Ernest Hemingway and The Spanish Civil War

Steve Newman Writer
Jun 5, 2018 · 19 min read
Hemingway and Irvens in Spain 1937. Photo: JFK Library

During the spring of 1937 Paris became the great staging area for journalists on their way to the Spanish Civil War, and a centre for thousands of disaffected artists and intellectuals, mainly from Germany and Italy, who had no intention of going anywhere further south than a cafe table on the Boulevard du Montparnasse.

After arriving in Paris with the bullfighter, Sidney Franklin, Ernest Hemingway spent most of his time at the American Embassy trying to persuade the rather bored representative of the State Department to issue Franklin with a visa for Spain. Hemingway told the bullfighter not to worry, that everything would be okay. Franklin was refused his visa.

Disappointed, the two men then headed for a lunch date with the journalist Janet Flanner, and her lesbian lover, Solita Solano (one time theatre critic, Sarah Wilkinson) at La Coupole. Flanner always remembered that Franklin, because of a recent goring in Mexico, sat rather gingerly on the edge of his chair as he pecked, like some small exotic bird, at his food, with his knife held aloft like a matador’s sword. They were strange, surreal times.

After lunch Franklin took them all back to his hotel room,where he spread his matador costumes, capes and swords across his double bed for their inspection. The beautiful Solita was very taken by it all and immediately wanted to try one of his costumes on, but Franklin told her it was bad luck for someone else, “…even a gorgeous broad like you,” to wear a matadors costume. Flanner recalled how Hemingway, who had remained quietly sitting in a corner of the room, suddenly got up, and with his hands held up behind his ears, pretended to be a bull. Franklin then grabbed a cape, and with a “Toro — huh — toro!” the two men executed an elaborate series of veronicas until Hemingway said he’d had enough and took the two women off for a drink in the hotel’s bar, leaving Franklin to carefully fold and put away his precious finery.

Martha Gellhorn didn’t have any papers either when she arrived in Paris, but unlike Hemingway she didn’t hang around trying to get any, instead, with just $50 in her pocket, and a dozen tins of food in her rucksack, she hiked south, crossed the Pyrenees on foot, and entered a freezing, snow covered Spain illegally. After a few days in a small pension she managed to catch a train — full of new Republican recruits — for Barcelona, and was, by the night of the 24th of March fast asleep in her hotel bedroom during one of the heaviest artillery bombardments that city had so far experienced.

Soon after that lunch with Flanner and Solano Hemingway met his old friend, the painter Luis Quintanilla (now in exile in Paris), who told the novelist that the daily shelling by Franco’s forces, and the nightly bombings by the Italian and German air forces had destroyed not only his studio in Madrid, but virtually all of his much admired frescoes in many of Madrid’s public buildings.

Hemingway knew what it was like to loose work, and had never really forgiven his first wife, Hadley (although he told her he had), for loosing a suitcase full of manuscripts on a railway station somewhere between Paris and Switzerland back in the 1920s.

Quintanilla’s story encouraged Hemingway to try once more to get Franklin a visa, but again without success. He told the bullfighter to stay in Paris while he drove south to see what could be done at the border. The answer was nothing.

Hemingway cabled Franklin the bad news and then bordered an aircraft bound for Barcelona; but Hemingway needn’t have worried about Franklin.

The tough kid from the Lower East Side had already ‘borrowed’ a car, filled it with food and his bullfighting gear, and, following Martha’s route, and at the dead of night, also entered Spain illegally.

The bombardment that Martha had slept through was one of the last Barcelona would experience for a while, with the action moving south-westward toward Madrid — the big prize. So, in the early hours of the 26th of March Martha managed to get a lift, in a munitions truck, as far as Valencia, and it was while she was standing in one of the main squares of that beautiful city, trying to get another lift to Madrid, that a small, battered, and very dusty black Citroen pulled up alongside her.

“ Wanna lift, lady?”

“ Sidney Franklin, what the hell are you doing here?”

“ Get in, sweetheart, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

Martha squeezed in amongst an assortment of hams, tins of coffee, butter, marmalade, and several baskets of fruit, plus two large suitcases. Once settled, Martha, with her Corona typewriter on her lap, and her knapsack at her feet, and a newly lit cigarette in her mouth, told Franklin not to spare the horses.

“Hit the gas, son, hit the gas!”

Franklin took the hint, and with a clashing of gears, and probably a “Toro -huh- toro!” our intrepid matador, with a barely healed horn wound in his groin, hit the accelerator pedal and headed in the general direction of Madrid, some 400 miles away.

