Martha Ellis Gellhorn, who as one of the first female war correspondents covered a dozen major conflicts in a writing career that lasted more than 60 years, died Feb. 15 at her home in London. She was 89.
Gellhorn was a cocky, raspy-voiced, chain-smoking maverick who saw herself as a champion of ordinary people trapped in conflicts created by the rich and the powerful. That she was famous to many people largely for her five-year marriage to Ernest Hemingway, from 1940 to 1945, was a source of irritation to her, especially when critics tried to find parallels between her lean writing style and that of her more famous husband.
“Why should I be a footnote to somebody else’s life?” she bitterly asked in an interview, pointing out that she had written two novels before meeting Hemingway and continued writing for almost a half-century after leaving him.
As a journalist, Gellhorn had no use for the notion of objectivity. The chief point of going to cover anything, she felt, was so you could tell what you saw, contradict the lies and let the bad guys have it.
“You go into a hospital, and it’s full of wounded kids,” she told one interviewer. “So you write what you see and how it is. You don’t say there’s 37 wounded children in this hospital, but maybe there’s 38 wounded children on the other side. You write what you see.”
Though best known for her groundbreaking journalism, Gellhorn was also an accomplished fiction writer, author of 5 novels, 14 novellas and 2 collections of short stories.
Fresh out of Bryn Mawr College in 1927, she began writing for the New Republic, then became a crime reporter in Albany, N.Y. The daughter of a progressive St. Louis physician, Gellhorn got herself to Europe by writing a brochure for the Holland American Line and traveled throughout the continent.
Later, she met Harry Hopkins, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s confidant, and talked her way into a job with the New Deal, wandering America and writing about the effects of the Great Depression on ordinary people.
She also wrote a collection of novellas about the nation’s problems, “The Trouble I’ve Seen” (1936).
She went into Spain in 1937 with nothing but a knapsack and $50, covered the conflict for Collier’s Weekly and became Hemingway’s lover.
She covered the Blitz in London. On D-Day, she stowed away on a hospital ship and snuck ashore as a stretcher bearer. She got British pilots to let her ride along on night bombing raids over Germany. When the Allies liberated Dachau, she was there to write about it.
“Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence,” she wrote of her visit to Dachau, “the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice. They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see, if you are lucky.”
She covered Russia’s war against Finland in 1939, trekked across China with Hemingway in 1940, and became increasingly critical of the United States, which she saw as a “colonial power,” eventually settling abroad for good. She covered Vietnam, Nicaraguan Contras, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the U.S. invasion of Panama at the age of 81. It was only when war came to Bosnia that she gave it a pass.
“Too old,” she said. “You have to be nimble for war.”
Gellhorn’s war correspondence was collected in “The Face of War” in 1959. She always focused on ordinary foot soldiers and civilians, ignoring the generals. Her peacetime journalism was collected in 1988’s “The View From the Ground.”
Among her novels were 1940’s “A Stricken Field,” set among refugees in Prague just before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, and 1944’s “Liana,” about the marriage of a mulatto woman and a rich white man in the French Caribbean.
Gellhorn was not without her critics, particularly political conservatives who sometimes painted her as a left-leaning dilettante whose writing was often didactic and sentimental. And some criticized her vivid journalism as being, stylistically, too much like fiction and her terse fiction as being, stylistically, too much like journalism.
But in the end, her longevity and the compelling pull of her life story overrode such criticisms. A heroine to generations of young women correspondents for her fight to get equal treatment and place on the front lines with male colleagues, she was also a romantic figure for her wartime romance with one of the century’s most famous writers and her subsequent rejection of him.
In 1936, she wandered into a bar in Key West and met Ernest Hemingway. They drank, became friends and, the next year, when she showed up in Madrid, she picked up again with Hemingway and other war correspondents. They married in 1940; she was Hemingway’s third wife.
They traveled and worked together, living between conflicts at a villa in Cuba. She left him in 1945, walking out after an argument at London’s Dorchester Hotel. She was the only one of Hemingway’s wives to leave him, and he never forgave her. “His hatred of her was a terrible thing to see,” one Hemingway biographer noted.
Bill Buford, the fiction editor at The New Yorker wrote: “Reading Martha Gellhorn for the first time is a staggering experience. She is not a travel writer or a journalist or a novelist. She is all of these, and one of the most eloquent witnesses of the 20th Century.”
Gellhorn had little use for most war reporting after the Vietnam War, saying that the press’ role in ending that conflict had taught military leaders a lesson.
“They realized the power of the press and have been controlling it ever since,” she said.
“It seems to me that they feed war reporters at these ridiculous briefings in the ballroom of hotels miles from anywhere. I think we have to educate the reading public to realize” what they are getting.