It began about five years ago in Maury with a chance remark followed by a visit to an abandoned concentration camp. I stepped past the barbed wire, walked through and around crumbling buildings, made photographs. Then I began to write.

Rivesaltes begins with two historical figures, the photojournalists Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and continues with fictional characters in stories of three wars that intersect at the Rivesaltes camp and together comprise a fictional history of twentieth century Europe. It is a historical novel, but the stories of refugees created by war have an immediate and emotional connection to the present day.

The novel’s cinematic quality is derived from the pictures of Capa, Taro, and other great photographers of the period. A significant amount of research time was spent examining their images. That was the fun part. And it was a pleasure to work in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, a place that confers serious intent with registration as an authorized researcher. A bargain at eight Euros. The microfiche archives of the Conseil Générale in Perpignan were not quite so enjoyable.

Five years of research, writing, and revising. The first draft came out in a rush. The characters drove the story to places I’d never envisioned, new characters appeared when needed and they took the story in different directions. I was just the guy with his fingers on the keyboard. The story raced to its conclusion and then the hard work began.

Photography is instantaneous. An image may be informed by years of experience but it is created in a fraction of a second that captures a facial expression, the peak moment of action, or the perfect light.

Writing is interminable. Revision on revision, finding the right word, crafting the perfect sentence, molding and shaping until you just can’t do it anymore, and decide to call it complete.

Finished? Only until an editor gets her hands on it. But it’s time to find out if anyone wants to publish it so queries will go out to agents who will say yes, no, or nothing at all. First up is an agent who was considerate and respectful of my first book, although she ultimately decided it wasn’t for her. I came to agree with her judgment and stopped submitting it, but I think there’s some value there and I may yet find the way to make it work. Rejection sucks but it’s part of the deal, much more often than not. The odds are long. Capa rarely had a winner at the racetrack; let’s hope we have better luck in the literary lottery.



A Walk with Bob and Gerda

Not along after Endre Friedmann and Gerda Taro invented “Robert Capa” they established the Atelier Robert Capa on the second floor of this building at 37 rue Froidevaux, (François-Xavier-Eugène 1827-1882, a commander in the Sapeurs-Pompiers, the fire and rescue brigade of Paris), in the 14th arrondisement. It was the closest they ever came to having a home and turns up repeatedly as a touchstone in the invented life of Capa. Most interesting is its appearance in Patrick Modiano’s novella, Suspended Sentences, as the setting for a story about creativity and loss.

rue Emile Richard
rue Emile Richard

I don’t know what was on street level in 1936, now we find a florist and funeral service business because across the street is the cemetery of Montparnasse. That’s where I am, standing on the corner of the rue Émile Richard (1843-1890, a President of the municipal council of Paris), which bisects the cemetery and is now the site of a small tent encampment of the homeless. Several campsites along the street are furnished with modern red office chairs in such good condition they appear to have been recently delivered.

tent and chair
tent and chair

Walk through the cemetery and you come to the Boulevard Raspail, (François-Vincent, 1794–1878, French chemist, physician, and politician), one of the main thoroughfares of Montparnasse.

Turn left on the boulevard and you’ll pass several hotels, a school, and a student residence. Paris is a national education center and the presence of students and scholarship animates and rejuvenates this historical city of imposing architectural monuments. Just a few blocks down is the corner of Boulevard Montparnasse, the site of Le Dôme.

Le Dôme
Le Dôme

In the thirties this café was the gathering place for the growing coterie of photojournalists who were drawn to the city. Some, like Capa and Taro, were Jews who had fled the growing threat of National Socialism in Eastern Europe; some, like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis, were French who came here to meet with their peers. They were joined by André Kertész, Giselle Freund, David Szymin (Chim), and others in what must have been the greatest gathering of photographic talent ever to grace a coffee shop. Photographers aren’t always verbally gifted but I’d guess the competitive banter of this group was lively and amusing. This was their living room, clubhouse, and office where they met to compare notes on editors and assignments and plan coverage of the great stories of the time.

