“There wasn't anywhere like Torremolinos”

Shelagh Tennant, today.
Shelagh Tennant, today. / Alberto Gómez
  • She modelled for Elio Berhanyer and helped bring the Beatles to Spain. Now, two husbands, three daughters and lots of adventures later, Shelagh Tennant is a retiree in Fuengirola

Few people know that the first English pub in Torremolinos opened “by chance”.

Shelagh Tennant, a British citizen who arrived in Spain at the age of ten with her family, invested two million pesetas in an establishment that started out as a pizzeria. Business never prospered. “It was a disaster,” she says.

The excitement of the early sixties managed to survive amid the oppressive Franco years. One night, “after I had been arguing with the owner of El Dorado”, the club nextdoor, Shelagh began serving drinks. She put on records that she had brought from England, which had never been released in Spain. It took about half an hour for a queue to form outside the establishment, then known as Shelagh's Bar, on Calle María Barrabino. “We sold rum and cokes for 25 pesetas and played songs by The Beatles, The Kinks and all the new music from London and Gibraltar,” recalls Shelagh.

Torremolinos, a liberal oasis that survived on the margins of the dictatorship, was flourishing . “It was a marvellous place, nowhere will ever be the same. It didn't matter who you were. There were artists, hippies, writers, singers, hustlers, English people who didn't do anything. There was nowhere like it,” Shelagh recalls.

When she realised that her bar could work, she hired waiters and negotiated with suppliers. “I didn't plan it, everything was very spontaneous. We made a lot of money, but I've always been hopeless and I didn't keep any of it. I had ten waiters who danced while serving, dressed in silk. We made music with teaspoons and bottles. Everyone wanted to be there.”

Shelagh's Bar competed with El Dorado, “but we had better music.” During the short time it was open, Shelagh's became known as one of the trendiest bars in Torremolinos, reaching the same heights as Pedro's Bar, El Mañana and El Remo. Only The Galloping Major, which opened two years before Shelagh's pub, still remains.

However, the story of this particular woman is not limited to the restaurant business. The daughter of a wealthy family, Shelagh began working as a model aged 17, thanks to Elio Berhanyer, whom she met through Jaime de Mora y Aragón. He immediately saw that she had potential. “Elio was the first fashion designer to pay models in Spain fairly.”

Rebellious youth

Shelagh was a mischievous child and moved through various boarding schools after being repeatedly expelled for disobedience and bad behaviour. Her adolescence followed a similar pattern: she once spent three days locked in a police cell. “Then they took me to Carabanchel jail.” Why? “The excuse was that I had been working in Spain without papers, but in reality it was because I had started going out with a man whose very influential family did not approve of our relationship.”

After leaving prison, she married David Tennant, an English aristocrat who was the son of the Baron Glenconner and three times Shelagh's age. They moved to Mijas. “We lived in El Palomar, but when I opened Shelagh's Bar I bought myself a house in Torremolinos called La Paloma. Everyone joked, asking me why the 'paloma' [dove] was never in El Palomar [dovecote].”

Her Torremolinos bar venture didn't last long , barely a couple of years. This was sufficient, however, for a BBC report about the establishment and an article in Modern Man magazine, which mixed erotic content with travel recommendations.

“Coca-Cola gave us an award for selling more soft drinks than any other establishment on the Costa del Sol, including the Hotel Pez Espada,” she explains. Tired of all her responsibilities, Shelagh decided to sell the bar and travel around Italy. The poet and lawyer Rafael Pérez-Estrada helped her with the sale of the bar. It ended up in the hands of another woman, Tina, who opened it as Tina's Bar. This establishment still remains today, despite various changes of ownership.

A friendship between Shelagh and Brian Epstein, famed manager of the Beatles, marked the second phase of the ex-model's professional life. “We loved each other very much. When the Beatles came to Madrid, I was in charge of the translations and the paperwork, since the tour promoter, Fernando Bermúdez, couldn't speak English,” she recounts. At that point the band were in a fragile state: “John Lennon wanted to break it up, he felt that he bore all the pressure alone. Brian felt he was no longer on the same wavelength as Paul McCartney, who was very conceited; or Ringo, who couldn't see what was going on; but he was totally in love with John.”

Lennon was already familiar with Spain. Years before, he had travelled to Torremolinos with Epstein.

“We used to sit in a cafe in Torremolinos looking at all the boys and I'd say, 'Do you like that one, do you like this one?' I was rather enjoying it, thinking like a writer all the time: 'I am experiencing this',” the Imagine songwriter once said of his trip.

Shelagh confesses that, over time, Epstein's focuses were changing. “There was a point where he just wanted to go to bed with [bullfighter] El Cordobés. He was crazy about that man.” She also remembers how Epstein felt like he had become unable to control the group.

“Sometimes he would call me in tears at three or four in the morning, saying that he was going to kill himself. And in the end he did.” She speaks in reference to Brian Epstein's fatal barbiturate overdose, which is officially considered to be an accident.

After her adventure with the Beatles in Madrid, Shelagh flirted with music promotion, although fickleness has always been a part of her professional career. “I have never needed money, although sometimes I've had lots and sometimes very little, but it has never interested or excited me.”

Now, aged 75, with two marriages and three daughters under her belt, Shelagh lives in Fuengirola, where she leads a peaceful life. “The most important thing is never to quit. I was recently ready to do so, because I had a pinched nerve that caused me a lot of pain. All the doctor could do was write about it on the computer. However, the next day I got up and thought that there's always a reason to keep going.”

Torremolinos Chic, a website run by José Luis Cabrera and Lutz Petry, which for the last decade has recovered images, postcards and anecdotes from the 'golden years' of the coastal town, will pay tribute to Shelagh, “one of the most fascinating people of that era” in the Galloping Major pub this evening, 1 June.

She says that she will receive her recognition with graciousness and charm: “I've got to make myself look pretty; my grandchildren are coming.”