Gellhorn, Martha (1908–1998)

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Gellhorn, Martha (1908–1998)

American journalist and fiction writer who was the leading female war correspondent of World War II. Born Martha Ellis Gellhorn on November 8, 1908, in St. Louis, Missouri; died of cancer at her home in London, England, on February 16, 1998; daughter of Edna Fischel Gellhorn (a community activist) and George Gellhorn (a gynecologist); attended John Burroughs School, St. Louis, 1923–26; Bryn Mawr College, 1926–29; married Bertrand de Jouvenel (a journalist), in summer 1933; married Ernest Hemingway (a novelist), on November 21, 1940; married Thomas Stanley Matthews (a magazine editor), on February 4, 1954; children: (adopted) George Alexander.

Became war correspondent for Collier's Weekly, Spain (1937–38), Finland (1939), China (1940–41), England, Italy, France, Germany (1941–45); was a freelance fiction and nonfiction writer.

Selected publications:

What Mad Pursuit (Frederick A. Stokes, 1934); The Trouble I've Seen (William Morrow, 1936); A Stricken Field (Scribner, 1940); The Heart of Another (Scribner, 1941); Liana (Scribner, 1943); (play, with Virginia Cowles) Love Goes to Press (1946); Wine of Astonishment (Scribner, 1948, reprinted as The Point of No Return, New American Library, 1989); The Honeyed Peace (Doubleday, 1953); Two by Two (Simon and Schuster, 1958); The Face of War (1959); His Own Man (Simon and Schuster, 1961); Pretty Tales for Tired People (Simon and Schuster, 1965); The Lowest Trees Have Tops (Dodd, Mead, 1967); The Weather in Africa (Dodd, Mead, 1978); Travels with Myself and Another (Dodd, Mead, 1978); (editor) The Face of War (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988); (editor) The View from the Ground (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988); The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

Wearing gray flannel trousers, a sweater, and a warm windbreaker and carrying only a knapsack and some $50, Martha Gellhorn reached the Andorran-Spanish frontier in mid-March 1937 and crossed into Spain. Once over the border, the trim blonde took an antiquated wooden train to Barcelona and, after two days, reached the Spanish capital of Madrid, where she found herself in the midst of a particularly violent civil war. As she walked through the debris, bitterly cold and exhausted, Gellhorn saw how much the city itself had become a battlefield. She made her way to the basement restaurant of the Gran Via Hotel, the only designated eating place for correspondents. Ernest Hemingway greeted her with the words, "I knew you'd get here, daughter, because I fixed it so you could." Aware that the prominent novelist had really done nothing on her behalf, Gellhorn was furious over his brag-gadocio, not to mention his failure to give her credit for her own resourcefulness. As a novice in war reporting, however, she was utterly dependent upon such seasoned correspondents. Besides, she already felt strongly attracted to him.

Martha Gellhorn soon became a veteran correspondent. Together with Hemingway, she took blood to hospitals in Guadalajara, visited American trenches at Morata, and surveyed the Loyalist armies from the 4,800-foot Sierra de Guadarrama. She proofread Hemingway's dispatches, dashing down bombed streets to deliver them to the Spanish censors. She drove a station wagon for Norman Bethune, a Canadian medical doctor of pronouncedly radical views. She later remembered: "We were all in it together, the certainty that we were right.… We knew, we just knew… that Spain was the place to stop Fascism. This was it. It was one of those moments in history when there was no doubt." Little wonder Hemingway dedicated his novel of the war, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), with the simple words, "This book is for Martha Gellhorn."

She was born on November 8, 1908, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her German-born father George Gellhorn was a prominent gynecologist who taught at both Washington and St. Louis universities. Her mother Edna Fischel Gellhorn was a leading community activist, who was particularly involved in the suffrage movement. Both parents were strong nonconformists, raising their four children to be distinct individualists. Family discussions followed Robert's Rules of Order, with father George presiding. Disputes were resolved by consulting reference books.

Martha, or "Marty" as she was often called, spent grades one through nine at Washington University's Mary Institute. She then attended the experimental John Burroughs School, which had just been founded by such liberal St. Louis parents as her mother. In 1926, she entered Bryn Mawr College, Edna's alma mater. Though she excelled at writing poetry and involvement in contemporary politics, Gellhorn found the atmosphere too cloistered and left at the end of her junior year.

In the summer of 1929, she began her writing career with the prestigious New York weekly, the New Republic, but soon sought on-the-spot reporting. Hence, she simply walked into the office of Hearst's Albany Times Union, wearing dungarees and announcing, "My name is Martha Gellhorn. I want to work." Coverage of social events, deaths, and accidents quickly lost their charm, however, and within six months she left the paper.

