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The Queen of Spain’s literary past

PUBLISHED: October 15, 2007 at 10:45 am  •  LAST EDITED: January 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm
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Hemingway for lunch, fascists hiding in the bathroom, beatnik blondes staying for years. After the Olive Press reported that Gerald Brenan’s house is in danger of collapse, Carlos Pranger and Jon Clarke tell the wonderful story of the Reina de Los Angeles, which is one of the last anchors to Andalucía’s important literary past

IT was the days before the heady tourist invasion of the late 1950s. Hardly a mile inland from the now-famous golden sands of Torremolinos, Churriana was a quiet backwater of a village, with only one car. Still waiting for the hordes of Scandinavians and British to start disgorging themselves from the glistening DC10s that would herald the birth of the package holiday, Spain was still poor and children were hungry and dressed in rags.

This austerity was clearly reflected in the house of celebrated writer Gerald Brenan, who had lived in Spain on and off for many decades.

Reina de Los Angeles (the Queen of Los Angeles) at number 56, calle Torremolinos had a certain touch of posada discomfort: tepid food, dishes scrubbed clean in cold water, cheap wine poured into smarter bottles, no fireplaces, no bathroom, nor, for that matter, any running water at all.

The lavatory was flushed by a jug of water, while baths were taken in tubs with water heated from the hearth.

Nonetheless, the 200-year-old villa – which sprawled over 400 square metres and counted a large tropical garden – had immediately attracted Brenan, who was to write South from Granada among many other books in the house.

It had a big tower and a romantic cobbled courtyard with a fountain where doves splashed and cooed. All around was the constant presence of dozens of emaciated cats.

Its neo-classical style had, in particular, appealed to Brenan’s new American wife Gamel Woolsey, who had no intention of living in the remote backwater of Yegen, in la Alpujarra, where Gerald had been living for years.

They instead opted to buy the stunning villa for just 1,200 pounds from a member of Malaga’s wealthy merchant class Don Carlos Crooke Larios.

The approach of war

It was 1934 and these were exciting, if turbulent times to live in Spain, the country attempting to forge a new democracy.

Despite war approaching, the Brenans went about the costly business of renovating the house into a modern (by 1930s standards) liveable home. But, having spent over 1,000 pounds on the renovation, war was indeed to break out in 1936.

It might not have been so bad had the Brenan’s not taken the charitable decision to shelter the former owner Crooke Larios – a falangist Franco-supporter – who needed somewhere to hide certain persecution from the working class syndicates who held the town.

While Brenan was a man of the left and a republican sympathiser, he knew the man and his family personally and was happy to oblige, even though extremely dangerous for him.
As he explained in his later book The Face of Spain: “Don Carlos was in great danger and we were obliged, every time armed lorries entered the village, to conceal him in a secret cavity in the roof of the bathroom.”

He continued: “Eventually after considerable risk and anxiety to all of us, I obtained a pass for him and put him on a British destroyer.”

But the damage was done, and with many now suspecting him of being a right-wing sympathiser, Brenan and his wife decided they had no choice but to return to England, where he went on to write, The Spanish Labyrinth, a key work analysing the causes of the Civil War.

Garden of delight

The couple would not return for over a decade, until in 1949 they returned to the “dream” home, where they had begun married life.

It was to be a moving homecoming, as recorded in The Face of Spain, written in Churriana, and giving an accurate image of a country still under reconstruction after the war and governed by a dictator.

Showing how beautiful the village was in those days, he wrote: “All around us lay the broad, flat, richly cultivated fields, spreading like a lake of green water to the edges of the mountains.
A team of oxen was ploughing and from far away a boy’s voice, carried in gusts of wind.”

But it was the garden that was to make the biggest impression. Despite being left to their former servants – Antonio, Rosario and Maria – during their absence for cultivation (the house was to be rented to raise money for taxes) it was in impeccable order.

He wrote: “The garden! We had forgotten what a garden we had. The long path hedged with box bushes, the orange and lemon trees, the Japanese medlars . . . the grove of Burmese canes, the pecans and avocado pears and jacaranda – two acres and more enclosed by high white walls and irrigated from a raised tank in front of the central patio. We walked about in a sort of enchantment, amazed that this wonderful garden, with its wealth of flowers and handsome trees, should be ours.”

The main problem was that the house was being rented to five separate families. A time of great poverty “similar to Russia before the Revolution,” wrote Brenan, while they had looked after the house, they were not prepared to move out without a struggle.

Regardless, on January 7, 1953, they finally moved back in, despite two tenants still stubbornly occupying the ground floor.

