“I’ll tell you what ‘anti-American’ is..It’s what governments and their vested interests call those who honour America by objecting to war and the theft of resources and believing in all of humanity. There are millions of these anti-Americans in the United States. They are ordinary people who belong to no elite and who judge their government in moral terms, though they would call it common decency. They are not vain. They are the people with a wakeful conscience, the best of America’s citizens. They can be counted on. They were in the South with the civil rights movement, ending slavery. They were in the streets, demanding an end to the wars in Asia. Sure, they disappear from view now and then, but they are like seeds beneath the snow. I would say they are truly exceptional.” (Martha Gellhorn to John Pilger)

American journalist Martha Gellhorn (1908–1998) was one of the first female war correspondents ever and one of the best American war reporters of the twentieth century. Instead of recognizing her for her reporting or for her fiction writing, the public often remembered her as an ex-wife of the legendary American novelist Ernest Hemingway. But Gellhorn, “a cocky, raspy-voiced, chain-smoking maverick,” as New York Times writer Rick Lyman described her, lived a life at least as exciting, world-spanning, and passionate as her ex-husband’s.

Wanderlust

Martha Ellis Gellhorn was born in St. Louis on November 8, 1908. Her father was a doctor and her mother an advocate for women’s right to vote. She attended a progressive private school her parents founded in St. Louis, then went to Bryn Mawr College, leaving in 1927 to write for the New Republic and take a job in Albany, New York, as a crime reporter. In February of 1930 she traveled to Europe, paying for the boat trip across the ocean by writing a brochure for the Holland American Line. In Paris, while working a series of odd jobs, she met French writer Bertrand de Jouvenel, and they married, or at least presented themselves as husband and wife; it was not clear whether he had successfully divorced his previous wife.

After returning to St. Louis with de Jouvenel in 1931, Gellhorn traveled the American Southwest as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and wrote a novel, What Mad Pursuit , about a protagonist much like her, a cynical female reporter who has many love affairs. The novel attracted theattention of Harry Hopkins, a top official in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, and Hopkins hired Gellhorn to travel the country and write about the effects of the Great Depression. Gellhorn fabricated a story about a lynching of a black man in the South and encouraged North Carolina factory workers she was writing about to break the windows of their factory in protest. The window-breaking cost her her job, while the lynching story won her the praise of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who knew Gellhorn’s mother from college (and presumably did not know of the fabrication). The line between truth and fiction remained unclear in Gellhorn’s book of Depression era writings, The Trouble I’ve Seen , published in 1936.

Hemingway and War

Gellhorn met Ernest Hemingway, whose writing she admired, at Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, Florida, around Christmas in 1936. When he told her he was heading to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, she decided to go too. She came to Madrid in the spring of 1937 carrying a single knapsack and $50, to cover the war for Collier’s Weekly . Soon Gellhorn, then 28, and Hemingway, 37, became lovers. Like many writers and artists of her generation, including Hemingway, Gellhorn sympathized passionately with the democratically elected socialist government of Spain in its fight against the fascist generals led by Francisco Franco. Her Spanish dispatches, difficult to find in print today, “revealed a gift for unflinching observation and unforced pathos” and “were much better than Hemingway’s,” wrote Marc Weingarten in the Washington Post .

“In Barcelona, it was perfect bombing weather,” Gellhorn wrote, describing Franco’s bombers closing in on Republican territory in November of 1938, as quoted by Lyman. “The cafes along the Ramblas were crowded. There was nothing much to drink; a sweet fizzy poison called orangeade and a horrible liquid supposed to be sherry. There was, of course, nothing to eat. Everyone was out enjoying the cold afternoon sunlight. No bombers had come over for at least two hours.” When the Spanish fascists won the war in 1939, she was crushed. “Nothing in my life has so affected my thinking as the losing of that war,” she wrote in a letter to her friend Hortense Flexner, according to Weingarten. “It is, very banally, like the death of all loved things.”

