Hemingway in the Martyred City

Ernest Hemingway with Ilya Ehrenburg and Gustav Regler during the Spanish Civil War, not dated, circa 1937. Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain.

In April 1937, Ernest Hemingway filed a series of dispatches from Madrid on the atrocious Nationalist bombing campaigns. Curiously, he failed to mention the attack on Guernica. 

The legion of international observers – journalists, photographers, writers and “celebrities” of all kinds – passing through Spain during the Spanish Civil War undoubtedly shaped how that conflict was viewed, both at the time and across the decades. In August 1936 the work of a handful of foreign correspondents, Jay Allen being the most prominent among them, made the insurgent repression in Badajoz so notorious that the Francoist forces subsequently kept the press corps well out of the way while they “cleansed” Toledo in late September. Most famously, news of the aerial destruction of the Basque town of Guernica on April 26, 1937 stirred up an international furor thanks to rapid on-the-scene reporting by the Times journalist George Steer and a handful of other reporters based in the Basque Country. On March 31, 1937, and again a few days later, the absence of foreign reporters from the scene had rendered highly destructive aerial bombardments of the Basque town of Durango considerably less newsworthy, albeit not quite non-events.[1]

Yet despite the acknowledged link between the presence of non-Spanish observers at an event and the shock waves that it generated, the historical context of the war in Madrid in April 1937 has remained strangely out of focus. In this instance, there was no lack of visitors to the semi-besieged city. Only a handful of working journalists had covered the Battle of Madrid in November 1936 when the city unexpectedly held out against Franco’s troops. But from December 1936 onwards, and until fatigue set in in the final stages of the war, the much fêted world capital of anti-fascism received a continuous flow of illustrious foreign visitors. Most famously, Ernest Hemingway, already a celebrity thanks to A Farewell to Arms (1929), arrived in Madrid as the highly remunerated correspondent of the newspaper syndicate, the North American Newspaper Alliance. (His published reports are cited here as NANA.)[2] Hemingway held court in the Hotel Florida in the center of Madrid, where he took up with Martha Gellhorn, while other notable literary figures, like John Dos Passos and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, also passed through the city.[3] The Hollywood actor Errol Flynn and a British fact-finding mission, which included the Duchess of Atholl and a Labor parliamentary representative Ellen Wilkinson, were among the visitors to Madrid that April.

Hemingway in Spain, Dec. 1937. (Tamiment Library, NYU, 15th IB Photo Collection, Photo #11_1353)

In the second week of the month Hemingway and several friends set themselves up in what he called the “Old Homestead”, a half-ruined building among the formerly elegant houses on Madrid’s western plateau, with a panoramic view of the combats that were taking place in the open countryside of the Casa de Campo. The film-maker Joris Ivens was also in the group, and later incorporated footage of battle scenes into his documentary film The Spanish Earth, with which Hemingway was closely involved.[4] However, this was by no means the indeterminate fighting that generally figures in the secondary literature. In fact, it was a full-scale Republican military offensive intended to wrest Garabitas Hill and other strategic high ground in the Casa de Campo from Francoist control (April 9-14). This was the Republic’s one great wartime throw of the dice in and around Madrid, and its scale is attested to by the North American military attaché Stephen O. Fuqua, who estimated that the Republicans mobilized an army of as many as 50,000 men.[5] As well as relieving Nationalist pressure in northern Spain by forcing Franco to bring troops back to the central front, a Republican victory would have left the Francoist enclave in the University City exposed and probably untenable. This Republican offensive rattled Franco enough for him to consider withdrawing planes from the northern front on April 12.[6] Hemingway’s initial assessment that this was “perhaps [the] most important battle to relieve the Insurgent pressure on Madrid” (NANA, p. 26) was, if anything, understated. Later, on April 30, Hemingway displayed either prescient strategic thinking or the value of his inside contacts when he linked the fighting in central Spain to the Basque campaign: “Madrid can only help [Basque resistance to the Nationalists] by attacking on the central front, as they did in Casa de Campo three weeks ago, to draw off troops from the north” (NANA, p. 37). This was indeed what the Republic sought to do through a series of military initiatives like the Segovia Offensive, described in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the Battle of Brunete in July 1937.

