Skip to main content

Author Talk: April 25, 2014

Amanda Vaill is the author of the bestselling EVERYBODY WAS SO YOUNG, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography, and SOMEWHERE, for which she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Her latest book, HOTEL FLORIDA, traces the tangled wartime destinies of three couples against the backdrop of a critical moment in history: the Spanish Civil War. Here, Vaill talks with founder Jesse Kornbluth about her work, researching HOTEL FLORIDA, and the theme that links each of her seemingly dissimilar subjects. She also considers the difficulty of wartime journalism and reflects on how writers --- and people in general --- struggle with honesty in their personal lives.

Jesse Kornbluth: First the Murphys. Then Jerome Robbins. Now the Spanish civil war. How did you get from one subject to the next?

Amanda Vaill: Actually all three subjects have connections. We could make a game about it: Six Degrees of Gerald Murphy. Among the links: The Murphys' great friends, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, show up in major roles in HOTEL FLORIDA. Jerome Robbins lived next door to the Murphys in Snedens' Landing, worked with their friend Igor Stravinsky, choreographed a dance called “Death of a Loyalist” while in his 20s, met his one-time fiancée, Rose Tobias, at a concert for Spanish Civil War relief…

Seriously, all three of these books are about what I think of as "hinge moments" in 20th-century history --- the 1920s in Paris, mid-century in New York, the late 1930s in Europe --- when things are changing in culture and society. This is what I look for when searching for something to write about: dynamism, change, movement. I like it when my subjects have to grapple with what is happening in their world and how honestly and faithfully they can participate in that, how truthfully they can live their lives in that moment.

JK: Do you speak Spanish?

AV: I taught myself to read it, and I can understand what's said to me, more or less. My own spoken Spanish might charitably be described as a work in progress. My "other" language is French, which I learned as a child and studied right through school, and that helped me a little; so did my schoolgirl Latin and self-taught Italian. Fortunately the material I needed Spanish for was written: newspaper accounts, Arturo Barea's own writing, a few records and documents.

JK: The book reflects massive work in archives. Who was alive to interview?

AV: After doing almost 300 interviews for my Jerome Robbins biography, it was a relief to me to work on a project that would be based principally on written testimony. Virtually all the first-hand witnesses to events in this story are dead, and second- or third-hand accounts can be problematic. I was more interested in finding out what actually happened as it was recorded at the time in letters or diaries or film than in hearing what participants wanted to remember, or to have others remember, later. I did use memoirs, and in a very few cases fictionalized accounts written by participants, but I made every effort to check those accounts against documented facts --- things like passenger manifests or hotel registers or dated correspondence --- or corroborating evidence from others. I felt a little like a prosecutor building a case and trying to establish, or shake, alibis: I had a timeline for every month of the Spanish Civil War and every major character in my book, and entered events as they were documented until I built up a complete chronology. And the story emerged from there, from the comparison and contrast and interweaving of all these different timelines.

JK: How much time did you spend in Spain?

AV: All told, about a month, in separate trips. Paul Preston, one of our most eminent Spanish Civil War historians, told me it was highly unlikely, if not impossible, that I would find records of my subjects in Spanish government archives, as these would have been redacted or simply burnt by the defeated Loyalists to avoid reprisals after the war. So instead of hunting fruitlessly for nonexistent files, I used my time in Spain to visit the sites where my subjects had been and to retrace their footsteps across the Spanish landscape. This was invaluable, as the biographer Richard Holmes insists in his classic book FOOTSTEPS. Even with the vast changes in the 75 years since the war, having a sense of relative geography and terrain and architecture allowed me to give context to my story. And in the case of my section on where and how Robert Capa's reputation-making and much-discussed “Falling Soldier” photograph was taken, I simply couldn't have written it without seeing the actual (as opposed to the supposed) site where it was made.

JK: Three years of war, 400,000 dead, land laid waste, a scarred national psyche --- are we invited to read the book as a metaphor for our own time?

AV: Certainly, as I researched it, I saw parallels between the political and international situation in the 1930s --- the factionalism, the polarization, the volatility of trouble spots around the globe --- and what's going on today. I wondered, for instance, what would have happened if, in the wake of the 2012 US presidential election, the losers had decided they didn't like the result and had called on the army to mutiny and take over the country. I asked myself whether the numbers of dead and the devastation caused by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will seem worth it to the people who have to live there when the other interested parties go home. And in the last year, as the Arab Spring has turned bitter, journalists continue being killed in the Middle East, and Russia advances in the Crimea, it has sometimes felt as if events in HOTEL FLORIDA were re-playing themselves in new iterations.