They had soon left, along with the “corrupt and rotten” conditions of the 1950s and by the 1960s and the advent of package tours, things improved a little.

“Silly old fool”

Those who knew Churriana then remember it as being as convenient as attractive. It was close to Málaga and the beaches of Torremolinos, as well as the airport, which was then just a small white villa with a bar and a restaurant from where one could eat and drink and watch the planes come in to land.

Churriana soon become a refuge for people who were growing tired of the coast and the first invasions of tourists. It was cheaper to live there than along the coast and a large house with servants did not cost a great deal to run.

According to folklore, four houses were to become the key social life centres of the area. The grandest and most important was La Consula, owned by an American couple, Bill and Ann Davies. As well as Brenan’s home there was a writer and wine expert called Freddy Wildman who rented Cortijo Buenavista and sculptor Bayard Osborn’s La Casa Nueva.

His wife Pilar Bayard, 72, recalls: “There were only two places to be back then. Either in Cadaques in Catalonia, where the Guiness family had their home, or in Churriana. They were the two poles, and generally speaking artists gravitated to Cadaques, which of course had Salvador Dali, while literary people came to Churriana.”

It is amazing to think of the number of well-known figures who walked through the streets of Churriana at the time. Bertrand Russell and writer VS Pritchett stayed with the Brenans, while Hemingway was a regular visitor.

Other regulars included Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. One of the most interesting encounters was between Hemingway and Brenan. The two writers first met over a lunch at La Consula, which functions to this day.

They were not entirely at ease together but in spite of this, the Brenans, wanting to be polite, had the Hemingways to a return lunch some days later. At that point, Hemingway’s attention was focussed on the bulls and all he wanted to talk about was bullfights. Brenan however, was not the least bit interested in bulls and wanted to talk about literature.

“Hemingway was a silly old fool who liked employing young country girls as maids and was always feeling them up,” explains Pilar Osborne, who now lives in Gaucin.

“Gerald however was a charming old fogey, as long as you had something he found attractive. I used to go over to his house and read him my poetry. I made him laugh with all my old stories of Cuba. He had this typical aristocratic habit of the time of always flicking the remains of his sherry glass at the wall before topping up. My husband picked up the habit from him. It meant you constantly had to keep whitewashing the walls and meant putting down white carpets was impossible.”

After the day’s work was done the custom was to drop in at each other’s houses in the evening for long dinner parties. There were always guests to provide variety and Gerald and Gamel’s social life was often intense as some guests stayed for months.

Life was fairly formulaic. It was reading and writing in the mornings, walks in the afternoons and dinner parties in the evenings.

“The conversation was always fantastic,” recalls Osborne, who was born in Cuba, but educated by a Scottish nanny. “We would discuss politics and literature and they would go on forever. We would arrive at 8pm and not even sit down for dinner until 11pm and it would go on and on and on, way into the early hours.”

The Costa del Sol soon began to witness the arrival of the ‘beatniks’ and hippies who wandered around Torremolinos on their way to Tangier. Brenan was fascinated by these young people and loved their new slang language.

“Gerald used to love to hang out with this new trendy scene,” recalls Osborne. “He loved young people, especially girls.”

It was perhaps for this reason that one in particular, Hetty McGee – a real flower child by all accounts – ended up moving in with the Brenans. She lived with them for six years and grew very close to Gerald, but more as a paternal figure as he helped in decisions and with money.

“Gamel accepted her as a sort of daughter,” said his former secretary.

While the Olive Press managed to track her down to north London, sadly she did not wish to discuss her time with the Brenans in Churriana. “It was a pleasant time to be in Spain and it was a charming house,” was all she would say.

At the beginning of the seventies, a couple of years after his wife died, Brenan decided to move to Alhaurin el Grande.

Brenan’s Spain, and Churriana along with it, had changed. Houses had butane-gas heaters and electricity and new luxuries were coming in. As he wrote: “Without bugs, fried food at every meal and icy houses Spain will be no longer Spain.”

Noisy traffic filled the road next to his house and also many of his old neighbours and friends had moved away. The house was finally sold to an American sculptor, Reed Armstrong. It was he who named it Reina de Los Angeles and installed the ancient virgin statue that was recently stolen from the front gate last month. It passed to the Caballero family, who finally sold it to Málaga town hall to build a cultural centre in 1998.

The cultural centre however – as revealed by the Olive Press in issue 32 – has not happened and after recent vandalism the house is becoming increasingly dilapidated.

It seems that another part of Malaga’s heritage is sadly going to waste.

As Pilar Osborne explains: “It was always falling apart, but had such a wonderful atmosphere, not to mention magnificent garden, with plants from all over the world, rather like the guests who visited.

