An American matador’s encounters with bulls and Hemingway


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July might be a month of sultry summer heat and a time to celebrate American independence, but for the literary set it’s also a month of anniversaries for Ernest Hemingway and for those who lived in his rough-and-tumble world.

Aside from it being the month in which Hemingway was born and died, July heralds the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain -- part of an annual festival starting Tuesday that taps into the same passions and bravado found in Hemingway’s bullfighting-loving characters (and, for that matter, in Hemingway himself) -- even though the future of that sport, according to a recent report in The Times, is being challenged.


Hemingway was close friends with bullfighter Sidney Franklin -- the first American, in fact, to become a successful matador. Franklin (who was born July 11) was a real-life adventurer who took his artistic intentions and applied them to one of the world’s oldest blood sports, something Bart Paul explores in his biography of Franklin, ‘Double-Edged Sword,’ tracing Franklin’s life from his humble roots to his grandiose days in the Spanish sun.

Jacket Copy caught up with the author to discuss the many facets of Franklin’s life as well as his friendship with Hemingway.

Jacket Copy: How did you discover Sidney Frankin? And how did you learn so much about his life that you wanted to write about him?

Bart Paul: This whole process was a happy accident. I’d known the name Sidney Franklin for years, as many people do, who know Ernest Hemingway or bullfighting. I was talking to a movie producer and I said I was going to a horse show to meet with someone who raised bullfighting horses (horses that the Portuguese use to fight bulls).

She said: ‘I bet you don’t know who the first American matador was.’ And I said: ‘Of course I do. It was Sidney Franklin.’ This producer had a chance to option Sidney’s 1952 autobiography, ‘Bullfighter from Brooklyn.’ She asked me to do research for the film. Well, her film project fell through, as these things do. But I was left with all this material.

JC: Franklin was the son of a Jewish police officer. He grew up in Brooklyn, had a very American childhood though he also hid the fact that he was gay from his family. Can you discuss his early life?


BP: In a way, his upbringing was somewhat typical. His parents were from czarist Russia. He was one of nine children. His parents were Orthodox Jews. His father became a cop. He was a fairly artistic kid. He had an interest in art and in the theater. At 12, he and a group of girls did a song-and-dance routine at a local theater. Eventually he opened a silk-screening business. He did that until he was 19 -- until he packed his bags for Mexico.

Franklin’s friendship with Hemingway after the jump

JC: Tell us about his life in Mexico City, which is where he learned bullfighting.

BP: He was 20 years old when he started, and he was 56 the last time he fought a bull. When he got off the boat in Veracruz, I’m sure it was the last thing on his mind. He opened a successful silk-screening business in Mexico City, and he eventually started doing bullfighting posters. As an artist, he sensed the drama of bullfighting. Mexico City was a very cosmopolitan place at the time: There were students from Europe who went there to study art. He fell in with an artistic crowd of artists and intellectuals. He fit right in. One night the subject of courage came up with his friends. One of his friends said a non-Latin, especially an American, wouldn’t have the courage needed to be a bullfighter. Well, Sidney got cocky and said that Americans were the bravest and had more guts in their little fingers than the rest of the world. It began from there.

JC: He was Spain’s first American matador. How was he received -- an American taking on a very traditional Spanish pastime?

BP: In the beginning they had no interest in him at all. This was 1929. He had knocked around in Mexico. He got paid for a few bullfights. He had some good friends and contacts in the Mexican bullfighting world. But it was like the minor leagues in baseball; he was not a full matador.


Sidney had an inherent sense of his box office potential, though. The Spaniards were not interested in him, but the expatriates there were supportive of him, and they were very interested in an American appearing in a Spanish bullring. It was the summer of 1929, when he first appeared, and he was terrific. They had no idea that an American could do this. He was this red-headed North American and he just wowed them. For a period of about eight months after that, he had the world by the tail.

JC: He became a bullfighter of the highest order, considered among the best. But he did get gored along the way. In the book, you include a saying: ‘Bullfighters have to shed the brave blood first.’

BP: You’re different after you’ve been gored. It does something to you. It took multiple surgeries for Sidney to recover from his goring. It’s a different thing and bullfighters are their own fraternity.

JC: How did he first become friends with Hemingway?

BP: Sidney claims he was in a cafe in 1929. By then he was somewhat famous, and he was approached by an American, who turned out to be Hemingway. They got to know each other when Hemingway was doing research on what would become his great opus ‘Death in the Afternoon.’ Ernest Hemingway was already a famous writer, but he wasn’t a legend yet. ‘The Sun Also Rises’ had put bullfighting on the map for American readers.

They were both Americans on the ascendancy. Sidney felt he and Hemingway were equals. They were both up-and-coming young men in their own fields.


JC: Why did his friendship with Hemingway end?

BP: There were a lot of strains on their friendship. Sidney’s goring in 1930 really hampered his rise to stardom. He didn’t appear again in Spain until 1945. It became harder and harder for him to get fights. Hemingway had become the Hemingway of legend. He was called ‘the new American Byron.’ By the time ‘Death in the Afternoon’ had come out, he was becoming famous not just for his writing, but for being himself. Meanwhile, Sidney was struggling. He was money problems and physical problems. He had nine surgeries after his goring.

In 1936, Hemingway asked him to go to Spain with him. Sidney jumped at the chance. But this time he was going as Hemingway’s assistant. He was assisting Hemingway in betraying his second wife, Pauline. It put him in a horrible position to be an unwitting aide in her betrayal. He ended up remaining friends with Pauline. He and Martha Gellhorn [Hemingway’s third wife] both hated each other until the day they died.

JC: Did writing this book change the way you looked at Hemingway?

BP: It gave me a different appreciation. Hemingway would have been a different person to know, by the time alcohol and paranoia took over in his older years. But he was in a way a very loyal friend to Sidney. He defended Sidney to Lillian Ross. He was not the worst friend Sidney could have had.

JC: Did Franklin ever reveal publicly that he was gay? Or was that a secret his entire life?


BP: I think he was never outwardly gay, as we would think of being out today. As Barnaby Conrad said, if they had known, it would have killed him as a bullfighter in Spain. Not that there weren’t bullfighters who were gay. It was just a culture of machismo.

JC: Do you think Hemingway and Franklin were ever more than friends?

BP: No, there is no credible evidence I’ve run across to indicate that Hemingway was anything other than a heterosexual. That said, Sidney claimed in his 1952 autobiography that, if accommodations were tight, they shared a bed occasionally while traveling from bullring to bullring in 1929. This whole aspect of their friendship seemed to make Hemingway uncomfortable toward the end of his life when he had become the icon of American masculinity, and he told an interviewer for the Atlantic that the suggestion that he had ever even traveled with Sidney’s entourage in 1929 was ‘ballroom bananas.’ I suppose 80 years later no one can say one way or another with absolute certainty.

-- Lori Kozlowski