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

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Overview

A spellbinding story of love amid the devastation of the Spanish Civil War

Madrid, 1936. In a city blasted by a civil war that many fear will cross borders and engulf Europe—a conflict one writer will call "the decisive thing of the century"—six people meet and find their lives changed forever. Ernest Hemingway, his career stalled, his marriage sour, hopes that this war will give him fresh material and new romance; Martha Gellhorn, an ambitious novice journalist hungry for love ...

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

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Overview

A spellbinding story of love amid the devastation of the Spanish Civil War

Madrid, 1936. In a city blasted by a civil war that many fear will cross borders and engulf Europe—a conflict one writer will call "the decisive thing of the century"—six people meet and find their lives changed forever. Ernest Hemingway, his career stalled, his marriage sour, hopes that this war will give him fresh material and new romance; Martha Gellhorn, an ambitious novice journalist hungry for love and experience, thinks she will find both with Hemingway in Spain. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, idealistic young photographers based in Paris, want to capture history in the making and are inventing modern photojournalism in the process. And Arturo Barea, chief of the Spanish government’s foreign press office, and Ilsa Kulcsar, his Austrian deputy, are struggling to balance truth-telling with loyalty to their sometimes compromised cause—a struggle that places both of them in peril.

     Beginning with the cloak-and-dagger plot that precipitated the first gunshots of the war and moving forward month by month to the end of the conflict. Hotel Florida traces the tangled and disparate wartime destinies of these three couples against the backdrop of a critical moment in history: a moment that called forth both the best and the worst of those caught up in it. In this noir landscape of spies, soldiers, revolutionaries, and artists, the shadow line between truth and falsehood sometimes became faint indeed—your friend could be your enemy and honesty could get you (or someone else) killed.

     Years later, Hemingway would say, "It is very dangerous to write the truth in war, and the truth is very dangerous to come by." In Hotel Florida, from the raw material of unpublished letters and diaries, official documents, and recovered reels of film, the celebrated biographer Amanda Vaill has created a narrative of love and reinvention that is, finally, a story about truth: finding it, telling it, and living it—whatever the cost.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Jessica Kerwin Jenkins
Fascinating characters breeze through Vaill's pages…as they did in her stellar biography of Sara and Gerald Murphy and their sparkling set, Everybody Was So Young…In war-torn Spain, she's again in her element, galloping through intrigues that made the world turn…Vaill calls Hotel Florida a "reconstruction," based on letters, diaries, biographies and filmed evidence that paint an electric collective portrait. Instead of offering critical analysis, she relies on exquisitely researched anecdotes to tell the story, and she revels in the poignancy of strobe-lit details…Vaill's writing is light-footed, immediate and intimate. And her love-hate take on Hemingway…makes for wonderful reading.
Publishers Weekly
01/20/2014
During Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, American reporters Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn blustered around with a sometimes daring, often obnoxious self-confidence in their separate quests to get the latest scoops from the front. Vaill (Everybody Was So Young) combines their professional and personal stories with those of their European colleagues, partners Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and the Madrid Foreign Press Office’s Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. Mentioned only rarely, the formerly sumptuous Hotel Florida served as a Madrid base, allowing the courageous, ambitious journalists to interact with Barea and Kulcsar, who convinced their superiors to cease censoring the journalists’ reports. Vaill vividly recounts specific scenes of dying Spanish soldiers and citizens captured photographically by the journalists as well as deftly describing how Gellhorn insinuated herself into Hemingway’s marriage. Memorably, Capa and Taro’s heartbreaking relationship results in insightful photographs and top-notch reporting while Spanish native Barea and Austrian Kulcsar maintain their dignity even as they flee nearly penniless from Madrid, each suddenly without a country. Beautifully told, Vaill’s story captures the timeless immediacy of warfront reporting with the universal struggle to stay in love, just before the Nazis permanently changed the European landscape. 16p. b&w illus. Agent: Eric Simonoff, William Morris Endeavor. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"Fascinating chracters breeze through Vaill's pages as they once drifted through that lobby, and as they did in her stellar biography of Sara and Gerald Murphy and their sparkling set, Everybody Was So Young, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In war-torn Spain, she's again in her element, galloping through intrigues that made the world turn . . . Vaill calls Hotel Florida a "reconstruction," based on letters, diaries, biographies and filmed evidence that paint an electric collective portrait. Instead of offering criticial analysis, she relies on exquisitely researched anecdotes to tell the story, and she revels in the poignancy of strobe-lit details . . . Vaill's account of the war and its voluntary witnesses validates our need for narrative in the face of atrocity—something beyond propaganda, and, at times, as essential as food or shelter." —Jessica Kerwin Jenkins, The New York Times Book Review 

