Flint and Steel: The Tumultuous Marriage of Martha Gellhorn & Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway and Gellhorn portrait

The esteemed war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, famously said, “Why should I be a footnote to somebody else’s life?” She dreaded being remembered mainly for her doomed marriage to the iconic American author. Hemingway and Gellhorn encouraged each other, supported each other, and once they separated, refused to speak of each other.

It all began when one evening, close to Christmas 1936, the young journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn went to a Key West for a drink. She was with her mother, Edna, and younger brother Alfred, taking a break in the winter sun. The bar was Sloppy Joe’s, and there Martha noticed “a large, dirty man in untidy somewhat soiled white shorts and shirt,” sitting in a corner, drinking and reading his mail.

The man was Ernest Hemingway, and this fairly inauspicious meeting was the start of a relationship that lasted almost ten years. Culminating in a disastrous four-year marriage, their partnership is (in)famous for its volatility, hard drinking, and occasional violence.

But there were also times of love, happiness, and hard work in writing. The tempestuous dynamic between these two enormous literary talents continues to fascinate to this day.

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Gellhorn and Hemingway photo by Corbis
Photo of Gellhorn and Hemingway by Corbis
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An “odd bird”

When he first met Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway was living on Key West with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, and three sons: John (known as Bumby), age thirteen; Patrick (nicknamed “Mexican Mouse”), age eight; and Gregory, or Gigi, who was five. Hemingway spent a lot of time fishing in the clear waters off the island and drinking in Sloppy Joe’s, but by the end of 1936 was also planning a trip to Spain to cover the civil war.

His enthusiastic support of the Republican cause had attracted the attention of the North American Newspaper Alliance, who asked him to cover the conflict for them, and he was raising money to buy ambulances as well as planning a documentary film with the Dutch director Joris Ivens.

Gellhorn, though not as well established as Hemingway, had her own accomplishments and ambitions. Her recent book, The Trouble I’ve Seen, based on her experiences of reporting the Great Depression, had received rave reviews, and she’d been hailed as the literary discovery of the decade. She was also very well traveled and aware of the worsening situation in Europe.

After their first drinks in Sloppy Joe’s, Hemingway offered to show the family around the island and, believing Martha and Alfred to be a couple rather than brother and sister, resolved to “get her away from the young punk” as soon as he could. 

When Edna and Alfred went home to St Louis a week later, Gellhorn decided to stay to work on her new novel. However, instead of writing, she spent hours talking to Hemingway — about politics, about his love of Cuba, his books, and his new manuscript, which he gave her to read. She did so, “weak with envy and wonder,” but determined not to imitate the style she admired so much. She had found, she wrote to her close friend Eleanor Roosevelt, “an odd bird, very lovable and full of fire and a marvelous storyteller.”

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Martha GellhornLearn more about Martha Gellhorn
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The Spanish Civil War and the start of a relationship

When Martha Gellhorn finally left for St. Louis in the middle of January 1937, Hemingway headed to New York to finalize his preparations for Spain. His regular letters and phone calls gave her encouragement through the long winter days, during which she forced herself to work on her novel for ten pages a day, determined to get it done as quickly as possible so that she could go to Europe herself and “get all the facts tidy.”

But by the time she arrived in New York, Hemingway was almost ready to leave for Spain. His passage was booked and, with obligations to both his documentary film and to the NANA, he had to depart without her. It took several weeks for Gellhorn to procure the required paperwork, eventually persuading a friend at Collier’s magazine to give her special correspondent status.

She sailed in March 1937, writing to a family friend, “Me, I am going to Spain with the boys. I don’t know who the boys are, but I am going with them.”

Too impatient to find a traveling companion among the several hundred men and women going to Spain as part of the International Brigades, Gellhorn set out alone from Paris with only fifty dollars and a backpack full of tinned food. By late March she was in Barcelona, crowded with soldiers and militia of all kinds, and from there made her way to Madrid.

