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Excerpt: Hotel Florida

Amanda Vaill

Hotel Florida

Madrid, 1936. In a city blasted by a civil war that many fear will cross borders and engulf Europe—a conflict one writer will call “the decisive thing of the century”—six people meet and find their lives changed forever. Ernest Hemingway, his career stalled, his marriage sour, hopes that this war will give him fresh material and new romance; Martha Gellhorn, an ambitious novice journalist hungry for love and experience, thinks she will find both with Hemingway in Spain. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, idealistic young photographers based in Paris, want to capture history in the making and are inventing modern photojournalism in the process. And Arturo Barea, chief of Madrid’s loyalist foreign press office, and Ilsa Kulcsar, his Austrian deputy, are struggling to balance truth-telling with loyalty to their sometimes compromised cause—a struggle that places both of them in peril. Hotel Florida traces the tangled wartime destinies of these three couples against the backdrop of a critical moment in history. As Hemingway put it, “You could learn as much at the Hotel Florida in those years as you could anywhere in the world.”


Hemingway and Gellhorn’s First Meeting

December 1936: Key West


Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill
Barnes and Noble

It was Martha’s mother who saw the sign—“Sloppy Joe’s Bar,” painted on the white stucco wall— and suggested the three of them go in out of the sun for a drink. Having an afternoon cocktail in a conch bar was the furthest thing imaginable from the way they’d always spent the Christmas holidays back in St. Louis; but on this Christmas, the  first since Martha’s father had died, they wanted to do something different. And sleepy, shabby Key West, as far south as you could get in the continental United States, was certainly different.

The café was dim and cool, with sawdust on the floor and a long, curving bar presided over by a 300-pound African American barkeep, “Big Jimmy” Skinner. At one end of the bar, reading his mail, was a burly dark-haired man in a T-shirt and dirty white shorts held up by a length of rope. He looked up as the trio came in: the earnest young man, Martha’s brother, Alfred, on vacation from medical school; the silver-haired, still-beautiful Edna Gellhorn; and Martha, tanned and tawny-maned in a little black sundress that showed off her race horse figure to advantage. Later he would say he’d  figured that Alfred and Martha were a couple, and that given three days he could win the beautiful blonde away from “the young punk”; but that turned out not to be necessary.

Because the blonde came over to him, hand outstretched, and introduced herself and her companions to Ernest Hemingway. He had been her writing lodestar forever, her “glorious idol”— hadn’t she kept his photo tacked to her dorm room wall at Bryn Mawr? Hadn’t she taken her epigraph for What Mad Pursuit (“Nothing ever happens to the brave”) from A Farewell to Arms? And hadn’t her clear, taut prose in The Trouble I’ve Seen been compared with his? So imagine how thrilled she was to just walk into a bar in Key West and stumble over him this way.

The social preliminaries were quickly dispensed with. Hemingway charmingly pointed out that his wives had both gone to school in St. Louis, and he’d spent considerable time there himself in his youth; he would be delighted to show these St. Louisans around Key West, and make sure they found all the best beaches and watering holes. Drinks came as they talked, then more drinks and more talk. At length a friend of Hemingway’s, Charles Thompson, appeared in the bar, sent by Pauline, who had laid on a splendid cray sh dinner for the Thompsons at the house on Whitehead Street and was wondering why her husband hadn’t shown up for it. He’d have to skip dinner, Hemingway said; Thompson should just tell Pauline to meet up with him later, at Pena’s Garden of Roses, a beer garden and former speakeasy in the Old Town. Thompson looked around Hemingway’s table, took in the blond hair and the black dress, and did as he was told.

Over the next weeks Hemingway made good on his offer to the Gellhorns; and, when Alfred’s medical school vacation ended and mother and son returned to St. Louis, Martha remained at the Colonial Hotel on Duval Street for nearly a fortnight and became, as she herself described it in a thank-you note to Pauline, “a  fixture, like a kudu head,” in the Hemingways’ house. Hemingway took her swimming and barhopping, but mostly they just talked: about her writing (she was too careful and cautious, he said— she should just write her novel and if it didn’t turn out the way she wanted she could tear it up), about his writing (he was a great craftsman, she said, and he knew more about writing dialogue than anyone), about the conflict in Spain (“the Balkans of 1912”) and the situation in Europe (“war is nearer than even the pessimists thought”), and about the nature of storytelling (“In a writer this is imagination,” Martha asserted; “in anyone else it’s lying. That’s where the genius comes in”). She began calling him “Ernestino”; he called her “Daughter,” a moniker he frequently bestowed on women even slightly younger than himself, and one that seemed more than usually apt for Martha, who with her long blond bob and coltish limbs looked even less than twenty-eight.