"Vaill isn’t after anything as quixotic as trying to ‘set the record straight’ on the Spanish Civil War; instead, she delves deeply into the lives of three couples whose chronicling of the war shaped public perception . . . What Vaill seems to be mulling over in this book is the age-old question of what war does to people . . . Hotel Florida adds to the cold hard facts—as well as to the enduring mystique—of the Spanish Civil War." —Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air

"Hotel Florida . . . is well researched, strongly paced and vividly placed, adroitly interlaces its dispiriting stories, and . . . tell you more of value than do many more earnest works." —Jeremy Treglown, Times Literary Supplement

"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 . . . The threads of all these tales ripple with excitement, doom, courage, betrayal, defeat and, of course, love . . . Vaill’s book races forward like a novel, even as it provides a lucid account of a hugely complex and sometimes baffling war." —Steve Paul, The Kansas City Star

"Moving and illuminating. . .Like Shakespeare, Vaill knows that history isn't written without tragedy . . . If you've never cried over a biography or history, Hotel Florida might be your first weeper with an index."  —Darryl Whetter, National Post

"[Vaill] is eminently capable of juggling multiple stories, of making readers care about all her characters . . . [She] has written a powerful account of a country harrowed by war, of a motley collection of talented human beings striding into the gunfire looking for the truth." —Daniel Dyer, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"A vivid, well-paced story of the awfulness of war and of the complex motives of those who report on it." —James Campbell, The Wall Street Journal

"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 . . . The intertwined stories Vaill tells with the grace of a talented novelist are rife with courage and passion . . . 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." —Robert Weibezahl, BookPage

"Magical and meticulous . . . [Hotel Florida] is a masterful reconstruction of one of the most tumultuous conflicts in 20th Century Europe." —Jane Ciabattari, BBC.com

"[An] energetic group biography . . . [Vaill] is a diligent researcher and a spirited writer who confidently inhabits and channels her historical characters. Her set pieces are numerous and well turned." —Charles Trueheart, The American Scholar

"Beautifully told, Vaill’s story captures the timeless immediacy of warfront reporting with the universal struggle to stay in love." —Publishers Weekly

"[Vaill’s] gift for character portrayal keeps [Hotel Florida] moving along . . . It is bound to be popular with general readers of 20th-century history." —Library Journal

"War, sex, friendship, betrayal, celebrity, rivalry, jealousy, idealism, foolishness and foppery—all this and more gather in the lobby of Madrid’s Hotel Florida." —Kirkus Reviews

"Hotel Florida gathers literary giants among the international volunteers for Spain’s civil war of everyday dreamers. In this masterful narrative, with unfailing judgment and artistry, Amanda Vaill captures heartache and obsession on a vast but intimate scale before the era of national-security states." —Taylor Branch, author of The King Years

"A highly original, beautifully written, and utterly compelling account, by turns gripping and heartbreaking, of the intrepid—and sometimes crazy—journalists who risked everything to report on the Spanish Civil War." —Amanda Foreman, author of The Duchess

