When Patricia McCormick realized she didn’t have a future in music, she chose a career as filled with drama, passion and death as any of the operas she longed to sing.
She became a matadora, breaking long-standing barriers against women and Americans in machismo-saturated Mexican bullrings and performing before enthusiastic crowds in more than 300 fights. In 1963, Sports Illustrated wrote that Ms. McCormick “may well be the greatest woman bullfighter who ever lived.”
Over more than 10 years, she was gored six times, once so brutally that a priest administered last rites over her mangled body. But she recovered and fought a few more years before finally exiting the arena in the early 1960s, complaining, among other things, that the bulls had become too small.
She spent the rest of her life far from the public eye, pouring herself into her watercolors of horses and bulls and working as an administrative assistant at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
Ms. McCormick died March 26 at a care center in Del Rio, Tex., her cousin, Thomas McCormick, said. She was 83. He did not provide the cause.
Although a small number of women had been drawn to the bullring over centuries, Ms. McCormick was among the first in Mexico who were allowed to perform in much the same manner as men: on foot rather than horseback, and with bulls that were fully grown. But for all her skills, Ms. McCormick never was allowed to take the “alternative” — an initiation ceremony that would have signified parity with the top male bullfighters of her day.
She couldn’t afford the steep fees, and no man then in the ring would endorse her bid.
“It would have become a vicious circle in the end,” she said. “For once I became a full-fledged matadora de toros, the recognized matadores would have refused to appear with me. I couldn’t win for losing!”
Still, she performed on the same bill as some of the arena’s most accomplished men, facing more than 600 bulls at dusty rings in Mexico and Venezuela. While some “toreros” were viewed as little more than novelty acts, Ms. McCormick had a legion of fans among aficionados, said Fred Renk, a breeder of fighting bulls in Texas.
Patricia Lee McCormick was born Nov. 18, 1929, in St. Louis, and moved with her parents to Big Spring, Tex., when she was 13. She attended Texas Western College in El Paso.
For Ms. McCormick, El Paso’s secret allure lay just across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez. At 7, she had attended a bullfight with her parents in Mexico City and it stuck with her. Later, she recalled “falling in love” that day with a matador who lost his shoes in the mud but continued to fight.
Never repulsed by the ring’s raw violence, she persuaded Alejandro de Herrera, a Juarez bullfighter, to train her.
Realizing that news of her upcoming appearances would be broadcast, she reluctantly told her parents. They were appalled, and they rushed to El Paso for a meeting with her school’s president.
“Mother was all in tears: ‘How could you? How could you have kept this a secret?’ ” she said in a 2006 interview for an oral history project in Del Rio.
But Ms. McCormick was adamant. “I had a manager, I had a sponsor, I had an impresario and a contract with nine fights,” she said. “That’s hard to beat.”
It was the start of a brilliant career that in some ways was doomed from the outset.
“She was of an era that was very, very difficult for women,” retired bullfighter Honey Anne Haskin, also known as Ana de Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times. “There were other women who were very, very good, but the one everyone talked about with respect and admiration was Patricia McCormick.”
Such acclaim went only so far. Ms. McCormick was not allowed to wear the male matador’s glittering “traje de luces,” or suit of lights. While praising her valor, her discipline’s biggest names were sometimes bruisingly condescending toward her.
“She fights larger bulls than does any other woman . . . and she kills well,” Carlos Arruza, a renowned “torero” who died in 1966, once said. “Her only defect is that she is a woman.”
Worn down by injuries, conflict with her manager and financial problems, Ms. McCormick moved to Los Angeles in 1962.
Her 1954 book, “Lady Bullfighter,” sparked some talk of a movie based on her career, but friends said she wasn’t much of a self-promoter. Despite her friendship with Gilbert Roland, who played the archetypal Latin lover in numerous films, nothing came of the movie idea.
Ms. McCormick never married and had no children. She is survived by her cousin.