Hemingway, already installed in two rooms in the Hotel Florida, greeted her: “I knew you’d get here, daughter, because I fixed it so you could.” Gellhorn accepted the self-congratulatory twisting of the truth with tolerance but was less understanding the next morning after she found herself locked her in her room during a bombing raid. When Hemingway finally came to let her out he explained that he had done it for her own safety, but she was furious. Later, she wrote, “I should have known at that moment what doom was.”

It didn’t, however, stop her from starting an affair. She didn’t love Hemingway, she claimed, and she wasn’t physically attracted to him, but she admired him and was grateful for his companionship and leadership amid a horrific war. Hemingway regarded himself — and was mostly regarded by others — as the foremost foreign journalist in Spain, and was able to procure supplies, including petrol, where no one else could.

He knew his way around the various fronts and was expert with a gun. As “just about the only blonde in the country,” Gellhorn felt vulnerable, although she would never have shown it. It was, she felt, better to be seen as belonging to someone.

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Martha Gellhorn with Ernest Hemingway
Photo: JFK Presidential Library and Museum
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“A gigantic jam”

It was the first of four trips to Spain over the next two years, interspersed with periods back in America. Hemingway’s film was a success, while Gellhorn’s articles about the human cost of war, the ordinary people, and their lives on the streets were taken enthusiastically by Collier’s and The New Yorker.

Their second trip, in August 1937, was less successful. Gellhorn and Hemingway were attempting to be discreet about their relationship, mostly for Pauline’s sake, and they again traveled from New York on separate ships. By the time they arrived, two-thirds of the country lay in nationalist hands.

Madrid was becoming increasingly cold and uncomfortable, with little food to be had, and in the tough conditions, the differences between the two of them began to slide into violent arguments. Known for being a bully at times, Hemingway was capable of subjecting Gellhorn to torrents of abuse: she described one evening as “a really excellent show but the kind of show usually reserved for enemies.”

By November 8th, Gellhorn’s 29th birthday, she had heard from America that gossip was circulating about her and Hemingway, and swore never again to “get into such a thing … I am in it up to the neck.” She dreaded returning to New York.

Meanwhile,  with nothing much happening at the front, Hemingway had started work on a play called The Fifth Column, based largely on his experiences in Spain and including a not-entirely flattering portrait of Martha as Dorothy Bridges, the heroine, whose main feature was her legs and who had “men, affairs, abortions, ambitions.”

Christmas 1937 was spent in America, after a nasty incident in Paris when Pauline, having traveled to confront Hemingway about Gellhorn, threatened to jump off their hotel balcony. Hemingway, with characteristic understatement, confided in Max Perkins that he was in a “gigantic jam” yet returned once more to Spain with Gellhorn in April 1938, leaving an increasingly desperate Pauline in America.

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Martha Gellhorn quote - travel is compost for the mind
Martha Gellhorn: Quotes from a Courageous Woman
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Finca Vigía and life in Cuba

By the end of 1938, Hemingway was back in Key West, trying to adapt back into family life with Pauline, but it was evident to visitors that he was unhappy. His brother Leicester noted that he was drinking an average of fifteen Scotch and sodas each day. He eventually retreated to one of his favorite islands, Cuba, to write, and Gellhorn joined him in the early spring of 1939.

She found him split between two hotel rooms in Havana, one for sleeping and one for writing, disheveled as usual, stockpiling food and surrounded by deep-sea fishing tackle (the waters of the Gulf were only half an hour away by boat). Having tolerated his squalid way of hotel living during the war in Spain, Gellhorn found that she couldn’t bear it in Cuba, and determined to find them somewhere more permanent to live.

She found a house in the village of San Francisco de Paula, not far from Havana. A one-story colonial Spanish building called Finca Vigía, it was set in fifteen acres of grounds that had overgrown to jungle density in the tropical heat.