"Combining a historian’s meticulous research with her accomplished skills as a biographer, in Hotel Florida Amanda Vaill tells the fascinating interwoven stories of six people whose lives were forever changed as they fought for ‘the last great cause.’" —Scott Donaldson, author of Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald

"A stunner—cinematic in scope and detail, and speaking urgently to questions of truth and betrayal that are still compelling today." —Mary Dearborn, author of Mistress of Modernism

"The tragedy of the Spanish Civil War has never quite emerged from the fog of its own propaganda. In Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill has dispelled that fog at last by telling the truth about three larger-than-life couples—men and women whose passion for one another mingled with the passions of war. It’s a moving, powerful story—and nobody has ever told it better." —Stephen Koch, author of The Breaking Point

"Hotel Florida is a riveting tale of politics, propaganda, and indifference, told with conviction and real heart." —Brenda Wineapple, author of Ecstatic Nation

"Not since Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia has there been so shattering a picture of the Spanish Civil War. A magisterial work of biography and history, Hotel Florida recounts a heartbreaking story with precision and passion. Page after page, Amanda Vaill writes scenes you will never forget." —Marion Meade, author of Dorothy Parker

"Timely, powerful, enchanting. Amanda Vaill’s compelling heroes, their allies and enemies, remind us why the Spanish Civil War remains the defining struggle of hope and betrayal, for activism and justice—across so many generations." —Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt

Praise for Everybody Was So Young

“A marvelously readable biography . . . Elegantly written.” —Brooke Allen, The New York Times Book Review

Praise for Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins

“I can’t imagine a better book about Robbins ever being written.” —Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

From the Publisher
Praise for Everybody Was So Young

“A marvelously readable biography . . . Elegantly written.” —Brooke Allen, The New York Times Book Review

Praise for Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins

“I can’t imagine a better book about Robbins ever being written.” —Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-04
Vaill (Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, 2006, etc.) follows a handful of characters (some are celebrities, some not) through the Spanish Civil War. Subdividing her chapters by months, the author sets herself a difficult task: chasing Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Arturo Barea, Ilsa Kulcsar, Endre Friedmann (aka Robert Capa) and Gerta Pohorylle through the political and military chaos in Spain and elsewhere. Among the many popping up for cameos are Stephen Spender, Eric Blair (George Orwell) and John Dos Passos. Although it will be difficult for readers to turn their eyes away from the power couple (Hemingway and Gellhorn), Vaill does a good job of getting us deeply interested in the lives, experiences and, sadly, the deaths of some of the others. It helps her cause, too, that she elected to portray Hemingway in the most unflattering (and deserved?) light. We see his pettiness and his professional jealousy; we watch him swinging away at people in bars. Early in the conflict, we also see Capa and other photographers staging acting scenes (including, in a way, his famous image of a wounded warrior in midfall on a Spanish hillside) and Gellhorn fabricating a story about a lynching in the American South. It was certainly a different time in journalism. Vaill shows us images of incredible courage—especially Capa's—and political intrigue (the Russians were especially perfidious—and Stalin's reeking presence) and the absolute confusion that reigned. (The truth concealed itself quite well.) She also points us toward Hitler, and we witness his invasion of Austria and his designs on Czechoslovakia. A touching epilogue records the deaths of all her principals. War, sex, friendship, betrayal, celebrity, rivalry, jealousy, idealism, foolishness and foppery—all this and more gather in the lobby of Madrid's Hotel Florida.
Library Journal
02/15/2014
The tragic Spanish Civil War (1936–39) began as a rebellion of the military against the elected government and became a rehearsal for world war. The Nazis supplied Gen. Francisco Franco's Nationalists with bomber planes while Soviet Russia armed the Loyalists, defending the Spanish Republic. In the midst of this, left-leaning journalists and photographers flocked to besieged Madrid's Hotel Florida to report on the Loyalist fight against Fascism. Popular biographer Vaill (Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy—a Lost Generation Love Story) here follows three leftist couples caught up in the heroic but doomed Loyalist cause. Most prominent are literary lion Ernest Hemingway and his new girlfriend, reporter Martha Gellhorn. Their ego-driven journalism offers some comic relief (i.e., celebrity writers slumming near the front). Vaill goes easier on the less glamorous anti-fascists, e.g., photographer Robert Capa and his partner, Gerda Taro. The only Spaniard in the bunch is writer Arturo Barea, who managed the Madrid press office with Viennese Ilsa Kulcsar. All of them romanticized the Loyalist cause while ignoring its brutal Soviet leadership. A victory by either side would in fact be dangerous for Spain. Vaill mines memoirs of the period for her gossipy popular history, full of set-piece scenes that include the thoughts and feelings of characters (but there's no invented dialog). Her gift for character portrayal keeps the book moving along, particularly with such fleeting figures as novelists John Dos Passos and Josephine Herbst. VERDICT The kind of history that readers will say "reads like a novel." It is bound to be popular with general readers of 20th-century history. [See Prepub Alert, 11/1/13.]—Stewart Desmond, New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374172992
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/22/2014
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 50,867
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Amanda Vaill

