On the site of what is now a large retail emporium, El Corte Inglés in Madrid, there once stood a fin de siècle building called Hotel Florida. Notable principally for the guests that frequented the rooms and the bars before and during the Spanish Civil War; indeed, so many famous journalists, writers, photographers and hangers-on stayed there, many of them at the very start of their careers, that a book has appeared which tells the hotel’s story.
Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill covers the period in Spain between 1936 and 1938. Concentrating on six characters around whom swirled most of the other people reporting or fighting in the Civil War, this book deals with the loves and lives of Arturo Barea (the only Spaniard) who acted as the Republican government’s foreign press office and Ilse Kulcsar, an Austrian who turned up determined to help in the war effort some way, who speaking several languages became Arturo’s assistant, lover and eventually wife. Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, both writers one already famous and the other just beginning her illustrious career, also lovers and eventually married and Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, photographers and lovers who arrived penniless and virtually unknown and were world famous by the end of the first year.
This book, exhaustively researched from existing papers, diaries, archives and the now famous Mexican suitcase, delivers a tremendous punch. Since all these people were intimately concerned with covering the conflict, idealistically involved with the Republican cause and chasing the truth where ever it might be found, especially on the front line Amanda Vaill presents us with a vivid, visceral portrait of the Spanish Civil War at the same time telling in intimate detail, three poignant and exquisite, if occasionally messy, love stories.
Made more poignant because the end of each story is already known, nevertheless we are so bound up in the immediacy of the writing, that each twist and turn of the struggle hits us anew. So when through a tragic miscalculation, Gerda Taro gets killed in a car accident shortly after filming the action at Brunete, my eyes were brimming. Robert Capa, far away in Paris, only discovers Gerda is dead in a small article in L’Humanité. The knowledge practically destroys him.
Arturo and Isle survive in Madrid reporting from the Telefónica building, until there is a change of leadership at the top and they become objects of suspicion on account of Ilse’s Trotskyist leanings, mercifully when they are picked up by SIM ((Servicio de Información Militar) they are handed over to the new Chief who turns out to be Ilse’s husband, Leopold Kulcsar. But their time in Spain is over and they flee to Paris.
Ernest Hemingway, still married to the forbearing Pauline, flies between Spain and America, reporting, writing and lecturing on the situation in Spain, getting near to the action and never quite fulfilling his ambition to be part of it, though he gets close. Martha, by now his lover, follows her own course, often with him and as often without him until finally he divorces Pauline and they marry, but not for long. Martha continues her career, away from Hemingway reporting on the Second World War, which Hemingway also follows but from a distance. Two such competitive spirits cannot long inhabit the same territory, both emotionally and professionally and it all ends in divorce again.
The final chapters of the war are terrible, Robert Capa photographed the last marches of the International Brigades who were reluctantly required to leave Spain, he also photographed the internment camps in Southern France where thousands of Spanish combatants were held in appalling conditions after France recognised Franco’s government.
The wounds are still open and probably festering – this book explains why. Told entirely from the Loyalist point of view it does not pretend to be a balanced account of the Spanish Civil War. It is what is says on the cover a tale of “truth, love and death”.