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Martha Gellhorn, the daughter of George Gellhorn, a gynecologist, and Edna Fischel, was born in St. Louis on 8th November, 1908. When she was a child her mother was involved in the women's suffrage movement.
Gellhorn attended Bryn Mawr College but left in 1927 to begin a career as a writer. Her first articles appeared in the New Republic, but determined to become a foreign correspondent, she moved to France to work for the United Press bureau in Paris.
While in Europe she became active in the pacifist movement and wrote about her experiences in the book, What Mad Pursuit (1934). When Gellhorn returned home she was hired by Harry Hopkins as an investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, where she had the task of reporting the impact of the Depression on the United States. Her reports for that agency caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two women became lifelong friends. Her findings were the basis of a novella, The Trouble I've Seen (1936).
In 1937 Gellhorn was employed by Collier's Weekly to report the Spanish Civil War. While there she started an affair with Ernest Hemingway and the couple married in 1940. Gellhorn travelled to Germany where she reported the rise of Adolf Hitler and in 1938 was in Czechoslovakia. After the outbreak of the Second World War wrote about these events in the novel, A Stricken Field (1940).
Gellhorn worked for Collier's Weekly throughout the Second World War and later recalled how she "followed the war wherever I could reach it." This included reporting from Finland, Hong Kong, Burma, Singapore and Britain. She even impersonated a stretcher bearer in order to witness the D-Day landings. Her book about the war, The Undefeated, was published in 1945.
Gellhorn also covered the arrival of allied troops at Dachau: "In their joy to be free, and longing to see their friends who had come at last, many prisoners rushed to the fence and died electrocuted. There were those who died cheering, because that effort of happiness was more than their bodies could endure. There were those who died because now they had food, and they ate before they could be stopped, and it killed them. I do not know words to describe the men who have survived this horror for years, three years, five years, ten years, and whose minds are as clear and unafraid as the day they entered. I was in Dachau when the German armies surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. We sat in that room, in that accursed cemetery prison, and no one had anything more to say. Still, Dachau seemed to me the most suitable place in Europe to hear the news of victory. For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau, and all the other places like Dachau, and everything that Dachau stood for, and to abolish it for ever."
After the war Gellhorn worked for Atlantic Monthly. This included all the major world conflicts, including the Vietnam War. In an interview with Shelia MacVicar she pointed out: "I hated Vietnam the most, because I felt personally responsible. It was my own country doing this abomination. I am talking about what was done in South Vietnam to the people whom we, supposedly, had come to save. I'm seeing napalmed children in the hospital, seeing old women with a piece of white sulphur burning away inside of them, seeing the destroyed villages, seeing people dropping of hunger and dying in the streets. My complete horror remains with me as a source of grief and anger and shame that surpasses all the others."
Gellhorn published a large number of books including a collection of articles on war, The Face of War (1959), a novel about McCarthyism in the United States, The Lowest Trees Have Tops (1967), an account of her life with Ernest Hemingway, entitled, Travels With Myself and Another (1978) and a collection of her peacetime journalism, The View From the Ground (1988).
Martha Gellhorn died in London on 15th February, 1998.
I found out about the Spanish war because I was in Germany when it began. The German papers always described the Spanish Republic as "the Red swine dogs." I didn't know anything about it except that, and that was all I needed to know. And it was the only place that was fighting fascism.
I tried to get some (travel documents) in Paris, which I couldn't. So I just took a train and got off near the border of Andorra and walked across. There was a train going down to Barcelona, so I just got on. I didn't speak Spanish, and I did not have the faintest idea of doing anything except being there. It was a sort of act of solidarity just to be with the right people.
I didn't write. I just wandered about. I used to write letters to the wounded in the Palace Hotel, and I used to drive a station wagon with blood in bottles to a battalion aid station. Then somebody suggested I should write about the war, and I said I didn't know anything about the war. I did not understand anything about it. I didn't see how I could write it. I only knew about daily life. It was said, well, it isn't everybody's daily life. That is why I started.
At the end of the gray unheated ward, a little boy was talking to a man. The boy sat at the foot of an iron cot and from this distance you could see that they were talking seriously and amiably as befits old friends.
They had known each other for almost six years and had been in five different concentration camps in France. The little boy had come with his entire family in the great exodus from Spain at the end of the civil war in 1939, but the man was alone. He had been wounded at the end of the war and for six years he had been unable to walk, with a wound in his leg that was never treated and had never healed. He had a white, suffering face and cheeks that looked as if the skin had been roughly stitched together in deep hunger seams and he had gentle eyes and a gentle voice.
The little boy was fifteen years old, though his body was that of a child often. Between his eyes, there were four lines, the marks of such misery as children should never feel. He spoke with that wonderful whisky voice that so many Spanish children have, and he was a tough and entire little boy. His conversation was without drama or self-pity. It appeared that the last concentration camp was almost the worst; he had been separated from his mother and father. Also the hunger was greater, although the hunger had always been there, and one did not think about it any longer.
In the last camp they all ate grass, until the authorities forbade them to pull it up. They were accustomed to having the fruits of their little communal gardens stolen by the guards, after they had done all the work; but at the last camp everything was stolen. And there were more punishments for the children: more days without food, more hours of standing in the sun; more bearings.
"The man who guarded us in our barracks was shot by the Maquis, when they came to free us," the boy said. "The Maquis shot him for being bad to children."
His mother was here with him, and three sisters, too. An older brother was somewhere fighting with the French Maquis.
"And your father?" I asked.
There was a pause and then he said, in a flat quiet voice, "Deported by the Germans." Then all the toughness went, and he was a child who had suffered too much. He put his hands in front of his face, and bowed his head and wept for his father.
There were ten concentration camps in France from 1939 on. It is alleged that half a million Spanish men, women and children fled to France after the Franco victory. Thousand got away to other countries; thousands returned to Spain tempted by false promises of kindness. By the tens of thousands, these Spaniards died of neglect in the concentration camps. And the German Todt organizations took over seven thousand able-bodied Spaniards to work as slaves. The remainder - no one knows certainly how many - exist here in France. The French cannot be blamed for their present suffering since the French cannot yet provide adequately for themselves.
The Third French Republic was less barbarous to the Spaniards than was the Petain government, evidently, but it would seem that all people who run concentration camps necessarily become brutal monsters. And though various organizations in America and England collected money and sent food parcels to these refugees, nothing was ever received by the Spanish. Furthermore, they were constantly informed by all the camp authorities that they had been abandoned by the world: they were beggars and lucky to receive the daily soup of starvation.
The only way to get out of these French concentration camps was to sign a labor contract: any farmer or employer could ask for two or ten or twenty Spaniards, who were then bound over to him and would have to work for whatever wages he chose to pay under whatever living conditions he saw fit to provide. If a Spaniard rebelled, he could return to the concentration camp. A well-known Barcelona surgeon worked as a wood-cutter for four years at twelve cents a day. He is sixty-two and there is nothing unusual about his case.
The generally accepted figure is 300,000 executions in the six years since Franco won power. The total present American casualties, killed and wounded in all theaters of war, are about 475,000. It is obvious that the only way to defeat these people is to shoot them. As early as 1941, Spanish Republicans were running away from their French employers and disappearing into the Maquis. From 1943 onward, there was the closest liaison between the French Maquis and the Spanish bands throughout France.
That the work of the Spanish Maquis was valuable can be seen from some briefly noted figures. During the German occupation of France, the Spanish Maquis engineered more than four hundred railway sabotages, destroyed fifty-eight locomotives, dynamited thirty-five railway bridges, cut one hundred and fifty telephone lines, attacked twenty factories, destroying some factories totally, and sabotaged fifteen coal mines. They took several thousand German prisoners and - most miraculous considering their arms - they captured three tanks.
In the south-west part of France where no Allied armies have ever fought, they liberated more than seventeen towns. The French Forces of the Interior, who have scarcely enough to help themselves, try to help their wounded Spanish comrades in arms. But now that the guerrilla fighting is over, the Spaniards are again men without a country or families or homes or work, though everyone appreciates very much what they did.
After the desperate years of their own war, after six years of repression inside Spain and six years of horror in exile, these people remain intact in spirit. They are armed with a transcendent faith; they have never won, and yet they have never accepted defeat. Theirs is the great faith that makes miracles and changes history. You can sit in a basement restaurant in Toulouse and listen to men who have uncomplainingly lost every safety and comfort in life, talking of their republic; and you can believe quite simply that, since they are what they are, there will be a republic across the mountains and that they will live to return to it.
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.
Belowstairs all the partitions had been torn out and for three decks the inside of the ship was a vast ward with double tiers of bunks. The routing inside the ship ran marvelously, though four doctors, six nurses and about fourteen medical orderlies were very few people to care for four hundred wounded men. From two o'clock one afternoon until the ship docked in England again the next evening at seven, none of the medical personnel stopped work. And besides plasma and blood transfusions, re-dressing of wounds, examinations, administering of sedatives or opiates or oxygen and all the rest, operations were performed all night long. Only one soldier died on that ship and he had come aboard as a hopeless case.
