Obituary: Patricia McCormick / Female bullfighter defied convention

Nov. 18, 1929 - March 26, 2013

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During the 1950s, when young women from West Texas were typically expected to take care of the home, Patricia McCormick bucked social convention, and a long male tradition, by entering the bullfighting ring.

By all accounts she was the first woman in North America to become a professional bullfighter. For more than a decade, beginning in 1951, she performed in hundreds of bullfights, receiving top billing in stadiums from Mexico to South America. She drew thousands of fans and became an international celebrity, capturing the attention of the U.S. press.

Time, Sports Illustrated and Look magazines all wrote profiles of her. The bullfighting critic Rafael Solana once called Ms. McCormick, who died March 26 at 83, "the most courageous woman I have ever seen."

In the mid-20th century, however, the bullring, too, had a glass ceiling. Ms. McCormick could never shake the title of novillera, or apprentice fighter. Elevation to the highest rank required a special ceremony and sponsorship by a matador, and no matador would do such a thing for a woman.

Still, her male counterparts marveled at the artistry of her cape work. "Had she not been born a woman," one of Mexico's elite matadors told Sports Illustrated in 1963, "she might have been better than any of us."

Ms. McCormick demanded to fight on equal terms with men. She fought large bulls and always on foot rather than on horseback. Over the years she was gored six times. The worst episode was in September 1954 in Ciudad Acuna, the Mexican sister city of Del Rio, Texas, across the Rio Grande. Newspaper accounts say she turned her back while she was performing a pass and the bull caught her in the thigh.

"The horn went right up my stomach," she told The Los Angeles Times in 1989. "The bull carried me around the ring for a minute, impaled on his horns."

"They gave me the last rites there," she recalled. "The doctor said, 'Carry her across the border and let her die in her own country.' "

As it happened, after living in California for more than 40 years and then moving back to Texas, she did die in Del Rio, in a nursing home, said a cousin, Brent McCormick.

That was just one circle completed, though. In her last years, she was saved from pennilessness through a chain of events that could be traced to that day in 1954 when a bull almost killed her.

Patricia Lee McCormick was born in St. Louis on Nov. 18, 1929. She was introduced to bullfighting as a 7-year-old during a family vacation to Mexico City. For months afterward she staged mock bullfights in her yard, using neighborhood children as substitutes for bulls.

When she was 13 her family moved to West Texas, where her father was chief engineer at Cosden Petroleum in Big Spring. After graduating from high school, she attended what was then Texas Western College in El Paso, where she studied art and music.

Once there, she began crossing the border into Juarez, where she rediscovered the bulls. She watched fights at the Plaza de Toros and became a student of the form, reading Spanish bullfighting magazines and practicing technique in her dorm room.

She quit college for bullfighting, persuading Alejandro del Hierro, a retired matador, to be her mentor, and made her bullfighting debut on Sept. 9, 1951, in Juarez.

The Big Spring Daily Herald reported afterward that a bull had trampled her twice and tossed her with its horns before she plunged the estoque between its shoulders. The crowd showered her with roses, and the judges awarded her the bull's ear, signifying a superior performance.

After killing the animal, Ms. McCormick, streaked in blood, knelt down and stroked its head. "I loved the brave bull," she later wrote in "Lady Bullfighter," her memoir.

Over the next year she honed her skills in the Mexican minor leagues, and in 1952 she was the first American woman invited to join Mexico's matador union.

Ms. McCormick fought her last bull in San Antonio in 1962 and then made her way to California, where she focused on her artwork, mainly line drawings and watercolors. Her favorite subjects were horses and bullfighting scenes. She lived in Pasadena and Pebble Beach and rarely mentioned her past. For a number of years she worked as a secretary at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Returning to Texas in the early 2000s, she settled in Midland. It was there, according to friends, that she fell into financial trouble and nearly lost her apartment. Then Gary Humphreys, the owner of a Del Rio gun shop, intervened.

Mr. Humphreys, it turned out, had a distant personal connection to Ms. McCormick. His mother's best friend had been her nurse at the Del Rio hospital where she was taken after the near-fatal goring in 1954. He had been 9 years old at the time and a fan of hers, he said.

Decades later, after seeing an old poster of Ms. McCormick in Ciudad Acuna, Mr. Humphreys spent eight months searching for her.

He helped her financially and encouraged her to take advantage of her fame, but he also drew her mistrust. Ms. McCormick eventually sued Mr. Humphreys, accusing him of trying to benefit financially from her name. Mr. Humphreys settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

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