This Day in Jewish History

1903: 'Death, Shmeath': An American Bullfighter Is Born

Franklin was not only Jewish but also a war correspondent, supposedly gay and close to Ernest Hemingway, making him quite the attention magnet.

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July 11, 1903, was the birthday of Sidney Franklin, the first American bullfighter of international stature.

The fact that Franklin was also Jewish, supposedly gay and a close friend of Ernest Hemingway, makes him a curiosity still written about to this very day.

In fact he was born Sidney Frumpkin in Brooklyn, and grew up in its Park Slope neighborhood. His father, Abram, was a patrolman in the New York City Police Department. Abram and his wife, Lubba, were both Russian-born Orthodox Jews. and Sidney was one of their nine children.

As a young man, Franklin was interested in art and theater, but dropped out of high school before graduation. He ran a silk-screening business in Brooklyn before a violent argument with his father led him to leave home at age 19. His destination was Mexico.

Franklin’s introduction to bullfighting came by way of the posters he produced after he opened up a print shop in Mexico.

According to Bart Paul, the author of a 2009 biography of him, Franklin decided to try his hand at the Latin sport after a bragging contest with some of his expatriate friends in Mexico City, with whom he was discussing the subject of courage. One of the friends sneered that Americans did not have the character to face the danger embodied by bullfighting.

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Franklin differed, saying, as biographer Paul put it, that “Americans were the bravest and had more guts in their little fingers than the rest of the world.”

To prove his point, he sought out training from the well-known Mexican matador Rodolfo Gaona, and had his debut in the local bullring on September 20, 1923. The bull lost.

Sidney Franklin’s first appearance in Spain – the first ever in that country by an American matador -- came in 1929. That was also the year he met and was befriended by Hemingway, apparently in a café in Madrid. Hemingway wrote about the Brooklyn-born matador in his 1932 paean to bullfighting, “Death in the Afternoon.” There he described Franklin as “brave with a cold, serene, intelligent valor.” To that he added his somewhat ambiguous conviction that “no history of bullfighting that is ever written can be complete unless it gives him the space he is entitled to.”

Later the two traveled together as correspondents covering the Spanish Civil War for the North American News Alliance.

During his fighting career, which extended until 1959, Franklin appeared in Portugal, Colombia and Panama as well. The peak of his success came in 1945, when he was the headliner at Madrid’s Plaza de Toros.

He was gored a number of times, most seriously in March 1930, when, as Bart Paul described it in his book, a bull’s horn “caught Sidney at the base of his tailbone, plunging into his abdominal cavity through the rectum, piercing the sphincter muscle and large intestine.” That injury required nine operations, and he never fully recovered, although financial considerations led him to return to the ring five weeks later.

Franklin shrugged off the ultimate danger of bullfighting, telling Lillian Ross, who wrote a profile of him for The New Yorker in 1948, “Death, shmeath, as long as I keep healthy.” The threat of injury he described, in 1930, as “part of the game, and [it] makes no difference to us.”

One of Franklin’s hopes was to introduce bullfighting to the United States, but even a plan to stage a bloodless exhibition in Newark in 1930 was prohibited there. Later, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, he did put on a bull-dodging show, approved and overseen by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Later in life, Franklin ran a bullfighting school in Spain, near Seville. He also managed a café in that city and had the concession to run a cafeteria at a nearby airbase of the Strategic Air Command.

He left Spain in 1958, after brief imprisonment there for illegal possession of an automobile. His final season as a fighter was in 1958-59, when he shuttled back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico.

As for his supposedly gay sexual identity, Bart Paul pieced together the details from hearsay and other indirect sources; Sidney Franklin was not openly gay. That would have destroyed his bullfighting career in Spain. And in his 1952 autobiography, “Bullfighter from Brooklyn,” Franklin described numerous relationships with women.

Sidney Franklin’s final years were spent in a nursing home in New York’s Greenwich Village. He died on April 26, 1976, at the age of 72.