After negotiating their way for nearly twenty hours through what felt like a hundred road-blocks, with trigger happy kids bawling out commands to each other, Franklin and Martha reached the Gran Via Hotel in Madrid where Hemingway was holding court in the basement restaurant.

“ Welcome, Daughter. I knew you’d get here. I arranged everything.”

If Martha was annoyed at this greeting she didn’t show it, and simply put Hemingway’s overpowering attitude down to a sense of relief on his part at seeing her arrive safe and sound.

“Welcome, Sidney. I see my diplomacy saw you safely through the lines, so to speak?”

“ Yes, Ernie. So to speak.”

“ Good. Now, eat and drink for tomorrow we may die.”

The food in the hotel, now being served by several nervous and resentful waiters, was bad and the situation was a long way from the romantic Key West setting of Hemingway’s and Martha’s first meeting, but Martha was genuinely pleased to see this rough, tough, opinionated, outspoken man, and there was no doubt in her mind that she wanted desperately to go to bed with him, although she had to admit that sex, for her, had never been very good.

She hoped that, with this rough ox of a man it might just be different.

She was soon to find out.

Martha Gellhorn certainly saw herself as being much more politically aware than Hemingway, and possibly more anti-fascist than he appeared, which is a little unfair.

Hemingway had visited Germany several times as a correspondent in the early 1920s, and saw for himself the financial and social hardships being suffered by the German population, and how unscrupulous politicians, such as Hitler, were using those hardships as political weapons. Hemingway was also one of the first American journalists to interview “that jerk Mussolini”, and one of the first journalists, of any country, to warn the world about fascism and Nazism. He was as aware (more so than some) as anyone serving in Spain in 1937 that the Civil War was a dress-rehearsal for something much bigger. What he was not — unlike Gelhhorn — was driven by his beliefs. He was, first and foremost, a novelist, whereas Gellhorn was what we would today call an investigative journalist with an agenda.

Hemingway hated, and distrusted agendas, especially other people’s. He was an intuitive journalist who undoubtedly kept the best bits for his fiction.

And who can blame him either? It was his fiction in the end (and he was the one in the ditch under fire), and he could do whatever he wished with the information he gleaned. How many George Orwells does any war need?

But Hemingway did have an agenda (although he denied it to many at the time, calling himself an ‘anti-war correspondent’) which was to bring America into the war in such force that Franco would go back to the Canary Islands to lick his wounds, with the Germans, Italians, and Russians, left high and dry to fight it out amongst themselves.

The film he intended to make with Jon Dos Passos, and the idea he’d had for a play about a group of young Americans caught up in the war, was going to be his way of persuading the American government to strike while the dictators were stretched, and at their weakest. Hemingway’s ideas can perhaps, today, be seen as being the biggest and boldest of any in Spain at that time. What Hemingway didn’t, perhaps couldn’t do was express them in the way that Gellhorn could. He needed her help.

After they had eaten Hemingway took Martha to the Florida Hotel, on the Plaza de Callao where he had already booked (on the assumption that Franklin and Martha would arrive sooner than later) two adjoining rooms, one for himself and Franklin, and one for Martha. He told Martha that he’d booked the rooms (108 & 109) specifically because they were out of sight of the fascist artillery dug in on the hills surrounding Madrid, but were, as a consequence more expensive. But NANA could look after the tab.

The following day Hemingway took Martha to the Telefonica building to introduce her to Arturo Barea and Isa Kulscar who together directed the office that dealt with censorship, sent cables, and provided newcomers with hotel rooms, petrol vouchers, and safe-conduct passes. The couple were very impressed with Martha and initially thought her to be a Hollywood movie star.

In the afternoon Hemingway took Martha up into the red hills of the Guadalajara sector where they both watched scores of fascist soldiers move like ants up the steep bluffs across the valley to take up new positions against further Republican attacks. In fact the Republican forces were having quite a few successes in the field and discounted as unimportant that Franco’s artillery seemed able to shell Madrid at will, causing many casualties, and huge damage. The truth was that the Republicans didn’t have sufficient air power to do anything about Franco’s artillery, which was also too well dug in to be taken by Republican ground forces.

It was to be a decisive factor in the eventual outcome of the war. It was also something that was to become the backdrop — an unseen character — in Hemingway’s play.

When other writers (most of whom were either serving in the Republican forces, or driving ambulances) heard that Hemingway had made something of a base at the Florida Hotel they began to drop in to partake of Hemingway’s hospitality. Franklin, with his gift for procurement, managed somehow to find ham and eggs which he cooked on a primus stove for such visiting literary dignitaries as W.H. Auden, J.B. Priestley, and Sean O’Casey. It was turning into a great adventure.

