Dubbed the ‘Fifth Beatle’ after Brian Epstein became his manager, Henry Higgins struggled as Britain’s first bullfighter, more often than not fighting against prejudice while risking his life in the ring. Richard Torné looks back at the career of a man who led a charmed life until a fateful summer’s day in 1978.
It’s impossible to know exactly what was going through his mind as he positioned his hang-glider over the edge of a rocky outcrop overlooking Mojacar’s coastline, but it’s very likely Henry Higgins felt a rush of excitement similar to when he last faced a bull in the ring four years earlier.
We will never know for sure, because seconds later he fell to earth and broke his neck. So ended the life of a man who had been so fascinated by bullfighting that he was willing to face ridicule and death every time he stepped into the ring.
The son of a British oil executive and a Mexican-Irish mother, Higgins was born in Bogotá in 1944 in a world far removed from bullfighting. He spent his early childhood in South America before being packed off to boarding school in Kent and later to a public school in the Isle of Man. His schooling may have improved, but growing up in such grey surroundings must have had an impact on a boy longing for a return to a more exotic life.
That quest for excitement – a constant throughout his life – proved irresistible, and he found it in bullfighting. The ‘national fiesta’ was not in his blood, but his father’s interest in ‘los toros’ rubbed off on the young Higgins. While on a trip to Spain his parents took him to see a bullfight, and he was hooked from then on.
In his 1972 autobiography, ‘To Be a Matador’, he recalls an incident in a field with a large Hereford bull. Trying to impress his school mates, he decided to grab the bemused animal by the horns. Unsurprisingly, the bull charged and he was slammed against a stone wall. Despite being winded, the look of admiration from his peers was enough to convince him he had found his niche.
In his book, Higgins gives an earnest and often painful account of his early years as a struggling matador. He reveals a shady world of shysters, greedy managers and jealous rivals. More often than not, he found himself having to placate his retinue of self-interested banderilleros and picadors, a motley crew of veteran and aspiring bullfighters, either relegated to secondary roles or hoping to make the big time, all of whom accompanied Higgins to bullfights in dingy villages in the middle of nowhere.
He was fleeced on more than one occasion by unscrupulous promoters who expected him to pay to fight, apparently a normal occurrence for novilleros, the lower league bullfighters. But he took it all in his stride and came back for more, despite getting caught by bulls so often wiser men would have questioned their abilities in the ring.
Veteran journalist Christopher Morris, who wrote a series about Higgins in the late 60s, admits to being fascinated by the slight-framed Englishman from the moment he set eyes on him. “When I was in Madrid freelancing, this rather strange young man came into our office one day and announced himself as Henry Higgins, the British bullfighter, who I’d never heard of.
“He was just starting his career and hadn’t had many fights. The Spaniards could never accept that a British bullfighter could make it in Spain. We once bumped into the Peralta brothers, the rejoneadores (bullfighters on horseback), and had a bet with one of them, Rafael, that Henry would fill the bullring in Fuengirola. He laughed and said we would never do it. So we sent Henry down with a load of leaflets a week before the fight was due to take place. He plastered hotels, bars – the lot. Come the day of the fight, Rafael was standing with us outside the bullring waiting for one or two British fans to turn up, but when the coaches started to arrive, his jaw dropped. Sure enough, we packed the bullring.”
It was one of many false dawns, the high point being when Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein decided to represent Higgins, offering him such a generous contract that the matador, by now almost broken after a string of bitter experiences, was given a new lease of life. It didn’t last long, though. Epstein died less than a year later.
But all was not lost. In came Tito del Amo, a Mojacar club owner and former professional photographer who took the young matador under his wing.
“When Epstein died I came into some money and thought I could be his backer – ‘padrino’ – and take Epstein’s place. We hit it off right away,” del Amo recalls.
Their friendship lasted until Higgins’ death. “I wasn’t that interested in bullfighting – it was Henry. He had tremendous enthusiasm; he liked taking risks and loved danger.”
The view is shared by del Amo’s former girlfriend, Mele Cemlyn-Jones, who also got to know Higgins well. “I never stopped laughing with Henry. He was very adventurous. He loved life and women, and anything to do with speed and danger.
“He felt an affinity with all things Spanish, but found it frustrating to be known as the English bullfighter. He was sick of being taken as a tourist attraction, and couldn’t get the fights he wanted – he just wasn’t getting booked.”
It would be too easy to dismiss Higgins as an eccentric Englishman who was out of his depth among more experienced rivals. It’s a view his close friend Angel Bienvenida – the son of famous bullfighter, Antonio – is quick to dispel. “He was brave and wanted to please the public, to be ‘honrado’, honest. He lacked a bit of experience because he didn’t have as many bullfights as he wanted, but tried to do things in the classic style, such as using a stainless steel sword instead of an aluminium one, which was coming into fashion then.
“But in Spain, if you weren’t Spanish people tended to be a bit prejudiced towards you.”
Morris agrees and adds that his commitment often went beyond the call of duty. “His problem was that he was too brave and on average would get gored once every three fights. He’d take the most appalling risks. I used to visit him in the bullfighters’ clinic in Madrid where he would be recovering from his latest injury. On one occasion, he was lying on the bed, looking very sorry for himself and I said ‘What happened this time, Henry?’ He replied, ‘I’m dying to go to the loo but daren’t’. I asked him why and he said ‘I got nine inches up the backside and it’s bloody painful’. He recovered from that and was back in the bullring five weeks later.”
Faced with rejection and unable to break into the big time, Higgins decided to hang his muleta (cape) for good in 1974. He then embarked on a new venture after hitting it off with eccentric English inventor Clive Sinclair, acting as a sales rep for the electronics firm in the 70s. He also dabbled in real estate and board game promotion, of all things.
But being the adrenalin junky that he was, he was soon seeking a new thrill, and found it with hang-gliding. He took to the task with gusto, taking lessons at an air force club in Madrid. The day of his fatal flight Higgins had decided to fly prone for the first time. Del Amo recalls the fateful day. “He must have figured that there were the right wind conditions, but they weren’t stable and he fell from about 25 feet. It was a short distance, but he broke his neck.”
Higgins’ life is littered with irony. The man who so desperately wanted to be accepted by the Spanish couldn’t even get a stonemason to spell his name correctly on his Mojacar gravestone (it says ‘Henrry’). And he died, not by failing to judge the charge of a mighty lidia bull but by mistaking the strength of a thermal updraft.
He also may have been too naive to be a matador. Bullfighting’s underbelly is often grubby, and the glitter and glamour Higgins so keenly sought was invariably as fake as the gold on a ‘torero’s’ suit of lights.
Perhaps he met a fitting end after all, defying death once more by trying to soar high into the sky, free from the constraints of a cynical world.