Woman of Letters

Martha Gellhorn

8 November 1908 - 15 February 1998

One might well argue that there’s considerable advantage, for a gifted woman, in having a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to sex, in being ever ready to abandon the most desirable men to pursue her vocation.  An imperviousness to lust is certainly what Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998), the greatest female war correspondent of the mid-century decades, had in mind when she wrote to a friend, “I only loved the world of men — not the world of men-and-women.”

That steely penchant for independence and man’s work, repeatedly expressed in this remarkable collection of her letters, came to Gellhorn very early.  One of four children born to a prosperous St. Louis doctor, she had become, by her mid-20’s, a tall, willowy, tomboyish blonde endowed with a sassy wit, a splendid prose style, an intense rage against all forms of injustice and a fierce self-reliance that made her all the more irresistible to men.  (The goofy names she gave her lovers — one was “Mucklebugetski,” another was “Trollycar,” “Napoleon Slice” and “Pissoir Attendant” — typified her breezy attitude to them.) Beyond the illustriousness of her correspondents — Eleanor Roosevelt, H. G. Wells, Bernard Berenson, Adlai Stevenson, Leonard Bernstein and Sybille Bedford among them — what makes this book a literary landmark is that Gellhorn’s prose, splendid enough in her 13 published books of fiction, travel writing and reportage, is at its finest in the letter form. If only in this regard, one might compare her to Flaubert, whose letters are acknowledged by many to be his greatest aesthetic achievement.

This collection is equally notable because it chronicles a life tightly intermeshed with the pivotal events of the 20th century. Gellhorn, a Bryn Mawr dropout who went to work as a cub reporter for The Albany Times Union, had an almost pathological need to report on risky and dangerous situations. As she wrote to her colleague John Gunther:  “Where I want to be, boy, is where it is all blowing up.”  “Make war not love” might well have served as Gellhorn’s motto: she is eloquent, in these letters, about her years of sexual frigidity, writing that her “quiet cool body ... is my tragedy.”  And notwithstanding her great number of lovers, I would surmise that the frisson of witnessing acute historical crises replaced, in her life, the excitement other women have found in bed.

Gellhorn found her literary voice — spare, terse, infused with reined-in anger — in a series of reports about the Depression she wrote for the Roosevelt aide Harold Hopkins.  (The experience persuaded her never again to live in the United States, “a hurried unjust country.”)  In her late 20’s she went to cover the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s magazine, then a publication with more than 10 million readers.  On the European front alone (she would also cover the Far East, on and off, for 30 years) she went on to chronicle the fall of Czechoslovakia; the Soviet invasion of Finland; the liberation of Dachau; the Nuremberg trials; and, before that, the Allied landings on Normandy Beach, into which she smuggled herself with her habitual bravura and defiance.  Because the United States Army did not permit women reporters at the front, Gellhorn sneaked into a hospital ship on the night of D-Day and worked alongside the ship’s nurses in the first days of the Normandy landing, thus witnessing the invasion firsthand.

Of all the eminent men in Gellhorn’s life, the one most rattled by her ferocious independence was Ernest Hemingway, with whom she lived for eight years, four of them spent in a contentious marriage.  However admiring Hemingway was, initially, of her marvelous looks, her stoicism and her indifference to physical discomfort, Gellhorn would write that he suffered from “abject bottom-licking narcissism”; and he was, to boot, “a ghastly lover.”  (In her words: “Wham bam thank you ma’am, or maybe just wham bam.”) Increasingly resentful of Gellhorn’s long absences during her assignments, Hemingway wrote her the following tirade when she left their Havana home, in 1943, to cover the Italian front: “Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?”

“I wish only to be unmarried ... I am so free that the atom cannot be freer,” Gellhorn wrote, shortly before her divorce from Hemingway, to a former lover who had remained, like most of them, a close friend. Another attempt at tying the knot, in 1954, was equally unsuccessful. Her letters intimate she married the Newport socialite Tom Matthews, a jovial former editor in chief of Time magazine, to create a more stable home life for her son, Sandy, an Italian orphan she had adopted when he was 19 months old, and who ultimately disappointed her by growing into an idle, indolent young adult.

Yet no fiasco — romantic, marital or maternal — really fazed Gellhorn. For the true loves of her life were work and the homes she made in hot, sunny places, where she could indulge in her passions for swimming and sunbathing (she liked to sit at her typewriter in full sun, as scantily clad as possible). François Mauriac’s phrase — “Travail, opium unique” — is often repeated in her letters, and her capacity for work was nothing short of extraordinary.  In one three-week period in 1950, she writes, she completed two 6,000-word articles, revised another, changed and cut a short story, and wrote a book review.  As for the houses in which her work was accomplished: she was the ultimate nomad. By her own reckoning, over the course of some 40 years she created 19 homes, many of whose views and landscapes she portrays superbly in these letters.  The sites included Marbella, Spain; Kenya, where she lived on a mountaintop several miles from the nearest other inhabitant, accepting her frequent bouts of loneliness as a precondition of freedom, “the most expensive possession there is”; and her favorite place of all, Cuernavaca, where she enjoyed a torrid love affair with a man who finally deprived her of her “virginity” — the word she used to intimate her former incapacity to reach orgasm.  The nimble fellow was a New York doctor she had met through Eleanor Roosevelt, and with whom she enjoyed (whew!) her life’s only moments of sexual “frenzy.”

So enduring was Gellhorn’s appeal that her life’s “best and longest” relationship, with Laurence Rockefeller, was yet to come: it began in her late 50’s, and lasted until her death.  The romance may have been abetted by distance — the lovers met only two or three times a year at most, in “a hotel room high above Central Park.”  “We played about like ancient kittens,” she writes, noting that they would soon be celebrating their “illegal silver anniversary.”  The Rockefeller idyll coincided with some of Gellhorn’s most remarkable and controversial reporting: her dispatches from Vietnam, written in 1966 for The Guardian of London, were the most ferocious (and prophetic) attacks on United States foreign policy yet published in the Western press.

In her 80’s, Gellhorn continued to travel obsessively, undertaking adventures that would faze most hardy 50-year-olds.  Until her sight began truly to fail, making it nearly impossible for her to read, write or enjoy landscapes, she readily traveled to five different countries in one summer, believing that to “keep moving” was the best cure for depression. In her late 80’s she planned to go snorkeling off the Sinai peninsula. In London, which was her home base for her last decades, she was surrounded by a bevy of devoted young intellectuals like Bill Buford and Victoria Glendinning.  It took cancer and near-total blindness to defeat her.  At 89, she took a pill she’d stored for the occasion, choreographing her end as elegantly as she had lived her life — white tulips in sight of her bedside, her apartment immaculate.  The only note of self-pity one detects, in the last pages of this terrific collection of letters, concerns Gellhorn’s ire about the failure of her once superior body.  “If the Devil had shown up at my house, instead of calling on dreary Faust, and offered me a perfectly functioning body until death in exchange for my soul,” she wrote with characteristic friskiness, “I’d have said it’s a deal bud, with joy.”

Francine du Plessix Gray’s most recent book is “Them: A Memoir of Parents,” which won the National Book Critics’ Circle award for autobiography.  She is currently working on a biography of Madame de Stael.