Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Rain in Spain: “Hotel Florida”

Robert Capa's photo of a dead man in a tree
The Iberian Peninsula is in the news again, via the parliamentary election in Catalonia that is sending a signal of the region’s desire to be independent of Spain. And the whole world has been shaken by the photos of a Syrian toddler lying dead on a Turkish beach, one victim of the current refugee crisis. Both the news accounts and the photos have sent me back to Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill’s fascinating 2014 account of “truth, love, and death in the Spanish Civil War.” Vaill’s book has a lot to say about the role of both movies and still photography in shaping popular opinion about a conflict that turned out, sadly, to be a rehearsal for World War II.

At the heart of Vaill’s book are three romantic couples. Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar came together unexpectedly when both were serving as press officers on behalf of the Spanish Loyalist cause. Robert Capa, originally from Hungary, and Gerda Taro, born in Poland, were war photographers on the lookout for the next big story. They gave their all to the Loyalists, and ultimately Taro gave her life. Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, both of them journalists and authors, were Americans who loved Spain and craved adventure. Hemingway, looking for a way to be involved in the conflict, found it in the making of a pro-Loyalist film, The Spanish Earth.

All of these characters passed, at one time or another, through the lobby of Madrid’s Hotel Florida, which explains the book’s title. Vaill paints a vivid picture of Spain’s capital as a place where it seemed “as if the war were a movie on a distant screen.” Early in the conflict, life in Madrid goes on as usual: at the Genova movie palace at Plaza de Callao, you could buy a ticket to see Lionel Barrymore performing in David Copperfield. Hemingway, chronicling the war for a global audience, noted that  “readers in New York, and Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco, would never believe you could be in a war zone where there were bars and functioning movie theaters and shops selling perfume; they needed to smell cordite and hear guns.” Later, though, Madrid too suffered bomb attacks. The Paramount Theatre near Hotel Florida took a direct hit, one that damaged the giant sign advertising Chaplin’s Modern Times.

Out in the countryside, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro were risking their lives to capture images of fallen soldiers, weeping women, and murdered children. Early in the war, Capa had participated in staging faked war footage, and he would do so again years later on behalf of The March of Time. But for the most part he was deeply committed to photography as a form of honest recording of reality at its most raw. His motto: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”  The quintessential combat photographer, he died in 1954 in Vietnam, while shooting photos for Life magazine.

Hemingway, while playing at documentary filmmaking, was involved with creatively shaping material that made the causes of the Spanish Civil War seem simple and direct. Later, dramatic devices were added, like artificial sound effects and the reading of a purely fictional letter. Back in the U.S., screenings of The Spanish Earth were hosted by such Hollywood celebs as Joan Crawford, John Ford, and Darryl Zanuck. Lillian Hellman sponsored a similar gathering at the home of Frederic March. Hemingway himself made a speech at Carnegie Hall, and through Martha Gellhorn’s contacts got his film into the hands of Eleanor Roosevelt.  Thus did Hemingway use his movie-star status on behalf of the Loyalist cause.   

Capa photographs a young refugee  

Capa's most famous photo of a dying soldier


  1. Ernest Hemingway was a fascinating man. This sounds like a wild story.

  2. Hemingway was as interesting a person as he was a writer. But I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be married to him.