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Living Dangerously

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 called the book The View from the Ground because, she wrote, being poor in Paris had given her

a sense of what true poverty means, the kind you never chose and cannot escape, the prison of it. Maybe that was the most useful part of my education. It was a very high-class education, all in all, standing-room at ground level to watch history as it happened.

Gellhorn was always a stickler for the truth, but in this instance she seems to have exaggerated her plight. It was true she had been very poor in Paris—but she was broke student-style, not down and out, like Orwell—and ground level was not her natural habitat. With her blond hair, long legs, and perfect figure—she did exercises all her life to keep her weight at 125 pounds—she was as glamorous as a film star, and glamour goes a long way, especially in Paris, when it is combined with wit and self-confidence. It wasn’t long before she was seen in smart salons in the company of Bertrand de Jouvenel, a successful journalist who, having been seduced by Colette and immortalized as Chéri, was, says Moorehead, “one of Paris’s most desirable lovers.”

Gellhorn was a stylish figure in her writing as well as her life, and stylishness, for her, was a moral issue, involving courage, a concern for social justice, and a determination to set the record straight. She was driven, she said, by “some terrible curiosity, a real desire to know what it is all like.” This need to see things for herself, combined with her fearlessness and her love of action, took her repeatedly to report on trouble spots: China during the Sino-Japanese War, Spain in the Civil War, Finland when the Russians invaded. As a war correspondent in Europe during World War II, she stowed herself away on a hospital ship and landed on Omaha Beach, went on a night patrol during the Battle of the Bulge, and wangled a trip on a bombing raid over Germany. She went to Africa, Vietnam, and, at the age of eighty-five, to Brazil to investigate the murder of street children.

She traveled light and often dangerously, was willing to put up with squalor, and tried to align herself with the Have-nots. But whenever she returned, the Haves were waiting to welcome her back. Her circle of friends included Roosevelts, Whitneys, Adlai Stevenson, Senator Fulbright, George Kennan, Diana Cooper, Bernard Berenson, Leonard Bernstein, H.G. Wells, Sybille Bedford; her two husbands were Ernest Hemingway and Tom Matthews, the patrician editor of Time.

Gellhorn never seems to have thought about or even noticed the contradiction between her principles and her connections, perhaps because she had been trained not to. Her parents were rich, enlightened, happily married, and liberal. “The Gellhorn house,” Moorehead says, “was one of the very few white homes in St. Louis where black people came regularly for meals.” Her Prussian-Jewish father was a prominent gynecologist and obstetrician, a tough-minded man who had settled in America because he believed in Jeffersonian democracy and the Constitution; her mother was an early suffragette and social reformer whose family, according to Martha, were “great swells.” Martha and her three brothers were brought up to think for themselves and amuse the adults as well as each other. (Whoever made their father laugh was given a penny; laughter, Martha said when she turned seventy, was “the central and loveliest fact of life.”) Lying, bragging, self-pity, and boring people were cardinal sins. So were gossip and hearsay; at the Gellhorn dinner table, the children were expected to stick to “personal observation or experience.”

It was an ideal training for a reporter who was determined to get the facts and write clean prose, and who saw herself as a witness for the underdog. And because Martha’s parents were apparently close and loving, her upbringing might even have been the basis for a happy life. Love, however, seems to have passed Martha by. She had countless affairs during her long life but most of them were loveless. Men swarmed around her because she was glamorous, brave, charming, and clever, and she went to bed with them when it suited her—to pass the time or get her own way, for vanity, convenience, curiosity, pity, relief from boredom, and sometimes for affection—but not for love and rarely for pleasure. Sex, she said, “was always painful,” and except for a few relationships beginning in middle age, physical tenderness was beyond her.

Motherhood also defeated her. In the chaos at the end of World War II, she adopted a baby from an Italian orphanage. She did so for all the right reasons—pity, concern, outrage for what was happening to the street children—but also impulsively, rather as she might have rescued a pet from the dogs’ home, because she needed an object to lavish affection on, without pausing to consider what bringing up a child might involve. Gellhorn’s passion for truth and curiosity about the world never extended to her inner life. “Freud made her giggle,” Moorehead remarks tartly, “but he did not seem to have made her think.”

