- San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas - http://smmercury.com -

Bartee Haile: Bullfighting Texan the toast of Mexico

This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE

Harper Bailey Lee, the first and finest matador from north of the border, made his big-time bullfighting debut in a Mexico City ring on May 16, 1909.

Born James Harper Gillett in 1884 at Yseleta, the oldest town in Texas long since absorbed by El Paso, his father was a Texas Ranger and his mother the daughter of famous frontiersman, Col. George W. Baylor.

Lee’s mom divorced his dad, outlived her second spouse and moved with her third husband to Guadalajara, Mexico in 1896. Quickly adjusting to the alien way of life, the newcomer was attracted to the first love of his friends, the bull fight.

At school the youth changed his name to Harper Baylor Lee, adopting the surname of his stepfather, whom he much admired. But a happy childhood ended tragically in 1903 with the death of his mother.

During the next five years, Lee took part in dozens of amateur corridas or bull fights dispatching eight bulls. His natural talent attracted the attention of an elderly maestro, who took the gifted gringo under his expert wing.

Nevertheless, Lee did not regard Mexico’s national pastime as anything more than an exciting lark until the day he received a special invitation to a charity corrida. The gala brought out his best, and Lee’s impressive performance earned the personal congratulations of the governor, who urged him to turn professional.

Encouraged not to mention flattered by the attention, Lee promptly took the politician’s advice. Another factor in the momentous decision, though probably in the back of his mind at the time, was the familiar taunt that no gringo had the guts to become a true matador.

In his initial year on the professional circuit, fights were hard to come by. Lee appeared in just six events and then only in back-country rings against third-rate toros. Undeterred, he vowed to make it to the big-time in Mexico City.

The novelty of an American matador suddenly transformed the struggling rookie into a star attraction, and within weeks he was flooded with offers. Lee’s wish came true in May 1909 with a booking for the Plaza de Toros El Toreo, the pride of Mexico City and the top ring in the entire country.

Fate dealt the 24 year old an unnerving hand that historic afternoon, when it was announced that the scheduled bulls included the fierce Miuras, a Spanish breed rarely seen in the western hemisphere. Miuras had recently gored six Spaniards in a single day inspiring an attempt to ban the breed.

When Lee stepped onto the sand, skeptical spectators gave him a cool reception. Despite his traditional costume, there was no mistaking the tall Texan with his wavy auburn hair and light complexion for a home-grown bullfighter. He had “Born in the U.S.A.” written all over him.

But even before his first kill, the handsome American had the crowd eating out of his hand. When the snorting Miura entered the ring, a hushed anticipation filled the air. After a death-defying ballet, he went right over the horns and with a single thrust of his sword dropped the beast in his tracks.

Not only was Lee the toast of Mexico City, he was the hottest item in the U.S. press. With readers demanding the low-down on their exotic countryman, fast-thinking editors concocted a fascinating but completely fictitious biography.

In most of the features, Lee was a native not of Texas but upstate New York. To give the story an Ivy League angle, he was reported to be a graduate of Harvard, a bizarre twist since Lee had never set foot on a college campus. When the fanciful accounts of his obscure existence reached the overnight sensation, he simply laughed along with his companions.

But bullfighting was no laughing matter, as Lee soon discovered. A crowd-pleasing daredevil at heart, he took more chances than usual in order to live up to the star billing earned by his Mexico City exploits. The result was a horn in the thigh the very next month.

During the two and a half years that followed, Lee fought 33 times and registered 71 kills for a grand total of 100. But he was seriously gored on three occasions, the last in his final corrida in the fall of 1911.

Although the wound required surgery, Lee thought he would bounce back as always after a brief recuperation. But blood poisoning developed and turned his recovery into a long and incredibly painful ordeal.

At the age of 27, Lee hung up his cape and retired to Texas. He lived his remaining 30 years far from the limelight and thrilling triumphs of the bull ring.

In 1941 Harper Bailey Lee died in bed on his small chicken ranch. It was a peaceful passing the first-of-his-kind matador likely would have been denied had he kept on fighting bulls.

BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or haile@pdq.net.