Like the Vietnam War a generation or so later, the Spanish Civil War was a localized conflict that took on global resonance. Major Western powers adopted an official hands-off policy toward the Iberian struggle between socialists and fascists, afraid to upset the fragile diplomatic balance in the uneasy Europe of the 1930s. Still, the bloody hostilities gained the wider public’s attention and sympathies, in no small part due to a coterie of impassioned journalists and intellectuals who took up the cause of Spain. In her meticulously researched and beautifully told new book, Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill refracts the turbulent events that took place between July 1936 and March 1939 through a prism of six such determined believers.
Ernest Hemingway went to Spain in 1936 thirsting for adventure. Although he was among the most famous of contemporary writers, his career had faltered in recent years, and so he had been spending much of his time in Key West, fishing, writing and living off the considerable wealth of his wife’s family. A wartime escapade filled with the promise of daring and bloodshed was just what the self-aggrandizing writer needed to revitalize his work. A documentary film project involving the talents of his friends and rivals John Dos Passos and Archibald MacLeish provided the perfect excuse to head to Madrid. Joining him was his newly acquired mistress, Martha Gellhorn, a young journalist determined to make her mark. Her time in Spain would launch her legendary career as a war correspondent.
Photography was then a relatively recent weapon in the arsenal of war reportage, and two of the pioneers in the field were on the ground in Spain. Hungarian Robert Capa, who had been born Freidmann Endre, was only 22 when he began to cover the war in tandem with his lover and professional partner, Gerda Taro, a German Jew who had fled Nazi Germany. Together and separately, these two master photographers captured some of the most memorable images of the conflict—images that helped galvanize support abroad.
The third couple at the center of Vaill’s engaging chronicle—no doubt less known to most readers—are Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. A Spanish patent officer with literary ambitions, Barea landed the high-wire job of running the foreign press office for the beleaguered loyalist government as it tried to hold off Franco’s nationalist forces, which were fast closing in on the city. Kulcsar was a Viennese-born, polyglot Communist who arrived in Madrid ready to report the leftist cause to the world and quickly became Barea’s aide-de-camp, lover and eventual wife.
The Hotel Florida of the title was the once-posh hotel down the street from the foreign press office. Dangerously in the line of fire and frequently ravaged by artillery, it nonetheless became the favored residence and watering hole for foreign journalists. Hemingway and Gellhorn settled in there, and the others came and went as their time away from the alarmingly nearby fields of battle permitted. The intertwined stories Vaill tells with the grace of a talented novelist are rife with courage and passion. Taro would die in pursuit of the truth through her photography, while Gellhorn’s star would rise rapidly, even if her subsequent marriage to Hemingway would prove short-lived. Barea would forever live with the guilt of leaving his former wife and children behind in the wake of defeat. Hemingway himself, of course, would gather material for writing For Whom the Bell Tolls, certainly among his finest novels.
Hotel Florida offers a compelling narrative of the timelessly inseparable entities of love and war, reminding us that, while motives can be both noble and self-serving, in the end, the true stories of wars rest in people, not ideologies.