Manuel del Arco continues to be the best interviewer the press has had in Spain. He published a daily interview () on the pages of The vanguard from 1953 to 1971, the year of his death, 50 years ago today. Already sick with cancer and bedridden in his Barcelona home (Capità Arenas, 21-23), many famous people came to his bedside to be interviewed.
An interview with Manuel del Arco was a bell of glory, a confirmation. The interviewer was the star. Why? Because he knew how to interview a shoe and make it attractive. Bold, shrewd, cultured and jovial, he was a genius of printed conversation.
“The journalist lives for others, thinks of others. I don’t serve the character, I serve the reader! “
Manuel del Arco was born an artist before he was a journalist: he drew unsurpassed caricatures. He sketched the character’s traits from nature, who in the meantime he entertained with some conversation (the future interview).
Born in Zaragoza in 1909, he studied law but his aesthetic drive got the better of him: he plunged into the bustling bohemian Madrid of the 1930s and hung out with his numerous artistic, intellectual and literary personalities prior to 1936, from Valle-Inclán to Federico García Lorca: He portrayed them both for the Matritense press in the days of the Second Republic, among other celebrities.
An awakened eye, a ready ear and an open spirit, the talented young man was imbued with the very free atmosphere for the circulation of ideas and aesthetics of republican Madrid, and in his coffees and infinite nights he learned the subtle art of vibrant, fun and daring conversation, without corsets (and without schedules). And then he began to publish cartoons in the press, each one with a brief caption, a very brief profile of the character with a satirical accent: that text was an embryo of what his celebrated interviews would end up being, after the war.
The young Manuel del Arco had to fulfill his military service in Valencia, where he was surprised in 1936 by the Spanish civil war, which he lived as a republican recruit. That fortuitous circumstance – like so many Spaniards of the “third Spain” – closed doors when in 1939 he tried to recover his old collaborations in the capital press, already thirty years old. He was saddened by the unjust slamming of doors but he was not daunted, because he was a tenacious man: in 1940 he put his cartoons in a folder and came to Barcelona …, in whose headboards his open, liberal and humanist spirit did find accommodation. And since 1941 he was published in Catalan Mail (section Vis a vis (section You will say , Destination and, finally, in La Vanguardia (Hand in hand).
Manuel del Arco published, over thirty years, more than seven thousand interviews, according to my estimates. Every morning he tied his white tie, left the house and went to the Ritz Hotel or the Avenida Palace Hotel, his two main fishing grounds. The hotel concierges blew him which interview candidates they saw passing through their lounges.
Manuel del Arco displayed his great world and his seductive sympathy there – of which many smiling photographs with celebrities, both men and women – bear testimony, and he sat his prey to chat happily with him for half an hour, our man armed with a pair of sheets and a fountain pen, because Del Arco did not know the engraver and never wanted to know it. He took notes.
After the interview and the laughter ended, Manuel del Arco would come home and hand over the scrawled pages to his wife, Norah Giménez. “Only my mother was able to understand my father’s handwriting,” explains Norah del Arco (80), the journalist’s eldest daughter: soon she would also learn to decipher her father’s handwriting to type it, just like her sister Olga. While they were typing, the artist and journalist drew ink and pen the caricature of the character (see, next to it, one of the several he made for Salvador Dalí). The result was a masterpiece, which each evening he personally took to the writing of The Vanguard ”.
And if it was a masterful work of art, it was doubly so: for the expressiveness of the drawing and for the musicality of the lyrics. With that magnificent piece of Hand to hand , that interviewee agreed to a plausible form of immortality, and the readers of that page interpreted it in the same way.
In the photos that I have reviewed in which Manuel del Arco appears, I am captivated by his attitude of active listening, very attentive and very jovial (how well this man smiled!), Always well dressed and never forgetting his white tie. Manuel del Arco’s invariable white tie was the elegant extravagance of someone who is known to be singular and an artist, with a desire for style. Salvador Dalí, of course! He was excited to be interviewed by Manuel Del Arco: in one of those various interviews (I see the photo) we see the Empordà painter completely naked while Del Arco –artist versus artist– asks him as if nothing were the case.