“There is no doubt that house was one of the most important in Spain in its day and I really hope it is protected for our future.”

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Reader Comments »



io osborn

March 28th, 2008 6:46 pm

I am Io, the daughter of Bayard Osborn – this article is my childhood history – Annie Davis was my godmother and Gerald and Gamel helped instill in me my love of literature; particularly Gamel – she loved Gerald Durrell – they both did. My father is a great artist, it is disapointing to see that my stepmother Pilar, who I don’t actually recall being around during that period, didn’t make any mention of him. My father’s wife at that time was Anita Osborn. She was an alcoholic, like so many of those people, but she and my father were considered the most beautiful couple on the costa del sol. They hosted extravagant dinner parties in our lovely home, La Casa Nueva – it is now a traffic crossing. hemingway was a taciturn old man in my eyes and yes, he was revered as a bullfighting expert. I jumped on him in the Consula swimming pool. His reaction was dramatic and very scary, but i was later offered the opportunity to apologise and he repaid my humility by teaching me to play backgammon. That is my contribution to this strange and wonderful slice of history – the guy who bought Gerald’s home in Alhaurin after he died were Lars Pranger and his wife – I can’t recall her name – Lars was an artist from Sweden and the brother of Freddy’s wife, Lilymur. Many of these people are now deceased – it was a rocky time; I guess i turned into one of those hippies for a while before I manged to get away. The memories linger between sorrow and fascination at such an incredibly dramatic childhood.

jon clarke

April 8th, 2008 5:09 pm

hi lo, why don’t you get in touch with us… and write a nice first person piece on your memories

jon

emily phips

April 20th, 2008 4:15 am

Lars’s wife was called Lynda Price – although she used the surname of Nicholson – the Prangers did not buy the house in Alhaurin from Gerald – it was gifted to Lynda and I believe that the local government office helped them out also with money after Gerald returned from England in 1984. The Prangers are very much still alive. They let the house to my cheating ex in the 90′s how is a ‘writer’ who goes by the name of Keith Nicholson again he uses this name rather than the one on his bith certificate of Price. He has had a few articles published in the local press one about Hemmingway whom he said he had missed one summer – the article was total fiction. He lives with a local artist Julia Gross Garett who also apparently looked after Gerald as he got older, although it is my belief that they just promote themselves off the back of Gerald. I know for a fact that Keith had nothing to do with Gerald other than superficially through his sister as he was involved with me up until 1992. Although through the last contact I had with him through my two children whom he left behind and has never so much as provided a nappy for he goes along to all the promotional activities for Gerald. The price family were left some of the royalties to some of Geralds books so if ther is money in it then that will be why. Other than the two children Keith has with me he has another three -to three other women, he is an alcoholic and has never supported them either – Spain still does attract the rubbish.

Meri Carlota Hallamaa

January 27th, 2009 3:26 pm

I spent my childhood in a finca called El Albaricocal, quiet near La Consula, and next to Casita Nueva. My parents did some socializing with the Brenans in Churriana village, but in a lesser degree. From Gerald Brenan I have two memories: one very cold Christmas Eve when I was about 5 or 6, Brenan knocked on the door and asked if he could in and have a little rest. When he entered our large dining room where we had the Christmas tree, I was deeply struck by his tall figure, wrapped in a long dark cape. I have this memory of him sitting with a drink in one hand, and the long walking stick leaning against the chair, watching us children open our presents.
The second memory is a recurrent one: he and his wife walking up or down the Carretera de Coin, in the late afternoon.
The year Hemingway came to Spain to write about bullfighting for Life magazine, his wife organized with the Davies a huge party at La Consula to celebrate his 60th birthday. Davies was on friendly terms with my father, a retired Finnish colonel,known in Churriana as Don Ricardo, and with whom he used to speak about Finnish art and arquitecture. So my parents too received an invitation to the party. Which by the way has stuck in the collective memory of the villagers. One of the firework rockets ended up in the dry leaves of a palm tree and started a fire and the fire brigade had to come all the way from Málaga to put out the fire….
Should Io Osborn read this, my best regards to her. I used to go to Casita Nueva to get mulberry leaves for my silk worms , and on some occasions I stayed there to play with her and her elder sister Margarita.

