The Afición of Brian Epstein

Graeme Pont


When John Lennon recorded his song You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away in 1965, he was cryptically addressing his manager Brian Epstein. The Beatles’ manager had secretly kept a flat at number 36 Falkner Street in the heart of Liverpool’s red light district. It was there that Epstein would bring the “rough trade” that was his sexual preference.  Homosexuality was, of course, illegal in Britain at that time and Epstein would have been committing professional and social suicide had he revealed his sexuality to the wider world.


This was happening at a time when Spain was viewed as exotic and, as a consequence, Epstein did not have to conceal another obsession - bullfighting. Brian Epstein had to keep his sex life under wraps, but he was defiantly out of the closet in relation to his passion for La Fiesta Brava: indeed, if truth be told, it was probably never in the closet. We know that many celebrities and artists at that time regarded bullfighting as a fashionable spectacle with which it was cool to be associated. Today, of course, Epstein would find his situation reversed. If Lennon were alive and writing his song in 2008, it would be Epstein’s love of bullfighting that he would have to securely hide away


Bullfighting and Spain played a recurring part in Epstein’s life and featured, albeit subtly, in aspects of the lives of the Beatles. For instance, Epstein had the fab four dress up in suits of lights for a series of publicity photographs that were wired round the world, while John Lennon appeared in traje corto on the front of his book, A Spaniard in the Works (and incidentally, found inspiration in Almería, where he wrote the haunting Strawberry Fields Forever).


Brian Epstein discovered his afición at the age of 27 during September 1961. Epstein had taken a six-week extended holiday to Spain which included visits to Valencia, Madrid, Sevilla and Barcelona. He left England to escape an oppressive anxiety and fear caused by the impending release from prison of a particular blackmailer. The individual in question had tried to extort money from Epstein regarding an incident in a Gents’ toilet and, when sentenced, he had sworn violent revenge against his accuser. Epstein returned from Spain in October having seen his first corridas. He was hooked and would return to Spain many times, specifically to attend bullfights. It was his custom during his dozens of transatlantic flights from America at the height of Beatlemania to break his journeys in Spain before flying on to London. Such stopovers were carefully organised by his staff to allow Epstein to attend corridas and various ferias.


Alistair Taylor was Brian Epstein’s first personal assistant and had accompanied Epstein when he “discovered” the Beatles in the Cavern. Interestingly, Taylor’s first official undertaking for Epstein was to arrange to have a number of Epstein’s bullfight posters tastefully framed. Subsequently, these would hang with others in one of Epstein’s offices in the family business premises in Whitechapel in the centre of Liverpool. Later, on 24th January 1962, it was in this long and narrow office that the Beatles signed a management contract with Epstein. We are therefore gifted  an almost surreal image of that fateful day, of the Beatles putting pens to paper under the gaze of Antonio Ordóñez, Luis Miguel Dominguín, Jaime Ostos, Paco Camino and host of other figuras of the time. Not an image, to be sure, that the PETA-supporting Paul McCartney of today would wish to recall.  


Los toros and Spain feature in one of the most debated and controversial incidents in John Lennon’s life. According to Alistair Taylor in his memoirs, A Secret History, “Brian took John to Spain because he wanted to share with him his great love – bullfighting.” Taylor goes on to say, “The colour and the violence and the spectacle of the gruesome sport was something that Brian really loved. He knew it would impress John.” Apparently, Lennon had been a little reluctant to attend his first corrida, but, as a result of Epstein’s well-honed persuasive arts, he succumbed, and, according to Taylor, Lennon had “loved the pure theatre of it and hadn’t minded the blood at all.” Controversy amongst Beatles scholars does not focus on the fact that the man who would become the macrobiotic, counter-culture world spokesman for vague spirituality and utopian “peace” had attended a bullfight and enjoyed it. Controversy surrounds the fact that Lennon jetted off with Epstein for a 12-day holiday in Barcelona during April 1963 while his wife, Cynthia, was left to tend to the needs of their newborn son Julian. Cynthia was understandably aggrieved and confused, but all she got by way of reply was, “Being selfish again, aren’t you? I’ve been working my arse off on one-night stands for months now. And anyway, Brian wants me to go, and I owe it to the poor guy.”


Epstein had explored Barcelona on his first visit to Spain in 1961 and took delight in showing his favourite Beatle the city: going shopping, visiting the nightspots and explaining the art of bullfighting over wine and tapas in a variety of cafés. They hired a car and drove to Sitges, where Lennon amused himself in a café by pointing at young men who were walking by and asking Epstein what he found attractive or unattractive about each individual.


This, for many of us today, would be an unremarkable story, but at the time it nearly caused an irreparable scandal. At Paul McCartney’s 21st birthday party, local DJ Bob Wooler teased Lennon about his Spanish trip with Epstein. A drunken Lennon responded by lashing out, breaking three of his victim’s ribs. Lennon’s defence to wife Cynthia was, “He called me a bloody queer, so I bashed his ribs in.” The DJ was paid off by Epstein with what was then a substantial sum of £200, meaning that a potentially scandalous story was buried at a crucial time in the Beatles’ fledgling career.


In the spring of 1964, Brian Epstein and personal assistant Peter Brown flew to Spain to attend corridas and meet Manuel Benítez ‘El Cordobés’.  The “Beatle Bullfighter” had attracted the interest of Epstein, so much so that on the bathroom wall of his London house he had hung a large framed photograph of the matador. Brown accompanied Epstein to El Cordobés’ finca in Andalucía with the intention of inviting the matador to play a part in the Beatles’ next movie. They were treated like royalty and enjoyed each other’s company hugely. However, El Cordobes’ representative came across as “a monster,” according to Brown, and any prospect of a deal fell flat.


