Monday, 13 June 2011

Tales from Argentina - The Accursed (Part 1 of 3)

The Accursed - A three-part story of the life of Raúl Barón Biza, Argentine bon-viveur, writer and tormented soul.

Part One - The Rich Boy

This is the story of Raúl Barón Biza (1899-1964), a wealthy playboy with conflicting views on women and a nihilist with a searing contempt for the aristocracy to which he belonged.  He was a writer by hobby whose works, now virtually unobtainable, are appreciated by a small devoted minority and considered indifferent and even mediocre by many of his literary peers. 

However this is not the biography of a writer, but the extraordinary story of a man – I must tell you at the outset -  in whom I found little to like.  I have been unable to find many redeeming features in him, save his devotion to his mother and his love for his children, unless you consider his striking ability to seduce women of all descriptions and ages anything other than a wasted use of his obvious intelligence.  In addition I would add that there is anecdotal evidence of his generosity towards employees and fellow prisoners.  

But the reason I want to record his story for English readers is because I am interested in the degree to which he affected the lives of those around him, particularly the children he professed to love so much.  So fasten your seat belts.


It is said that towards the end of the 19th Century the Catholic church in Lima, Perú, sent a statue of the Virgin of Mercy as a gift to the town of Alta Gracia, deep in the heart of Argentina. 

Front of the Cathedral of Alta Gracia,
Province of Córdoba, Argentina

The clergy kept the statue but for some reason sent the priceless bejewelled diadem on a further 30 kilometres to the city of Córdoba, the province’s capital – perhaps they thought  there were more of the faithful there who would see it and appreciate it.  Years later the Bishop of Córdoba demanded the return of the diadem to the Virgin of Mercy in Alta Gracia, now its patron saint. 

A priest by the name of Father Carmelo was assigned to perform this task, and he set out for Alta Gracia in a carriage with the priceless diadem.  He never arrived.  When he reached a property by the name of Los Cerrillos he was set upon by a band of thieves who stole the diadem and killed Father Carmelo.  Locals buried him there in a natural cave, a few steps away from an old mud and straw hut which was in those days the main dwelling of the farm.  The legend spread that dogs died inexplicably when they looked at the moon there, and a calf was born with five legs.  Somehow it became known that there was a curse on the land.

Researchers claim that the Estancia Los Cerrillos was cursed ever after, and that the chain of calamities that befell the Barón Biza family was because they had purchased the land in 1903.


In the middle of the 19th century a Frenchman by the name of Victoire Baron decided to emigrate from the Dordogne with his family to seek a better fortune in Argentina.  He chose the central province of Córdoba because of the similarity of its climate to that of the Mediterranean.  There he met a devout Catholic, Delfina Vera Aguirre, who came from a traditional family.  Surprisingly her parents consented to their marriage knowing little about him, but no doubt seduced by the glamour of having a French son-in-law.

Victorio Barón – as he now called himself - set up in business running a flour mill, which was much patronised by Gallic immigrants.  His life thus revolved around the purchase and sale of grain, and they settled in Colonia Caroya, north of Córdoba city, where agriculture was the principal activity.  In 1863 their third son was born, whom they named Wilfrid Barón.  His father was determined that all his children should make their own way, and when Wilfrid finished his schooling at the age of 12, Victorio sent him to Buenos Aires, the capital, to work in a general store. 

The lad left 9 years later in 1884 having learned all he could, and set up as a grain and fruit wholesaler in Tucumán, in the north of the country.  Here Wilfrid met Catalina Biza, who was from an old Catholic Tucumán family, much given to good works, and they married in 1890.  Like his father, he had no money of his own, but he knew how to make the right sort of friends, and he had an instinct for a good business deal.  He made the family fortune, which shaped the life and character of his most famous son, Raúl Barón Biza.

With two of his brothers Wilfrid went into the sugar industry business, which he understood well and where he had many useful contacts.  Once they were properly established and had made enough capital they moved to Buenos Aires, and there headed in a different business direction where the sky was the limit – property speculation.   

Thanks to his political contacts Wilfrid became one of the principal colonisers in the vast provinces of Buenos Aires and La Pampa, and with a partner embarked on a very profitable enterprise.  He would found villages along a so-say future planned railway line and then sell the land around it to people, assuring them that the railway would pass right by their front doors.  When ten years down the line the rails were laid, they would be located 15 kilometres away, which would cause the new owners’ land to devalue.  Meanwhile Wilfrid and his partner would have already sold land that really was to be near the railway, at extortionate prices.  Thus they profited twice from the same thing.

They estimated they would have three years in which to capitalise on the delay in laying the rails, during which their speculation enabled them to amass enormous amounts of capital.  They became multi-millionaires.  One of Wilfrid’s first investments was to buy Los Cerrillos in 1903 – the farm with the curse upon it.  He cared little for the rumours, but liked the fact that the area was where the well-to-do from Córdoba city spent their leisure time.

