Martha Gellhorn was one of the most celebrated journalists of her day, covering every major 20th century conflict from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam. Here, in her letters, beautifully edited by her biographer Caroline Moorehead, we witness her extraordinary life through her own words and the singular quality of her voice.
While her reports were famed for their cool, dispassionate style, her letters run the full gamut of emotions: raging, wry, strident, caustic, self-deprecating, querying and self-doubting. Either way, her shrewd reporter’s eye and the fluency of her prose create an intimate portrait of a complex woman who spent her life making “an angry sound against injustice”.
Born in 1908 in Bryn Mawr, Gellhorn’s letters begin with he arrival in Paris, aged 22, with only a typewriter for company. In an age when letter-writing was the norm, Gellhorn wrote to her friends every day; an event, for her, that was akin to conversation. To her French lover, Bertrand de Jouvenel, she wrote: “It’s almost like talking... to get a letter from you and then sit down at once to answer.” Often she would write about the same event twice, tailoring stories to suit the correspondent she was addressing. To Hemingway (to whom she was briefly and tempestuously married) she wrote about love and war, to Diana Cooper about appearances and make-up, to H G Wells on love and writing, to Eleanor Roosevelt about the Depression. There were also many other letters to correspondents such as Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Berenson and Adlai Stevenson.
Famed as she was for her bravery in a field that was largely confined to men, Gellhorn also displays her vulnerability and her softer, human side in her letters. Her correspondence conveys despair at her two failed marriages and her difficulties with the process of writing. Frequently she confesses that it has “good flashes in it... I am not a very good writer and function more like colonic irrigation, with things coming in and out at top speed”, or complains that “[I] cannot write my way out of a paper bag”.
Given her reluctance to ever hear Hemingway’s name in her presence after the demise of their marriage, there is a poignancy in reading of her once enraptured feelings for him: “dearest Mucklebugetski; today I got four letters from you so it is a national holiday”, or “oh bug, I love you. You tell me what to do and I will do it.” Entertaining as she was, she could also be scathing and brutal. To her adopted son, Sandy Gellhorn, she wrote: “You are a poor and stupid fellow in my life. I’d be so damned ashamed to be you, I’d want to jump off a cliff.” Similarly, Leonard Bernstein was chided for not being brave enough about his cancer. Yet there is something refreshing in this candour, creating a far more honest self-portrait than a more contrived attempt may have done. Together, these 500 pages of letters are relentlessly entertaining. In some ways they are almost exhausting to read, so consistently are they filled with “the wonderful fact of being alive”. Gellhorn was constantly striving to get more out of life: “great god! What an eagerness and energy I have to live; how much living I can stand and must have.” Hemingway once told her : “You waste your juice on letters.” We are very lucky she did.