It will be hard to tell you of the wounded, there were so many of them. There was no time to talk; there was too much else to do. They had to be fed, as most of them had not eaten for two days; shoes and clothing had to be cut off; they wanted water; the nurses and orderlies, working like demons, had to be found and called quickly to a bunk where a man suddenly and desperately needed attention; plasma bottles must be watched; cigarettes had to be lighted and held for those who could not use their hands; it seemed to take hours to pour hot coffee, via the spout of a teapot, into a mouth that just showed through bandages.
But the wounded talked among themselves and as time went on we got to know them, but their faces and their wounds, not their names. They were a magnificent enduring bunch of men. Men smiled who were in such pain that all they really can have wanted to do was turn their heads away and cry, and men made jokes when they needed their strength just to survive. And all of them looked after each other, saying, "Give that boy a drink of water," or "Miss, see that Ranger over there, he's in bad shape, could you go to him?" All through the ship men were asking after other men by name, anxiously, wondering if they were on board and how they were doing.
A colleague and I drove up to Bastogne on a secondary road through breath-taking scenery. The Thunderbolts had created this scenery. You can say the words "death and destruction" and they don't mean anything. But they are awful words when you are looking at what they mean. There were some German staff cars along the side of the road, they had not merely been hit by machine-gun bullets, they had been mashed into the ground.
There were half-tracks and tanks literally wrenched apart, and a gun position directly hit by bombs. All around these lacerated or flattened objects of steel there was the usual riffraff: papers, tin cans, cartridge belts, helmets, an odd shoe, clothing. There were also, ignored and completely inhuman, the hard-frozen corpses of
Germans. Then there was a clump of houses, burned and gutted, with only a few walls standing, and around them the enormous bloated bodies of cattle.
The road passed through a curtain of pine forest and came out on a flat, rolling snow field. In this field the sprawled or bunched bodies of Germans lay thick, like some dark shapeless vegetable.
We had watched the Thunderbolts working for several days. They flew in small packs and streaked in to the attack in single file. They passed quickly through the sky and when they dived you held your breath and waited; it seemed impossible that the plane would be able to pull itself up to safety. They were diving to within sixty feet of the ground. The snub-nosed Thunderbolt is more feared by the German troops than any other plane.
You have seen Bastogne and a thousand other Bastognes in the newsreels. These dead towns and villages spread over Europe and one forgets the human misery and fear and despair that the cracked and caved-in buildings represent. Bastogne was a German job of death and destruction and it was beautifully thorough. The 101st Airborne Division, which held Bastogne, was still there, though the day before the wounded had been taken out as soon as the first road was open. The survivors of the 101st Airborne Division, after being entirely surrounded, uninterruptedly shelled and bombed, after having fought off four times their strength in Germans, look-for some unknown reason - cheerful and lively. A young lieutenant remarked, "The tactical situation was always good." He was very surprised when we shouted with laughter. The front, north of Bastogne, was just up the road and the peril was far from past.
I have not talked about how it was the day the American Army arrived, though the prisoners told me. In their joy to be free, and longing to see their friends who had come at last, many prisoners rushed to the fence and died electrocuted. I do not know words to describe the men who have survived this horror for years, three years, five years, ten years, and whose minds are as clear and unafraid as the day they entered.
I was in Dachau when the German armies surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau, and all the other places like Dachau, and everything that Dachau stood for, and to abolish it for ever.
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?
I hated Vietnam the most, because I felt personally responsible. My complete horror remains with me as a source of grief and anger and shame that surpasses all the others.
I think the proof of the power of the press is the fear of the press by governments. The Falklands war is a perfect example. That was not a war; it was a campaign. It was so tightly censored, and it was clear that all that the British government had learned from Vietnam was: Keep the press out. If any interests of any government are involved, they fear the press.
A Moral Witness
If journalism is a rough draft of history, then war reportage is very rough indeed. In the hurly-burly of violent conflict, journalists have none of the historian&rsquos Olympian overview of motives and consequences. The fog of war falls on correspondents as well as on generals&mdashpropaganda, prejudice, ignorance, and the need to tell engaging stories to faraway readers limit and distort their vision. Censorship and partisanship disguise the naked truth. War correspondents can seem, even to themselves, like parasites on misery. A corrosive cynicism drifts like mustard gas across the history of writing about war. Samuel Johnson set the tone in 1758:
Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages. A peace will equally leave the warriour and the relator of Wars destitute of employment and I know not whether more is to be dreaded from streets filled with Soldiers accustomed to plunder, or from garrets filled with Scribblers accustomed to lie.
Irvin McDowell, a Union general in the American Civil War, sardonically informed the first celebrity war correspondent, William Howard Russell of the London Times, that, in giving permission for journalists to enter a war zone, &ldquoI have suggested to them that they should wear a white uniform to indicate the purity of their character.&rdquo
Martha Gellhorn was many things, including a novelist and short story writer, but a &ldquorelator of Wars&rdquo is the most important of them. She was certainly no saint and did not wear a white uniform. She was well aware of the treacherous allure of tall tales from the battlefront. She was, after all, married for five years to one of great spinners of self-aggrandizing narratives, Ernest Hemingway, 1 and it is no accident that, according to Caroline Moorehead&rsquos marvelous 2003 biography, Gellhorn coined the word apocryphiars for the habitual inventors of such fictions. 2 She was not immune to the self-contempt endemic to the business of turning violence and suffering into stories and money: in the 1959 introduction to her superb collection of reports, The Face of War, she describes herself as a &ldquospecial type of war profiteer.&rdquo
She was not a neutral observer&mdashshe cared far too much for democratic values and was too enraged by cruelty to believe in what she called &ldquoall that objectivity shit.&rdquo She did not offer sweeping analyses of military and diplomatic strategies. She did not think, at least after the disillusionment that followed her early immersion in the Spanish Civil War, that journalism fed a public &ldquolove of truth.&rdquo As she wrote in 1959, her faith in the &ldquobenign power of the press&rdquo had been broken: &ldquoGradually I came to realize that people will more readily swallow lies than truth, as if the taste of lies was homey, appetizing: a habit.&rdquo She had no illusions of influence: &ldquoFor all the good our articles did, they might have been written in invisible ink, printed on leaves, and loosed to the wind.&rdquo She felt, as she wrote to her lover and fellow war correspondent William Walton in 1949, &ldquothe absolute folly of journalism which at best reflects the vision of one person, and pretends to give an &lsquoover-all picture.&rsquo&rdquo
Why, then, did she keep doing it for almost half a century, from the Spanish Civil War to the Soviet invasion of Finland, through the fall of Czechoslovakia, the Normandy landings and the liberation of Dachau, to the Vietnam War, the killing fields of El Salvador and Nicaragua during Ronald Reagan&rsquos dirty wars in the mid-1980s, and, when she was eighty-one, the US invasion of Panama? It was a matter of character and conscience, those most old-fashioned of virtues. She wrote to her beloved mother, Edna, when she was going to Vietnam in 1966, in a letter to be sent only in the event of her death that Janet Somerville includes in Yours, for Probably Always, her enthralling collection of Gellhorn&rsquos correspondence from the 1930s and 1940s:
It may be that the human race is on the way out, a failed species, and anything one tries to do is futile. But I think that even if I knew that was true, I would still believe that each individual is responsible for his conscience and must live by his standards of right and wrong, as long as he breathes. All I know how to do is write: the only way I can write with any authority, in the hope of influencing even a very few people is to write from firsthand knowledge.
To witness other people&rsquos suffering and to write well about it was for her a way of being in the world, not a profession but an ethical act: &ldquoSerious, careful, honest journalism is essential, not because it is a guiding light, but because it is a form of honorable behavior, involving the reporter and the reader.&rdquo How quaint that word, &ldquohonorable&rdquo&mdashand how potent in our time, when the legitimacy of reportage is under such sustained assault. Male honor and its savage imperatives are the engines of war and atrocity. Gellhorn&rsquos honor drove her to record the consequences for others, especially for women, children, and refugees. On New Year&rsquos Day, 1945, while covering the war on the western front in Europe, she thought of &ldquoa wonderful New Year&rsquos resolution for the men who run the world: get to know the people who only live in it.&rdquo
Gellhorn got to know, and taught her readers to know, the people who only live in the hellish worlds our rulers create. She devoted herself to what Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, calls &ldquothe melancholy calculation of human calamities.&rdquo This devotion is what makes her one of the great American moralists.
