A historical detective story set against the social and political tumult of 1920s Barcelona and based on the real events of the end of a dazzling era.
In the decade before the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona is on the verge of boiling over. Pablo Vilar, a well-connected young lawyer and journalist, meets several mysterious people who seem to hold clues to what is brewing in the city. The diverse cast of characters includes an assaulted cabaret artist, an anarchist leader, the city’s new autocratic civil governor, and a beautiful, wealthy countess—their destinies all bound by invisible ties. While the city both touches its zenith and peers into the abyss, Vilar guides us through a labyrinth that leads from the caverns of Montjuïc, home to paupers and outlaws, to the high-society parties in the gardens of Horta.
Based on documents from the author’s family archives, and called “an irresistible read” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, author of The Shadow of the Wind, A Barcelona Heiress provides a fresh perspective on a complex and dramatic period.
|Publisher:||Barcelona Digital Editions|
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About the Author
Sergio Vila-Sanjuán (b. 1957), one of Spain’s best-known cultural journalists, is the coordinator of the Cultura/s supplement of the newspaper La Vanguardia. He received a history degree from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and later, as a Fulbright scholar at Boston University, obtained a master of arts degree. Vila-Sanjuán has published several books on journalism and was commissioner of the Barcelona Year of the Book and Reading in 2005. His first novel, A Barcelona Heiress, inspired by historic events and by his discovery of a manuscript by his grandfather, received enthusiastic reviews and is currently being translated into several languages. His second novel, Estaba en el aire (It was in the air), set in Barcelona in the 1960s, won the 2013 Premio Nadal Award.
Read an Excerpt
A Barcelona Heiress
By Sergio Vila-Sanjuán
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2010 Sergio Vila-Sanjuán
All rights reserved.
Of the many surprising cases in which I was involved as a lawyer in those socially and politically turbulent years between 1919 and 1922, the first to shake up my life was the assault of cabaret artist María Nilo.
It was just a few days before Christmas when this pert-nosed young lady bursting with energy knocked on my office door and, after blowing in like a tornado, asked me to represent her without stopping so much as to catch her breath. She wore a fur-trimmed, green velvet coat, which she declined to remove but did unbutton to reveal a blue taffeta dress and an excess of jewelry. Although covered in heavy make up, one could still make out deep bags under her eyes and bruises on her cheeks.
"They took advantage of my trust. And they almost killed me!" she blurted out.
I gestured for her to sit down, tidied up a few papers on my desk, lit up a Cuban cigar, and encouraged her to continue as I removed the cap from my Waterman pen to take notes. She then proceeded to tell me a rather confusing story.
Sebastiana Togores Gomila, also known as María Nilo, or María "La Mallorquina," had been successfully performing for months at the Alcázar Español cabaret bar in Barcelona, an establishment where she had made friends with three regulars: a Frenchman by the name of Albert Blum and two Greeks named David Misan and Abraham Zaccar.
The three men and the young woman had been out on the town a few times, and had even taken a pleasure cruise once on a boat the Greeks had rented at the port.
"They treated me really well and were kind," she said. "And they behaved politely and with respect. If they had any ulterior motives, they did a fine job hiding them. Albert Blum took the lead. The others didn't talk much. He told me they were traveling salesmen dealing in fine fabrics and were in the city on an extended business trip. Can you give me a light?"
I quickly lit her cigarette.
"I like your office. It has a ... solid air to it," she proclaimed brusquely in her husky voice after scanning the furniture as well as the walls, which were decorated with my framed diploma, photos of my graduating class, and a small maritime scene painted by Modesto Urgell in dark tones.
"Thank you. Do go on."
One night they invited her to dinner at the Alcázar Español and, before heading to María's place of work, they offered to take her to the Hotel París, where Blum was staying. They told her they were going to give her a special dress they had ordered specially for her from one of their European offices.
"And, when we got to the room, the three scoundrels suddenly pounced on me! Blum stuffed my mouth with cotton while David Misan had me by the throat, almost suffocating me, and Abraham Zaccar held my legs."
I noticed the singer grew short of breath as she continued with her story.
"The three of them were hitting me and tearing at my clothes. First I thought they were going to rape me, but then I realized that they were going to kill me!"
