Vol. 20 No. 9 · 7 May 1998

No One Leaves Her Place in Line

Jeremy Harding revisits Martha Gellhorn

6767 words

‘Martha Gellhorn (1908-98), war correspondent and heroine’. Since her death in February, this epitaph has become a depressing possibility. Now we can say what we like about her, but during the last ten years of her life, though she could do little about criticism, she tried to keep the mythologising, much of it from friends, within the bounds of taste. She didn’t care for anything, or anyone, with a propensity to gush. She is thought of, primarily, as a journalist – and one whose subject was war. Since the second half of the Eighties, her two collections of reportage, The Face of War and The View from the Ground, have enjoyed a wider readership than her novels, of which there are five, or the novellas, roughly a dozen, or the numerous short stories.

War is ‘our condition and our history’, she once said – and she wrote about it well. But throughout her working life, she remained gripped by the political and social issues of peacetime, poverty above all, which she regarded as evidence of bad government in the developed world, compounded in poorer countries by international indifference (or worse). In the mid-Thirties, she travelled across the United States, researching the effects of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration for the head of the agency, Harry Hopkins; fifty years later in Britain, she watched the gap between the rich and the poor widen again, and she railed against the spirit of Thatcherism. Two days before she died, at the age of 89, she was denouncing the Clinton Administration’s plans, with Britain in tow, for the bombing of Iraq (‘they won’t even listen to the Iraqi opposition’). So, even though she used the expression herself until a few years ago, ‘war correspondent’ won’t quite do, in spite of unforgettable dispatches from Spain in 1937 and 38, from Italy and Normandy in 1944, from the Ardennes and Dachau the following year, from Vietnam in the Sixties, El Salvador and Nicaragua in the Eighties and from Panama in 1990. Two years ago, she rounded off the list with a long and steely report on the undeclared war waged in Brazil by the police and the military against homeless children.

That Martha Gellhorn might become a heroine is the risk she incurred by never really changing her mind. From the United States in the slough of the Depression to the favelas of Salvador, she moved more or less doggedly, telling one story after another, but her preoccupation with the big themes – hunger, injustice, war and dispossession – meant that she was obliged to retell the same story in different settings. On hearing the word ‘commitment’, she sought refuge in Henry James (an odd hero for a writer whose sentences are so unencumbered and who was also besotted by Elmore Leonard), but she was happy to be accused of consistency: she believed in the salutary power of memory, and the value of precedent. Consistency, after all, was the logical outcome of her loyalty to those beliefs, and to the people and events that marked her life.

Her first loyalty was to her family: she was passionately thankful to her parents for her rock-solid liberal upbringing in St Louis, Missouri, and she admired their lives for the duration of her own. The next most obvious was to the Spanish Republic. Here, too, the loyalty was absolute: Spain became her moral template for the reputable cause that is abandoned for disreputable reasons (cowardice, indifference, lack of foresight). It hastened her ‘premature anti-fascism’, as her politics were described in her FBI file, and defined her view of the Second World War. Half a century later, it was still at the back of her mind when she grappled with the conflicts in Central America at the time of the Reagan Presidency.

Her consistency is as comforting to the fickle, the ambivalent, the fainthearted, as it is to those for whom an adjutant nod of assent in her direction is second nature. Her work is habit-forming, whether you share her convictions or not. There’s comfort, too, to be got from another of her big achievements: longevity. She was surely the only person to have inspected the defences around Madrid in the winter of 1937 and, nearly sixty years later, heard Mandela address a multiracial Parliament in Cape Town. It wasn’t that Martha clung to life; it clung to her, piling on the years like a Berber potter loading his donkey. For that alone, she’s been thought of as a witness to the 20th century; better to say that for much of her career she looked the century in the face and made something of it, yet even this comes close to veneration.