The American journalist, Herbert Mathews (who was accredited to the New York Times), went one better than Hemingway and rented a luxurious penthouse flat, on the corner of Retiro Park, from the balcony of which could be seen, at night, the flashes of distant fascist artillery fire. Hemingway liked Mathews and used him as a part model for Robert Jordan (the other being Robert Merriman, a Californian economist, and a Major in the 15th International Brigade), the hero of his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

“ Before, death came when you were old or sick, now it comes to all in this village, high in the sky and silver and it comes to all who have no place to run or hide…”

The above is part of Hemingway’s narration for the film about the Spanish Civil War, The Spanish Earth, and watching it again recently I was struck how much Hemingway sounds like the Canadian actor, Raymond Massey. In effect Hemingway’s educated, rather clipped voice seems strangely remote from his own idea of himself. I think his voice suggests the real man we only get a glimpse of now and again, the man that he was during the Spanish war, but not the man he became. The end of the Spanish Civil War was really the end of the real Ernest Hemingway. I think the war’s dreadfulness, and his inability, in the end, to use it as a means of securing the end of fascism — and dictators — made him a different kind of man, and a different kind of a writer too.

In April 1937 Hemingway, Joris Ivens, the director, and John Ferno, the somewhat taciturn, but business-like cameraman began to film The Spanish Earth. Jon Dos Passos had arrived in Madrid around the same time as Hemingway, with the two novelists, and joint producers, eventually agreeing that the film should look at both the military and social side of life in Spain — from the Republican point of view of course — during a war that was to become a blue-print for a much larger conflict.

The film was difficult to make with old cumbersome equipment that was a pain to lug about as they followed the Republican forces from one battle to another. In fact John Ferno used two cameras, one for close-up work, and one (a much larger brute with a huge tele-photo lens) to try and get action shots (unsuccessfully) of battles, and air raids. It all proved to be a rather hit and miss affair, with the finished film, although powerful, something of a disappointment to all concerned. But with careful editing — and Hemingway’s sparse and crisp narration, plus some wonderful music by Marc Blitzstein — it still managed to get across a very sincere, and very genuine, message from a people under threat from a murderous dictator. The film set a standard for all future documentaries about warfare.

By the time the actual filming was over Hemingway and Gellhorn had become lovers, although it has to be said that most people were unaware they had become so until a fascist shell burst the hot water tank of the Hotel Florida early one morning, and Ernest and Martha were seen, by Tom Delmer, exiting together from Hemingway’s room.

Throughout the April of 1937 Hemingway and Gellhorn went their own separate ways, with Hemingway being driven to the front by taxi, with Gellhorn making her own way as best she could. The whole country seemed to be full of foreigners who either had a price on their head, or were trying to make a name for themselves one way or another, or genuinely wanted to fight against fascism, as was the case with the German, Hans Kahle.

Hemingway was a frequent visitor to the 11th International Brigade, which was largely composed of German Communists, most of whom had fought in the Great War, who were commanded by Hans Kahle, a German Army veteran, and a man Hemingway had met in March, and admired very much. For a while Hemingway thought of writing a book about Kahle, but soon thought better of it when he met a General Lucasz, a 41 year old Hungarian, and writer of short stories, who commanded the 12th International Brigade. Lucazs delighted Hemingway with his relaxed good humour. He was Hemingway’s sort of soldier, and the kind he sought out during World War II. Hemingway didn’t write about him either, although the Republican officers portrayed in For Whom the Bell Tolls are undoubtedly based on Kahle and Lucazs.

It is also possible that Hemingway would have come into contact with the ‘Mac-Paps’, the Canadian MacKenzie-Papineaus Battalion of the 15th International Brigade (the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade) who were also serving in, and around Madrid at that time. Over 1,500 Canadians served in that Battilion during the conflict.

With Hemingway busy moving from one International Battalion to another, and filing two or three stories a day, The Spanish Earth was eventually finished by Ivens — with Sidney Franklin now helping out as a second cameraman — on the 29th of April. Two days later, with the half dozen reels of film boxed-up in the back of his car Hemingway headed out of Spain for Paris.

He reached Paris on the 9th of May, 1937, visiting such old friends as Sylvia Beach at her bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, where he made a speech in aid of the Spanish Republican cause, with his old friend, James Joyce, applauding loudly. A few days later he set sail for New York, on the Normandie, reaching America on the 18th May.