In February 1930, Gellhorn bartered her way to Europe. In exchange for writing a laudatory article for the trade paper of the Holland-American line, she was given a free trip—third class in steerage. Settling on Paris' Left Bank, she went through a succession of jobs. At one point, she wrote advertising copy; at another, she did freelance work for the United Press. Her first real break came when she joined the Paris staff of the American fashion magazine Vogue.

By the fall of 1930, Gellhorn was engaged in special assignments for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Stories ranged from women delegates to the League of Nations at Geneva to striking textile workers in Roubaix-Tourcoing, France. By this time, she was traveling throughout Europe with Bertrand de Jouvenel, a radical French journalist of aristocratic background. A married man, Jouvenel had caused a scandal by walking out on his wife in order to accompany Gellhorn.

In the spring of 1931, Gellhorn returned to the United States, where she engaged in a brief affair with St. Louis poet Joseph Pennell. By the end of September, however, she was reunited with Jouvenel, with whom she traveled in the United States and Europe. In the summer of 1933, they married in Spain, though within a year the union was in trouble. Gellhorn was suspicious of Jouvenel's idée fixe that dedicated French and German youth could prevent another fratricidal world conflict, a position Gellhorn found particularly naive once Adolf Hitler had gained power. By 1935, the couple separated.

Excited by the prospects of working for Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Gellhorn arrived back in the U.S. in October 1934. She was hired by Harry Hopkins, director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) as investigator-at-large, though—as Time magazine noted—she was a most atypical bureaucrat: "Her face was too beautiful, her blonde hair too expensive looking, her long legs too distracting, her clothes too Paris-perfect."

I was a writer before I met him, and I have been a writer for 45 years since. Why should I be a footnote to someone else's life?

—Martha Gellhorn

Gellhorn toured the nation examining the condition of relief workers—their health, nutrition, morale, and likeliness of support. Her salary: $35 a month plus traveling expenses. Her reports covered union-busting in North Carolina, poverty in Boston, and graft in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. In the process, Gellhorn, never a conservative, became truly radicalized. To her, the American economic system was a brutal one.

An impolitic exposé of a contracting scam in Idaho led to her being fired from FERA, but the administration really had no hard feelings. An acquaintance of Eleanor Roosevelt since her Times Union days, Gellhorn dined at the White House, where she reported on the conditions she had witnessed. In December 1935, when she was suffering from anemia, she wrote Eleanor Roosevelt, who persuaded her to stay at the executive mansion. In fact, Eleanor became a sort of second mother to Martha. Conversely, Gellhorn never warmed to Franklin, whom she later said treated her as "a sort of mascot or pet poodle."

All this time, Gellhorn was writing professionally. In 1934, she produced a semi-autobiographical novel What Mad Pursuit, dealing with the rude awakening of an immature female reporter. In 1936, her fictional account of the Depression, The Trouble I've Seen, was published. In his laudatory preface, British writer H.G. Wells wrote, "enlarge this book a million times and you have the complete American tragedy." Plugged by Eleanor Roosevelt in her daily column, the book catapulted Gellhorn into minor celebrity status. A striking picture of her adorned the cover of the September 26 issue of the Saturday Review of Literature. Soon her short stories were appearing in The New Yorker and Scribner's Magazine.

Eventually finding the promotional hoopla distasteful, Martha and her recently widowed mother Edna decided to spend Christmas 1936 in Florida. While visiting Sloppy Joe's, a bar in Key West, they came upon Ernest Hemingway, who first impressed Martha as nothing more than "a huge, dirty man." Yet the magnetic novelist won the Gellhorns over, and when Martha left the town soon afterwards, Ernest pursued her.

In March 1937, Gellhorn went to Spain, covering the civil war there for Collier's and holding the title of special correspondent. The title was originally specious, Collier's editor Kyle Crichton bestowing it on her to remedy any problem with border guards. Hemingway was already there, reporting for the North American Newspaper Alliance.

Gellhorn proved her mettle. Not concentrating on combat, she wrote on the war's impact on individuals, combatant and noncombatant alike. Her "Only the Shells Whine," a story published in July 17 issue of Collier's, plunged her readers into the daily bombing of Madrid with an intensity that Hemingway himself could not capture. Moreover, Collier's now recognized her as a full-fledged staffer.

