- The Washington Times - Friday, February 19, 2010


By Bart Paul

University of Nebraska Press, $29.95, 291 pages, illustrated


How many people today remember that there was once a Jewish man Sidney Frumpkin, born in Brooklyn in 1903, who, as Sidney Franklin, became one of the most famous matadors in the world? So famous in Mexico, where he first achieved renown and then in Spain, that he was a bona fide celebrity whom people recognized in the streets. Yet, thanks to his friendship with that most famous of literary bullfighting aficionados Ernest Hemingway, who wrote about him, he was once quite famous outside the bullring as well.

As this fascinating biography of Franklin shows, he was not only Hemingway’s sidekick for a time, most notably accompanying the writer on his famous journey to the Spanish Civil War, but also became enmeshed in the process of one Mrs. Hemingway being shucked off in favor of another one. So there’s a great deal in this lively volume even for people with limited interest in the world of the toreador.

Still, Los Angeles-based documentary writer Bart Paul knows how to write about bullfighting and to make it sufficiently interesting and accessible to those who know little or nothing about it. He does not gloss over its rebarbative qualities and aspects - quite the contrary - but inevitably in a biography of someone like Franklin, the emphasis is largely on the courage he displayed in the ring. There seems to be no dispute about this man’s moxie or his skill, but no matter how good you were at bullfighting, you were risking terrible injuries. Consider what happened to Franklin on March 16, 1930 in Madrid right after a triumph:

“The bull, in a final spasm of life at the moment of death, jerked himself upright, hooking out and up with his left horn. The thrusting tip caught Sidney at the base of his tailbone, plunging into his abdominal cavity through the rectum, piercing the sphincter muscle and large intestine. … The bull fell dead, and so, almost, did Sidney. Spectators saw the bull drop like a stone. They saw the animal’s killer crumpled in a heap 20 feet away … Sidney reckoned later that if his body had turned as the curved horn slid out, it would have jerked his intestines with it, dragging them out onto the arena like the guts of a picador’s horse, sand clinging to the sticky pale, bluish-gray membrane as it had been in the days of the gladiators. Sidney had been lucky. His intestines were still within him as he was jostled to the ambulance on a canvas four-handed stretcher.”

There’s really something for every reader in a passage like this, starting with the vivid writing. Admirers of the matador’s pluck will gasp with amazement, while those of us who think that bullfighting is a barbarous form of elaborate cruelty and animal abuse will cheer the wretched animal for fighting back even in its death throes.

Of course, this is a biography of Sidney Franklin and not the bull, so Mr. Paul goes on to tell us how easily he might have died from infection in those pre-antibiotic days and to detail his gruesome recovery complete with elaborate drainage tubing and no fewer than nine operations over the next 15 years to repair the damage done to the 26-year-old that March day in 1930. As Mr. Paul perspicaciously remarks, “Courage displayed before ever experiencing a major goring is quite different from the fear that must be overcome after a sharp horn has torn violently into muscle, bone, or viscera, and before such an injury infects the torero’s imagination and haunts his dreams.”

If blood and guts were literally spilled in the bullring, there was plenty of emotional carnage when Sidney Franklin got involved in the cutthroat world of Ernest Hemingway’s love life. Close to Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, the novelist’s second wife, Franklin seems to have accompanied Ernest to the Spanish Civil War as a kind of beard to reassure her about the presence of Martha Gellhorn, soon to be the third.

Certainly, unlike Hemingway, who was genuinely committed to the cause of the Spanish Republic, Franklin had no particular loyalty to it. In fact, his bullfighting associates from the aristocratic and moneyed classes in Spain supported Franco’s rebels and so if anything, his sympathies were with them. Still, he proved an invaluable guide and fixer for the Hemingway party, even if it was somewhat galling to the author of “Death in the Afternoon” that when people on this trip turned out to cheer a celebrity they beheld, it was Franklin.

Not surprisingly, relations with Martha Gellhorn were not cordial and this inevitably affected Franklin’s special bond with Hemingway, especially after they married. Indeed, after the writer’s death, Gellhorn and Franklin continued to snipe at one another through various biographers. Franklin seems to have influenced the first of these, Carlos Baker, much to Gellhorn’s chagrin, but she got her own back by living almost a quarter century after the matador’s death in 1976, taking every opportunity to chip away at his version of events. Mr. Paul’s account of all this is not only detailed but fascinating - and at times very amusing. It makes this book a must-read for all those interested in Ernest Hemingway’s life and loves, even if bullfighting leaves them cold.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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