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Martha Gellhorn (November 8, 1908 – February 15, 1998) was best known as an American war correspondent, though she was a prolific writer of fiction and memoir as well. She was the third wife of iconic American author Ernest Hemingway. 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. Famously, she said, “Why should I be a footnote to somebody else’s life?”
Indeed, she was more than accomplished in her own right. having 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 sixty-year career.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Gellhorn grew up in a prosperous family that valued education and good works. Her father, a physician, was Jewish, and her mother was half-Jewish. She was inspired to pursue activism by her mother, who took young Martha to women’s suffrage rallies.
Embarking on a career in journalism
Bored and restless after a year of college at Bryn Mawr, Gellhorn dropped out and began her first job in journalism, reporting on crime for the Albany Times Union. Covering a local beat was more exciting to her than the classroom, but it wasn’t enough. Not yet 20 years old, she set her sights on Europe and became a foreign correspondent for the United Press bureau in Paris.
When she returned to the U.S., she worked as an investigator for the Federal Relief Administration, reporting on devastating effects of the Depression on rural communities all over the U.S. Martha worked with legendary photographer Dorothea Lange. They were among very few women doing this kind of work for the government, and their documents of this difficult era is considered among the finest.
World War II
In 1938, Gellhorn reported on the rise of Adolf Hitler and continued to report on the war from Czechoslovakia, England, Burma, Finland, and Hong Kong.
Determined to report on the D-Day landing of the Allies at Normandy, in the final stages of World War II, Gellhorn had neither official press credentials nor the blessing of her then-husband, Ernest Hemingway. In fact, he sabotaged her ability to get credentials, but nothing would stop her. She locked herself in the bathroom of a hospital ship until well out at sea, and once the ship landed she disguised herself as a stretcher carrier when it landed as a way to get close to the action. As it turned out, she was the only female journalist at Normandy on D-Day in June of 1944.
Gellhorn was also one of the first journalists to report from the concentration camp Dachau after liberation by Allied troops. “Where I want to be, boy, is where it is all blowing up,” she wrote to a friend. She hated “not to be a part of history.”
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. They met in the mid-1930s and traveled to Europe to cover the Spanish Civil War, marking the start of her long career in war correspondence.
She married Hemingway in 1940. Hemingway soon became resentful of his wife’s work, resenting her long journeys to cover the World War II. “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. Her first novels included What Mad Pursuit (1934) and The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936), both based on personal experience.
Vietnam: A New Kind of War (1966) is representative of her brand of hard-hitting journalism in long form; and Travels with Myself and Another (1978) is a lively memoir of her journeys.
Martha Gellhorn page on Amazon
Death and Legacy
In Martha Gellhorn’s 60-year career, she covered nearly every global conflict, from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam, and beyond. When she reported on the Central American wars in Panama, El Salvador, and Nicaragua in the1980s, she was in her own 80s. After that, she finally decided that she was too old for that kind of work.
She put a human face on the suffering caused by war. Her priorities as a reporter were to expose lies told by those in power that caused wars in the first place, and to be an eyewitness, telling the stories of everyday people caught up in violent conflicts. And, as she often liked to say, she wanted “let the bad guys have it.”
At age 89, Gellhorn was nearly blind and beset with ovarian cancer. She ended her own life by taking a cyanide capsule. It was a fitting end to a remarkable life that was lived — and ended — on her own terms
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.”
More about Martha Gellhorn on this site
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
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).
- Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life (2004) by Caroline Moorhead
- Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn (2006) edited by Caroline Moorhead
Articles, news, etc.
- Obituary in the New York Times
- The Hubris and Despair of War Journalism
- How Gellhorn was Hemingway’s Toughest Contender
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