Cafes had personalities then, created by the crowds they attracted, so while you might find Hemingway and Picasso in a raucous scene at Le Select, Sartre and de Beauvoir would be presiding over a quieter discussion at Café de Flore.

Le Dôme was the home for photographers and, of course, it was a very different place then. Now the interior is an upscale seafood restaurant that smells only of cashmere and money. The terrace is more casual, and more democratic. I’m seated next to a well-dressed man in his sixties (I need to upgrade my wardrobe), reading Racine and taking notes: a professor, I’d guess. Next to him is a younger man intensely focused on his MacBook, and obsessively checking his phone. I’d like to think he’s a lovelorn novelist. Why not, it’s Paris? There are several women of different ages, some alone, some in pairs, all having lunch. A middle-aged couple orders the skate wing lunch special and the novelist another coffee. A young woman with a suitcase orders a café crème, tends to her text messages, and leaves a few extra coins for the waiter. The professor finishes preparing his lecture and relaxes with a glass of white wine.

Le Dôme Terrace
Le Dôme Terrace

I order a beer, which comes with a small bowl of olives, then get a little hungry, so I order a sandwich mixte au pain Poilane, without butter (I love this city but don’t want to die here, at least not yet). I ask for a little mustard. It’s a good thing I’m not very hungry. I make a few pictures and a few notes for this essay and order a coffee. I leave an extra tip for the waiter because I think it’s what Capa would have done, even if he had to borrow the money from Cartier-Bresson.

Capa and Taro have gone off to war in Spain. They are photojournalism novices and their quest is not to document facts, but to witness and support Republican victories. Only Capa will return.

I decide to go to Père Lachaise and find Taro’s grave. I ask for directions in the cemetery office but the computer cannot find Taro, then I remember her birth name, Pohorylle, and we get a hit. I’m following my map down a path covered with autumn leaves when I pass an attendant who shouts and points: “Jim Morrison, that way.” I shake my head and walk on.

Père Lachaise
Père Lachaise

Taro is buried in a small Jewish section near the Mur des Fédérés, the group monuments to those unidentified souls who died in wars and Nazi extermination camps.

Gerda Taro Grave
Gerda Taro Grave

Her tomb is small, much smaller than her neighbors, and plain, adorned only with a simple block with her name and dates, and the Giacometti falcon that was commissioned by the Communist Party hoping to profit from her death, although she was never a party member. Visitors have left a few stones, several painted with the colors of the German flag, although she was not German, and a print of a Capa photo of Taro resting by the side of a Spanish road. Some flowers are long gone, but their plastic wrappers remain.

Taro Grave
Taro Grave

She’s mostly forgotten now. After she died in Spain, Capa tried to save her work and he probably did, but credits were haphazard. Many old prints bear stamps that say both “Photo Capa” and “Photo Taro,” and many negatives carry no attribution at all. It’s often impossible to know for sure who made the photos, so the credit usually goes to the famous Capa, who might never have achieved that fame if he hadn’t met and fallen in love with Gerda Taro. It’s a subject that is explored in greater depth in Rivesaltes, a novel in progress.

Gerda Taro
Gerda Taro

©2015 Ron Scherl

A Tale of Two (or Three) Suitcases

One of the joys of researching a historical novel is the uncovering of parallels, unrelated facts that nevertheless strike me as significant. When you read a lot of mysteries, as I do, you come to believe there is no such thing as coincidence. Everything is significant.

The scope of the novel encompasses several wars from 1936 to 1962 and there are many parallels involved. War does awful things to people no matter who’s fighting; brutality breeds only more brutality and what’s learned is passed through generations. You torture mine, I’ll torture yours even more. It’s a chain of iniquity that continues to this day.

But we were talking about suitcases. When photojournalist, Robert Capa, fled Paris as the Nazis arrived, he may have had with him a suitcase full of negatives from the Spanish Civil War, photos by Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim) as well as Capa. The suitcase was lost for many years, until it turned up in Mexico in 1995. When it was found, it was hoped by many including Capa’s brother Cornell, that it would contain the negative of Falling Soldier, Capa’s most famous photo that is said to depict the moment of death of a Spanish Republican soldier. Cornell Capa’s hope was that finding the negative intact and in sequence would finally put to rest the controversy that has always followed the photo: real, or was it staged?