A few days after Martha Gellhorn’s ashes were scattered in the Thames near Tower Bridge, I went back to her flat near the King’s Road to collect some books that she’d left me. I’d made the journey often from North London to Sloane Square, walking away from the Royal Court Theatre, rounding Peter Jones on Symons Street and turning up towards Cadogan Square. On entering the house, you rose in a coffin-like lift to the top and walked down to the first half-landing, where the door of her place would be open. Inside, if it was summer, you could browse the skyline of West London through her picture window, probably as far as the southern edge of Holland Park. If it was winter you’d settle rapidly into the business of talk and drink. The stage directions were always the same: Martha, with her gay, vigilant eyes, the edges of her mouth drawn down slightly, is leaning forward on one side of a blue two-seater sofa beneath a large painting of flowers; you’re sitting on her near side on a matching sofa beneath a larger submarine painting in greys, greens and blues. The flat is sparsely furnished, a little austere, but lavishly lit by Martha’s moods, her stories, her interest in anywhere you’ve been, whether it’s Dar-es-Salaam or Saffron Walden. Until her death, I’d only once set foot here in her absence. Then, too, it had been to collect some books; she’d set aside a couple of her novels for me to borrow. Now, after a good hour with her minimal library and a long look through her picture window, I went back down in the lift with one carrier bag and a briefcase full of books. Strictly speaking, they belong to me, but I can’t shake off the idea that, like the ones I took away nine years ago, they’re only on loan.

There are two dozen or so. Some of them she wrote herself – The Heart of Another, my favourite collection of short stories, published in 1941 (on the flyleaf of this 1946 edition, the inscription in pencil confirms how quick she was to think she’d never done anything good and might never produce a sentence again: ‘To —, this badly-made reminder that I used to write. Gloomily, the ex-authoress’); Point of No Return (1948), a novel which tells the story of four characters, three of them Americans, fighting the last stages of the war in Europe, which I read with indecent haste many years ago, hoping I’d like it more than I did; The Lowest Trees Have Tops, a middling, happy-sad novel set in Mexico.

There’s also an incomplete set of Ruskin, in an undated American edition inscribed by her mother in black ink: ‘Edna Fischel, April 1900’, or ‘May 1900’ – she seems to have accumulated them as they appeared, the name and location of the publishers changing midway through the edition. A couple of the volumes are underlined and annotated in Martha’s hand. She probably read them during the Twenties. The marked-up passages of the keen young high-school pupil offer an unerring foretaste of the mature writer. Underlinings at random, from Fors Clavigera: ‘The chief, and almost the only business of the government, is to take care that no man may live idle.’ ‘And the guilty thieves of Europe, the real sources of all deadly war in it, are the Capitalists.’ (Ruskin, like Martha, was a premature anti-fascist.) Again at random, from Time and Tide: ‘There is no final strength but in rightness.’ ‘The peculiar ghastliness of the Swiss mode of festivity is in its utter failure of joy.’ ‘It is true, of course, that in the end of ends, nothing but the right conquers.’ The older Gellhorn was too weather-beaten to countenance that idea, but she would have liked to, and the bulk of the journalism is about why she couldn’t.

I knew Martha Gellhorn during the last ten years of her life. I had fallen for the work long before I fell for the person. We met through Bill Buford, then the editor of Granta, who had also fallen for the writing. She and I were both contributors. By the time Buford made the introduction, I’d read whatever journalism I could find and roughly half the fiction. A year later, she and I started work on a programme for the BBC, consisting of a series of long interviews which were to be edited down and interspersed with readings from her journalism and fiction. If it worked well in the end, this was because she took charge of the programme – and because she was too much her own person, too set in her ways, to star in anyone else’s notion of who she was. Television failed to replace Martha Gellhorn with ‘Martha Gellhorn’.

Then and later, when the programme was done, she found going back over her writing a bit of a gamble and had to steel herself for it. Reading A Stricken Field, for example, a novel set in Czechoslovakia at the time of Munich, the annexation of Sudetenland and Hitler’s entry into Prague, caused her some aches and pains, but I once discovered her engrossed in a copy of The Honeyed Peace, a collection of impeccable stories, several involving characters who have never quite got over the war, or indeed, the fact that there is no longer a war to fight. She was turning the pages for the better part of an hour. ‘It’s twenty years since I read these,’ she said finally, removing her glasses, ‘and thirty-five or forty since I wrote them.’ Her eyes were radiant with satisfaction and for the rest of the afternoon she behaved like a juvenile offender who’s been reprieved. She would have been 80 or 81 at the time. A few years later, she wrote in my copy of The Honeyed Peace: ‘this book that I have come, to my surprise, to admire’.

