I first encountered Felicidad Blanc the same way most people before me had, hearing her melancholy, singsong voice say in Spanish: “He died at seven in the evening in Castrillo de las Piedras one summer afternoon, luminous and clear, like so many others we had lived in other summers. The previous days we had been happy. Once again a rupture interrupted my life.”
Felicidad was a Spanish memoirist, short story writer, occasional translator, and late in life, actress. She was also a potent cultural symbol in Spain, thanks to the legendary documentary for which the quote above serves as the opening lines: El Desencanto—The Disenchantment—which came out in 1976, a year after Francisco Franco’s death.
The Disenchantment is a cinematic tell-all about Felicidad and her family: Her husband Leopoldo Panero, a poet celebrated by the dictatorship; and their three sons, Leopoldo María, Juan Luis, and Michi, all of whom were, to steal from Keith Gessen, “sad young literary men,” though they were also arrogant, eccentric, and volubly provocative.
Leopoldo Panero had died of a heart attack at 51 in 1962, and Felicidad and her sons took the filming of the documentary as an opportunity to step out from their paterfamilias’ shadow and speak truths (as well as a few untruths) about their family that they never would have had he still been alive. They talked about Leopoldo Panero’s drinking and temper, as well as his marital infidelities and domestic tyranny. Felicidad’s husband’s ambitions had crushed her aspirations—she wouldn’t publish books until after his death and after The Disenchantment—and she was no longer willing to let his narrative blot out of her own, no matter the cost. This “speaking badly” of the dead on camera, especially of a dead father so soon after Spain’s own father figure had died, turned The Disenchantment into a national metaphor and made the Paneros famous. But it was the other taboos they smashed that carved out a place for them in the Spanish cultural psyche. They talked about their family’s history with drug use, mental illness, prison stints, and protest against Franco. Felicidad even challenged the holy notion of widowhood, saying she wasn’t always sad that her husband had died prematurely. In a country where political memory and free expression had been repressed for nearly forty years, the Paneros turned their thoughts and memories into weapons of subversion.
When I first saw The Disenchantment, I was hypnotized by Felicidad. It wasn’t just her melodious voice as she recited poems her dead husband had written about her or the dreamy way she evoked the past as if it were a novel. It was also her physical presence: her sweep of silver hair and solemnly avian face, and the elegant dignity with which she sat, walked, and gestured—even when, in an iconic scene of the film, one of her sons verbally attacked her as a cowardly, bungling mother. During that onslaught, Felicidad was a picture of weary but graceful self-possession. Throughout the film she seemed transplanted from a previous, more formal century, and in fact, as I later learned, she always felt she had been meant for the 19th century, which had produced her favorite books: Madame Bovary, David Copperfield, Les Miserables, and War and Peace. These were books of superb melancholy that spoke to Felicidad, a name that means happiness in Spanish, and which she shared with her mother. Felicidad would later write, “That name was like a challenge to destiny, since neither my mother nor I were ever too happy.”
Long before Felicidad sprung to fame as the matriarch of the Panero family, she lived a charmed, yet painful life. Her father was a renowned surgeon known to dine occasionally at the royal palace of Spain’s king, and she grew up in her own palacete, a mansion in the moneyed Madrid neighborhood of Salamanca. During her teenage years she bloomed and discovered romance. Her beauty was often compared to that of Greta Garbo. A girl who knew her as a teenager described Felicidad as “the prettiest girl in Madrid.” Infected by the novels she read, she fell in love with falling in love. Her comfortable youth, however, came to an end with the outbreak of the civil war in 1936, when Felicidad was twenty-three. Her wealthy, conservative family faced danger first from the anarchist militias who defended Madrid against Franco’s rebel army, and later cowered in their basement as Nazi warplanes bombed the city. Felicidad’s brother ended up dying in the Battle of the Ebro fighting for the Republic; she became a nurse at her father’s hospital, treating the wounded. In her free time she read on her balcony as Franco’s mortars hammered Madrid, dreaming she was elsewhere. By the end of the war in 1939 she was a different person: resilient, independent, capable of more than she had ever imagined.
In 1940, as life in Spain reemerged out of the rubble of the war, Felicidad met Leopoldo Panero. He had lost a brother during the war like Felicidad, and the two connected through their common loss, and also through their love of art and literature. He started writing poems about her, and in spite of her weak physical attraction toward him, she surrendered to his love. Becoming a muse, feeling herself elevated from mere personhood into verse—it was impossible to resist, as though she had been pulled into one of the French romance novels she loved. Marriage, however, turned out to be anything but literary. She went from muse to helpmate, from newlywed to the mother of three boys, from an individual named Felicidad Blanc to the wife of Leopoldo Panero, a man who worked for the dictatorship as a cultural functionary and diplomat, and whose conservative and sometimes fascist verses garnered him awards from it.