When Gellhorn first wrote about war, from Madrid in 1937, it was at the prompting of a man she rather coyly called in print &ldquoa journalist friend&rdquo&mdashHemingway. According to Moorehead, he asked her why she was not writing about the war. She replied, &ldquoI don&rsquot know about soldiers and weapons.&rdquo Hemingway said, &ldquoWell, write about what you do know about, which is people.&rdquo This was, of course, an established division of journalistic labor: the real stuff of war for the boys, &ldquohuman interest&rdquo for the girls. Yet Gellhorn transformed a sexist imposition into a moral choice. She changed the angle of vision of war reporting from &ldquosoldiers and weapons&rdquo to &ldquopeople.&rdquo She redefined danger&mdashthat most potent allure of the war zone&mdashfrom the heroism of sudden death to, as she wrote to her friend Eleanor Roosevelt in 1938, &ldquolonely persecution and starvation and the fear of women alone in their flimsy houses with the children, when the night bombers come over.&rdquo
Thus when she was not permitted to go with the male war correspondents officially covering the D-Day landings in June 1944, she managed instead to bluff her way onto a hospital ship, claiming that she was writing a story about the nurses. It was, she recalled in 1992, a &ldquowonderful rap to say&hellipit&rsquos a women&rsquos story, which is then regarded as of absolutely no interest at all and harmless.&rdquo She locked herself in a toilet until the ship sailed and was then able to report on the great event from a uniquely up-close perspective. And watching a Jewish doctor care for a wounded German prisoner allowed her a characteristically laconic reflection on humanity in extremis: &ldquoWe are helpless against our own decency really.&rdquo
Gellhorn took &ldquocolor&rdquo writing and made it darkly potent. By the 1960s, and the Vietnam War, US and South Vietnamese officialdom had begun to grasp just how dangerous she was. The war is remembered as one in which American reporters had unusually free access and a consequently powerful impact on public opinion at home. But Gellhorn, even though she was one of the most famous war correspondents, was effectively shut out from both access and impact. She made her own way to Vietnam in August 1966 and wrote a series of six long articles, but US newspapers declined to publish them. &ldquoEverywhere I was told that they were too tough for American readers,&rdquo she told Philip Knightley in an interview for his skeptical book on war reporting, The First Casualty, published in 1975. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch eventually published two of the milder pieces, and the Ladies&rsquo Home Journal, of all places, published one. Only in Britain, in the Guardian, did the full series see the light of day.
And when Gellhorn tried to return to Vietnam, her visa applications were consistently refused: &ldquoIt appears I am on some sort of black list and I will not be allowed to report from South Vietnam again.&rdquo Appeals to the US authorities for help were rebuffed. This did not happen to many other American journalists, certainly not to ones of Gellhorn&rsquos fame and stature.
What did she do to deserve this? Gellhorn, looking back in 1988, characterized her Vietnam reports as &ldquoa model of self-censorship,&rdquo and wrote that &ldquothere are smarmy sentences in those reports that I wrote with gritted teeth.&rdquo She did not reveal any secrets&mdasheverything she wrote about was, as she put it, &ldquothere for anyone to see, open, obvious.&rdquo Her sin, rather, was to write about the war not as an American tragedy but as a Vietnamese one. She was interested in the otherwise anonymous victims of napalm dropped on villages, in the peasants uprooted from their homes in order to be &ldquopacified,&rdquo in &ldquothat distant, small, brown-skinned people, who do not look or live like us.&rdquo She did not, like almost all the other journalists, follow the action she followed its aftermath. She went to the refugee camps, the orphanages, and in particular the children&rsquos hospitals in the Mekong Delta. What is offensive in the pieces she wrote, what put them beyond the pale, is their human intimacy:
The children have learned not to move, because moving hurts them more, but their eyes, large and dark, follow you&hellip.
A child of seven, the size of our four-year-olds, lay in the cot by the door. Napalm had burned his face and back and one hand. The burned skin looked like swollen, raw meat the fingers of his hand were stretched out, burned rigid. A scrap of cheesecloth covered him, for weight is intolerable, but so is air.
Decades earlier, while covering World War II in 1944, Gellhorn had mused in print that &ldquoperhaps it is impossible to understand anything unless it happened to you yourself.&rdquo What we are experiencing in passages like this is something happening: to the child, to Gellhorn, and, through the melancholy calculation of those exquisitely weighted sentences, to us. &ldquoIf you see something,&rdquo Gellhorn says in a letter to her friend and former teacher Hortense Flexner in 1940, &ldquoyou write it, to give the exact emotion to someone who did not see it.&rdquo What&rsquos crucial, though, is the very particular balance between moral engagement and cool detachment we encounter in her writing&mdashthe engagement creates the emotion the detachment holds it back so that it is not all used up by the reporter and enough space is left for the reader&rsquos feelings to be activated.
The technique here owes much to Hemingway&mdashbut what good writer&rsquos of the period doesn&rsquot? After she divorced him in 1945, Gellhorn always bristled at portrayals of herself as his protégé or sidekick. It is thus salutary to find her writing to her then lover Bertrand de Jouvenel in 1930, long before she met Hemingway, that he &ldquohas affected my style, which is really too bad.&rdquo Like almost everyone else, she would have been influenced by the figure de Jouvenal refers to in 1932 as &ldquothe Great God Hemingway&rdquo even if she had never become entangled in his life and legend.
Gellhorn could write a scene like the one in the hospital so intimately because she felt it intimately. In some of her reports from Vietnam, that word &ldquohonor&rdquo is slipped in. The one sentence, tellingly, that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch decided to cut from the piece it printed is a question about honor: &ldquoIs this an honorable way for a great nation to fight a war 10,000 miles from its safe homeland?&rdquo This is less an accusation than a confession. The sense of dishonor was deeply personal to her as an American. As she wrote of Vietnam to her friend Betsy Drake in June 1975, when the war had just ended, in a letter included in Moorehead&rsquos selection of her correspondence, &ldquoI felt it as a personal guilt and shame and horror.&rdquo 3
Gellhorn could never be the &ldquowalking tape recorder with eyes&rdquo that, as she put it during World War II, she aspired to be. While she claimed that &ldquonothing about the reporter matters. What matters is the thing: the facts: what happened: how it was,&rdquo this is not really true. Her &ldquoI&rdquo is as important as her eyes. She had written, as far back as 1934, in a letter to her friend Cam Beckett that
you wouldn&rsquot believe how the world narrows when you have to say I instead of She. But I must do it because writing is more than just putting words down on paper to fill the time, hoping for money to come and a dash of fame&hellip. For me, it&rsquos my mind&rsquos and spirit&rsquos purge: there are certain things to be eternally rid of.
What matters in Gellhorn&rsquos reportage is not just &ldquothe facts&rdquo but how she defined what facts counted most and how she evoked them for her readers, and those choices were never separable from her conscience and her character. And while she seems startlingly rebellious in her private and professional lives, that character is a wondrous flowering of the early-twentieth-century progressive American bourgeoisie. Her mother, Edna, the driving force of the League of Women Voters in Gellhorn&rsquos hometown of St. Louis, writing to de Jouvenel in 1934, informs him that &ldquowe&rsquore very middle-class, somewhat conventional, sure that our only usefulness and happiness lies in service, sort of people.&rdquo Her father, a gynecologist, was Jewish and had been born in Germany. Gellhorn wrote to Drake, &ldquoI was brought up in a good tough school whose basic instruction is: Get on with it. Somehow.&rdquo
Moorehead, who was Gellhorn&rsquos friend as well as her biographer, recalled that &ldquo&lsquobuck up&rsquo was a phrase we all heard, when we strayed too near to self-pity.&rdquo Duty, indefatigability, and an underlying sense of the importance of being earnest in the pursuit of justice are the values Gellhorn held to. It is apt that her political and personal lodestar was Eleanor Roosevelt, who, perhaps more than any other twentieth-century American figure, embodied those values in public action. Gellhorn&rsquos letters to and from Roosevelt (with whom she sometimes stayed in the White House) are among the treasures of Somerville&rsquos rich collection.
If this is where the engagement comes from, how did she maintain that remarkable counterweight of detachment? Reading her letters allows us to see not just the &ldquoI&rdquo who witnessed so much but also Gellhorn&rsquos capacity to stand outside that self. Parallel to her war journalism, the letters to her lovers and intimate friends involve a remarkable feat of reportage on the war within Gellhorn herself. It is a conflict most crudely defined by Hemingway when he cabled her from Cuba, while she was away covering World War II: &ldquoARE YOU A WAR CORRESPONDENT OR WIFE IN MY BED ?&rdquo Gellhorn knew damn well what the answer was but there was for her a much more complex and perhaps unanswerable question: How could she be a woman while occupying so male a space in the world?
When Gellhorn took up with de Jouvenel, a married man who stayed married, her father, disapprovingly, said to her that &ldquothere are two kinds of women and you are the other kind.&rdquo Gellhorn was always indeed the &ldquoother kind&rdquo of gender: she had to make her life in a no-man&rsquos-land between the proper femininity she rejected and the masculinity she could not have. Writing to her in 1934, de Jouvenel claimed that if Gellhorn provoked his wife to take legal action against them, &ldquoit would be something as destructive as when Oscar Wilde attacked Queensberry.&rdquo The evocation of the most infamous queer scandal may be over the top but was not entirely inapt. For Gellhorn certainly did not fit into her era&rsquos binary oppositions of male and female, and the result was not just that others did not know quite what to make of her, but that she was never quite sure what to make of herself.
