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Book review: Hotel Florida and Hotel Ritz during wartime

Ernest Hemingway at the front lines during the

Ernest Hemingway at the front lines during the Spanish Civil War, December 1937. He made Madrid's Hotel Florida his residence during the war. Credit: International Center of Photogra / Robert Capa / International Center of Photography

HOTEL FLORIDA: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War, by Amanda Vaill. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 436 pp., $30.

THE HOTEL ON PLACE VENDÔME: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, by Tilar J. Mazzeo. Harper, 292 pp., $26.99.

War is hell, but for the likes of Ernest Hemingway, covering the major conflicts of the 20th century never meant sacrificing the finer things in life. After the Allies liberated Paris in 1944, Hemingway headed straight for his old haunt, the famed Hotel Ritz. Several years earlier, posted to Madrid as a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway hosted boozy bull sessions with poker and plenty of whiskey in his suite at the Hotel Florida, debating Spanish politics with fellow journalists as shells rained down on the city.

The Ritz and the Florida serve as the backdrop for two works of gossipy social history that recall the danger, glamour and intrigue of Europe as it descended into darkness. Amanda Vaill's sprawling, miniseries-ready "Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War" plunges us into the complex struggle that pitted the Spanish Republic against the rebel forces of General Francisco Franco. We see the war unfold through the eyes of six protagonists as they juggle romantic entanglements and navigate the currents of Spain's disintegration.

Outsiders -- journalists, artists, writers and partisans of left and right -- feasted on the conflict. Hemingway swooped in, booking neighboring rooms at the Florida, where there was plenty of hot water, a rarity in besieged Madrid, for himself and Martha Gellhorn, a fiery neophyte journalist who would become the third Mrs. Hemingway.

Hemingway worked on a documentary and took passionately, and often blindly, to the Republican cause, filing dozens of dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance. The war in Spain inspired torrents of words, but also photographs -- the young Robert Capa, along with his colleague and love interest, Gerda Taro, risked their lives in pursuit of images. Capa's picture of a fallen Republican soldier remains indelible -- "a symbol of the Spanish conflict," Vaill writes -- though doubts persist about its authenticity. Vaill shows how the pursuit of truth could be warped by the demands of deadlines, politics and a good story.

Another of Vaill's figures, Arturo Barea -- a government censor, proud Spaniard and budding writer -- grew disgusted with the antics of Hemingway and company, even as he struggled with his conscience, tailoring news to reflect favorably on the Republic. Juggling wife and mistress, he carried on another affair with his deputy, Ilsa Kulcsar, an Austrian leftist in Spain for the Republican cause.

The literature on the Spanish Civil War is enormous, and Vaill makes no claim to advance the scholarship on the conflict and its causes. This is history as soap opera. Using letters, diaries, personal accounts and secondary sources, Vaill dubs her account a "reconstruction"; she writes with considerable license, deploying lots of italics in charged moments. Still, "Hotel Florida" is an ambitious, entertaining page-turner.

Tilar J. Mazzeo's "The Hotel on the Place Vendôme: Life, Death and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris" is no such thing, which is a shame, because the material is so promising. Looking at the iconic Paris hotel where royalty mixed with bohemians, Mazzeo focuses on the German occupation of the Second World War, when top Nazis lived at the Ritz (Hermann Göring requisitioned a floor). Famed residents such as fashion designer Coco Chanel stayed on; she cavorted there with her Nazi lover, which did her postwar reputation no good.

There are anecdotes galore here. The hotel became a kind of theater of battle. "You didn't hear cannons in the Ritz, but the war was fought there, too," the hotel's director later recalled. Nazis who wanted to remove Hitler from power schemed over drinks; the Ritz's half-Jewish bartender was a "secret mailbox," passing messages between conspirators. Alas, there is little narrative momentum; worse, you have to wade through acres of trite prose: "Before the Second World War ended, things were destined to get more ugly than anyone imagined."

When the Nazis cleared out, the race was on to get back to the Ritz. Mazzeo recounts the antics of Hemingway, as he schemes to "liberate" the hotel. On the outs with Gellhorn, he rounded up a private militia, who carried "more hand grenades and brandy than a full division," as Capa put it. The two old Spain hands dashed to the Ritz, where the party could resume.

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