After leaving the reels of film at the editing studios Hemingway headed for Key West where he caught up on family affairs (assuring Pauline that nothing was going on between him and Martha) and began to edit the galley proofs of To Have and Have Not. After a few days he received a phone call from Ivens, who was back in New York (as was Martha), asking him to get his ass back to the Big Apple to record the narration for the film because Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to see the finished film (this had been arranged by Martha) before anyone else did.

Hemingway headed back to New York, recorded the narration, and then made several speeches in support of the Spanish cause, including one at Carnegie Hall.

Everything now began to speed up. On the 16th of June Hemingway heard that Lucazs had been killed when rebel planes had attacked the 12th Brigade’s positions. On the 8th of July Hemingway, Ivens, and Martha dined with the Roosevelts, who afterwards viewed the film and thought it wonderful, saying they would do everything they could to ensure it got as wide an audience as possible. But leaving nothing to chance, Hemingway and Ivens flew to Hollywood on the 10th to enlist the financial support of the film colony. The response was good, upfront, but the film never got the backing of any of the big studios who could have distributed the film world wide. Alas, the Spanish Civil War was still something of a family argument for most of Hollywood.

By early August Hemingway had decided to go back to Spain, as had Martha. Pauline didn’t want him to go, but his mind was made up. Franklin was also now back in the States and agreed, as a favour to Ernest, to take Pauline and the boys to a bull ranch in Mexico for a long vacation. Franklin had had enough of Spain anyway and seriously needed to rest to allow his wound to heal so that he’d be ready for the Mexican Bullfighting season of 1938. He’d done his bit, and needed to earn some money.

Ernest said his farewells and headed once more for New York where he’d arranged to meet Martha. His marriage was effectively over.

When Hemingway reached the city he headed straight for Max Perkins office on the 5th floor of the Scribner building — on the corner of 5th Avenue and 48th Street — to finalise the details of To Have and Have Not. He didn’t expect to find the left wing editor (and founder of ‘The Masses’) Max Eastman sitting at Max Perkin’s desk, leafing through a book.

“ Good morning, Hemingway,” said Eastman.

“ Eastman.”

Eastman had written a very critical review of Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, which he called ‘Bull in the Afternoon’, to which Hemingway had taken exception.

Max Perkins then shook Ernest’s hand.

“ Good to see you, Ernie.”

“ You too, Max.”

“ You and Eastman here are old friends I hear?”

“ Something like that,” replied Hemingway.

There was a pause as Eastman and Hemingway shook hands.

“ What did you mean by calling me impotent, Eastman?” asked Hemingway.

“ Just a gag, Ernest, just a gag, nothing more.”

With that Hemingway grabbed the book Eastman had been looking at and hit him hard across the face with it. Eastman stood up, and grabbing Hemingway by his jacket pulled him to the floor where he smacked him a couple of times in the mouth before Max Perkins was able to pull the two writers apart. Hemingway got up off the floor spitting blood and laughing. He congratulated Eastman on his fighting skills.

The press picked-up on the story at once, and as Hemingway boarded the ship to sail to France a few days later reporters at the quayside asked if the bump on Hemingway’s head had been caused by Eastman.

“ No, that was caused by a sky-light in Paris back in 1929, and the scars on my legs weren’t caused by Eastman either, but by an Austrian mortar shell and machine gun fire in 1918. The knife wound on my arm wasn’t caused by him either, or any damn scar you can find.”

On the very day Hemingway made that statement, August 14th, the Basque provinces were captured by fascist troops and the drive against Santander was launched. Things were not looking good for the Spanish Republic.

When Hemingway and Martha arrived in Spain in September Franco controlled two-thirds of the country, with a final devastating attack on Madrid expected at any time. Soon after arriving, and with the idea of a play firmly in his head, Hemingway, Martha, and Herbert Mathews headed for the Aragon front and found that Republican forces had unexpectedly taken Belchite. Although this was only a temporary set-back for the fascists it did give the Republicans something of a respite, and a much needed injection of optimism.

After exploring what was left of the town Hemingway managed to find his way to the HQ of the 15th International Brigade (the Abraham Lincoln) where he found Major Robert Merriman, who had led the attic by “bombing his way forward”, all the time refusing medical aid for several severe wounds until his men had occupied the strategically important cathedral. Merriman immediately entered Hemingway’s gallery of heroes, and, as mentioned earlier, became one half of Hemingway’s Robert Jordan, the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

In mid-October Hemingway’s long awaited new novel, To Have and Have Not, was published in New York. Hemingway followed the books progress closely cabling Max Perkins several times to see how the sales of the book were going. In early November Perkins was able to confirm to Hemingway that the novel stood at number four in the national best-seller lists, with some 25,000 copies sold. But Max also told Hemingway that the reviews had been rather mixed, with Louis Kronenberger, in Time, calling the book confused, with the “…book falling apart in the middle.” J.Donald Adams’ review in the New York Times called the novel inferior to A Farewell to Arms, and that Hemingway’s style was now becoming dated but that he had, after pressure from the political left, emerged into a new political maturity, with the Spanish Civil War being mainly responsible for arousing his “…hitherto well-hidden social consciousness.”