Gellhorn, blond and long-legged, was well aware of&mdashand not at all displeased by&mdashher sexual attractiveness to men: &ldquoI am,&rdquo she wrote to Cam Beckett in 1934, &ldquoconsidered to be rather beautiful, with a good body.&rdquo It was one of her professional assets. She wrote to Drake in 1972, &ldquoThough I never used them for sexual attraction, my looks were a passport which somehow made tolerable the interruption of a furious woman, bullying powerful people to be concerned about unpowerful people.&rdquo But on the other hand, she reveled in being one of the boys, in the hard-drinking swagger of reporters and fighters. Her voice, as Ward Just put it, &ldquohad so much gravel in it you could walk on it.&rdquo
Sexual connection eluded her. She wrote to Allen Grover from Paris in 1936 of her female friends&rsquo diagnosis: &ldquoThey are now decided that I am a lesbian because no men mar the scenery, because I deny the gloating satisfaction in physical love whereof they all brag.&rdquo In that letter of 1934, de Jouvenel calls himself &ldquohalf-a-man and you half-a-woman&rdquo because she did not share his sexual pleasure in their couplings. He blamed himself for the &ldquoviolent physical incompatibility&rdquo that existed between them, and called himself an &ldquoincompetent lover.&rdquo But Gellhorn clearly felt the failure to be her own. She told him she was &ldquogoing to see a doctor about my lack of sexual reaction.&rdquo She wrote to him of
how I failed you, being unable to give you complete joy in sexual love&mdashbecause I was unable to attain that climax and how I even faked it on occasions when you had tried and I felt your wretchedness at failure.
Sex and love would not, for Gellhorn, cohere into a settled sense of herself as a woman. It seems that the real male love of her life was the great war photographer Robert Capa&mdasheven though (perhaps because) &ldquothere was never, not for one minute ever, the slightest sexual attraction between us.&rdquo She did not find Hemingway physically attractive, even though she married him. &ldquoHe needed me to run his house and to copulate on (I use the adverb advisedly, not with but on) and to provide exercise in the way of a daily tennis game,&rdquo she wrote to Drake in 1974.
Her friend Leonard Bernstein told Gellhorn he wrote the song &ldquo100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man&rdquo (from Wonderful Town) with her in mind, but her letters show that breaking up, however frequently she did it, was hard for her to do. It forced her to confront the ways in which she was not a &ldquowoman&rdquo in the sense that her male lovers could understand the idea, and&mdashmuch more painfully&mdashin the way she understood it. In 1950 she told David Gurewitsch&mdashEleanor Roosevelt&rsquos friend and personal physician, with whom Gellhorn was then in love&mdash&ldquoI am not good enough to be a pair, to belong to a man.&rdquo She added:
I have not even thought of myself as a woman much before&hellip. I have done nothing but fail, as a woman, because I never felt like one really&hellip. I have consciously used what I suppose must be sex appeal (but what a cheap thing it is: all women have it) for vanity, from loneliness, from doubt, or simply to exert power.
In 1958, when she was fifty, she wrote to Rosamond Lehmann:
I still have a few friends, men, (not quite the same as the others, the first ones) and they and the dead have always mattered more to me than any lovers. Lovers somehow never seemed serious there was something I couldn&rsquot quite believe&mdashand even in the most anguishing intoxicating depths of a love affair, I would always rather be with my friends, who were my own people and where I belonged. I found this very queer (I bet you do too), very unwomanly & probably neuter of me. I only loved the world of men&mdashnot the world of men-and-women. I only loved the men as they were themselves, not as they became in relation to women. Perhaps I am simply a born visitor&mdashmeant to go, as a stranger, into someone else&rsquos territory, having none of my own.
This is distressing and poignant, but it also gets to the nub of the reason why Gellhorn&rsquos sense of being unwomanly was a source not just of personal anguish but of her great power as a journalist. The &ldquoI&rdquo of her reportage, the witnessing self, can never be a pompous, arrogant omniscient persona. It never loses its vigilant self-awareness. It is a hard-won construct, distilled from a deep loneliness, a radical uncertainty, and a consequent habit (so vibrantly manifest in her letters) of merciless self-analysis. It is also what allows her, even in those moments of almost unbearably intimate confrontation with the suffering of others, to be the perfect stranger in another&rsquos territory, the emissary from the zone of human calamities to the land where people are comfortable enough to want to read all about it.
Her journalistic work is so closely intertwined with terrible historical events that it seems odd to say that Gellhorn was really an anti-historian. Her dispatches were not first drafts of history they were letters from eternity. She wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939 that &ldquoperhaps because I try to be a writer, perhaps because I am a woman, I cannot avoid seeing history always in terms of people.&rdquo To see history&mdashat least the history of war&mdashin terms of people is to see it not as a linear process but as a series of terrible repetitions: what happens to human flesh in episodes of organized violence is always and everywhere the same. It is her ability to capture the precise and particular while doing justice to the terrible futility of this sameness that makes Gellhorn&rsquos reportage so genuinely timeless. When we read her, we are simultaneously drawn into the uniqueness of a moment and into the undertow of her distraught awareness that this moment, in its essence, has happened before and will happen again.
As early as 1935, her regular correspondent Allen Grover wrote to Gellhorn that &ldquoI should one day publish your collected letters. They&rsquore magnificent prose.&rdquo They are&mdashand they are also precious traces of the turbulent, passionate, relentless, self-examined inner life of a woman of honor whose indomitable character is beautifully summed up by her mother in Somerville&rsquos invigorating collection: &ldquoShe lacks everything that makes living easy, she possesses most things that make it worthwhile.&rdquo
Martha Ellis Gellhorn was born in St. Louis on November 8, 1908. Her father was a doctor and her mother an advocate for women's right to vote. She attended a progressive private school her parents founded in St. Louis, then went to Bryn Mawr College, leaving in 1927 to write for the New Republic and take a job in Albany, New York, as a crime reporter. In February of 1930 she traveled to Europe, paying for the boat trip across the ocean by writing a brochure for the Holland American Line. In Paris, while working a series of odd jobs, she met French writer Bertrand de Jouvenel, and they married, or at least presented themselves as husband and wife it was not clear whether he had successfully divorced his previous wife.
After returning to St. Louis with de Jouvenel in 1931, Gellhorn traveled the American Southwest as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and wrote a novel, What Mad Pursuit , about a protagonist much like her, a cynical female reporter who has many love affairs. The novel attracted the
War Reporters: Martha Gellhorn
The outbreak of the Second World War is likely one of the most written-about topics in history. It is difficult to imagine what more new and original could be added to the already profuse literature on the tumultuous events of the 1930s.
But going back to one of the earliest accounts of the rise of Hitler’s Germany provides a different experience. Reading Martha Gellhorn’s reporting from Czechoslovakia in 1938 is like watching the war rise from the ashes of Depression-era Europe with new eyes.
Gellhorn in 1938 was a plucky, 30-year-old American war correspondent with a knack for seeking out the hotspots of war. Having crossed the Atlantic to cover her first conflict, the Spanish Civil War, Gellhorn found herself in Czechoslovakia, just before the Nazi occupation of the region known to the Germans as the Sudetenland.
Gellhorn’s literary style is atmospheric, emotive, and pregnant with foreboding. She captures the day-to-day life and minutiae of events in vivid detail, foregrounding the military aggression that the Nazi regime was about to inflict on Europe with a realism that only an eyewitness could have constructed.
Gellhorn’s method was to describe facts and events, with the intended meaning and interpretation hidden behind the surface. Thus she poignantly begins her report on Czechoslavakia, published in Collier’s magazine on 6 August 1938, with a description of a pro-democracy parade headed by the Social Democrats of Czechoslovakia:
The Bakers’ Union marches with giant breakfast rolls on their heads, the Slovak peasants in embroidered blouses and red skirts and high boots dance past … They sing and cheer and salute the crowd and the president. All the banners and signs repeat the word: democracy. They talk a great deal about democracy in Czechoslovakia because they think they may have to fight for it.
Thus setting the scene, Gellhorn, without being explicitly moralistic, has captured the zeitgeist of the 1930s and the great conflict that awaited. Reading her writing, it is clear that the Second World War and epoch-defining clash between democracy and totalitarianism, epitomised in most brutal form by the Nazi regime, was not an event that suddenly occurred to the surprise of the sleeping masses: instead, alarm bells were ringing across the continent and commentators such as Gellhorn, having just witnessed the rise of fascism in Spain, were well aware of the dangers ahead.
Her writing beautifully dips in and out of descriptions of the peacetime land, sharply interrupted with cold references to the harbingers of conflict:
On the frontier between Silesia and Czechoslovakia, the land is open, and behind the town of Troppau little hills like the Ozarks curve around the fields. There are women bending in the beet fields, and men forking the grain.
Beside the haystacks are other things that look like haystacks until you get closer and see that they are camouflaged pillboxes, with machine guns and anti-tank guns in them, and the soldiers stand as quiet as scarecrows among the working peasants.
