Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War, by Amanda Vaill, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pp., $28
For its young cohort of reporters and photographers, and citizens of conscience, the Spanish Civil War was the place to be. It was not just the big war of the moment, although it was bloody enough, tearing Spain apart for three years (and for succeeding generations) and killing nearly 400,000 people. The conflict also bore the weight of a burgeoning global struggle, keenly watched and abetted by Hitler and Stalin, and was widely understood to be the harbinger of an inevitable world war.
Enter the cast of Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill’s energetic group biography of six characters who found themselves—or rushed to place themselves—in the heat of this great battle to defend a shakily democratic, fractiously Republican Spain against the Nationalist rebellion of General Francisco Franco.
In July 1936, when Franco led the army uprising, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro were young photographers in Paris, Jewish émigrés from Hungary and Germany, respectively, with newly assumed trade names. When they heard the news from Spain, Vaill writes, they felt “the adrenaline rush of a scoop in the making” and decided to leave for Spain immediately. “Here was a chance to document the struggle between fascism and socialism that was already consuming their homelands and might soon spread to all of Europe. It would all be a most extraordinary adventure, and it would make them famous. Together. They could hardly wait.”
Far away in Key West, Ernest Hemingway was in the doldrums. He was struggling over a collection of stories that would turn out to be To Have and Have Not and then be forgotten. He was worried that his success had turned him into a sellout. His rivalry with John Dos Passos was on his nerves. His marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer was on the skids. Spain was an escape to opportunity: “If he went to Spain with an assignment to report on the war, he’d get the makings of any number of novels.”
He’d get Martha Gellhorn, too, while he was at it. He had just met her in Key West and, like many men before him, tumbled. It was of Gellhorn that Hemingway famously said, “She has legs that begin at her shoulders.” As for above her shoulders, she was bright and sophisticated, ambitious and well connected—to Eleanor Roosevelt and H. G. Wells, among others. She was, as Vaill puts it, “the literary girl of the moment” for The Trouble I’ve Seen, a book of documentary vignettes of Depression America in novelized form. She’d just concluded a four-year romance with a married French aristocrat and wanted, at 28, to start over. She was desperate to experience the war at first hand: “Me, I am going to Spain with the boys. I don’t know who the boys are, but I am going with them.”
Hemingway had a clever phrase for the women who hung around the hotel, which may just as well have described the accredited reporters and photojournalists, day-trippers and do-gooders, and even Errol Flynn on a fact-finding mission: whores de combat. It captures the intellectual promiscuity of war reporting, and perhaps of journalism in general. But the third couple in Vaill’s set is different from the others.
In mid-1936, Ilse Kulcsar was a left-wing Austrian pamphleteer and committed résistante in Czechoslovakia, in growing danger of arrest or worse. To Kulcsar, the bulletins from Spain “came like a ray of clear light. In Spain fascism was being openly confronted, not accepted, or appeased, or explained, or ignored.” Nearly as soon as she arrived in Madrid, she met, went to work for, collaborated with, and eventually married Arturo Barea Ogazón, the only Spaniard of the six and as such the only one with a real stake in the outcome of the war.
A patent engineer and would-be writer, Barea was swept up in the defense of the Spanish republic and then pressed into service, early in the conflict, as a government censor. Foreign correspondents and photographers had to turn in their negatives and copy to him before they were approved for dispatch to the outside. News—increasingly frequent news—of Loyalist setbacks or Nationalist victories had to be scrubbed. Barea was made to understand that “nothing, nothing should be passed that hinted at anything other than success for the Republican forces,” writes Vaill. “Given what was going on from day to day, this seemed a near-impossibility.” In the end Barea knew he had to take a stand “against the reflexive, truth-smothering conformity that more and more seemed official policy.” The courage that sprang from his disillusionment is perhaps the most moving story of the book.
All of these characters, who crossed paths at Madrid’s Hotel Florida, had to confront questions of truth, but which truth? For Capa, “the truth is the best picture, the best propaganda,” but does that work the other way around? For each of these committed eyewitnesses, the truth that mattered was the one that would win hearts and minds outside Spain by bringing home the tragedy and the stakes. Agitation was their mission, whether in censors’ offices or at literary congresses or by telex persuading editors at home to take their stories and pictures seriously. “The massacre of a hundred Spanish kids is less interesting than a sigh from Mrs. Simpson, the royal whore,” grumbled Louis Delaprée of Paris-Soir to Barea.
Vaill, the author of well-received books about Jerome Robbins and Gerald and Sara Murphy, is a diligent researcher and a spirited writer who confidently inhabits and channels her historical characters. Her set pieces are numerous and well turned. Cross-cutting multiple narratives, she doesn’t get too bogged down in the war itself, or the global politics either. Like the people she is writing about, she’s an observer on the war’s periphery. In that sense, Hotel Florida is well named, because it is mainly about visitors.
Of the actual Hotel Florida in Madrid, “a ten-story marble-clad jewel box” a bit down on its heels and favored by “a polyglot collection of journalists, French and Russian pilots, and opportunistic ladies of the evening,” Hemingway said, with characteristic grandiosity, “You could learn as much at the Hotel Florida in those years as you could learn anywhere in the world.”
But in this book, nothing much happens at the Hotel Florida, or all but nothing. Vaill quite reasonably has her eye elsewhere, on the battlefront, or the streets, the bars, the other hotels, on Teruel, Barcelona, Valencia or Paris, Key West, New York. This weirdly off-message title can’t help but remind me of another fine book of atmospheric history, by Adam Nossiter, called The Algeria Hotel, which was about life in, no, not Algeria, but Vichy France, during the Nazi Occupation. Whores de Combat might have been too arch a title for Amanda Vaill’s serious book, but it would have had a nice ring of truth.