Painful search for thrill of pure magic

Martha Gellhorn
October 17, 2003

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 such 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 most major conflicts in the period from the Spanish civil war to Vietnam. Second, she had a tempestuous relationship with and later marriage to Ernest Hemingway, which began in Spain in 1937, helped to 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 37 and nearing the zenith of his literary career and she was ten years younger and had 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 the courage of civilians - her first piece of war reporting. They were soon in bed together, however as Moorehead admits: "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" - something that, as Hemingway said, Gellhorn clearly loved. When they parted eight years later, Moorehead asks: "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 (though Moorehead does not quote it), among the many other abusive cracks he aimed at her promiscuity. She, for her part, wrote fiercely to her mother (which Moorehead does quote): "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.

She was characteristically honest with herself. 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 little."

The truth is, though she claimed she had wasted eight years in the company of Hemingway, 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 camp at Dachau, she must by now have known, as a result of her intimacy with a great writer, that she did not possess the talent to fulfil her early driving ambitions for herself.

In 1966, she reported 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 ****" about journalism - she was especially so towards the Israelis. She saw only what she wanted to see and developed an unshakeable 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 solitude. Then, while out driving, she ran over and 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 after the incident, she sold the house and based herself in Britain: in Wales and in a flat in a fashionable part of London.

Throughout her life, including during 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, 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: A Life is a sensitive, well-researched biography about a fearless driven woman. Moorehead is not afraid to depict both her coldness and her undoubted warmth. But while this approach makes the 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."

Christopher Ondaatje is the author of Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari .

Martha Gellhorn: A Life

Author - Caroline Moorehead
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Pages - 550
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7011 6951 6

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