When archivist Rachel Miller began to investigate the life of Sidney Franklin, one of the world’s most famous matadors, she uncovered a treasure trove of unexpected information — including the fact that his sexuality and gay escapades were an open secret in the world of 1940s bullfighting.
“We’re in a moment now when [Franklin’s life] is ripe for investigation, and further thought and analysis,” says Miller, director of archive and library services at the Center for Jewish History in New York City. A series about Franklin’s life was presented at the Center for for Jewish History in June using archival materials from the American Jewish Historical Society. “Sidney didn’t do what so many other gay men at the time did, which is hide in a whole variety of ways by marrying, fitting into a traditional mold. There’s a level of bravery in that he did not choose that route. He did not hide.”
A gay Jewish man from Brooklyn, N.Y., Franklin ultimately shaped himself to be one of the most famous bullfighters of his day (he was the first American to become a famous matador), all the while forging close relationships with A-listers like Ernest Hemingway and James Dean. Franklin also made numerous American TV appearances both as a personality and bullfighter and he consulted for Eddie Cantor on the set of the movie The Kid From Spain, in which Cantor played a matador.
Behind the scenes, however, Franklin’s story was complicated. He wrote about his life in the autobiography Bullfighter From Brooklyn: An Autobiography of Sidney Franklin (1952), but Miller argues much of it was exaggerated or outright fabrication. In the book, Franklin claimed to have had a girlfriend who he broke up with. His family, particularly his niece Eve Frumkin, who wrote a screenplay about her uncle’s life, admits that was made up in an effort to keep his sexuality hidden.
Born in 1903, the fifth of nine children of Russian-born Orthodox Jews, Franklin was ridiculed by his police officer father, who frequently called him “a fancy.” In his police work, Franklin’s father oversaw the gay cruising spot in Prospect Park, which might have fueled his rage. One night, he beat his son so badly that Franklin decided to run away to Mexico.
It was in Mexico City that Franklin ultimately discovered a new way of performing: in the ring. He later wrote in his book, “Certainly none of us ever dreamed that my pa’s temper had spawned a matador.”
Franklin’s first bullfight in 1923 was a success, and his love for the crowd was evident. Larger than life and quite flamboyant, he worked the crowd with exuberance and theatrics while slaying the massive animals. In essence, he was hiding his gayness in plain sight. His 1929 performance in Seville, Spain, sealed his reputation. The audience roared with applause, screaming, “Que hombre!” (Meaning, “What a man!”)
As Bart Paul writes in the biography Double-Edged Sword: The Many Lives of Hemingway’s Friend, the American Matador Sidney Franklin, Franklin had a few long-term relationships with men that were an open secret among the Hollywood elite, including one with his handler, Luis Crovetto, that lasted several years, and later with his protégé, Julian Faria. An intimate relationship with Ernest Hemingway is also widely speculated.
Asked by a reporter why he never married, Franklin quipped that he’d “been around many animals and saw how they breed” and it deterred him from marriage. For many, it’s a reflection of how he enjoyed playing with the media about his sexuality.
The acclaimed fighter suffered a serious injury at the peak of his career, which resulted in a long absence from the ring. He died in 1976, after a long career in the spotlight. Franklin’s life was captured through literature and footage, but now we are learning more about his private life through Miller’s work.