Unfortunately the negative was not in the case, the controversy continues, and no one is absolutely certain how the suitcase wound up in Mexico. I have a theory about that and it fits nicely in a novel.

The parallel suitcase belonged to Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish philosopher who committed suicide in France after fleeing the Nazis, appearing to make it safely to Spain on his way to America, then being turned back by Franco’s guards. Despairing, ill, fearing he would be turned over to the Nazis, and unable to summon the energy to try again, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine in Portbou, Catalonia on the French/Spanish border. The suitcase containing the manuscript of an unpublished book he had carried from Germany was never found.

In a totally unrelated postscript: Harry “Suitcase” Simpson was a well-traveled Major League ballplayer who played for seventeen different teams in the majors, minors, and Negro Leagues. There are two theories on the nickname: one because he was always being traded and two, because his size thirteen shoes reminded a sportswriter of a cartoon character named “Suitcase.” I can’t find any evidence that Harry ever lost a suitcase and as far as I know, he never met either Capa or Benjamin, but I’ll take any opportunity to throw in a baseball reference.

©2015 Ron Scherl


Back to work on Novel Two, which means relearning all the acronyms and trying to remember the factions they represented in the Spanish Civil War. So I took time out from multiple flavors of socialism to have some fun imagining a poker game that might have taken place in the Hotel Florida in Madrid sometime in 1937. Madrid was still in Republican hands although the Nationalist bombing campaign had begun. The characters are Robert Capa, Chim (David Szymin), Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernie Pyle, Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Lenoir, who is a young, entirely fictional French journalist. The game is five-card stud.


Chim: “We don’t have all day, André, Franco’s planes are due any minute.” Chim, who had changed his name from Szymin to Seymour but was known to everyone as Chim, refused to call Capa anything but André, although that wasn’t his birth name either. His parents called him Endre Friedmann.

Pyle: “It would be more accurate to call them Hitler’s planes. The Condor Legion is leading the raids.”

Cartier-Bresson: “That’s not exactly comforting.”

Hemingway: “Your king bets, Capa. What do you say?”

Capa: “I need a minute, where’s Gerda?”

Lenoir, who is not playing, answers: “I think she went upstairs to edit photos.”

Capa: “Lenoir, can you ask her…No, wait. Can you loan me 100 francs?”

Lenoir: “Sorry, Bob. I don’t have it.”

At that moment the concussion from the bombing was close enough to rattle the windows.

Cartier-Bresson: “That does it. I’m going to the shelter.”

Hemingway: “You can’t leave, Henri, Capa has to bet.”

Cartier-Bresson: “I fold. Now I can leave.”

Pyle: “You can’t fold. It’s Capa’s turn.”

Capa: “Henri, if you’re out, you can loan me 100 francs.”

HC-B: “To be returned when?”

Capa: “When I win, of course.”

HC-B, walking away: “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Chim: “I’m beginning to think the war will end before this hand, and neither ending will be pretty.”

Capa: “I raise a hundred.Henri will cover it, but it won’t be necessary. ”

Pyle: “I don’t think I want to know. I fold.”

Chim: “Me too. It’s up to you, Papa.”

Hemingway: “I’ve got to call your ass, Capa. How many of those aces do you have?”

Capa: “Two. That ought to be enough.”

Hemingway, revealing three nines, “Not quite.”

Capa: “Let’s have a drink. Lenoir, can you buy us a drink. What’s that you’re reading, a letter from your lover? Is that a smile. I’ve never seen him smile before. Is he happy?”

“Hard to tell,” Chim said. “That might be a smile on his face, I’m not sure.”

“I don’t think it’s a smile, maybe it’s a rueful smile. What would you call it, Papa?”