Io

August 28th, 2009 4:07 pm

Hello to Meri Carlotta
Maggie (Margarita) and I were chatting on skype when she looked up my name and found the Olive Press.
It was very exciting to read your comment. It brings that crazy period into some sort of perspective. It was so strange a time that you begin to doubt its reality as time passes. I remember well el Albaricocal, but regret that I have no recolloection of playing with you and didn’t know that the mulberry tree could be good for silk worms. My recollection of that tree was that is dropped huge, ripe mulberries into the swimming pool and onto our marble dining table by the pool. That tree sustained more than mulberries – there was a big rat that lived in it and at night it would come down for a drink in the pool. He never bothered anybody although I guess he generated many thousands who eventually got into our almacen (storehouse) and ate the hams that we hung there to dry. I wonder if you can remember the almacen – it was next to the lawn across from the pool. I also remember being invited over to the Albaricocal for a sauna. Afterwards I caught the worst cold of my life! Happy memories…do share some more

angela williams

February 5th, 2010 10:29 am

I photographed Gerald Brenan in 1964 fr the Observer Colour Magazine. It was one of my first assignments. I had to return some months later to take some more pictures of him and I stayed with Freddie Osborn and his wife and her brother Lars ( who I also photographed) and I visited a sculptor Bayard Osborn
also. It would be great to hear from anyone who knows them.

Io

February 10th, 2010 10:40 pm

Hi Angela
Bayard is my father and i spent much of my teens at Freddy’s and his wife, Liymur’s place in Buenavista. Freddie’s surname was Wildman, not Osborn. Bayard Osborn – Freddy Wildman. I would love to see the photos you took. You are welcome to contact me.

John J. Healey

August 8th, 2010 1:21 pm

Hi Everyone, I am John Healey, Freddy’s once upon a time nephew by marriage to his niece. We spent the summer of 1970 at Buena Vista and then returned again two years later just as Freddy and Lilly were moving to the Albaicin and to Capileira. We got a place in Bubión and lived there quite a few years dining with them virtually every evening. But the Buena Vista summer was key in my decision to live in Spain. I read Gerald’s first edition of Ulysses in his library in Alhaurin and we witness all manner of goings on with a varied and wonderful cast of people, many of whom are mentioned here.This was when Nico and Boo-Boo and Rafie and Poopie (RIP) were all very young and adorable and when Donald Gray was still called ‘Lord Gray’ for fun. I have very fond memories of dear Anita Osborne and knew that house well. Best to all – John

Margarita Osborn-Belt

January 24th, 2011 11:57 am

It is surprising how many people have responded to this call from the past.
I’m Margarita, Bayard Osborn’s other daughter. I loved walking in the Malaga mountains and enjoyed telling Gerald about the places I discovered because he always knew where they were. I also loved Gamel for her gentle sensitivity and calm.
It was thanks to Gerald that I moved to Yegen in 1969, where I lived for 21 years.
Otherwise, I knew little of the social life in Torremolinos and Churriana. I was quite a bookworm when young and much of went on around me went unnoticed. My sister was always much more aware of things and I can clearly remember her warning to me when we were invited to anyone’s house: “Maggie, just make sure you don’t make a beeline to the bookshelves, please”.
Despite that savvy warning, she writes very well and I agree with Jon Clarke that she should write her memories of those days.
I’ve just read in El País that Lynda, Lar’s wife, died in January this year. The past is fast receding.
It’s nice to read people’s comments.
John Healey, I’m afraid I don’t remember you but I’m impressed you managed to read Ulysses. I never got through more than 20% of it. Maybe I’ll give it another try. :-)

Tatti Oscarsson

February 16th, 2011 3:38 pm

If anyone is still following this, I’m Tatti, daughter to Kia who lived with Lars in Torremolinos. (my father was Arturo) I have vivid yet vague memories of when we lived in what I remember was a place called Santo Thomas. I found that house in 86 and also another place Kia, myself and Eva Bokander lived at, west of Torremolinos. Freddy Wildman was our neighbour there and I remember him as a party animal. (I also have a faint scar in my head from tripping on the steps there when I was bout 4). Is Freddy still alive?

Margarita, I don’t know if you know this. Poopie and Bo-bo moved to US. Poopie returned to Spain and sadly passed away there. Bo-bo stayed in US many years but is now, since 06/07, back in Spain.

Kia and I moved back to Sweden early 70′s where Kia met and later married the actor Per Oscarsson. They sadly passed on New Years eve 2010 in a tragic house fire. I’m sat here googling Lars and find this. How strange!

I’m in contact with Bo-Bo.

Can anyone from The Olive Press put us all in contact? Due to spambots, I really don’t want to type my email address in my comment here.

BERNARD LECAT

May 6th, 2011 11:34 am

I just learned Linda died in January.

