Helen Donlon


Roger Tinnell


Federico Garcia Lorca

 Writer and academic Roger Tinnell lives in the hills of Benimussa above San Antonio, Ibiza. Originally from the United States, Tinnell is now based here full-time although he has a flat in central Madrid that he visits to catch up with work and friends there, or for mainland cultural forays. The author of several books and catalogues on Spanish music and letters, he is also a translator and specialist on Federico Garcia Lorca. His publications include two books on letters written to the poet.

Tinnell has created a beautiful garden out of the pine forest on his land.  The terrace, from where I witnessed a double green ray last summer, faces onto the bay of San Antonio and the islands of Sa Conillera. Today we’re sitting beside his pool where we’ve sat so many times over the last few years. I’m here to find out more about his work on Lorca and to talk to him about his recently completed novel based on the life of a newspaper correspondent during the Spanish Civil War.

Tinnell’s new novel was inspired by finding a series of articles written by a real war correspondent, whom he says, is . . . still alive . . . He’ll be 99 this month in fact.  This started when he gave me permission to translate all of his articles into Spanish, which he had collected into a not-for-sale memoir for his family. So I did, and it’s maybe 90 pages long. I told a friend of mine and she said it would make an interesting novel so I wrote to him and asked his permission to write his life in novel form, but he said no. The idea was still so interesting to me that I went ahead and created my own characters to write a story inspired by his experiences. It’s a 215 page manuscript about my grandfather, an American reporter during the Spanish Civil War. He comes to Barcelona, goes to Madrid where he falls in love, and he goes to places like Valencia and so forth. He’s very pro-republic. He writes for his Washington newspaper about what he sees, and he covers not only war news but cultural events too. I’ve had a lot of fun with it and have learned a lot in my research.

My grandfather interviewed Gustavo Durán who was a famous musician and also a friend of Lorca. During the civil war he was actually a colonel [appearing as a character in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls] and led the Garcia Lorca battalion. Lorca had been assassinated in 1936. I don’t go into how or why Lorca was killed because obviously Durán would not have known at the time. One year later all they knew was that the fascists had killed him. There was no news of how he had been murdered.

I met two gay men who knew Lorca. Eugenio Florit, the Cuban poet, met Lorca in Havana; and Joaquin Nin, the Spanish composer. I met Nin in New York and talked to him a lot. Unfortunately, he had a stroke and died before I could get to see him again but he told me in New York that Gustavo Durán wore a pair of blue pajamas that would drive Lorca crazy [with lust].  It’s a shame I didn’t get to see Nin again. I was already living in Spain and trying to get to California where he lived but then he died. All his papers are in the Berkeley library. He had been attempting to write his memoirs.

Ian Gibson, the Lorca biographer, has actually dug into that history and has found that Lorca was dragged out of a Falangist friend’s house and put in jail before being taken out with two or three other people. They shot him and threw him into an unmarked grave. We know that now but it can’t be in my character’s grandfather’s newspaper articles  because nobody knew that then.  They knew he was dead because it was a great scandal, this great artist had been assassinated.

This year by the way is the centenary of the birth of Miguel Hernandez, another great Spanish poet. He died of tuberculosis. They put him in jail because apparently Franco didn’t want another martyr so instead of having him shot they kept him in jail where he died young. He was also an Andaluz and a very interesting man. He was a shepherd and rather uneducated but he wrote beautiful poetry. His family didn’t want him to write. So anyway this year there’ll be centenary celebrations all over Spain.

Anyway, it was so much fun to pull together all this stuff that I already knew of, like the music of the time, and Lorca, for this new novel. I’d learned a lot about the 30s in my earlier work on Lorca; about  the theatre, the civil war and the period in general. So I’ve written it in Spanish and I’ve also written it in English and now I’m ready to start submitting it.

Lorca, Dalí, Buñuel and their circle

Meanwhile, in November last year I did a talk on Lorca and music here in Ibiza as part of a larger Lorca event. I showed most of my photographs and books, some first editions, etc.  Lorca was a good pianist. He studied music in Granada, and he actually wanted to be a pianist. He wrote music and people who knew him as a pianist  were surprised when he began writing poetry and prose. It was like, ‘What? You write poetry too?  After his music teacher died Lorca asked his father to let him go to Paris to study music but his father didn’t think it was a very good idea because he wanted him to have a career.  So they made him study law. And he went to the University of Granada and studied, and he was a lousy student. He just wasn’t in the least bit interested. He tried to pass exams, copied other peoples’ work, that sort of thing. Then he went to Madrid where he studied in the Residencia de Estudiantes where he met Dalí and Buñuel, and many of the great people of that period.  He began to publish and also began to look for places to do his drama.

His first play was a disaster! An absolute disaster. It was about insects and cockroaches and butterflies and thwarted love. People in the audience screamed, ‘Why don’t you spray some insecticide on it?’ They hated it. A later play, Mariana Pineda, about the heroine of Granada and the Spanish flag and so forth, was very popular. He soon became extremely well known for his poetry and drama. He went to New York to learn English. That didn’t work out. He said people there talked like ducks.  He hung out with a lot of Spanish guys. He had a lot of fun too, for example partying with Hart Crane, the two of them with a group of drunken sailors. Then he went from New York and took a train down to Florida and went across to Havana. And loved it! He’d been in New York during the crash in 1929 and he wrote that he saw people throw themselves out of the windows. He wrote back to his family that he loved New York but in his book of poems Poet In New Yorkhe wrote that he found it dirty and overcrowded. Of course Havana was like being home again: sunshine, palm trees, he loved it. He was a huge success in Cuba and during later trips to Argentina and Uruguay. And everywhere he went he played the piano.

