Martha Gellhorn: Not Just the Wife of Ernest Hemingway

Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998)

“Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival.”

Martha Gelhorn

Martha Ellis Gellhorn was an American war correspondent, novelist and essayist. She was one of the first female reporters who is considered as one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century. During her career spanning sixty years, she covered a wide range of burning world conflicts namely the Vietnam War, Spanish Civil War, World War II and the Arab-Israeli conflicts. Gellhorn was also the third wife of the celebrated American author, Ernest Hemingway.

Born to a mother who was an indomitable advocate of women’s right to vote, she grew up in a progressive atmosphere. Her insatiable wanderlust complemented by her fearless and passionate temperament made her seek fulfillment in journalism.

An undaunted spirit, she travelled to war zones alone with money tucked in her boots and forged letters written to imaginary boyfriends to get through security personnel manning battlefields – often after being stripped of her credentials. Ditching objectivity which was the guiding principle of war journalism – a male bastion, she wrote about the people she encountered in the war torn areas.

Gellhorn gave voice to the people in the war-ravaged territories of Spain, Dachau, Normandy, Vietnam, West Asia and Central America. She channeled her wit, skill and bravado to break new ground in war journalism, which until then had been about subjects of war such as tactics, generals, artillery and arsenals.

Childhood & Early Life

  • Martha Gellhorn was born on November 8, 1908 to Edna Fischel Gellhorn and George Gellhorn. Her father was a gynecologist and her mother a renowned lawyer. She had two brothers. Gellhorn’s grandparents were Jewish.
  • In the year 1916, Gellhorn participated in the National Democratic Convention in St. Louis along with her mother to promote women enfranchisement. She was only eight years old.
  • On the insistence of her father, she graduated from the progressive co-educational John Burroughs School in St. Louis in 1926 of which her mother was a co-founder. She enrolled in the women’s liberal arts college, the Bryn Mawr. However, just after her twenty first birthday, she dropped out of college for a job.

Writing Career

  • Gellhorn started working as a crime reporter with the New Republic in Albany in 1927. She was the only female reporter on staff. Even though she wanted to write on women’s rights, she was made to report on women’s clubs, police beat and on the morgue. She was fired after reporting sexual harassment by her editor. 
  • After contributing for different publications, including the Vogue, she was hired by the Roosevelts as a field reporter for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. She toured the U.S. and reported on the Great Depression, which led to the publication of her much acclaimed book, ‘The Trouble I’ve Seen’based on the life of textile workers.
  • In 1937, single-mindedly pursuing her goal of becoming a war journalist, she crossed over the border from France to battle-scarred Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War for the Collier’s Weekly. Her writings on the war were reflective of her ardent belief in reporting what she saw, as against what needed to be stated objectively.
  • Working under the employ of Collier’s Weekly from 1937-47, her human stories from Europe and America championed the cause of ordinary people trapped in conflicts created by the rich and powerful.
  • She reported on the rise of Adolf Hitler from Germany and Czechoslovakia and wrote a novel, A Stricken Field narrating the events.
  • Gellhorn was the only woman to have landed at Normandy, France on D-Day without press credentials. She stowed in a hospital ship and impersonated a stretcher bearerto get there.
  • She was also one of the first war journalists to have reported from the Dachau Concentration camp after the American soldiers liberated it in 1945. Her article became one of the most important war accounts written on the subject.
  • When the World War II ended, she worked for the Atlantic Monthly and as a war correspondent covered the Vietnam Wars (1960s) and the Arab-Israeli conflicts (1960s – 1970s.
  • In 1990, at the ripe age of 81, she went undercover for The Daily Telegraph to report on the U.S. invasion of the Panama City. Going from door to door in slums, she highlighted the civilian casualties caused by the U.S. invasion.  She was highly critical of the American policy makers, whom she had come to view as gatecrashing colonizers.
  • In the mid-1990s, she reported for the last time from Brazil passionately describing the acts of violence against its street people.
Martha with her husband Ernest Hemingway

Major Literary Works

  • Her humane journalistic writings include, ‘The Face of War’, ‘Vietnam: A New Kind of War’, ‘The View from the Ground’.
  • Her celebrated novels include, ‘What Mad Pursuit’, ‘A Stricken Field’, ‘The Lowest Trees Have Tops’ and ‘Liana’.
  • Her war-novellas ‘The Weather in Africa’ and ‘The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn’s’ shows her strong command over the art of writing novellas.
  • Her notable short stories include,The Trouble I’ve Seen’ and ‘The Heart of Another’.
  • Her memoir, ‘Travels with Myself and Another’ contain details about her relationship with Ernest Hemingway.

Awards & Achievements

  • The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism was created in 1999 in her honor to encourage budding journalists.
  • In 2019, a blue plaque bearing the words war correspondent was unveiled in her London home.
  • The United States Postal Service in 2008 issued a postal stamp in her name.

Personal Life & Legacy

  • Martha Gellhorn married Ernest Hemmingway in 1940 but owing to major ideological differences divorced him in 1945. She referred to her ex-husband as a bully and refused to become a footnote in his life. Later in 1954, she married T.S. Mathews, Managing Editor of the Times magazine, whom she divorced in 1963.
  • She adopted a boy named Sandy from an Italian orphanage. Her relationship with her son eventually turned sour. 
  • On February 15, 1998, Gellhorn committed suicide in her London home after having battled ovarian cancer for some time.
  • Today, her legacy is being carried forward by the small gang of female war reporters who use the fresh and unprecedented approach she pioneered.

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