JK: The level of detail is stunning. How do you know, for example, that a secret police interrogator whistled Beethoven’s Fifth while administering beatings?

AV: When you have journalists recording history, even (or especially) in personal documents not intended for publication, they do tend to look for, or at least report, telling details. And when more than one of them is doing the recording you can sometimes feel you have hit the jackpot. In my description of the Madrid secret police chief's conversation during a lunchtime bombardment in the journalists' canteen, for example, which was described by Virginia Cowles and Josephine Herbst and used by Ernest Hemingway in his play “The Fifth Column,” I had multiple colorful sources to choose from. To answer your question specifically, the Fifth Symphony detail came from an account by Robert Capa, the interrogator's victim, in autobiographical writing from the 1940s that's in his archives at ICP and quoted by his biographer Richard Whelan. Possibly Capa embroidered the facts just a bit: He did love to tell a story. You must admit the Fifth would make excellent beating-up music: "Dah-dah-dah-POW, dah-dah-dah-POW…"

JK: I was surprised that a young writer like Martha Gellhorn was Eleanor Roosevelt’s pen pal. How did that happen?

AV: Eleanor Roosevelt was a friend, or at least an acquaintance, of Martha's mother Edna Gellhorn, a crusader for women's rights and progressive causes in Missouri. And Martha was very good at finding mentors or friends in influential places, from Colette to Eleanor Roosevelt to H. G. Wells to Harry Hopkins. It's a great talent for a journalist to have.

JK: I was surprised that Hemingway was, in essence, a Communist in Spain. That seems to have been lost in the romantic portrait of him as a two-fisted individualist.

AV: I would say he was more of a fellow traveler, if I can use an anachronistic 1950s, McCarthy-era term. Before going to Spain, he'd proclaimed he wasn't going to become a cheerleader for Marxism because "I believe in only one thing: liberty." But he was seduced by his own hunger for playing at the high-stakes table, being in on the secret stuff; and in Spain, increasingly, the high-stakes table and the secret stuff were controlled by people who were, or had close ties to, Communists. Joris Ivens, the Dutch Communist film director who worked with Hemingway on the documentary “The Spanish Earth,” saw himself as Hemingway's case-officer; and certainly at first Hemingway responded with wholehearted enthusiasm. His dispatches for North American newspapers are full of comments about how the Communists in the government and the army --- as opposed to what he depicted as the wishy-washy socialists and self-interested, cowardly anarchists --- are the well-organized ones who are dedicated to getting things done. It was only after the war was clearly lost that he changed his mind.

JK: To finance the besieged Spanish government, the Russians provided guns and planes and “stored” $500 million in Spanish gold reserves. What happened to that gold?

AV: The gold reserves were sent to Moscow, not only for safekeeping but to act as a kind of credit account on which the Spanish government could draw for continued expenditures during the war. You need a new plane? No problem, we will deduct the cost from the gold reserves! Of course, the ones doing the cost tabulation, and the deductions, were the Soviets. Unsurprisingly, when the war was finished, there was nothing left in the account.

JK: Gellhorn was beautiful --- “legs that begin at her shoulders,” Hemingway said. But although she liked conquering men, she had no great affection for sex. As for Hemingway, he seemed to prefer playing cards and drinking with men, then sleeping alone. Please explain the Hemingway-Gellhorn “romance.”

AV: Martha Gellhorn hero-worshipped Hemingway: she'd given her first novel, WHAT MAD PURSUIT an epigraph from a phrase in A FAREWELL TO ARMS ---  "Nothing ever happens to the brave." (Originally she had planned to call the novel NOTHING EVER HAPPENS, too; probably her editor warned her about the kind of opening that would give reviewers.)

Some have contended that, ambitious as she was, she engineered a meet-cute with Hemingway at Sloppy Joe's Bar in Key West; but whether she set out to seduce him or was somehow swept into his orbit, she was soon entranced by his talent and reputation, his romantic attraction to her and his commitment to the anti-fascist cause in Spain. This was the great bond between them: "I don't believe I'd have gotten hooked otherwise," Gellhorn said later.

For his part, Hemingway was excited by Gellhorn's youth, glamour, connections (to the Roosevelt White House, to European intellectuals) and by her admiration of him. When they met he was bored and restless, ready for the new adventure Gellhorn seemed to promise, in which he could be the leader; when the adventure was over, and she evolved into someone he felt was more competitor than acolyte, the relationship lost much of its luster for him. It ended badly, and Gellhorn famously didn't wish his name coupled with hers ever again.

