, , , , , ,


Martha Gellhorn (1908 – 1998,)  wrote much and lived more.  As Bill Buford, the fiction editor at “The New Yorker” is quoted in her 1998 obituary, ”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.” Yet she is little known in the 21st century.  Perhaps her appearance in Adam Hochschild’s Spain in Our Hearts (reviewed here) and portrayal by Nicole Kidman in Hemingway and Gellhorn, not to mention extensive treatment in Hotel Florida (2014) by Amanda Vaill will bring her deserved attention.

She came out of relative privilege to spend a life driven by a fierce anger at the troubles of “ordinary people trapped in conflicts created by the rich and powerful,”  a “non-ideological radical” as Clancy Sigal described her.  Her first novel, What Mad Pursuit, based on her pacifist years in France post WWI, did not see publication for some time and was preceded by The Trouble I’ve Seen, (1936) a collection of four novellas based on several Depression era years working for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration,  (from which she was fired after inciting exploited workers in Idaho to break the windows of the relief office, in order to call attention to their plight.)

After a chance meeting with Ernest Hemingway in Key West in December, 1936, then joining him in Spain six months into its three year civil war, she found her calling — as a war reporter– an unheard vocation for a woman.

Books The Face of WarLate in life, when she had finally decided she was no longer “nimble enough” to go to the Bosnian war, she revised her 1959 collection, The Face of War (1994), which Herbert Mitgang of the New York times had said of the original “a brilliant anti-war book that is as fresh as if written this morning.”   It now included the “War in Vietnam,” “The Six Day War” and “Wars in Central America” — making seven wars she had personally witnessed and written about. Actually there were more: at the age of 81 she covered the 1989 United States invasion of Panama, and a few years later made her last reporting trip to Brazil to witness the lives of street people.  By this time she had lost her youthful belief that truth and empathy with the suffering of others would help staunch the human hunger for war.

It took nine years, and a great depression, and two wars ending in defeat, and one surrender without war, to break my faith in the benign power of the press. Gradually I came to realize that people will more readily swallow lies than truth, as if the taste of lies was homey, appetizing: a habit. (There were also liars in my trade, and leaders have always used facts as relative and malleable. The supply of lies was unlimited.)  [From the introduction to the 1994 revision. See here for longer excerpt.]


Spain is where she first experienced war. Three pieces of the collection represent her five visits there. The first, “High Explosives for Everyone,” marks her style: rapid fire observations and visits with the most ordinary of people — the hotel concierge, maids commenting on a blown-out room, boot-blacks in the Plaza Mayor, a janitor and his family.  It was written for readers of Collier’s Magazine, one of the largest circulation periodicals in the United States, and one with a muckraking bent.

Then for a moment it stops. An old woman, with a shawl over her shoulders, holding a terrified thin little boy by the hand, runs out into the 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 …

After the Spanish war ended in May, 1939, a much larger war was beginning. By late November, 1939, just months after Warsaw had surrendered to Germany, Gellhorn was in Finland arriving in the frozen dark of winter in time for the first Russian bombs, an early act in the war-long bombing of civilians in all parts of the war zone.

From a fifth-floor window I saw the light of fire, pink around the sky. “Not gas yet,” we said to one another, greatly cheered. “Just incendiary bombs.”

Again those who catch her eye are the ordinary people of Helsinki, the young mother with two small children and a baby coming out of the woods where she had hidden with others, a fireman from New York helping to put out building fires, the farmhouse of the President where sixteen soldiers are putting up.  Her reportage is spare, not fraught with emotion, not sentimentalized.

Even though, this war was, in some sense, “the good war,” it had been brought on by a madman — about whom Gellhorn had been all too aware from the bombers and troops he had sent to Spain — who should have been stopped three year earlier.

The sense of the insanity and wickedness of this war grew in me until, for purposes of mental hygiene, I gave up trying to think or judge, and turned myself into a walking tape recorder with eyes.

Exhausted and disheartened after a month in Finland, she stopped through Paris, and soon left:

I said goodbye, with love, to the French people I knew who were so fine that they were sure to be killed; and I bolted from Europe. I didn’t think there would be a battle; I thought there would be a massacre, and I could not bear to witness another, to watch helplessly While the innocent were destroyed.

Strangely enough, as most would think, she goes on an expedition to China with Hemingway, though he is not mentioned in the included piece, “The Canton Front.” Off on horseback from Hong Kong to the Canton front where the Japanese were threatening.  Atypically, she here reports almost entirely on the army — of Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek — and the days in the rain and cold, the crippling poverty of the coolies and soldiers.

Our bodyguard carried rifles, hand grenades and Mauser pistols in wooden holsters. They all looked twelve years old and were probably nineteen.

As always, her sympathies are clear.

The Japanese can never conquer China by force. People who can move their capital three times, carry factory machinery and university equipment over the mountains to safety, supply a front by sampan and coolie carrier, burrow into rock and survive endless bombing, build a 1,000-acre airfield in a hundred days without machinery will endure to the end.

Gellhorn, Hemingway with Nationalist Soldier, China, 1940

Gellhorn, Hemingway with Nationalist Soldier, China, 1940

Not for Martha Gellhorn was balanced “on the other hand” reporting. “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.”