The vedette paused briefly in her account. She had gotten up and was flitting and fidgeting about the office, turning around and toying carelessly with different objects, pushing an ashtray and opening and closing a small silver box full of candies I always had sitting on a little corner table.
She had put out her first cigarette when she still had half left and pulled out another. I let her hold it for a moment between her fingers before reaching out to light it with a match.
"And then what happened?" I asked.
"Well, I realized that I had to defend myself with everything I had, so I started to fight back. I squirmed out of the grip of the one holding my mouth shut, spit out the cotton as best I could, and bit his hand so hard that I could feel bone between my teeth. Then I started to shout. I flailed about like a lunatic, as if I were having an epileptic fit. Luckily I was able to reach the washstand on the other side of the bed and knock it over. It made a thunderous sound when it hit the floor, with its basin and all. Then I heard knocking on the door, and I fainted," she concluded, wiping away a tear.
She took a breath, shook her head as if snapping back to reality, and continued with her story, one minute sitting down and the next getting up again. Just watching her was exhausting.
"That sound," she said, "was my salvation."
When they heard the commotion, the staff at the Hotel París grew alarmed and hurried to the room. They tried in vain to open the door while they alerted some officers who were on patrol on Cardenal Casañas Street. They were the ones who forced the door open. When María Nilo came to, her assailants had been arrested and taken to the police station. An officer took her statement, without much tact, and then two others escorted her to her hotel. She was bedridden for a week, shaken and recovering from the beating she took, until she asked for a telephone and called the actor Ernesto Vilches, who gave my name to the feisty, skittish young woman.
Ernesto Vilches ... the first thespian who I became real friends with.
* * *
After studying law in Barcelona and Madrid, I opened a practice in Barcelona and handled all kinds of cases (including those to which I was assigned as a court-appointed attorney), specializing in criminal law. I balanced my legal career with my activity as a journalist; since my adolescence I had cut my teeth working for several newspapers, an experience that had allowed me to become familiar with the city's political and cultural circles—especially those of the theater, which was my passion.
One afternoon Vilches had come to see me in the company of my friend Blasco—the manager of the Teatro Goya, where the actor had enjoyed a string of successes. He had come to ask me for an odd favor. A Chinese cargo ship had docked at the Port of Barcelona and, not long after mooring, a fight had broken out among the sailors. During the scuffle the boatswain had been killed, stabbed by a messman on the ship. The story had been widely reported in the press. What Vilches wanted was for me to arrange a meeting so that he could talk to the imprisoned killer, as he was preparing for the starring role in a play set in China, and he wanted to do as much research for it as possible. He asked me to accompany him to meet the prisoner.
The prisons in those days, if one knew the right people, could be really quite accommodating. The director of the facility agreed to our request and arranged for a room to be reserved for us. For one hour Vilches and the incarcerated Chinese man engaged in an intense interview. The actor would later tell me that the sailor had taken him for the examining judge assigned to the case and, given the impossibility of communicating verbally, had resorted to gesticulating to indicate what had happened during the altercation that led to the boatswain's death. "It was just what I needed," Vilches told me; he came away armed with an arsenal of gestures and expressions he would be able to reproduce down to the last detail. Thus was born his character Wu-Li-Chang, the protagonist of the work of the same name by Harold Owen and Harry Vernon about a cultured and powerful man forced by his country's traditions to sacrifice his own daughter, who was in love with a westerner. The play triumphed on stages across Spain and America. And thus was also born a friendship that led me to represent Vilches on several occasions.
* * *
So it was Vilches who had sent María Nilo to me and, given the actor's reputation as a Don Juan, it was not difficult to surmise the tie that bound them. Evidently this reputation spurred the young showgirl to quickly insist, "Don't get the wrong idea. There's nothing between us. Don Ernesto has been like a father to me. He's from Tarragona, like me, and when I came to Barcelona I asked him to open some doors for me in the entertainment business, and he did. He took me to see his friend the singer Marta Oliver at the Gran Peña on San Pablo Street. She saved me from living hand-to-mouth and got me up onstage, where I sang, scantily clad, for seven pesetas a day. I was doing well. I landed contracts in Seville and Madrid, and a few months ago I returned to the Alcázar Español as the main act."