Gellhorn and Hemingway were soon lovers. They first tried to hide their affair by acting discreetly, but their liaison was public knowledge. Although still married to the former Pauline Pfeiffer , Hemingway was a jealous paramour, once admitting that he locked Gellhorn in her Madrid hotel room "so that no man could bother her." True, Ernest's possessiveness disturbed Martha. At the same time, she found him "instantly lovable" if "not a grown up."

In May 1937, the couple returned to the States, where Gellhorn publicized the Loyalist cause. Taking advantage of her ties to the Roosevelts, she arranged for a private White House showing of Hemingway's film, The Spanish Earth. That August, Gellhorn returned to Spain, where she again covered the war, more specifically, the battle-scarred cities of Belchite and Brunete and the fighting fronts of Teruel and Aranjuez. Broadcasting from Madrid, she conveyed the city's quiet stoicism to American radio listeners.

Hemingway admired Gellhorn's courage but was not always charitable in his assessment of her. During breaks in the fighting, he wrote a play, The Fifth Column (1938), in which he offered a veiled portrait of Martha that was not entirely cordial: "Granted she's lazy and spoiled, and rather stupid, and enormously on the make. Still she's very beautiful, very friendly, and very charming and rather innocent—and quite brave."

Soon after Christmas 1937, Gellhorn came back to the U.S., where she engaged in a lecture tour to raise money for the Spanish wounded. Within two months, she had spoken in 22 cities. Her audiences were huge: 3,000 at the University of Minnesota, 1,000 in St. Louis. "She spoke as an honest partisan," noted the Post-Dispatch, "and called Franco a butcher." Frustrated by American apathy, she returned to Spain that spring. She and Hemingway engaged in six more weeks of reporting.

In May 1938, Gellhorn covered peacetime England for Collier's. She found the island nation so complacent that she would personally harangue Britons about Hitler's might. "The English have always had the privilege of fighting their wars someplace else," she wrote, "but now England is preparing to fight in her own air, and the prospect is pleasing to no one." The title of her article, dated September 17: "The Lord Will Provide—for England."

Gellhorn was more encouraged by the attitudes of the French populace, though she found the nation's leadership inept. Visiting Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Munich conference, she conveyed her sadness in a Collier's piece appearing in the December 10 issue. This time the title was "Obituary of a Democracy." In early November, Gellhorn and Hemingway took their final trip to Spain. Despondent over the Republic's inevitable defeat, the couple left within the month.

By March 1939, Gellhorn and Hemingway were in Cuba. Martha called their status "living in contented sin." They resided in the impoverished village of San Francisco de Paula, 15 miles east of downtown Havana, where Gellhorn renovated a large house—Finca Vigia—for them. September found them in Sun Valley Lodge in central Idaho. There she followed the Hemingway regimen of writing in the morning, and riding, tennis, and shooting in the afternoon.

That November, with the onset of World War II, Collier's sent Gellhorn to Finland to cover its incipient war with Russia. She arrived at Helsinki on the 29th, just hours ahead of the first Soviet strike. The Finns, she claimed, would fight a defensive war and thereby repel the Russians. Returning to Cuba, then to Sun Valley, she and Hemingway were married on November 21, 1940, in the Union Pacific Railroad dining room in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Early in 1941, Collier's gave Gellhorn an Asian assignment. Her task: to report on Japanese offensives and China's ability to resist them. She visited many spots, including Hong Kong, Chungking (Chongqing), Rangoon, and Singapore. Hemingway accompanied her as correspondent for the new liberal New York daily pm. Leaving Hemingway in Hong Kong, she flew to the Burma Road in bad weather in an unpressurized plane. Conditions equaled the most dangerous commercial flying in the world. In another leg of the journey, this one with Hemingway, Gellhorn traveled from Shao-kuan to Chungking by truck, horseback, motor boat, and sampan. As noted by Gellhorn biographer Carl Rollyson, her readers:

learned about the nine war zones, the Japanese drive to divide and conquer China, the Chinese army's lack of equipment and supplies (5 million superbly disciplined men who had no shoes), the gross underpayment of soldiers, and the hatred of the Japanese that made it virtually impossible to prevent Chinese soldiers from killing their prisoners.

In Chungking, they were twice the luncheon guests of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Song Meiling ) and also met Communist leader Chou En-lai (Zhou Enlai). Engaging in self-censorship, Gellhorn did not publicize her strong misgivings about the Chiang regime.

Amid all this reporting, Gellhorn kept producing fiction. In March 1940, her semi-autobiographical novel A Stricken Field was published. It dealt with a female war correspondent who arrived in Czechoslovakia just a week after the Munich conference. Later that fall, a collection of her short stories, The Heart of Another, came out. Again the settings were part of her own itinerary: Cuba, Finland, Germany, Spain, France. In 1943, another novel, Liana, made the bestseller list. The book centered on miscegenation in the Caribbean, an area Gellhorn had recently visited.

