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Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998)


American novelist and short story writer, one of the most celebrated war reporters. Gellhorn dedicated herself to journalism in the early 1930s and covered then conflicts from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam and Central America. She was married for a time to Ernest Hemingway, her Unwilling Companion, a fact that later was a burden for her and affected the reception of her later work.

I wanted to see for myself, not hear. U.C. did not mind what I did as long as he didn't have to do it too. Much as I like conversations, I like it only in bursts for a few hours, not marathons, and seldom in group formation. I slipped away from the large leather chairs. U.C. used to say, kindly, "M. is going to take the pulse of the nation." (from Travels with Myself and Another, 1978)

Martha Ellis Gellhorn was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of George Gellhorn, an eminent gynecologist, and Edna (Fischell) Gellhorn. Both of her parents had strong views about the world and their house was one of the very few white homes, where black people came to dinner. Edna, like her husband, was half Jewish, but religion did not play a prominent role in the upbringing of their children. Gellhorn attended the John Burroughs School and then studied one year at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. Deciding to become a journalist, she never graduated. In 1929 she worked for the New Republic and the Hearst Times Union, though she had no training in journalism. 

In the beginning of the 1930s, Gellhorn went to Europe to start her career as a foreign correspondent. To save money, she talked the Holland America ship line into giving her free passage in return for an article for their trade magazine. She worked in Paris for various papers, including Vogue, the United Press, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She also joined a group of young French pacifists, believing that "there could be no peace in Europe without Franco-German rapprochement." During this period she met her first husband, Bertrand de Jouvenal, a French political scientist, journalist and marquis. His stepmother was Colette. Gellhorn called the French writer "a terrible woman. Absolute, utter hell."

Gellhorn returned to America in 1934  according to some sources to have an abortion. She made her debut as a novelist with What Mad Pursuit (1934), which she had written in Europe. The highly autobiographical work of the lives of three American students after college was called in the New York Times crude, fresh, and appealing. Gellhorn later disawoved the odd story. Harry Hopkins, director of Federal Emergency Relief Administration, hired her to report on the Relief programme in industrial areas. The Trouble I've Seen (1936) was her report in the form of four short stories. Its preface was written by H.G. Wells, with whom she had a liaison.

Through her work, Gellhorn met the President and Eleanor Roosevelt, who became her lifelong friend. Wells had on open invitation to visit the White House, and  in 1934 and 1935 Gellhorn and Wells were both guests of the first family. During his trip to Washington, Wells met Gellhorn and began to correspond with her. Gellhorn signed her letters to Wells with the name "Stooge." After spending some time in Hollywood at the home of Charlie Chaplin, Wells went with Gellhorn to Connecticut. He later recalled: "Martha in skiing trousers with her shock of ruddy golden hair in disorder, her brown eyes alight and her face rosy with frost, is unforgettable." Wells and Gellhorn continued their friendship for many years.

While traveling in Germany, Gellhorn started another novel. The Nazis had seized power three years earlier and Gellhorn eventually found the atmosphere too oppressive to write fiction. At the end of 1936 Gellhorn traveled to Key West in Florida, where she met Ernest Hemingway at Sloppy Joe's. Gellhorn was twenty-eight, a natural blond with long legs, an established writer and ambitious journalist, whose independence and good looks attracted Hemingway. While covering the Spanish civil war for Collier's Weekly in 1937-38 in Madrid, she met Hemingway again.

"Thanks to Collier's," Gellhorn once said, "I had the chance to see the life of my time, which was war." When the English writer George Orwell, who fought alongside the United Workers Marxist Party, became disillusioned with the policies of the Republicans and especially Communist, Gellhorn never changed her opinion that she was on the right side, fighting against the combined force of European fascism. Gellhorn and Hemingway celebrated Christmas in Barcelona. Next year they spent some time together in Paris. Hemingway was still struggling with his divorce, but in 1939 they settled in Cuba, at the Finca Vigia. The lights of Havanna could be seen from the main house.

