Authors: Ruta Sepetys
Ana sews the button onto
Matheson’s silk blouse. The white label on the neckline declares it’s from Neiman-Marcus. An assigned guest once told Lorenza all about Neiman-Marcus. The lavish store, established in Dallas, sells luxury items to oil-rich Texans. Ever since Franco granted drilling rights in Spain, the hotel has been flooded with Texans. Oil fortune brings talk of debutante balls, fancy summer camps, silver dollars, and something called pimento-cheese sandwiches.
The image of Daniel with the candied chestnut floats back to Ana. The little girl, bouncing on her toes, stared at the treat like it was a diamond. Diamonds are also something common on Texans. Is Daniel a common Texan? He’s certainly different from other guests at the hotel. He looked at her when she spoke. He opened the door for her. He carried the bag from La Violeta as if it were his job, not hers. As nice as Nick is, he’s never done that. She thinks of Daniel’s photos and his worn jeans. He’s unusual. Was it rude that instead of answering his questions, she posed her own?
Carefully folding the blouse, Ana places it next to the suitcase packed for Valencia. She positions the two boxes of candy from La Violeta on the desk. She stares at the wrapping, recalling the enchanting atmosphere of the shop. How lucky the recipient in Valencia will be.
Valencia. City by the sea, birthplace of her favorite painter, Sorolla. Hotel guests speak of Valencia’s tranquil beauty, fragrant orange trees, and rolling blue waters. What does a large body of water sound and smell like? Ana wonders. Landlocked, fenced by circumstance, she has
never seen the sea. She sees Spain only through images on postcards that guests collect in their rooms. If she transfers to the hotel business office, perhaps one day she too will walk along the beach in Valencia. Ana will need letters of recommendation for her application. If she does a good job, perhaps Daniel’s family might consider it? A letter from an influential American family could expedite consideration.
Ana straightens the room, thinking of oranges, thinking of Valencia. On the chest of drawers she sees a bright turquoise package.
Out of color TV research—a great make-up discovery:
Lorenza has whispered that Max Factor and his wife are guests at the hotel. Ana can’t wait to share her findings of the new cosmetics.
She moves to empty the trash. The small bin contains only one item: a squat, green glass bottle. Ana inspects it and immediately wishes she hadn’t. She doesn’t need Texas secrets. She has enough of her own.
Madrid today has got more Texans than Spaniards. The barroom in the Castellana Hilton sounds like roundup time in the Panhandle.
So far in Spain no Texan has leaped into the Plaza de Toros and attempted to show the Spaniards how a real man can bulldog a beef. I have seen no horses ridden into lobbies lately. My friends, riches are weakening the strain that made you exceptional. Constant association with Yankee businessmen is turning you sissy. I blame it on the ladies, largely. They are trying to live up to Neiman-Marcus and are forcing their will on husbands who used to wear spurs to the square dance. The girls say: “Now, you behave!” And the old boys are behaving.
from “World Travel Is Turning Texans into Real Sissies”
, Abilene, Texas, July 30, 1954
Ben chooses a booth in the small alcove restaurant.
“Quieter here,” he says. “No one talking about makeup.” He yanks at the knot in his tie, loosening it, and lights a cigarette.
“This hotel is deceptively huge,” says Daniel. “It doesn’t seem that large from the outside, but once you step inside, it’s massive.”
“Deceptive. Good word,” says Ben. A waiter appears and discreetly slides an ashtray under Ben’s hand, forecasting the gray snowfall from his cigarette. “I’ve gotten lost in here and I’ve never even made it to the labyrinth beneath. The location is strategic, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
Ben sighs. “Come on. An American hotel in a country ruled by a fascist dictator? It’s no coincidence that the U.S. Embassy is practically across the street. There are several levels belowground in this place. Ask the pretty girl that you came in with.” He grins.
“She’s assigned to help my family. It was just a visit to the camera shop.”
“Miguel,” nods Ben. “Great guy. Great little darkroom as well. I’d invite you to use the bureau’s darkroom—ours is light-tight—but then you’d have to deal with the censors.”
“Miguel seems nice. I’m happy to give him the business. He’s developing a couple rolls for me and also looked at my portfolio.”
“All right, my turn. Hand it over.”
Daniel quickly retrieves the album from his bag and slides it across the table. It’s a great opportunity. The man in front of him reports for one of the largest newspapers in the world.
Nothing about Ben Stahl is fast. It takes him forever to order from the menu, even though he knows what he wants. It takes him even longer to look through the portfolio. He turns the pages slowly, analyzing each image as if it were a coded message.
Daniel shifts. It’s uncomfortable watching his work reviewed. Ben knows it. He gets to the end of the album, studies the final photograph, and closes the portfolio. Ben takes a long, silent drag on his cigarette. He looks up at Daniel.