Peter Brown accompanied Epstein frequently on his trips to Spain and clearly enjoyed the experiences, commenting, “Every day there was a bullfight and we stayed up all night because the Spanish people are late people.” They met the English aficionado and doyen of drama critics Kenneth Tynan, who introduced them to Orson Welles, who was a well-known champion of Antonio Ordóñez.  Brown observed, “We became sort of part of them and there was a great feeling of enjoyment. It was great fun for Brian to be hanging out with these people who respected him.” Nat Weiss, the American promoter and lawyer who dealt with the Beatles’ business in the USA, said of Epstein, “I think his fascination with bullfighting and bullfighters has something to do with his strange preoccupation with the concept of death and dying.”  


From 17th April 1965 to 19th May, Epstein took a long holiday in Spain. His fame was now worldwide and made him a target for thieves; 15 tailor-made suits were stolen from his villa on the Costa del Sol. He made a special visit to Torremolinos to see Manuel Benítez ‘El Cordobés’ performing in the local ring.


In 1966, Epstein returned to Spain from 7th May until the 30th, following the bulls and attending ferias. (He had a brief interlude back in London to preview a promotional film for the Beatles’ single Paperback Writer.) On 28th May, he attended a corrida in Sevilla with Kenneth Tynan.  Epstein was delighted when Miguelín doffed his montera in La Maestranza and dedicated a bull to him. They returned to the Hotel Colón to celebrate. Tynan and Epstein were sitting over drinks, discussing bullfighting and Miguelín’s dedication of the bull when in walked English torero Henry Higgins. Tynan caught his eye and called him over. Higgins had no idea who Epstein was and got it into his head that he was a sculptor (in all probability confusing him with the well-known artist, Jacob Epstein). They chatted amiably and Epstein showed considerable interest in what Higgins had to say about his attempts to make it as a matador.


The following day, Higgins returned to the hotel, cheekily wearing the expensive sunglasses that Epstein had left behind the previous evening. When he spotted Epstein with Peter Brown, he removed the sunglasses and walked over to return them. They talked in depth about bullfighting and Epstein was particularly interested in the costs involved in staging a corrida, the price of fighting bulls and how much toreros could expect to earn. Epstein invited Higgins to meet him again at the Hotel Colón next day before he returned to London.  At the meeting, Epstein handed Higgins an envelope containing £100 and asked how he would make use of the money. Without drawing breath, Higgins explained that he would buy a new suit of lights. Epstein was pleased and told Higgins that he would be returning to Spain the following week to attend corridas in Jerez and that he would assist him with more money then. True to his word, Epstein gifted another £100 when they met up in Jerez, but this time he requested that Higgins keep formal accounts of his spending.


Epstein’s generosity did not end there. He arranged to meet Higgins once more in Madrid in May of 1966 during the feria of San Isidro. When they met, Epstein gave Higgins more money, enough to buy much-needed equipment and to make a welcome deposit in his empty bank account. Epstein followed Higgins to Barcelona, where he delighted in the torero’s triumph and sent him a gushing telegram of congratulations. Epstein was convinced that Higgins had a magnetic star quality and went as far as to propose that he might star in a movie of Epstein’s creation which would fuse bullfighting and pop music. Unsurprisingly, the project never saw the light of day.


Epstein had invited Higgins to London, where, on his arrival, a chauffeur and Rolls Royce awaited. He was driven to Epstein’s home in Chapel Street, where Higgins was quizzed on how he had spent his money and which managers might possibly be interested in taking him on in Spain. Then Epstein dropped his bombshell. The manager of the most successful rock band in history offered him a contract, the generosity of which floored Higgins. At this time, Higgins was very lucky to receive expenses for performing in novilladas and the contract stipulated that only if Higgins made more than £4,000 in a year would Epstein take 5% and require that the money that had been given to support him be paid back. The deal was good for five years and Epstein would continue to subsidise Higgins. The contract was signed on 2nd September 1966. Epstein was keen to show off his new signing and invited him to John Lennon’s house in Weybridge for the weekend. Higgins, however, had other plans and spent the time with an attractive girl that he had met earlier in the day.


The following year, Epstein paid a return visit to the Sevilla feria. He rented a house and held court for the many celebrities and friends from around the globe who came to visit him. Higgins’ Spanish manager had organised a corrida in Higuera la Real and hoped to secure the service of the popular torero, Gregorio Sánchez. Epstein and Higgins drove to Higuera la Real only to find that the corrida had been cancelled because Sánchez was unable to perform. Higgins was embarrassed, but Epstein took it in his stride saying, “That’s show business.”


Back in Sevilla, Epstein and Higgins would go to the Hotel Colón each evening after the corridas to soak in the taurine atmosphere and talk at length about the world of bulls. Higgins bumped into El Pipo, the erstwhile manager of El Cordobés, and introduced him to Epstein. Higgins announced, “Here I have brought together the two greatest managers in the world.” A bitter El Pipo, who had been sacked by El Cordobés, retorted loudly “Yes, but he won and I lost!” Higgins, in his way, was to lose out too. Less than a year after his contract with Epstein had been signed, his benefactor died of an accidental overdose of prescription medicines. The 1967 “Summer of Love” ended on 27th August and, with it, Henry Higgins’ hopes of succeeding as a torero.


Spain and bullfighting had played an important part in Brian Epstein’s life since his first visit in 1961. His love of bullfighting was well known, and like many serious aficionados, found no need to defend or justify his passion. This was one aspect of Epstein’s complex life that he definitely did not hide away. Tellingly, when he appeared on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs on 18th November 1964, his final choice on the list of pieces of music he would take with him to the imaginary desert island evoked memories of Spain; his selection was Fiesta de Jerez by the Carmen Amaya Company.