* * *
The Alcázar Español on Unión Street functioned as the center of what was then called sicalipsis—venues featuring raunchy songs, light music (which small, slapdash bands struggled to play as best they could), and generous amounts of female flesh onstage in silk fishnet stockings while an audience of revelers shouted obscenities through thick clouds of smoke.
There was flamenco during the intermissions, manzanilla sherry and mojama salt-cured tuna to satiate the crowd's hunger, and aguardiente to top it all off. Rumor had it that the place's waitresses offered complementary services to those patrons who could afford them. Although it was a working-class joint, it was frequented by more than a few members of my city's bourgeoisie—people with sordid weaknesses who, far from keeping a lid on them, flaunted their nostalgie de la boue.
I, of course, neither frequented the Alcázar Español nor ever commented in my articles on any of its shows, if one could even call them that. I found it strange, however, that a performer who had learned the ropes in such a sleazy and sordid atmosphere would be naive enough to go around Barcelona in the company of three strangers and, even worse, to allow herself to end up alone with the three of them in a hotel room, and I told María Nilo as much.
"You'd be surprised," she replied, "at how softhearted us performers are. Take a look at me: I barely knew my mother. I was raised, if you can call it that, by relatives who hated me, and at age twelve had me working as a maid. I made my way up, fighting tooth and nail, with my talent for singing and dancing, using my body, and thanks to the help of a few decent souls like Vilches. So when someone comes up to you and has a few nice words, treats you well, escorts you around without making a pass the first chance he gets, gives you gifts ... you let your guard down. Who doesn't like a little pampering? Anyway, experience has taught me that maybe the ones who don't make a pass are precisely those you can't trust."
"You never suspected at any point that those men could be dangerous?"
"Like I told you, of the three men it was the Frenchman who took the lead. He seemed to really open up to me. When we went out he talked to me a lot about his childhood, telling me how he was the illegitimate son of an industrial magnate who barely took care of him and had always scorned him. It was like he was consumed by in an inner rage. He was always putting on airs, swearing that one day he would be as famous and important as the man who had fathered him. The other two followed along, like an entourage. Maybe I suspected something the day we took a cruise in the boat through the port. I saw them look at each other in a way that was a bit strange, and they were whispering. But that was the end of it."
"Did you have relations with your assailants? I mean—and forgive me for asking, but did you know them, in the biblical sense?"
She took a deep breath before answering in an emphatic and very sincere tone: "Never."
"And what do you think I can do for you, Miss Nilo?"
"In the first place, find out exactly what happened that night. Secondly, keep the cops away from me. Even though they saved me, they treat cabaret singers as if we were hookers—and I say that with all due respect for hookers, who are most of the time better people than cops. Finally, I'd like you to throw those sons of bitches who did this to me in jail. Someone has to pay for what they put me through."
Did I believe María Nilo then? Only to a certain point. Though she was a smooth and tireless talker, her account did have some holes in it, and I still could not fathom how she had been so trusting of those shady characters. But various things motivated me to take her case. I have always admired those who manage to rise from humble origins and make something of themselves, as long as it's not by stepping on others, and in this sense she had clearly shown grit. In addition, María, though a bit loud and melodramatic, was a beautiful woman, a spirited dark-haired bombshell that could leave no man indifferent. Offstage she continued to exude the magnetism that she must have learned while performing. Finally, I have a weakness (strictly platonic, mind you) for actresses. In her I saw a woman in need who, at the same time, possessed an irresistible inner strength, and I could not help but feel a certain empathy and tenderness toward her. I accepted the case.
* * *
That very morning I headed for Barcelona's Police Headquarters on Paseo de Isabel II, near the Civil Government building, and asked for the chief of police, General Miguel Beastegui. He received me a few minutes later. With his head of elegant silvery hair and ice-blue eyes, that able and feared commanding officer of the Guardia Civil who I had met at a few social functions, greeted me with the detached cordiality that was typical of him.
"Your singer's attackers are in a safe place," he announced brusquely. "And we know everything about them."