Amanda Vaill is the author of  the bestselling Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara MurphyA Lost Generation Love Story, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, and Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, for which she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. In addition to her screenplay for the Emmy– and Peabody Award–winning public television documentary Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About, she has also written features and criticism for a range of journals from Allure to The Washington Post Book World. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

July 1936: Madrid

 

 

Arturo Barea lay on the brown, pine-needled floor of a forest in the Sierra de Guadarrama, northwest of Madrid, with his head in his mistress’s lap. It was midafternoon on Sunday, July 19, and the resinous air was loud with the sound of cicadas. Tall, thin, with slicked-back dark hair, the eyes of an El Greco saint, and the mouth of a sensualist, Barea was drowsy with the heat, the wine he and Maria had had with their picnic lunch, and the lovemaking afterward; he longed to close his eyes and give himself over to sleep. But Maria had other ideas. She wanted to talk. Not, this time, about how much she wanted him to leave his wife and children and make an honest woman of her after six years as his secretary and occasional bedmate, a subject that usually ended in stalemate and tears. Today she wanted to know where Barea had been last night, all night: what he had been doing that had kept him both away from home and away from her bed. But the events and sensations of the last twelve hours were too raw, too immediate to discuss; he sensed that the equipoise of his life was about to spin irrevocably out of control, and he was too exhausted to deal with the consequences.

At thirty-eight, Barea had constructed a life that was a delicate balancing act. He’d grown up poor: his father, an army recruiter, dead at forty, had left his family penniless; his mother had had to wash soldiers’ dirty laundry in the Manzanares—breaking the ice with her wooden beater on cold winter mornings—and work as a servant for her well-to-do brother in order to keep the children out of the orphanage. The brother had taken an interest in little Arturo—sent him to school at the Escuela Pía, treated him to the circus, and the cinema and the bookstalls in the Plaza de Callao, and encouraged his dreams of studying engineering (he was less enthusiastic about the literary ambitions that fueled Arturo’s many contributions to the school’s magazine, Madrileñitos). But then he, too, had died and his wife wanted no more to do with her sister-in-law and her children. So Arturo, still a scrawny teenager, had to go to work, first as a jeweler’s apprentice; then, after studying for and passing accountancy exams, as a clerk at the Madrid branch of the Crédit Lyonnais.