Driving through the pinewoods behind Troppau, near Haj, you see a new fort being built, fl at and wide on the top of the hill, and on the road dozens of steel spikes sunk into concrete blocks, from which later the barbed wire will be strung. Then the road dips down from the forest and crosses the river into a plain.
On the other side of that plain is Germany, and across the nearest field is a triple row of barbed wire, on huge spools, and beside the river is a black cement-and-steel gun fortress where, beside machine guns, and anti-tank guns, there are also the highly perfected antiaircraft guns that all Czechoslovakia believes in. Three soldiers talk to some girls who are drying their hair after swimming in the river.
The World Depression
Gellhorn’s report shows that she has thoroughly investigated military build-up as well as the political and social turmoil of the scene. She speaks to members of the Social Democratic Party, whose numbers have plummeted since the onset of economic depression.
She documents conversations she had with the ‘Henlein Nazis’, a German minority among the Slavic population of Czechoslovakia who, she writes, had expressed limited support for the Nazi party until devastating levels of employment pushed them into the hands of the fascists, who used nationalism to scapegoat Slavs and Jews for having caused the onset of economic depression.
The excuse for all this tension is the German minority. Of the 3.5 million Germans in Czechoslovakia, about two million are Henlein Nazis. Up until 1935, eighty percent of the Germans were Social Democrats who believed in democracy and got on all right in Czechoslovakia.
Then 500 factories failed, the glass factories and the bead and porcelain and jute and sugar and textile factories, which employed these people and exported their wares all over the world. The Henleinists blamed the Czechs for the world depression, and felt they were being willfully starved.
She meets a man who runs the local Nazi party. ‘He is a nice man, and gets his politics out of the newspapers. He says that they do not want war, they want work. It is the fault of the Czechs, who maintain such bad relations with Germany, that no tourists want to come to Gottesgab any more,’ she writes.
Gellhorn treats all her subjects with empathy. While acknowledging the Nazi party man’s nefarious political affiliations, she documents the ‘miserable’ state of living of the party supporters, where children starved in huts with only hot bread and water to eat, with overcrowded and nightmarish poorhouses full of elderly residents.
She speaks to a Jewish lawyer and a wine merchant’s wife: they are fearful. Before the depression, they had lived happily as friendly members of the local community. They had lived there for generations. But now, they had no clients. In a matter of months, friendly relations had turned hostile. Gellhorn bluntly records the conversation:
Since the first of May, she says, no one buys from them and no one speaks to them on the street. They seem to have lost their friends, but they were always happy here before. ‘We are not afraid of war,’ she says. ‘We are afraid of the mob.’
Gellhorn documents that many Czechs were optimistic about resisting the German invasion. But Gellhorn had experienced the brutality of modern warfare in Spain, and it is evident from her commentary that she saw these preparations as hopelessly inadequate. Watching a young boy pedal up a street on a bicycle, using a horn as an air-raid siren, Gellhorn writes:
It makes me nervous because I remember that it took 95 seconds in Barcelona to wipe out a central chunk of the city and to bury alive several hundred people. Ninety-five seconds is less time than it takes the boy to pedal up the village street.
With acute strategic and geopolitical analysis, her prospects for peace in Czechoslovakia are gloomy:
Czechoslovakia slants across central Europe, and beyond lie the oil fields of Rumania, the wheat of the Ukraine, and the Black Sea. If a great power controlled Czechoslovakia, it would have a strong strategical position for striking westward into Europe, toward the Mediterranean. Czechoslovakia’s tragedy is that it is in the way.
Present at the outbreak of the war, Gellhorn’s adventures were not to end. Twentieth-century society was still hugely patriarchal, and despite demonstrating her competence and courage many times previously, Gellhorn was denied permission to report on the D-Day landings.
This didn’t stop her, though. She smuggled herself onto a hospital boat bound for Normandy, locked herself into a toilet, and waded onto the shore with the crew from the water ambulances.
She was the first female correspondent to report on the landings, publishing her account in Collier’s, ironically beating her then husband, Ernest Hemingway – who was officially commissioned to report for Collier’s – to the scoop.
Gellhorn went on to witness the liberation of Europe and was one of the first journalists to enter Dachau concentration camp. The horrors of the Second World War did not stop her impetuous desire to report on war.
She continued to publish on the events of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the US invasion of Panama, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and many others. Elderly and sick, she died in an apparent suicide in 1998, at her home in London. This year, she will be commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at her 28-year residence in Cadogan Square, London.
IN CONTEXT: Martha Gellhorn
Gellhorn was born in St Louis, Missouri, to Edna Fischel Gellhorn, a suffragist, and George Gellhorn, a German-born gynaecologist. In 1927 she started her career as a journalist, moving to Paris aged 21 to report on the pacifist movement.
On her return to America, she met novelist Ernest Hemingway together they left for Europe to report on the Spanish Civil War. They eventually married in 1940, but the marriage broke down as Hemingway became resentful of Gellhorn’s long work-related absences, and Gellhorn felt shackled by a relationship where her husband’s literary fame dwarfed her own independent work as a war correspondent. She resented being known as ‘Hemingway’s wife’.
They divorced in 1945 and Gellhorn settled in London. She continued reporting into the 1990s, when her eyesight failed her and she went into retirement.
This article is from the October 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.
Like everyone else in her line of work, Martha Gellhorn was anxious in the spring of 1944, wondering where the invasion of Western Europe would begin and how she might secure a place near the action.
The veteran war correspondent wrote to her friend Eleanor Roosevelt on April 28, frustrated that she had allowed her husband, Ernest Hemingway, to coax her back from covering the war for Collier's magazine to spend time with him in Cuba:
I am getting almost sick with fear: the way it looks I am going to lose out on the thing I most care about seeing and writing of in the world, and maybe in my whole life. I was a fool to come back from Europe and I knew it and was miserable about it but it seemed necessary vis-a-vis Ernest.
Hemingway had decided he wanted in on the action, and she helped arrange passage to England for him … while essentially leaving herself out in the cold. Of all the magazines he could have pitched, Hemingway chose Collier's, which eagerly snapped up the big-name novelist as a correspondent. That move and the military's general refusal to allow women reporters anywhere near the front lines seemed to assure Gellhorn would indeed miss out on her dream story -- even if she could even make it back to England.
While Hemingway winged across the Atlantic in mid-May, trading pleasantries with movie star Gertrude Lawrence on a leisurely flight, Gellhorn had to beg her way on to a Norwegian freighter transporting dynamite across the sea.
She did make it across, though, and hustled her way onto the big story just like she always had.
Furious at Hemingway for the way he had discarded her in pursuit of his own glory, she checked into a separate room at the Dorchester in London after arriving from Liverpool. According to her biographer,
It was very quiet and very funny in London during the first hours of the invasion, when it was neither quiet nor funny on the beaches of Normandy. In Westminster Abbey on that historic morning, a man was cleaning the carpet of the alter with a vacuum cleaner, and there were three groups of American soldiers on a sightseeing tour of the church. They had heard of the invasion, it developed, at the Red Cross where they met to go on this tour, but as one of them said, "When you've given up your wife and your children and your house, anything else that happens is just so much dust. We'll start cheering when we get home."
June 6th was a gray, cold day. People moved quickly through the streets, and you would never have known that this day was different from any other, though it had been awaited for four and a half years. Only at noon, the regular editions of the noonday papers were quickly sold out.
However powerful Gellhorn's observational skills, the fact remains there wasn't much happening in London, and that didn't sit well with her. So she set off for the south coast, inching closer to the action. Her July 22 piece describes the scene at an unnamed British port on "D-plus-one", June 7:
The landing ramps at the port were the place to be if you couldn't be on the other side where it was already happening. But the landing ramps were amazing. Imagine a sloping cobbled surface leading down to the soiled sea of a harbor, and imagine all the strange, new, ugly invasion craft moving in and out, as if these landing ramps were taxi stands.
The story weaves in a few more vignettes from the port, from the towns near the coast, from London. But there was much more to Gellhorn's invasion experience than this initial taste.
After surveying the port, Gellhorn headed to the docks. A military policeman asked her what she was doing there, and she said she was there to interview nurses for Collier's. That seemingly inane assignment did the trick, and Gellhorn simply walked on to a hospital ship at anchor nearby and locked herself in a bathroom.
Late that night, the ship pulled out of the harbor and set out for the Channel. It may not have been the front lines, but Gellhorn had herself a story.
It appeared in the August 5 issue of Collier's, this one a proper magazine piece running a few thousand words. The story makes no mention of Gellhorn's reporting methods, which would permanently alter the course of her war. Its focus is squarely on the nurses and doctors sailing into harm's way to collect the wounded from Omaha Beach.
According to Moorehead's account, Gellhorn blended reporting with various shipboard duties, helping out as an interpreter and helping find water and food for wounded soldiers from multiple countries. But always observing.
