Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn
by Caroline Moorehead
Covering Her Century
A review by Christopher Benfey
Whatever else she was -- novelist, travel writer, celebrity wife, socialite -- Martha Gellhorn was one of the greatest American war correspondents of her generation or any other. Through almost four decades, she covered in succession the Spanish Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, along with related skirmishes and horrors from Helsinki to Hong Kong. She was in Barcelona in November 1938 -- "perfect bombing weather," she noted dryly -- as Franco's planes closed in. She was at Dachau when news came of the German surrender; she found it "the most suitable place in Europe to hear the news of victory." In 1994, four years before her death at the age of eighty-nine, Gellhorn was in Brazil, writing about the violent deaths of street children there. Fearless and attentive, with a quick eye for the heartbreaking detail, she had the perfect temperament for a war reporter. "I never really found my own private disorderly place in the world except in the general chaos of war," she wrote to a friend in 1960, when she and the twentieth century still had plenty of war to go.
Gellhorn's distinctive voice fused two major strands of American reportage: the WPA-inspired documentation of the suffering of ordinary folk during the Depression, and the hard-boiled ironic take on war of American reporters from Stephen Crane to Ernest Hemingway. Gellhorn's four years of marriage to Hemingway, during the initial phase of his long decline, bolstered her fame while diminishing (at least among his legions of admirers) her status as a writer. He told anyone who would listen what a bitch and a phony she was. She, for her part, resented being reduced to "a footnote in history, a passing reference in others' books and letters," though she maintained a dignified public silence. Now that we have a generous selection of her letters, assembled by her biographer, Caroline Moorehead, we can piece together her account of the marriage. She left him because he was a crybaby and got in the way of her work.
Like so many nomads of her generation, Martha Gellhorn was a child of the Midwest who wanted out. She was born in St. Louis in 1908. Her father, the son of a Breslau merchant, was a gynecologist and obstetrician who specialized in treating syphilis; her mother, a St. Louis native, campaigned for women's suffrage. Both were half-Jewish. Dismayed by the educational options for their three children, they helped to found a progressive school in St. Louis named for the nature writer John Burroughs. Martha went from Burroughs to Bryn Mawr, didn't like it, and left to become a cub reporter for a newspaper in Albany. She covered women's clubs for six months, didn't like it, and headed for Europe with two suitcases, a typewriter, and $75.
Gellhorn's first brush with love was pure Henry James. In 1930, floating among odd jobs in Paris, she met a sophisticated, charming, and married journalist named Bertrand de Jouvenel. Half-Jewish like Gellhorn, Jouvenel drifted during the 1930s between antiliberal positions on the left and right; and after the war he emerged as a significant political theorist, best known for works such as On Power, which analyzed the growth of the modern state as a threat to individual liberty. He was twenty-six when he met Gellhorn; ten years earlier he had been seduced by his stepmother, the writer Colette. (Gellhorn could read all about it in Chéri.) Bertrand and Martha considered themselves married, but the city of St. Louis, where they sought refuge, did not agree. Neither did Jouvenel's wife, who refused a divorce. In 1931, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch funded Gellhorn's travels through the Southwest, as recorded in a series of letters to Stanley Pennell, her English teacher at Burroughs and later the author of the superb Gettysburg novel The History of Rose Hanks. She wrote to Jouvenel from the highway in California, where her platinum-colored Dodge, bought for $25, had broken down: "I've repaid ardor with impatience and sponged your assurance with icy water ... forget me -- I'm a shit face; and make yourself realize again what you knew before I came. I'll write from Carmel."
The affair, like the Dodge, limped on for another three years -- through faked orgasms, two abortions, and, in 1933, an encounter with Colette herself. "What impressed me," Gellhorn wrote, "was to come in and find her writing on a book, with such steady, bored persistence -- so little flame and fireworks -- but just the determined weariness of one adding up accounts.... What wouldn't I give for that will and discipline." Gellhorn was writing a novel herself, published as What Mad Pursuit, about the adventures of a young American woman reporter who has affairs and becomes disillusioned. The book caught the attention of Harry Hopkins in the Roosevelt administration, who was assembling a team of young reporters to fan out across the Depression-ravaged country and document the lives of ordinary people -- the impulse that gave rise to Dorothea Lange's photographs, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and, best of all, the collaboration of James Agee and Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Two episodes stand out from Gellhorn's modest contribution to this worthy effort: she made up a story about a lynching in the South and published it as fact, and she encouraged laborers in North Carolina to break factory windows to protest their working conditions. Eleanor Roosevelt, a college friend of Gellhorn's mother, admired the lynching article, and Martha explained, giddily and lamely, that she was "getting a little mixed-up around now and apparently I am a very realistic writer (or liar), because everyone assumed I'd been an eye-witness to a lynching whereas I just made it up." Her fake story dogged her for the rest of her life. And her incitement to riot got her fired by Hopkins. The Trouble I've Seen, Gellhorn's collection of what Moorehead gingerly calls "semi-fictional stories about the Depression," appeared in 1936 to admiring reviews. Eleanor Roosevelt praised it in her column, "My Day": "I cannot tell you how Martha Gellhorn, young, pretty, college graduate, good home, more or less Junior League background, with a touch of exquisite Paris clothes and 'esprit' thrown in, can write as she does. She has an understanding of many people, and many situations, and she can make them live for us."
