From General Franco to Sgt. Pepper

taraIn Franco’s International Brigades I mentioned a mysterious Cuban called Miguel Ferreras who fought for both Franco and Hitler then married into the Guinness family and became stepfather to a man immortalised in The Beatles’ song A Day in the Life. Quite a ride.

Now  Paul Howard’s biography I Read the News Today, Oh Boy shines more light on Ferrera’s strange life and times through his relationship with stepson Tara Browne. Howard’s book is a great read that covers everything from swinging sixties London to Paris’ gay underworld. Definitely worth buying.

Ferrera’s stepson was a gilded youth born into money, privilege, and bohemia in Ireland. His mother was brewing heiress Oonagh Guinness. Browne was precociously advanced, quitting smoking at the age of eleven, and never getting more than a few year’s schooling. He got his own kind of education from his mother’s artistic friends.

In 1957 Oonagh married Cuban fashion designer Miguel Ferrera in New York. Oonagh had two ex-husbands and Ferrera quickly ditched his first wife (who’d given him an American passport and a few kids) when all that Guinness money walked into his showroom. Tara hated his new stepfather and so did most of Oonagh’s friends who considered Ferreras rude, provincial, and untalented as a designer. They didn’t know the half of it.

The Man from Madrid

There was a real Miguel Ferreras from Cuba. He wasn’t the man who married Oonagh Guinness. The original Ferreras died of tuberculosis in a Spanish sanatorium back in 1949. By that time the man using his identity was already on the way to Cuba.

José Maria Ozores Laredo was a good-looking bisexual Spanish delinquent born in 1922. His mother could not afford to look after him and he spent time in an orphanage before living with his uncle in Ribadeo. Too young for the Civil War, he spent his teenage years as a petty thief in Republican Madrid. In the chaos of the fighting no-one spent much energy trying to catch him. That all changed when General Franco’s Nationalists won the war in 1939. Two years later Ozores was arrested for burglary. He was lucky to escape real jail time and the police made it clear they had their eye on him.

There was one way to disappear. In July 1941 Ozores signed up for the División Azul (Blue Division) and headed for the Eastern Front. The División was a volunteer unit sent by General Franco to help the Nazis fighting in Russia. Too cautious to openly join the Axis forces, the Spanish dictator used the unit to show his support without risking an invasion by the Allies. 

Ozores headed for the ice and snow of the Eastern Front. He lasted only four months before trying to desert near Leningrad. The military police got him.

In and Out of Uniform

Franco’s prisons were no joke but a German military prison was a lot worse. Ozores was lucky to do only a month behind bars. On release he got deported back to Spain. In 1943 he was allowed to re-enlist.

ferreras

What he was doing between his tours of duty is unknown. Ozores probably returned to petty crime and dodging the police. Whatever his activities, he returned to the División Azul and the war but was back in Spain by December of 1943, injured, probably with frostbite.

Ozores couldn’t stay away from the criminal life. Madrid police arrested him twice in early 1944 for theft. To escape trial he returned to Nazi territory. By this time the División Azul had returned to Spain, replaced by a smaller unit called the Legión Azul (Blue Legion), which was then itself withdrawn. Franco had realised he backed the wrong side in the war. Ozores was desperate to leave the country. He connected with pro-Hitler fascists in Spain’s Falange movement secretly funnelling volunteers across the border. Within a few weeks he joined the Waffen-SS.

It was a suicidal decision. Nazi Germany was collapsing and it was obvious the end was not far off. Ozores must have either become a true believer in the Nazi cause or really hated the idea of a Spanish prison.

He became an officer in the Waffen-SS and bounced around Hitler’s shrinking territory, serving everywhere from Romania to Yugoslavia. The Allies captured him in Italy at the end of the war and repatriated him to Spain in December 1945.

A New Identity

The Madrid police still wanted him on burglary charges. Ozores decided to leave the country, more permanently this time. A Cuban friend called Joaquin Ferreras had served alongside him in the war and had a brother called Miguel seriously ill with tuberculosis in a Spanish sanatorium. He allowed Ozores to use his brother’s birth certificate to get a Cuban passport and the two men sailed for Havana together.

When the real Miguel died in 1949 the man using his identity was studying fashion design in New York. Ozores had saved enough money in Havana to start a new life in the USA. The bisexual thief and Nazi soldier had an unexpected interest in designing women’s clothes.

He served an apprenticeship under the legendary designer Charles James. Ozores learned a lot but didn’t like his new boss.

