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The Queen of Spain’s literary past
October 15, 2007
• LAST EDITED:
January 24, 2011
Features • 18 Comments
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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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