Married to Hemingway in 1940, they wrote and quarreled in Florida, Cuba and elsewhere, away from the war zone. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor came and Martha set out on her own — no female correspondents allowed by the military– to scour the Caribbean for stories about German U-boats and surviving sailors. By the fall of 1943 she returned to Europe, without Hemingway and with newly allowed press credentials for women,

…but with specific restrictions: they could not go to the frontlines, have access to press camp or Jeeps, and they were to report on the activities of female military personnel. Gellhorn agreed to abide by the restrictions and received accreditation with Collier’s magazine.

She had enough charm, connections and chutzpah to see more and write better than most reporters.

In the twelve pieces from WW II, she covers the nightly sorties of the British Bomber Command, the D-Day landing where, volunteering incognito as a stretcher bearer from the hospital ship, she scoops Hemingway – to his fury. She is at the Battle of the Bulge and she rides along on Black Widow fighters in terrifying flights.

Books The Face of War Gellhorn Card

Her flat, matter of fact style continues:

Last night one of their planes had been shot down, and the squadron doctor, who drove over to the place where the plane crashed, returned to report that nothing remained of the pilot and radio operator except four feet and two hands. There is never any time for pity or sorrow, at least there is no time to show these feelings…

When the Allies liberated Dachau, she was there to write about it — and to be affected by what she saw for the rest of her life.

WW II was not enough. One short chapter on “The War in Java” begins with an irony that later turned to disgust:

Peace was wonderful because no one got killed any more and, foolishly, in those early days we thought we had learned enough not to start killing again.

This was was her introduction to what she categorized as colonial wars, including the one she hated most, and with all her being, the United States war in Vietnam –where she was an early and angry observer “…when the voice of conscience was not loud in the land…”

Washington waded into the Vietnam war with buoyant arrogance. Geopoliticians, those ominous fortune tellers, predicted that China would conquer all Southeast Asia if communism were not defeated in Vietnam. After which, the imagined threats were legion. Apparently no one stopped to think about the Vietnamese, who had already fought the Japanese and the French to get what they wanted: freedom from foreign domination.

After the war she continues furious –at the Rambo repackaging of the war and President Reagan’s ebullient reference to  “That noble cause.”

Reparations are what are needed, she argues:

Vietnam veterans deserve reparation, not re-packaging. Amends in care and money, according to need. A lot of generous rhetoric is floating about these days but not much else. It is infamous that the government left veterans, afflicted (like the Vietnamese) by the effects of Agent Orange, to struggle alone for compensation from the chemical manufacturers. Need exists; reparation is owed.

And, to the Vietnamese:

America has made no reparation to the Vietnamese, nothing. We are the richest people in the world and they are among the poorest. We savaged them, though they had never hurt us, and we cannot find it in our hearts, our honor, to give them help-because the government of Vietnam is Communist. And perhaps because they won.

The closing piece, Wars In Central America, is barely readable for the horrors she recounts, raging at the U.S. support for the murderous government troops in El Salvador and Nicaragua.  For an instant summary of those wars, in case they’ve been forgotten between Vietnam and Iraq, you could turn to no better source


The more she saw of war the greater her horror grew. And yet she continued to go.  She saw  the immobile prisoners at Dachau

[we] went to the hospital. In the hall sat more of the skeletons, and from them came the smell of disease and death. They watched us but did not move; no expression shows on a face that is only yellowish, stubby skin, stretched across bone.

She reports on some of the experiments the Nazis made of live human beings.

One can imagine that one might go home and become a teacher or simply a travel writer, and never think about those things again, raise a child (she adopted one,) turn to family and friends and yet she went on.

I found myself wondering why.  What attraction, what compulsion kept her there?  I wondered if she had caught, as Chris Hedges has it,  “the potent and lethal addiction” to war.  I wondered if in her, so tough and angry at war, yet drawn to it, insight could be found to explain the species-long reversion to the deadliest game of all?

Perhaps her anger at the powerful, and urge to document the suffering of common people is enough of an explanation.  She offers another answer, in a letter to Hemingway, even before her return to Europe.

“I am driven to this unceasing looking, these twelve hours of inspection, not for Collier’s, but because of some horrible curiosity,  a real desire to know what it is all like.  And all the while knowing I will not…

Though curiosity hardly seems to explain 60+ years of war reporting.  To know more about her compulsion one would have to start with biographies, of which there are at least two. The somewhat salacious,  Beautiful Exile: The Life of Martha Gellhorn (2002) by Carl Rollyson, and the more highly praised Martha Gellhorn: A Twentieth Century Life by Carolyn Moorhead (2004).  From her own bonafides, Moorhead is where I would start:

… the biographer of Bertrand Russell, Freya Stark, Iris Origo and Martha Gellhorn. Well known for her work in human rights, she has published a history of the Red Cross and a book about refugees, Human Cargo. …

The Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn would also be an interesting place to search for what drover her.

In The Novellas of Martha Gelllhorn, is the story she liked best: “Till Death Do Us Part,” was modeled in large part on Robert Capa and her friendship with him — perhaps her closest friend she was to say, “perhaps the best, the nearest in every way.”

Knowing me, you’ll know that I haven’t gotten to her travel books yet, though I am assured by others they are as insightful, curiosity driven and compassionate as these above.  You could start with Travels with Myself and Another (1979)

For those with a bit more than idle curiosity, here is a link with some quotes culled from her various works.  And a decent collection of photos.