An LCT drew alongside our ship, pitching in the waves. A boy in a steel helmet shouted up to the crew at the aft rail, and a wooden box looking like a lidless coffin was lowered on a pulley, and with the greatest difficulty, bracing themselves against the movement of their boat, the men on the LCT laid a stretcher inside the box. The box was raised to our deck, and out of it was lifted a man who was closer to being a child than a man, dead-white and seemingly dying. The first wounded man to be brought to that ship for safety and care was a German prisoner.
Over and over, Gellhorn returns to the endless drive of the six nurses on board, the doctors, the support staff. Of the hundreds of men brought on board that day, she writes, only one of them dies on the ship, "and he had come aboard as a hopeless case."
It will be hard to tell you of the wounded, there were so many of them. There was no time to talk there was too much else to do. They had to be fed, as most of them had not eaten for two days their shoes had to be cut off they needed help to get out of their jackets they wanted water the nurses and orderlies, working like demons, had to be found and called quickly to a bunk where a man suddenly and desperately needed attention plasma bottles must be watched cigarettes had to be lighted and held for those who could not use their hands it seemed to take hours to pour hot coffee, from the spout of a teapot, into a mouth that just showed through bandages.
After a series of fascinating snapshots of the wounded, American and German alike, Gellhorn gets to what would be a key differentiator between her invasion coverage and that of her soon-to-be-ex-husband. While Hemingway's story was heavy on bluster, he didn't actually get ashore in France until weeks later. On June 8, though, Gellhorn made it onto Omaha Beach with a small crew from the hospital ship sent to retrieve patients.
We waded ashore, in water to our waists, having agreed that we would assemble the wounded from this area on board a beach LST and wait until the tide allowed the motor ambulance to come back and call for us. It was almost dark by now, and one had a terrible feeling of working against time.
Everyone was violently busy on that crowded, dangerous shore. The pebbles were the size of apples and feet deep, and we stumbled up a road that a huge road shovel was scooping out. We walked with the utmost care between the narrowly placed white tape lines that marked the mine-cleared path and headed for a tent marked with a red cross.
The story continues in extensive detail as the medical personnel complete their duties and eventually sail back to friendlier shores, every bunk in the ship occupied. Sounding exhausted herself, Gellhorn sums up the experience near the end of her piece:
There is very little more to write. The wounded looked much better in the morning. The human machine is the most delicate and rare of all, and it is obviously built to survive, if given half a chance. The ship moved steadily across the Channel, and we could feel England coming nearer. Then the coast came into sight, and the green of England looked quite different from how it had looked only two days ago it looked cooler and clearer and wonderfully safe.
Upon arrival, Gellhorn returned to London to write those pieces for Collier's. When word got out about her escapade, though, she was arrested by military police.
Sent to a training camp for nurses outside London as a sort of exile, she eventually went AWOL and found her way to Italy. From there, she ad-libbed as an unaccredited correspondent, scraping by without any of the official assistance afforded to her colleagues.
Writes Moorehead: "She would spend the remaining year of the war i Europe, sometimes in uniform, sometimes out of it, ducking and dodging from front to front, using her energy and charm to win over officers into allowing her to travel with their regiments, scrounging lifts, and filing stories whenever she could cajole wireless operators into giving her a line. Her looks, her obvious courage, and her utter disregard for authority came in very handy. Far fewer doors, she later admitted, would have opened for a man."
While that may have been true, there's also no question that a male reporter with Gellhorn's drive and ability would have had a far easier time covering the war through official channels. Sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice, Gellhorn had to go her own way, but her wartime output stands with the very best of any other correspondent.
After the World War II, Martha Gellhorn worked with the Atlantic Monthly. Between the 1960 and 1970s, she covered the Vietnam War and the Arab-Israel war. Though Martha Gellhorn was ageing and naturally things may turn down, she continued to work as a war correspondent. She covered the Central American civil war and the United States invasion of Panama in 1989. Martha Gellhorn began to have a problem with her sight and underwent a cataract surgery, which was unsuccessful. She retired from journalism in the 1990s after her last report in Brazil to report on the poverty situation in that country in 1995.
Martha Gellhorn, The Only Woman Who Landed in Normandy on D-Day
On the eve of the Normandy landings in June 1944, there were over a thousand war correspondents all over Europe reporting back to the millions of British and Americans back home. A handful of these journalists and photographers were also women. Unfortunately, the government had prohibited women from going to the front lines, so while these women correspondents could cover stories from the war zone, they could not go in with the troops.
Understandably, many female war correspondents were not happy with the ban.
“It is necessary that I report on this war," wrote Martha Ellis Gellhorn in an angry letter to military authorities. “I do not feel there is any need to beg as a favour for the right to serve as the eyes for millions of people in America who are desperately in need of seeing, but cannot see for themselves.”
Martha Ellis Gellhorn was an American war correspondent for the Collier’s magazine. Some of you may know her as the third wife of Ernest Hemingway, but her accomplishments as a journalist far outshine her brief marriage to the novelist.
Gellhorn began her career as a journalist during the Great Depression, working as a Field Investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) created by Franklin D. Roosevelt to report on the impact of the Depression on the country. Later, she travelled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War in 1937. During this period she met Ernest Hemingway, who was also in Spain as a correspondent. They married in 1940, she becoming Hemingway’s third wife, and Hemingway becoming Gellhorn’s second husband.
Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway
Gellhorn and Hemingway’s marriage was troubled from the start. Hemingway refused to let go off his second wife even when both of them were seeing each other, and Gellhorn’s long absences during her reporting assignments irritated Hemingway. When D-Day approached, their marriage was already dead in the water. To get even with Gellhorn, Hemingway got himself accredited as the correspondent for Colliers, the magazine Gellhorn worked for, blocking any chance Gellhorn might have of getting to the front lines.
But Martha Gellhorn was not ready to bow out.
On the night of June 6, 1944, before the ships departed for Normandy, Gellhorn made her way to the waterfront on the pretext of interviewing the nurses aboard a hospital ship. Once on board, she hid herself in the bathroom. Gellhorn knew that if she got caught, she would lose her accreditation and might even get deported back to America. Still, to witness the great invasion was worth the risk. Gellhorn remained in her hideout for several hours and only emerged when the ship was well on her way to France. Later that night, after the troops had landed and the massacre on the beach was finally over, Gellhorn sneaked ashore with a couple of doctors and medics as a stretcher bearer to collect the wounded. In the chaos of the war, nobody gave a damn that Gellhorn was a woman.
“Taxis to Hell – and Back – Into the Jaws of Death,” one of the most famous photograph of the D-Day landing by Robert F. Sargent
Martha Gellhorn became the only woman to land in Normandy the same day the troops did. Other women followed, but much later. The first batch of women—members of the United States Women’s Army Corps—landed in Normandy thirty-eight days later.
Soon after Gellhorn had filed her story to Collier’s, the military police arrested her. They took away her credentials and transported her to a nurse’s training camp outside London. Gellhorn escaped from the camp by convincing a British pilot to fly her to Italy.
“I followed the war wherever I could reach it,” Gellhorn recalled.
Martha Gellhorn continued covering conflicts her country was involved in. She covered the Vietnam War and the Arab-Israel conflicts in the 1960s and 70s. She was still out at the front reporting the civil wars in Central America at the age of seventy, and incredibly, United States’ invasion of Panama in 1989 at the age of eighty-one. It was only when war came to Bosnia that she decided to quit, announcing that she was “too old” and not “nimble” enough for war anymore.
As Gellhorn entered the late eighties, her eyesight began to fail and she became almost completely blind. She was also suffering from ovarian cancer that had spread to her liver. She committed suicide in 1998, at the age of ninety, by swallowing a cyanide capsule.
Martha Gellhorn in 1978, at the age of seventy. Photo credit: Graham Harrison/Rex/Shutterstock
Martha Gellhorn: A Woman at War
Martha Gellhorn was determined to cover D-Day, and she wasn’t about to let a little thing like the American military stop her. Refused press credentials, she stowed away in the bathroom of a hospital ship, which dropped anchor off Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944. As dawn broke, Gellhorn came up on deck and saw a “seascape filled with ships…the greatest naval traffic jam in history…so enormous, so awesome, that it felt more like an act of nature than anything man made.”She later waded ashore to help the ship’s crew carry wounded soldiers.
In a century defined by war, Martha Gellhorn found her life’s work. “I never really found my own private disorderly place in the world except in the general chaos of war,” she wrote. As a journalist, she covered battles from the Spanish civil war to the 1981 invasion of Panama. But World War II would always be her defining conflict, and Gellhorn was one of that war’s great chroniclers. She covered it all, from the political maneuvering in Czechoslovakia in 1939 to the Nuremberg trials.
