Double-Edged Sword: The Many Lives of Hemingway’s Friend, the American Matador Sidney Franklin
by Bart Paul, University of Nebraska Press, 304 pages
Sidney Franklin loved the attention that came from being that most unusual of figures: an American-born matador who counted his country’s best-known writer as a confidant. But when the truth wasn’t enough, Franklin was as creative with his life story as he was when facing a charging bull.
With little prodding, it seems, Franklin would recount his trumped-up sexual exploits— these included showering with insatiable strangers and bedding entire communities of women— or spin bizarre tales, like the one that found him helping his physician brother with amateur autopsies.
As Bart Paul writes in his entertaining new biography, “Sidney could be accused of being the poster boy of unreliable narrators.” Though he often felt the need to polish his own reputation, Franklin (born Sidney Frumpkin) needn’t have bothered. The truth, as Paul demonstrates in chapter after chapter, was interesting enough.
Raised in a Brooklyn household dominated by his father, a New York City cop, Sidney was impatient, artistic, and entrepreneurial. He quit high school to open a shop that produced silk-screen art. The elder Frumpkin wasn’t impressed, nor was he thrilled to sense that his son preferred men over women. After his dad knocked him unconscious with a punch, the 18-year-old, who had adopted the last name Franklin, headed for more interesting places.
In Mexico he started making advertising posters, “and, inevitably bullfight posters, or cartels,” Paul writes. “Sidney’s artist’s eye instinctively caught the inherent drama of the corrida. His stylized posters emphasized the size and danger of the animal, the cool bravery of the man. Soon a ‘Sidney Franklin’ cartel became quite popular in its own right.”
Sidney was taken with the blood sport, all the more so when true aficionados told him that he and his north-ofthe-border compatriots couldn’t cut it as bullfighters. He was a proud young man, and he wanted to prove them wrong. Which he did, in a sense, by immersing himself in training and tradition, readying to take to the ring as a professional in early 1924, a few months before his 21st birthday.
Half a decade of matadorial experience in Mexico encouraged him to try the relative big leagues of bullfighting in Spain. This was the era of Hemingway’s Spanish adventure. In the years before he would write about the country’s civil war, the novelist was developing his bona fides as a bullfighting connoisseur. And so it was that the American writer and American fighter of bulls came to meet.
The men were fast friends, Paul writes— so close that Hemingway paid close attention to Franklin’s physical endowments. The novelist “critiqued Sidney’s physique with the eye of a boxing trainer,” Paul writes, “focusing on what he felt was his prominent rump. ‘ Sidney has no grace because he has a terrific behind,’ he said. ‘I used to make him do special exercises to reduce his behind.’ ”
Hemingway described his friend in glowing terms in Death in the Afternoon. Sidney, Hemingway wrote, was “a better, more scientific, more intelligent and more finished matador than all but six of the full matadors in Spain today”— but their kinship cooled as Hemingway began to focus on other manly endeavors, such as his fishing expeditions.
Health and money concerns derailed Sidney for several years, but by the second half of the 1930s, he and his old friend were side by side once again — Hemingway in the role of correspondent covering the Spanish CivilWar, and Sidney his right-hand man. They were often terrifyingly close to the action. Getting dressed one morning, Paul writes, Sidney “heard the scream and explosion of an artillery shell as it landed down in the street below.… The concussion shattered all the glass in Sidney’s room.”
Hemingway and Franklin split irrevocably when the antsy novelist moved on from his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, a close friend of Sidney’s, to wife No. 3, Martha Gellhorn. Sidney was bitter; he would tell unflattering stories about his ex-pal, going so far as to suggest that Hemingway’s ostentatious masculinity was in response to his having less-than-impressive male attributes. Sidney also described Hemingway as a homophobe who assaulted an effeminate “Nancy-boy” just for the fun of it.
Paul perceptively argues that Sidney’s “sexual anxiety”— he was gay in an era and a profession that did not tolerate same-sex relationships— was one of many things that played into his anger with Hemingway. “Sex, homosexuality, courage, masculinity, marital betrayal, and respect all seem to have reared their heads to complicate and eventually corrode the once-solid bond.”
Never one of the bullfighting greats, Sidney sought to burnish his reputation with an autobiography that came after his retirement. Bullfighter From Brooklyn contained more than a few fictional stories. As one of Franklin’s friends told Paul many years later, “Of course it’s all bullshit.” Some of it probably was, but the rest was the true stuff of a thrilling life story.