In the late 1930s Gellhorn traveled in Czechoslovakia and Finland. She witnessed in 1939 the first weeks of the Winter War between Finland the Soviet Union. When the Soviet air forces bombed the city, as a declaration of war, she was in Helsinki. "An Italian journalist had remarked in Helsinki that anyone who could survive the Finnish climate could survive anything and we decided with admiration that the Finns were a tough and unrelenting race, seeing them take this war as if there were nothing very remarkable in three million people fighting against a nation of 180 million." (Gellhorn in The Face of War, 1959) Gellhorn also met President Svinhufvud, whose name she wrote "Szinhuszue". Svinhufvud offered his guests small apples from his orchard. At the Karelian front Gellhorn interviewed Finnish fighter pilots, astonished by their age: "they ought to be going to college dances," she remarked. Gellhorn's reports emphasized that Finland was not the aggressor and deeply influenced the public opinion in the United States about the war.

Gellhorn married Hemingway on November 20, 1940, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Hemingway's friend, Robert Capa, photographed the ceremony for Life. The author dedicated his famous novel about the Spanish Civil war, For Whom the Bells Toll (1940), to Gellhorn. Maria in the book was partly modelled after her. "Her hair was the golden brow of a grain field," Hemingway wrote of his heroine. In the film version of the book, Ingrid Bergman played Maria, but hair was darker than Gellhorn's. However, Gellhorn had suggested her for the role.

The first years of their marriage were happy, although Gellhorn was never really attracted to Hemingway, or believed in romantic love. Hemingway taught her to ride, and shoot, and fish. In the afternoon they played tennis. Gellhorn's second novel, A Stricken Field (1940), was set in Prague and dealt with European refugees. It was followed by a collection of short stories, The Heart of Another. (1941)

In 1941 Gellhorn took Hemingway with her on a long, 30,000 mile journey to China. "What old Indian likes to lose his squaw with a hard winter coming on?" he had said. Gellhorn was sent to China by Collier's to report on the China-Japan war. They met General Chiang Kai-shek ("he had no teeth"), and continued to Burma, where they stayed for a period. Hemingway returned to Hong Kong and Gellhorn left for Singapore and Java. "She gets to the place," Hemingway affirmed the readers of the magazine, "gets the story, writes it and comes home." In Travels with Myself and Another (1978) Gellhorn returned to her adventures with his 'U.C.' or 'Unwilling Companion.' She had also other terms for Hemingway  'Ernest the monster,' 'Ernest the myth,' and 'E' ("seriously unkempt as usual"). Heminway himself called Gellhorn "the most ambitious woman who ever lived."

In the early 1940s, Hemingway looked for German submarines in the Caribbean, and Gellhorn covered the start of World War II in England. In 1942 she joined him on his boat, the 38-foot diesel-powered Pilar. She tried to lure Hemingway to Europe, saying "the place is crying out for you". From 1943 to 1945 Gellhorn reported from England, Italy, France, and Germany. Just before the Invasion of Normandy in 1944, Hemingway travelled to England as a correspondent, but he did not help Martha to get a seat on the same flight. And he had replaced Gellhorn as Collier's leading correspondent. Two weeks later she arrived to London  she had crossed the Atlantic on Norwegian freighter carrying dynamite and amphibious personnel carriers. At the Dorchester Hotel she met Hemingway. He had bruises and a concussion after an automobile crash. They quarreled fiercely, Gellhorn took a separate room, and from that moment Gellhorn practically continued her life without him. Hemingway had also found another woman, Mary Welsh, who become his fourth wife. Gellhorn went ashore with the troops, landing on Omaha Beach; Hemingway observed the D-Day landing below the Normandy cliffs.

Gellhorn and Hemingway were divorced in 1945. Gellhorn's personal possessions, including her typewriter and swim suits, were in Cuba, but Hemingway did not bother to send them to her. Gellhorn's work as a war correspondent for Collier's continued until 1946. After the war she served as a correspondent in Java. Her only play, Love Goes to Press (1947), written in collaboration with Virginia Cowles, did not gain much success. Liana (1944) was a story of a mulatto woman. "True, there is a suspiciously Hemingway-like handling of the dialogue," wrote John Lucas in Contemporary Novelists (1972), "but for the rest there is a sharpness, a truth of observation in the studies of Liana herself and of Marc that would make the novel worth reading if there were nothing else to commend it." The Wine of Astonishment (1948) fallowed a U.S. in Europe in World War II. "Anything at all would do," thinks one of the characters, Lieutenant Colonel Smithers, "except this hour to hour hanging on, with time like a rock in your brain." A young soldier, Jacob Levy, confronts man's inhumanity toward man in Germany. The book was partly based on Gellhorn's experiences. She had been at Dachau a week after American soldiers had discovered the concentration camp.