On the whole, the journalism gave her less trouble than the fiction. It was good when she wrote it and it remains good. Her reports from Europe for Collier’s magazine are urgent and discerning and always written from the ground up – bare of interviews with generals, tips from off-the-record briefings, clutter. A ration queue in Madrid, July 1937, under bombardment: ‘Women are standing in line, as they do all over Madrid, quiet women, dressed usually in black, with market baskets on their arms, waiting to buy food. A shell falls across the square. They turn their heads to look, and move a little closer to the house, but no one leaves her place in line.’ On a death a few miles from Monte Cassino, 1944:

I remember the dead girl ambulance driver, lying on a bed in a tent hospital, with her hands crossed on a sad bunch of flowers, and her hair very neat and blond, and her face simply asleep. She had been killed on the road below San Elia, and her friends, the other French girls who drove ambulances, were coming to pay their last respects. They were tired and awkward in their bulky, muddy clothes. They passed slowly before the dead girl and looked with pity and great quietness at her face, and went back to their ambulances.

An extraordinary passage in her account of the Normandy landings took the measure of the scene behind the beaches with a fleeting evocation of landscape in peacetime. Reading it made her squeamish, she said, because it had wandered off the point:

It was almost dark by now and there was a terrible feeling of working against time ... We walked with the utmost care between the narrowly placed white tape lines that marked the mine-cleared path, and headed for a tent marked with a Red Cross ... The dust that rose in the grey night light seemed like the fog of war itself. Then it was perhaps the most surprising of all the day’s surprises to smell the sweet smell of summer grass, a smell of cattle and peace and the sun that had warmed the earth some other time when summer was real.

Her later reports, from Latin America in the Eighties and Nineties, are not in my copy of The Face of War. It’s a Sphere paperback published in 1967 – price five shillings – with an ad at the back for an updated edition of Pears Medical Encyclopaedia. Martha had to wait another twenty years or so for an enlarged edition of her war journalism. The Virago edition contains no notices for Pears, although it does proclaim ‘the existence of a female tradition’ of writing, ‘enriching and enjoyable’. Virago did well by her; like Bill Buford, they got her about again; and they republished Liana, the most writerly (and claustrophobic) of her novels. Yet she was ill at ease with the idea of ‘women writers’, even though she reported, in the Eighties, with evident sympathy on the Greenham Common camp and the wives of ‘the enemy within’ during the miners’ strike. ‘I am a suffragette,’ she wrote in 1962 – on which she would expand, cautiously, by talking about her mother’s involvement in the American campaign for the women’s vote and her own conviction that women should have the same legal rights and the same pay packets as men. By the standards of the Seventies and early Eighties, if not the Nineties, this was slimline feminism. The dialectic of the personal and the political was not Martha’s thing. She thought in terms of winning gains and defending them – a combination of ‘back to basics’ and ‘No pasarán.’

On dipping into the fiction, Liana especially, which was first published in 1944, you find a more or less conventional view of men and women, but the business of war, which was very much Martha’s business at that time, supervenes in the end. It enables her to stop any inquiry into her characters before it gets bogged down, and to keep a hold on what those characters think.

In Liana, the main character, a young mulatta, thinks mostly about her affair with a good-looking Frenchman, Pierre Vauclain, and her disastrous marriage to another, older Frenchman, a cynic and a dog, on the Caribbean island where the novel is set. That thinking goes round in decreasing circles of desperation and allows the novel itself to think the bigger thoughts about the powerlessness of its heroine – which is to say, the powerlessness both of her gender and of her race. In the end, Liana kills herself. But it’s the war that has done for her, removing Pierre to Europe and leaving her in an impossible situation with her bullying, vengeful husband. All the same, you can’t help thinking that matters might have turned out even worse (two deaths, rather than one, or simply an intolerable, festering irresolution) had they gone on as they were. So war is also a release, and though early hints that it will play a part are delicate, it is the most insistent force in the novel, thrown down near the end with such impatience that the ground of the narrative shakes and the stifling edifice of circumscribed desires simply cracks apart.

