Brooklyn Boro

Meet the gay Brooklyn bullfighter who befriended Hemingway

Sidney Franklin's life will be honored Monday

June 3, 2019 Scott Enman
Sidney Franklin performs in a bullfight. All images courtesy of the Sidney Franklin Collection, held by the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History.

He was the world’s first Jewish matador, he was secretly gay, and he was friends with Ernest Hemingway and James Dean. He was El Torero de la Torah, or Bullfighter of the Torah, and his name was Sidney Franklin.

Franklin grew up in Park Slope in the early 20th century, the son of Russian-born, Orthodox Jewish parents. He was one of 10 children, attended P.S. 10 and lived on 14 Jackson Place before moving to East 29th Street in Midwood.

“One of the key things about him is that he interestingly distanced himself from his Jewishness when he was older,” said Rachel Miller, director of archive and library services at the Center for Jewish History. “He very much clung to the identity of bullfighter, the identity of an American and as a Brooklyner — like a tough Brooklyn guy.”

A talk on Monday hosted by the Center for Jewish History will bring Franklin to life with photographs, recordings of him singing and even hangers that held his traje de luces, or suit of lights — the traditional clothing that bullfighters wear. The event, which is hosted by Miller, is the first in a series called “Out of the Box” and coincides with Pride Month.

Sidney Franklin in Ceuta, 1930
Sidney Franklin in Ceuta, 1930

Franklin ran away from home in 1922 to Mexico City where he first got the notion of becoming a bullfighter. A group of Mexicans told him that Americans could never make it as matadors, and he took it as a personal challenge.

Initially ridiculed and doubted, he excelled in Mexico before his career took off in 1923, according to Miller, who lives just a few blocks away from where Franklin grew up.

“He was an interesting figure who drew in interesting people,” Miller told the Brooklyn Eagle. “As a kid, he was into theater, but his father was deeply not okay with that for a few different reasons. The performance that goes into bullfighting was more of an acceptable, more macho, masculine type of performance.

“His father never ultimately accepted anything that he did. I see bullfighting as Franklin’s way of both masking and performing who he was as a closeted gay man.”

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Sidney Franklin and Eddie Cantor on the Goldwyn set for The Kid in Spain with a copy of "Death in the Afternoon", 1932.
Sidney Franklin and Eddie Cantor on the Goldwyn set for The Kid in Spain with a copy of “Death in the Afternoon”, 1932.

In 1929, after successful stints in Mexico and Latin America, Franklin took his talents to the motherland of bullfighting: Spain. It was there in the sun-drenched bullrings of Iberia where he won the respect and adoration of many bullfighting connoisseurs, including the great writer Ernest Hemingway.

They became fast friends, according to Miller, who said Franklin gave Hemingway inside access to the world of bullfighting, providing inspiration for Papa’s nonfiction book, “Death in the Afternoon.”

“Franklin is brave with a cold, serene and intelligent valor but instead of being awkward and ignorant he is one of the most skillful, graceful and slow manipulators of a cape fighting today,” Hemingway wrote. “He is a better, more scientific, more intelligent, and more finished matador than all but about six of the full matadors in Spain today and the bullfighters know it and have the utmost respect for him.”

Photo of Sidney Franklin taken by Ernest Hemingway (date unknown)
Photo of Sidney Franklin taken by Ernest Hemingway (date unknown)

Franklin was also covered widely in this paper. A 1929 Eagle headline about Franklin read, “Nordic matador refutes race superiority theories in bull rings of Mexico: Sidney Franklin, Brooklyn born and without Latin strain in blood, says anyone can ‘fight the bulls’ and predicts American acceptance of the sport.”

Franklin positioned himself not only behind muletas, but also behind movie cameras, spending time in Hollywood and befriending James Dean and Paulette Goddard. He even played himself alongside Eddie Cantor in “The Kid from Spain.”

Rhinoceros foot given to Franklin by Ernest Hemingway, 1933
Rhinoceros foot given to Franklin by Ernest Hemingway, 1933

While in Europe, Franklin witnessed Adolf Hitler’s inauguration in Berlin in 1933, noting, “It is amazing to observe the awe in which Hitler is now held by the populace. Germany is right behind him, regarding him now as a symbol leading them from their erstwhile dungeon of despair.”

El Torereo de la Torah starts at 7 p.m. on Monday at the Center for Jewish History at 15 W. 16th Street. Tickets are $10. It’s presented in partnership with the American Jewish Historical Society.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter. 

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