Yankee Hero’s Widow Tells Story 50 Years After the Spanish Civil War : ‘Hemingway Model’ Is Subject of Book by Marion Merriman Wachtel
When old soldiers who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War are called onstage to be recognized during a 50th anniversary commemoration Sunday afternoon at the Berkeley Community Theater, Marion Merriman Wachtel, 76, will take her rightful place among her compadres.
Wachtel--then 27-year-old Cpl. Marion Merriman--was the only American woman to serve as a member of the battalion in the International Brigades, opting to be by the side of the husband she adored, Robert Hale Merriman, the first combat commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who was to give his life for the cause of the Spanish Loyalists.
Widowed for Second Time
After all these years, Wachtel, who is widowed for the second time and for 32 years has lived in a book-filled house in Palo Alto, has decided to tell their story in a biography written in collaboration with Warren Lerude, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former newspaperman now teaching journalism at the University of Nevada in Reno.
Their book is “American Commander in Spain” (University of Nevada Press: $16.95) and Marion Merriman, the name she chose to use as co-author, has dedicated the book to Merriman, “A giant among men, a fighter who chose his enemies carefully--and who fought to the death for a better world.”
This war, which began in July of 1936, was Ernest Hemingway’s war, too; he covered it as a correspondent and, later, wrote passionately about it in his novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Robert Hale Merriman is believed by many, among them John Kenneth Galbraith, who was a graduate student at UC Berkeley along with Merriman, to be the model for the hero of that novel, Robert Jordan. Galbraith has called Merriman “the bravest of our contemporaries. . . . “
From the front, in September, 1937, Hemingway wrote: “Robert Merriman, a former California university professor . . . was leader in the final assault. Unshaven, his face smoke-blackened, his men tell how he bombed his way forward, wounded six times slightly by hand-grenade splinters in the hands and face, but refusing to have his wounds dressed until the cathedral was taken. . . . “
Merriman, whose only military credentials were college ROTC and a second lieutenant’s commission in the Army Reserve, was an unlikely soldier. Martha Gellhorn, writing from Spain for Collier’s, described him: “There was dust on his glasses and he had very white teeth. He was a big man, but shy and stiff, and his voice made you want to call him ‘professor.’ ”
Others--some who fought in that war--have written of its bloody battles; Marion Merriman has written a poignant love story. It begins in 1928 at the University of Nevada. Fifty-one years later, she made a sentimental journey to the semi-arid hills of Aragon in northeastern Spain--where she believes Merriman was fatally shot--to find a final connection and, with it, some peace of mind.
It is almost certain that she will never know how, or where, he died, but she is not obsessed with finding out. “I feel he’s part of the dust of Spain,” she said, “which is the way it should be. I don’t want him locked up in the ground.”
Marion Merriman had thought several times of writing this book but, she said, “It was just too difficult. I’d get so far and I’d block. I was afraid I’d crack up, it was so intense. I just couldn’t do it.”
Indeed, it was farthest from her mind when, about four years ago, she received a telephone call from Lerude; Robert Laxalt, then director of the University of Nevada press (and brother of Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt) had encouraged Lerude to pursue the story after learning that both Merrimans were alumni of the university.
After Lerude and Marion Merriman agreed on the project, their research took them to the battlefield sites of Spain and to the Soviet Union, where the recently wed Merrimans--neither of whom had been east of Nevada--had moved in the winter of 1935 after Robert Merriman had won a $900 scholarship for a year’s study of the Soviet experiment in collectivist economics.
While Merriman plunged into his research and Russian studies, his wife, who’d been an English major, found work as a typist at the Moscow Daily News. Their first home was a room in an apartment occupied by a Russian couple and their child--a “black market” deal at about $30 a month. (The government position was that, if a family had more space than it needed, that space should be assigned by the state).
They made friends, some of them revolutionaries. They binged on gray caviar served in crystal bowls at the National Hotel. Together, they traveled to the old German villages in the Crimea. With other Americans, they engaged in long, and heated, discussions about politics and economics. They watched a May Day parade in Red Square, sipped coffee at gypsy cafes.
