On her last day in Madrid, Gerda Taro was itching to get back to the front with her two new cameras. Gen. Francisco Franco’s Nationalist rebels were on the offensive against Spain’s Loyalist forces near the town of Brunete in what would be seen as one of the bloodiest campaigns of the civil war.
Taro caught a ride to Brunete. She scored some close-to-the-action pictures, and when it came time to flee, she and a friend hopped the running board of a Loyalist officer’s car. Taro did not make it back to Madrid alive.
As dramatic tension goes, the tragic death of Taro — she was 26 — proves to be a gut-wrenching moment in Amanda Vaill’s spirited and eye-opening history of that 1930s conflict, “Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War.”
Spain became a cauldron of geo-political interests, a clash of fascists, communists, leftists, idealists and spies; as Franco’s forces moved methodically and relentlessly around the country to upend the republic, the civil war served as a prelude to World War II. And, as Vaill recounts it, the story resonates with details here and there that seem as familiar as, say, the collision now playing out in Ukraine.
Beyond that, Vaill’s considerable accomplishment in “Hotel Florida” stems from her structural strategy to view the Spanish Civil War through the interwoven stories of a sextet of individuals, or rather three couples. Vaill’s experience with multiple lives is not inconsiderable, given especially her earlier biography of the bon vivants Gerald and Sara Murphy, “Everybody Was So Young.”
Not the least of her subjects in this book is Ernest Hemingway, already a literary celebrity (and close friend of the Murphys), paired with his new extramarital love interest of the day, the writer and journalist Martha Gellhorn. Their relationship evolved and Hemingway’s marriage to his second wife, Pauline, decayed as they traveled to Spain three times to write in their own ways about the war. Vaill’s portrait of a boastful, reckless and extremely insecure Hemingway is unflinching, and if you thought you didn’t much like him as a person, you’ll like him even less here. Vaill’s anecdotes of literary envy and disappointment affirmed my own evolving view that Hemingway, then in his upper 30s, in many ways remained an adolescent for far too long. A telling couple of envy-and-anger moments occur as Hemingway is visiting a friend’s Wyoming ranch. First, an issue of Time magazine arrives, touting on the cover the literary stardom of his friend John Dos Passos. Then, after Hemingway has shared with another friend his novel in progress, “To Have and Have Not,” he is told that the book is not all that great. Hemingway tosses the manuscript out the window and the two men don’t speak for days.
Hemingway soon has an extreme falling out with Dos Passos, a break tied directly to the war in Spain and the murder of Jose Robles, a Stalinist executed by the Soviets, supposedly believing him to be a fascist spy. Hemingway had a complicated role in this episode, given his alliance with a Russian and hard leftists in the making of a film documentary of the war. Hemingway downplayed Robles’ disappearance, but Robles was a friend of Dos Passos’ and the murder caused the leftist author of “The U.S.A. Trilogy” to turn his politics rightward.
The United States, of course, had no declared role in the war. Many idealistic Americans traveled to Spain to fight against the fascists. And journalists from The New York Times and elsewhere made extensive tours of the war, reporting from one side or the other. As much as anything, Vaill exposes the messy raw material of war reporting, and some of it will leave you wondering. Like many of the other prominent journalists in Spain in the war years, Hemingway and Gellhorn often stayed at the Hotel Florida in Madrid (thus Vaill’s title), which became an international gathering spot, drinking hole, viewing stand and home base, a refuge for those who traveled over rotten roads to gain access to the various fronts.
As a journalist, Hemingway was fond of the grand pronouncement on the direction the war was taking. He was not always right. And Vaill raises the very good question — though never answers it — of why Hemingway failed to write about the German bombing of Guernica, a significantly hellish episode a fair distance away from Madrid.
Indicative of Vaill’s treatment of Hemingway is her epilogue, where, in summing up her subjects’ post-war lives, she spends less time on the writing and substance of his novel of the war, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” than on some of the tough criticism it received early on. C’est la guerre
Vaill’s narrative joins the twisted fates of two other couples, each offering distinctive views of the war and of the anxiety-filled rhythms of European life in the 1930s.
Gerda Taro (born Gerta Pohorylle), an exile in Paris from Hitler’s Germany, was the companion of the photographer Robert Capa, a Hungarian Jew who also adopted a pseudonym (he was born Endre Friedmann). They both shot vivid and emotionally moving pictures of the Spanish war for French magazines and other publications, often publishing one another’s pictures under Capa’s name.
Capa took one of the most iconic photographs of the war — an image of a soldier falling on a hillside after being shot in the head. Much debate and confusion has occurred over the circumstances of that picture, and Vaill has now clearly explained it once and, presumably, for all. Capa in fact had been play-acting in a sense, posing a group of soldiers to re-create battle action when one of them took a sniper’s bullet. Yet another tragedy of this complicated war.
Capa and Taro were planning a journey to China, where they would cover the war with Japan for Life magazine. Back in Paris, Capa learned of his girlfriend’s death while reading a copy of L’Humanité.
“The war photographer’s most fervent wish is for unemployment,” Capa famously declared much later.
The third pair of subjects in Vaill’s account are Arturo Barea, who served as a Spanish press censor in Madrid, and Ilsa Kulcsar, an Austrian journalist. An emotional basket case at times, Barea divorced his wife and he and Kulcsar eventually married. As the war progressed, Barea found himself more and more on the official outs, possibly because of his relationship with Kulcsar, whom the Loyalist Spaniards suspected of spying. Barea, who later wrote a series of well-received memoirs, emerges as something of a tragic hero, especially as he and Ilsa flee what feels like persecution.
They got out of Spain before the war ended in 1939 — 75 years ago this year, that is — and emigrated to England.
The threads of all these tales ripple with excitement, doom, courage, betrayal, defeat and, of course, love. It may sound like a cliche for a work of nonfiction, but Vaill’s book races forward like a novel, even as it provides a lucid account of a hugely complex and sometimes baffling war.
Echoes in KC
Reading Amanda Vaill’s “Hotel Florida,” a thrilling account of the Spanish Civil War, I was reminded of two Kansas City connections, both having to do with art.
One connection was fairly easy to make. Vaill makes passing reference to Julián Zugazagoitia, who was Spain’s minister of the interior during the war years of the 1930s. He is, of course, the grandfather of Julián Zugazagoitia, director and CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. After Franco’s Nationalist victory in the war, the elder Zugazagoitia was forced to flee to France. Tthe occupying Germans eventually captured him and sent him back to Spain where he was executed in 1940. He wrote a book about the war, published in France the same year.
The other connection is through an exiled Spanish artist named Luis Quintanilla. Ernest Hemingway had befriended Quintanilla in Spain in the early 1930s. Later, Quintanilla spent the school year of 1940-41 as artist in residence at the University of Kansas City (now UMKC). The record of Quintanilla’s stay here can be seen on the second floor of Haag Hall on the campus. It’s a little known but bona fide local treasure: a series of murals Quintanilla painted on a theme of Don Quixote in the modern world.
See images of the Don Quixote murals at this Quintanilla website maintained by his son, Paul Quintanilla.
Hemingway and his new bride, Martha Gellhorn, briefly passed through Kansas City on their way to New York in the fall of 1940, just after the publication of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” They took time to pay a visit with Quintanilla