‘If you were very common,’ he said, ‘you had to be Picasso to be his equal. Otherwise, forget it.’

His boss dismissed him as a cutter with ‘mechanical competence’ but no real talent except for self-promotion. Ferreras’ first salon in New York lost money but he managed to get himself in Life magazine with a fake story about designing a dress for Elisabeth Taylor.

He met Oonagh Guinness at the right moment. They married at the Drake Hotel after a whirlwind romance. Joaquin Ferreras was best man.

Life in the Fast Lane

Ferreras didn’t fit in with Oonagh’s upper-crust bohemian friends back in Ireland. They dismissed him as a provincial blow-hard who opted for rudeness to cover up his insecurities. Tara Browne grew up disliking him.

But there was so much money … . Ferreras could live with the contempt of those around him when he had sports cars, casinos, wardrobes of new clothes, trips to Paris and New York, a new Miguel Ferreras salon set up in the French capital that cost Oonagh huge amounts of money and barely sold anything. Ferreras got more and more spoilt, throwing chairs across restaurants if the service was slow. Oonagh remained so impressed by his dark good looks and bedroom skills that she ignored her friends’ warnings, even when Ferreras beat up Brendan Behan (drunken and often violent author of the classic autobiography Borstal Boy), accusing him of molesting Tara.

Oonagh’s son always denied anything happened, although the married Behan was undoubtedly attracted to teenage boys. Ferreras was also bisexual although he preferred adult partners. He used to slip away from his wife to explore Paris’ gay underworld.

When Oonagh eventually found out about her husband’s double life she initiated a divorce. Lawyers turned up Ferreras’ Nazi past as Ozores. He denied everything. His lawyers gummed up the divorce proceedings with counter claims. Oonagh had second thoughts and wondered if she should give the marriage another try.

Then Ferreras met an even richer woman.

Onwards and Upwards

Flor Trujillo was the daughter of the Dominican Republic’s ex-dictator Rafael Trujillo, and ex-wife of a long list of rich and powerful men. Her first husband had been Porfirio Rubirosa, a playboy and racing driver hung like a horse.

flor-trujilloIn 1964 Ferreras fell for her and her money while in New York. He moved out of his wife’s suite in the Drake Hotel and into Flor’s suite in the same hotel. This time the divorce went through. Not long after,  Ferreras was seen in Maxim’s, one of the chicest restaurants in Paris, talking with a top lawyer about the chances of accessing some of Rafael Trujillo’s Swiss bank accounts. The lawyer was Richard Nixon, the future US President then in his wilderness years.

Tara Browne was glad to see his stepfather go. The young heir was now deep in swinging London, smoking pot, dressing up, and hanging with the beautiful people. There was a friendship with Paul McCartney, a deeper one with Rolling Stone Brian Jones, some mixing with the art world, some financing clothes shops, discovering a fascination with fast cars. He got married young, had a child, and separated.

Late on 17 December 1966 he was racing his Lotus Elan through South Kensington, new girlfriend Suki Potier at his side, when he missed a red light and smashed into a parked lorry. Potier survived. Browne died in hospital the next day.

A month later Beatle John Lennon was reading the Daily Mail while composing at his piano. It contained a story about the coroner’s inquest into Browne’s death. Lennon had known him but, unlike McCartney, never liked the rich kid much. The story spun off into the song A Day in the Life.

He blew his mind out in a car,

He didn’t notice that the lights had changed.

A crowd of people stood and stared.

They’d seen his face before,

Nobody was really sure

If he was from the House of Lords.

In death, Tara Browne had found a place in pop culture history.

Executive Summary

Ferreras and Flor Trujillo married but divorced seven years later. The fashion designer stayed in New York, living off alimony, and married a fourth wife called Felice. They had an apartment in the Upper East Side.

He died in 1999, denying to the end that he was José Maria Ozores Laredo.

So, to sum up: there were two Miguel Ferreras. It doesn’t look like either fought in the Spanish Civil War, although it’s possible the Cuban Joaquin Ferreras did. One Miguel died young of tuberculosis, the other fought across Europe in the ranks of Hitler’s armies before reinventing himself as a fashion designer, marrying wealthy women, and becoming stepfather to a man who inspired one of the most famous songs in 20th century history.

Whoever said truth is stranger than fiction was on to something.

To find out more about foreigners in the Spanish Civil War read my book:

Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or amazon.com]

Or for more warlike weirdness, you can buy my  other book in paperback or ebook:

Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World  [or amazon.com]

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