Then, in the summer of 1936, thinking they needed a new perspective, they made a trip through Central Europe; it was to turn their lives around. “Hitler was taking over one country after another,” she said. “We’d seen storm troopers marching in Vienna.” And they saw doom and gloom where once there had been gaiety.
“We knew we hated fascism,” she said. And, gradually, like the more than 3,000 other Americans who would volunteer to fight for the cause of the Loyalists, they became convinced that World War II could be averted on the battlefields of Spain.
So, on a cold December day in Moscow in 1936, Merriman boarded a train that would take him to Valencia and the war in which he would die, as would more than half of the American volunteers.
Marion Merriman remembers that day with clarity. She had argued his decision with him through a long night, in a futile attempt to persuade him that it was more important for him to go home, to America, to share his knowledge as a teacher, that this war in Spain was not his war. But his mind was made up.
When the telegram from the front arrived on March 2, 1937--"Wounded. Come at once"--Marion Merriman swung into action. Within three days she had cut through governmental red tape to get the necessary papers for departure from the Soviet Union, had given away everything that would not fit in one suitcase (she took with her their steamship tickets for their planned return to America and two home-made wool suits) and had booked passage on a 40-seater, no-frills airplane that would take her to Germany to connect with a flight to Paris.
In Paris, after an agonizing week spent convincing the French government that her mission was “purely humanitarian and of no threatening consequences to anyone” (Spain was closed to Americans by the Neutrality Act and France was on the alert for American volunteers sneaking over the Pyrenees) she was on her way by train to the southeast of France, the jumping-off spot for Spain, where she would find her husband in a hospital in a farm community near Valencia.
He was fine--save for a cumbersome cast encasing his left shoulder, which had been shattered by a bullet. And, she soon learned, he had quickly made his mark. When, two months earlier, the American volunteers had formed the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (more popularly known as the Brigade), they had chosen Merriman as the commander and it was he who took them into their first combat in February at the bloody battle at Jarama in the hills south of Madrid, where he had been wounded.
“He was a born leader,” she said, and the International Brigades, which she describes as “an amorphous group, all sorts of adventurers and dedicated people,” had been in a state of confusion under the command of “a couple of Americans who had dreams of glory. They faded fast.”
“For a while,” Marion Merriman said, “the men called him Bob Murderer. He had to lead them into action when he knew it was suicidal.” After Jarama, where 127 of the 400 Americans died and 200 were wounded, more American volunteers began pouring into Spain.
What quickly became apparent to Marion Merriman when she reached Spain was that her plan--"I was going to bring Bob out, to the French Riviera"--was unrealistic. She recalled, “Bob said, ‘Do you want to go home?’ I said, ‘Are you going home?’ He said no. I said, ‘I’m not, either.’ ”
Got Her Stripe
Merriman approached Lucien Vidal, a French colonel in the International Brigades, about the possibility of her volunteering. “They weren’t taking any women,” she said, but her husband promoted her as a typist and linguist and finally Vidal said yes--on one condition--"that she promises never to try to get to the front.”
It was typical of Marion Merriman that she quickly agreed, on one condition of her own. She told her husband, “I won’t, unless you’re wounded. And then you can’t stop me.”
So, Marion Merriman got her corporal’s stripe, a culotte uniform with a Sam Brown belt, a military I.D. card--and the standard salary of six pesetas a day. “I still have my papers,” she said, and a slightly moth-eaten uniform. “Even during the McCarthy days I wouldn’t get rid of those.”
She was the American commander’s wife, she had been granted a special favor and, she acknowledged, “A few of the men resented it. That was completely understandable. The other men didn’t have their wives. But I tried to conduct myself so there wasn’t any criticism.” She quickly set about being just another soldier. “When we went on marches, I marched right along, to show I could do it. And I slept on the ground, too.”
Marion Merriman does not exaggerate the importance of her soldier’s role. “The nurses had a much heavier job,” she said, “and much more dangerous, particularly at the front, at the stations where they decided who would live and who would die. Bob described these as butcher shops. They were chopping off arms, chopping off legs. . . . “
But Marion Merriman had a job, too. Her duties included copying American military manuals for her husband to use in training his soldiers, sending out newsletters to the English-speaking volunteers and keeping personal records on the volunteers. “A lot of them used aliases,” she said, which complicated matters. Every now and then, she would be sent up to the front to get eyewitness accounts of a soldier’s death to satisfy an insurance company at home and help his frantic family collect on his policy.
