Martha Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn, Daring Writer, Dies at 89

    Martha Ellis Gellhorn, who as one of the first female war correspondents covered a dozen major conflicts in a writing career spanning more than six decades, died on Sunday at her home in London. She was 89.

    Ms. Gellhorn was a cocky, raspy-voiced maverick who saw herself as a champion of ordinary people trapped in conflicts created by the rich and powerful. That she was known to many largely because of her marriage to Ernest Hemingway, from 1940 to 1945, caused her unending irritation, especially when critics tried to find parallels between her lean writing style and that of her more celebrated husband.

    ''Why should I be a footnote to somebody else's life?'' she bitterly asked in an interview, pointing out that she had written two novels before meeting Hemingway and continued writing for almost a half-century after leaving him.

    As a journalist, Ms. Gellhorn had no use for the notion of objectivity. The chief point of going to cover anything, she felt, was so you could tell what you saw, contradict the lies and let the bad guys have it.

    ''You go into a hospital, and it's full of wounded kids,'' she once said. ''So you write what you see and how it is. You don't say there's 37 wounded children in this hospital, but maybe there's 38 wounded children on the other side. You write what you see.''

    Though best known for her groundbreaking journalism, Ms. Gellhorn was also an accomplished fiction writer, author of 5 novels, 14 novellas and 2 collections of short stories, many of which were based on people and incidents she encountered during her prodigious travels.

    Fresh out of Bryn Mawr College in 1927, she began writing for The New Republic, then became a crime reporter for a local newspaper in Albany. Ms. Gellhorn got to Europe by writing a brochure for the Holland American Line and traveled throughout the continent. Later, she met Harry Hopkins, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's confidant, and talked her way into a job with the New Deal, wandering America and writing about the effects of the Depression on ordinary people.

    She went to Spain in 1937 with nothing but a knapsack and $50, covered the conflict for Collier's Weekly and became Hemingway's lover.

    ''In Barcelona, it was perfect bombing weather,'' she wrote in a typical dispatch in 1938. ''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.''

    She covered the blitz in London. On D-Day, she stowed away on a hospital ship and snuck ashore as a stretcher bearer. She got British pilots to let her ride along on night bombing raids over Germany. When the Allies liberated Dachau, she was there to write about it.

    ''Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence,'' she wrote of her visit to Dachau, ''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.''

    She covered Russia's war against Finland in 1939, trekked across China with Hemingway in 1940, and became increasingly critical of the United States, which she saw as a ''colonial power,'' eventually settling abroad for good. She covered Vietnam, Nicaraguan contras, the Arab-Israeli conflict and, at the age of 81, the United States invasion of Panama. It was only when war came to Bosnia that she gave it a pass.

    ''Too old,'' she said. ''You have to be nimble for war.''

    Ms. Gellhorn's war correspondence was collected in ''The Face of War'' in 1959. She always focused on ordinary foot soldiers and civilians, ignoring the generals. Her peacetime journalism was collected in ''The View From the Ground'' in 1988.

    Among her novels were ''A Stricken Field'' (1940), set among refugees in Prague just before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, and ''Liana'' (1944), about the marriage of a mulatto woman and a rich white man in the French Caribbean.

    Many reviewers felt Ms. Gellhorn was even more successful as a writer of novellas, and she was highly praised for ''The Weather in Africa'' (1988), three novellas set on that continent, and ''The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn'' (1993).

    Ms. Gellhorn sometimes took criticism from political conservatives, who painted her as a left-leaning dilettante whose writing was often didactic and sentimental. Others criticized her vivid journalism as being, stylistically, too much like fiction and her terse fiction as being, stylistically, too much like journalism.

    But her longevity and the compelling pull of her life story overrode such criticisms. A heroine to generations of young women correspondents for her fight to get equal treatment and a place on the front lines with male colleagues, she was also a romantic figure for her wartime relationship with one of the century's most famous writers and her subsequent rejection of him.

    Ms. Gellhorn's father was a doctor in St. Louis with progressive notions and her mother, whom she adored, was a suffragist and social reformer who sometimes took her daughter with her to rallies and protests.

