Thursday, 16 June 2011

Tales from Argentina - The Accursed (Part 2 of 3)

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

Part 2:  Turbulent years


Myriam soon tired of having to confine her flying hours to shuttling back and forth between Buenos Aires and Alta Gracia as a co-pilot, and she devised an adventure challenge.  She decided to do a cross country run comprising 14 provinces, and set off in August 1931 with her instructor Luis Fuchs.  However she was at the controls, where she was explicitly not legally qualified to be.  The Chingolo only had a 6 hour range, so they were obliged to stop several times as they crossed the country.  On one of the takeoffs she went into a fence, which destroyed the propeller and the front carriage.

A Chingolo

She was told that it would be impossible to repair the aircraft locally, and she and Fuchs were obliged to continue their journey by car.  She was very upset that she had written off her beloved Chingolo and that she would not therefore be able to continue her journey across 14 provinces. 

Raúl as usual saved the day by stepping in with his money and his contacts.  He persuaded a  friend whom he knew owned a Chingolo to hire it out to him, and the friend duly arrived piloting it himself.

Myriam with her flying instructor Luis Fuchs

They set off again, but several hours later the plane crashed, killing both Myriam and Fuchs who were burned to death in the ensuing fire. 

The newspapers as expected were full of conspiracy theories.  They said the plane had crashed because of the failure of a particular screw which had never been known to fail, and that Biza had recently discovered that on one of their previous flights Myriam and Fuchs had stayed overnight at a hotel where only one room had been booked – and various other rumours.  They therefore speculated that in a fit of jealousy he had had the second plane tampered with. 

This all remained unsubstantiated, and it was beyond doubt that the widower was inconsolable, and spared no expense to bring their bodies back to Buenos Aires in a specially chartered train.  She was buried with much pomp and circumstance at the Recoleta cemetery there on the day of their first wedding anniversary.  She was 26 years old.

He had a massive monument built in her memory, positioned by the main road at the limit of the Myriam Stefford farm near Alta Gracia, and had her remains removed from La Recoleta and interred in the tomb within the monument. 

The mausoleum from close up...

At 83 metres in height it is the largest private mausoleum in Argentina.  Inside it has a 237-step spiral staircase which goes to the top of the monument, and a 30-step staircase descending to the tomb.  A thin cross has been carved into the concrete which when hit by the sun at a certain angle reflects sharply as a cross on Myriam Stefford’s tomb. It looks from afar as if it were the wing of a plane, and opinion seems to be divided on whether it is in fact a stylised wing, or whether it is a symbol which by means of this interior reflection of the sun, signifies eternity.  There is a warning to tomb robbers – “Accursed is he who profanes this tomb” and a theatrical quote worthy of  either ancient Rome or Hollywood – “Traveller, pay homage with your silence to the woman who audaciously attempted to reach the eagles.” 

...and from further away

Incorporating 170 tonnes of iron in its concrete frame, it took a year and one hundred Polish workmen to build it, and had armed guards around the clock to keep an eye on the workmen.  This is because he buried all her jewellery with her in a sealed container, including the famous Southern Cross diamond.  It is said that the tomb is booby trapped and the jewels could only be reached by blowing it up, but in actual fact it is not known whether he was outwitted and if the valuables are still there or not. 

For 40 years it was guarded night and day by a man with a heavy limp who lived by the door of the monument, and whom Biza chose from many candidates, as – curiously - he wanted the incumbent to resemble the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  After the guard died it fell into disrepair and it is clear that it has been breached, because it is full of graffiti inside and out, and malodorous.  It is not known whether or not the jewels are still there.

The monument had its opening ceremony, attended by all the important local dignitaries of the day, and one of them was a politician who was later governor of the province of Córdoba, Amadeo Sabattini, and who was to become closely linked to Raúl Barón Biza.

Amadeo Sabattini

Raúl didn’t know what to do with himself in his grief, and travelled to Europe for a year as a distraction.  He returned on the anniversary of her death because a commemoration ceremony had been planned.  It was then that a friend persuaded him to stay and get involved in politics, and here started a new phase of his life when he threw himself into militant politics and wrote controversial books which revealed his budding nihilism.

He was involved in a plan to bring about a change of government by means of a bomb, which was unsuccessful, he held meetings at his home in Alta Gracia for militant radicals which involved Amadeo Sabattini – all of which would cause his homes to be raided by police, and he would escape just in time and lie low in Montevideo (Uruguay) for a time, then return later. 