Gellhorn's father died on Christmas Day, 1935, and she and her mother spent the following Christmas together at Key West. One night, they walked into a bar named Sloppy Joe's, where "a large, dirty man in untidy somewhat soiled white shorts and shirt" just happened to be sitting. (Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world....) She was twenty-eight, Hemingway was thirty-seven. Like most of the men in Gellhorn's life, he was married. Of course, the encounter cannot have been completely by chance. It was hardly a secret that Hemingway hung out in Key West in the winter and liked to drink. And Gellhorn, along with half her generation, had already adopted Hemingway's creed as her own. "I take my code out of Hemingway," she had written to Stanley Pennell while still at Bryn Mawr. "Do you remember A Farewell to Arms. The hero talks to the woman; she is worried about something; and he says: 'You're brave. Nothing ever happens to the brave.' Which is somehow enough -- a whole philosophy -- a banner -- a song -- and a love. And something to fill up time -- busily, passionately."
One of the oddest things about being Hemingway must have been the uncanny sense that so many of the people he met had stepped out of the pages of his own books. But Gellhorn modeled herself on Hemingway's heroes, not on his women. When he told her that he was going to Spain to write about the civil war, Gellhorn decided that she was going, too. When she arrived in Madrid in the spring of 1937, Hemingway, surrounded by his admiring entourage of fellow journalists and prostitutes, greeted her with the condescending words, "I knew you'd get here, daughter, because I fixed it up so you could." She checked into the Hotel Florida, where Hemingway had two rooms on the quiet side away from the shelling. Hemingway locked her in her room the first night because he didn't want her to be mistaken, as he wittily explained, for a "whore de combat." Gellhorn was furious. "I should have known at that moment what doom was," she remarked. The moment is emblematic of the seven bumpy years that followed. He wanted her home where he could find her, waiting and adoring; she wanted the life he had. According to Gellhorn, Hemingway was a "ghastly lover -- wham bam thank you maam, or maybe just wham bam."
Gellhorn's dispatches from Spain established one of her great themes as a war reporter, the intrusion of horror into ordinary life.
It seemed a little crazy to be living in a hotel, like a hotel in Des Moines or New Orleans, with a lobby and wicker chairs in the lounge, and signs on the door of your room telling you that they would press your clothes immediately and that meals served privately cost ten percent more, and meantime it was like a trench when they lay down an artillery barrage. The whole place trembled to the explosion of the shells.The war, as she saw it, pitted the relentless machinery of Franco's forces and his Fascist allies against the merely human resistance of the brave Loyalists. She told Eleanor Roosevelt of watching for fifty minutes "twelve black German planes, flying in a perfect circle, not varying their position, flying and bombing and diving to machine gun: and they were working on one company of Government soldiers, who had no planes or anti-aircraft to protect them but who were standing there, holding up the advance so as to permit an orderly retreat."
The concierge was in the lobby and he said, apologetically, "I regret this, Mademoiselle. It is not pleasant. I can guarantee you that the bombing in November was worse."
Gellhorn followed Hemingway back to Cuba in February 1939, where he was writing For Whom the Bell Tolls and expected her to keep house. Instead, much to his annoyance, she flew to Helsinki to cover the Russo-Finnish conflict, which confirmed her David-and-Goliath view of war. "I promise you," she wrote to Hemingway, "that I have never yet seen the innocent and unarmed other than hunted and destroyed." She also promised him, in a half-joking document titled "Guaranty," that she would never "brutalize my present and future husband in any way whatsoever" and that she recognized "that a very fine and sensitive writer cannot be left alone for two months and sixteen days." By September 1940 she was complaining that "E wants me for himself, altogether," and that "E's book has been an agony, like having children without interruption for months and months." She married him two months later, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, with roast moose for dinner.