“You’re a fraud, cowboy.”
“Your father told me that you’re going into the oil business. But the truth, it’s here. You have as much interest in oil as I do in Hi-Fi makeup.”
“I don’t want to be an oilman.”
“So why’d you tell your father that you do?”
“I didn’t. He knows I love photography. I want to be a photojournalist, but my dad doesn’t support it. He’ll only pay for college if I study engineering at Texas A&M.”
“A&M? No, you should go to J-School.”
Daniel looks at Ben, grateful. “I want to go to journalism school. I’ve been accepted at Missouri but my dad won’t pay tuition for J-School.” He pauses. “Speaking of payment, is my dad paying you to keep an eye on me?”
“Your dad? No.” Ben looks at him. “But Shep and the embassy might slide me a few favors if you keep to a darkroom instead of a jail.”
Daniel nods. Of course. His father has an arrangement with Mr. Van Dorn and the embassy. A quiet safety net in the event of trouble.
But there is no trouble. Is there? Ana said the crow-like guards don’t patrol the city center. But . . . Max Factor says he saw them today?
“Listen, forget about your dad’s motives,” says Ben. “People discouraged me from journalism too. But clearly, you’ve caught the bug. The stuff in this portfolio is as serious as my blood pressure.” Ben wipes sweat from his hammy brow. The speed of his lecture accelerates.
“Sincerity. It’s important. If you take photos with this type of sincerity you may as well be holding a gun. There’s a meaningful story here in Spain, a human story. But it’s virtually impossible to tell and even harder for an outsider to understand. You need to be smart about it. This is a dictatorship. Franco’s regime censors everything. Freedom of the press doesn’t exist here. And you better believe the censors read everything I write before I send it to New York. I’m too visible. But you . . . You!” Ben slams his hand on the table. A waiter comes running.
“We’re fine. Sorry, Pepe,” he tells the waiter.
He leans in to whisper. “But
. You can capture a real story here—a photo essay to show a different side of Spain than the one on the postcards. All the foreign correspondents are chasing the same threads—that Hitler survived and Franco smuggled him to South America; that Texaco secretly fueled Franco during the Spanish Civil War.”
Daniel’s eyes expand. “Are those things true?”
“Who cares if they’re true. That’s the wild boar everyone’s hunting so one day they’ll run it down. But they’re missing something. What about the people of Spain? What is life like under a dictatorship? What’s it like for young people when textbooks are government sponsored? What are their hopes and dreams when there are no free elections and only one religion?”
The waiter delivers their hamburgers and milkshakes. Ben gestures to the plate with his cigarette. “Everyone seems to understand what 1950s Middle America is like. They say it’s hamburgers and
milkshakes, right? For years I’ve been trying to explain to the world what it’s like for the average person in Spain.”
Daniel looks at Ben, not certain he understands. Is he baiting him or trying to inspire him? “But life seems fine here. My mom’s Spanish and she claims Franco’s sympathetic. Nick says things are better now.”
“Franco’s an architect,” whispers Ben. “Maybe things are better than when the war ended, but wages here—they’re still lower than what they were in 1936. But that’s not the point.” Ben drills his finger on the cover of Daniel’s portfolio. “You’re a photographer, a storyteller. In a dozen pictures, you showed me ten layers of Texas. Choose an angle and show me ten layers of Madrid.”
Daniel stares at Ben, trying to interpret his comments. “And you’ll print my pictures in the
“Hell no. I can’t do that. I’m the visiting correspondent here. I have to play by the rules. I’m knuckled by the censors. Why do you think it’s been so hard to tell this country’s story?” He pauses, looking over his shoulder. “But meaningful photos, human beings enduring hardship, that’ll get the attention of the Magnum judges. That’ll win you the cash prize and get you to J-School. And who knows, when you get back to Dallas you might happen to stumble upon a contact for
magazine. Madrid through the eyes of a young American—pretty interesting stuff, don’t you think?”
Daniel sits, frozen, not willing to believe what Ben is suggesting. A potential photo essay in
magazine? Robert Capa, Eugene Smith, Gerda Taro—all of his heroes shot in Spain.
printed their photos. The image of the nun with the baby returns to Daniel. Why is he hesitant to tell Ben about it?
Ben takes a wide bite of the hamburger. He removes a package of Bisma-Rex antacids from his pocket and sets it on the table. His voice returns to a whisper.
“Focus your lens on the Spanish people,” Ben lifts his cigarette and points it at Daniel, “but don’t be stupid. There is a dark side here. Sure, they’re selling sunshine and castanets to the tourists. But that’s not all Franco’s selling. One wrong move and the police will be on you. You’ll be dead in a dirt pit.”