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If Sidney Franklin had been born in 1983 rather than 1903, it would have been easier for him to achieve the renown he craved. He could have cultivated washboard abs, coined a few catchphrases, and parlayed his talent for friendship into an endless round of appearances on reality television, red carpets, and tabloid magazines. Instead, Sidney Frumpkin left Brooklyn, his parents’ Orthodox Judaism, and his given name behind and transformed himself into the first American matador de toros in Spanish bullfighting history. He found the fame he so desired when his skills in the bull ring were lovingly described by Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon, and his role as Hemingway’s friend and confidant has since earned him a place in numerous literary histories. Now Franklin is the subject of a fascinating page-turner of a biography, which claims—unfortunately with little evidence beyond hearsay and innuendo—that he was gay.
Franklin’s decision to leave home at 19 and head to Mexico, where he knew no one and when he spoke no Spanish, was typical of the impetuous courage he later displayed in his chosen career. He took off with little money and no contacts, but he soon built a thriving printing business in Mexico City, and after falling in love with the world of the bulls, he had the talent, persistence, and cojones to succeed in it. After seven years in Mexico, he headed to Spain, which author Bart Paul describes as bullfighting’s “home turf,” to face much larger bulls, an establishment with a low opinion of outsiders, and a nation on the verge of civil war. Despite these challenges, Franklin talked his way onto a few choice carteles and won over chauvinistic Spanish aficionados with his bravery and his mastery of the killing sword. At the age of 26, he was the toast of Spanish bullfighting society when he met and became fast friends with Hemingway.
Sadly, it was downhill from there. In Madrid on March 16, 1930, Franklin turned his back on a bull after delivering the coup de grace only for the animal to jerk upright and spear him with its left horn. “The thrusting tip caught Sidney at the base of the tailbone,” Paul writes, “plunging into his abdominal cavity through the rectum, piercing the sphincter muscle and large intestine.” Doctors considered it a miracle that Franklin lived. He never fully recovered physically, though lack of funds forced him to return to the ring just five weeks after the dreadful goring. Franklin should have retired, but he had no other work to fall back on, and after the glory he had enjoyed in Mexico and Spain, it was impossible for him to contemplate a return to a “normal” life back home in Brooklyn.
The next chance for fame and excitement came when his old pal Ernest called and asked Sidney to accompany him to Spain where Hemingway had been commissioned to write about the civil war. Paul suggests that Sidney was invited along so that Hemingway’s wife Hadley, who had great affection for the bullfighter, would know the trip was more than an excuse for Hemingway to canoodle with Martha Gellhorn, who was also working as a war correspondent in Madrid. Whatever the motivation, Franklin was a huge help to Hemingway. Sidney had an uncanny knack for finding food in the starving, war-torn city, and his natural conviviality provided the choicest nuggets of information. Hemingway described Franklin as the man “who brought us all our food, cooked us breakfasts, typed articles, wangled gasoline, wangled cars, wrangled chauffeurs, and covered Madrid and all its gossip like a human Dictaphone.” In other words, a superb and indispensable journalistic fixer.
Given the interest in all things Hemingway, it’s perhaps no surprise that Paul devotes so much attention to Franklin’s interactions with the writer, but it’s when he gets to Hemingway’s attitude to gays, and whether Franklin hid his sexual preference to maintain his friendship with Hemingway, that things go off the rails. The problem is that Franklin never came out. Indeed, he presented himself as something of a heterosexual lothario. In his autobiography, Bullfighter From Brooklyn, Franklin refers to several girlfriends and female lovers. Paul claims that Franklin’s gayness was “an open secret in the gossipy world of toreros, bull breeders, promoters, and aficionados,” but he offers nothing more substantial than gossip to support the claim. Paul notes that Sidney’s sexuality “remained either unknown or unmentioned in almost all mainstream biographies of Ernest Hemingway,” but he never seems to wonder if that was because the authors weren’t convinced that it was true.
Most of the proof that Paul offers to establish Franklin’s gayness comes from men who have reasons to resent him. The first mention of Franklin having male lovers comes on Page 198—four-fifths into the book—from Budd Boetticher, a minor filmmaker who was a friend of the author’s. Franklin once threatened to sue Boetticher for using his life story as the basis of a movie without payment or permission. Paul then reports that Boetticher “responded to Sidney’s threats with a threat of his own: either drop the subject or be outed for his conduct with various ‘nephews’–the young Latin men with whom Sidney was by now known to associate.” Since when have men of privilege needed to have the truth on their side to blackmail people with less status? Paul later quotes a more dispositive anecdote about an Esquire editor catching Sidney in flagrante delicto with a young bullfighting prodigy, but it is a second-hand story told 60 years after the event supposedly occurred.
Paul notes that Patrick Cunningham, a Philadelphia prep school boy who studied bullfighting with Franklin, wrote a roman à clef about the experience in which he painted a “brutal” fictional portrait of the former celebrity. “Philips the ‘Torero from Texas’ is portrayed as a boorish money-grubbing braggart for whom the bullfighting community in Spain has no respect. He is also depicted as a greasy pederast whose secret life as a maricón is no longer much of a secret.” Paul refuses to consider that Cunningham may have been so envious that an upstart from Brooklyn could have enjoyed a level of success that he could only dream of that—consciously or not—he expressed his jealousy through homophobia.
At times, Paul displays (and occasionally parrots) homophobic stereotypes. He quotes another American bullfighter remarking on Sidney’s “strong physical presence, his baritone voice, his jaunty, aggressive masculinity,” as if such traits were incompatible with gayness. He quotes the same man saying, “There was nothing swishy about him at all,” again revealing a narrow view of gay expression.
I have no way of knowing if Sidney Franklin was gay, and Paul failed to convince me. Still, if he was, it’s tragic that a man who could face down 400-pound bulls couldn’t tell the truth about his emotional life. Nevertheless, even with this serious shortcoming, and despite the misplaced comma in the subtitle, this is a well-written biography of a fascinating man.