Manuel del Arco’s interviews were (sorry: they are!) Agile, graceful, mischievous and graceful like a good dance. He treated the girl who sings (Marisol) with the same ease as the minister pelma (Fraga). In a very barracks and cowardly time, Del Arco’s ease was revolutionary: he taught us that one can ask about everything without reverential fear, with irony, with charm, with good humor.
Manuel Del Arco is cheerful and graceful because behind all his questions beats an immanent philosophy that could be summed up as follows: “famous on duty, we are all mortal!”. Del Arco imposed his game, and everyone played it: John Wayne, Pau Casals, Errol Flynn, Walt Disney, Ava Gardner, Robert Mitchum, Peter Sellers, Louis Armstrong, Maria Félix, Alexander Fleming, Rubinstein, Miró, Cela, Nixon, Kubala , Neruda …
Del Arco came to teach journalism students, and collaborated in the sixties in the TVE program This is his life , from Miramar Studios.
His spark and his soft scorn were always a vital lesson and a comfort to readers. And half a century after leaving, some of his words remind me of what a good interview is about, what being a journalist is about, namely: “I write for the minister and the street sweeper, I want everyone to understand me! The journalist is someone who serves others, who lives for others, who thinks of others. I don’t serve the character, I serve my reader! ”.
They all read to him
Xavier Castellnou (Grandson of Manuel del Arco and author of the blog Manueldelarco.com)
They ask me why I keep alive the memory of my grandfather Manuel del Arco, whom I never got to know. It is because throughout my life (I am 44 years old), whenever someone older knows that I am the grandson of Manuel del Arco, I find that his eyes and smile light up.
I wanted to know more about my grandfather. I collect all his books. Since I was a child I listened to my mother, Olga, hundreds of anecdotes about her very popular father. I understood that his interviews made thousands of readers happy. And that’s why I created the Manueldelarco.com blog in 2008: I compile all the available information about my grandfather. A challenge fulfilled, due to stubbornness (inherited from him).
In 2009, the centenary of Del Arco’s birth, I contacted the then director of La Vanguardia, Màrius Carol, and we organized an exhibition at the Palau de la Música with works and personal objects.
In 2014 I wanted a street for Manuel del Arco in Barcelona, his city, where he deployed his activity and achieved fame throughout Spain. Another challenge. The writer and columnist Quim Monzó, a great admirer of my grandfather, wrote a letter of support. And he told me that, as a child, when his mother scrubbed the floor and displayed pages of La Vanguardia on the wet floor, he would stand on those pages to read the interviews with Manuel del Arco. And that would awaken in little Monzó his vocation to write one day in a newspaper.
Letters were also signed by José Manuel Lara (son) and the Col·legi de Periodistas de Catalunya. The thing about the street did not catch on, but the commemorative plaque at his home, calle Capità Arenas, 21-23, which is displayed there, did.
My grandfather had Joana Biarnés as a student, a young woman who would be the first female photojournalist in Spain. He learned that she was disgusted by bullfighting, and he entrusted her with a photo report in the bullring. She complied. My grandfather congratulated her on the work done and predicted the bright future she would have.
As a couple, my father went to look for my mother at her house in Capità Arenas (he did not go upstairs, they were other times) and he waited for her at the entrance, in the middle of the afternoon. Often the wait was prolonged: my mother did not come downstairs until she typed the interview that my grandfather had signed that morning (see attached photo, circa 1960). My parents were married for exactly 30 years, and the legacy that I preserve in honor of my grandfather is also that of Olga, my mother: I admire both of them very much.
My grandfather’s work at La Vanguardia left a deep mark, and I will continue to watch over his memory: he would have liked it, and his brilliant journalistic work also deserves it. Why not establish a Manuel del Arco Prize? I would distinguish the best interviews in the press in Spain, every year. I suggest it when recalling a phrase repeated by the great Manuel del Arco: “the difficult thing is not to write, the really difficult thing is to be read.” And he knew very well how to do it, they all read him!