Gellhorn and Hemingway married in November of 1940. Soon after, she took him along to Hong Kong so she could write for Collier’s about the Chinese Army’s retreat from the Japanese invasion. The marriage was difficult. He wanted her to be a deferential wife; she wanted to live life like he did. She was idealistic, tormented by the slave labor conditions she witnessed in Hong Kong; he stoically accepted the world as it was. Both had terrible tempers. “Ernest and I really are afraid of each other, each one knowing that the other is the most violent person either one knows,” she wrote to Flexner, as quoted by Weingarten. They broke up 1945 while they were staying at the Dorchester Hotel in London. Afterward, Gellhorn would call Hemingway a bully, while he called her phony and pretentious. In later years, she resented having more fame for being Hemingway’s ex-wife than for her own work. “I was a writer before I met him and I have been a writer for 45 years since,” she complained, according to the Chicago Tribune . “Why should I be a footnote to someone else’s life?”

During World War II, Gellhorn often left Hemingway behind to go abroad and report. She covered the 1939 Soviet attack on Finland and the German air attacks on London. In 1944 Hemingway, instead of Gellhorn, was hired by Collier’s to cover the Allies’ D-Day landing in France; she covered the invasion anyway, by stowing away on a hospital ship and going onshore bearing a stretcher. “She brought a fresh approach to war journalism, writing passionately about the dreadful impact of war on the innocent,” her Washington Post obituary said. Near the end of the war, she witnessed the Allied forces’ liberation of Dachau, the infamous concentration camp near Munich. Her article has become one of the most famous accounts of the discovery of the camps. “Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence,” she wrote, as quoted by Lyman, “the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice. They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see, if you are lucky.” The experience forever darkened her outlook on life, so that she was never again able to be as happy as before, she later wrote.

Reporter, Advocate, Novelist

After World War II, Gellhorn left the United States, criticizing it for being a colonial power. She lived in several countries, from France and Italy to Cuba, Mexico, and Kenya, before settling in Great Britain in her later years, splitting her time between a London apartment and a Welsh cottage. The legacy of the Nazi atrocities continued to occupy her. She covered the trial of German war criminal Adolf Eichmann for the Atlantic Monthly . She went to Israel in 1967 to cover the Arab-Israeli War with from an impassioned pro-Israel standpoint, explaining that she saw conflict through the prism of the Holocaust.

In 1966 Gellhorn traveled to Vietnam to write about the war for the London Guardian . Her dispatches openly protested the war. “People cannot survive our bombs,” she wrote, as quoted by John Pilger of the New Statesman . “We are uprooting the people from the lovely land where they have lived for generations; and the uprooted are given not bread but stone. Is this an honorable way for a great nation to fight a war 8,000 miles from its safe homeland?” The South Vietnamese government banned her from returning there, sending her into a long depression.

To her supporters, Gellhorn was heroic to embrace advocacy journalism and, later in life, to criticize most war journalism as too trusting of generals and governments. For Gellhorn and her peers, such as British journalist George Orwell, “the idea was never to just see the show or get the story,” wrote Susie Linfield in the Nation . They believed, Linfield explained, that “journalism equaled truth, and that truth would inspire people (especially those in the supposedly civilized democracies) to protest, to intervene.” A reporter’s job, Gellhorn once said, according to the Chicago Tribune , was simply to “to limit yourself to what you see or hear and not suppress or invent.” But her critics charged she broke her own rules to fit her political convictions. “This essential contradiction—not writing what you knew to be true, in order to uphold a greater good—was something that Martha would avoid confronting all her life,” claimed her biographer, Caroline Moorehead, as quoted by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post .

Gellhorn had hoped for fame as a novelist, and her fiction often attracted good reviews, but did not sell well. The novels included A Stricken Field , published in 1939, about refugees in Prague just before the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Liana , from 1944, about a rich white man and mulatto woman marrying in the French Caribbean. In the 1950s, when she retreated somewhat from the war correspondent’s life, seeking mental calm, she wrote the novels The Honeyed Peace and Two by Two . Critics sometimes suggested that she had a stronger command of novellas, as in the collections The Weather in Africa from 1988 and The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn in 1993. Her memoir, Travels With Myself and Another , was published in 1978.