    Her father pulled her out of a convent school when he discovered the nuns were teaching female anatomy with a textbook that had its pictures covered and transferred the girl to a progressive coeducational school of which her mother was a co-founder. Later, at Bryn Mawr, Ms. Gellhorn changed her major from English to French, which became useful for her journalistic work in Europe. In 1934, she was among a group of American students invited to tour Nazi Germany, and she never forgot her first encounter with Fascism. When she returned to the United States and was working for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, she befriended Eleanor Roosevelt and spent some time, as the First Lady's guest, at the White House. She also wrote a collection of novellas about it, ''The Trouble I've Seen'' (1936).

    Her first marriage, in 1933 to Bertrand de Jouvenel, a French pacifist who was the son-in-law of the novelist Colette, ended in divorce.

    In 1936, she wandered into a bar in Key West, Fla., and met Hemingway. They drank, became friends and, the next year, when she showed up in Madrid, she picked up again with Hemingway and other war correspondents. She married the author in 1940, becoming his third wife.

    They traveled and worked together, living between conflicts at a villa in Cuba. In 1945, Ms. Gellhorn left Hemingway, walking out after an argument at London's Dorchester Hotel. She was the only one of Hemingway's wives to leave him, and he never forgave her. ''His hatred of her was a terrible thing to see,'' one Hemingway biographer noted. She left, she said, because he was jealous and bullying.

    Ms. Gellhorn's third marriage, to T. S. Matthews, an editor at Time magazine, also ended in divorce. She said she just found married life too boring.

    After World War II, Ms. Gellhorn adopted a son in Italy and raised him, largely on her own, in Mexico and other countries, where she supported herself with a string of articles for women's magazines.

    She is survived by her son, George Alexander Gellhorn of London, and a brother, Alfred Gellhorn of New York.

    Ms. Gellhorn had decided that she could no longer live in the United States, and moved from Cuba to Italy to Mexico to Kenya until finally settling in Britain, where she spent her last 15 years shuttling between a small cottage in Wales, an apartment in London and the world's trouble spots. Her South Kensington apartment became a kind of salon for writers and foreign correspondents.

    Bill Buford, the fiction editor at The New Yorker who was previously the editor of Granta, an English literary magazine, wrote about Ms. Gellhorn and her work: ''Reading Martha Gellhorn for the first time is a staggering experience. She is not a travel writer or a journalist or a novelist. She is all of these, and one of the most eloquent witnesses of the 20th century.''

    She also wrote a highly regarded travel book in 1979, ''Travels With Myself and Another,'' that was an often humorous recounting of some of her more uncomfortable jaunts to remote corners of the globe, some with Hemingway, whom she referred to only as Unwilling Companion.

    Her first love continued to be a crusading brand of nonfiction. ''Journalism is education for me,'' she wrote. ''Writing is payment for the chance to look and learn.''

    She wrote on an old, battered typewriter and had to quit in 1992 when a cataract operation left her with diminished eyesight. She could no longer see the keys and felt she was too old to learn how to dictate.

    But she never lost her bite. She chain-smoked, drank and ate what she pleased. ''It bores me, all that health stuff,'' she said. She told one woman who came to interview her late in life that she had to stop. ''This conversation is so boring I think I'm going to faint,'' she said.

    Ms. Gellhorn had little use for most war reporting after the Vietnam War, saying that the press' role in ending that conflict had taught military leaders a lesson.

    ''They realized the power of the press and have been controlling it ever since,'' she said. ''Look at the Gulf War. If you wanted to go out and say to a soldier, 'How is it, kid?,' you had to bring a minder so the kid says nothing.

    ''It seems to me that they feed war reporters at these ridiculous briefings in the ballroom of hotels miles from anywhere.'' The public, she said, needs to realize that it is not getting the full story.

    Looking back on a life that was colorful enough for any novel or reportage, Ms. Gellhorn once confessed: ''I'm overprivileged. I've had a wonderful life. I didn't deserve it but I've had it.''

    Remembering Martha Gellhorn A longtime Atlantic contributor, Gellhorn's career was far more glorious than her brief marriage to Ernest Hemingway

      This summer has seen the publication of The Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, a book that offers fresh insight into the personal thoughts and professional aspirations of one of the world's first female war correspondents. Gellhorn was a contributor to The Atlantic Monthly for more than three decades. In light of the renewed interest in Gellhorn sparked by publication of this book, we're making available a few of her major contributions to_The Atlantic_, along with a brief look back at her frutiful life.