The unpublished correspondence between Felicidad and Leopoldo today sits in an archive in Malaga, Spain. Like most relationships, theirs started hot, with breathlessly poetic letters in which they seemed as in love with the literariness of romance as with each other. They made dramatic vows and bombastic declarations. Soon, however, things cooled off, and their correspondence from when they were apart mainly consisted of familial logistics, though distance did occasionally re-ignite their poetic idealization of the other. By the time Leopoldo died suddenly in 1962, Felicidad had built up two decades of unvoiced resentment. She felt her husband and the institutionalized patriarchal norms under which he had made a name for himself—and to which she had acceded, as her upbringing had prepared her—had eclipsed her to the point of erasing her selfhood. She had always had literary aspirations, even winning literary contests and publishing several well-received short stories in the 1950s, but in the end she found the writing life incompatible with the life of a Spanish housewife. There had only been room for one writer in the family.
For a brief few years after Leopoldo’s death, Felicidad felt liberated. She reemerged as her own person, going to gallery openings and literary readings in Madrid with her oldest son, Juan Luis. She stayed out late at bars, charming and surprising young artists and literati with her originality, sophistication, and beauty. The old friends she had from her marriage to Leopoldo broke off their relations with her, but she was glad to bid farewell to the staid, traditional world of married life that had suffocated her for two decades. Her “crazy” period (as Juan Luis called it), however, came to an end in the late ‘60s, when her second son, Leopoldo María, subsumed her. As a young agitator against the regime, and a legendarily brilliant poet yet epically destructive person, he bounced from prisons to mental institutions, with Felicidad always caring for him.
All of these facts about Felicidad are essential to the structure, story, and mystique of The Disenchantment, wherein her memories achieved a kind of narrative apotheosis when merged with those of her three sons. Although each of her boys came off as is his own unique enfant terrible eager to tear down the façade of their family’s legacy, their mother was just as eager to burn the bridges to a past that had left her stranded. Sitting in front of the camera, she settled scores not just with her dead husband, but with his friends, who represented to her the Francoist world that was on the verge of falling apart during the filming of The Disenchantment in 1974 and 1975. “Felicidad was a complex character,” Jaime Chávarri, the director of the documentary, told me during one of our many conversations about the Paneros. “She was a good person but needed to be a bit bad because one can’t live being so good.” The character she gave to posterity was beloved and loathed in equal measure when she appeared on movie screens across Spain, but no one could say that she wasn’t fascinating. A woman obsessed with memory, who bathed in nostalgia for things both bitter and sweet, entered national memory. Newspaper profiles and interviews with her abounded and gossip columnists wrote about her. She stopped being just the wife of the poet Leopoldo Panero. Indeed, she would eventually overshadow him, turning him into the husband of Felicidad Blanc.
Felicidad’s newfound fame allowed her to publish a memoir in 1978, Mirror of Shadows, and the following year she published a book of stories and miscellany under the title When I Loved Felicidad (a play on words, since it can also be translated as When I Loved Happiness). This book of stories is housed in the National Library of Spain in Madrid: a gray object about three feet by three feet and three inches thick. It was released in a limited edition, with a small print run, with lovely lithographs inside. Felicidad herself was like that odd, huge book: bound, yes, but flagrantly, stubbornly unconventional.
Felicidad wasn’t perfect and she wasn’t solely a victim of her time and place. She had her flaws. She was prone to vanity and self-pity, but her greatest weakness is something I and many others relate to deeply, and which she used to redeem her disappointments: she longed for life to be like literature. She didn’t want to settle for the daily banality that is life, so lacking in poetry. Through words and nostalgia, she wanted to elevate it into something grander. She longed to “curate” experience, to finesse her life’s narrative into something she could control, as if it were a fiction. She always said she loved characters from books and people from her lives equally. The same goes for me, in the case of Felicidad. She is a real-life character from my book, and I came to adore her.
In 2015, Felicidad Blanc’s memoir was reissued in Spain, and this year her collected stories, including little-known, forgotten ones, will be released. I think she would be happy.
Aaron Shulman is a journalist whose work has appeared in publications including The Believer, The American Scholar, The New Republic, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Age of Disenchantments.