The house hadn’t been lived in for years and needed significant cleaning and renovation, but Gellhorn saw its potential. Their move to the Finca effectively marked the end of Hemingway’s marriage to Pauline.

At first, the two were happy in their new home, writing constantly and leading a disciplined life. Hemingway, who had started work on For Whom The Bell Tolls, rose early and started writing before dawn, using their sunny bedroom as a study.

Gellhorn admired the way he fiercely protected his writing time despite everything there was to do around the house: “He has,” she wrote to a friend, “been about as much use as a stuffed squirrel, but he is turning out a beautiful story. And nothing on earth besides matters to him …”

She was having trouble, per usual, with her book (it would later be published as The Stricken Field), worried that her writing was flat and uninspiring. Reading Hemingway’s work made things worse: she saw her own as “without magic” while his flowed “like the music of a flute.” But she was happy in the Finca, surrounded by the exotic plants she loved, and the view of the sea.

With a break in Wyoming and Idaho over the fall, they continued this routine into the new year, writing in the mornings (Hemingway now tucked up in bed because of the exceptionally cold weather), playing tennis in the afternoons, and, about once a week, driving into Havana for a long night of hard drinking at the Floridita, Hemingway’s favorite bar.

Hemingway’s sons came for a successful visit in March 1940. They liked Gellhorn, calling her “The Marty,” and she relished becoming an instant mother to three good-looking, intelligent, yet very different boys.

Gradually, the differences between them began escalating once again into arguments, just as they had done in Spain. Hemingway found the bad news from Europe intrusive, and eventually banned their radio from the house altogether. Gellhorn found his disinterest annoying and his commitment to his work overbearing.

One letter from Hemingway at this time is a profuse tract of apology, begging her forgiveness for having been “thoughtless, egotistic, mean-spirited and unhelpful.” It was one of the few times he admitted to, and apologized for, any wrongdoing.

 

A marriage of flint and steel

In September 1940, For Whom The Bell Tolls was published. It sold — as Hemingway put it — “like frozen Daiquiris in hell.” After a stint alone in New York for the initial round of publication events, Hemingway took Gellhorn back to Sun Valley with his sons. They spent happy weeks hunting, riding, fishing, and playing tennis, and became engaged after Hemingway’s divorce from Pauline was finalized.

Gellhorn wore a diamond and sapphire ring she described as “snappy as hell.” Although she had some doubts about marriage (upsetting Hemingway, who wrote that she had given him a “good sound busted heart”) photos from this time show them both happy, windswept, and smiling.

On November 21, 1940 they were married in the dining room of the Union Pacific Railroad in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Several newspapers covered the wedding, with one reporter describing it as a union “of flint and steel,” though which one of them was which was never made clear.

 

“Honeymoon” in China

Many years later, when Gellhorn was nearly seventy, she wrote a book of the “horror journeys” of her life, Travels With Myself and Another. The book is full of darkly comic stories of terrible discomfort, embarrassing situations, and all the gory details of traveling in strange places with few modern comforts.

She included their “honeymoon trip to China, entitled “Mr. Ma’s Tigers,” one of the funniest in the collection and notable for its tone of affection and self-mockery. Collier’s had asked her to travel to the Far East to cover the war there, and Hemingway, despite grave misgivings, agreed to join her for part of the trip and write some articles for PM magazine. The trip was to start on the Burma Road, not long after their wedding, and Hemingway insisted on calling it their honeymoon.

It started badly, with rolling Pacific waves which made them seasick all the way to Hawaii. Although things started to improve in Hong Kong, where Hemingway found new friends to drink with and delighted in setting off firecrackers in their hotel room, there was the ever-present danger of Japanese bombing, and health concerns, including a prevalence of cholera.

When the couple got permission to travel to the front line, they made the journey in an ancient truck, a derelict boat that let in water, and ponies so small that Hemingway pointed out he could walk and ride at the same time. It was also, as Gellhorn noted, the “mosquito center of the world.”

