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

Vaill’s story of three love affairs, set against the Spanish Civil War, yields a nuanced perspective on war journalism and romance.


During the Spanish Civil War, Madrid’s Hotel Florida was a meeting point for war correspondents, press officers and foreign intellectuals. Amanda Vaill (Everybody Was So Young) uses the hotel as a focal point to examine the war through the lives of three men and three women. These six individuals–all leftists of various stripes and pedigrees, converging on Spain from all over Europe and the U.S.–allow Vaill to range freely through the history of the war, which raged from 1936 to 1939.

Vaill follows her subjects chronologically, shifting locations through Francisco Franco’s rebellion against the Popular Front government and the events that led up to the Spanish Civil War. Arturo Barea of Madrid serves as a censor for the Propaganda Department, finding his leftist politics and commitment to truth well matched by his new assistant Ilsa Kulcsar, who comes from an Austrian resistance cell and speaks many languages. Meanwhile, Ernest Hemingway feels stifled in Key West; a new war to cover provides him with an excuse to get away from his wife and find fresh material to revive his stagnant writing. The attractive young journalist he’s just met, Martha Gellhorn, is also eager to get to Spain. Finally, a young man named Endre Friedmann is exuberantly pursuing his passion for photography in Paris when he meets the charming Gerta Pohorylle. They set off for Spain together with their ideals on their sleeves. Taking new names–Robert Capa and Gerda Taro–they will find fame and love and change the face of war photography forever. One of them will die on Spanish soil.

In addition to explaining the complexities of the Spanish Civil War, Hotel Florida lives up to its grand subtitle. Vaill examines the meaning of truth as conceived by each of her six players–writer, journalist, translator, censor, press officer, photographer. Their romances, all born of war, and the deaths to which they bear witness bring emotion and heartbreak. Buttressed by plentiful research, Vaill’s prose exhibits touches of Hemingway’s own writing style and a gift for narrative that keeps Hotel Florida accessible and engaging.

This review originally ran in the April 15, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 ideals.

better to burn out than fade away?

As you know, I’ve recently begun reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I started with the biographical note (unattributed), and the introduction, which is by Terry Tempest Williams, a friend of Stegner’s. These prepared me well: I began with just a hint of what the story was about, and felt like I got to know the author just a little. I like Williams, so that connection felt good, too. Before beginning to read the novel itself, I was reminded of Norman Maclean. The tone of voice in Williams’s short intro, and in the biographical note, is gentle and loving and matches the tone in which people write about Maclean. And it got me thinking about a very different sort of author.

Ernest Hemingway always thought of himself as a future famous writer, beginning when he was very small; his self-image was one step ahead of his actual place in the world, but he was never mistaken. He designed & intended his identity as the larger-than-life author-man archetype, and then he lived into that legend. (He convinced us to varying degrees, of course, but I don’t think we need argue that he didn’t live the story he’d written for himself.) He then died just shy of his 62nd birthday of a self-inflicted double-barreled shotgun blast to the head while his wife slept a few rooms over. His late years were tormented by mental illness, paranoia, and an increasing and overwhelming distress that he was failing to fulfill his potential. But all his life he fought his demons, and there’s plenty of evidence that suicide was on his mind many decades before he pulled the trigger.

By contrast, Norman Maclean lived to be 87 (and published 2 very important books and a number of essays). Wallace Stegner lived to be 84 (and published 28 books). In their art they both exude a sense of calm, and in late life commanded a quiet, loving respect in their peers and, in death, in their survivors that Hemingway does not. So my question is this. Would Hemingway have chosen for himself a long life, a quiet, respected, accomplished old age, surrounded by contentment? Or would he have joined Kurt Cobain in quoting the Neil Young lyric, that it’s “better to burn out than fade away”?

Teaser Tuesdays: Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

hotel florida

I am, of course, enjoying immersion in the beautifully composed Hotel Florida, a history of six individuals in the Spanish Civil War.

“THE PICTURE WAS BEYOND PRAISE AND SO WAS YOUR ATTITUDE,” wired Scott Fitzgerald after the screening he saw, at which Hemingway had spoken about la causa and the loss of Lukács and Heilbrun. Fitzgerald sensed in his old and now distant friend an attachment to the film project, and to the war in Spain itself, that had “something almost religious about it.” As so often, he saw Hemingway more clearly than Hemingway saw himself.

I appreciate the larger truth in these lines about the relationship between Fitzgerald (who doesn’t much play into this story) and Hemingway (who is one of its stars).

Also, I am thrilled to note just a handful of pages later an extended excerpt from Goethe’s poem, Der Erlkönig, which I memorized in its entirety for my German class in high school. (In German.) That was fun.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I am quite pleased with Hotel Florida, about the Spanish Civil War and concentrating on six individuals – three couples – who experienced it. I’m offering a little more book beginning than usual today, because I think this way gives a good feeling of Amanda Vaill’s work; so bear with me.

hotel florida

Three book beginnings…

Author’s Note:

“It is very dangerous to write the truth in war,” said Ernest Hemingway, “and the truth is very dangerous to come by.”