Marital tensions soon developed. Gellhorn (who always kept her maiden name) was increasingly exasperated by Hemingway's drinking and posturing. At one point, she would call him "The Pig." Hemingway in turn grew steadily intolerant of her globetrotting and lack of deference to "Papa," as he liked to be called.

In autumn 1943, Collier's sent Gellhorn to London as an official war correspondent. Here she covered Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots, cockney children, and Polish and Dutch refugees. In February 1944, she was on the Italian front interviewing American GIs. On the 27th, just before leaving Italy, she experienced enemy fire immediately outside Cassino.

When Gellhorn returned home to Cuba in March 1944, she and Hemingway renewed their incessant quarrels. She taunted him for avoiding the biggest story of the century—the war. She had written him in December: "You will feel deprived as a writer if this is all over and you have not had a share in it.… The place is crying out for you, not for immediate stuff but for the record." He railed at her for seeking to interrupt his idyllic life in Cuba. Ernest was certain that if he went overseas, he would be killed in the conflict and that Martha would be to blame.

Finally, in spring 1944, Hemingway offered his services as war correspondent to Gellhorn's employer Collier's. Because the press corps allowed only one front-line journalist per magazine, Ernest was able to preempt Martha's chance to cover the war in an official capacity. In May, he had the opportunity to fly to Europe while she was relegated to travel on a ship laden with dynamite and lacking lifeboats. Once the couple reunited in England, the mutual vilification continued. The marriage was already in ruins when Martha discovered Ernest's affair with Mary Welsh (Hemingway) , who would be his fourth wife.

On June 7, three days after D-Day, Gellhorn locked herself in the bathroom of an unarmed hospital ship that crossed the English Channel, then—under cover of darkness—went ashore. Unlike her husband, who saw the invasion from the bridge of a landing craft, Gellhorn was actually on Normandy beach, picking her way through the rice fields and barbed wire. Soon she was acting as a nurse, distributing water, food, and medication, and carrying urinals. Hemingway never forgave her for her accomplishment.

As her action was illegal, Gellhorn was sentenced to confinement at an American nurses' training camp outside London. She tolerated her situation for a day, then climbed a fence and hitchhiked to the nearest military airfield. Pretending she was a fiancée seeking her lover, she was able to secure an unauthorized flight to Naples. She sent an acid note to Ernest: "I came to see the war, not live at the Dorchester" (a prominent London hotel).

In Italy, Gellhorn was entirely on her own. She later recalled: "No papers, no travel orders, no PX rights, nothing. I was a gypsy in that war in order to report it." In July, Gellhorn attached herself to a Polish squadron stationed in the Adriatic, then traveled through France. Her Collier's article of November 4, "The Wounds of Paris," took readers on a tour of the city's torture cells. By October, she was accompanying General James Gavin's 82nd Airborne Division, reporting the Allied invasion of the Netherlands. Back in France by early December, Gellhorn experienced an auto accident en route to Toulouse. Despite a broken rib, she managed to visit a camp of Spanish refugees who had been interned for nearly six years. Soon, she was covering the Battle of the Bulge. At one point, she flew over Germany in a Black Widow night fighter, accompanying a pilot searching for a dog fight with Nazi war planes. Even the alienated Hemingway praised her work, saying in Collier's, "The things that happen to her people really do happen, and you feel it as though it were you and you are there."

In November 1945, Gellhorn sued for divorce, an event that made national headlines. Relations remained bitter. Hemingway offered a thinly disguised portrait of her in his novel Across the River and into the Trees (1950). Gellhorn never retaliated publicly. Privately, she expressed anger over portrayals in Carlos Baker's Hemingway: A Life Story (1969) and Bernice Kert 's The Hemingway Women (1983), though neither was particularly hostile.

Immediately after the war, Gellhorn covered Achmad Sukarno's rebellion in Java, the Nuremberg trials, and the Paris foreign ministers' meeting of December 1946. She lived briefly in Washington, D.C., but from 1948 to 1952 resided in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca. While reporting the postwar recovery of Italy, she adopted a 15-month Florentine boy Sandro ("Sandy"), whom she renamed George Alexander Gellhorn. In 1951 and again in 1953, she entered into a brief affair with Dr. David Gurewitsch, a pathologist at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital and a protegé of Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1952, she bought a farm just outside of Rome, so that Sandy could attend school in his native Italy. However, she spent much of her time in London. All this time, she was a frequent contributor to the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, the Saturday Evening Post, and Good Housekeeping.

