13-14 Mayo The Road Trip Continues and Merriman gets the straight dope

May 13-14, 1937

Robert Merriman’s Diary from May 13th and 14th, 1937

While Merriman clearly was on a rest and relaxation trip, he continued to work over the next few days.  He gained significant information for the Brigades in these discussions.

Becker and Barthel

Hans Klaus  (left), a Spanish Nationalist Prisoner (center) and Jean Barthel (right), ALBA PHOTO 177-189039, Tamiment Archive, NYU

Upon awakening Merriman meets Jean Barthel (not to be confused with Jan Kurske, also mentioned).  “Bartel” who is Jean Chaintron (nom de guerre Jean Barthel)¹,², Commissar of the XVth Brigade.  Barthel is later shown in a photo with Hans Klaus of the Brigade with a prisoner and his uniform would indicate he is in SIM (Servicio de Investigación Militar, also unfondly referred to as the ‘checa‘, which was modeled on the Soviet NKVD¹).  SIM was formed in early May 1937 to respond to the uprising in Barcelona.   Merriman says that Jan Kurske also will go back to Albacete with them.  Stepanovich, the Yugoslavian photographer and head of the Secret Service, was also in Valencia and Merriman looked for him without success.

The R&R continued later in the morning as they grabbed the car and Milly Bennett and headed off to Sagunto where they saw the Roman ruins.  Merriman confuses us with the Hotel Continental reference which is not in Sagunto but rather Valencia.  It is not clear if the “commandant” of the hotel in Valencia just got them a permiso to eat at Sagunto or if Merriman is mashing up the times.

Castillo de Sagunto

Castillo de Sagunto, Source: Wikipedia Commons

In the evening he says Milly Bennett wants to write a story about Joe Streisand.  We discussed before the death of Robert Pick and Streisand at Jarama while they were sent to mark the position of the enemy by placing an aviation signal and clearly Merriman thinks this is a heroic tale worth telling to America.

While working on the story with Milly Bennett, the news came through of the explosion on the HMS Hunter (H35) when it struck a mine while on “non-intervention” patrol.  The excitement would have been due to the hope that British ships being attacked could get the British government to rethink its non-intervention policy.  At the very least, Merriman would have thought the explosion to be schadenfreude.

On the last day of leave, Merriman again went to the beach with Milly Bennett (and presumably Marion).  He says they ate at  La Marcelina.    He says he saw Robert Minor and James Ford again, presumably at the restaurant not at the beach.

In the first reference in the diary to the “May Day” events in Barcelona, he meets with Luis Rubio Hidalgo, the head of the Spanish Foreign Ministry Press and Propaganda Department.  A new book has come out by our friend Amanda Vaill which gives a visual picture of Rubio when he met newspaperman Arturo Barea who is one of the subjects of Amanda’s new book, Hotel Florida:

Mije had a proposition for him.  The inclusion of Communists in the government has given him some patronage power, and he might be able to suggest Barea for a post a the Foreign Ministry– that is, if he had any fluency in English.  Although Barea’s other language was French, he read English well enough, and translate [sic] it; so within minutes he was being hustled off to the Foreign Ministry, where a harried young assistant ushered him into the crepuscular office of Luis Rubio Hidalgo, the newly appointed chief of the ministry’s Press and Propaganda Department.  Pale, bald as an egg, with a thin mustache on his upper lip and lash less eyes peering from behind round tinted lenses, Rubio sat impassively in the cone of light cast by his solitary desk lamp, his white hands folded in front of him, while Barea described his qualifications.  Then he asked Barea if he would like to join the Propaganda Department as a nighttime censor for the foreign press – an important job, since most journalists wrote and wired their stories from Madrid at night in order to catch the morning editions of their newspapers in Europe and America.

The moment the words were out of Rubio’s mouth, Barea knew they were what he was waiting to hear.  Although he was personally repelled by his prospective chief, the work the man was describing was essential and interesting.³

Merriman learns from Rubio the number of dead and wounded in Barcelona from the fighting there, information that the leadership of the Brigades in Albacete would want to hear from an authoritative source.  Merriman speaks again with Pinky Griffiths.

Milly Bennett  wants to send a wire from Mr. “Herman” to the S. S. Berengaria left Cherbourg on May 13, 1937, and is making a voyage to the US from France (the Berengaria would sail from New York back to Europe with another group of 28 Americans on the 20th of May).  We believe that our mysterious “Mr. Herman” is actually Canadian Alan Herman who wrote under the name Ted Allan and would become close to Gerda Taro.  Ted Allan is also discussed in detail in Hotel Florida:

Allan was twenty-one, a dark, curly-headed youth who had volunteered for the International Brigades but had been drafted away from combat to be the political commissar of the mobile blood transfusion unit whose work Geza Karpathi {n.b., later a highly recognizable character actor who went by the name Charles Korvin} was filming.  He was also a romantic and deeply impressionable young man, and his first site of the two photographers, their cameras around their necks, still dusty from their drive to Madrid, struck him forcibly.  Capa, “black eyed, handsome,” and “already famous”, seemed impossibly glamorous to Allan, who was also an aspiring journalist, writing for Canadian leftist newspapers and broadcasting over the Madrid radio; but it was Gerda, with her short blond hair and bewitching smile, who took his breath away.³

The young and handsome Ted Allan was likely the “Herman” who had thoughts about Milly Bennett a couple of days before.  Marion Merriman likely was Milly’s chaperone who kept them apart as they Milly and Marion were sharing a room in Valencia.

We don’t know the subject of the wire that Ted Allan wanted to get to the Berengaria or who it was sent to.  The ship list is accessible on Ancestry.com and it is interesting that Angus_Lewis_Macdonald, Premier of Nova Scotia, Canada, was aboard the vessel.  Also aboard were about a dozen foreign nationals who were sponsored in their visit to the US by the Chicago Tribune, some were academics.  Also on board was Maxine Darrell, a Ziegfield Follies dancer, but it is unlikely that she would be the target of this wire.   Harry Langdon, the comedy actor was also on the Berengaria.  The US Citizens were not required to reveal their occupations so if a fellow reporter were on board, the name would have to be known to figure this mystery out.   Amanda Vaill has explained in an email that she believed that John Dos Passos was on the Berengaria on this sailing.  An Ancestry search shows that John Dos Passos sailed to the US on May 19, 1937, from Le Havre and Southhampton on the SS Paris.  Perhaps Ted Allan and Milly Bennett thought that Dos Passos would make the Berengaria sailing and were looking to send him a story.

Merriman again talks to Constancia de la Mora and discusses her husband Ignacio Hildalgo de Cisneros, who is head of the Air Force and importantly, reports directly to Indalecio Prieto, who within the next week will move from Minister of Finance to  Minister of Defense in the new Negrin government.  He finishes the evening with another discussion with Milly Bennett, ending a very long two days of the diary.

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¹ Thomas, Spanish Civil War, ibid. p 376, p493.  Note Thomas spells the nom-de-guerre as “Bethel” but this is incorrect.

² Richard Baxell, British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War: The British Battalion in the International Brigades, 1936-1939, Routledge/Canada Blanch Studies on Contemporary Spain, London, 2004, p. 66.

³ Amanda Vaill, Hotel Florida, Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War, Ferrar, Stratus and Giroux, New York, USA, 2014.  pp 52-53.