Though Gellhorn had many lovers over the years, she never found the perfect companion. In 1953 she married her third husband, T.S. Matthews, a managing editor at Time . The marriage broke up in 1963, after she discovered that Matthews had carried on a long affair with another woman. In later life Gellhorn became critical of the institution of marriage. She gave birth to one son, George Alexander Gellhorn, whom she raised herself, and she adopted a son, Sandy Matthews.

Gellhorn traveled to El Salvador to cover the brutal war in the 1980s between the U.S.-backed military and Marxist rebels. Later that decade, her failing body slowed her down. In her late seventies a botched cataract operation damaged her sight. She covered the United States’ 1989 invasion of Panama but declared herself too old to go to Bosnia after war broke out there in 1993. Her last foreign reporting trip was to Brazil in the mid-1990s, to cover violence against its street people. She wrote a lengthy article about Brazil for the literary magazine Granta , but only with great difficulty, since her poor eyesight prevented her from reviewing what she had written.

Stricken with liver and ovarian cancer and various other illnesses, Gellhorn hastened the impending end of her life by taking a fatal dose of medicine. She died on February 15, 1998, at her London home. She was 89.

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“I didn’t like sex at all”

Martha Gellhorn was a gorgeous, brilliant foreign correspondent once married to Hemingway. But underneath her glamorous exterior, her letters reveal a woman of awe-inspiring rage.

Stephen Amidon
August 12, 2006 4:47PM (UTC)

If Martha Gellhorn had not existed, George Cukor would have probably invented her. Born into an affluent St. Louis family in 1908 and educated at Bryn Mawr (where she was two years behind Katharine Hepburn), Gellhorn went on to become one of her generation’s most respected foreign correspondents, sending back dispassionate, shrewd dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, World War II and the Vietnamese conflict. Blond and beautiful, she married Ernest Hemingway and counted among her lovers legendary World War II Gen. James Gavin and billionaire Laurance Rockefeller. Her seemingly infinite list of famous friends included Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, H.G. Wells and Adlai Stevenson. By her own estimate she traveled to more than 50 countries and owned houses in at least six of them. On the downside, she was by all accounts a lousy cook, though one imagines Cukor would have been able to find comic relief in that shortcoming.

Given Gellhorn’s iconic status, perhaps the greatest virtue of Caroline Moorehead’s dexterously edited selection of her letters is the way it depicts the irascibly human personality behind the legend. Though Gellhorn was usually on the side of the angels when it came to politics, she could also be willfully naive on the subject of Israel and downright repellent when speaking about the Arabs. Possessor of a remarkably full dance card of charming lovers, she was by her own admission indifferent to sex and continually disappointed by romance. A woman whose wartime reports were filled with compassion for children, she could be a mother from hell to her adopted son. Most notably, her letters reveal that her glamorous exterior and her cool journalistic prose concealed a volcanic, lifelong anger at the liars, frauds and politicians she deemed to be ruining the world she loved to travel.

Although the man with whom Gellhorn will always be most closely associated is Hemingway, he was by no means her first big love. That honor goes to Bertrand de Jouvenel, an unhappily married left-wing French journalist whom the 22-year-old Gellhorn met soon after her arrival in Paris with a typewriter and $75 in cash. Her letters from this time are among the book’s most poignant, not just for their tales of impossible love (de Jouvenel’s wife would not divorce him) but also for the prescience with which Gellhorn already viewed her role in a world hostile to ambitious, self-reliant women. “It’s all getting me down,” she wrote to a former high school teacher in 1931. “I think it’s horrible to scare people about life merely because they are female and have the emotional make-up — in certain respects — of males, or what males supposedly have.” Later, she writes with remarkable foresight about what will be her lifelong difficulty embracing domesticity. There is, she already knows at the age of 24, “too much space in the world. I am bewildered by it, and mad with it. And this urge to run away from what I love is a sort of sadism I no longer pretend to understand.”

After a break with de Jouvenel and the unexpected death of her beloved father, the 27-year-old Gellhorn met Hemingway at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West, Fla. Although the world’s most famous novelist was still married to Pauline Pfeiffer, it was Gellhorn who accompanied him to Spain, where she covered the civil war as a special correspondent for Collier’s magazine. Her letters from Spain to Eleanor Roosevelt are among the book’s most memorable (and its saddest, as it is doubtful that our current first lady cultivates similarly provocative and enriching correspondents). “And you know something else,” Gellhorn writes Roosevelt from Barcelona in 1938, “this country is far too beautiful for the Fascists to have it. They have already made Germany and Italy and Austria so loathsome that even the scenery is inadequate, and every time I drive on the roads here and see the rock mountains and the tough terraced fields, and the umbrella pines above the beaches, and the dust colored villages and the gravel river beds and the peasant’s faces, I think: Save Spain for decent people, it’s too beautiful to waste.”

Gellhorn moved with Hemingway to La Finca Vigia, their famous Cuban estate, in early 1939, but before long the spacious world beckoned her, and she was soon back in Europe to cover the Russian-Finnish war. From the beginning of their marriage, there is evidence in her letters that she was living with an egomaniacal child who did not like sharing a bed with a literary rival. A spoof pre-wedding contract contains what turns out to be some unintended truth when Gellhorn promises Hemingway that “he and his business are what matter to me in this life, and that also I recognize that a very fine and sensitive writer cannot be left alone for two months and sixteen days.” Readers who are tempted to look unkindly on Gellhorn’s wifely dutifulness here will be relieved to find that 10 years later, upon reading Hemingway’s “Across the River and Into the Trees,” she writes to a friend that “I feel quite sick, I cannot describe this to you. Shivering sick. I watch him adoring his image, with such care and such tolerance and such accuracy in detail … I weep for the eight years I spent … worshipping his image with him, and I weep for whatever else I was cheated of due to that time-serving.” After the bitterness wore off, Gellhorn was able (in a 1969 letter to her son, Sandy) to view her relationship with Hemingway with as much wisdom and equanimity as any of his celebrated biographers:

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“He hated his mother, with reason. She was solid hell. A big false lying woman; everything about her was virtuous and untrue. Now I know enough to know that no woman should ever marry a man who hated his mother … Deep in Ernest, due to his mother, going back to the indestructible first memories of childhood, was mistrust and fear of women. Which he suffered from always, and made women suffer; and which shows in his writing.”

As their marriage dissolved during World War II, Gellhorn focused on her career, though she was frustrated by the U.S. Army’s refusal to let female correspondents serve on the front lines. To overcome this, she simply evaded her handlers and worked without escorts from D-Day until the war’s end. When she was picked up by soldiers of the 82nd Airborne, she managed to avoid deportation by causing their legendary young commander, Gen. James Gavin, to fall in love with her. At war’s end she adopted an infant from an Italian orphanage whom she named Sandy and moved to Mexico, then Rome, from where she watched the plague of McCarthyism squander European goodwill toward her native country. “Having spent my youth reporting on Fascism in Europe, I have a haunted sense of déjà vu, as I watch the ugly, pointless, witless process beginning at home and spreading back to Europe,” she wrote to two-time Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson. “As a new experience, [Americans abroad] realize what it is to suffer from moral shame for one’s country.”