Gellhorn delighted in the disorder of combat, and put up with the miseries of wartime without a complaint. In March 1944, after Gellhorn had filed dozens of stories from the front for Collier’s, the editors wrote that she was notable “among our gal correspondents not only for her writing but for her good looks. Blond, tall, dashing—she comes pretty close to living up to Hollywood’s idea of what a big-league woman reporter should be.” The gal correspondent was indeed attractive, but her greatest appeal lay not in her legs but in her unquenchable curiosity. She was a great listener, a woman who delighted in staying up all night in a bombed-out basement or a muddy field, drinking cheap whiskey and talking with soldiers from half a dozen countries in English, German, and French, the fevered conversations punctuated by her rich laugh. Martha was not just tough. Martha was fun.
Gellhorn was born and raised in St. Louis, but decamped as soon as she possibly could. Her father, born in Germany, was a physician her mother lobbied for the women’s vote. Hers was a privileged childhood, with trips to Europe and education at a private school that Gellhorn’s parents founded because they thought that the schools in St. Louis were too hidebound. Gellhorn enrolled in Bryn Mawr, but soon found it as stifling as the Midwest. She dropped out to become a cub reporter in Albany, New York, where she covered women’s clubs and the police beat. That gig lasted six months. The cub reporter borrowed train fare from her ever-supportive mother, packed her bags, and headed to New York City, where she traded an article for passage in steerage. In the spring of 1930, the twenty-one-year-old St. Louisan arrived in Paris with two suitcases, a typewriter, and seventy-five dollars. “I meant to go everywhere and see everything and I meant to write my way.”
That Martha did, peddling articles on Parisian fashion to Americans, exploring the south of France and the Alps, and working on a novel about a young woman footloose in Europe. She also had a four-year-long affair with Bertrand de Jouvenel, a French journalist who had been Colette’s stepson—and, at age sixteen, her lover, immortalized in Colette’s Chéri. At a conference in Berlin in January 1934, Martha and Bertrand met members of the Hitler Youth. She found them repugnant, and was convinced that any rapprochement with the Germans would be suicide for France. Gellhorn also came to realize that a life in the salons of Paris was not for her. When her relationship with de Jouvenel crumbled, she returned to the United States and got a job reporting for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration on conditions in North Carolina and New England. Tramping down muddy roads in her Parisian shoes, she interviewed mill workers, sharecroppers, teachers, doctors. She saw children stupefied by malnutrition, whole families rendered helpless by tuberculosis or syphilis. Still, “with all this, they are a grand people. If there is any meaning in the phrase ‘American stock’ it has some meaning here. They are sound and good humored kind and loyal. I don’t believe they are lazy I believe they are mostly ill and ignorant….It is a terribly frightening picture.”
Gellhorn was enraged by the sufferings she saw, and the failings of the government to alleviate that pain. Her anger at the plight of the bit players in the drama of history fueled her war coverage for decades to come. It helped temper her acute, almost cold eye, and also helped her write a half-dozen decent novels, including A Stricken Field, on World War II. “She would have nothing to do with the kind of bogus objectivity that media schools love,” John Pilger, a journalist who befriended Gellhorn when they both covered the war in Vietnam, told NPR.“She saw journalism, and she conducted her journalism, rather from the point of view of humanity—people, not power.”
Martha harangued Harry Hopkins, her boss, about the failures of relief. He calmly suggested she take the subject up with Eleanor Roosevelt. The first lady, who was acquainted with Gellhorn’s mother through Bryn Mawr, invited Martha to the White House for dinner. Over the glittering table, Eleanor said loudly: “Franklin, talk to that girl. She says that all the unemployed have pellagra and syphilis.” The evening marked the start of a long, rich friendship between the two women, who wrote to each other for decades. “She gave off light,” Martha wrote of Roosevelt years later. “I cannot explain it better.”
By the spring of 1937, Gellhorn was ready to move on. Like many young Americans, she had become fascinated with the building civil war in Spain. Determined to cover it, the twenty-seven-year-old wrote a piece for Vogue on “Beauty Problems of the Middle-Aged Woman” to pay her passage to Europe. “Me I am going to Spain with the boys,” she wrote a family friend in St. Louis.“I don’t know who the boys are, but I am going with them.”
Actually, she did know one boy. In 1936, she had met Ernest Hemingway, already famous for writing A Farewell to Arms, in Key West when she and her mother were on vacation there. The author was parked at the bar at Sloppy Joe’s.“A large, dirty man in untidy somewhat soiled white shorts and shirt,” Gellhorn described him. That unalluring image, and the fact that Hemingway was married to his second wife, wasn’t enough to forgo a flirtation. It escalated when Gellhorn arrived at Madrid’s Hotel Florida to find Hemingway already there, holding court among the foreign journalists. “I knew you’d get here, daughter, because I fixed it so you could,” Hemingway said. The two embarked on an affair, one that was punctuated by artillery shells bursting in the street outside the hotel and drives out to the front. At Hemingway’s urging, Gellhorn started writing about war: not military maneuvers, about which she thought she was ignorant, but about its effects on civilians. She wrote about seeing an old woman leading a little boy across a square:
You know what she is thinking: she is thinking she must get the child home, you are always safer in your own place, with the things you know. Somehow you do not believe you can get killed when you are sitting in your own parlor, you never think that. She is in the middle of the square when the next one comes.
A small piece of twisted steel, hot and very sharp, sprays off from the shell it takes the little boy in the throat. The old woman stands there, holding the hand of the dead child, looking at him stupidly, not saying anything, and men run out toward her to carry the child. At their left, at the side of the square, is a huge brilliant sign which says: GET OUT OF MADRID.
Collier’s asked for more so did the New Yorker. At age twenty-eight, Gellhorn was a respected war correspondent. “There are practically no words to describe Madrid, it was heaven, far and away the best thing I have ever seen or lived through,” Gellhorn wrote. Even as the war wound down she was reluctant to leave, but the magazine wanted her to head north to France and England and Czechoslovakia, to report on the possibility of more war.“The war in Spain was one kind of war,” she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, “the next world war will be the stupidest, lyingest, cruelest sell-out in our time.”
She was still deeply involved with Hemingway, and went to join him in Cuba in February 1939, where he was finishing For Whom the Bell Tolls and Martha was writing her own novel set in Spain. It was not a match made in heaven. Martha admired Hemingway’s writing, but was not cut out for playing the adoring helpmeet. Hemingway was charmed by her energy and independence, but infuriated by her refusal to play second fiddle. After too many months supervising the servants and accompanying Hemingway on drunken evenings with exiled Basque pelota players, Gellhorn headed off to Finland in November 1939, where she covered the beginning of the winter war.
“It is going to be terrible,” she wrote Hemingway, after the Russians bombed Helsinki. “The people are marvelous, with a kind of pale frozen fortitude. They do not cry out and they do not run they watch with loathing but without fear this nasty hidden business which they did nothing to bring about themselves.” Gellhorn didn’t run either. When Geoffrey Cox of the Daily Express knocked on her door one night to tell her that journalists were being evacuated, “I told him what the hell and went back to sleep,” she wrote to Hemingway. Cox was mightily impressed by the sight of Gellhorn in her yellow silk nightgown, and also by her determination to stay. When she finally returned to Cuba, she wrote Hemingway a wry “guaranty” stating, “I recognize that a very fine and sensitive writer cannot be left alone for two months and sixteen days” and that “after marriage I will not leave my present and future husband not for nothing no matter what or anything.”
The two married in November 1940. That February, Gellhorn took Hemingway along with her on a three-month “honeymoon” to China, where she was reporting on the China-Japan war for Collier’s. Conditions were terrible, with bedbugs, rain, maggot-infested food, and cholera. In Travels with Myself and Another, published in 1978, Hemingway became “U.C.,” or “Unwilling Companion.” While the great writer parked himself at the hotel bar in Hong Kong, Martha was out roaming the streets, talking to opium dealers, prostitutes, and refugees:
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.
“They look about ten years old,” I shouted at U.C. “It takes three months to make one of those damned things, I think its 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?”
After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Collier’s contacted Gellhorn and asked her to cover America’s entry into the war. The American military was less receptive women correspondents were refused credentials. “As you say, it is really too late to do anything about my sex,” Gellhorn wrote to Charles Colebaugh, her editor at Collier’s. “That is a handicap I have been struggling under since I was five years old, and I shall just forge ahead, bravely, despite the army.” But, she added, “This is going to be a nice long war, and sooner or later they are going to want to make it popular, and then folks like us can work.”
Having stayed in Cuba with Hemingway and spent time in New York to help get her novel Liana published, she didn’t make it back to England until November 1943. Once back, she made up for lost time, going to Lincolnshire to write about the absurdly young pilots of Bomber Command, the British unit with the worst odds of survival. In September 1943, Gellhorn followed the Allies into Italy, making her way to Naples from Algiers. She joined a French transportation officer driving back to the front near Cassino, north through the mud and cold and burned-out trucks and dead animals. Hemingway was pressuring her to return to Cuba: “Are you a war correspondent,” one cable read, “or wife in my bed?”
The wife returned to Cuba to mollify the husband, and make one more attempt to convince him that he had to start writing about the war. Hemingway finally agreed—and usurped Gellhorn as chief war correspondent for Collier’s, snagging a rare seat on an RAF plane from the States to Shannon and London. “The way it looks,” Gellhorn wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, “I am going to lose out on the thing I most care about seeing or writing of in the world, and maybe in my whole life.”
