Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life|
by Caroline Moorehead
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|A Review of: Gellhorn: A Twentieth Century Life
by Christopher Ondaatje
For whatever reasons, Martha Gellhorn never wanted a biography of
herself. When Carl Rollyson published one in 1990, Gellhorn wrote
a furious ten-page letter listing his errors of fact and called the
book a "paean of hate". Undeterred, Rollyson republished
it (with corrections) after Gellhorn died in 1998. Caroline
Moorehead's new biography is a much better book than Rollyson's,
though quite long and full of gossip. But its very quality raises
the same issue as the first book in a more acute form: is Gellhorn
really worth a biography?
Her chief claim on the attention of posterity is twofold: First,
she was one of the century's finest war correspondents, who reported
directly, vividly and with considerable courage on most major wars
in the period from the Spanish civil war to the Vietnam war. Second,
she had a tempestuous relationship, and later, marriage with Ernest
Hemingway, which began in Spain in 1937, helped inspire his novel
For Whom the Bell Tolls, and ended acrimoniously in 1945. In addition,
she was a novelist and short story writer, but her fiction received
mixed reviews even in its own time and is now largely unread.
Gellhorn was the third of Hemingway's four wives. She met him in
Florida when he was thirty-seven and nearing the zenith of his
literary career, and she was ten years younger, having just published
a much-reviewed second book. In Spain, it was Hemingway who insisted
that Gellhorn write an article for Collier's magazine about what
she saw in the streets of Madrid, and describe the courage of
civilians-her first piece of war reporting. They were soon in bed
together. However as Moorehead observes: "She was not in love
with him, and did not find him physically attractive, but she admired
him-much, she wrote, as she would have admired a surgeon in an
operating theatre-and she was grateful to him for teaching her about
war" which, Hemingway said later, was something that Gellhorn
clearly loved. They parted eight years later, prompting Moorehead
to ask: "Had she ever really loved Hemingway? Probably not as
he had loved her. Certainly she had longed for the marriage to work,
and even, for a while, convinced herself that it would; but the
fact that she seemed willing to abandon it so readily now suggests
that what she was left with was more grief about herself than any
real sense of loss."
"Sleeping with Martha is like coming into Grand Central
Station," Hemingway apparently told a drinking companion, one
among many other abusive cracks aimed at her promiscuity. She, for
her part, wrote fiercely to her mother: "A man must be a very
great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being."
From their break-up until her death, she refused to comment publicly
on the relationship and froze out friends who raised the subject.
It was clear that she resented the fact that she was known more for
her marriage to Hemingway than for her own writing.
With herself, she was characteristically honest. While she was
living with Hemingway in Cuba, during the writing of For Whom the
Bell Tolls, she wrote that his writing had "magic"-and
"what I do not have is magic. But magic is all that counts
.without magic who will weep and who will protest?" After the
split, she noted to herself: "Basically what is wrong is that
I do not take myself seriously, neither what I am, nor what I believe
A lot of my thinking and acting has been based on showing Ernest.
For fear that I reached my highest point, with and through him, and
that in every way I am only sinking into obscurity little by
The truth is, though she claimed she had wasted eight years in the
company of Hemingway, that Gellhorn never got him out of her system,
and that her most lively reporting belongs mainly to the period of
their relationship. After 1945, says Moorehead, there was "a
new note in her articles, an undercurrent of defeat and sadness."
While this was no doubt partly the result of writing about the human
beastliness she reported, beginning with the liberated Nazi
concentration camps, she must have known by now, as a result of her
intimacy with a great writer, that she did not possess the talent
to fulfill her early ambitions for herself.
In 1966, she described the horrors of Vietnam for the Manchester
Guardian, and lambasted the US government. In the US, she published
an article describing precisely what American weapons had done to
maim Vietnamese children: "I have witnessed modern war in nine
countries but I have never seen a war like this one in South
Vietnam." A young New York lawyer called Thomas Miller was so
moved that he decided to abandon his practice and go to Vietnam
where he helped set up a plastic surgery unit to treat injured
children. In 1967, at the time of the six-day war, Gellhorn went
to Israel. Always partisan-she was impatient with what she called
the "objectivity shit" about journalism-and especially
so towards the Israelis, she saw only what she wanted to see and
developed an unshakable distaste for the Arab world.
She also formed a passion for east Africa (like Hemingway), and
even lived for a while in a house in Kenya she had built near the
top of Mt Longonot. It had no electricity, radio or telephone, but
she was happy there for a while and was able to write in her solitude.
But then while driving she killed a young Kenyan boy. She never
really recovered from this accident, wishing that she herself had
died instead of the child, and could write in Africa no longer.
Despite returning to the continent for many years, she sold the
house and based herself in Britain. She resided in Wales in a flat
that was in a fashionable part of London.
Throughout her life, including her second marriage, which also ended
in divorce, she had been constantly on the move. "She fled
boredom and loneliness, and hurried away from disappointment,"
writes Moorehead. In London, in approaching old age, she surrounded
herself with a coterie of new, much younger writer friends such as
Rosie Boycott, Victoria Glendinning, James Fox, John Pilger and
Nicholas Shakespeare. "They saw Martha because they wanted to
talk to her, and to listen to her, and because they felt a little
honoured about her attentiveness." She sat up with them,
drinking, smoking and talking vigorously-caustically of what she
disliked-into the early hours of the morning about a huge variety
of subjects-all except her relationship with Hemingway. But as
someone who had always cherished independence and personal elegance,
she found getting old extremely hard; eventually blindness prevented
her even from reading. On a Saturday evening in 1998, Gellhorn, now
in her 90th year, decided that the moment had come to die. In her
flat, she took a pill. Glendinning found her body on Sunday morning,
without any sign of fear on her face.
Martha Gellhorn is a sensitive, well-researched biography which
depicts both the coldness and undoubted warmth of a fearless,
driven woman. But while it makes its subject all too human, it
leaves this reader, at any rate, with the impression that an angry
Hemingway may have come closest to the painful truth when he shouted
at Gellhorn one day in Cuba: "They'll be reading my stuff long
after the worms have finished with you."