Initially, the Republican authorities were confident enough in their imminent military and propaganda victory to raise its profile by allowing Hemingway to go down into the Casa de Campo, and do embedded reporting, something that was quite unusual (NANA, pp. 24-25). And yet the Republican offensive fizzled out rapidly and only figures in much of the secondary literature as “a battle”, as though battles were a dime a dozen – when in fact this was the only one in Madrid between November 1936 and the end of the war. These combats were observed and chronicled by no less than a figure than Hemingway, and filmed for a classic Spanish Civil War documentary; and yet they were instantly overlooked and remained stubbornly unnamed.[7] No doubt, the outcome had much to do with this. The Nationalists could return to their main task in hand, namely their northern campaign, while the loyalists wanted no painful reminders of their botched birthday present to the Republic on its sixth anniversary (April 14). In consequence, this battle turned into a wraithlike non-event, mentioned in fleeting asides in the substantial literature on Hemingway et al. By the time Hemingway came to write his story “Night before battle” he described it as a doomed and ill-planned military initiative.[8] In a letter written well after the war had ended, Hemingway showed little of the enthusiasm that he had briefly felt in early April 1937.[9]

Like the battle of April 9-14, 1937 the bombardments of Madrid in the same month also “vanished” from history. These “disappearances” raise significant questions about the reporting and interpretation of the war. In one sense, of course, the shelling of Madrid is all too familiar thanks to some of its startling collateral effects, like the imagined aphrodisiac impact on Hemingway and Gellhorn.[10] In an attack on the Hotel Florida, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Hemingway, Gellhorn and others were forced out of their bedrooms in their pajamas. Later, in his play on wartime Madrid The Fifth Column, Hemingway mentioned the shelling from Garabitas Hill, perhaps as a moral counterbalance to the repression of fifth columnists within Republican Madrid.[11] But while the shells landing in the center of Madrid insistently beat time in our “soundtrack” to the Spanish Civil War, this belies the particularity of the April attacks which belonged, quite specifically, to a short-lived and highly aggressive Francoist campaign. According to a set of admittedly incomplete registers of civilian casualties, figures of about 10-20 dead and 70-80 wounded were recorded monthly between January and March 1937, but the total then jumped to 74 dead and 457 wounded in April.[12] (In fact, the actual figures were probably considerably higher.) The records show that numerous streets right across the center of Madrid were hit. These bombardments were a direct response to the Republican offensive of April 9-14 insofar as the principal Francoist artillery batteries were located high on Garabitas Hill, which was the Republicans’ main military objective. However, intensive bombardments continued until almost the end of April, two weeks after the combats had ended, weakening any pretense that they had a military rationale. At the end of the month, the British newspaper the Manchester Guardian, looking back on the bombardments, called them “senseless” and referred to the “horror and indignation” that they caused among all observers.[13]

Madrid bombed. (Archivo Rojo, Spanish Ministry of Culture.)

The projectors shining on international celebrities could dazzle as much they illuminated – assuming, that is, that we are not simply concerned about literary biography but also the ways in which the war shaped the lives of ordinary Spaniards. For news outlets operating for an international mass market, the problem with an artillery campaign was that it was inherently repetitive and predictable, lacking the drama and existential terror of an aerial bombardment. Cynical news editors knew all too well that today’s report would not differ greatly from the one they received yesterday, or would reach them tomorrow. On the other hand, a shell exploding near a film star, duchess or best-selling author was an altogether different matter; news reporting reflected this need to put a face to the story. Thus, in early April the French newspaper Paris-Soir pushed the claim that Errol Flynn had narrowly escaped being bombed in Madrid, even at a time when it had put its Spanish news coverage firmly on the back-burner.[14] On April 18, the New York Times reported that a shell had hit the hotel where the Duchess of Atholl was staying; and a few days later she denounced the bombardment of Madrid as “utterly useless, and senselessly cruel”.[15] According to an item of stop-press news in the British Manchester Guardian on April 29, shells had hit the Hotel Florida where, among others, “Mr Ernest Hemingway, author of Farewell to Arms [was] staying”. In fact, Hemingway may not have been inside the hotel at the time; even so, the reporter had become the story.[16]

