How we miss Martha Gellhorn, and how we need her right now! It’s hard to believe that she isn’t at this moment striding down dangerous streets in Falluja or Najaf or Baghdad, eyes narrowed, looking as great in her slacks as she looked in the Saks Fifth Avenue pants in which she covered the Spanish Civil War. Hard to believe that we won’t read her on Iraq, as we read her on Spain, the last world war, Vietnam, Panama. She imagined editors asking: “Who is this tall, fierce, irritable, impatient, sunburned, driven woman?” She never imagined readers asking: “How could that tall, driven woman, who had more irritable life in her than ten ordinary humans plugged together, be dead?”
And yet, five years since she decided to end that life with a pill in her ninetieth year, Martha Gellhorn deserves better than sainthood. She was the best reporter of war to write in English for the past sixty years–war, that is, as something experienced by ordinary people and soldiers, rather than as “combat” and arrows on a map. But it would be unsafe to predict which line she would take on the general rightness or wrongness of a war or a policy. As a phenomenon, Gellhorn was utterly consistent. To take one typical example from Caroline Moorehead’s biography, another American journalist in Vietnam found her “gorgeous, clear-eyed with the facts straight as rulers”; he loved her “shirty nonchalance.” She was always like that in public. But she was not always consistent about her causes.
In truth, I am not sure how she would have stood on the Iraq war. A big factor would certainly have been detestation of George W. Bush and the global military arrogance of the Rumsfeld clique in the Pentagon, repeating all the crimes for which Gellhorn had belabored Nixon, Kissinger and Reagan. On the other hand, she switched off her sympathy when it came to the sufferings of Arabs. She was entirely committed to the cause of Israel (to the point of applauding the 1982 invasion of Lebanon), remained deaf to the Palestinian case and might well have decided that the most unscrupulous power politics were justified in order to rid the world of Saddam Hussein. It’s a thought–a speculation–that will upset many of those who loved her, and who as reporters try to live up to her fighting spirit and hunger for justice. But Martha Gellhorn was not bankable, not somebody who could be signed up to a cause in advance. What counted with her was the people she met on the ground, in the field, and how she felt about them.
This is a masterpiece of biography. Caroline Moorehead, a professional in that literary trade, knew exactly how to organize, select and use the treasure of Martha Gellhorn’s letters, preserved in their thousands at Boston University and in the archives of her friends. Born in 1908 in St. Louis, Gellhorn grew up in a letter-writing world and used letters, perhaps even more than personal contact, to maintain intense conversations with a small circle of friends, lovers and ex-lovers, and family members. Almost everything Moorehead has set down about Gelhorn’s private life comes from this marvelous, revealing correspondence. So do most of the best lines about Gellhorn herself. “I revere courage,” she wrote to her old teacher Hortense Flexner. “Perhaps I make it God, and endow it with every other quality, as stemming from it.” Or, remembering her sight of Dachau in 1945, “I have never again felt that lovely, easy, lively hope in life which I knew before, not in life, not in our species, not in our future on earth.”
Gellhorn’s father was a doctor, a German immigrant, and her mother was a campaigner for women’s suffrage. Both were half-Jewish, a fact that appears to have counted for nothing in the family, and Martha was brought up in an almost-Presbyterian atmosphere of busy, book-nourished but practical idealism. All her life, her mother, Edna, remained her daughter’s “true north,” as she put it, and it was indirectly through her that Martha found her way to Franklin Roosevelt’s White House as a young “poverty investigator” for Harry Hopkins. Here began her political radicalism, her lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and, in effect, her career as a writer. The Trouble I’ve Seen (1935), her stories about the Depression, was the first of her books to make an impact.