Little Raúl had been born 4 years earlier in 1899, the youngest of five children, and they all moved from their fashionable home in Buenos Aires to Los Cerrillos.  He grew up learning to ride and climb trees, and it was clearly the happiest and most uncomplicated period of his life. 

Raúl's father Wilfrid second from left, his mother in the
middle and Raúl aged 12 seated far right.

Wilfrid was now so wealthy that he didn’t need to send his children out to work.  Instead he sent them abroad to study when they were old enough.  At fourteen Raúl was sent to the United States to study at a school associated with Harvard, and did not return to live permanently in Argentina for a further eighteen years.  According to him, his sporadic brief visits home were only to visit Catalina, his mother, to whom he was devoted and who had a profound effect on one aspect of his attitude to women.

Much is known about his feelings on most things because he put them in the books he wrote.  He would sometimes thinly disguise them in his characters, but the plot lines followed his own life very closely, and the evidence is that he wanted to document the contempt he felt about – pretty well everything.  In time his style became increasingly self-centred with more than an indication of the obsessions that drove him.

His first book was written at eighteen, and is no longer in existence – people who read it at the time reported that it was sugary and obviously written by a young man who had been smitten and suffered his first disappointment.  It is only of interest as a contrast to what became his style later on – corrosive, sexual, violent, provocative, determined to reveal the faults of the aristocratic class he despised and to which he belonged, and quite prepared to tell about the basest actions of his friends in order to shame them.

Between the world wars he did what all rich sons of the landowning classes did.  Basing himself in Paris he travelled around Europe, attending parties given by minor European royals, and wherever there were beautiful women to dance with and where he could drink champagne.  Conversely he also enjoyed the demimonde, frequenting artists’ salons and bohemian hideouts where the characters – who often didn’t eat unless they sold a picture – taught him to develop his artistic side.

A young Raúl Barón Biza

Raúl thought of himself as a gentleman of literature, a true dandy for whom writing was not an occupation but a privilege.  In addition to being rich, he dressed elegantly and always travelled in Rolls Royce or Mercedes Benz cars.  He wrote as a hobby and considered himself to be eccentric.  He wished to defend the rights of the disclassed, he said, for which he used most of the fortune left to him by his father.

He was very well read, particularly in anti-establishment literature.  He favoured texts which were anarchic, irreverent, controversial, communist, politically militant and pornographic.  He rejected institutions, though he got involved with politics from time to time.  He thought that society was a sick body that could not be cured – you were either a wolf of a sheep, strong or weak, powerful or dominated.  He never made clear what side he himself was on.  He saw no conflict of interests in that being extremely wealthy he considered himself to be a revolutionary at heart, in fact on one occasion he organised a protest among the workmen on one of his father’s properties, and never referred to it with any irony.

In the early twenties he was one of the first passengers to travel on the commercial Paris-Berlin flight which took twelve hours and stopped in Cologne for lunch.  He was on his way to Moscow, where he stayed for several weeks because he wanted to see for himself the effects of the communist revolution and the effects on the country.  He concluded that it was too early to say because – he said – there was still much to destroy.

Most pictures of the young Raúl
picture him behind the rim of a glass.

Raúl Barón Biza’s father Wilfrid died in 1925, and in addition to inheriting some of his millions, Raúl also got the farm, Los Cerrillos, near Alta Gracia.  The following year he was at a party being held at the Hotel des Bains at the Lido near Venice, when the Countess of Rothschild introduced him to a young actress by the name of Myriam Stefford. 

Hotel des Bains, Lido, near Venice

She was twenty years old, blonde, slim, with large eyes and scarlet-red lips.  She was born Rosa Martha Rossi Hoffman in Switzerland, and had left home at the age of fifteen because she wanted to be a star, later changing her name to what she felt was going to help her career. 

Myriam Stefford

She may have selected the name Myriam Stefford because of its similarity with the star of the day, Mary Pickford. 

Mary Pickford

So far she had managed radio work and jobs as extras in three films.  Raúl fell instantly in love with her and swept her off on a tour of fashionable Europe, showering her with jewellery along the way. 

Two years later they finally docked in Buenos Aires, where the press had a field day with the trophy girlfriend, nicknaming her ‘the Baroness’  in an ironic and wilful misunderstanding of his surname.  The general public often confused the meaning, and mistook his wealth and fame as being because he had a title, which he did not.

Myriam & Raúl

Also untrue was what Myriam told the press, as they moved from party to party, enjoying the limelight and being seen as exotic and glamorous – “I’m only here to visit an estancia and drink some maté because I’m shortly to be in a film in the US about gauchos”.

Although they moved on eventually to Los Cerrillos they were forced to double back some weeks later when Raúl was given the news that his mother Catalina was very ill in Buenos Aires.  She died a few days after their return, in 1929.  A very devout woman, she was buried in the crypt of a church, and for her good works she was awarded posthumous honours by two consecutive popes.  However Raúl despised everything to do with the church, and one day later on he was to be excommunicated.  Now, his mother’s death was devastating to him and he felt she had abandoned him.

No woman could be as good as his mother was, or was worthy to worship at her feet.  In The Right to Kill, his best known work, written shortly after her death, he says “…a mother represents sanctity, a woman crime.  A mother is the spirit, woman is matter.  Mother is virtue, woman is sin.”

In 1930 he married Myriam at the Basilica of St Mark, in Venice.  European minor royals and the cream of society were there in abundance, but no member of his family attended.  They returned to Buenos Aires in 1931 with the intention of settling down in a very large house Raúl had had specially built during their absence in a fashionable part of the capital. 

Raúl and Myriam

They alternated city life with visits to Los Cerrillos, which Raúl had renamed Estancia Myriam Stefford in honour of his wife.  He had a new wing added to the house with floor tiles bearing her initials MS, and a very large painting was commissioned for the main drawing room where all the parties were held, and which was to accompany him in all his dwellings to the end of his life. 

Painting of Myriam Stefford

He liked to be able to see himself reflected around the house, so had mirrors installed in most of the rooms.  He had a personal servant, Mariano, whose sole duty it was to attend to Raúl 24 hours a day.  He brought him raw steak for breakfast and kept him supplied with drinks from the bars both indoors and by the pool.

Myriam had mixed feelings about her glamorous life.  In exchange for becoming her devoted lover and partner Raúl asked her to abandon her acting ambitions, which she did.  With no obligations or timetables, they would go out riding, to parties and entertain friends, or when in town go to the Colón Theatre.  She enjoyed showing off the 45 carat diamond ring her husband had given her, which was known as The Southern Cross diamond. 

Myriam wearing the 45 carat Southern Cross Diamond

All this was wonderful, but Myriam had always needed a challenge, which her acting career had provided in spades.  Now there was nothing to do but please herself.

Raúl did his best to keep her entertained.  He liked throwing lavish parties and turning the tables on his guests to be provocative.  On one occasion he surpassed himself in inventiveness.  At his art nouveau mansion in Buenos Aires he held a fancy dress party with a theme – he demanded that his guests come as whores or beggars and tramps or burglars, and furthermore they must genuinely look the part, and be dirty and smelly.  He wanted to write about them afterwards. 

Thus the porteño aristocrats did as they were told, and when they arrived they found that the house had been transformed, thanks to the work of artists, into an old boat of the type that used to bring poor immigrants from Europe.  There were other guests their friends didn’t recognise, and gradually it dawned on the fancy dressed that he had collected genuine beggars and prostitutes off the streets.  He explained later that he had wanted to bring together people of the same heritage but of different circumstances.  The seating plan had successful politicians next to the pimps, society matrons next to those who had fallen upon hard times, the fashionable surgeon with the down at heel artist, the Don Juan of the well-to-do and the Don Juan of the brothels and young girls with three surnames next to women who were only known by their nickname.  The prospect of laying bare the falseness of the bourgeoisie excited him; what better way to write about it than by seeing the results of his own experiment?

Myriam was a very sporty girl, but having given up acting she was bored, and decided to take up flying.  Raúl bought her a 2-seater aircraft called a Chingolo, and for several months she took flying lessons.  She was eventually issued with a first certificate which qualified her to fly but only as co-pilot in the company of a fully qualified pilot.  At first she was satisfied with this, and journeys to the newly named Estancia Myriam Stefford were wonderfully short and easy. 

* All pictures are from the internet or from a named source.
* Candelaria de la Sota: El Escritor Maldito Raúl Barón Biza, Vergara, 2006. ISBN 978-950-15-2385-0  (For more details about this source see end of Part 3)

Next post:  the first tragedy strikes.


Photo Finish
from Lonicera's photo archives

A mixed bag
A wreck on the west coast of Fuerteventura, Canary Islands
(This image best seen full size, recommend you double click on it)

Reflections in a swimming pool

Reflections on a building in downtown Valencia


Digital:  Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, 2008

Digital:  Kuramathy, Maldives


Non-digital:  All Blacks rugby player in the 90's
(I fiddled about with the image in Photoshop)



Tina said...

I just caught up on the last two posts-I have had the problem a time or two. Once it was an ongoing bladder problem and the second I finally had to kick the cat out because it was some sort of a mental condition. I hope he improves!


Zanna said...

Loving the story and the photo of the wreck is tremendous. Zxx

OneStonedCrow said...

A fascinating tale - looking forward to the next instalment ...

... just loved the story of his party where he brought aristocrats and beggars together ... I would have loved to be there ...

Lonicera said...

Tina - you terrify me when you say it was a mental condition, certainly there would be no solution there. Thank goodness Rusty is otherwise behaving completely normally. He's spraying - or attempting to - a couple of times a day at the moment.

Thanks Zanna and Graham - very encouraging, thank you! Graham - I did leave out one detail: that he told his guests that they not only had to look like beggars, but they had to smell like them too. Amazing...


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