In pursuit of a story, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn pushed the boundaries of her profession, the military, and even common sense.
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.