Did Ernest Hemingway tell the truth about the Spanish Civil War?

'Hotel Florida' writer Amanda Vaill discusses how those involved in the Spanish War, like journalists Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn and photographers Robert Capa and Gerta Taro, struggled with how to portray the conflict to the outside world.

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    'Hotel Florida' is by Amanda Vaill.
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There are those who bear witness to war from a distance that has nothing to do with feet or yards. They may be on the battlefield but they are not combatants; they may eat with villagers but they are not civilians. Their job is to watch and report.

But what if the truth doesn't meet their needs?

The camera misses the crucial shot. The wrong people start to win. The victims turn out to be villains. The story is not the one they want to tell, so what then?

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The Spanish Civil War forced journalists and partisans into this crucible. The 1930s conflict tested supposed truth-tellers as it spiraled into something much more complicated than a battle between democracy and fascism.

Historian Amanda Vaill chronicles the lives of three couples – two of them world-famous – and the decisions they made in her exceptional new book Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War. This is a masterpiece of literary, political, and cultural history, a page-turner full of triumph and tragedy.

In an interview, Vaill talks about the truth, the lies and the path between.

Q: Your book chronicles how each of these people, most of them outsiders, grappled with the truth of the war and, in some cases, the lies of their own messy personal lives. How did this theme develop?

The original story I intended to write was about people coming to a war from the outside and being different from those in the inside.

There are these people who went to Spain and expected to see something, and they only saw what they expected to see. They weren't Spanish, and it wasn't their war. They were projecting what they wanted it to be.

Some kept seeing it as a war that was a forerunner to the ideological conflict between the left and the right and a way to stop Hitler, which it was. But when you do that, you run the danger of projecting your own self, your own aspirations and fears, onto a conflict in which you don't really have a personal stake.

The book expanded to a wider issue: Who tells the truth, and what is the truth? What about not just telling the truth and living it, but also being truthful with the others in your life? These issues were really important for these couples.

Q: You profile Ernest Hemingway and his mistress Martha Gellhorn, a literary giant in her own right, as they tried to tell the story of the civil war. What did Hemingway miss?

Hemingway is a man who wanted to write one true sentence, who told people to write the truest sentence that you know. That was his mantra. But I feel that of all of them, he was the one who practiced the most deception of himself and others.

The Spanish government was less prepared to win than he wanted to them to be, but he didn't want to report that. He didn't want to see it, and maybe he didn't see it.

He wrote things that had true things in them and led readers to believe something, but the truth was something else. And the truth was often something he did know but he just didn't want to say.

Q: Martha Gellhorn has a history of deception, too, and not just in her personal life. How did she blend truth and lies?

Gellhorn was a woman who made a fetish of a kind of ruthless candor. She was very open about herself, but then she wasn't honest about things like her story about an American lynching that she made up. And she and Hemingway were living a deception in terms of his marriage. They had to do all of this on the QT.

Q: On the other hand, some of the liberal-leaning American and British writers who headed to Spain seemed to be more clear-eyed and were deeply disappointed by what they saw, right?

The author John Dos Passos was very surprised when he found a level of press management that he didn't expect. He was a man who who went on the picket line for Sacco and Vanzetti, who walked the walk as well as talking the talk as a good left-wing liberal. He goes to Spain and he sees that a small cadre of communist members of the government are trying to manage things to a large extent. He was not comfortable with that, and it was overwhelming to him.

George Orwell had the same thing happen in Barcelona, when the Marxist anti-Stalinist party was purged and there was a civil war within a civil war. Orwell was horrified by this and it influenced "Animal Farm" and "1984," in a way, with the idea of government control as something that could be sinister.

Q: What about the remarkable young photographers Robert Capa and Gerta Taro, whom you profile, and the choices they had to each make about the importance of the truth?

Capa had moments of trying to fudge the truth himself. He staged photographs, but no more than other people did. Even Henry Luce, the Time Life magnate, supported staging incidents in newsreels, saying they were "fakery in allegiance to truth."

But as time went on for Capa and Gerda, the truth became much more compelling than anything they could make up. It was right there, and they were compelled to follow it and place themselves in great danger.

In their personal lives, they weren't deceptive. They were true to themselves and others.

Q: How do the two other stars of your book, the censor Arturo Barea and his deputy Ilsa Kulcsar, fit in?

They courted great personal loss by adhering to a doctrine of truth. Barea wanted to say, "This is what's happening in Madrid." He didn't want to censor or cut the truth.

This got him in trouble with the higher-ups in the government. The same thing happened to Ilsa, and they were basically hounded out of their jobs and had to leave Spain in order to save their own lives.

Even though they were the poorest and had the least success of anyone in the book, they were the happiest because they were the most truthful.

Q: What can we learn about the value of the truth from your book?

There's an old biblical saying that the truth shall make you free. Truth is the hardest thing, and it can be very painful, but I feel that truthfulness is a really cardinal virtue that's worth trying to achieve it at any cost.

Not being truthful carries incredible costs for people. They corrupt their own lives.

Q: How does that play out in your book?

Deception made Hemingway very unhappy. My feeling about him during his Spanish experience is that he found himself in a position of being used by others for purposes that weren't his purposes, necessarily. He wasn't as truthful as he want to be, and he blunted his instrument doing that.

I think it made him unhappy and angry. A lot of the anger you feel in his correspondence of that time is that something is deeply wrong about the situation he's gotten himself into. He addresses that in "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

In contrast, Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar might not have made millions of dollars, but they had something. They died knowing they'd done the right thing.

It's sort of quixotic, but it's something to think about. In our own slick era, where spin is everything, they're worth remembering.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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