Barnaby Conrad (1922 – 2013)

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Barnaby Conrad at SBWC in 1987

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.

Barny, Ray Bradbury, and friends

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.

Barny reading the always hilarious “worst first sentence” contest winner at one of SBWC’s closing night banquets.

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.

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3 Responses to Barnaby Conrad (1922 – 2013)

  1. I am so sorry to hear this. Hugs and condolences to everyone at SBWC. Barnaby will be missed.

  2. Pat Grueninger Beasley says:

    Mary, I just learned that Barnaby passed away last month. I am sorry for your loss and that of so many us that he made into writers. I still have his Matador postcard saying, “You just have to have your book published.” Then in 2009 when I sent him my self-published book entitled “The Tears I Couldn’t Cry, Behind Convent Doors”, he sent another reply saying he had read it as if he didn’t know its author and “It’s wonderful…” His endorsement , along with Charles Champlin’s and Vickie Patik’s is on the back cover. I was planning to write to him soon and update him on the many customer reviews on Also,I wanted to tell him how relevant my book is, in light of the Vatican’s condemnation of American female religious orders last year. I’m hoping to get on this year’s SBWC’s first book panel in his memory. You know he would have liked that. My seven years at the SBWC made me able to write and publish my true story. Of course, you were his humble, hard-working partner and I thank you too. I’m working on other books now, but I really miss my SBWC experience AND the ocean! With gratitude always, Pat Grueninger Beasley (still in Magdalena, New Mexico loving the animals inside and outside)
    PS: I am grieving for my own husband Karl who had to be placed in a nursing home last July with advanced Parkinson’s and dementia.

  3. Pat Grueninger Beasley says:

    Sending love and condolences, Mary. I’ll never forget how you and Barnaby encouraged me and made me a published author. Thanks so much! Pat Grueninger Beasley of Magdalena, New Mexico

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