Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill

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Reviewed by Harriet Devine

The Spanish Civil War (1936-39), a messy, bloody conflict in which Spanish Republicans fought to save their country from the forces of Fascism, foreshadowed the Second World War, which followed immediately afterwards. General Francisco Franco and his Fascist government were supported by Mussolini and Hitler, who famously sent his Luftwaffe to reduce the city of Guernica to rubble, killing most of its inhabitants. The Republicans were supported by Russia, and by the International Brigade, composed of almost forty thousand men and women from over fifty different countries, who travelled to Spain to help the battle against Fascism. There’s something intensely moving and romantic about these young idealists, ready to fight for what they believed in. But the reality was unbelievably harsh and many of them gave up their lives, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Spanish who died on both sides.

Every war needs its war correspondents, and Amanda Vaill’s impressive book follows the fortunes of six of them. Robert Capa and his lover Gerda Taro, two young photographers based in Paris, fling themselves into the very thick of the fighting, and in doing so take some of the most astonishing and celebrated photographs of any conflict since photography began. Arturo Barea, head of the Republican governments’ press office, and his deputy, the Austrian Ilsa Kulscar, are faced with increasing struggles as their desire to tell the truth causes conflict and danger even from their own side. And Ernest Hemingway breezes in, hoping to revive his flagging career with some new material, and to further his relationship with the ambitious young journalist Martha Gellhorn, herself anxious to write something that will bring her fame and fortune. All six stay at various times in Madrid’s Hotel Florida, which, for foreign journalists, provides a kind of haven from the terrible death and destruction that is going on all around them.

This book is an amazing tour de force, containing a breath-taking amount of research and much previously unpublished material. Viall gives what almost amounts to a day by day account of the conflict, into which is interwoven the activities of the various characters who are the focus of the narrative. Thus we see Capa and Taro venturing progressively further and further into the battle zones, desperate to capture events in their brutal reality. Hemingway and Gellhorn, attempting to keep their relationship secret from Hemingway’s wife Pauline who is at home in California, zoom around Spain, filming and writing. In Hemingway’s case, this is combined with much drinking and card-playing, and Gellhorn’s with a great deal of shopping for shoes and fur coats. Barea tries to sort out his own complicated home life, finally discarding both his wife and mistress for Ilse, who he eventually marries, and trying to keep his office going in the face of much opposition from rival elements within his own party.

Danger is never far away. Ilse narrowly escapes imprisonment and possible death at one point, owing to the sudden and surprising intervention of her ex-husband. As for Taro, she makes what will turn out to be a fatal decision to return to the battlefield just one last time before leaving Spain to travel to Japan on an assignment with Capa. Sadly, the results prove disastrous.

As for the ‘Truth, Love and Death’ in the book’s subtitle – well, death is plainly evident all around, a day to day occurrence even in the streets of Madrid, and visible from the comparative safety of the hotel. Love is present, too, springing up between each couple, possibly intensified by the extraordinary events in which they are all involved. Truth, though, is perhaps a slightly more questionable concept. There’s no doubt that the photographers were striving for it, though the exact circumstances of Capa’s most famous photo, ‘Falling Soldier’, which shows a soldier apparently getting shot on the battlefield, have been endlessly discussed and questioned as to their veracity. Barea and Ilse come over as genuinely good and sincere people, believers in their cause and willing to do anything to continue with the work they see as being of vital importance. Hemingway, though, is rather more problematic. There are several occasions on which he exaggerates or invents stories of events he is supposed to have witnessed, and it seems clear that his greatest concern is with his own reputation, which has hit an all-time low before the start of his involvement with the war. For a writer who famously said ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence’ he does seem to have had an equivocal relationship with the truth, both in his writing and in his personal life.

It cannot be said that this book has a happy ending, either for the protagonists or for the cause they believed in. The Republicans lost the war, and Franco was to rule Spain until his death in 1975. Barea and Ilse escaped to England and lived a quiet and relatively contented life together, but Capa never really recovered from the loss of Taro, though he continued to cover conflicts around the world and and was killed in 1954 after stepping on a landmine in Indochina. Hemingway and Gellhorn, though they did marry, were divorced a few years later, a not entirely unexpected outcome.

Impeccably researched and with an impressive array of footnotes and sources, this is certainly a book for anyone interested in “the last great cause” of the Spanish Civil War, or the extraordinary adventures of the journalists who took such enormous risks in reporting its events to the world at large.

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Harriet is one of the Shiny Editors.

Amanda Vaill, Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War (Bloomsbury, 2014), 436 pp.

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