Hotel Florida in the Spanish Civil War

Author Amanda Vaill, whose Everybody Was So Young (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) described how the lives of Gerald and Sara Murphy intertwined with the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Archibald MacLeish in 1920s Paris and the French Riviera, has discovered a new nexus:

Madrid’s Hotel Florida, during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.

“I was thinking about the Murphy’s in the 1920s and all their bravery and optimism and modernism,” she says about the birth of Hotel Florida, her new book. “But in the 1930s, the darkness then was not unlike the last decade in this world.”

She was inspired also by a line in Hemingway’s play from the same era, The Fifth Column: “You could learn as much in the Hotel Florida in those years as anywhere in the world.”

Indeed. With a cast of characters that includes Martha Gellhorn, John Dos Passos and Robert Capa – among many others – the hotel was at the center of journalistic action in the war that was a run-up to World War II.

A left-leaning Spanish Republic was under siege by a fascist-backed army under General Francisco Franco. Hitler and Mussolini supplied Franco with material, aircraft and soldiers. Joseph Stalin was backing the Republic, trading men and material for all of Spain’s reserves of gold and silver, shipping them off to Odessa and then Moscow under cover of darkness.

“At a dinner party in Moscow, Stalin gave toast to the Spanish gold,” she says. “He said it would be like the ears on a Spaniard’s head – they would know it was there but would never see it.”

And he was right.

Three years later, seeing not only that Spain’s Republic was on the losing end of its war, but that Hitler was unopposed in Eastern Europe and Czechoslovakia, Stalin switched sides. He signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, secretly splitting up Poland with Germany. He’d already declared that Spain had used up its gold and silver reserves on war materials, and turned away.

“Essentially, he stabbed his protégés in the back,” she says.

Tomorrow: The journalists’ war.

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