A quick learner, he soon began to see raises in his modest paycheck; if he’d wanted to play the toady he could have climbed the bank’s career ladder in a hurry. But he was proud and thin-skinned—a dangerous combination—and he chafed under the cavalier treatment of his bosses while also feeling shame at the humble origins he knew they disdained. He flirted with an alternative ambition—writing—but submitting prose pieces to the Madrid weeklies and hanging around the tertulias, the freewheeling discussions in various literary cafés, seemed to lead nowhere. He joined the Socialist general trade union, the UGT, when he was twenty; and despite feeling out of place when he appeared at union meetings in his señorito’s suit and tie, he felt more solidarity with the workers in their blouses and rope-soled shoes than he did with the frock-coated bank directors who glared over their pince-nez at him. It was as much their patronizing attitude as his disgust at what he considered unjust profiteering that led him to storm out of the bank—calling it “a pig sty”—the day the Great War was declared in 1914; and although he would manage, against all odds, to become a boss himself, with a patent agent’s office high above the most fashionable part of the Calle de Alcalá, he still sided with the workers over the fat cats. “I’m no use as a capitalist,” he would say.

Not that he wasn’t happy to have the capitalist’s salary, and the gold cédula personal, the identity card showing him to be in one of the top income brackets, that went with it. But he’d insisted on installing his family in a large flat on one of the narrow, crooked streets in Lavapiés, the working-class barrio where he’d grown up, rather than in one of the bourgeois districts his wife, Aurelia, hankered after. He liked the idea of living in both worlds while belonging to neither, which he’d managed to do, in part, by staying out of the political struggles of the past decade. True, he’d joined the Socialists in 1931, when the new republic was declared, and that year he’d helped a friend organize a new clerical workers’ union; but otherwise he’d confined himself to the sidelines, even during the bienio negro, the two dark years following the right’s electoral victory in 1934. Although he decried the corruption and exploitation he frequently saw in his position as a patent agent, he told himself he was too insignificant a cog in the economic machinery to do anything about it.

Last February’s national elections, however, had stirred him to action. He’d set up a Popular Front committee in the village outside Madrid where he spent weekends with his family—something that hadn’t gone unnoticed by the local landowners and the officers of the Guardia Civil, the rural police force who often acted as the gentry’s enforcers. And as the political situation had deteriorated in the ensuing months, with brawls and shootouts and rumors of coups and countercoups, culminating in the twin assassinations of a socialist lieutenant in the Assault Guards, José de Castillo, and the fascist opposition leader José Calvo Sotelo the week before, he’d realized he was going to have to choose sides.

Even so, he hadn’t been prepared for what had happened the previous night. Madrid had been on edge all day, everyone keeping one ear cocked to the radio—easy to do when the government had placed loudspeakers at every street corner—because, sandwiched incongruously between sets of norteamericana dance music, there had been fragmentary news bulletins telling of mutiny in isolated military garrisons. No need for panic; the government has the situation well in hand. But rumors flew, and then there were reports of another outbreak, and another. Apparently there was street fighting in Barcelona. People started gathering in bars and cafés, on the streets. What if the government didn’t have the situation in hand? What if these mutinies were the start of a purge of the left, like Franco’s Asturian campaign? If the army turned on ordinary citizens, who would defend them? After supper with his family, Barea had gone across Calle del Ave Maria to Emiliano’s bar, his local, where the radio was playing Tommy Dorsey’s “The Music Goes Round and Round” at top volume and people were shouting at one another to be heard. He’d just ordered a coffee when the announcer’s voice broke in: the situation has become serious, and trade unionists and members of political groups should immediately report to their headquarters.

The bar had emptied in seconds as terrified workers, afraid that troops quartered in one of the garrisons around the city would start firing on them, took to the streets calling for arms for self-defense. Barea had pushed his way through the mob to the Socialists’ center, the Casa del Pueblo, in Chueca, on the other side of the Gran Via, where scores of union volunteers were clamoring to be turned into a defense force. Although he had little stomach for fighting—four years of military service in Morocco during the Rif rebellion had cured him of that, leaving his nostrils full of the stench of the rotting corpses he’d seen when he entered the besieged town of Melilla—he had less appetite for conciliation, and less still for defeat at the hands of the fascists. So he’d spent all night at the Casa del Pueblo, teaching men who had never handled a gun in their lives how to load and fire an old Mauser like the one he’d carried in the Engineers’ Battalion. If the fascists tried to take Madrid, they’d have to fight for it. Or they would if the government decided to release arms to the militia so they could fight.

