Martha Gellhorn Remembered
“My dear William. Note: That’s William. Not Bill. You must change your name. No one will ever take you seriously. Bill Buford? No, it just won’t do. And your hair. You’ve got to do something with your hair. And that beard--shave it. You look like Allen Ginsberg.” I’m quoting Martha Gellhorn, the novelist and war reporter who died last Monday, and whose work I had the privilege of publishing for much of her last decade, her ninth.
“I forgot to add, William. You must buy new trousers that don’t look like what the well-dressed young elephants are wearing this year. How else can you win the Iranian’s love?” The Iranian in question was a particularly elusive girlfriend. Martha tutored me on matters of the heart, and on drinking (you could never drink enough), on my appearance (a disaster) and on my manners--especially my manners: My manners, in Martha’s eyes, were catastrophic. “I’ll be in London for a few days later this month,” she wrote me after we had a little row arising from another one of my behavioral misdemeanors, and the exchange must have become so rude and abusive that--and I infer this from the correspondence that I’m rereading for the first time--I sunk into a sulk. “If you don’t return my call, I’ll sadly take it that you wish to sever relations forever. A pity. But think about it, William. I may be the only old person you know, and elders and betters are necessary, as I know with despair, now that all of mine are dead.”
The elementary facts of her life. Born nearly 90 years ago. Bossy, straight-talking, cigarette-smoking. The boozy reporter of wars and of the plight of the down-and-out. Also a writer of short stories, novellas and novels. And a travel writer. She was married to Ernest Hemingway, and she hated the fact that, whenever her work was written about in the press, his name was invariably mentioned as well, just as I’m mentioning it.
But it’s hard to avoid: The two of them met when the world was at its most dramatic. They fell in love at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and divorced once World War II had ended, and in between were Cuba and big-game hunting and trips to China and battlefields in Finland and Barcelona and the beaches of Normandy. Could there be any two people more romantic? He was Papa Hemingway by then and she was--what? Blond and thin and sassy, a starlet of the highest order, a young Lauren Bacall, except that she was prettier and sexier and a whole lot brainier than a young Lauren Bacall. There was a glamour about Martha Gellhorn, the glamour of black-and-white movies. It was in her manner and her way with the ways of the world. She was a dame.
Seventeen years ago, I hadn’t read Martha Gellhorn, but I was editing a literary magazine and putting together an issue of travel writing and someone said I should ask her to contribute. A piece about a journey to Haiti was the result--dramatic and eventful (a white woman on an island of angry blacks who nearly gets stoned) and full of what I would come to recognize as Gellhorn rage--the irrepressible, passionate rage against injustice. “The Big Picture always exists,” she wrote, and by Big Picture she meant the drama of power brokers and politicians and corporations. “And I seem to have spent my life observing how desperately the Big Picture affects the little people who did not devise it and have no control over it.”
Why was I discovering her only now? I learned later that Penguin had brought out her first book in years, “Travels With Myself and Another” (that reluctant “another” was of course the famous writer who will remain nameless), but the experience was not a happy one for either author or publisher, and the book’s initial sales were modest. But I was so excited to have come upon her--this American in Britain, this throwback to a time when truth was truth and right was right and wrong was an identifiable thing that must be fought at all costs--that I fell for her. I wanted to do everything for her. I wanted to publish her in my magazine. I wanted to publish her books. I wanted to be her agent. I wanted to see her work translated, brought back into print, made into movies. And for a brief period (both of us fools), she let me be all these things: editor, publisher, agent--the works. But I was still in my 20s and briefly believed that there was nothing I couldn’t do, and she, nearly 50 years older, probably should have known better.
Her letters to me are postmarked Belize and Kenya and Tanzania and the south of Spain--she was happiest in places where she could wear little--but her home was a cottage in the Welsh countryside, where she drank booze, read mystery novels and wrote until she got tired of her company and came into London, where she had a flat on Cadogan Square. Her days there were tightly organized--drinks and dinners and maybe a nightcap. She didn’t have parties--she rarely saw people in groups--but met with her friends, one by one: John Pilger, Paul Theroux, James Fox, Nicholas Shakespeare, John Hatt, Jeremy Harding. Those were some of her regular men friends. We’d see each other--one of us on the way out, while another was arriving. She had some women friends, but Martha liked men, was easy around them and could be flirty and coquettish even at the age of 85. She was, she once recalled, thrown off a press boat on the Normandy invasion (Hemingway, with whom she was by then in a relation of unmitigated acrimony, had taken her credentials) and summarily returned to Britain. But then, by her own account, she flirted her way back onto another boat (a hospital ship) and, stowed away in a toilet, made the crossing and saw the invasion firsthand. It was a telling incident: unintimidated by one of the most dangerous military operations of the war (and so fearless in a male way) and yet utterly capable of making men melt (devastating in a distinctly female way). And of course Hemingway.
I brought him up the first time I went to her flat for dinner. It was the forbidden subject. “William,” she said, “I have only one response to people when they bring up that name. And that’s to show them the door.” She didn’t show me the door. In fact, the taboo having been broken, she went on to talk about him at great length--both that evening and on many occasions thereafter. My speculation is that, in fact, he was the important man in her life. Yes, she resented him, loathed being seen not as an author in her own right but as the difficult adjunct to the famous man of American letters. But he was the only man she talked about.
Sometimes it was Ernest the monster (how he terrified his children) and sometimes Ernest the myth (he was, in her words, “shy in bed,” and had, she was convinced, slept with no more than five women). She was fed up with him by the end of World War II--he’d grown lazy and bloated and indifferent to history--but she had respect for the writing. She talked about the philosophy of his sentences and the business of paring them back until they were as direct and true as they could possibly be--something she did herself in her own tough, often staccato prose. She said many, many more things--vivid and indiscreet at the time--but usually uttered under the influence of her liquor cabinet or the bottles of wine that we’d have at dinner (“tight as a tick” was one of her phrases), and few details now remain. Once I recall writing something down on a napkin--Martha had gone to the loo, having just revealed something wonderfully salacious--but I was so drunk that I later blew my nose into it and then threw it away.
There was a growing suspicion among Martha’s friends that she would never die. There was too much energy, too much determination to be curtailed by something as ordinary as mortality. She had a 90th birthday coming up in November. Surely she’d make that. And there was the prospect of another war in Iraq (she was in a rage about it even the Friday before her death)--pure Gellhorn. She wouldn’t allow herself to miss that. But she will. And she did.
I feel so lucky to have known her, this proof of the human spirit, the naysayer to naysayers. I know her friends do too. Now we just have her books.