SIDNEY FRANKLIN (born Sidney Frumkin) born on this date (d: 1976) was the first American to become a successful matador, the most senior level of bullfighter.
He was the world’s first Jewish matador, and he was secretly gay. Franklin 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.”
Franklin left home at age 19 and moved to Mexico City, where there was a thriving artsy, cosmopolitan scene in which he could blossom. He started creating posters for bullfights and was initially repulsed by the animal cruelty, even while being fascinated by the exalted role of the matador at the center of the elaborate show. His passion for the pageantry and the heroics won out.
He made his debut in 1923 in Mexico City and was carried out of the ring by the crowd after a particularly impressive killing of the bull. Light-skinned with ginger hair, Franklin was a raconteur who relished being the center of attention. Asked about the possibility of death in the ring, he scoffed, “Death shmeth!” in a New Yorker interview.
Bull fighting was in its heyday in the early 30s which is when he met his friend Hemingway. They became good friends and traveling companions. Hemingway describes Franklin in his Death in the Afternoon as being “brave with a cold, serene and intelligent valor,” and “one of the most skillful, graceful and slow manipulators of a cape fighting today.
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.”
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.”
He died penniless in a nursing home in Greenwich Village. When people marveled that he was a gay, Jewish bull-fighter from Brooklyn, he would respond, “Yes, but the bulls are Catholic.”