But she came to be more than a clerk-soldier. She became friend and confidante to the men who served with her husband. She would scrounge food to offer any and all who would drop by the room the Merrimans kept at the Regina Hotel in Albacete. She made new acquaintances, among them Hemingway and John Dos Passos. And she learned to duck bullets from fascist snipers crouched in church towers and to endure the “sweet stench” of burning flesh.
During the nine months she was in Spain, Marion Merriman kept detailed diaries and it was these diaries, and those kept by her husband, that became the basis for her book.
One day, as she was reading aloud from one of her own diaries, Merriman stopped short. She realized that she was revealing a secret she had never told anyone and, no, she wasn’t ready to tell it to the world. One night in Murcia, she had been raped by a Slav officer fighting for the Loyalists.
Lerude persisted--this must be in the book, he said, because the way she had handled that crisis said so much about her. Finally, she agreed to tell the story:
” . . . I cried into the cold, early morning darkness. The next morning I didn’t know what to do. What could I do? . . . I had to calm myself. This is a war, I told myself. Men are dying and maimed. This is my burden. . . . “
Bob Merriman died without knowing. “Why burden him,” she asked, “with something he couldn’t do anything about? What was he going to do, shoot the man?” Nor could she tell any of the other men. “One of them would have shot him,” she was convinced, “because I wasn’t just the commander’s wife. I was their friend.”
Friendship and Respect
That she had both the friendship and respect of the men was attested to in this interview with Steve Nelson, another of the Americans in Spain:
“It was an odd thing to have a good-looking young woman around. You could call her a beauty. . . . The guys respected her like a saint. What they dreamed and thought may have been different but she was treated very well. Out of respect for Bob and for her, the guys behaved a certain way with her. . . . “
Marion Merriman had come a long way from Reno, where by her own description she had been a somewhat “dizzy” co-ed going to college “to find a good husband,” a young woman with “not the slight est” political orientation. Her mother, who had died recently, had been determined that Marion, the eldest of her five children, get an education and she did, despite responsibilities to her siblings who received little guidance from their father, an alcoholic.
The man she met in college, and married on their graduation day in 1932, a Santa Cruz High School graduate, had been a Big Man on Campus type--"Bob wasn’t interested much in politics. But Bob was interested in fairness.”
In November, 1937, soon after the first anniversary of the International Brigades in Spain, Bob Merriman told his wife that he wanted her to leave Spain, to go to America and undertake a six-week speaking tour to raise money for food, medical supplies and clothing. To this day, she is not certain that this was not simply a ploy to keep her safe.
She had protested, “But I’ve never made a speech in my life!” He said she would learn--"and that’s an order.” The night before she left Spain, she recalled, “It had been storming. We walked in the moonlight down the road in Ambite. He told me unless we got help the Republic was not going to win.” They talked about their hopes for a family, their dreams of a home, of peace in Europe.
And he told her, “If I’m killed I want you to promise you’ll marry again.” She promised.
When they reached British headquarters, they heard the soldiers singing and decided to accept an invitation to share their tea and brandy, sitting around a roaring fire singing.
It would be the last night they ever spent together.
At home, Marion Merriman talked about the cause wherever she could be heard, even before conservative groups such as the Rotary Club of Reno, telling them: “If you don’t take your stand against fascism in Spain your sons will die in Germany.” Looking back, she said, “I just told the truth. I told about seeing children shot from planes as they fled Malaga and Albacete. . . . “
The Spanish Civil War was not a popular cause with mainstream America, which at the time was embracing isolationism and neutrality and suspected the volunteers of being un-American.
Marion Merriman talked up the cause in New York and, in Hollywood, at the invitation of Dorothy Parker, whom she had met briefly in Spain, where Parker had been a correspondent. At one gathering Parker’s guest list included Edna Ferber (“intimidating”), Lillian Hellman (“Very interested in Spain, though quite cynical, I thought”) and Dashiell Hammett and Ira Gershwin. By evening’s end there were several thousand dollars in contributions.