For a while motherhood seemed blissful, but then her terrible aptitude for boredom intruded. She dumped the boy first with hired help, then in boarding schools, while she went off on her travels or got on with her social life or shut herself away to write. The child was called Sandy and when he was a baby she loved him for being plump and happy; later, when plumpness turned to fat and the miseries of adolescence set in, she bullied him mercilessly about his weight, his laziness, his moral and intellectual shortcomings. Sandy dropped out of school early, took odd jobs, became a drug addict, served time in jail, and it was years before he pulled his life together. He was, she said, her “greatest failure of all.”

Gellhorn’s relationship with her father was also troubled. She yearned for his approval, but he was a hard man with high standards and he had no patience with her youthful pretensions. Like her, he believed in telling the truth and his reaction to her first novel, written when she was twenty-six, was dismaying:

It will be pretty dark for you if you remain in the groove you have been ploughing these past six or seven years. Strangely, that has been the only thing you haven’t got tired of, this self-deception…. It’s you and only you that can pull you out of this slough of self-pity and self-abasement and make you a person of lasting worth…. “I want to write, I want to write” that is your eternal wail. Then why the devil don’t you? If you really want to write, write by all means, but do it NOW…instead of capitalizing on your yellow hair and your lively, spicy conversation.

Martha’s response was her book about the Great Depression, The Trouble I’ve Seen, which he read in manuscript “without stopping,” he told her, “and with breathless interest.” But he died a couple of months later, leaving his daughter believing she had failed him.

Martha’s one enduring—and mutual—love was for her sweet-natured mother, Edna:

She approved of me always—she alone, in my whole life. Yet she did not approve all my acts; only she gave me the benefit of the doubt, saying that she could not believe my motives would ever be ugly. She said I made endless mistakes and the main loser and sufferer was me; but she did not blame me for my nature, the basis of my mistakes.

For all her devotion, however, Edna had no illusions about her daughter’s troubles and was appalled by the unrelenting rage that possessed her: “With Martha there is such hate that it is terrible. She starts with God and hates him violently. She does not know where to place her hate so just hates everything and everybody.”

Martha seems to have agreed: “I feel angry, every minute, about everything,” she once said. She also said, “You can do anything you like if you are willing to pay the full price for it,” and for her the full price meant putting her chronic anger and dissatisfaction to use. She did so not only by turning them on social injustices but by turning them also on herself when she wrote, constantly purifying her prose, simplifying, sharpening, cutting away the flourishes and clichés, sticking relentlessly to facts. When she was still young she had written to Jouvenel:

The great temptation is to do what I call “fine writing,” the beautiful mellow phrases and the carefully chosen strange words. That I must avoid like the plague; only the simple words; only the straight clear sentences. I am terribly frightened of “style.”

Moorehead thinks Gellhorn’s achievement as a writer is based on her deep distaste for rhetoric, combined with her flair for “the subject picked out by the memorable and seemingly insignificant detail.” Gellhorn despised herself for lacking imagination, but she never compromised her truthfulness and she turned into an art what Moorehead calls “a talent for describing the ordinariness in tragedy, the horror of war framed by the smallest of scenes.”

In theory, Gellhorn and Hemingway should have been a good match. He was the master of clean prose; they both put a high value on courage and the willingness to face danger. When she went to join him in Spain before they married, she wrote to a friend, “I’m going to Spain with the boys. I don’t know who the boys are, but I’m going with them.” That elation sustained her for a while and the months in wartime Spain seem to have been the best she and Hemingway had together, though the signs were bad even then. Hemingway wrote a disagreeable play, The Fifth Column, about their time in besieged Madrid, featuring himself as Philip Rawlings, a gloomily dedicated secret agent posing as a feckless journalist, and Martha as Dorothy Bridges, a Junior League blonde with the “longest, smoothest, straightest legs,” but nothing much else in her favor. In Rawlings’s view, Moorehead writes,

Dorothy is…”lazy and spoiled, and rather stupid and enormously on the make,” a “bored Vassar bitch” who can’t cook, but who can write quite well…when she is not too idle. Dorothy has had “men, affairs, abortions, ambitions” and is now desperate to marry Rawlings. At the end of the play, having decided not to make an “absolutely colossal mistake,” he abandons her; she is, after all, only a “very handsome commodity…a commodity you shouldn’t pay too high a price for.”

Moorehead says “Hemingway had sent messages to his women this way before,” but Martha, astonishingly, chose to read the play as “an affectionate parody of herself.”