In 1954, Gellhorn married Thomas Stanley ("T.S.") Matthews, a widower who had just retired as editor of Time. The couple lived in London but traveled frequently. They divorced in 1963, T.S. finding Martha's continued rootlessness grating. In 1962, Gellhorn traveled to Africa and became so enamored with the continent that for 13 years she spent a part of every year there.

Much of Gellhorn's journalism centered on the state of Israel, a nation with which she always identified. In 1961, she covered the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann. Fascinated by the apparent blandness of the Nazi war criminal, she called him "the greatest organization man of all time." Her article in the Atlantic Monthly of October 1961 attacked Arab refugees for being interested only in "revenge and return." When she reported on the Six Day War of 1967, she found the Israeli army democratic and humane, its cause just.

From August to September 1966, Gellhorn reported on the Vietnam war. Infuriated by the blanket American bombing, she claimed that had she been a generation younger, she would have joined the Vietcong. Her milder accounts appeared in the Ladies' Home Journal and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, her more hard-hitting ones in the British Guardian. Her indictment was severe enough to cause her to be the only correspondent ever blacklisted by the Republic of Vietnam. She later wrote of American military leaders:

I told them they were inhuman. We were destroying a country and a whole innocent peasant population while we were saving them from Communism. Had they any idea how children looked and sounded when half flayed by napalm? Could they picture an old woman screaming with a piece of white phosphorous burning in her thigh? We had uprooted and turned into refugees millions of helpless people by unopposed bombing of their villages. We were hated in Vietnam and rightly.

Even when she was in her 70s, Gellhorn remained on the road. At age 75, she visited El Salvador, where she condemned the brutality of its government. Similarly, she found in Marxist Nicaragua a struggling but popular regime, not the Communist tyranny claimed by President Ronald Reagan. In 1986, after a 51-year absence, she return to Cuba. She was impressed by the lack of racial and sexual discrimination in Fidel Castro's regime, but appalled by his treatment of political prisoners.

During all the years after World War II, Gellhorn never neglected the writing of fiction. In 1946, her play, "Love Goes to Press," opened in London. Co-authored with American correspondent Virginia Cowles , it dealt with two manipulative women journalists on the Italian front. Gellhorn's novel The Wine of Astonishment (1947) centered on American troops fighting in northern Europe. In 1953, she published a series of short stories under the title The Honeyed Peace. The female protagonists had been in predicaments similar to Gellhorn's own.

Other fiction works included Two by Two (1958), a series of short stories focusing on troubled marriages; His Own Man (1961), a work dealing with romance in Paris; Pretty Tales for Tired People (1965), in which she again portrays the pitfalls of marriage; The Lowest Trees Have Tops (1967), a novel centering on Mexico; and The Weather in Africa (1978), which contained three novellas. None of these works met with the success of certain nonfiction works: The Face of War (1959, revised 1988), a collection of her Collier's dispatches; Travels with Myself and Another (1978), an account of her various voyages; and The View from the Ground (1988), a collection of various personal vignettes.

Gellhorn moved to an isolated cottage in Chepstow, Wales; she also had a flat in London. In June 1994, she wrote a short piece for the New Republic. Here she assailed the Washington press corps for not coming to the defense of President Bill Clinton. During her long life, Martha Gellhorn never stopped writing. She died, age 89, at her London home in February 1998.


Gellhorn, Martha. Travels with Myself and Another. London: Allan Dale, 1983.

——, ed. The Face of War. NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988.

——, ed. The View from the Ground. NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988.

Kert, Bernice. The Hemingway Women. NY: W.W. Norton, 1983.

Orsagh, Jacqueline. "A Critical Biography of Martha Gellhorn." Ph.D. dissertation. Michigan State University, 1978.

Rollyson, Carl. Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave: The Story of Martha Gellhorn. NY: St. Martin's, 1990.

suggested reading:

Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. NY: Scribner, 1969.

Edwards, Julia. Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Matthews, T.S. Jacks or Better: A Narrative. NY: Harper & Row, 1977.

Wagner, Lilya. Women War Correspondents of World War II. NY: Greenwood, 1989.


There is no archive of Martha Gellhorn papers. For Gellhorn correspondence, see the Edna Fischel Gellhorn Collection, Washington University, St. Louis; the Eleanor Roosevelt papers, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, New York; the Joseph Stanley Pennell Papers, University of Oregon Library, Eugene, Oregon; the Crowell-Collier Collection, New York Public Library; the Patrick Hemingway collection, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida