Among the strange and impressive stories of self-invention that stream out of the streets of Brooklyn, that of Sidney Franklin, a student of Brooklyn's Commerical High School, must be one of the strangest. Franklin was born in 1903 just down the road from here, at 14 Jackson Place, one of those cozy little blocks that run parallel to the numbered avenues, between 16th St and Prospect Avenue. His father, Abram Frumkin, came from Minsk and put in 25 years as a patrolman in the area now known as the 78th precinct--a trajectory perhaps less unusual than his son's, but one that took him every bit as far from his beginnings. Most of the ten children of the family including Sidney, according to a profile written in 1949 for the New Yorker magazine by Lillian Ross, attended P.S. 10, just a block from Jackson Pl on 7th Avenue.
14 Jackson Pl, November 2011
P.S. 10, November 2011
It is hard to imagine what forces could have attracted a young Jewish commercial artist into such a bloody, cruel and terrifying profession. Sidney's brother Samuel was a physician. Perhaps the time Sidney spent cutting up cadavers in Samuel's laboratory inured him to the feel of steel piercing flesh. After a brutal fight with his father when he was 19, Sidney went to Mexico, where he learned the art of survival in the bull ring from Mexico's leading Matador, Rodolfo Gaona.
Sidney Franklin fighting a bull at Seville, June 1929
Franklin--who changed his name so that his father would not learn of his activities--studied conscientiously in Mexico for several years before making his debut in Spain in 1929. In August of that year he met Ernest Hemingway, who wrote an afficionado's appreciation of Franklin's work in his book Death in the Afternoon. "Franklin is brave with a cold, serene intelligent valor....he is one of the most skillful, graceful, and slow manipulators of the cape fighting today. ....He kills easily and well. He is a better, more scientific, more intelligent and more finished matador than all but about six of the full matadors in Spain today...."
Sidney Franklin, July 31, 1925
Back in Brooklyn, some were less than impressed by Franklin's activities. The Brooklyn S.P.C.A. campaigned vigorously and successfully against any plan he might have had to introduce bullfighting to the U.S.A. And the author of a letter to the Eagle published in October 1930 wrote passionately, "Let those who seem so enthusiastic about welcoming Sidney Franklin back home to Brooklyn pause to consider the various phases of brutality manifest in the profession of bullfighting. A form of cruelty in which it is necessary to blindfold the horses in order to lure them into the arena to have their insides ripped out. An exhibition in which darts especially treated with irritants are hurled into the living body of the unfortunate bull!"
But the bulls did get a piece of Franklin too. In Madrid in March 1930 he turned his back on a bull into which he had already inserted a sword. The bull gored him so badly at the base of the spine that Franklin was forced to endure numerous surgeries over the following years to repair damage to his intestines. Nothing daunted, Franklin continued to exercise his profession in Spain, Portugal, Mexico and South America. After all, he once told a reporter, "If you've got guts you can do anything."
A bull-fighting fan gets a lesson first hand. Ernest Hemingway, left , is shown the proper way to hold a cape by Sidney Franklin...they will both drive ambulances for the Spanish loyalists. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 28, 1937
In 1937 he and Ernest Hemingway went to Spain, where Hemingway had arranged to send dispatches from the Civil War. Joining a party that planned to cross the Pyrenees on foot, Franklin was approached by a French physician who asked him to carry a 50lb case of surgical instruments to a doctor in Valencia. Despite his poor health, Franklin completed the 20 mile trek through snowdrifts and up and down mountains, and delivered the medical kit. He later remarked "God knows how many lives it saved."
In later life Franklin managed a cafe in Seville. His autobiography, Bullfighter from Brooklyn published in 1952, along with numerous original photographs and newspaper clippings, can be found in the Brooklyn Collection.
The Brooklyn matador's strange journey ended in a nursing home in the West Village, where he died in in 1976 at the age of 72.