Martha, too, took refuge in war as the larger, momentous activity in which you rediscovered a sense of proportion. I find this a shocking thing to say, because of a lingering priggishness about the relation of biographical details to a writer’s work, but for the moment, her books are haunted by an almost overbearing sense of her life. So when the war intrudes in Liana, I read it as Martha’s summary adjournment of her own thoughts about the business between men and women and as her call to freedom. In time Liana will resemble the novel I remember reading 12 years ago, divested of the details of Martha’s life, extraordinary details which nonetheless sound like platitudes the moment they’re entailed to her writing.

A literary biography will be lucky to sound the right note for Martha Gellhorn, as her story about visiting Nadezhda Mandelstam suggests. The two writers had corresponded for several years before Martha made the journey to Moscow in the Seventies, evoked in her comic masterpiece, Travels with Myself and Another. At some stage after the ice had been broken, Mrs Mandelstam announced: ‘Osip and I loved your stories: they are not literature.’ Martha was mortified, she admitted, until she realised the word that her friend had been looking for was ‘literary’. The distinction mattered immensely to Martha: ‘literature’ was a flag of convenience under which a ragbag crew was embarked on an important adventure; ‘literary’ was a term that spoke largely of mannerism and affectation.

By the time I started going to see her, Martha’s fiction was long done with, and the journalism was becoming an effort. The body was not what it had been (Spain as she turned 30 or Vietnam in her late fifties did not necessarily prepare her for El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama in her late seventies or Brazil in her late eighties). And those moments of fluency which she regarded as ‘a gift’, ‘a blessing’, were getting rare: sentences took longer and tended to be shorter. Above all, her eyesight was failing and her portable typewriter was no longer much use. She started putting her copy in capitals and, once she could no longer see the results even then, she toyed with various possibilities – enlarged letters on the keys, enlarged fonts on a computer screen; dictation; and then a combination of the two (writing and having what she’d written read back) – all of which exasperated her. So did the inability to read. She scoured the tape libraries for good recordings and some of these passed muster. More often she complained that, whether she was listening to professional actors or amateurs, they suffered from the fatal vice of ‘expression’. She took that as an intrusion. But the same was true of the best, the most expressionless of deliveries, for there was now an irreparable breach in the intimacy between reader and written word that she’d enjoyed all her life. She might have been sitting alone in a tier of empty bleachers at a sports stadium with Roderick Hudson or The Aspern Papers being barked out over the PA. Like most writers, Martha was replenished by reading. Without it she was prone to despair.

The next best thing, in London at least, was conversation. She once announced with satisfaction that she’d recently met a barrister, a rare event. It was by way of lamenting the fact that writers and journalists were too much of a coterie. We plotted the biodiversity of her last years with an inaugural party, something that might need a bit of thinking out, but none of the drudgery of the dinners hosted by Enid Langdon in ‘Venus Ascendant’, the longest story in The Honeyed Peace. This fantasy occasion would be attended by doctors, teachers, architects, curators, painters; a dishy detective with plenty of homicides under his belt would be a bonus.

If Martha’s circle of acquaintance was vastly wider than she let on – to me, at least – the people I met through her remained much of a piece, mostly connected with journalism, much of it foreign journalism. It was encouraging, in some obscure outpost of newsworthiness, to think that what you were about wasn’t simply a mixture of drudgery, discomfort and William Bootlike perplexity; that you’d get back to London in a week, or a month, and sit on one of her twin sofas at about 6:30 as the sun dropped slowly into the frame of the picture-window, daubing the flat with warm reds and tans (‘Why don’t you close the blinds? The light’s right in your eyes.’ ‘No, I like it’); and then you’d tell her a story that made her laugh.

One by one, her travellers and tellers of tales were fine. Together they gave rise to the suspicion that Martha liked to spend her time with remote, somewhat striking men who spent a lot of their own in remote, no less striking places and regaled her with the tales they would never have wasted on their wives or lovers. This has become part of the myth we’ve begun to embellish since her death, as though she had no women friends or friends of her own age. She had plenty. (And because she had immense discretion and insatiable curiosity, she became a repository of confidences from dozens of men and women.) Her brother Alfred, younger by five years or so, was one of the people she enjoyed the most in her old age – or so it seemed to me; not a journalist but a doctor, and a regular visitor from New York. Brother and sister could reduce each other to tears of laughter. Martha had one ruthless rule of thumb about people. They were ‘vivid’ or they were not, and if they were not, she tired of them with an alacrity that was equally ruthless. Alfred Gellhorn is vivid.

