In 1934, when Martha Gellhorn was twenty-five years old, she joined a team of sixteen writers hired by Harry Hopkins of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to tour the country and report to him and the President about the state of the nation during the Great Depression. The pay was $35 a week, plus train vouchers and $5 a day for expenses, but it seemed lavish compared to the misery she saw. She went first to North Carolina, then to New England, then west, increasingly outraged by both the poverty, degradation, and patience of the unemployed and the greed and stupidity of the people who were supposed to be helping them. In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, writes Caroline Moorehead,
she talked to a group of men, farmers and ranchers in their former lives, who were being exploited by a crooked contractor…. [She] told them that the only way to make themselves heard would be by doing something dramatic, like breaking the windows of the FERA offices. The next morning, she moved on to Seattle, and the men did exactly what she had suggested. Immediately the FBI, alerted to a possible communist uprising, descended on Coeur d’Alene, where they were told that it had all been done at the suggestion of the relief lady. Before long, the contractor was arrested for fraud and the men went back to work, but Martha was recalled to Washington and fired. She had become, she wrote to her parents in triumph, a “dangerous Communist.” As she saw it, it was an “honorable discharge.”
It was an honorable discharge with a difference, however, and it had a peculiarly American fairy-tale ending. Eleanor Roosevelt was an old friend of Martha’s mother Edna, and she and the President, Martha wrote later, “were worried about my finances because I would not find another government job with the FBI scowling.” So they invited the troublesome girl to stay at the White House while she turned her reports to Hopkins into a book about the “defeated army of the unemployed.” Martha accepted without much enthusiasm, offended equally by the First Lady’s dreadful food and the splendid gold-and-white plates it was served on. She told her friends that she had become the President’s “mascot or pet or poodle,” stuck it out grudgingly for a few weeks, then moved to a friend’s summer house in Connecticut, where there were fewer distractions.
This episode was typical of a life that was always strangely divided and full of dramatic reversals. The pattern had already been set four years earlier when Gellhorn dropped out of Bryn Mawr at the end of her junior year and went to Paris with $75 in her pocket and no job in prospect. Counting the centimes and knowing no one was not just a novel experience for a young lady from a well-to-do background, it also, she claimed, had a permanent effect on her. When she made a selection of her journalism sixty years later, she …