The two of them cut a striking  figure around the sleepy little  fishing town, she in her Riviera resort clothes and he in his scruffy shorts and rope-soled shoes; and the effect wasn’t lost on Pauline Hemingway— or “Pauline cutie,” as Martha addressed her in her thank-you note, a salutation that must have set Mrs. Hemingway’s teeth on edge. “I suppose Ernest is busy again helping Miss Gellhorn with her writing,” Pauline said drily to a friend who had remarked on Hemingway’s absence from some occasion. Once, Hemingway was driving Martha around the island and, seeing Pauline walking along the sidewalk, pulled over and told her to get into the car. “She was very grumpy,” Martha noticed, and affected not to know why.

But Pauline knew what had come into her and Hemingway’s perfectly constructed life. Later Hemingway himself described it: “the oldest trick there is . . . [A]n unmarried young woman becomes the temporary best friend of another young woman who is married . . . and then unknowingly, innocently and unrelentingly sets out to marry the husband.” Pauline cutie. Martha Gellhorn was the literary girl of the moment, with her sharp new book whose style was being compared with Hemingway’s; she was pretty, well educated, well connected (those White House overnights, those dinners with Colette, those sojourns chez H. G. Wells); and she was conversant, in a way no one else in their circle was, with the European political situation that Hemingway was more and more obsessed with. When the two of them started talking about the Spanish war, which Martha said she was “desperate” to experience it first hand, the possibility that Hemingway would actually go over to cover it— something Pauline was both politically and personally opposed to— became worryingly acute. Worse, the probability was extreme that he would act, perhaps was already acting, on his evident attraction for this new girl. “I’m a fool with women,” he confessed sheepishly to a friend in a conversation of which Martha was the subtext; “I always feel I have to marry ’em.”

And Martha? Martha herself was dangerously entranced. Hemingway’s attentions were so flattering that she couldn’t help boasting about them just a little in her letters to Mrs. Roosevelt. He had let her read his manuscript, and she’d been “smart” about it! Unlike the cerebral, even effete men she’d previously been involved with, he was a paradigm of machismo: seeing battle in Italy, steering his boat through hurricanes, running with the bulls in Pamplona, shooting sharks with machine guns. He didn’t just talk about his antifascist principles: he’d already put his money where his mouth was, paying the passage for two volunteers who were going to Spain to join the International Brigades, and borrowing $1,500 to buy ambulances for the Medical Bureau of the American Friends for Spanish Democracy. And now, when they discussed the news from Europe, he agreed with her (she told the First Lady, who must have wondered what to do with these confidences) that suddenly “there seemed terribly little time to do anything,” that they had to “work all day and all night and live too . . . and love as many people as one can  find . . and do all this terribly fast, because the time is getting shorter and shorter every day.”

When Martha  finally left Key West for St. Louis, Hemingway—having somewhat hastily arranged a business trip to New York to talk to John Wheeler of NANA and also John Dos Passos and Archibald MacLeish, who had a Spanish  film project they wanted to involve him in— followed her. They met up in Miami, where he took her out for a steak dinner and they boarded the northbound sleeper together. Although Martha changed trains along the route to go west, they stayed in close touch by mail and telephone: Hemingway, lonely for her and excited about the adventures he wanted them to have together, called her from New York, often several times a day. He’d decided to accept NANA’s offer to do reportage from Spain, and he thought he could help her get an assignment there too. Of course, there might be problems obtaining visas because of the non-intervention pact, which forbade civilian travel to Spain, but they could  find ways around that.

Martha had finally found the fresh start she’d been yearning for, and she entered into these plans with gusto. “This is very private,” she said to Hemingway in a letter about their arrangements: “We are conspirators and I have personally got myself a beard and a pair of dark glasses. We will both say nothing and look strong.” Her pacifist novel was finished but on rereading it she was unhappy with the result and buried the manuscript in a desk drawer. She didn’t care about it, anyway— she had other things to do now. “Me, I am going to Spain with the boys,” she wrote to a friend. “I don’t know who the boys are, but I am going with them.”

AMANDA VAILL is the author of  the bestselling Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara MurphyA Lost Generation Love Story, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, and Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, for which she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. In addition to her screenplay for the Emmy– and Peabody Award–winning public television documentary Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About, she has also written features and criticism for a range of journals from Allure to The Washington Post Book World. She lives in New York City.

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