In the meantime, the government, meeting in emergency conclave, had dissolved, formed, and reformed, with some ministers urging compromise with the rebels, others retaliation, until just before dawn the announcement came: “The Government has accepted Fascism’s declaration of war upon the Spanish people.” There were cheers at the Casa del Pueblo; and then the sun rose in a cloudless sky, and just like that, everyone went home or to the café for breakfast. Leaving the Casa del Pueblo, Barea had found the streets silent and deserted; it seemed just a hot summer Sunday like any other. Perhaps, Barea permitted himself to hope, the rebels would now back down and life would return to normal—whatever that was. Unable to think what else to do, he decided to take Maria to the Sierra for the day, as he’d promised to on Friday, a lifetime ago.

Now he was regretting that decision: he wondered what had been going on in the capital, and in the rest of the country, since the morning, but Maria wasn’t someone he could share his apprehensions with. When she’d first come to work at the patent office six years ago, he’d hoped he could discuss his ideas, convictions, and hopes with her as he couldn’t with Aurelia, for whom his politics stood in the way of the social connections she wanted to forge, and who felt it was unmanly of him to want a wife who was a friend as well as a bedfellow. He’d made Maria his confidant as well as his secretary; and although the confidences eventually turned into trysts and he and Maria became lovers, Aurelia ignored the arrangement, since in her view it was permissible for a man to have affairs as long as there were no illegitimate children. But Maria didn’t want to be Barea’s soul mate; she just wanted to change places with Aurelia. Now, he reflected sourly, he was entangled with two women but in love with neither of them.

Enervated by the realization and anxious about what was happening in the world outside their wooded hillside, Barea rose to his feet. There was a five o’clock train back to the city, he said, and he wanted to be on it. Maria poutingly accompanied him down the hill to the little village in the valley, where they stopped for a beer at the station café and Barea chatted briefly with an acquaintance he found there, a printer he’d met at Socialist party meetings who spent summers in the village for his health. A couple of Civil Guards officers, their coats open and their patent-leather tricorne hats on the table, were playing cards by the window; just as Barea and Maria were leaving to catch the train, one of them rose, buttoning his coat, and followed them out into the road. Blocking their path, he asked Barea for his papers—and raised his eyebrows when he saw the gold cédula. How was it that a señorito like Barea was acquainted with a Red union man like the printer? he asked, suspicious. Something told Barea to lie and say they’d been boyhood friends; so although the officer patted him down for weapons, he let them go.

Later, Barea would learn how close a call he’d had: the next day the Guards took over the little village in the name of the rebels, and shot the printer by the side of the road. For the moment, though, all he knew was that when their train drew in to Madrid’s North Station, he and Maria found themselves in a city transformed. Outside the station, traffic had come to a near-standstill, with trucks full of singing trade unionists going one way, fancy cars full of wealthy Madrileños and their luggage headed the other, toward the north and the border with France. There were roadblocks on the streets; people were saluting official Party cars as they passed with raised, clenched fists; and rifle-toting milicianos demanded Barea’s and Maria’s papers at every street corner. Over everything hung a pall of acrid smoke, the source of which he didn’t discover until he’d dropped Maria off at the apartment she shared with her mother, brother, and younger sister, and hurried toward the Calle del Ave Maria. There he discovered the neighborhood’s churches—including the one attached to the Escuela Pía, where he’d gone to school as a boy—engulfed in flames, the crowds gathered in front of them cheering as the ancient stones hissed and crackled and domes or towers crumbled into the streets. Some of the bystanders told him that fascists had been firing on the populace from the church towers, or storing arms in the sacristies; “and,” said one, resorting to the slang description of the dark-cassocked priests, “there are too many of those black beetles anyhow.” Barea had no great love for the organized church—its hand-in-glove relationship with big landowners, big bankers, and big ship-owners, its institutional wealth in a land so full of poverty, its anti-intellectual orthodoxy—but this wholesale destruction sickened him. He went home to Aurelia and the children with a heavy heart.

