Martha Gellhorn (November 8, 1908 – February 15, 1998) was best known as an American war correspondent, though she was a prolific author of fiction and memoir as well. She was the third wife of American icon Ernest Hemingway. She approved of the former claim to fame —she’s ranked among the top war journalists of the twentieth century — but she didn’t wish to be remembered as one of the several wives of “Papa” Hemingway.
She covered nearly every global conflict, from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam. She reported on virtually every major world conflict that took place during her 60-year career.
Gellhorn was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was Jewish, and her mother was half Jewish. Gellhorn may have been inspired to her activism by her mother, who was a suffragist. She attended Bryn Mawr college for only a year, leaving in 1927 to become a foreign correspondent in Europe.
When she returned, she worked for a Federal agency that reported on the ravages of the Depression on families and communities. She and Dorothea Lange, the noted photographer with whom she worked, were among the few women doing this kind of work.
World War II
In 1938, Gellhorn reported on the rise of Adolf Hitler, and continued to report on the war from Czechosolvakia, England, Burma, Finland, and Hong Kong.
Gellhorn had to use subterfuge to witness the landing at Normandy, because she didn’t have the proper press credentials. She hid in a hospital ship’s bathroom, and then, upon landing, disguised herself as a stretcher carrier. As it turned out, she was the only woman that landed at Normandy on D-Day in June of 1944. She was one of the first journalists to report from the concentration camp Dachau after liberation by Allied troops.
Photo of Gellhorn and Hemingway by Corbis
The Hemingway years
Gellhorn’s relationship with Hemingway overlapped with his marriage to his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. Gellhorn married Hemingway in 1940. Hemingway soon became resentful of his wife’s work, resenting her long journeys to cover the war. “Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?” Apparently, she decided she was the former, especially after Hemingway tried to prevent her from going to Normandy.
Notoriously restless, critical and controlling, Hemingway had apparently met his match in Gellhorn, and he didn’t like it. They divorced in 1945.
Novels and nonfiction
In addition to her significant body of work in journalism, Gellhorn produced many books, including memoirs of the wars she covered and her travels, as well as full-length novels, novellas, and short stories.
Death and Legacy
At age 89, Gellhorn was nearly blind and having had ovarian cancer, she ended her own life by taking a cyanide capsule.
The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism is in her honor. This prize aims to distinguish itself from the many journalism awards by honoring those whose work goes above and beyond. Its mission is as follows:
“The Gellhorn Prize is in honor of one of the 20th century’s greatest reporters. It is awarded to a journalist whose work has penetrated the established version of events and told an unpalatable truth – a truth validated by powerful facts that expose what Martha Gellhorn called ‘official drivel.’ She meant establishment propaganda.”
Gellhorn’s bibliography is far longer that this, which is a representative sampling. While none of her books stands out as a famous classic, taken as a whole, she produced a significant body of work.
Nonfiction and memoir
- The Face of War (1959)
- Vietnam: A New Kind of War (1966)
- Travels with Myself and Another (1978)
- The View From the Ground (1989)
Novels and Short Stories
- What Mad Pursuit (1934)
- The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936)
- A Stricken Field (1940)
- The Heart of Another (1941);
- Liana (1944)
- The Undefeated (1945)
- The Wine of Astonishment (1948)
- Two by Two (1958)
- His Own Man (1961)
- Martha Gellhorn: Myth, Motif, and Remembrance
by Angelica Hardy Dorman (2012)
- Beautiful Exile: The Life of Martha Gellhorn by Carl E. Rollyson (2007).
- Martha Gellhorn: The War Writer in the Field by Kate McLoughlin (2007)
- Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life (2004) by Caroline Moorhead
- Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn (2006) edited by Caroline Moorhead
- Reader discussion of her books on Goodreads
- The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism
- Gellhorn’s Amazon page
Articles, news, etc.
- Obituary in the New York Times
- The Hubris and Despair of War Journalism
- Reporting America at War
- How Gellhorn was Hemingway’s Toughest Contender
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