It is very dangerous to write the truth in war, and the truth is very dangerous to come by. – Ernest Hemingway
Three quarters of a century on the Spanish Civil War exerts a considerable pull. The deluge of novels, movies, histories, plays, biographies and other forms of creative expression shows no sign of diminishing, and the war itself continues to resonate with idealists, leftists and students of history as a great moment for humanity, a symbol of resistance to totalitarian fascism.
But, as with all wars, the Spanish Civil War was far from black and white: historians debate whether the right side won and cite terrible crimes committed by both sides. In any event what was strictly an internal conflict in 1936 quickly became something more complex. The Soviets backed the legitimately elected Loyalist (Republican) government. Italy and Germany sided with Franco’s right-wing (Nationalist) insurgents, with Hitler rehearsing air power strategies he later employed in the invasion of Poland. And, for better or worse, the great Western powers – the U.S., France and Britain – chose not to intervene directly. The war raged for nearly three years with estimated casualties of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 killed.
Franco and the Nationalists won, but for the vanquished Loyalists there was a silver lining: it’s been said that the Spanish Civil War is the exception among wars in that the losing side got to write the history, and write it they did, solemnly cautioning that even in good wars good doesn’t always prevail. Certainly the writerly characters who clustered ‘round the Hotel Florida and environs were overwhelmingly partial to the Loyalist side, and much the same could be said of author Vaill’s vaguely Loyalist-sympathetic account.
Sometimes moving, all too frequently horrifying, Hotel Florida tells its story in a popular prose style but maintains a quasi-scholarly patina with the photos, historical maps, and substantial bibliography and endnotes. And in the end, like the Spanish Civil War itself, the book’s message has implications for our own, even more complicated era.
But Hotel Florida’s content is personal rather than political or philosophical, and Vaill’s chatty, pointillistic telling presents the war through the experiences of an unlikely collection of writers, actors, intellectuals, prostitutes, Russian generals, war profiteers and other hangers-on who collected at or passed through Madrid’s Hotel Florida. Actually the hotel itself maintains a rather low profile in the narrative.
The war is told primarily through the prism of three couples: the writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, documentary photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and the Republic’s chief censor Arturo Barea and his Austrian assistant Ilsa Kulcsar.
Other, unexpected characters breeze in and out of the Florida’s lobby: the spy Kim Philby; Hollywood actor Errol Flynn; British poet Stephen Spender; American novelist and Hemingway bête noir John Dos Passos; French writer-aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; and American poet and wit Dorothy Parker. Spain was the place to be, and all who were there claimed to have come to find the bare facts of what was happening in the civil war . However, many were far more comfortable with falsehood and misinformation. An exception was George Orwell, who was actually involved in the war itself, fighting for a time on the Loyalist side.
Indeed, per Hemingway’s aforementioned quote  and the book’s revealing subtitle, we might say that the central conceit of Hotel Florida is the question of truth versus propaganda, and for the six principals within truth and accuracy were slippery commodities: the truth that mattered to them was the one that would win hearts and minds outside Spain, in particular the U.S. and Britain. We shouldn’t forget, however, that, whatever their artistic and personal failings, these individuals did risk their lives to influence mass opinion and political will for what they saw as a just cause in those isolationist times.
Hemingway’s bravado and undoubted charisma notwithstanding, and for all the other colorful characters who inhabit Hotel Florida, it’s Martha Gellhorn who emerges most vividly in these pages. She eventually married Hemingway, but the marriage lasted only five years. Her journalistic career included covering D-Day, the Russo-Finnish war, Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, and the guerilla uprisings in Central America. In the 1950s she settled in England where she became a kind of mentor to a younger generation of writers and journalists. Diagnosed with cancer, she committed suicide in 1998.
A far from perfect human being and a writer who had her own issues with accuracy and truth, Martha Gellhorn nonetheless ultimately came to represent the prototype of a modern, independent woman and relentlessly probing journalist, qualities not always fashionable even in the Twenty-First century.
In 2001, a prize was established in her name, to be given to journalists who tell ‘an unpalatable truth, validated by powerful facts’. The list of the winners is indeed impressive, but one name stands out: the 2011 winner, none other than the founder of WikiLeaks himself and our own era’s symbol of the shifting nature of journalistic ethics and accuracy, Julian Assange. Martha must have been turning in her grave. Then again maybe she was smiling.
 I kept waiting for Somerset Maugham, another ubiquitous character in those times, to turn up, but no. Perhaps his Tory tastes were not simpatico with the leftist leanings of most of the Florida’s clientele. Or more likely his high maintenance lifestyle was simply averse to the untidy realities of war.
 Hemingway’s above quote assumes a bitter irony: the great man himself didn’t always seek out the truth, especially if doing so might be dangerous, a much-cited example being his unwillingness to cover the bombing of Guernica.
Further reading: George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, Mariner, 1980.