Vaill (Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, 2006, etc.) follows a handful of characters (some are celebrities, some not) through the Spanish Civil War.
Subdividing her chapters by months, the author sets herself a difficult task: chasing Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Arturo Barea, Ilsa Kulcsar, Endre Friedmann (aka Robert Capa) and Gerta Pohorylle through the political and military chaos in Spain and elsewhere. Among the many popping up for cameos are Stephen Spender, Eric Blair (George Orwell) and John Dos Passos. Although it will be difficult for readers to turn their eyes away from the power couple (Hemingway and Gellhorn), Vaill does a good job of getting us deeply interested in the lives, experiences and, sadly, the deaths of some of the others. It helps her cause, too, that she elected to portray Hemingway in the most unflattering (and deserved?) light. We see his pettiness and his professional jealousy; we watch him swinging away at people in bars. Early in the conflict, we also see Capa and other photographers staging acting scenes (including, in a way, his famous image of a wounded warrior in midfall on a Spanish hillside) and Gellhorn fabricating a story about a lynching in the American South. It was certainly a different time in journalism. Vaill shows us images of incredible courage—especially Capa’s—and political intrigue (the Russians were especially perfidious—and Stalin’s reeking presence) and the absolute confusion that reigned. (The truth concealed itself quite well.) She also points us toward Hitler, and we witness his invasion of Austria and his designs on Czechoslovakia. A touching epilogue records the deaths of all her principals.
War, sex, friendship, betrayal, celebrity, rivalry, jealousy, idealism, foolishness and foppery—all this and more gather in the lobby of Madrid’s Hotel Florida.