One night, lying on a board in wet clothes, besieged by flies and mosquitoes, she said, “I want to die.” Hemingway replied, “Too late. Who wanted to come to China?” But when she and Hemingway parted in Rangoon, he wrote, “I am lost without you … with you I have so much fun even on such a lousy trip.”

 

The Crook Shop, and a Caribbean “journey from hell”

Back in Cuba, Martha settled down to edit the proofs of a collection of stories, The Heart of Another, while Hemingway spent more and more time fishing in the Gulf on his boat, the Pilar. Martha enjoyed joining him when she wasn’t working, and Hemingway told Max Perkins that he was happy with her, that she was just what he needed, and that she had told him she was now going to stop traveling and stay at home.

But the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entrance of America into the war made them both restless. Still unwilling to travel to Europe, Hemingway started to gather stories for a war anthology, while both he and Gellhorn were intrigued by the idea of setting up a kind of counter-intelligence group in Cuba, similar to the ‘Fifth Column’ of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War.

Hemingway proposed to recruit informants from among his friends in the Havana bars, and, somewhat bizarrely, to equip the Pilar with grenades and machine guns in order to hunt and destroy enemy submarines that might be cruising the Gulf (his idea was to lure them into raising their conning towers, before lobbing grenades down the opening).

In a turn of events that seems ludicrous today, he succeeded in recruiting an eight-man crew and persuaded the FBI to contribute $500 a month for running costs. “Friendless” was the official name of the operation, but it was more often known as the Crook Shop.

As the Crook Shop took over the Finca, and the parties and drinking sessions began to last well into the morning hours, Gellhorn grew more and more impatient. She and Hemingway began to quarrel regularly, even about writing, so when Colliers suggested that she do some traveling around the Caribbean and write about preparations for war, she was delighted.

But the assignment became another of her journeys from hell. It started in Puerto Rico, which had been turned into a huge naval base, and continued from St. Thomas to Antigua. Gellhorn was held up by hurricanes and heavy rain; she became violently seasick; and one night, while she slept out the bad weather on Saba, she awoke to find that the boat crew had slipped away in the night, leaving her marooned on an island with very few facilities.

She finally made her way off with a derelict motor launch, paying $60 to persuade the elderly captain to take her to Antigua. At her next destination, Surinam, she fractured a wrist and caught dengue fever.

Throughout her trip, Hemingway sent her several letters, most of them loving and intimate, full of life at the Finca and the domestic squabbles of the cats that had taken up residence in the gardens. Responding to a complaint from Gellhorn about life in Cuba, he wrote, “Boy can you hit. Can you hit and do you know where the heart of another lives…”

It was clear on her return that Hemingway had missed her, and Gellhorn spoke of becoming a “good little wife” and giving up reporting so as not to have to leave him again. For a short time, over the summer, they were genuinely happy.

 

War at home and in Europe

As time went on, Gellhorn grew increasingly tired of Hemingway’s spying activities and heavy drinking. He had quarreled with most of his writer friends and was spending more and more time at sea; on the few occasions he was at the Finca he was moody, depressed, and occasionally violent.

She was finding his slovenly way of living almost unbearable, while he told her that she was obsessed with cleanliness. One night, after a fight about his drunken driving on their way back from a night in Havana, Gellhorn took the wheel of his beloved Lincoln Continental and drove it slowly straight into a tree. She got out and walked back to the Finca, leaving Hemingway with the wrecked car.

Finally, despite the lack of military accreditation for women journalists, and despite all the dangers, Gellhorn decided to go to Europe. She tried to persuade Hemingway to go with her — even after all their arguments, there were still moments of tenderness — but he was reluctant to leave the Finca and the Pilar. From New York, she wrote, “You belong to me … We have a good wide life ahead of us. And I will try to be beautiful when I am old, and if I can’t do that I will try to be good. I love you very much.”

