Hotel Florida

Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War

by Amanda Vaill

Hotel Florida

Hardcover, 436 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $30 | purchase

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

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In 1936 Madrid, six people — writer Ernest Hemingway, novice journalist Martha Gellhorn, photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, foreign press office chief Arturo Barea and his Austrian deputy Ilsa Kulcsar — are torn between truth-telling and loyalty during a critical moment in history.

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Excerpt: Hotel Florida

Hotel Florida

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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