The next morning, he was awakened at first light by the sound of shouting in the street. Running downstairs, he learned that during the night a huge crowd had arrayed itself around the Montaña Barracks, a fortress overlooking the Manzanares a little over a mile away on the west of town, where rebel officers had barricaded themselves with five thousand troops and a cache of weapons. It was thought that the officers had been preparing to launch a concerted attack on the capital with other rebel garrisons in the city; but now air force officers loyal to the Republic had begun bombing the barracks, and cannons mounted on beer trucks had been brought to fire at the walls. Both eager and afraid to find out what would happen there, Barea hitched a ride with some milicianos to the Calle de Ferraz, which ran alongside the barracks parade grounds where he’d drilled sixteen years ago as a conscript bound for Morocco.

He found the fortress ringed by what looked like thousands of people; the air was crackling with rifle fire and the explosive rattle of machine guns. Quickly he dodged behind a tree—it was crazy to be here without a weapon, he realized, but he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else when so much hung in the balance. In front of him two men were arguing over whose turn it was to shoot an ancient revolver at the barracks’ massive walls; farther off, an officer of the Assault Guards, the urban police, was ordering that a 7.5-centimeter field gun be moved from place to place so the rebels in the fortress would believe their attackers had many cannon instead of few. Suddenly a white flag fluttered at one of the barracks windows; scenting surrender, the crowd surged forward, sweeping Barea along with it. But just as suddenly, machine-gun fire erupted from the walls; on either side of Barea attackers crumpled and fell to the ground. People screamed, ran, regrouped. Then, incredibly, they turned as one and with the aid of a huge battering ram threw themselves upon the barracks gates, which burst open under the onslaught.

The assault carried Barea himself inside the walls. In the barracks yard all was chaos: people shouting, running, firing. Looking up to one of the galleries ringing the yard, he saw one of the invaders, a huge Goliath of a man, pick up one soldier, then another, and hurl them like rag dolls from the parapet to the pavement below. In the armory, milicianos were seizing crates full of rifles and pistols and passing them out to their waiting comrades. Across the yard, a grimmer sight met his eyes: in the officers’ mess, dozens of uniformed men—some of them hardly older than Barea’s eldest son—lay in pools of their own blood.

Barea left the barracks, the exhilaration he’d felt during the assault ebbing away. Outside, on the grassy parade ground, there were hundreds more corpses, both men and women, lying motionless under the midday sun. Making his way into the public gardens on the Calle de Ferraz, all he could think of was how quiet it was.

*   *   *

For the next few days Barea went through the motions of normal life. He showed up at the office, where he and his chief decided that, despite the unexplained disappearance of some of their colleagues, and the absence of mail service, they’d try to keep things running for as long as anyone had patents to register or protect. He came home at night to Aurelia and the children. But things were emphatically not normal. In some of the offices in their building on the Calle de Alcalá, business owners had deserted their companies, taking their assets out of the country; others, known to be fascist sympathizers, would probably have their companies seized. In either case, the staff or a union committee would soon be running things, not the bosses—or so said the milicianos who turned up in the building on Tuesday, going from office to office, checking who was there and what they did. Everywhere you looked, in fact, there were more of these volunteer soldiers—men and women, dressed in blue boiler suits and tasseled caps, rifles slung over their shoulders, all of them throwing the clenched-fist salute of the Popular Front. Truckloads of them left for the Sierra in the mornings to skirmish with rebel forces who were trying to advance on Madrid from the northwest; others stayed in the city, stopping people at checkpoints on the street, asking for papers. On his way home one evening Barea had to dodge gunfire while some of them chased a suspected fascist over the rooftops; when he got back to Lavapiés it was to find more of them raiding the apartment of some rebel sympathizers and flinging the contents out the windows onto the street.