Two weeks later Martha made it to London herself, having crossed the Atlantic on a Norwegian freighter carrying amphibious personnel carriers and dynamite. The conditions were trying: the ship was dry, making it hard for Gellhorn to drown her sorrows, and she could only smoke on deck. She passed the time reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover and pondering the shambles of her marriage.“Stayed in bed till afternoon,”she wrote on May 10, 1944. “Terrible depression last night—can’t sleep for sadness— regretting it all so terrible.” She and Hemingway both ended up at the Dorchester Hotel in London, where they quarreled bitterly. Gellhorn left him, an act for which he never forgave her. To the end of her days, she was furious that she was more often described as Hemingway’s third wife than as a writer in her own right, and would abruptly end a conversation at the mention of his name. To her mother, she wrote: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”
Because she was no longer the principal correspondent for Collier’s, and because she was female, Gellhorn wasn’t among the 558 reporters and photographers accredited to cover D-Day. On June 6 she waited anxiously in London, far from the Channel. This wouldn’t do. She headed east, toward the coast. When a military policeman stopped her on the docks, she told him she was interviewing nurses, and pointed to a hospital ship. He waved her through.
On the hospital ship, Gellhorn locked herself into a bathroom and waited until she heard the engines thrum and waves slap the hull. She had drunk considerable whiskey in order to gather up courage for the caper, and it must have been a queasy ride. The ship anchored in the American sector, at Omaha Red. Wounded soldiers were brought to the ship in landing craft and water ambulances, and carried off to the operating rooms. Gellhorn helped interpret, despite the fact that she was repelled by the German prisoners, and shouted “Ruhig!” (“Quiet!”) when they talked and laughed.“We are helpless against our own decency really,” she wrote later.
That night, Gellhorn waded ashore with the ambulance teams to collect casualties. She smelled the “sweet smell of summer grass a smell of cattle and peace and the sun that had warmed the earth some other time, when summer was real.” She saw “a deserted junk yard, with the boxy black shapes of tanks, trucks, munitions dumps.” The noise of shells exploding was deafening. The next morning, the hospital ship weighed anchor to carry the wounded to back to England. When Gellhorn arrived in London, she was arrested for crossing to France without military permission, stripped of her travel papers and ration coupons, and sent to a nurses’ training camp, with orders to return to Normandy only when the nurses were ready to go—a clear punishment for a correspondent of Gellhorn’s caliber.
Those orders hardly slowed Gellhorn’s stride. She took leave of the nurses’ camp by rolling under the wire fence, then hitched a ride to Naples with an RAF pilot after feeding him a sob story about a fiancé in Italy. Before leaving London, she had written a letter of protest to a Colonel Lawrence complaining about the Army’s continued refusal to let nineteen SHAEF-accredited female correspondents return to France. Not only was “this curious condescending treatment as ridiculous as it is undignified,” she wrote, but it was preventing experienced reporters from carrying out their responsibilities to “millions of people in America who are desperately in need of seeing, but cannot see for themselves.”
She hopscotched her way around Europe, returning to Paris shortly after its liberation, then to Brussels and Arnhem. Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne found her alone with her notebook, without a pass or any other accreditation, and out of uniform. They brought her to their commander, James Gavin. She told him how she’d been stripped of her papers because of sneaking off to D-Day. He laughed, said she would make a good guerrilla fighter, and said he would pretend he’d never seen her. But Gavin did pursue her, finally sending a young colonel in his airplane to Paris to fetch her in March 1945. The two embarked on a two-year-long affair, one sustained by occasional rendezvous and many letters, as well as deep respect for the other’s intelligence and understanding of what Gavin called “the madness and the miracle of war.” Gavin begged her to marry him, but Gellhorn had to admit that she was not cut out to be a general’s wife.
Gellhorn spent the last year of the war traveling alone, circling down to the Spanish border to interview refugees, flying on a P-61 over Germany at night, and interviewing Germans, none of whom seemed to have ever been Nazis. In May 1945 she reached Dachau, which had been liberated several days before. She looked at everything: the skeletal survivors, the rooms where the medical experiments were conducted, the crematorium.“We have all seen a great deal now,” Gellhorn wrote. “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.” In Dachau, she told friends later, she finally understood the true evil of man, and stopped being young.
The years after the war were less kind to Gellhorn. Without a war to follow, her nervous energy took over, and she ping-ponged around the world, living in Italy, Mexico, and Kenya. She adopted an Italian war orphan and doted on him, but chafed at the bonds of motherhood, and had no qualms about leaving him for months at a time. She married T. S. Matthews, former editor of Time, but once again found that marriage wasn’t a strong enough anchor to hold her.
And she kept looking for another war, first Vietnam, then the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1989, she covered the American invasion of Panama. She was eighty-one. When civil war erupted in Bosnia in the early 1990s, Martha grudgingly admitted she was too old to go. “You have to be nimble,” she reportedly said. A woman who felt alive only while in motion was being forced, at last, to slow down. Gellhorn died on February 15, 1998, at age eighty-nine. Suffering from cancer and almost blind, she committed suicide in her London apartment, choosing her own path to the end.
“What distinguishes her journalism is her eloquent outrage and commitment to fair play,” Bill Buford, who had befriended Gellhorn when he was editor of Granta, said upon her death.“She was amazing. She was nearly 90, smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish, and well into her 80s, with her high cheekbones, she could flirt as easily as women 50 years younger.” That, no doubt, is a eulogy that would have suited Gellhorn just fine.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.
Hemingway and War
Gellhorn met Ernest Hemingway, whose writing she admired, at Sloppy Joe's Bar in Key West, Florida, around Christmas in 1936. When he told her he was heading to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, she decided to go too. She came to Madrid in the spring of 1937 carrying a single knapsack and $50, to cover the war for Collier's Weekly. Soon Gellhorn, then 28, and Hemingway, 37, became lovers. Like many writers and artists of her generation, including Hemingway, Gellhorn sympathized passionately with the democratically elected socialist government of Spain in its fight against the fascist generals led by Francisco Franco. Her Spanish dispatches, difficult to find in print today, "revealed a gift for unflinching observation and unforced pathos" and "were much better than Hemingway's," wrote Marc Weingarten in the Washington Post.
"In Barcelona, it was perfect bombing weather," Gellhorn wrote, describing Franco's bombers closing in on Republican territory in November of 1938, as quoted by Lyman. "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." When the Spanish fascists won the war in 1939, she was crushed. "Nothing in my life has so affected my thinking as the losing of that war," she wrote in a letter to her friend Hortense Flexner, according to Weingarten. "It is, very banally, like the death of all loved things."
Gellhorn and Hemingway married in November of 1940. Soon after, she took him along to Hong Kong so she could write for Collier's about the Chinese Army's retreat from the Japanese invasion. The marriage was difficult. He wanted her to be a deferential wife she wanted to live life like he did. She was idealistic, tormented by the slave labor conditions she witnessed in Hong Kong he stoically accepted the world as it was. Both had terrible tempers. "Ernest and I really are afraid of each other, each one knowing that the other is the most violent person either one knows," she wrote to Flexner, as quoted by Weingarten. They broke up 1945 while they were staying at the Dorchester Hotel in London. Afterward, Gellhorn would call Hemingway a bully, while he called her phony and pretentious. In later years, she resented having more fame for being Hemingway's ex-wife than for her own work. "I was a writer before I met him and I have been a writer for 45 years since," she complained, according to the Chicago Tribune. "Why should I be a footnote to someone else's life?"
During World War II, Gellhorn often left Hemingway behind to go abroad and report. She covered the 1939 Soviet attack on Finland and the German air attacks on London. In 1944 Hemingway, instead of Gellhorn, was hired by Collier's to cover the Allies' D-Day landing in France she covered the invasion anyway, by stowing away on a hospital ship and going onshore bearing a stretcher. "She brought a fresh approach to war journalism, writing passionately about the dreadful impact of war on the innocent," her Washington Post obituary said. Near the end of the war, she witnessed the Allied forces' liberation of Dachau, the infamous concentration camp near Munich. Her article has become one of the most famous accounts of the discovery of the camps. "Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence," she wrote, as quoted by Lyman, "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." The experience forever darkened her outlook on life, so that she was never again able to be as happy as before, she later wrote.
Gertrude Bell was a legendary explorer who helped establish modern day Iraq.
The story of T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, is wildly famous. However, little is known of Gertrude Bell and her historical work on some of the same expeditions.
Bell was a writer, cartographer, archaeologist, and explorer who helped establish modern day Jordan and Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Both the British government and the Arab leaders claimed that she was valuable help thanks to her extensive knowledge and experience, yet she's widely unknown.
That's only the tip of her iceberg, too. She made her rounds around the globe and wrote in-depth about each experience. Her writings, especially those on Iraq, are still studied today.