Gellhorn and Hemingway honeymooned, if you could call it that, in Hong Kong, after Collier's hired her to cover the "Chinese army in action" -- in retreat, more accurately, from the occupying Japanese forces. The journey gave Gellhorn one of the liveliest chapters in Travels With Myself and Another, her 1978 memoir of what she called her "horror journeys." She referred to Hemingway as U.C., for "Unwilling Companion"; while he hung out in the hotel bar in Hong Kong, she explored the opium dens, the brothels, the mah-jongg parlors and sweatshops, all overrun with refugees. She expected Hemingway to share her horror:
When finally I visited a dank ill-lit basement factory where small children carved ivory balls within balls, a favorite tourist trinket, I could not bear to see any more. I had a mild fit of hysterics.Their diverging temperaments could hardly be more evident: Gellhorn's utopian indignation pitted against Hemingway's stoical acceptance.
"They look about ten years old," I shouted at U.C. "It takes three months to make one of those damned things, I think it's eight balls within balls. They'll be blind before they're twenty. And that little girl with her tortoise. We're all living on slave labor! The people are half starved! I want to get out, I can't stand this place!"
U.C. considered me thoughtfully. "The trouble with you, M., is that you think everybody is exactly like you. What you can't stand, they can't stand. What's hell for you has to be hell for them. How do you know what they feel about their lives?
The slow unraveling of the marriage ran parallel to the worsening situation in Europe. Gellhorn insisted on reporting the war; Hemingway insisted on staying in Cuba, sailing around the Gulf of Mexico supposedly in search of German submarines. When he realized that the action was in Europe after all, he signed on with Collier's, Gellhorn's employer, to cover the Normandy invasion. Gellhorn was demoted: "I have been shoved back and back," she complained to Eleanor Roosevelt. "It is quite a job being a woman isn't it; you cannot do your work and simply get on with it because that is selfish.... Anyhow Ernest will get there [to Normandy] and he can always tell me about it."
By then, with the quarreling and drinking and competing, she knew it was over: "I want to escape from him and myself and from this personal life which feels like a strait jacket." She left him and he never forgave her. "Hell hath no fury like E.H. scorned," she wrote. But she continued to admire Hemingway; if he was an ordinary husband, he was also "a rare and wonderful type; he is a mysterious type too and a wise one and all sorts of things. He is a good man, which is vitally important. He is however bad for me."
If the breakup of her marriage was a blow to Gellhorn, Dachau was in some way a deeper wound. "I have never been the same since," she later wrote to a friend. "It's exactly like mixing paint. Black, real true solid black, was then introduced, and I have never again come back to some state of hope or innocence or gayety which I had before." Her description in her Collier's article is often quoted: "We have all seen a great deal now; we have seen too many wars and too much violent dying; we have seen hospitals, bloody and messy as butcher shops; we have seen the dead like bundles lying on all the roads of half the earth. But nowhere was there anything like this. Nothing about war was ever as insanely wicked as these starved and outraged, naked, nameless dead." Her account of Dachau is the opposite of her accounts of Spain and Finland, not the intrusion of horror into the ordinary world but the reverse: "Just behind the crematorium stood the fine big modern hothouses. Here the prisoners grew the flowers that the S.S. officers loved...."
The shape of Gellhorn's life during the decades that followed was a double quest. She sought to experience as an eyewitness the horrors that the century of total war kept inventing. And, perhaps in reaction, she tried to find the great good place that would be her refuge from war and the boredom of St. Louis. She tried Cuernavaca, Rome, and Kenya before settling, during her final years, on a flat in London and a cottage in Wales. She never found the right man to share these places with her. The right man probably did not exist. Gellhorn's letters to her various lovers -- a blur of doctors and diplomats, journalists and generals -- are either manic professions of eternal love or depressive intimations of the impossibility of same. In 1954, she tried marriage again, only to discover a few years later that her husband, the writer T.S. Matthews, was cheating on her. She was shocked, but Edmund Wilson, a Princeton classmate of Matthews, could have warned her: "He is always in the pants of some woman."
More fun to read about are Gellhorn's relations with men she didn't (or probably didn't) sleep with. She met H.G. Wells, of all people, in the Roosevelt White House, and he took her under his wing, finding publishers and outlets for her writing, including the ill-fated lynching tale. I find myself unable to work up much curiosity about whether she slept with Wells -- a point of contention among Gellhorn's biographers -- though I like her riposte: "Why the hell would I sleep with a little old man when I could have any number of tall beautiful young men?" Leonard Bernstein and his piano moved into a neighboring house in Cuernavaca in 1950. "He is reported to like men (also women and goats), and is actually beautiful, which is an odd thing for a man to be, and about as natural as a 20 minute permanent wave; and full of talent and neuroses," she wrote. Bernstein treasured what he called their "peculiar sexless love affair," and told Gellhorn that he had written the song "One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man" in her honor.