Returning to San Francisco that March, Merriman took a job at $125 a month as executive secretary to the Friends of the Medical Bureau to Aid the Spanish Democracy, the group that raised money for ambulances and medical supplies. Her plans to return to Spain were dashed both by lack of money--she had spent their savings on the cause--and by discouraging news from the war front.
For almost a year, the cause would consume her energies. Finally, she said, “I was burned out, what with the worry over Bob and trying to support my two (younger) sisters.” Her $20-a-month apartment at Fulton and Divisidero had become home base, too, for returning vets who were jobless and disoriented.
The dreaded news, following closely a “Dearest Girl” letter from Merriman, came in April of 1938. On April 2 the Americans, having slipped through enemy territory, had run into a Fascist encampment at Corbera in the Ebro Valley. Hemingway, arriving at the scene the next day, recorded survivors’ confusion about what had happened, about the rout of the Americans amid a great deal of shouting and yelling:
“Standing in the dusty brush beside the very nervous-making road, already well up behind the fascist advance down the Ebro, I listened to the story of their breakthrough after the battalion was surrounded; of the stand before Gandesa with mechanized columns and tanks already past them; of a wild night when the battalion split in two parts, one going south, one east. . . . “
“When those survivors came out,” Merriman said, “Hemingway asked them, ‘Where’s your commander?’ They said, ‘We don’t know.’ ”
Robert Merriman--by then Maj. Robert Merriman, chief of staff of the 15th brigade--had simply disappeared. No one saw him fall and for months Marion Merriman clung to the hope that he was a prisoner. But by October, when the Americans marched as heroes in their last parade through the streets of Barcelona before withdrawing in defeat from Spain, she had accepted the inevitable: “Bob was not in a prison camp in Bilbao nor was he anywhere else.”
“Bob was so clever, so ingenious,” she said. “If he were alive, he would have gotten word out in two months, three at the most.” And, she remembered, “He always told me, ‘If I’m about to be captured I’ll use every bullet in my gun, but I’ll save one for me.’ ”
Late in 1939 Marion Merriman and Emil Wachtel, an attorney and Department of Agriculture employee she had met about a year earlier, were married in a wooden church in San Francisco’s Mission District by a minister who had been sympathetic to the Spanish cause. It was a happy marriage that would produce three sons who now run the industrial fasteners company founded by their father in 1949 in the Silicon Valley. Wachtel died in 1977.
As her sons were growing up, Wachtel embraced causes closer to home, becoming president of “this PTA and that PTA, lady do-gooder.” For a long time, she said, “I’ve had the theory you better do what you can at home.”
There were a few rough spots in the marriage. “At first I was having terrible nightmares,” she said. “What if Bob came back and I was married to Emil? I’d wake up in a cold sweat.” And “in the McCarthy period,” she said, “Emil worked for the government and he was discriminated against in some ways because he was married to me. There was a government report that alleged we were Communists,” which she emphasized neither she nor Merriman was, “but it’s true, we had a lot of liberal and radical friends.”
Later, she had part-time and full-time jobs at Stanford University “until I retired the first time, at 65.” Painful sciatica forced a second, and final, retirement. For her, retired does not mean inactive, although her activities are somewhat curtailed by her refusal to drive the freeways since being in two major accidents, the second involving “a double dumpster that dumped 40,000 pounds of dirt on me.”
Now, half a century after the war, the passion of the cause is still at the surface of her emotions. For her, this book is testimony to idealism turned into action, to doing “what is right, what is just.” She thinks of the Americans who fought in Spain as “premature anti-fascists.” And she believes “We need moral commitment. Of course, sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want. . . . “
She returned to Spain first in 1974 (a “bittersweet” journey made with Emil Wachtel), again in 1979, hoping to learn how Robert Merriman died, the last time in 1982. Villagers have told her vague stories about having seen “some tall men” that tragic night in 1938; there is nothing more specific.
But now she has done what she had to do--she has seen that rocky plateau in Aragon where he disappeared, felt it. “In psychology they have a term, closure,” she said. “It was a closure of that period.”
It was, for Marion Merriman, the end of an extraordinary journey that began one fall day in 1928 when a Big Man on Campus came along in his Dodge roadster, grinned and told Marion Stone, “Jump in. We’re taking off.”
Marion Merriman thought about that long-ago day and said, “And we did.”