On Wednesday night, the government broadcast an announcement that the insurrection was all but defeated, and Barea went out for a celebratory toast at the Café de la Magdalena, the old flamenco cabaret, with his brother Miguel. But he was repelled by the café’s crowd of pimps and prostitutes, and the boozy laborers, each with a new pistol jammed into the belt of his coveralls, half of them singing the “Internationale,” the Communist anthem, as if it were a drinking song, the other half drowning the Communists out with Anarchist slogans and threatening to start a fight. So he and Miguel went to Serafín’s tavern on Calle del Ave Maria, where Barea found himself talking to a stranger who said he’d spent the day rounding up fascists before taking them to the Casa de Campo, the wild, heathlike park on the other side of the Manzanares that used to be the king’s hunting preserve and was still home to wild animals. “We led them out like sheep,” the man boasted. “One shot in the neck and that was that.”

Suddenly the sultry summer night felt chilly. “But that’s all the government’s affair now, isn’t it?” Barea asked.

“Pal,” said the stranger, looking at him with hard eyes, “—the government, that’s us.”

Barea paid his bill and left. As he turned toward home he heard shouts and running footsteps at the top of the street; then a shot rang out, followed by more footsteps that faded into the distance. Some milicianos came from the corner to investigate. In the middle of the street lay a man wearing the black-and-red scarf of the anarchist FAI, a bullet hole in the center of his forehead. One of the milicianos held a lighted match in front of the man’s mouth; it didn’t flicker. “One less,” said the officer.

Afterward, Barea couldn’t sleep. He got out of bed and went out onto the balcony: the city was pulsating with heat and the sound of people’s radios, turned to top volume. I can’t keep drifting, he told himself. In less than a week the fascists’ rebellion had triggered the very revolution they had spent the past five years resisting. And working together, the armed workers and the government’s own forces had prevented an immediate fascist victory. Despite the government’s optimistic claims, however, it was clear that the revolt was far from finished. This was a civil war, not just between the rebels and the government, but among the factions supporting the government; it wouldn’t be over until Spain had been transformed—whether into a fascist or a socialist state, Barea wasn’t certain. But he knew he had to make a stand. Not with the pseudo-soldiers of the militia, or the self-appointed vigilantes; still less with the rabble he’d seen earlier in the café. They won’t fight, he thought; but they’ll steal and kill for pleasure. He’d have to find his own way to be of use. Sitting on the balcony, he vowed to isolate himself in that work, whatever it was, away from the straitjacket of getting and spending, away from the claims of Aurelia and Maria, until the battle was won or lost. He didn’t know, couldn’t know, how much this effort would change him—what he would lose by it, and what he would gain. But he did know he had to dedicate himself to it. A new life, he told himself, has begun.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Amanda Vaill

Maps copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey L. Ward

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2014

    Remarkable story of famous journalists in the Spanish Civil War.

    Centering on Madrid's Hotel Florida during the Spanish Civil War, the stories of famous journalists and authors of the 1930s and 1940s are told. Close friends sometimes take great risks together and are often rivals. This is a remarkable book about remarkable people caught up in the ideologies,politics and dangers of a ferocious war. It follows these famous adventurers to Paris, the U.S. and even China. Hotel Florida has it all.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2014

    Best book Ive read in years

    Extremely detailed but excellently done. If you have always wondered about the Spanish War, and want to read about interesting people you have never heard of, this is the book.

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  • Posted June 6, 2014

    History buffs -- highly recommend

    Well researched and an unexpected page-turner for a story intended to relate a history. I only knew Hemmingway among the characters traced throughout the book and all were wonderfully interesting and provided a unique insight into this important pre-WWII time in history. If you like history this is a must read.

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