Amadeo Sabattini

He also got involved in hunger strikes, which on one notable occasion resulted in his having to be admitted to hospital under guard.  He managed to give the guard the slip and escaped, leaving a note saying he would be back the following day – and spent the night at an elegant hotel.  There were other times when he spent short spells in jail, but thanks to his money was able to make himself quite comfortable.  It was said that he also made the lives of other inmates more comfortable by buying them radios and other items.  He seemed to thrive on adrenalin.

During this time Biza wrote his most notorious book – El Derecho de Matar (The Right to Kill), which was banned and got him excommunicated.  It was his statement of rebellion against institutions, accepted mores and traditional views on practically everything.  The book was described as controversial and semi-pornographic, consisting of moralising tales where he demonstrated how he despised his own class, and asserted that he was God’s equal.  The first writer in Argentine literature to do so, he told of every sexual experience he had ever had, and as a voyeur of lesbianism, which was considered highly shocking in those days.  He wanted to explore sexual repression and how it had been the cause of society’s ills.  Women in the book all make him suffer and betray him or leave him. 

“…Woman is cursed, an eternal repository where depravity spins round her very centre.  She is a fertile spring whose streams sing of falsehood, lust and crime.” (Biza, El Derecho de Matar)

He helped his friend Amadeo Sabattini campaign for the governorship of the province of Córdoba, during which time he met Sabattini’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Clotilde (“Coty”) in 1935.  She was very attractive, with her turned up nose and gentle features.  He was 36 and though over twice her age, they were very attracted to each other, to her father’s dismay.  Sabattini knew Biza of old, and didn’t trust him as far as women were concerned.  Coty was also his favourite child.

An article written in 2010 about Amadeo Sabattini,
former Governor of the Province of Córdoba,
50 years after his death

His friend’s disapproval merely made it more of a challenge.  He became obsessed with the girl – as he often did with all that he perceived was forbidden to him.  When he tried to court her Sabattini sent her to a boarding school in Córdoba city.  Raúl was so angry at this that he withdrew from the campaign.

Clotilde Sabattini, about the time when he met her

A few months later Sabattini won the elections, but before he could take up his post as governor he had another drama to deal with.  His erstwhile friend Biza kidnapped Clotilde from her school, and they eloped to Uruguay, where they got married.  This represented not only a great betrayal by his daughter and a friend, but was also deeply embarrassing him to him politically.  A colleague of Sabattini’s had followed the couple and persuaded them to marry, but the relationship between Biza and Sabattini had soured, and was never the same thereafter.  

There were further bitter twists to the affair for the new governor.  Having contributed substantial funds to his campaign before he withdrew, Raúl Barón Biza now wrote an article for one of the provincial newspapers heavily criticising his former friend, and even threatening to have the mafia come after him.  Sabattini’s wife disagreed with her husband’s treatment of the affair and went to live in Rosario taking the other children with her, leaving her husband behind.

Nine months after their wedding Clotilde gave birth to Carlos, and after she had recovered she returned to school to finish her education.  Raúl provided a chauffeured car for the 60km round trip for the seventeen-year old to attend every day for 2 years, and she eventually graduated with top marks. 

She became a teacher at the school which Raúl had had built for the children of his employees.  It didn’t seem to bother her that she lived on the farm which was still called after her husband’s first wife, with the huge portrait of the aviatrix in a prominent position and the “MS” monogrammed tiles. 

Nor is there a record of her objecting to the change of use of the little chapel dedicated to the Virgin of Mercy, which had been built as a result of a drought years earlier which was at its worst while Raúl was travelling in Europe.  When speaking on the phone to staff, they asked him to promise to build a chapel if the weather changed, located over the cave dug years before because of what had happened to Father Carmelo and the stolen diadem.  On his return from Europe he was told that it had rained, so he kept his word, but when he asked the village priest to come and bless it, he learned that he would be charged an exorbitant amount for the privilege, and declined.  “If you want that sort of money” he told him “you can go out and earn it”.  The chapel was turned into a bar – ‘Hostería Don Pepe’  where locals could meet and discuss politics.