Her cast of journalists and travellers was vivid, too, but it concealed a tension in her which became more pronounced as she got older. She had a keen anxiety about the trappings of present-day journalism. And, just as she’d dispensed with the expression ‘war correspondent’, so she was irked by the image of the journalist as star. That was the root of her difficulty with A Stricken Field. The catastrophe in Czechoslovakia is seen through the eyes of a young journalist, Mary Douglas. ‘She’s too wrapped up in herself; she thinks she’s much too important,’ she remarked in 1990. To the suggestion that Mary Douglas was only a device, she replied, ‘Yes, but I’m not sure it works.’

This uneasiness was all the more marked because in her youth Martha, too, had cut a dash. She was not averse to hinting at the dangers of the job, discreetly, in her pieces, and she enjoyed the frisson – such and such a place, or such and such an incident, she used to say in retrospect, was ‘frightfully exciting’. But she also had a notion that journalists thought the world of themselves and rather less of the world. Yet if she saw this in friends who were half her age, she forgave it. Were they allowed their moments of vanity precisely because she’d finished with all that? I don’t think so. Martha enjoyed flattery, within reason: the attentions of her visitors were flattering in themselves, but so was her past, and if she saw some glimmer of it in their lives – the haring about, the over-excitement, the curious passions – then the satisfaction was twofold. And it may have stiffened her resolve to keep going: on two occasions in the last ten years of her life she trumped her friends in the press with stubborn, fiery reports from difficult places.

Television news, on which Martha came to depend, was watched from her double bed, Martha on the right, guest on the left, both propped up on pillows and supplied with large drinks. The set rested on a mobile breakfast tray that was wheeled up close so that the picture was in your face; the volume was turned up high. I remember, after one of these world-ogling sessions on the bed with Martha, having to produce a defence of the flak jacket, which TV reporters had started to wear in the most unlikely situations during the early Nineties, on the grounds that there were codes of practice and legal liabilities of which their bosses were aware. She’d been unsure whether the garb was a matter of self-regard or cowardice or a recherché form of etiquette, since more often than not it seemed to go beyond the call of common sense. She was aghast when reporters trussed up in protective clothing were mixing with endangered civilians. ‘I could never have done it,’ she said impatiently. ‘Too shaming.’ But wouldn’t she take water purifying tablets to an area where people had no clean drinking water? ‘It’s entirely different,’ she replied, and her head rose slightly, following obediently the upward motion of her eyes, which, whenever she was at odds with you, would gaze momentarily at a point above and behind your head, blink slowly, and then return to fix you with a look of condescension and faint concern, as though you might be about to throw up.

I was at odds with Martha on two subjects and hopelessly outgunned. The first was Spain, on which she was immovable. The Civil War finished the raw model of right and wrong that she had from her family and her time as a New Deal employee. And this model, set in stone and rubble, involved an unassailable loyalty to la causa. The disagreement, which was over Homage to Catalonia, was never properly stated, since Martha liked to get her retaliation in first. Maybe it was a disagreement over journalism. For that reason and others, it could never be a disagreement among equals. But it took the form of a troubled query on my part which would produce a simply-stated caveat on hers about the virtue of the Republic and those, all those, who fought for it. Martha regarded Ken Loach’s movie, Land and Freedom, which tells the story of the betrayal of the POUM by the Communists, as an insult to the International Brigades. She poured scorn on the combat scenes (‘a joke’) and went on to dismiss Orwell, on which the film is a dramatised gloss, almost out of hand.

