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.
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 the attention 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.
Chicago Tribune, February 17, 1998.
New Republic, September 11-18, 2006.
New Statesman, March 20, 1998.
New York Times, February 17, 1998.
Washington Post, February 17, 1998; November 9, 2003; August 20, 2006.
"Gellhorn, Martha." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gellhorn-martha
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