      Gellhorn began her career as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War, arriving in Madrid in 1937 with nothing but a knapsack, fifty dollars, and an assignment to cover the conflict for Collier's Weekly. During this period she met Ernest Hemingway, also in Spain as a correspondent; they married in 1940, he becoming her second husband and she his third wife. The marriage lasted five years, ending when Gellhorn left Hemingway, the only of his wives to do so.

      A gutsy reporter, Gellhorn would go to great lengths to get a story—stowing away on a hospital ship and sneaking ashore as a stretcher bearer during the D-Day landings at Normandy, riding along with British pilots on night bombing raids over Germany, accompanying Allied troops when they liberated Dachau. And her energy reserves seemed inexhaustible: incredibly, in 1989, at the age of eighty-one, she was still out at the front reporting—on the United States invasion of Panama. It was only when war came to Bosnia that she had to pass on taking an assignment, saying that she was too old and not "nimble" enough for war anymore.

      In 1961, she made her way to the Middle East to live and travel among the Arabs displaced by the creation of Israel. In "The Arabs of Palestine" she reported at length on what she found.

      The unique misfortune of the Palestinian refugees is that they are a weapon in what seems to be a permanent war. Alarming signs ... warn us that the Palestinian refugees may develop into more than a justification for cold war against Israel... Today, in the Middle East, you get a repeated sinking sensation about the Palestinian refugees: they are only a beginning, not an end. Their function is to hang around and be constantly useful as a goad. The ultimate aim is not such humane small potatoes as repatriating refugees.

      Although not war reporting per se, Gellhorn's Atlantic coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial shows the extent to which she was influenced by her experiences during the Second World War. In "Eichmann and the Private Conscience"(February, 1962), Gellhorn grappled with questions of good and evil that the trial inevitably brought to mind.

      This is a sane man, and a sane man is capable of unrepentant, unlimited, planned evil. He was the genius bureaucrat, he was the powerful frozen mind which directed a gigantic organization; he is the perfect model of inhumanness; but he was not alone. Eager thousands obeyed him. Everyone could not have his special talents; many people were needed to smash a baby's head against the pavement before the mother's eyes, to urge a sick old man to rest and shoot him in the back of the head; there was endless work for willing hands. How many more like these exist everywhere?

      Two years later, in "Is There a New Germany?" (February, 1964), Gellhorn gauged Germany's ideological recovery from the Second World War by speaking with many German students. Her findings were harsh and unflattering.

      The adults of Germany, who knew Nazism and in their millions cheered and adored Hitler until he started losing, have performed a nation-wide act of amnesia; no one individually had a thing to do with the Hitlerian regime and its horrors.... The young realize this cannot be true, yet one by one, each explains how guiltless his father was; somebody else's father must have been doing the dirty work. Santayana observed that if a man forgets his past he is condemned to relive it. Germans trained in obedience and dedicated to moral whitewashing are not a new people, nor are they reliable partners for anyone else.

      Although Gellhorn was known best for her reporting, she was also an accomplished writer of fiction. In her lifetime she wrote five novels, fourteen novellas, and two collections of short stories, several of which were published in_The Atlantic._ One of these stories, "The Smell of Lilies" (August, 1956), received the O. Henry Award First Prize in 1958. The story depicts the relationship between an adulterous husband and a terminally ill wife who is ignorant of his affairs. Its style is trademark Gellhorn: painfully honest.

      She isn't guilty, he thought with terrible weariness, she has committed no crime, she doesn't prefer death to life. She is blind and completely unreal from these years of nothingness, but she isn't guilty. Why can't she die? Fighting to live on a chaise lounge, fighting off the need of a child. Why can't she die? Die. God, make her die.

      Ironically, during her lifetime, Martha Gellhorn was better known for her brief marriage to Hemingway than for her long career as a writer. This was something she openly resented. Nearly a decade after her death in 1998, we hope these articles will help demonstrate that Gellhorn was a writer and reporter deserving of serious attention in her own right, one whose style and ambition have influenced subsequent generations of journalists.