Despite her privileged early life as the child of a prominent St. Louis family, her later life as a well-to-do socialite matron, and her subsequent marriage to Ernest Hemingway, one of the twentieth century’s literary titans, Martha Gellhorn made a name for herself as a foreign correspondent covering major armed conflicts for the international press and as a novelist and short-story writer with both talent and vision. The daughter of physician George Gellhorn, the writer owed her free spirit to her mother, Edna Fischel Gellhorn, a suffragist whose own social prominence and outspoken championing of women’s rights earned her the friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt. Gellhorn cultivated that connection to her advantage as a journalist and social activist during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s twelve-year tenure as president of the United States, from 1933 to 1945.
Gellhorn was educated at private schools in her native St. Louis and then attended Bryn Mawr (1926-1929), where she published poetry in the student literary magazine. Eager for a more active involvement in the world around her, Gellhorn quit Bryn Mawr before her senior year to take a job as cub reporter with the Albany Times Union. She wrote freelance pieces for The New Republic and was in Paris in 1930 covering women delegates to the League of Nations for the St. Louis Post Dispatch when she met her first husband, the French pacifist and internationalist Bertrand de Jouvenel. They were married in the summer of 1933.
In 1934, Gellhorn published her first novel, What Mad Pursuit, a fictional account of her own experiences as a young journalist. Reviewers castigated the pretensions of thinly veiled autobiography dressed up as serious literature. Gellhorn’s second book, The Trouble I’ve Seen, a collection of short stories based on her experiences as a field investigator exposing corruption and abuses for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, was much better received. Reviewers respected the fact that the fiction was evidently founded on real experience. That work’s trenchant, reportorial urgency became a hallmark of all of Gellhorn’s subsequent fiction.
Gellhorn and Hemingway met by chance in 1936 in Key West. By that time, Gellhorn’s marriage to Jouvenel had ended, and although Hemingway was still married to his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, he and Gellhorn became involved. Their meeting coincided with Gellhorn’s assignment to cover the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s Weekly beginning in May, 1937.
In Madrid, she and Hemingway stayed at the Hotel Florida, which was shelled during the Loyalist bombardment of the city. Gellhorn became an enthusiast for the Republican war effort and tried to encourage Roosevelt to oppose the Fascist aggressors. She made radio broadcasts from Spain and in 1938 toured the United States speaking on behalf of the Spanish Republican cause.
Gellhorn, a strongminded and independent woman, set new journalistic standards and demonstrated that a woman could compete in a field whose rigors had made it the apparent preserve of male journalists. For eight years, Gellhorn covered various of the major events leading up to World War II for Collier’s; following her assignment in Spain, she went to Czechoslovakia, Finland, China, England, France, Italy, Germany, and Java.
Her work covering world events honed her eye for realistic detail and her ear for a straightforward style of writing, but it also took its toll on her life. She and Hemingway, who were married in October, 1940, divorced in November, 1945. Even during this time, however, Gellhorn continued to write fiction. Her novel A Stricken Field recounts her experience in Czechoslovakia at the time of the infamous 1938 Munich pact. She wrote the novel Liana in Cuba, where she and Hemingway made their home for a time, in response to Hemingway’s charges that she had been unfaithful to him.
Gellhorn incorporated her experiences of the war’s aftermath into the novel The Wine of Astonishment, and her four years of life in Mexico resulted in the novel The Lowest Trees Have Tops. Gellhorn returned to work as a war correspondent for The Guardian of London to cover Vietnam in 1966 and the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1967. She opposed the U.S. involvement in Vietnam but was an enthusiastic supporter of Israel’s victory over their Arab enemies.
After a 1954 marriage to the retired Time editor Tom S. Matthews ended in divorce in 1963, Gellhorn continued to travel widely. A trip to Africa resulted in The Weather in Africa, three interlinked novellas, and she published her memoirs, Travels with Myself and Another, in 1978. In The Face of War and The View from the Ground, Gellhorn collected much of her war journalism. Even later in life, she remained active as a writer and observer of social issues. Gellhorn died in 1998 at the age of eighty-nine.
Bell, Pearl K. Review of The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn. The New Republic 209, no. 1 (July 5, 1993): 36. An illuminating discussion of Gellhorn’s life and career focusing on her novellas.
Kert, Bernice. The Hemingway Women. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. In her account of Ernest Hemingway’s female relationships, Kert deals with Gellhorn’s affair and marriage with Hemingway during a very hectic and formative period in her own life.
Rollyson, Carl. Beautiful Exile: The Life of Martha Gellhorn. Rev. and updated ed. London: Aurum Press, 2001. Gellhorn is the subject of this very sympathetic biography. In addition to providing a detailed account of Gellhorn’s life, Rollyson provides précis of Gellhorn’s various book-length publications and discusses their critical reception; there is also a complete bibliography of Gellhorn’s work in magazines and newspapers.