Editor’s note: Steve Paul is the editorial page editor for the Kansas City Star.
He had silver hair, a sculpted face and a strong grip, and he hugged me as if I were an old friend. Jesus Cordoba was about 87 when I traveled to Wichita to meet him in 2012. He had come up from Mexico, where he had long lived, and was visiting sisters and other family members in Kansas, his native state.
After tracking Cordoba down a few years earlier, I was lucky to have had the chance to spend a brief visit with the man one can confidently describe as the most famous male matador from Kansas.
Jesus Cordoba died in Mexico City on Feb. 16. I got the news this week in a phone call from his niece. And his death put me back in touch with a story I regret that I’d never gotten around to writing.
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Yes, in the first half of his life Jesus Cordoba Ramirez pursued a boyhood dream with intention, integrity and more success than most people can hope for. A native of Winfield, Kan., son of a railroad man, Cordoba put on the traje de luces, the suit of lights, and heard the roar of the crowd in the bull rings of Spain, Mexico and South America. More than once, fans in Seville, Spain, hoisted him to their shoulders and carried him through the streets after a particularly impressive performance.
“Matador From Kansas Conquers Spain” was a prominent headline in The Kansas City Star in 1954. Fittingly, he was called dashing, and photos from the era confirm his suave and handsome demeanor.
“I keep my weight at 145 pounds,” he told a reporter at the time. “I smoke only rarely and limit myself to two or three drinks in an evening. Eight hours of sleep. And that does not mean from 4 a.m. until noon. The sleeping must be done at night to get real rest.”
Cordoba was 10 years old when his father sent the family from Winfield to Leon in Guanajato state, Mexico, in part to learn how to speak Spanish. There, he spent idle days playing with capes and fake swords at a nearby ranch, and he witnessed his first bullfight. He vowed that he’d become a bullfighter some day. His mother was not so encouraging. It was too dangerous, she told him. But by 18, he indeed made his debut as a novillero in Leon, a young man fighting the younger bulls who aspired to become worthy of the title matador de toros.
He told me during that meeting a few years ago that he had met a very good bullfighter named Pepe Ortiz and asked what he needed to do to become one as well.
“You have to dedicate all your life to that,” Ortiz told him.
Very soon he did just that. After a few years as a novillero, his first claim to fame was an event opening the Mexico City season in January 1951 before a crowd of 60,000. He was the reported star of the afternoon gala and dedicated the best of six bulls to the wife of the American ambassador, who was in the audience.
In 1953 he spent seven months touring Spain and Portugal to great acclaim.
It was probably during that period when Cordoba met Ernest Hemingway, the great American chronicler of bullfighting. Hemingway had been watching and writing about the Spanish corridas since the early 1920s. Hemingway had returned to Spain after a 15-year absence, and that year spent much time on the circuit following Antonio Ordóñez, a leading young matador of the day. Cordoba said he saw Hemingway every day for about two weeks.
“Jesus Cordoba was an excellent boy,” Hemingway once wrote, “and a good and intelligent matador and I enjoyed talking with him. He left me at the door of Antonio’s room.
As Cordoba told it years later, Hemingway asked him how he happened to get from Kansas to the bull ring. And he asked many more questions. At some point Hemingway tried to encourage Cordoba to write a book.
“Why don’t you write it?” Hemingway said.
“I’m not a writer,” Cordoba answered.
“Well, I wasn’t a writer once. Just take a pencil and start writing. If you don’t like it, tear it up and start over again.”
Cordoba stuck with bullfighting. He became one of the highest ranked matadors in Spain and Mexico, and he had the injuries to prove it. He confessed to being a reluctant killer, especially when a bull had impressed with its bravery. But that is the way of the corrida, and, “to get the ears and the trophies, you had to kill,” he said.
Cordoba’s time in the ring predates the more recent debates over bullfighting’s place in the world. Some think of it as a horrid blood sport and an ungodly assault on animals. When most people think of bullfighting, they lock on to the image of crazy tourists filling the streets of Pamplona during the annual spring running of the bulls. Yet, those who know and deeply understand the tradition view a bullfighter’s performance as the continuation of an ancient ritual, one that brings the notion of confronting inevitable death into high relief during an encounter that combines courage, respect, finesse and a kind of art.
Cordoba had no need to defend his participation. Spain, the spiritual center of bullfighting, was more important than Mexico, he said, and the Mexican circuit seemed to him to take the ritual less seriously. Yet, he continued to fight in both places until the mid-1960s.
When he retired a friend convinced him to go into business, working for a pipe manufacturer in the oil industry.
His niece, Veronica Caudill of Oklahoma City, told me the other day she thought her uncle had started to write a book — perhaps that advice from Hemingway finally sank in — but she wasn’t sure whether he’d finished it.
One of the more fascinating threads of Cordoba’s story is the friendship he had with the other famous bullfighter from Kansas. True story. Her name was Patricia McCormick, and she, too, caught the bullfighting bug in Mexico where her family once vacationed. Though they grew up just miles apart near Winfield, they learned of each other on the bullfighting circuit in Mexico in the 1950s.
McCormick’s story is far more complicated and poignant than Cordoba’s, more a tale of fleeting fame and its illusions, and thus must be saved for another day.
Cordoba lived a satisfied life, filled with a big family in at least two countries and a lot of love. He spent most of his recent years in San Gil, an idyllic town in the state of Querétaro, a couple of hours outside of Mexico City. He took ill only recently, Caudill said, then spent a week in a Mexico City hospital with pneumonia before ultimately succumbing to cardiac arrest. Along with siblings, he leaves his wife of about 56 years, Lucero Cordoba, their five children and nine grandchildren.
In the annals of important Kansans who made a mark on the world, the name of Jesus Cordoba, born and reared in Winfield, should not be forgotten.