The reaction in Britain was much more enthusiastic, with the Manchester Guardian reviewer waxing lyrical about the relationship between Harry Morgan and his wife, but accused Hemingway of “…loading the dice against the people of leisure,” which seems to me to be a very strange comment from an English newspaper of the left. The reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement accused Hemingway of a narrowness of values. Naturally the novelist blew his top and raged out loud that there was a “critical gang out there determined to put me out of business.” But he soon calmed down and put the bad reviews behind him, and with a new novel already started (which turned into For Whom the Bell Tolls) he then reported to the press that he had actually written a play he intended to see produced on Broadway in the new year. If in doubt attack!

Hemingway had long considered writing a play. In 1927 he’d actually broached the subject with Max Perkins, suggesting a drama about the Crucifixion called Today is Friday, but nothing ever came of the idea. But this time things were different, and as soon as the news broke in the New York Times interested producers began to badger Max Perkins for more details; but he knew as little as they did.

Ernest Hemingway wrote his only play during October and November of 1937, mainly in his hotel room at the Florida. It is, for the most part, biographical and uses real locations, and thinly disguised real people.

Although To Have and Have Not was selling well the poor critical response undoubtedly drove Hemingway to try and create a piece of work that might just show the critics that he did not have narrow values; it might also take the Broadway stage by storm and by so doing influence a not insignificant number of people who had a huge say in the intellectual, artistic, and commercial life of America, and as John Raeburn has written “…the stage presented a tempting opportunity to propagandize this elite and an extraordinarily visible forum for publicizing the loyalist [Republican] cause.” And it has to be said that the enthusiastic, and immediate, response Hemingway and Ivens had received for their film, The Spanish Earth, must also have encouraged Hemingway to consider writing for the stage, where he could again, hopefully, bask in the glow of a collective, and, in part, emotionally driven adulation, which is something the novelist — being read alone by an individual — seldom, if ever, experiences.

A Broadway play can also earn large financial rewards for its author, and Hemingway was always drawn to making money, therefore the chance to make even more must have been hard to resist, although I still feel that the biggest motivation behind the writing of the play — with the side motivations of money and praise not insubstantial — was a genuine desire to make the plight of the Spanish people (as it had been with the film) known to people who might just be able to do something about it; and it must not be forgotten that by the time Hemingway had finished the play he was without question the best known American proponent of the Republican cause. In many ways he had a duty to use that fame for the furtherance of Spanish democracy. It was Hemingway’s fervent hope that The Fifth Column — as the play was called — would help do just that.

The initial interest in the play was short lived once producers got a chance to read the work, with them giving the usual (and not unreasonable) excuse that the play was simply not a commercial proposition. Hemingway had half expected such a response, but knowing the play read well suggested to Max Perkins that he publish it as the leading piece in a planned new book of short stories, with the hope that there would then be renewed interest in producing the play. Perkins agreed to the idea and the book, called, The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories, was published late in 1938 after Hemingway and Martha had returned from Spain.

The critical response to the book was good, although the play was considered the weakest aspect. By 1939, with the Spanish Civil War over Hemingway was convinced he should have written the play as a novel.

With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 there was renewed interest in The Fifth Column, and the New York Theatre Guild took out an option on the play, hiring the playwright, Benjamin Glazer, to re-write the thing, with the finished drama bearing little or no resemblance to Hemingway’s original. The show — starring Katherine Locke, Franchot Tone, and Lenore Ulric — ran from January,1940, for two months at The Shubert Theatre on Broadway before transferring, in March, to the Alvin Theatre where it closed after just a few performances.

Hemingway didn’t care about the play any more, being much more interested in his new novel about the war in Spain, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which received good reviews, and was snapped-up by Hollywood. The film version, starring Hemingway’s old friend Gary Cooper, and Ingrid Bergman, was released in 1943.

The Spanish Civil War had changed Hemingway, and he never again fought, as a writer, for a cause. He took up arms instead.

Note: Although based on fact I have used a certain amount of creative licence, especially with dialogue.

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Steve Newman Writer

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Playwright, Historian & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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