On July 18, 1936, at Gando in the Canary Islands, a short, balding, barrel-chested man in a gray suit, carrying a Spanish diplomatic passport in the name of José Antonio de Sagroniz, boarded a private seven-seater de Havilland Dragon Rapide aircraft that had arrived at Gando three days previously and had been waiting on the tarmac for him ever since.

And chapter 1:

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 mid-afternoon on Sunday, July 19, and the resinous air was loud with the sound of cicadas.

The effect I noticed immediately here, is the connection between the Hemingway quotation and the Hemingwayesque first line of the first chapter. For one thing, note all the sensory detail in that second sentence. This is instantly recognizable to me as Hemingway’s style. And most pointedly, recall the opening line of Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.

I surely don’t need to tell you that this parallel was established on purpose. For that matter, Vaill ends her book with the opening line as (she tells us) Hemingway wrote it in his first draft:

We lay on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest…

I like her use of structure here, the bookending of her book using Hemingway’s own words. I find that this really pulls it together.

Rather more book beginning than usual, I confess. Thanks for your patience. And let me say that Hotel Florida is about much more than Hemingway; but he is the most widely known of her six individuals, and arguable the biggest and most colorful personality, so I think the occasional emphasis can be excused. That said, I really enjoyed learning so much about her other characters. They include Martha Gellhorn, journalist and Hemingway’s partner (mistress during the war, wife after); photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro; and press officers Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. As usual, you’ll have to stay tuned for my book review, but for now: I recommend.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

hemingWay of the Day: How To Tell If You’re In A Hemingway Novel

This is totally silly, and doesn’t make Hemingway sound terribly smart, or interesting; but there’s room for that in this world, too. The man was sometimes a caricature. In fact, I’ve been doing some musing lately as I read Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War, by Amanda Vaill. It’s a lovely book, that examines the experience of six individuals (three couples) in the Spanish Civil War; Hemingway and Gellhorn are two of the six. I have some thoughts to share, but will save those for that book review. (Hint: good book.)

Today for giggles and deprecations: How To Tell If You’re In A Hemingway Novel. Enjoy.

from Liz: Sean Hemingway interview on alternative endings to A Farewell to Arms

She does it every time, you guys, because she a) knows me and my tastes quite well and b) scours the internet and the podcasts and whatnot constantly.

Liz sent me this: an interview with Ernest Hemingway’s nephew, Sean, on a radio show called “To the Best of Our Knowledge” (acronym TTBOOK, which is cute). It opens with a movie clip (from a movie I’ve never heard of, which is a reflection on me, not the movie) about Hemingway’s very well-regarded World War I novel, A Farewell to Arms: the movie’s protagonist is upset about the ending, as many of us have been and will be. Sean Hemingway has recently released a new edited version, A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition, which includes all the alternative endings that Hemingway wrote before settling on the one we know. There were 47 of them.

Click the above link to listen to, or read, the interview, which includes a few of the alternate endings. (I started by listening – which was good, for the movie clip, and for hearing Sean’s voice; but then I got impatient and read through the rest.) Um, this should be clear, but if you haven’t read the book, beware of spoilers in the interview!

I was intrigued because, as interviewer Steve Paulson says, these alternate endings give us a real window into Hemingway’s process and his difficulty, himself, with the ending. And as Sean points out, most of us have lost a loved one, and the difficulties Hemingway had working out how to end this book are analogous, at least, to the difficulties we have in letting go.

Do I want this new edition? Do I want to reread the novel, or just the 47 endings? I’m not sure; my appetite is certainly whetted by this interview, but I don’t think I’m up for a full reread. For one thing, although much-lauded, A Farewell to Arms is far from being among my favorite Hemingway works. I’d reread it before I reread Death in the Afternoon, but that’s about it. And I still haven’t read everything he wrote, either, so it would be hard to justify. I could run through those endings, though… we shall see.

Thanks, Liz, for another great reference. Go check out the interview – it’s short.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (audio)

zThis is a fictionalization of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The main events of their lives are fairly well-known: married in 1920, Fitzgerald was a professional writer who never saw the success in his own lifetime that his friend Hemingway did; the couple lived back-and-forth in France and the US; Zelda was “the first flapper” according to Scott; they were famously wild partiers, alcoholics, and rather nut jobs; Zelda was eventually institutionalized, and died in a mental hospital. They had one daughter. These main events are followed in the novel, which is told first-person by Zelda herself.

