck with it, but it was not amateur. And I wore the chaps because it completed the outfit but when the bull was very difficult, when he was hooking on both sides and when he would hook underneath the chaps I took ‘em off. Those chaps were made for horns for cows whose horns go out like that [straight], but when the horns start turning then they can catch--cut, catch under them and they can get you. So I had to be very careful of that but it was very elegant. I loved my chaps, and my hat. And I wore the bullfighting shirt, no ties are worn with the traje de corto it was the four buttons and the button down the pants. I think it was very elegant, and that’s the way you wanna look, elegant. Pretty much what you do, you wanna look very elegant when you go in and have a good seat on that horse.
SD: The ring that you fought in across the border in Acuna, that’s now been paved over, has it not?
PM: Yeah, it’s been made into a parking lot. In those days, the [?] who was empresario of the big plaza in Mexico City went to prison, I don’t know what he did, he went to prison twice actually. So they kinda closed those rings down, brought all the traffic up to the frontier and built these monumental bullrings all along the frontier. So Tijuana and Juarez were probably one of the chief important ones, everyone fought there. So I fought there mostly, most of my career. But I went to Venezuela and we were going to fight in Columbia but revolution again, It was too dangerous. In fact, we nearly had a revolution in Caracas when I was there, and we went right after the Nixon affair, which you don’t remember but I do, they spit on him. So we knew that they meant business. So I was a “gringo,” that’s another interview right there.
SD: There was a photo of you that was called “Sports Photo of the Year.”
PM: I don’t know of that one.
SD: Do you recall that one?
PM: No, I don’t recall that one. I don’t--it could have been, yes. But I don’t recall that one. No one gives me these photographs.
SD: You wrote a book a few years ago.
PM: Yeah. Well, it was pretty long ago, I think it was published in 1954. Lady Bullfighter, and it told the first two-and-a-half years of my career so I told it from a different aspect of someone who just was trying to make a way through a difficult profession. I always thought biographies should be written after you retired but no one was interested in that. I fought ten-and-a-half years, that was…yeah.
SD: During your career, how many bulls and cows did you kill?
PM: I didn’t kill cows, just bulls, bulls only. I killed about three hundred. Three hundred corridas in ten years fight, multiply it by two, I always fought two bulls each fight. Occasionally when it was a mano a mano I fought three bulls. But that was about all my energy could take, and I don’t know what I’d have done with six bulls. Probably dig a foxhole.
SD: How did the other male bullfighters feel about you fighting?
PM: That’s a very good question. So long as I kept my place and was honest, I think the most important thing is to be honest, so when it came to newspapers we didn’t talk about how bad they were. You talked about what you did and what you didn’t do, either you cut ears or you didn’t cut ears and give the merit to the men. And I always tried to be a good companera when the men didn’t have their swords, some of them had to borrow swords to kill. I loaned them mine ’cause I knew mine were top, they belonged to one of the top matadors in Mexico, had ’em made in Spain and was killed by a bull. And so long as they were returned that’s all, saw to it that my sword was always returned. So I tried to be a good companera, and in the newspapers the reports try to be as even as possible. If you did bad, you did bad, if you did good, fine, and the same with the men. They speak well of all the men so I didn’t have problems there and they anticipated it, but they didn’t. Someone asked, “What did the men think of fighting with a woman, with women bullfighters, and with Patricia McCormick?” And they said, “She’s always fair,” which is always very good. I didn’t know what to expect, I thought maybe they would mess with the ends of my banderillas. But this was much, “She was always fair with us.”
SD: When you first started school you were working on an art major?
PM: When I first started school I went to the University, I wanted to be an opera singer but no voice, I had no voice, and I didn’t have much music behind me at all, education. So I flunked out pretty darn quickly after the first semester so I took an aptitude test, and the aptitude test showed toward art. They said, “Definitely keep her away from English,” ‘course I wrote a book but, “Keep her out because she’ll never get out of probation with her English classes,” so I went into art. And from art to Texas Western. My dad’s an engineer, he didn’t ?care for? what I was bringing home from Texas University.
SD: Where was your last fight?
PM: In San Antonio, Texas. For the March of Dimes, and that was my last fight, I didn’t realize it at the time ‘cause I expected to do my farewell appearances along the frontier, ‘cause after ten years I need a rest. But it didn’t happen so I had lecture tours arranged, that was [in] Chicago and it didn’t go through but that was my goal, was to do lecture tours for a while. And of course speak and so on with an audience by myself. But I didn’t go back into bullfighting, I just disappeared off the scene, still disappeared.
SD: So since you’ve stopped bullfighting, what do you do mostly?
PM: I love horses and I don’t ride, I’m a poor rider. You want me to ride one of your horses sometime?
SD: Oh, sure!
PM: [laughing] Put me on the right side there, please! I do, I draw and paint horses now. So I’m very, very satisfied with that. They’re hard to draw, believe me. I prefer the horses, and I do the people so I made an easier decision, but horses are very good. I do bulls too, ‘cause people ask for bullfighting pictures so I reluctantly will do bulls. Domestic bovine.
SD: Is there a certain type of art that you like to do? Watercolor? Oils?
