Martha Gellhorn is regarded as one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century, covering every major world conflict that took place during her 60-year career as a novelist, travel writer, and journalist.
Martha Gellhorn was born in November 1908, St. Louis, USA. She enrolled in Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, but in 1927, she left before graduating to become a journalist. In 1930 she went to France for two years where she worked at the United Press bureau in Paris. During this period she became active in the pacifist movement and wrote about her experiences in the book, What Mad Pursuit (1934).
Back in America, Gellhorn was hired as a field investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, created by Roosevelt to alleviate the Great Depression. She worked with Dorothea Lange, a photographer, to document the everyday lives of the hungry and homeless.
Their reports later became part of the government files on the Great Depression.
Gellhorn’s reports for that agency caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two women became lifelong friends. The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936) was her report in the form of four short stories. Its preface was written by H.G. Wells, with whom she had a long-term liaison.
Martha Gellhorn met Hemingway during a 1936 Christmas trip to Key West. Gellhorn was twenty-eight, good-looking with long legs, an established writer and ambitious journalist, whose independence and looks attracted Hemingway. They travelled in Spain together covering the Spanish Civil War, with Gellhorn reporting for Collier’s Weekly.
In Spain, George Orwell – who fought alongside the United Workers Marxist Party — became disillusioned with the policies of the Republicans and especially the Communists. But Gellhorn never changed her opinion that she was on the right side, fighting against the combined force of European fascism.
Later, from Germany, she reported on the rise of Adolf Hitler and in 1938 was in Czechoslovakia to witness the first stages of the looming war. She witnessed, in 1939, the first weeks of the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. She was in Helsinki when the Soviet air forces bombed the city, as a declaration of war. After the outbreak of World War II, she described these events in the novel A Stricken Field (1940).
She was married to Hemingway in 1940, after living with him off and on for a four years.
Hemingway’s friend, Robert Capa, photographed the ceremony for Life (Magazine). Hemingway dedicated his novel about the Spanish Civil war, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), to Gellhorn. Maria in the book was partly modelled after Martha. But unlike Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the earth did not move for Martha.
She is quoted as saying in a 1972 letter:
“I started living outside the sexual conventions long before anyone did such dangerous stuff and I may say hell broke loose and everyone thought unbridled sexual passion was the excuse. Whereas I didn’t like sex at all … all my life idiotically, I thought sex seemed to matter so desperately to the man who wanted it that to withhold was like withholding bread, an act of selfishness … what has always really absorbed me in life is what is happening outside. I accompanied men and was accompanied in action, in the extrovert part of life; I plunged into that; that was something altogether to be shared. But not sex; that seemed to be their delight and all I got was a pleasure of being wanted, I suppose, and the sort of tenderness (not nearly enough) that a man gives when he is satisfied. I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents.”
Gellhorn resented her reflected fame as Hemingway’s third wife, remarking that she had no intention of “being a footnote in someone else’s life.” As a condition for granting interviews, she was known to insist that Hemingway’s name not be mentioned. Hemingway also resented Martha’s journalistic achievements and ambition. It didn’t make for a harmonious marriage.
Martha Gellhorn later reported the war from, Hong Kong, Burma, Singapore, and Britain. Lacking official press credentials to witness the Normandy landings, she impersonated a stretcher bearer and later recalled, “I followed the war wherever I could reach it.” She was among the first journalists to report from Dachau concentration camp after it was liberated.
Her marriage to Hemingway was always turbulent, and after four years of marriage, punctuated by brief affairs, they divorced in 1945. At the end of the war, she adopted a young child from an Italian orphanage, and moved (as was her custom) to Mexico and then back to Italy. There were problems with the entry of the child into America. Nor did she excel in maternal instincts; Martha eventually left the child in the care of relatives. It was always going to be difficult given her lifestyle of constant travel and sporadic hours of work.
In 1954 she married the former managing editor of Time Magazine, Tom Matthews, and settled in London, which was to be her home for the rest of her life, although she and Matthews were divorced in 1963.
Between 1934 and 1967, Gellhorn published six novels. She covered wars in Vietnam in the 1960s, and the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 for the Guardian of London. In the mid-eighties she reported on the wars in Central America. At the age of 81, she wrote on the U.S. invasion of Panama.
Gellhorn died in London in 1998, aged 89, committing suicide by drug overdose after a long battle with cancer and near total blindness. The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism was established in her honor.