“Photographers, totally useless without a camera. You don’t know how to interpret or even describe, you can only record what your machines allow. It takes a writer to truly understand another man. The young man is trying to be happy but that is only part of the picture. When you study him, you see sadness behind the smile, which is not rueful at all. He does not regret; he hasn’t yet done anything wrong, in fact he hasn’t done anything at all. His sadness is not full of remorse, it is empty, unfulfilled. It is the sadness of a man who thinks he knows what he wants but cannot have it. Yet the possibility remains, it might still happen, but he cannot make it happen. He must wait for events to run their course, so he is frustrated, but his love has given him reason to hope. He is still in the running, if not yet in the lead. Gentlemen, our young Lenoir is in love, although he has not yet been able to make love to the woman he desires. He is trying to compensate by devouring, again, and again, the words that give him hope. But it is not enough. Il est triste, oui, but he is also very horny.”

That brought a great roar of laughter and cheers from the assembly of journalists.

“Bravo, Papa.” they shouted, and produced a round of drinks.

Lenoir looked up from his letter. He was not smiling: “Fuck you, all of you. Especially you, Hemingway.”

Papa roared: “Bravo Lenoir, not exactly eloquent, but the only appropriate response.”

©2015 Ron Scherl




Riga to Hamburg; Capa and Blum

Writing historical fiction can lead you in several directions at once. This morning I was trying to figure out how one could get from Riga to Hamburg in 1905. A little later on, Robert Capa led me to Léon Blum.

Let’s start with the geography. At that time, Riga was in Russia, in the Pale Settlement to be exact, the region where Jews were permitted to live. This region was created by Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century, but the use of the word “pale” as a fenced in area, and the phrase “Beyond the Pale” which we now take to mean “unacceptable” date back to 14th century Ireland. In Russia, the pale was most of the western part of the country, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. There were many Jews.

The first decade of the 20th century was not a great time to be a Jew in Russia: new restrictions were imposed daily and the pogroms spread throughout the Pale. A massive wave of emigration to the west beginning around 1880 and continuing up to the revolution of 1917 saw 2.5 million people leave Russia, the great majority of them Jews. Most went to the United States, the Lower East Side of New York City, to be precise.

The peculiar logic of prejudice dictated that while the Russians from peasants to Czars didn’t want the Jews, they had to make it difficult for them to leave, a last chance to punish. The result, as often happens, was an underground railroad of sorts from Warsaw (in Russia at the time) to the German border. And as happens just as frequently, there were good people of all religions who helped, and there were those who would help for a fee and betray if the other side offered a larger fee.

It would have been possible to travel from Riga to Warsaw by train – perhaps under the pretense of visiting relatives – and then by foot or cart to Germany with the help of friends, or to prison if you were not so lucky. Many young Jewish men who did not make it soon found themselves in the Czar’s army, an honor most did not survive. Those who did make it to Germany had to prove they had tickets on a German shipping line for passage to England or America. Tickets on the lines of French or English companies were often declared invalid since they did nothing for the German economy. The German government was willing to let the Jews pass through their territory, as long as they could profit from it. They also picked up a few marks by housing ticketed passengers waiting for a ship in some hastily built, fenced-in barracks near the docks. When the refugees finally boarded, they were faced with 7-10 days in steerage dormitories, followed by the Ellis Island entrance exams and, if all went well, a Lower East Side tenement.

Léon Blum and Robert Capa


As far as I know, Capa and Blum never met but why not? In 1936, Capa was in France and his photojournalism career was gaining momentum. Blum was creating the leftist coalition dubbed the Popular Front and campaigning as its leader. He would go on to become the first Socialist and first Jewish Prime Minister of France.

Capa did photograph Blum at a campaign rally and that’s the starting point for a fictional scene that allows me to weave them into the plot of a novel that spans the years from 1905 to 1972. Stay tuned, this is going to take a while.


I took a few days off from the Rivesaltes book to work on a photography webinar for a medical laser company, which brought me back into the world of cosmetic medicine.

When I returned from France about 18 months ago, I thought I’d be fine if I could pick up a couple days of work per month from the medical device companies I knew before I left. Didn’t happen, rien, nothing. I built a website dedicated to this specialty and got active on LinkedIn trying to rebuild relationships. Nope.