Gellhorn arrived in London in fall 1943. During the weeks that followed, she wrote several long and loving letters to Hemingway, full of the war in London and the people she was meeting, and still encouraging him to join her. Hemingway, though, was drinking heavily alone at the Finca, and wrote less and less often.

To Gellhorn’s mother, with whom he got on well, he wrote that he felt he was dying a little every day. Jealous of Gellhorn but unwilling to join her, he wrote to Max Perkins that he hadn’t “done a damned thing I wanted to do now for well over two years….but then I guess no one else has either except Martha who does exactly what she wants to do as willfully as any spoiled child…”

After six months, despite being desperate not to miss the French landings, Gellhorn decided to return, set on the idea of “blast[ing] him loose from Cuba” and bringing him back to Europe.

 

“I am wondering now if it ever really worked …”

This time, her return was not so happy. They fought over everything — over the house, over writing, over money -—and Hemingway went so far as to write to Gellhorn’s mother saying that he felt she had become unbalanced during her time in Europe.

“Nothing outside of herself interests her very much … she seems mentally unbalanced, maybe just borderline …” Then, out of the blue, Hemingway announced that he had decided to go to Europe after all, and would be writing articles for Collier’s — a move that effectively jeopardized Gellhorn’s position at the magazine, since officially it was allowed to have only one accredited journalist at the front.

Even more galling for Gellhorn was the fact that, after agreeing to write an article on RAF pilots, Hemingway was given a coveted seat on a plane heading for London, and told her that no women were allowed on board. Later, it turned out that the actress Gertrude Lawrence was also a passenger.

Angry but undeterred, Gellhorn eventually found a place on a Norwegian freighter. On the twenty-day Atlantic crossing, she had plenty of time for reflection, and in letters to friends made clear that she felt the marriage was over:

“He is a good man … He is however bad for me, sadly enough, or maybe wrong for me is the word; and I am wrong for him … I am wondering now if it ever really worked …We quarreled too much I suppose … It is all sickening and I am sad to death …”

When Gellhorn met up with Hemingway in London, she found him once again installed in a hotel, surrounded by hangers-on and drinking heavily. Instead of welcoming her, he seemed to delight in goading her, reducing her to tears and embarrassing those they were with, and one evening stood her up for dinner in favor of Mary Welsh, a young American journalist for the Daily Express. From that night, Gellhorn considered their marriage over.

 

Divorce and aftermath

It was not an amicable separation. Hemingway was not accustomed to being left by women, and even his sons were not spared his furious attempts to portray himself as the one who had wanted to end it. He wrote to Patrick that he had “torn up my tickets on her and would be glad never to see her again.”

Hemingway and Gellhorn met only twice more: once by accident in Paris in 1944, and later in London to finalize details of their divorce, which came through at the end of 1945.

It was a sad end to a troubled relationship. Later, Hemingway’s youngest son Gregory would say that Gellhorn had been driven away by his father’s bullish behavior and egotism. Gellhorn wrote to her mother that, “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”

After that, she refused to talk about Hemingway at all. Even in Travels With Myself and Another he was referred to only as UC, and on hearing of his suicide in 1961, her only comment was that she understood why he had done it.

Hemingway, initially outspoken and blustering about their separation, also fell silent on the subject. It’s ironic, then, that speculation, gossip, and fascination with their unconventional love story continued long after they had separated, and survives today in books, biographies, and the sensationalized 2012 film, Hemingway and Gellhorn, 2012.

Further reading

  • Travels With Myself And Another by Martha Gellhorn (1978)
  • The Hemingway Women by Bernice Kert (1983)
  • Selected Letters 1917-1961 by Ernest Hemingway, edited by Carlos Baker (2003)
  • Martha Gellhorn: A Life by Caroline Moorehead (2004)
  • Ernest Hemingway: A Biography by Mary Dearborn (2018)

Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online, and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at  Elodie Rose Barnes. 

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