Buñuel wrote some very nasty things about Lorca in his letters. Lorca published something called the Romancero Gitano, the gypsy ballads , and Dalí  accused him of old-fashioned writing. Lorca was very upset by this and felt that Dalí and Buñuel were making fun of him. Dalí  said that Lorca tried to seduce him but that no one was getting into his fabulously holy ass. Lorca had other gay friends during his time at the Residencia in Madrid though, among them Emilio Prados, the poet, who was madly in love with Lorca at the time, although Lorca was not interested in him at all. Dalí and Lorca did meet again years later, briefly, and it didn’t work. The relationship was broken. Dear old Dalí, or “avid for dollars” as the anagram has it, was such an attention getter by then.

But the whole Madrid experience was very interesting. They used to go to the Ritz and have their hair cut. They all had lots of money.  Lorca’s and Buñuel’s fathers were rich, Dalí ’s father too. So they were all running around being elegant senoritos with long hair, and going to lots of parties. One of Lorca’s boyfriends was a man named Aladrén, a sculptor. They were walking down the street one day and they ran into some friends, and this guy’s wearing a beautiful fancy overcoat, and Lorca made him roll around on the ground for him. There was no respect for money.  Pepin Bello, who just died a little while ago, was one of their close friends. He lived to be 104 or something. But he wrote a lot about who they were and what they did, about  the crazy fun word games they used to make up, for example.

Music and Letters

I’m not a medievalist. My dissertation was on Camilo Jose Cela, the 20th century Nobel prizewinner. After getting the doctorate I sort of lost interest in Cela. I was always very interested in music so I decided to go ahead and start doing something about music. The University of Wisconsin had something called the Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies which was a spectacular centre, and they became interested in publishing something about recorded music from the middle ages. So I decided to put together a catalogue of recordings of music from the medieval period up to 1650. They published it in 1980, then a second edition came out. A friend at Berkeley suggested I do something about Lorca, as there’s a lot of music based on his work. So I published a little book in ‘86 about Lorca and music, and I sent a copy to Isabel Garcia Lorca, Lorca’s  sister, who wrote back and said she loved it. She also said if I was in Madrid I should come to see them. So I went to the Garcia Lorca Foundation in Madrid, when they were just beginning to put the Foundation together and were bringing together all the stuff from the family that had been kept. Manuel, Lorca’s nephew, said there was enough for another book there, in the contents of the big cardboard boxes from Isabel’s house and other family houses. I started digging in the files and found all the contracts that they signed for musicians to write on texts, and all the scores that they had, and the newspaper cuttings.

I put together a first edition of the Lorca music catalogue. As you know he recorded songs on piano with a woman called La Argentinita, a good friend. These were popular songs so there were lots of recordings of those, but then it turned out there were thousands of compositions based on Lorca – popular, classical, everything!  The Fundacion Juan March in Madrid decided to publish my book on Lorca and music, and for Lorca’s birth centenary 1998 they decided to put out a second edition, so I went through Lorca’s works to find all the musical references.  So I not only do the recordings and the homages to Lorca, but also I include all of his references to music. This second edition was a hundred pages longer, with new recordings, new compositions and so forth.

Since then I have about 120 more pages of information so if I ever do a third edition of that book . . .  I’ve actually given this new information to the Lorca Foundation because if anyone is interested in the music and they see my book and want to know about new stuff, well here it is.

In 2009 I published a book of letters from musicians to Lorca. Some of them I had edited before in a book called Letters from Catalunya. In that earlier book, as I live here on Ibiza, I thought, well, what correspondence is there from Lorca sent from thepaisos catalans? That book includes letters from some very famous people: for example, the writers  Luis Montanya and Sebastian Gasch. One woman writes from Barcelona asking for the texts from some of the popular songs that he had recorded, and this was just a month before he was killed. So in other words one of the last letters that was written to Lorca.

Another of my books is the one on Spanish music based on Spanish literature, so I looked for everything possible that I could find in Spanish, Catalan, Basque and Galician. This was very complicated as I don’t speak Basque at all but fortunately it’s not a hugely published language. There’s relatively little Basque literature, so I didn’t have to worry too much about that. Catalan was a little bit more complicated, but I could at least work with it. So the book contains 600 pages of info based on who wrote songs, symphonies, cantatas and ballets based on Spanish literature. Everything I could find written on people like Cervantes, or Verdaguer, for example. That work was very enjoyable. I really enjoyed working in various libraries and conservatories in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, trying to find out everything I could.  I have since found over a 100 pages more of new material too.

The book on musicians writing to Lorca is published by the Centro de Documentacion musical de Andalusia.  Lorca was from Granada of course. There are lots of interesting things in the letters. Andres Segovia, the great guitarist, actually aligned himself with the Franco cause for the war. There are two letters from him to Lorca. Apparently all of the letters that Lorca wrote him were burned or stolen when he lived in Barcelona. When he was out of the country during the civil war someone broke into his apartment and stole all his books and everything else. Destroyed whatever they could I guess.  John Trend was an expert in Spanish culture and one of the first people to publish about Lorca in England. Some letters and postcards from him to Lorca are included, including musical transcriptions in one of them. The letters from Gustavo Durán were very interesting. He was a gay man who later had three children when he married an American woman, but he’d lived with a man named Nestor, a great painter, in the Canary Islands.

Isabel Garcia Lorca died a few years ago but I had been lucky enough to visit her home several times and was impressed by many possessions I had seen when I visited her: Lorca’s piano, two Dalí paintings on the wall. I think the Reina Sofia museum has bought them now. There are many drawings by the painters of the period who were friends. The Lorca family knew everybody. During that period no-one was just a writer, they were writers, painters, musicians. Lorca painted, he drew, he played piano, he sang and he wrote.


Roger Tinnell was interviewed by Helen Donlon in Ibiza, 2010