The jewels. The whole drama had its origins in the jewelry that María Nilo de Togores sought, collected, and received as gifts, as self-made women often do. These gems shone as a testament to her rise from a Tarragona slum without electricity or running water to the spotlights and flower bouquets of Barcelona's stages; heavy and showy jewelry that hung from her ears, her neck, her wrists, her fingers, and even her ankles; jewels displayed in the city's shop windows such as the Joyería Cabot jewelry store in Plaza de Cataluña where María had been so imprudent as to visit with the accused men, who the jewelers at the fine establishment still remembered due to the conspicuous interest they had shown in the prices of the pieces on display.
"The men under arrest, Misan and Zaccar," Beastegui explained ceremoniously, "are part of this cosmopolitanism of delinquency that characterizes the times we're living in. They have left a trail through various countries and we don't know exactly how they ended up in our country, but both are wanted for swindling a local company, Eusebio Miquel, out of five thousand pesetas, with which they were able to live in a most dissolute and licentious manner for a time. When they met Sebastiana Togores at the Alcázar Español they realized that she had the habit of wearing rather expensive jewelry. Misan and Zaccar introduced María to our third man."
"His real name is Cándido Fagés, and he is originally from Tarrasa. He maintains that he changed his given name and surname to distance himself from his father, who he hates. He has been associated with the Greeks for months. When the three individuals squandered all the money from their fraud, they were thrown out of the hotel where they had been staying, and had to start pawning their clothing and personal effects in order to satisfy their most immediate needs. It was then that they concocted their plot to con Sebastiana, kill her, and make off with her jewels. Their plan was to escape abroad using passports they had prepared, disguised with fake mustaches and monocles."
"Fake mustaches?" It sounded comical.
"Indeed. They had initially planned to throw her into the sea, hence their inviting her on a pleasure cruise. On that trip Abraham carried a revolver, and Fagés, a knife. It seems clear that they lost the nerve to carry out their criminal plan, and the singer never realized the true intentions of her companions, who treated her with the utmost kindness, nor did she give any importance to the fact that at times they talked among themselves in a foreign language.
"The criminals then hatched a new plan, and in order to carry it out they installed themselves as guests in room 2 of the Hotel París. David Misan invited Sebastiana to dinner at the Alcázar Español, asking her to first accompany him to his hotel, where Zaccar and Fagés were waiting, supposedly in order to give her a dress they had bought for her. An unsuspecting Sebastiana followed him, wearing jewelry worth 5,400 pesetas, according to our expert's estimation."
"You already arranged that?"
Excerpted from A Barcelona Heiress by Sergio Vila-Sanjuán. Copyright © 2010 Sergio Vila-Sanjuán. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Barcelona, Spain is on the verge of Civil War in the 1920s. The story of this multi-layered conflict is narrated by lawyer and journalist, Pablo Vilar. He's a man who in the name of both careers attempts neutrality in the conflicts but also a man who is constantly being swayed by partisan characters who want him to write articles favoring or defending one side against the other side. While he is not influenced that much, what he sees and hears is worthy of our attention, for it is the "stuff" of which revolutions have been made for centuries. The eternal conflict between rich and poor is factually proven when Vilar is taken to the "caves" where the poor live and subsist on almost nothing or the private hospitals financially supported by those with a heart where starving, disease-ridden children are treated with the meager supplies of medicine and vitamins, food, etc. There are the union groups who are willing to incite and practice violence to obtain their demands. All of this is exemplified in the mystery which is the center of the story. It involves an anarchist who assassinates those who have committed crimes but been declared innocent by the courts. There's the heiress of the novel's title whom Vilar would wed but who continues to exert influence on both royalty, nobles, anarchists, union groups and the poor. She is a "woman for all people" and yet one wonders what principles center her real beliefs. And what about the cabaret singer who is brutally attacked and whose connections are less than innocent or neutral. One gets a fine sense of the culture of Barcelona and the governmental structure behind the story, involving royalty as well as city, military and provincial authorities. What Vilar hears in true political style is not what necessarily is! All is encountered during the most audacious and extravagant social parties and events. It is hard at times to follow the story because of all the name-dropping that no one could possible remember unless a master of Spanish history. All in all, A Barcelona Heiress is a fascinating, well-researched work of historical fiction that is packed full of action, mystery, humor, poignancy, and so much more. Money rules the world - and it can also reform and transform the same! Impressive novel!