So I got serious about writing and didn’t think much about photography, even spent a few weeks in Paris and, while I did write a journal, I wound up taking more pictures with my iPhone than my camera. When I got back, I decided to take down the medical photo web site and re-start my blog. The same week, I got three calls about medical photo jobs. Probably just a coincidence.

But it feels like when I was a full-time freelance photographer and business was slow, I used to think all my clients were in a conspiracy to torture me, until they decided I had suffered enough and then they all called at once.

So it’s nice to have a few things to juggle, leaves me less time to worry, and hardly any time at all to beat myself up over things I can’t control. I’m back to work on the Rivesaltes book and researching the plight of the Harkis, those Algerians who chose to fight for France in their country’s war of independence.

More about that in future posts, but I want to return to Robert Capa. Actually this is more about Hemingway. I’ve been reading his last novel, The Garden of Eden, and was discussing it yesterday with Dave Sumner. It’s atypical Hemingway for sure and very surprising in that he deals, in very mannered and sometimes abstract prose with his own bisexuality. David and Catherine Bourne, who cut and dye their hair in the same way, tan their bodies to mahogany, trade sexual roles and make love to an openly bisexual woman can be seen as two sides of the same person. Or not. Perhaps they’re Scott and Zelda or Hemingway and one of his wives. It will never be known and doesn’t really matter.

What struck me as most un-Hemingway of all is David’s passive reaction when Catherine burns the stories he’s been writing throughout the novel. It’s an extremely violent act that I thought would beget a violent reaction. Not at all. He just drifts off with Marita, the other woman.

The novel was unfinished, then severely edited and published posthumously.

My friend Dave suggested that Hemingway like Capa may have constructed an image of himself and then felt compelled to live up to it; Capa became the fearless and carefree combat photographer, Hemingway: the macho, brawling, hunter-warrior.

They were good friends, and while I doubt either one was subject to confessional revelations in their conversations, it would have been interesting to be there, to watch and listen to these two master actors.

Any Hemingway scholars out there? Please add a comment.

Capa Two

Just a few more thoughts on Capa before we move on. Larry Walker’s comment about belief and reality strikes home: “If I believe the Capa snap is a picture of a soldier just killed, lacking any evidence one way or the other, does it matter?”

Capa’s job was to report on the war in support of the Republican cause. He was employed by Vu magazine, and the photos appeared in a special issue supporting the Republicans. He was, in short, a propagandist. If he was shooting training exercises and an editor seeing the picture with the caption, The Falling Soldier chose to believe it was a picture of a man dying, what difference does it make? Either way it succeeds in its purpose, which was to create sympathy for the Republican cause.

I doubt Capa set out to deceive, but he gave at least three different versions of the circumstances of the photo. In one he said that he was ducking down beside the hill and holding the camera over his head when he released the shutter. The film was then sent off to France to be developed. If this is true, he didn’t know what he had captured. When the magazine claimed it was the moment of death, what could Capa do?

If he contradicted the editors, he would lose all credibility, probably forever, and certainly lose his job. He would also damage the cause he passionately supported. Capa was a gambler: sometimes poker, sometimes he put his life on the line. In this case, when everyone felt he held the winning hand, and it would have been foolish to fold, he went all in. Was it a bluff? Maybe. We’ll probably never know, but it makes for a very interesting story.

A fascinating and enigmatic man who hated war and was never happy when he was away from it, Capa spent his life surrounded by beautiful women, poker playing artists, and soldiers fighting for their cause, their country, or just their lives. He wasn’t a very good poker player – Huston would win back all the fees he paid him to shoot stills for his films – and he was never able to commit to any of the women he loved. He was a great war photographer and a dedicated anti-fascist who lost his life covering the ridiculously futile French colonial effort in Vietnam for the vehemently anti-communist Life magazine of Henry Luce. The final irony in a complex life.

Here’s a link to Magnum Photos, the cooperative of photojournalists founded by Capa and others where you can view The Falling Soldier and a whole lot of other great images.