Martha Gellhorn

Long before Christiane Amanpour went trekking through war zones in comfortable shoes, Martha Gellhorn paved the way for the female war correspondent beginning with the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Gellhorn’s writing was as honest and gripping as any man’s, yet she also brought a profound sensitivity as well as a no nonsense perspective to her writing.

On May 28th HBO debuted Hemingway and Gellhorn, its $14 million dollar budget movie depicting the volatile love affair, marriage, and subsequent collapse of the their relationship. The film, directed by Philip Kaufmann, stars Clive Owen as Hemingway and Nicole Kidman as Gellhorn and takes as its point of departure the savage attraction between these two American writers. At first glance the film seems to be woefully miscast, but Kidman does a terrific job channeling the spirit of Martha Gellhorn, particularly in her old age. Owen, on the other hand, is anything but convincing as Papa. The film is shot well and the dialog is snappy, but that’s not enough to save if from its reduction into a state of a would-be romantic melodrama.

The film isn’t an all together a disaster, but some of the facts are wrong. The most glaring is the director’s emphasis on the long-lasting affect Gellhorn had on Hemingway. The end of the film shows us a damaged Hemingway all but deranged putting a shotgun into his mouth as his forth wife, Mary Welsh, is busy “homemaking” in the background. That Hemingway killed himself by placing a shotgun into his mouth is true. However, the lasting affect Gellhorn had on Hemingway is, in my opinion, vastly overemphasized. If any woman had that much of an affect in him it was his first wife Hadley. It’s clear that Hemingway desired submissive woman who would take care of him while giving him a long leash, but with Gellhorn he met his match. She went toe to toe with Papa and is the only wife who left him. Surely this was blow to his ego, but before the marriage was over he did manage, like he always did, to find another to take the place of Gellhorn.

In his forward to Travels with Myself and Another, Bill Buford writes: “Gellhorn was blonde and thin and sassy, a starlet of the highest order, a young Lauren Bacall, except that she was a whole lot brainier than Lauren Bacall, but just as sexy. There was a glamour about Martha Gellhorn, the glamour of black-and-white movies. It was in her manner and her way with the ways of the world. She was a dame.”

This is the best description of Gellhorn I have come across. “She was a dame” before the word “dame” became so politically incorrect. It’s too bad that she lived in the shadow of her more famous husband because her writing is exceptional. This was a no bullshit woman who could drink with the best of them. I admire her not only for her writing, but also for her toughness in a world so dominated by men. This was a woman who refused to take no for an answer, and if she didn’t get the breaks she needed she made her own.

In Travels with Myself and Another, she writes of her trip to China with Papa: “We stayed in an old hotel downtown, perhaps the only hotel there was: big rooms with paddle fans on the ceilings, antique bathrooms, a large public house with large beat-up leather chairs; very [Somerset] Maugham to me.” Gellhorn places the reader in the hotel with her and one can almost hear the whirling of the fans, smell the leather of the chairs, and feel the heat. Her non-fiction is filled with pockets of description that is blindingly real without the least bit of romanticism. When reading Gellhorn we know that traveling is hard.

Sitting on my desk now is a first edition copy of her novellas published by Knopf in 1993, which include: The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936), Two by Two (1958), Pretty Travels for Tired People (1965), and The Weather in Africa (1978). The Trouble I’ve Seen is perhaps her most famous, and it drew comparisons to Hemingway even before she walked into Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West and saw him drinking there. Her fiction is decidedly modern, using sharp, crisp sentences to cut through the shit that accompanies life.

In 2003 Henry Holt published Caroline Moorehead’s fantastic Gellhorn: A Twentieth Century Life. The biography gives us a no-holds bared account of Gellhorn’s life as not only a series of adventures, but filled with tragedy and sacrifice. Perhaps most moving is Moorehead’s account of Gellhorn’s last hours. Going blind and unable to travel or write, she all but staged her own death. The biography is essential reading for anyone interested in the major conflicts of the Twentieth-Century and the slow evolution of women writers in the field of combat.

It’s good to know that Gellhorn is now getting some of the attention she deserved for years.


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