Even a woman as hard to fool as Gellhorn was dazzled, it seems, by the prospect of marrying America’s most famous and influential author—Life magazine sent Robert Capa, then her closest friend, to photograph them on their honeymoon. She also admired and envied Hemingway as an artist. She wrote novels all her life and set great store by them, but they are no longer much read and even Moorehead can find little to say in their favor. Gellhorn’s reputation is based on her journalism and journalism, for her, was a second-class art: “Books matter,” she said, “but magazines are for people on trains,” and the book Hemingway was writing about the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was in her view a masterpiece:

She worried constantly that her writing was flat, and her own vocabulary bored her…. “I have been thinking about writing until I am dizzy and a little ill. And have decided that what I have is patience, care, honor, detail, endurance and subject matter. And what I do not have is magic. But magic is all that counts.”… Hemingway, she said, had magic. When she read bits of his new novel, she could see it, “clear as water and carrying like the music of a flute.”

Reading Hemingway was a pleasure but living with him was a nightmare—and not only because the sex, as always, was dreadful for her. She was as tidy as a sailor, and he turned out to be an untidy slob. He was also a drunk, a bully, and a braggart who constantly distorted reality to fit his fantasies. She hated him for that, called him an “apocryphiar,” and refused to go along with his self-serving alterations of the truth. The marriage lasted five years. After they parted, Moorehead says, Martha was “adamant, to the point of legal threats, that no mention ever be made of Hemingway’s name in connection with her own.” “A man must be a very great genius,” she wrote to her mother, “to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”

She had found that intimacy made her claustrophobic. The open road, she said, was her “first, oldest and strongest love,” and she preferred friends to lovers, especially men friends, like Robert Capa, for whom she felt no sexual attraction:

Lovers somehow never seemed serious; there was something I couldn’t quite believe—and even in the most anguishing intoxicating depths of a love affair, I would always rather be with my friends, who were my own people and where I belonged…. I only loved the world of men—not the world of men-and-women.

Later, before her second unsatisfactory marriage, she remarked wryly, “I guess this life is not my job and I do not do it well and as a result I am never really happy.” But friends made her happy, and when she finally settled in London, after living in Mexico, Spain, and Africa, her friends flocked around her. By then, her old friends were dying off, but she was rediscovered, to her delight, by young people:

It was in the late 1970s, after the bad spell in which writing had become so tough and the fiction seemed to have dried up, that Martha, who had recently turned seventy, began to meet what she affectionately called her “chaps.” They were women as well as men, writers for the most part, or in some way connected with the world of writing, but television people too; not teenagers, who bored her, but people in their late twenties and thirties with work and adventures behind them, early loves dissolved, current relationships floundering, people who did things…. Martha liked people who shaped their own lives, who, like her, traveled to look and ask and carry back what they had seen, and after ill health severely reduced her ability to see and get about, she relied on the chaps to bring her the news she had once gathered herself, to report from the war fronts, both real and emotional.

The chaps gathered around her because they admired her work and her stylishness; she welcomed their company because they made her laugh and didn’t bore her. They also made her feel young. She had always been vain about her looks and, like everyone else, she hated growing old. She kept going in her testy, witty way until getting about at all was impossible, her eyesight had almost gone, and she had cancer of the ovaries and the liver. In her ninetieth year, she bundled up the last of her papers, tidied her apartment, got into bed, and took an overdose. “Dying,” she had told a friend, “is a very hard business, however achieved.” She herself did it without fuss, like an old Roman stoic.

When Gellhorn was, as she put it, “rediscovered by the kids,” she felt “like a geriatric debutante” and couldn’t believe her luck. Now she has been lucky again, posthumously. Caroline Moorehead has written fine biographies of Bertrand Russell, Freya Stark, and Iris Origo, but they were historical figures, whereas Gellhorn was a close friend of Moorehead’s parents, Lucy and Alan Moorehead, the writer, and Caroline was later one of Gellhorn’s “chaps.” This lifelong friendship gives the biography a special edge and immediacy, as if Gellhorn were hovering over it, checking out the facts and monitoring the prose, although Moorehead never allows this to cloud her judgment. She deals subtly and sympathetically with her subject’s skewed inner life and the implacable demands she made on everyone, especially herself. She knows the woman too well to pretend that her behavior wasn’t often inexcusable or that her anger, boredom, and selfishness didn’t make others suffer more than she did. Moorehead is as scrupulous and unfooled as Gellhorn could have wished but, unlike Martha, she is forgiving, and that somehow adds to the authority of her book. It is a model biography, at once fond and disabused. Even a writer as hard to please as Martha Gellhorn would have approved of it.

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