The War Hotels: Introduction

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BOSTON — Ernest Hemingway’s first and only full length play, “The Fifth Column,” is about a little community that residents of a hotel create for themselves in dangerous times during the Spanish Civil War. The title takes its name from a remark General Francisco Franco made, saying he had four columns advancing on Madrid, and a fifth made up of Fascist sympathizers inside the besieged city.

There are four major characters in the play, but a fifth is the hotel itself, a fictionalized version of the “Florida,” in which war correspondents stayed under constant bombardment from Fascist lines. The main character, Philip, is clearly a heroic stand-in for Hemingway himself, and Dorothy is equally clearly supposed to be Martha Gelhorn, the legendary war correspondent who lived with him in Madrid before becoming his third wife.

From the 1930s in Spain, up to what war reporter Dexter Filkins calls the "forever wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan, war hotels have provided stage sets for a cast of characters trying to cope with the tragedy outside. These hotels have long been the muse of writers from Hemingway, to Graham Greene and John le Carre. They also provide scenes for Hollywood scripts, such as “Hotel Rwanda,” and “The Killing Fields.”

For 30 years, during the French and then the American wars in Vietnam, Saigon had its Hotel Continental. In Cambodia, in the 1970s, Le Phnom was the war correspondent’s choice. The Intercontinental in Dacca , during the painful, 1971 birth of Bangladesh, was the correspondents’ choice. The Commodore in Beirut became the quintessential war hotel during Lebanon’s long and cruel civil war and during Israel’s invasion and siege when artillery shells rained down on the town. Iraq had its Al Rashid in the war with Iran, and later the Gulf War. The Palestine and Al Hamra became the war correspondent’s home away from home in George Bush’s war. Afghanistan had nothing in the same league with other war hotels, but quiet, inconspicuous guest houses, such as the Ganadamack, became popular with the foreign press.

Hollywood’s “Hotel Rwanda” was actually the Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali, which for a time provided a sanctuary from genocide.

In Jerusalem, in times of crisis, it was always the American Colony Hotel on the east side of the city, in an old Turkish Pasha's house on the east side of the city, where journalists from around the world would gather. The owner, the late Val Vester, would always reserve rooms for her favorites.

The hotel was nearly always full, with tourists in times of peace and calm. And when they cancelled their reservations in times of trouble, journalists, who thrive on trouble, would pour in to take up the slack.

One time I wrote to Vester, saying that I would be staying in another hotel, but would come around to see her. When I arrived at the “Colony,” as it was called, the front desk told me my usual room was ready for me. “ But I wrote Mrs. Vester and told her I was staying somewhere else,” I said. “She didn’t believe you,” said the hotel clerk, and I meekly and gratefully changed my plans and checked in.

In these digital days of cell phones, emails, and constant contact with editors, something of the sense of isolation, and therefore camaraderie, of war hotels can get lost.

Reporters today are too busy reading text messages. talking on their cell ‘phones, and updating copy for the web to go out and get drunk together — and too serious to even want to. But they have to stay someplace, and the war hotels endure.

Editor's note: From the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s to today's conflict in Iraq, it seems that in most wars a hotel provides a stage set for a cast of characters trying to cope with the tragedy outside. You can read about some of them in this series:

The War Hotels: Introduction

Vietnam: the Continental Palace

Cambodia: Le Phnom

Bangladesh: The Intercontinental in Dacca

Lebanon: Beirut's Commodore

Iraq: The Palestine Hotel in Baghdad

Afghanistan: Kabul's Gandamack Lodge

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