Later on in the year, a longer text in the Manchester Guardian presented the author as a fixture in the Hotel Florida, already projecting the larger-than-life image that endured over the years:

That first night in Madrid we went to see Ernest Hemingway, one of the three remaining tenants of the Hotel Florida, whose “modern comfort” we had seen advertised on the way up to Madrid that day. The Florida forms the angle of two of the principal Madrid avenues, and the side facing north-west is almost completely wrecked. The room Hemingway occupies is on the first floor in the south-east corner of the hotel, the only “relatively” safe room in the place. Hemingway, with his exuberant Douglas Fairbanks laughter, loves movement, action and human courage. He is immensely popular both in Madrid and in the trenches. He takes a boylike joy in collecting all the bits of shell that have landed in the Florida, and labels them lovingly according to the number of the room which they have wrecked. One of the “duds” that had landed in the Florida has now been turned into an electric lamp on Hemingway’s desk, with a lampshade painted by an anti-Fascist artist.[17]

Noctural bombing at the Plaza Antón Martín, Madrid. Winter 1936. Photo Juan Miguel Pando Barrero. Museo Reina Sofïa, Madrid.

However, one of the paradoxes of Hemingway’s enthusiastic immersion in his Spanish experience was that, despite being very much the paradigm of a celebrity author, he was also – almost uniquely – willing to roll his shirt sleeves up and get on with the day-to-day duties of a working reporter. This was not what NANA expected from their star correspondent, and it differentiates him from most of the famous writers who sent journalistic copy from Spain. Hemingway’s work stands in marked contrast to – say – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s marvelous, carefully crafted texts in the distinctive French tradition of reflective reportage; or those of his compatriot Joseph Kessel.[18] At one point, the NANA editors in New York, clearly feeling that they were not getting good value for money, cabled their London manager: “Wire Hemingway suggesting future stories emphasize color rather than straight reporting” (NANA, p. 78). Hemingway obliged periodically – for example, in a highly personal portrait of a wounded North American volunteer, and later on with a colorful vignette about the chauffeurs of Madrid  – but the texts that he sent from Madrid in April 1937 were mainly composite news reports in which the bombing of civilians often took center stage. Hemingway’s first article from Madrid, on April 9, focused almost exclusively on the combats in the Casa de Campo (NANA, pp. 24-26), but a follow-up report on the same battle two days later also highlighted civilian casualties. Thus, Hemingway wrote graphically of the shells hitting Madrid, killing “an old woman returning home from market, dropping her in a huddled, black heap of clothing, with one leg suddenly detached whirling against the wall of an adjoining house. They killed three people in another square who lay like so many bundles of torn clothing in the dust and rubble…” (NANA, p. 27). The text accompanying an agency photo of April 11 described the bombardment as the “heaviest of the Spanish Civil War.”[19]

The shelling of Madrid figured prominently in a report that Hemingway sent on April 18 or 19, and then in another dated April 20. In the first report, Hemingway graphically described a wounded woman being helped into the hotel entrance with blood spurting out (NANA, p. 30). The second report, apparently written when Hemingway was drunk (NANA, p. 33), focused almost entirely on the bombing of the city. It began:

Madrid, April 20. Today is the tenth day of heavy indiscriminate bombardment of the non-military objective of the central districts of Madrid. Since 5 a.m. the city has been shelled by 6-inch and 3-inch batteries and by anti-aircraft batteries from Garabitas [Hill], and wherever I go and at whatever time, all day during the coming in of over 200 shells, I am unable to get out of sight and smell of the whitish grey granite dust and the acrid high-explosive smell, nor avoid the sight of the dead and wounded and hoses washing streets and sidewalks, not clear of dust but blood (NANA, p. 34).

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