Martha Gellhorn — American Novelist

by Kristine Bigcas

Martha Gellhorn was a known war correspondent, journalist, and travel writer back in the mid-90s. She is considered as one of the greatest war journalists of the 20th century. She was an active correspondent from 1934 to 1989. her 60-year career covered the biggest events of the world including the conflicts that have happened in those years. She witnessed the war in Europe, the Spanish Civil War, the carnage of the D-Day beaches, and more. Her work was one of a kind that it became the official documentation for the Great Depression that happened back in the days. She was also known as the only woman that has witnessed the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944.

She was also once married to another famous writer, Ernest Hemmingway. She was his third wife but after their ugly divorce, she refused for his name to be mentioned in any interview. She reasoned that she didn’t just want to be a “footnote in someone else’s life” hence, her dislike for the mention of his name to be associated with hers. Aside from her marriage with Ernest, she has also married other high-profile individuals that also ended in divorce. She has one adopted son until her death in 1998. She took her own life while in London after more than 20 bibliographies credited to her name.

Early Life

Martha Ellis Gellhorn was born on November 19, 1908, in St. Louis, Missouri. She came from a family of Jewish descent but also is from a Protestant family. She studied at John Burroughs School and graduated in 1926 before continuing her tertiary studies at Bryn Mawr College. Before she could even finish college, she left her studies and chose to become a journalist. Her first written work appeared in the publication of The New Republic. She then went to Europe in 1930 to work on her foreign correspondence work. She was in France in 1930 where she worked at the United Press in Paris while staying active in the pacifist movement. She wrote the experience in What Mad Pursuit all her experience on the continent. She released the book in 1934.

After her stints in Europe, she went back to the United States and was immediately hired by Harry Hopkins as a field investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. She went from state to state in order to cover the Great Depression that happened during this time. She went to Gastonia, North Carolina to document the effects of the unfortunate event and teamed up with Dorothea Lange, a photographer, and captured the day to day lives of the American people especially those that are homeless and without food. Their reports were taken in as official government files and were usually not open to women of this era. This made her one of the largest contributors to what now is called American history. All her documented reports were used as a reference in the short stories of The Trouble I’ve Seen that was released in 1936.

Family

Martha is the daughter of Doctor George Gellhorn, a gynecologist who was born on November 07, 1870, in Wroclaw, Poland. He immigrated to America in 1900 with his parents Adolph Gellhorn and Rosalie Gellhorn. He died on January 25, 1936, at the age of 65.

Meanwhile, her mother, Edna Fischel Gellhorn, is a suffragist. She was born on December 18, 1878, in St Louis, Missouri. Her father was Doctor Washington Emil Fischel and Martha Fischel that were both involved in the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis. She studied at the Mary Institute and Bryn Mawr College and graduated in 1900. Since she was always voted as the president of the student body, she was elected as the lifetime president of her class in 1900. She was a big advocate of women’s voting rights. She was an officer of the Equal Suffrage Leagues and took part in activities that relate to this. She also became the first vice president of the National League of Women Votes. She is included in the league’s state and national rolls of honor. Before her death, she was chosen as the Woman of Achievement by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. On September 24, 1970, Edna died at the ripe age of 91.

Martha had three other siblings which are all boys. First was George Gellhorn, Jr who was born on December 24, 1904. He died on September 18, 1968. Next to him is Walter Fischel Gellhorn who was born on September 18, 1906.he was a Law Scholar and a Professor before his death on December 11, 1995. Youngest to their family is Dr. Alfred Gellhorn who was born on June 4, 1913. He was an oncologist before he died on March 24, 2008.

