Barnaby Conrad, the San Francisco-born author who founded the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, died on Tuesday morning at his home in Carpinteria. He was 90 years old.
Born in 1922, Conrad became a mid-century renaissance man, enjoying boxing, painting, and a brief career in civil service for the United States government in Spain, which led him to bullfighting. As the only American to ever battle bulls in Spain, Peru, and Mexico, Conrad was well equipped to pen Matador, which John Steinbeck declared the best book of 1952.
In 1973, Conrad founded the Santa Barbara Writers Conference at Cate School and grew that into a renowned annual event, drawing famous authors from around the country. He ran that conference with his wife, Mary, until they sold it in 2004.
Conrad’s death was not unexpected, as he had been in hospice care for three weeks.
From Santa Barbara Independent columnist Barney Brantingham:
Everyone called Barnaby “Barny” (he spelled it without an e) and he always had a funny story, maybe about Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis working in a closet, or the time someone asked much-married bandleader Artie Shaw, “Mr. Shaw, you’re an intellectual. Why did you marry someone like Ava Gardner?”
As Conrad wrote in his book of San Francisco reminiscences, “Artie looked at him incredulously and replied, ‘Did you ever see Ava Gardner?’”
Conrad was a struggling writer when he produced Matador, a taut account of the death of a bullfighter. It was a worldwide hit, published in over 20 languages. It also made him rich and famous. When he opened a San Francisco nightclub, El Matador, every celebrity in town or just visiting for the night had to drop in for a drink.
As fellow wordsmith Herb Caen wrote, “In Casablanca, it was said that ‘Everybody comes to Rick’s.’ In San Francisco, for a gaudy decade when the world was young, everybody who was anybody came to the Matador, and among the anybodies was a bonanza of somebodies.”
Lots of his stories appear in his book Name Dropping. But any party, no matter how good, has to end, and Barny and wife Mary moved to saner surroundings on a seaside point near Montecito and created a virtual museum: paintings (Conrad could paint as well as he could write and made money at it), letters from the movers and shakers of the world who found their way to his door, sculptures, and a bizarre collection of offbeat art. His parties kicking off the annual Writers Conference were a must. You drank and chatted with famous (or one-shot) authors you’d never meet otherwise. Yes, Barny drank, went into rehab, and produced a magnificent book that’s a moving lesson to all those who need to read it: Time Is All We Have.
Barny was always great company, with stories about “how Frank Sinatra planned to star in a film version of Matador (in order to lure Ava Gardner out of the arms of the real-life matador she’d left him for),” as recounted in Name Dropping.
Barny fought the toros in Spain as a youngster, as El Nino de California (The California Kid), but was lured back at age 36. He was gored almost fatally. After Eva Gabor heard the news she ran into Noel Coward. “Dahling, did you hear about poor Barnaby Conrad? He was gored in Spain.”
“He was what?” gasped Coward. “Gored,” Gabor repeated. “Thank heavens,” Coward replied. “I thought you said bored.”
At 90, Barny was never bored, or bored anyone.