The Foreign Correspondent

The Foreign Correspondent

How we miss Martha Gellhorn, and how we need her right now!


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.

By then, Martha had already sown some spectacular wild oats in Europe. In Paris, she had begun an affair with the young Bertrand de Jouvenel (fresh from the bed of his stepmother Colette and himself already married), had worked as a model and a journalist, and had witnessed the great riot of February 6, 1934, when the French ultra-right attempted to take the National Assembly by storm. She had also visited Nazi Germany with the oddly naïve Bertrand and a band of pro-German French intellectuals, some of whom ended before Gaullist firing squads after the Liberation. So it was no 27-year-old innocent who walked into a Key West bar with her mother in December 1935 and found “a large dirty man in untidy somewhat soiled white shorts” reading his mail.

Gellhorn stayed with Ernest Hemingway for nearly nine years, four of them married to him. All the grim details are here (“a man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being,” Martha wrote to her mother afterward), but Moorehead is shrewd enough to discount for hindsight after a failed marriage, and much of the fun and laughter they had together figures, too. She made the famous home in Cuba for him, watched over him as he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and learned a lot about writing. He was a better novelist than she was, but Gellhorn’s reporting–both from their time in Spain during the Civil War and during the world war that followed–is incomparably better than Hemingway’s.

Besieged Madrid, like besieged Sarajevo in the 1990s and maybe London under the bombs in the 1940s, was a place that changed lives irrevocably. Gellhorn would always be grateful that she had “been young and there, at that time; I think we got something out of history that is more than anyone has a decent right to hope for.” The commandment to fight and warn against fascism, and the memory of dead friends, possessed her. She learned much about the treachery and cowardice of politicians. She also learned that what mattered, for her, was to “be there.” That lesson, and the increasing awfulness of life with Hemingway in Cuba, brought her back to Europe during the war. Forbidden as a woman to go into action as a war correspondent, she stowed away on a freighter and reached Omaha Beach on the second day of the invasion. Arrested and escorted back to England, she stowed away again on an aircraft to Italy and followed the battle lines from Salerno through Cassino to the Gothic line with a troop of Polish lancers. Another hitched ride on a plane took her to Paris, just after the Liberation, and from Paris she advanced with British and American divisions through Belgium into Germany itself.

She was writing articles all the time. The best of them, going back to her time in Spain, were finally published in 1959 in The Face of War. If these stories have a common element, it is brotherhood, the brave, generous, often merry companionship of young men and women who might not survive the day. In old age, she missed the “helpless laughter among chums who were glad to be alive because they knew about death.” Groups like that–sometimes soldiers, often journalists–became Martha Gellhorn’s real family. She did not want to be with them all the time, but it was in their midst that she found reassurance, laughter and some true friends (like Robert Capa, the photographer).

At times, this part of her life reads like a movie. During the Ardennes battles, soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division caught this tall blonde striding about the snow with no accreditation or uniform and took her to their headquarters. Martha and Gen. James Gavin, youngest divisional commander in the US Army, fell for each other like a ton of bricks. The romance blazed in liberated Paris, then in the ruins of Berlin, until Marlene Dietrich, mad with jealousy, spread venomous rumors about Gellhorn and made off with General Gavin for her own night of passion. And so forth, and all true. But Martha Gellhorn, although she was fascinated by men and fell in love with a good many of them, was not made to satisfy male expectations.

Hemingway was not the first or the last man to love her for her independence, that “vitality, certainty, [and] total courage,” but to resent her when she behaved independently. She was always off somewhere; she could not stand male self-pity; she grew bored even with her comfortable second marriage to the rich and at first undemanding Tom Matthews. Sexual satisfaction eluded her until she was middle-aged, and even then sex remained a domain where she felt uncharacteristically anxious and inadequate. Friendships with both men and women were her real emotional anchor. Moorehead describes well how in her last years, fighting heroically to stay fit and elegant, she gathered around her in London a troop of “chaps”–mostly much younger journalists and writers who gathered in her flat to drink whiskey and tell her their stories. They found her, in the words of an American acquaintance half a century before, a “barrel of fun and sharp as a tack.” Her best nonfiction was republished at this time, and her quality as a writer, for so long obscured by routine association with Hemingway, was recognized at last. To her own ironic surprise, Martha Gellhorn ended up as a cult.

On her own after the war, she made homes in Mexico, perhaps her happiest for a few years, and later in Kenya. In postwar Italy, she decided to adopt a child and after whirling through fifty-two different orphanages, found a baby boy she wanted. “I sure waited a hell of a time to fall fatally in love,” she said. But it was not an easy relationship. After a blissful babyhood in Mexico, Sandy was parked in bleak schools and homes while Gellhorn traveled restlessly up and down the world; he became an insecure, unhappy boy who brought out all her intolerance of weakness in others. “You have absolutely no style, your mind is as interesting as blotting paper,” she once wrote to him. There was a long estrangement, only bridged in her old age.

She was an angry person, often magnificently and entertainingly angry, but sometimes shockingly unfair. What she saw in Dachau broke something in her, and she came to fear that the human race was a scorpion intent on stinging itself to death. After the McCarthy persecutions, and especially after her return from Vietnam, she grew increasingly certain that American imperial power in the world was a force of evil and a source of mass misery: Reagan became one of her archvillains, soon joined by Mrs. Thatcher in Britain. There were times when she felt that all her battles and travels had achieved nothing: “I might as well have stayed in bed reading thrillers.” But at other moments that old “shirty nonchalance” showed through. Two years before she died, at a journalists’ roundtable in London, she let her well-hidden pride in her life gleam for an instant. “It seemed to me personally that it was my job to get things on the record, in the hopes that at some point or other, somebody couldn’t absolutely lie about it.”

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