In 1954 she married former Time magazine editor Tom Matthews and settled down in London to a cozy life of socializing. “The main thing to keep firmly fixed in your mind is: Tom is not Ernest. Correspondence will reach the addressee, unopened. Lunch will never be à trois. Passes will be freely received in the spirit in which they are delivered. All is well. No purdah, no chains, no scenes, no one shooting out the living room windows. Times are different now.” Not surprisingly, security brought Gellhorn an ample dose of discontent. Marriage to Matthews taught her something most readers will have spotted 10 years earlier — she was not built for lengthy cohabitation. Although she was prone to intense relationships with remarkable men (a long, secret affair with Laurance Rockefeller, brother of David and Nelson, was to come), her heart was never wholly in it. Nor, it seems, was her body, according to this 1972 letter:

“I started living outside the sexual conventions long before anyone did such dangerous stuff and I may say hell broke loose and everyone thought unbridled sexual passion was the excuse. Whereas I didn’t like sex at all … all my life idiotically, I thought sex seemed to matter so desperately to the man who wanted it that to withhold was like withholding bread, an act of selfishness … what has always really absorbed me in life is what is happening outside. I accompanied men and was accompanied in action, in the extrovert part of life; I plunged into that; that was something altogether to be shared. But not sex; that seemed to be their delight and all I got was a pleasure of being wanted, I suppose, and the sort of tenderness (not nearly enough) that a man gives when he is satisfied. I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents.”

After her inevitable breakup with Matthews, Gellhorn remained in London, which was to be her home until her death in 1998, though she also spent time at her houses in Kenya and Wales. Late middle age was tough on her, as she watched her looks and energy fade at just the time her professional star dimmed. “I have always looked forward to my old age,” she wrote in 1960, “being more and more convinced that it would be far funnier than this neither fish-nor-fowl period of middle age, which I am bound to admit bores me.”

The one quality she did not lose was her anger, which only seemed to increase as she got older, allowing her to become the sort of feisty grand dame who always seems to be surrounded by a coterie of younger artists and intellectuals. “I never for a moment feared Communism in the U.S. but have always feared Fascism; it’s a real American trait,” she wrote after observing Barry Goldwater in 1964. She was particularly incensed by the Vietnam War. “I cannot endure this hideous wicked stupidity; to be at once cruel and a failure is too much,” she wrote about Lyndon Johnson. “Our President is a disaster and will get worse; never trust a Texan farther than you can throw a rhino.” Her white-hot rage at the war was only stoked by a 1966 trip to Vietnam for the Guardian newspaper (that she was forced to pay for herself). Her 1971 letter to Pentagon Papers liberator Daniel Ellsberg is eerily prescient about our current constitutional mess: “The President assumes that the American people are moral imbeciles … The Founding Fathers cannot have intended a President and his small group of appointed advisors to perform like a monarch surrounded by his court. As if the people’s representatives and the people themselves were a general nuisance, and the job is to keep the whole tiresome bunch quiet: manipulate them.” Even more prophetic is a 1962 letter to Stevenson, in which she claims that the “people of the United States of America need suffering to learn dignity; but I hope to Christ they are spared it, simply because they would not suffer alone and the rest of the world has had enough.”

Less inspired is her lifelong fealty to Israel (brought about by a 1945 visit to a newly liberated Dachau), which caused her to refer to an Egyptian soldier in the Suez crisis as a “Wog” and leads to the following regrettable passage in a letter to Leonard Bernstein: “[The Arabs] are not endearing … depressing and idiot, is my feeling, and inimical as well. I see perfectly why they hate Israel; it’s too clean, and it makes some sense out of real life.” Her bluntness also falls flat when turned upon her 20-year-old son Sandy, who is on the receiving end of a letter that might have just as easily come from the pen of Lady Macbeth. “You are a poor and stupid little fellow in my eyes. I’d be so damned ashamed to be you, I’d want to jump off a cliff.”

Despite these sour notes, Gellhorn’s capacity for anger remains the most beguiling aspect of this fine collection. Although there is plenty she can teach her successors about what it means to be a truly independent woman and a ferociously truth-seeking journalist in a world that does not always appreciate either of these virtues, it is her rage that truly endures, as freshly appropriate to our dark times as it was for the era in which it was born.

Stephen Amidon

Stephen Amidon is currently at work on the screenplay for his most recent novel, “Human Capital.”