This past Tuesday we lost the single most influential man in the Santa Barbara writing community. Barnaby Conrad was not only a writer and the founder of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, but also a bullfighter, the American vice-consul in Spain, and a successful painter. He mentored and inspired so many over the years, fashioning wings for writers who flew up the ranks of publishing. Author of more than twenty books, his stories remind us to have fun and be, as Barny was once called by a famous radio DJ, “a wild bastard!” Brave is to be Barnaby Conrad: hitch a ride to Hawaii; jump into the bullring. The stories we’d have! The stories we could write. The stories we’ll never forget. A man we will never forget. The late Herb Caen said, “They all loved Barnaby because he loved them with a flame that burned clean, true, and unwavering.”
On the heels of his adventures and the publication of his international bestseller, Matador, Barny opened El Matador, which reined for years as San Francisco’s most decadent night club. This is a passage from his memoir, Name Dropping:
One evening in February, 1994, I drove by the Matador and saw that the sign was down. I peered through a window, and though it was dark, I could see that the place was gutted, piles of lumber indicating that an extensive remodeling job was in progress. Nothing about the place indicated that there had ever been a place called El Matador.
Except! Except the beautiful six-foot mat across the double-door entrance, which announced to the world in black with big white letters, “El Matador.” It was the only tangible proof left that there had ever been a place of that name, but it was firmly cemented to the sidewalk. My resolve was instant: Dammit, the Mat’s mat mattered! That was my mat, and I must have it forever.
I stationed my wife at the corner to keep and eye out for the fuzz–it would be terribly embarrassing to go to the slammer for vandalism at my time of life. Then I pressed my son, Barny, who was born about the same time as the nightclub, into vigorous action. With one eye cocked for policemen or the new owner, we pulled, we yanked, and pried. After ten minutes, the great mat ripped away from its bed and, like a giant manta ray, was flopped into the trunk of the car. Feeling as though we’d pulled off a monstrous college prank, we drove away jubilantly.
My more literate son added, “And Caldwell, Steinbeck, Capote, and Kerouac.”
“Well, it was fun while it lasted,” I said.
“I hat that expression,” said Mary, “the fun’s not over ’till it’s over. There’s plenty of fun left.”
And so now, beautifully scrubbed, the object d’art glistens in front of the door of our beach house in Santa Barbara, reminding me daily of the illustrious personalities who once crossed the threshold of a Barbary Coast saloon in the great city of San Francisco so long ago, and of a way of life lamentably long gone that lives only in a few people’s memories and in the musty pages of a leather-bound guest book in my living room.