JK: Scott Fitzgerald is usually cast as dominated by Hemingway. But several times, the way you quote him, he seems the wiser man --- at least he saw Hemingway clearly.

AV: The key, I suspect, is that at this period Fitzgerald was at least trying to be sober; he had touched bottom (and wrote movingly about this in THE CRACK-UP, a book Hemingway mocked for its confessional honesty). This kind of self-evaluation can make it easier to see others, as well, and I think that's what gave Fitzgerald his clarity about Hemingway in these years. In addition, as he himself pointed out, he he'd been out of the force field of Hemingway's personality for some time, which also made it easier for him to see his old friend more clearly.

JK: I found myself more taken with minor characters than with some of the stars. Gellhorn, for example, derided “all that objectivity shit” --- Virginia Cowles didn’t. Dos Passos seemed more admirable than Hemingway. I like Gerda Taro as much as I did Capa. And I had huge admiration for Barea. Is this just me?

AV: I'm glad you were taken with Barea, because without him there would have been no book. I didn't want to write another account of the glamorous outsiders who came to Spain to fight for the Republic, or I didn't want to write only about that; I needed to tell about some of the people they were supposedly fighting for, or with. As the book evolved these comparisons emerged ever more sharply, and I began to see the different ways my subjects responded to the transformative promise of the war. And this became a major theme for me. So the truthfulness with which Dos Passos, or Cowles, reported the war, the honesty with which Barea, or Gerda Taro or Robert Capa, behaved --- these things became important plot points. And of course the better-known characters like Hemingway and Gellhorn don't have the freshness of a Barea or a Cowles or even a Dos Passos, who haven't been done and done. So you can respond to them more freshly.

JK: Gerda Taro. I knew nothing. She’s the big surprise of the book for me. Or should I have known of her?

AV: Despite Capa's best efforts to memorialize her after her death, Gerda Taro has suffered for years from being in Robert Capa's shadow --- not surprisingly, because their early work was so closely linked. When her career was cut short in 1937, his continued, in an upward trajectory, until his own death in 1954. She suffered also from the fact that after her death photo editors often credited her pictures to Capa (although the reverse was also true!). So you can be forgiven for not knowing much about her. But at the time she died, and for a few years thereafter, she was a huge star, an anti-fascist icon: a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands followed her coffin to the cemetery at Pére-Lachaise in Paris. And recently, over the past decade, following her first-ever career retrospective exhibit at the International Center of Photography in 2008, her work and her alluring personality have again begun to capture the public imagination. But there hasn't been a full-length biography in English (Irme Schaber's authoritative 1994 study of her exists only in German and in a French translation). She is extraordinary.

JK: “The writers were there for the story, the people for their lives” --- at a level, I see your book as a study in the way media defines and distorts conflict. Hemingway and Gellhorn, most notably, moved on. But others --- Barea and Capa --- seemed to carry Spain with them all their lives. Am I warm? And what do you carry with you from this story?

AV: "They are here for their lives" --- that's what Ilsa Kulcsar said about the Spanish, as opposed to the journalists and other, often well-intentioned folk who came to observe, or participate in, or influence the conflict of the Spanish Civil War. Of the main subjects in my book, Hemingway and Gellhorn and Capa and Taro reaped major career rewards from their coverage of the war, although Taro paid for these rewards with her life, and Capa, arguably, with his heart. But in the end, those who covered the war, if they lived, could go home; it was the Spanish, like Barea, and those who threw their lot in with them, like Ilsa, who were left to live with the war's consequences.

That was the departure point for HOTEL FLORIDA. But it's not what the book ended up really being about. As I researched and wrote, I found that each of my six main subjects, and many of my minor ones, grappled during the years of the war with questions of truth-telling: When you're writing about, or photographing, a major developing news story, do you report what is happening, or what you think is happening? Do you indulge in what media titan Henry Luce, publisher of Life and Time magazines and producer of the March of Time newsreels, called "fakery in allegiance to the truth"? Do you let your allegiance to, or reliance on, your connections influence how you cover your story?

My subjects also had to confront an even more essential truth issue: the role of honesty in their personal lives. How honest were they to themselves, and to each other? As it turned out, it was the ones who told the truth about themselves, as well as about the story, who ended up being the happiest, if not the most successful. Which isn't a bad take-away for the book's writer, now I come to think of it.