On the struggle over the Barcelona Telephone Exchange in May 1937, described in Homage to Catalonia, she took the line that the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo – the anarcho-syndicalists – were ‘perfectly nice people’ but incapable of running a phone system. Perhaps, she speculated, they were forever arguing the finer points of workplace democracy – time profitably spent had there not been a war on. Or perhaps they were just incompetent. In any event, the Telefónica was vital to the Republic’s effort, which was why it became a focus of contention between the anarchists and the authorities. She thought that Orwell’s view of the events in Barcelona, haunted by a sense of conspiracy, black propaganda against the POUM and the CNT, and the stoking of murderous rivalry, was far too sinister. (Her objection to anarchism as a doctrine, as distinct from Spanish anarcho-syndicalism, had something of the same practical tone: it was all very well, she used to say, but who would take care of the drains?) She wanted Spain on record as the unsullied cause and, if she had to take ownership of it in order to chaperone it through the seductive hubbub of disputation and revision, then she would.

On Israel and Palestine Martha disagreed with many of her friends. It was another case of unswerving loyalty – to the idea of a Jewish homeland and then to the state of Israel in 1948, and then to the post-1948 territorial gains, and then to further annexations of Palestinian land, and of the Golan Heights, and so on. Israeli expansionism was a necessity: it ensured the survival of the Israeli state, the material and symbolic guarantee that Jews would never again be prey to the things she had seen at the liberation of Dachau. The ‘Palestinian problem’ was an abstruse game devised by Israel’s neighbours – Israel was entirely blameless – in which the Palestinians were complicit victims. The sin (and in Martha’s journalism there is usually a sin) was committed by the Arab states and a puppet Palestinian leadership, who together created a refugee community that was not allowed to cut its losses and disperse to a new life.

The report she wrote for Atlantic Monthly nearly forty years ago from the UNWRA settlements for Palestinian refugees is one of her great failures in journalism – a string of anecdotal evidence cobbled together to support a high-handed denial of Palestinian rights, with some wild generalisations thrown in for good measure (Arabs ‘must love the taste of hate; it is their daily bread’). The claims of the Palestinians on the land they had lost were based only on ‘right of conquest’, she tells the head of a Muslim women’s association – and that was ‘in the seventh century’:

The Jews got here first, about two thousand years ahead of you. You haven’t lived as masters in your own house for a long time. Aside from the Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks bossed you for a steady four hundred years, before the British took over. Now the Jews have won back their land by right of conquest. Turn and turn about.

Towards the end of the piece, she sketches out a solution in which the West would bankroll neighbouring states to absorb the Palestinians. Letting things go on as they are is too dangerous: she’s reminded of Europe on the edge of war. The Palestinians become Sudetendeutsch, Israel becomes Czechoslovakia and Nasser becomes the Führer. ‘A thousand-year Muslim Reich, the African continent ruled by Egypt, may be a mad dream, but we have experience of mad dreams and mad dreamers. We cannot be too careful. The echo of Hitler’s voice is heard again in the land, now speaking Arabic.’

I don’t imagine it was in conversation with her friends that her views on Israel underwent a shift in the last years of her life. Of the Palestinians she kept her opinion, more or less, invoking Arafat to stand for everything about the Palestinian cause that she thought was misconceived. But the Netanyahu Administration appalled her, and her knowledge of Central America meant that she was already acquainted with Netanyahu as one of the Cold War hacks who had egged on the Reagan Administration in El Salvador from their safe-havens on the East Coast. With the murder of Yitzhak Rabin and the rise of religious fanaticism among Israelis, her confidence had already begun to fray (it was the purpose of ‘all religion’, she’d written in a piece about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, to fight against the delegation of conscience); with Netanyahu, she feared that the fissures in Israeli society would only widen.

This came at the end of a long journey of political disappointment – a disappointment that could turn to raw fury when she saw the very things against which she had cautioned for decades being repeated. ‘For all the good our articles did,’ she wrote in her Introduction to the 1959 edition of The Face of War, ‘they might have been written in invisible ink, printed on leaves, and loosed to the wind.’ She expected politicians to serve the commonweal; she expected venality to be moderated by conscience; she expected prosperous democracies with competent armies to intervene on behalf of others without these advantages. She did not expect Vietnam, or Chile, or Angola and Mozambique, or El Salvador and Nicaragua: every time it seemed to stun her anew and, from the mid-Sixties, with the exception of its support for Israel, she became passionately opposed to US foreign policy. One quickly felt the shame of being world-weary beside this person twice one’s age, for whom making allowances and shrugging shoulders were cheap forms of patronisation.