Relationships

Bertrand de Jouvenel

She has had a couple of relationships that led to marriage but ended up with a divorce. Her first relationship was with the French economist, Bertrand de Jouvenel des Ursins. He was born on October 31, 1903, in Paris. He comes from a wealthy French family of the Champagne region. He was the son of Henri de Jouvenel and Sarah Boas, famous French industrialists. His parents divorced in 1912 and his father remarried a French writer named Collete. When Bertrand was only 16, he has had a relationship with his stepmother Collete that ended his father and her relationship. They almost married each other if not for Bertrand’s wife who refused to sign the divorce papers. He died on March 1, 1987, in Paris, France.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Miller Hemingway was a novelist and story writer that was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899. They first met in Key West, Florida in 1936 before she invited him to join her in observing and reporting on the Spanish Civil War. They got married in 1940. While together, Martha continued traveling for her work while Ernest stayed in their home. Eventually, their marriage ended up in a divorce. After their separation, Martha refused for him to be mentioned on any of her interviews. In fact, she has said that “I’ve been a writer for over 40 years. I was a writer before I met him and I was a writer after I left him. Why should I be merely a footnote in his life?”

It has been accounted that Martha had a relationship with Major General James M. Gavin, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and a paratrooper. They got together while she was still married to Ernest.

T.S. Matthews

At some point, she also married Thomas Stanley Matthews. He was the editor of Time Magazine. He was born on January 16, 1901, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Martha and he got married in 1954 and stayed in London during the term of their marriage. They divorced nine years later in 1963. He died of lung cancer on January 4, 1991, in the companion of his new family in Cavendish, England.

Other Relationships

She was also with Laurance Rockefeller, William Walton, and David Gurewitsch.

Controversies

Martha adopted a boy named Sandy in 1949. He came from an Italian Orphanage. Sandy took the family name Matthew when Martha married T.S. Matthews. In an unofficial biography that was written by Carl Rollyson, he said that Sandy was left behind to the relatives of Martha in Englewood, New Jersey for a long time as she traveled a lot. He said that she is also guilty of “sexual scandal-mongering and cod psychology” to which her friends and family alike have dismissed. Even his stepson, Jack Hemingway, has given his support and said that she was his “favorite other mother” in hopes to reject any claims falsely made by Rollyson.

She has released her own statement in 1972 saying:

If I practised sex out of moral conviction, that was one thing; but to enjoy it … seemed a defeat. I accompanied men and was accompanied in action, in the extrovert part of life; I plunged into that … but not sex; that seemed to be their delight, and all I got was a pleasure of being wanted, I suppose, and the tenderness (not nearly enough) that a man gives when he is satisfied. I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents.

Journalism Career

The majority of the reports she covered were the events in Europe. She was in Germany to report about Adolf Hitler then she went to Czechoslovakia in 1938. Her experience was written down in a novel titled A Stricken Field which she released in 1940. She also traveled to other parts of Europe and Asia including Hong Kong and Singapore. She sneaked her way to the Normandy Landings by hiding in a hospital ship bathroom. She was the only woman present during that significant event in history. She was also at the concentration camp in Dachau. When the war was done, she worked for the Atlantic Monthly which she was given the task to cover the Vietnam and Arab-Israel war. Even when she was 70 years old, she continued documenting civil wars in Central America. It wasn’t until the 1990s that she decided to retire after she had problems with her vision. She went back in service in 1995 just to document the poverty in Brazil but it took so much for her to finish her report due to her failing eyesight.

Death and Legacy

After a long meaningful career in journalism and documentary, Martha Ellis Gellhorn decided to take away her own life by swallowing a cyanide capsule on February 15, 1998. By that time she was almost blind and had terminal ovarian cancer. Her cancer cells already spread to her liver.

Years after her death, her picture was used by the United States Postal Service on October 5, 2007, in a postage stamp to be included in the Journalist stamp series. She was the only woman out of the five honored writers and journalists. An hour-long episode was also aired in BBC featured her as one of the Extraordinary Woman. Also, a movie was based on her life and her marriage with Ernest Hemmingway in 2012. The movie stars Nicole Kidman and was directed by Philip Kaufman. It was titled Hemingway & Gellhorn after her and Ernest’s family name.