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The bullfighter from Brooklyn

Nov 14, 2011 1:04 PM | 3 comments


Sidney Franklin

 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

14 Jackson Pl, November 2011

PS 10

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 in action

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."

Ernest Hemingway and Sidney Franklin

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.  


Veteran's Day: Oral Histories from Brooklyn Soldiers

Nov 9, 2011 2:24 PM | 0 comments

Last year at this time I posted a story on our blog about Private Justin Grishman. He was serving in the Korean War and stationed in Japan, where he worked as a radio operator. Sifting through Eagle clippings and photos from our collection, I tried to piece together the story of a most unique and sentimental request made by the young soldier: he wanted Borough President Cashmore to send him a street sign from the corner of Flatbush and Church Avenues, so that, though half-a-world-away, he could still feel at home. If you watched our new video introducing the Brooklyn Collection this will all sound familiar to you, as in it we use Grishman's story to highlight our holdings and services.


In any case, at the close of that post last year I encouraged readers to seek out more stories about America's veterans at the Library of Congress's Veterans History Project website. At that time, however, my referral came with the caveat that the oral histories of Brooklyn soldiers, recorded by Brooklyn librarians, had yet to be uploaded. Today I'm happy to report that this is no longer the case! If you visit the Library of Congress's Veterans History Project website, and search the veterans collection by contributor/interviewer affiliation with the keyword Brooklyn Public Library, you'll find all of the interviews conducted by our librarians. Or, to save you the trouble of all that, if you just click on this link, you'll find a list of all those interviewed arranged alphabetically by last name.

Particularly poignant for us here at the library is the interview you'll find at the top of this list. On September 27, 2011, Brooklyn Public Library lost one of its most beloved employees, Special Officer John Basile. Though he is gone, in this recording you can listen as Special Officer Basile talks about his time serving in the Vietnam War. 

Meet the Brooklyn Collection

Nov 7, 2011 3:19 PM | 2 comments


Down with washtubs!

Nov 7, 2011 11:58 AM | 1 comment

Located on the corner of Fourth Avenue and President Street, Public Bathhouse no. 7 opened in 1910.  The structure was designed by Brooklyn resident Raymond F. Almirall, whose works include the Emigrant Savings Bank and four branches of the Brooklyn Public Library; Bushwick, Eastern Parkway, Pacific, and Park Slope. The bath boasted the largest indoor pool in the City and showers for up to two hundred people.  Before the days where in-home showers were common and deodorant was a hygienic necessity, bathhouses were used year round as public washing facilities and during the summer, as a place to cool off. 

1922. Flooded Fourth Ave at Carroll Street.  In the middle background is the bathhouse.

This is not the first bathhouse to draw the notice of Brooklynology.  An Axel Hedman-designed building, now gone, was the subject of a previous post.  This past weekend I made a visit to the Brooklyn Lyceum (formerly Bathhouse No. 7) and while I sat sipping my dark roast coffee, I found myself wanting to know more about the history of the building.  While the pool has been drained and the showers have been dismantled, there are still some lingering clues that a bathhouse once occupied that space; notifications above the grand doors led to separate men's and woman's entrances, a sign atop the building faintly reads, "Public Bath," and benches inside the modern cafe hide the old shower drains.

Brooklyn Lyceum, 2011

The bath was a popular desination for residents of South Brooklyn, particularly in the summer months.  It was closed in 1935 for renovations and remained that way until a group of protestors voiced their need for the facility.  On July 8, 1937, a group of sweaty kids rallied outside the boarded up bathhouse, led by Joe Rutico, known as the "King of the Kids."  Protesters shouted, "Down with Washtubs. We want our shower baths."  One young girl yelled, "No more sitting in the gutters to keep cool!"  Soon after, 1,500 neighborhood residents met at the bathhouse and threatened to go on a "Bath Towel March" to City Hall, if Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, failed to reopen it.  Moses considered the house a "disgraceful institution" and urged residents to use the new pools in Red Hook and Sunset Park.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. July 10, 1937.


 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 9, 1937

Eventually, the protesters were victorious and Bathhouse no. 7 reopened in March 1938.  The reinstated facility included two major changes: half of the shower stalls were removed and the pool was filled in and replaced by a gymnasium.

The building was abandoned in the 1970s and remained vacant until the dilapidated structure, complete with a leaky roof and pigeons living in the rafters, was purchased by Eric Richmond in 1994.  In 2000, the building was reinstated as the Brooklyn Lyceum.

Today, the 3,600-square-foot brick-layered Lyceum is a multipurpose space, capable of holding parties, fundraisers, carnivals and concerts.  Mr. Richmond hopes to one day write a play about the history of the building, including a mock bath towel march, but for now, is happy holding local events and shows in the historic facility.