PM: I have oils, but I never ventured that far into oils so I got into watercolors because I saw the painting--watercolors of DeLacroix when he went to--in his journal, when he went to Northern Africa, now from these watercolors he was gonna make his paintings, which he did. But his watercolors were so charming that I said, “I’ve got to, I’ve got to do [that].” Because they were simple, and I like simple things. And I thought maybe this would work very well with horses, and so I realized I have to know my anatomy of horses to make watercolor work. So that’s when my pursuit, so yeah, Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses. So you go into the history of these two horses. The history of horses is very fascinating because it’s also the history of war and human beings because they made breeds of horses to accommodate what they needed at the time. If I may, the Andalusian horse is a magnificent horse, when the moors invaded Spain they invaded with what they call the--not the Arabian horse, that belonged to Saudi Arabia, they invaded with--oh God, my memory. Can you cut that one moment? [laughing] Anyway, they invaded with another breed of horse which is related to the--it’ll come to me in a moment. But most horses, those Arabian horses, we’ll call ‘em Arabian but they’re not [after the interview, she remembered that it was a breed of horse called a Barb]. They invaded Spain, the Spanish knights rode the big, heavy horses and when they came down if you got in front of them you were flat-out. But the little horses that the Moors used could out-flank ‘em on both sides. They just spread out, they saw that they were coming down at one angle, at one point. So they spread out so the heavy horse did not know which way to hit ‘em. So the moors came around from the side and out-flanked them. So the Spaniards decided that they’d cross the Andalusian, the war horses, with these--I‘ve got to find that horse. [There are a few seconds of blank tape while Patricia tries to find the book about the horse she’s thinking of] Ok, but they’re not the Arabian horses but they’re a branch of the Arabian horse, they’re not as pretty and they had a Roman nose rather than a concave or convex and that’s what the Andalusian, which is the grand pappy of our Quarter Horse. Because the Quarter Horse, I think it was for the quarter races in the east and then we had the western Quarter horse that was made for cattle. Could make it turn on a dime. That’s how I learned from painting horses, I wanted to show that they had a purpose and they’re a beautiful horse.
SD: What sort of horses did they use in the bullfights?
PM: The Andalusian and the Lusitanos, which is a branch of the Andalusian in Portugal and you spell that l-u-c-i-t-a-n-o, [I was uncertain about the spelling so I checked and it is actually “Lusitano”] that’s the Andalusian of Portugal. I know he’s not the prettiest horse, and the Andalusian of Spain they used during the [?]. He was a war horse, and they didn’t have any more wars so they took these horses in the bullring. And the Andalusians, as I said before, were the only horses that only officers, when they made the conquest of Mexico, they got only four Andalusians for just the officers and the others had galicenos or whatever horses they had for the cavalry. But these Andalusians got loose and they started mingling with the mustang. And it was the mustang, and Thoroughbred who started the Quarter Horse strain, a beautiful horse.
SD: So those breeds of horses are some of you favorites then, to paint?
PM: Yeah, the Quarter Horse now I’m very definitely I’m going to concentrate on it. Thoroughbreds I’ve been doing for a long time. Andalusians are a little strange to me, but I will draw the Andalusian but it’s very strange to me. First of all he doesn’t have any niche in his back, his head goes--his mane goes all the way back to the middle, I’ll show it to you. [Patricia gets up to get one of her drawings off her desk] In other words, the Quarter Horse has a niche here [the area where the top of the neck ties into the back], the Andalusian goes right back down and his legs are real awkward, strange. He has a Roman nose, and I want to make that quite prominent, he has a straight back like the eastern horse. And he’s a big horse. He’s a war horse. SD: And you had an art show just about a month ago and you had quite a few people turn out for that. You must’ve had a good time at that. PM: Yeah, I had quite a few. I’m gonna show you the Andalusian since you’re a horsewoman. [Patricia looks for book] Ok, you might ask, “Which are my favorite equine artists?” And I think Lionel Edwards is the one, he did very simple ones, Lionel Edwards. Gilbert Holiday he worked a lot with the heavier horse, the ones that pulled the artillery in World War I. He’s funny as all get-out too. But these are all some of my--I think Paul Brown is one of the fine-this is some of his horses. [she shows me some copies she made of his works] This horse I will try to draw and then try to paint. These are Lionel Edwards. English, he’s English. And Gilbert Holiday, English. No, he’s Welsh [Edwards]. And Gilbert Holiday is English, he’s very fine. Paul Brown did more polo, he did a lot of polo, I think he did some western. He’s American. Another one, ok this is Edward--
SD: Is that Edward Lionel--or Lionel Edward?
PM: Uh-huh, Lionel Edwards, the Welsh. He did simple works, and that’s why I like him. This is similar to his stuff, his watercolors. So I like the watercolor, I thought that would be very good for horse studies. And I hope I make more sense in that article.
SD: Oh, it’s fine. Well, I think I’m pretty much all out of questions, but I really appreciate you taking the time.
PM: I think it’ll make a good article, and you ask some very good questions.
SD: Thank you.
PM: And questions that people will be asking and they may not even be interested in what I did but the questions will come to mind.
SD: Oh, I’m sure they’ll be interested.
PM: The way you write I’m sure it will be too. You ask good questions they should be very good.
SD: Well, thank you.
[The following images have been added by the editor.]
Matadora Patricia McCormick.
Patricia McCormick authored her autobiography, Lady Bullfighter.