In 1949 Gellhorn adopted a son from an Italian orphanage, Sandy Gellhorn. Although Gellhorn was first a devoted mother, she was not a truly maternal woman, and she left Sandy to the care of her relatives in Englewood for a long period of time. Due to problems with Sandy's entry to the United States, Gellhorn resided during the 1950s in Cuernevaca, Mexico. In 1954 she married T.S. Matthews; they were divorced in 1963.

In 1958 Gellhorn received an O. Henry Award. The sale of a short story to television enabled her to pay in 1962 her own way to Africa. Gellhorn's love affair of the continent lasted off and on for thirteen years. Much of her time she spent in Kenya, where she had a residence in the Rift Valley. Eventually she fond hopeless to try to write about the "natural world where everything was older than time and I was the briefest object in the landscape." One morning she was attacked on a beach  according to her friend, she was raped. Later she wrote a short story dealing with the traumatic experience.

Between 1934 and 1967, Gellhorn published six novels. She covered wars in Vietnam in the 1960s, and the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 for the Guardian of London. "The American army in Vietnam was an army of occupation, victims and victimizers both," she later wrote. "Victims because they were wrongly sent 10,000 miles from home, to take part  even as mildly as storekeeper, clerk, cook  in a political aggression. Victimizers because they looked on Vietnamese as a lesser breed..." In 1962 Gellhorn made a tour of German universities. Bored by "dutiful children reciting the approved ideas" she swore never to return to Germany.

After visiting the Soviet Union in 1972 and meeting Mrs. Mandelstam, the widow of the poet and essayist Osip Mandelstam (1891-1838), she concluded that "the Russians seemed to have a peculiar historical genius for oppressing and being oppressed. In the mid-eighties she reported on the wars in Central America, At the age of 81, she wrote on the U.S. invasion of Panama  she went there without any hotel revervations. A passenger in a taxi warned: "You should not be traveling alone." The View From the Ground (1988) was a second collection of her non-fiction. Martha Gellhorn died on 15th February, 1998, in London.

Gellhorn had a sharp eye for significant details, and her writing was clear, clever, and precise  all qualities of a good reporter. She could describe vividly decades later, how people were dressed and what they discussed on particular occasions. However, she complained that she had a weak memory. "But I have no grasp of time and no control over my memory," she wrote in her essay 'Memory,' and added: "What is the use of in having lived so long, travelled so widely, listened and looked so hard if at the end you could know what you know?" (in London Review of Books, December 1996) A film centering on the romance between Gellhorn and Hemingway, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, premiered in 2012.

For further reading: Contemporary Novelists, ed. by James Vinson (1972); Women of the Word: The Great Foreign Correspondents by J. Edwards (1988); Women War Correspondents of World War II by L. Wagner (1989); Hemingway and His World by A.E. Hotchner (1989); Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave: The Story of Martha Gellhorn by C. Rollyson (1990); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 2, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Shadow Lovers: The Last Affairs of H. G. Wells by Andrea Lynn (2001); Martha Gellhorn: A Life by Caroline Moorehead (2004)

Selected works:

  • What Mad Pursuit, 1934
  • The Trouble I've Seen, 1936
  • A Stricken Field, 1940
  • The Heart of Another, 1941
  • Liana, 1944
  • Love Goes to Press: A Comedy in Three Acts, 1947 (with Virginia Cowles)
  • The Wine of Astonishment, 1948 (as Point of No Return in 1989)
  • The Honeyed Peace: Stories, 1953
  • Two by Two, 1958
  • The Face of War, 1959 (rev. ed. 1988)
  • His Own Man, 1961
  • Pretty Tales for Tired People, 1965
  • Vietnam: A New Kind of War, 1966
  • The Lowest Trees Have Tops, 1967
  • Travels with Myself and Another, 1978
  • The Weather in Africa, 1978
  • The View From the Ground, 1988
  • The Short Novels of Martha Gellhorn, 1991
  • The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn, 1993
  • The Letters of Martha Gellhorn, 2006 (ed by Caroline Moorehead)

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