|Slavery in the United States||American West||Civil Rights Movement|
Marion Merriman, the wife of Robert Merriman, the commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, went to Spain in 1937. She served as an administrative officer until being sent home in November 1937 to begin a speaking tour of the United States.
Robert Merriman was killed on the Aragón front in March 1938. Later she worked as an administrator at Stanford University. Her book, American Commander in Spain: Robert Hale Merriman and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, was published in 1986.
(1) Marion Merriman, American Commander in Spain: Robert Hale Merriman and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (1986)
As we drove into Madrid, the first thing we saw was the big bullring - the Moorish architecture, arch upon arch, dusky brown with beautiful coloring in the tiles, the columns. It was magnificent, I thought. Entering Madrid was like entering any big city's industrial section. We drove through a ring of factories, then into the nicer part of the city.
'Even under bombardment, Madrid is marvelous!' I said to Bob. The wide tree-lined boulevards and modern buildings had an air of dignity that even blocks of bombed-out ruins could not dispel.
But the scene changed, quickly. As we walked down a broad boulevard, we heard the crack of rifle fire. Then the tempo picked up. 'That's machine gun fire,' Bob said. The machine-guns rattled in the distance, perhaps a few blocks away, I couldn't be sure. Then we heard the boom of artillery and the reality of Madrid at war returned deeply to me. The artillery shell landed some distance away, collapsing part of a building, which fell into a rubble of dust. We dashed down the street, staying close to the buildings. The horror of war was driven home to me. I was terrified.
I was shaking badly when we entered the Hotel Florida and went directly up the stairs to Hemingway's room. Bob steadied me, then knocked on the door.
'Hello, I'm Merriman,' Bob said as Hemingway, looking intense but friendly, opened the door.
'I know,' Hemingway said. Bob introduced me, and the writer greeted me warmly.
Then Hemingway and Bob fell into conversation about the war and the broadcast they planned. They were joined by John Dos Passos, Josephine Herbst, and a scattering of American volunteers and correspondents who sipped Hemingway's scotch and compared notes and stories. I slipped into an old chair, still quite shaken by the action outside.
I studied Bob and Hemingway. They got along. Each talked for a moment, then listened to the other. How different they were, I thought, Bob at twenty-eight, Hemingway at least a good ten years older. Hemingway seemed complex. He was big and bluff and macho. He didn't appear to be a braggart but he got across the message, through an air of self-assurance, that he could handle what he took on.
Bob was taller than Hemingway by several inches. They looked at each other through the same kind of round glasses, Bob's frames of tortoise shell, Hemingway's of steel.
Hemingway was animated, gesturing as he asked questions, scratching his scalp through thick dark hair, perplexed, then scowling, then, something setting him off, laughing from deep down. He wore a sweater, buttoned high on his chest, and a dark tie, loosened at the neck.
Bob was clean shaven. Hemingway needed a shave. He didn't appear to be growing a beard, he just seemed to need a shave, the scrubble roughing his cheeks and chin. He looked like he had had a hard night. He had a knot on his forehead, probably suffered in some roustabout skirmish.
Hemingway sipped a scotch, as did Bob. Someone offered me a drink, and I thought I'd never been as happy in my life to get a drink of whiskey. Even in the relatively safe room I remained frightened. The sheer madness of the war would not leave my mind.
As Bob and Hemingway talked, the contrast between them struck me time and again. Bob was an intellectual, and he looked like one. Hemingway was an intellectual, but he looked more like an adventurer. Bob looked like an observer. Hemingway looked like a man of action.
I was fascinated by DOS Passes, whom I had always thought was a better writer than Hemingway. John DOS Passes was, without question, a seasoned writer of the prose of war. But as a man, he didn't impress me. I thought he was wishy-washy. I couldn't make out everything he was saying, but his message was clear - for whatever reasons, he wanted out of there, out of Hemingway's room, out of bomb-shaken Madrid.
I was scared too, with good reason. But somehow DOS Passes acted more than scared. I guessed it was his uncertainty, his facial expressions, his general attitude that this was a lost cause, given the superior strength of the Franco forces. DOS Passes criticized the Spanish Republic, for which Americans were fighting and dying.
Hemingway, on the other hand, let you know by his presence and through his writing exactly where he stood. Hemingway had told the world of the murder in Madrid, including the murder of children by fascist bombing. He had told about 'the noises kids make when they are hit. There is a sort of foretaste of that when the child sees the planes coming and yells "Aviacion!" Then, too, some kids are very quiet when they are hit - until you move them.'
(2) Marion Merriman visited Belchite at the end of the offensive. She wrote about it in her book, American Commander in Spain: Robert Hale Merriman and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (1986)
As Bob explained the battle to me, walking through the town's ruins, the shadows lengthened across the empty fields nearby. Here one of our best machine-gunners fell, beside that wall Burt was killed, there was Danny's grave, here Sidney fell, a sniper's bullet between his eyes, there Steve Nelson was wounded. Our losses were actually very low, but they included some of the best and most loved of our men.
As we passed a little factory, huge sewer rats scurried into a drain beside the road. They were as large as cats. Even though it was two weeks later, the smell of burned flesh still hung faint and nauseating in the cool dusk. Their forces far outnumbered ours, but the fascists had not even attempted to dispose of their dead. They had left hundreds of decaying corpses stacked in various buildings.
As we passed through the debris-filled streets, the air of desolation and death deepened. Homeless cats scuttled about, hungry, and dogs howled and fought bitterly down the blackness of narrow streets. The full moon was bright by the time we reached the cathedral in the center. Across its worn stone steps limply lay a purple and white Falangist banner. Further down was a priest's cassock, perhaps shed in flight.
Only the square admitted enough light for Bob and me to read the fascist posters still stuck to broken walls, posters depicting the horrors of Marxism rather than the horrors of the war that a small group of fascists had started. I noticed there were posted rules for the modesty of young women, rules requiring long skirts and long sleeves, saying sin is woman's because she tempts man. There were no posters promising a government for all of the people.