Clotilde Barón Biza

Fatherhood transformed him and he seemed to want to settle down.  He showered little Carlos with presents, and found that his feelings towards Clotilde were changing, for now she was a mother; his devotion to his wife was turning into an obsession.  They had two further children, Jorge in 1942 and María Cristina.  There was a contradiction in his life which he was always to find hard to reconcile – the love in him awakened by his children came into conflict regularly with the limits placed on his ego.

He was married to Clotilde for 25 years.  They had a highly volatile relationship countered by a strong mutual sexual attraction.  If he wanted a stay at home wife he was never going to get it - she was a highly intelligent young woman who turned into a mature educator and earned great respect in her field.  But at home it was another story.  They would fight, live apart for a few days and be drawn back together again.  Their friends say that she admired him, liked his elegance, his intelligence and even his cynicism, and though they fought, she tended to be submissive with him.  She had apparently already asked him for divorce seven months into their marriage, before Carlos was even born.

Clotilde Barón Biza

In 1940 Barón Biza set up business growing pine trees for the lumber industry, and put his administrator in charge of it, promising to cut him in on the deal.  When the business folded sooner than planned Biza refused to pay him.  The administrator was very angry and after fruitless insistence eventually cornered his employer and beat him up, then realised the gravity of what he had done and before escaping hid the keys of the other cars and cut the electric power to the house so that he would not be able to look for his gun to hunt him out and shoot him.  This incident led Biza to put the Myriam Stefford farm on the market.

Some years later after the war Clotilde was invited by the University of Milan to speak at a conference of educators, and the whole family went together.  While in Europe they made the decision to live there for a time, and settled in Switzerland for two years.  It was a good time for them and removed them all from the stresses of family and politics in Argentina.  From there he organised the construction of a new family home in a village in the Province of Córdoba by the name of La Falda, into which they moved in 1950.  Clotilde taught at the Military College nearby and he travelled to and from Buenos Aires dealing with business matters.

The arguments continued, and on a particular occasion Clotilde decided to go to her father’s home at a distance of 220 km to get away from him.  She didn’t take their two sons with her, and several days later someone arrived to collect the children and some documents.  Worried, Raúl took a 3-hour taxi ride to his in-laws’, and had his guns with him.  He demanded to see her but was told she would not see him.  Ignoring the family, he broke into her bedroom and locked the door behind him.  They argued, she asked for divorce again, and on the other side of the door her father and brother feared the worse and repeatedly demanded access, banging on the door as they did so. 

Suddenly and dramatically Raúl flung open the door and at the same time drew a gun and pointed it at his own temple, his eyes wide and bulging, as if determined to commit suicide.  While Clotilde had the sense to jump out of the window into the garden, her brother wrestled with Raúl to get his gun off him, and in the struggle four shots were fired, wounding both of them.  They remained on the floor of the bedroom.

The police arrived at this point and arrested all four of them, and later on all but Raúl Barón Biza were released.  He spent a year in jail as a result of the incident.  As far as the Sabattinis themselves were concerned, once they had recovered they made it clear to Clotilde that they regarded her husband as a dangerous man, and they wanted nothing further to do with him.  However this was made impossible by Clotilde herself, who could not break away from him however much they begged her to do so and in fact her inability to deal with the situation was to contribute to the catastrophic effect on her children in later years.  For now the couple reconciled, and she found herself pregnant again, with Cristina.  This was in 1952.

During the fifties they went into voluntary exile in Uruguay because of their opposition to the government of General Perón.  They returned in 1955 and became very active in politics once again.  When Arturo Frondizi became president in 1958, he appointed Clotilde as Minister for Education.  As the first female minister in the history of Argentina she headed the debate that education should be free and secular.  Biza was furious.

* 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:  a final solution


Photo Finish
from Lonicera's photo archive

Bitta this, bitta that

Non-digital:  Spain, skirting the Mediterranean

Non-digital:  Fuerteventura

Non-digital:  Camera-shy self-portrait

Digital:  Gilbert & Sullivan's Patience, 2010

Digital:  Director & Musical Director,
Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society

Digital:  Maldives

Non-digital:  Bougainvillea

Non-digital:  Rugby panning shot - Northampton player



OneStonedCrow said...

Amazing story and characters ...

Lonicera said...

Thanks Graham - save your energy for the last one...

Joyful said...

What a sad end to Miriam.

Lonicera said...

Not as sad as his second wife's...

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