In 1952, while living in Rome and making arrangements to adopt an Italian war orphan, Gellhorn was pursued by Bernard Berenson, then in his late eighties, eliciting this bracing tirade:
He has a learned mind but it does not seem a mind to me; I never heard him on painting and he may be extraordinary but you know I doubt it. I doubt if one can be really profoundly extraordinary about art, unless one has a certain fire and richness inside. He hasn't; he is a little Tanagra man, spoiled all his life by smart second-rate people. He's not interesting nor inspiring; I always felt less of a human being after seeing him. Did I tell you that he said to me that no one had so attacked him in his life, except Gertrude Stein. I found that funny; this came after I had carefully explained to him that I didn't trust him and he wasn't my cup of tea.She found it funny because Berenson was implying, not very subtly, that if she did not find him attractive then she must be a lesbian.
Gellhorn writes a great deal in these letters about sex and her distaste for it. Hemingway wrote to Berenson, one jilted man to another, that Gellhorn "was not built for bed." Gellhorn seems to have agreed. "I didn't like the sex at all," she wrote to Cary Grant's ex-wife Betsy Drake in 1972. "I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents. And the agile and experienced men were always shits, which didn't endear sex to me as you can imagine." She felt, she often said, like a man in a woman's body. "I think I am, very largely, a man anyhow," she wrote Rosamond Lehmann. The split in her temperament between men she liked but was not attracted to (Wells, Bernstein, the war photographer Robert Capa, and even Hemingway) and men she did not much like but was attracted to (the blur of older lovers) is familiar enough in the male psyche, as Freud pointed out repeatedly. Gellhorn wondered why D. H. Lawrence wasn't satisfied with the first version of Lady Chatterley's Lover, "a study in boredom and marital distaste," and "went on writing it until he got that highflown pornography at the end version." Her own best fiction, such as the poignant novella based on Capa's life, Till Death Do Us Part, skates over the territory of sexuality.
"In a war you must hate somebody or love somebody," Gellhorn's Capa character remarks. "You must have a position or you cannot stand what goes on." Gellhorn's tendency to see the world in absolutes, which cannot have helped in her relations with men, also bedeviled her later writing. Understated sympathy for the victims of World War II gave her war reporting an affecting emotional resonance. But she refused, then or after, to recognize the humanity of the perpetrators. Germans, against whom she maintained a lifetime vendetta, were simply beyond the pale. "All God's chillun hid Jews" was how she summed up German denial of war guilt. The French and Italians, however, were mysteriously absolved, as though they had recovered, with the Allied victory, from some alien virus. The Israelis were always Davids, the Arabs -- for whom she reserved a special venom -- always Goliaths. "My belief in Israel is unwavering and I do not expect it to be faultless, unlike any other state," she wrote while covering the Six Day War. "I have never forgotten Dachau."
The Russians, with their "peculiar historical genius for oppressing and being oppressed," confounded Gellhorn's stereotypes. She traveled to Moscow in the summer of 1972 to meet Nadezhda Mandelstam, whose Hope Against Hope she had greatly admired. Gellhorn described their serio-comic encounters in Travels with Myself and Another. Before the trip she described Mandelstam as "one human pretty damn near reaching perfection, under conditions of hell." After a few weeks of "heat, awful food, exhaustion, and deep deep boredom" in Mandelstam's company, she concluded: "She is not a bit noble and I have a failing for nobility." It was Hong Kong with Hemingway all over again, as Gellhorn's sentimental idealism clashed with what she called Mandelstam's stoic "cunning and camouflage." What really riled her, though, was Mandelstam's support for the American military incursion in Vietnam. Mandelstam: "If North Vietnam wins, they will shoot three million people." Gellhorn: "Why? On what grounds do you say that?" Mandelstam: "Here they shot three million people."
"I don't think I like her," Gellhorn wrote of Mandelstam. Reading through these five hundred pages of Gellhorn's letters, the reader may come to have mixed feelings about Gellhorn as well. Despite her virtuosity in expressing her love for the little guy, she seems never to have written to him. She preferred the gossipy round of the powerful, the beautiful, and the rich. She hated gaining weight and she hated getting old. "There are no real rewards for time passing," she wrote. She staved off the inevitable by swimming every day in her private pool with Chopin and Brahms on her record player. She kept up-to-date with younger writers, admiring Naipaul and Ondaatje, and made friends with a "gaggle of chaps in London all half my age." "The two suicides I know" (she was writing of Hemingway and a painter friend) "were not murdering themselves with hate, but simply leaving while there was time, from the empty ruins of life, because they knew -- and I think rightly -- that they had finished, and that what remained was going to be bleak and belittling." She made a final journey as a reporter -- "Brazil cured me of wanderlust for some time" -- and then, on February 16, 1998, at the age of eighty-nine, almost blind and suffering from cancer of the ovary and liver, she took a pill she had acquired for a quick exit, and left.
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