Luciano

June 2nd, 2011 10:28 am

To Io Osborn…I am italian and in the early sixty’s I was resident in Torremolinos where my brother had opened (1959)”The Eldorado” the first disco on the Costa del Sol and I’ve worked at Peter Kent’Pedro’s Bar for many years with my former wife Patricia. I run into this blog surfing, in search of some peoples that I rememberd as clients of the places mentioned and I ran into Freddy Wildman and Juan Manuel Figueras who both created the village La Virginia in Marbella. I remember also Lillymore Freddy’s wife and her brother Lars Pranger who was a painter at the time and a famous ceramist now in Sierra Nevada. I woul like to confirm to Io Osborn that in fact her father Bayard and Anita were “THE” gorgiest couple in town. Bayard painting’s at the time had a very South American precolombian influences…in my search I found that he became a famous sculpture and that unfortunately he’s had health problems.
Ciao a tutti

peter lund

September 6th, 2011 9:55 am

I have just retired from business and have been thinking of the past.
Io and Maggie you may remember me from the early sixties when Henry Strachey, Nicky Barker and I spend our summer holidays with Henry’s mother, an artist, in Marbella and we came over to see you.
I am 64 now and live in London. My wife Izi and I have two sons and they have children of their own.
I wanted to be a photographer when we met and went on to study photography at Art School in Guildford.
After a short career with a newspaper, I left photography behind and entered the world of finance which suited me.
I remember those days watching your father produce amazing pieces of sculpture behind your house in Churriana.
Henry now lives in the Channel Islands and Nicky in North London.
I would love to hear from you.

Best wishes

Peter

Ingar Naess

April 6th, 2012 10:57 pm

How is Jorgen Vic Moller (the danish) conectet til Freddie -

Alvin Ostroff

July 20th, 2012 1:01 am

I was a part of that charmed circle in Churriana and knew almost all those wonderful people in the early 1960′s. Freddy,get in touch on my e-mail. I visited Gerald shortly before his death. Although he knew me well and even wrote me a letter, he could not recognize me, which saddend me a lot. I also paid Bayard a visit in Gaucin and met his wife, Pilar. It was an idyllic time for me, that lost time on that lovely costa in Spain long, long ago.

TARIK WILDMAN

April 8th, 2013 9:11 pm

I am Tarik Wildman- Freddie Wildman’s only child.
Freddy died in March 2000, aged 70
Jurgen is the last survivor, living in La Virginia, Marbella.
I spent the summer when I was 15, in Capileira with Gerald Brenan, whilst he was writing his memiors. I remember (he was 75) he expected to die in his sleep every night and by-and-by this became a standing joke between us when we saw each other again in the morning. The air was very still, it was August 1975, and it was very hot. I used to scramble down to the bottom of the valley to jump in the ice-melt torrent from the Mulhacen, then walk breathlessly back up, for 20 minutes, to the house. The house is still there and in it is Gerald’s Mother-of-Pearl and chinese lacquer bed.
I miss all those “parents generation” from the ’60′s and early ’70′s. Andalucia was so beautiful then, but so desperately poor, too. Second hand toothbrushes were sold, and cigarettes one-by-one. For foreigners on any sort of external income, there was princely living at baragin prices, whereas the average Andalucian had had a childhood of near starvation (to witness look at the heights of the males in their 70′s versus the next generation here) and walked for kilometers and kilometers. I always try to remember how Spain has changed for the better in the last 50 years, even as I regret the passing of those beautiful times, and the burial under parking lots, Ikeas, and overpasses of those beautiful places now lost forever

Dian Jordan

June 12th, 2013 4:40 am

I am researching American artist, Harold Stevenson. He spent time in Torremolinos at the Lali Lali club with Timothy Willoughby in the early 1960s. I have a lovely poster promoting the art exhibition of Lars Pranger at the Lali Lali in April-May 1963. I would like to hear from anyone that has memories of that time in Spain. My name can be found on Facebook, and then I can respond to you via email. Thank you.

Berta

September 26th, 2013 10:25 am

Hello. I am a spanish journalist that happens to live in Churriana but came here long after all this took place. It´s so sad that most of the people now in Churriana, young couples that have come to live here, they know nothing about this great past. Anyway, I just wanted to get in touch with Tarik since I want to write an article about La Virginia. I interviwed Bayard Osborn in Gaucín 4 years ago and Donald Gray in Granada some months ago for El Mundo. Thanks for sharing these great memories

Susanne Bokander

June 13th, 2014 8:44 pm

Hi,

I am the niece of Eva Bokander. In one of the comments above, I read that Tatti used to live with Eva. If there is any possibility that I could get in contact with anyone who knew her, I would be thrilled. I know very little about my aunt.

Sincerely,
Susanne




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