It started well. I really did love Zelda’s voice – as written by Fowler, and as read by Jenna Lamia. She’s spunky and irreverent, and likeable. She reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara from the very beginning, which is both a compliment and a caution: is she entirely original? I enjoyed what Fowler created in her fictionalized Zelda Fitzgerald, but I worried that she was overly informed by hindsight. Scott talks like he writes; Zelda speaks as if aware of her audience, aware of the legacy she’ll leave behind – which she wouldn’t have been, regardless of her faith in her husband, because his fame as we know it today came largely after both their deaths.

Ernest Hemingway likewise speaks in a caricatured version of one of his own heroes. This is a common technique when writing Hemingway into fiction: I recognize it from Midnight in Paris. I’m comfortable with people criticizing, even despising Hemingway; he’s my hero, but I certainly see his flaws. But I wish they wouldn’t make him into a cartoon, because that, I think, he wasn’t. He could be ridiculous, and he definitely overdid the machismo, but he was a complex human being, troubled, tortured, insecure, boastful and antagonistic; wouldn’t it be more fun, and more satisfying for a novelist, to write him as a full person than as a cartoon version of his own fiction? Ah well.

Expand this concept to apply to Scott Fitzgerald, too. I’m less qualified to speak about his life, having read much less about him than I have about Hemingway. However, I feel confident that neither Scott nor Zelda could have been as black-and-white as Fowler’s fictional characters are here. Scott Fitzgerald is a monster in this novel! Despicable, horrendous, a nightmare. I suspect that in life, he was, like Hemingway, capable of monstrosities, but also a full human being, with likeable bits alongside the flaws. Such a well-loved and artistically accomplished alcoholic would seem to have to be conflicted, ambiguous, and – importantly – multi-facted. Fowler’s characters lack facets. Similarly, though I have read still less about Zelda, my general understanding of her was that her dissipated party-girl period lasted well out of her early 20’s. The fictional Zelda we meet here becomes rather saintly after giving birth to her daughter. She is the squeaky-clean foil to Scott’s ogre; and I suspect that the one is as realistic as the other.

In contrast to this novel, I am simultaneously reading the yet-to-be-published The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing. Z suffers by comparison; Laing’s (nonfiction) work is very well researched, beautifully written (although I’ll try not to turn this into a review of her book!), and, to my point here, respects the dueling forces for good and evil in her subjects, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. (And Hemingway.) Possibly I would have appreciated Z more if it were presented not as historical fiction but as alternate history, since I am increasingly concerned that it’s not true to the history of the Fitzgeralds as we know it. Even then, however, fully developed characters should have complexity rather than read as saints and devils, so my concern remains.

The net effect of having read this book in the end is that I feel the need to go read up on Zelda a little more thoroughly; I’ll be looking for a biography next. She always struck me peripherally as a colorful, conflicted character: just the kind I like, that is. I’m always most interested in those individuals who offer both sympathetic and distasteful qualities in the same package; they’re so engrossing that way. One of Fowler’s major flaws, then, would be in having omitted my favorite character feature: ambiguity.

I began by enjoying this book, and Zelda’s voice and personality. Much of the middle troubled me, as the black-and-whiteness of the characters emerged. Scott was such a terrible husband that I was just frustrated and angry with him; and while these can be useful emotions to evoke in your reader, Fowler didn’t take me anywhere interesting or cathartic or instructive with them. Zelda briefly considers leaving Scott (because she is, after all, a saint and a martyr) and then realizes she can’t afford to support herself as a single woman, so she decides to stay. Very cut and dried, you see. Towards the end, when the couple is separated by Zelda’s incarceration in various mental institutions, I liked it a little better again; maybe removing the hateful Scott cheered me. But then it was disappointing to end with Scott’s death – Zelda lived another 8 years! but those years are handled only in an epilogue. Why couldn’t she have continued to speak in her own voice until she died? Perhaps this novel should have been called Z: A Novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald told through the eyes of Zelda. Hmph.

In closing, clearly, my concerns were many. I credit Fowler for entertaining me (at least early and late) with a likeable Zelda in a spunky Southern drawl, well read by narrator Lamia. But I was dissatisfied with many aspects of the art of the novel as executed here. Subjects like the Fitzgeralds offered so much opportunity for nuance, and catharsis, and analysis, that was not undertaken. Complex characters were flattened into single dimensions. And my limited knowledge of their lives makes me hesitant, but I worry about the historical accuracy, and I wish more information were given to indicate where the fiction begins. Several letters from Zelda to Scott and other friends are quoted; are these real letters? I don’t know; and I’d like to know. Credit Fowler with inspiring some further reading; but this experience in itself was less than satisfying. I can’t recommend that you spend your time on this book. There are lots of books written about the Fitzgeralds; start elsewhere. Me, I’m considering Tennessee Williams’s play, Clothes for a Summer Hotel.

Rating: 4 fingers.

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