Covering conflicts, and creating them
MARTHA GELLHORN is remembered today chiefly as a war correspondent and chronicler of Europe’s mid-century political convulsions. Between 1938 and 1944 alone, she published 26 long, vividly reported articles in Collier’s magazine covering the Spanish Civil War, the buildup to the Second World War and the war itself.
After that, the political writing tapered off. Gellhorn needed a heroic dimension in what she wrote about, a sense of espousing good against evil. Her visit to Dachau eight days after it was liberated convinced her that evil had grown insuperably big and good had shriveled. And the complexities of the Cold War weakened the journalistic ardor of this child of the prewar left.
Her tragedy was that she never was able to find a moral equivalent to war as a goad for her writing. Savage indignation was required to lacerate her breast, and it was in short supply. The rest of her life -- she died in 1998, at 89 -- brought what she painfully recognized as a decline into writing lighter pieces; “bilgers,” she called them, as in “bilge.” For a while they were much in demand and handsomely paid; later, both the demand and the fees tailed off, requiring this prickly and large-spirited woman to make humiliating efforts to court editors.
Fiction was meant to counter the decline. Yet even as she wrote a number of novels and several collections of short stories, Gellhorn struggled, not only with the writing -- she compared it to stirring concrete -- but with her conviction that the results were fairly poor. Neither occasional friendly reviews nor sales, largely indifferent, could do much to change her mind, though she kept at it.
Colette, briefly the lover of her own stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel (who in turn became Gellhorn’s lover, not long after she arrived in France in 1930 with $75, a typewriter and vast hopes and ambition), listened as the 24-year-old novice poured out her difficulties with a first novel. “I fear you are too intelligent,” the old lioness rebuked her. “You judge what you’re doing even as you do it.”
This comes from an early letter in the 532-page collection, “Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn,” assembled and edited by Caroline Moorehead, author three years ago of a comprehensive Gellhorn biography. The letters she chose (there are a great many others) pay proportionately little attention to the wars and turmoil that Gellhorn wrote about in her journalistic prime. Some comment, mostly dolefully, on the issues of a time that was steadily receding from the heroic framework of her youth. There are a number of letters to Eleanor Roosevelt, her warrior ideal, and others to Adlai Stevenson, her burned-out-warrior ideal. She writes to him in 1962 about Eleanor’s death: “I feel lonelier and more afraid; someone gone from one’s own world who was like the certainty of refuge; and someone gone from the world who was like a certainty of honor.”
Thus Gellhorn on her fine-pitched and stirring trumpet. Far more often she blows a saxophone blues that ranges from modulated growl to wailing shriek. Most conspicuous are her accounts of two failed marriages. One, to Ernest Hemingway, set out under full sail, with banners flying, and ended disastrously on the rocks. Here, as in other matters, Gellhorn possessed near unstoppable propulsion and hopeless steering.
There is much about the rest of her love life. Gellhorn’s mother, Edna, the wisest of her many confidantes, noted that for her big liaisons Martha chose top figures in whatever came to interest her the most: for her French period, De Jouvenel, consummately ardent and privileged (and beautiful); for writing, Hemingway; for warfare, James Gavin, the brilliant World War II general; for journalism, Time’s former editor in chief Tom Matthews, whom she wanly married and bitterly left after discovering a long-standing affair; and for mega-finance, Laurence Rockefeller. The amorous tally was much larger, but often unsatisfying -- a brief exultation and prolonged dejection. Sex, she writes, was a matter of pleasurably giving pleasure but being unable to receive it: control, we may surmise -- though with the warmest of hearts -- instead of loss of control (as with Colette’s “too intelligent” and “you judge ... even as you do it”).
There is lament after lament about her professional frustrations and her sense of wide-ranging failure. There is a stream of complaints about her adopted son, Sandy. It starts with diapers and flows on to catalog child obesity, teenage mess-ups, adult failure and bitter estrangement. As early as her 30s, she mourns that the best of her life is dismally past.
It was to be a long past, another 50 years of it. No wonder novelist Sybille Bedford, an intimate until they too became estranged, wrote that she had to nerve herself before opening a Gellhorn letter. For readers, turning the pages can require equivalent nerving. Great letters, though they may deal with personal concerns, convey a sense of their authors by the way they evoke other people and things and ideas. Too many of Gellhorn’s letters urge you to “look at my eyes” instead of “look at what my eyes are seeing.”
By no means all of them, though. Her vehemence may be a whirlwind -- a wind circling itself -- but like a whirlwind it picks up a great deal along the way. Friends, for one thing -- among them such disparates as Leonard Bernstein, Diana Cooper, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West and Bernard Berenson. The vitality, the courage, the readiness to get back up and go on are compelling. She is always preparing to take another trip, build another house, fall in love again, even should the trip end in staleness, the house be abandoned, the lover wear out.
And in these many pages there are many gems. Some are sheer fun: having lunch with the Aga Khan and noting his huge caloric intake. He was about to have his annual weighing, with the same poundage in gold to be distributed to his needy followers. Philanthropy as gluttony.
There is her complaint about her wobbly literary fortunes and the wicked sting she inserts: “I’m tired of being an underrated writer, I want to be an overrated writer like everybody else.” After a stay in Africa, she writes, of her successive depressions and recoveries, “I rise and sink like a hippo in a lake.”
Darkly, there is Prague expecting Hitler’s invasion, like “someone waiting in an operating room for the surgeon, who will come to work with a blunt knife and no anesthetic.” There is Wendell Willkie, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the 1940 election, “with his honest homespun hair and that complicated cruel mouth.”
On a deeper note of pain, there is her progressive disillusion with Hemingway. Earlier letters idolized him. Then after they married and settled in Cuba, she wrote in anguish that he no longer wanted the adventurous partner of Spain but only a wife to service him. She couldn’t stand domesticity, their comfortable life and his sour silences. He, on the other hand, gorged on what he had achieved and it would come to make him despair, she suggested presciently.
Unexpectedly, there was an upturn in the last years. A whole set of younger writers discovered, encouraged and befriended her. Two of her books were published with fair success. Then she lost most of her vision and contracted liver and ovarian cancer.
A few years earlier she’d written to Bernstein, ill with cancer, advising him to accept the pain: "[H]ow about courage, what is it for if not to use when needed?” That was writing, though, and for Gellhorn writing was a lifelong need and never enough. At 89, she took a pill and killed herself.