In the Introduction to the second edition of The Face of War (1967), she wrote: ‘Anybody can imagine war; there is nothing arcane about it. War happens to people, one by one. That is really all I have to say and it seems to me I have been saying it forever.’ She was nearly 60. By ‘imagination’ she meant the ability to step away from oneself and conceive of dispossession and difficulty as they touched others. Most statesmen lacked imagination: how else, she reasoned, could you account for appeasement, say, or arms sales to dictatorships? She was ambitious in this, wanting a remedial imagination, capable of drafting policy. At the beginning of her career she formed a long friendship with the Roosevelts on the basis of Eleanor’s interest in The Trouble I’ve Seen, the spare, downbeat quartet of novellas that evolved from Martha’s research for Harry Hopkins. Martha used that friendship to lobby the White House, with Hemingway and the filmmaker Joris Ivens, on behalf of the Spanish Republic. But her reports are not addressed to the seats of power. They are attempts to educate her readers not only in the fortunes and misfortunes of war, but in the avoidable mistakes that she felt ‘made a mockery of hope’ in the postwar world. Memory and imagination, she declared, were ‘the great deterrents’. They were also the engines of her socialism, with its rigorous sense of a public world and its appeal to decency – a word she used often, as did Orwell, with whom she disagreed so deeply over Spain.

‘For all that I remember nowadays,’ Martha remarked last year, ‘I may as well not have been anywhere.’ This was an exaggeration. However liberally the glasses were refilled, however much one covered the same ground, and however often I saw her with someone she was meeting for the first time, I seldom heard Martha repeat herself; surely a sign that her memory was alert. Somehow she kept a mental log of who had heard what, like a complicated seating arrangement for a dinner with several tables. In the same way, she made it a point to avoid solemnity (as opposed to rage) on the subject of politics. The idea that she might be ranting crept in on her towards the end of Margaret Thatcher’s second term, and there was no question where it came from. ‘It horrifies me to think,’ she said, with the glint of a challenge in her eye, ‘that I might sound like our beloved leader.’

A combination of wit and memory supplied her with some good recitative between the big set pieces in her conversation. Of beating a retreat from London, pursued by H.G. Wells, with whom she was staying in the mid-Thirties, she remarked: ‘He was incessant; an incessant talker. He began after breakfast at the Iron Age and finished up at midnight with Henry James.’ She spoke now and then of Hemingway, her husband from 1939 to 1944, and gave a description of his working day when they were together in Cuba: write and revise, break for lunch (no alcohol), more work, possibly tennis, convene for dinner (silence, and again no alcohol). The house was monastic when he was writing and, apart from the odd insult or injury, it suited her. When he wasn’t, it was evidently a nightmare of booze and brawn. Seven or eight years ago she’d described his behaviour over her departure for Europe in the closing stages of the war with a withering contempt (he tried to wreck her prospects as a journalist), but at other times, her thoughts seemed to wash around him in a more neutral, occasionally a more tender way, as they would an old acquaintance. To her last days she maintained the Hemingway blockade in public: she’d consent to be interviewed as long as there was no mention of him. She’d said as much to the researchers at Desert Island Discs, who’d been chasing after her for a time, and on that basis they’d decided not to go ahead. ‘Fuck’em,’ she said, with a majestically clipped, blood-under-the-bridge delivery. I foolishly forgot to ask what music she would have chosen for the programme. Chopin might well have figured: in Madrid, during the war, the correspondents used to listen to a collection of mazurkas on a wind-up gramophone, which was why, she said, she could never hear more than a few bars of the stuff in later life without bursting into tears.

Towards the end of 1993, when her eyesight was still fairly good, Martha read me over a piece she’d just finished about an old friend, Fred Keller, who had died from burns at the age of 80 after a fire in his house in California. He had served in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades and they had known one another in Spain. For several days after her death, I fretted about in my papers trying to find it. I turned up one of her postcards from South Africa and a terse, downcast letter she’d written in 1996 (‘My writing life is well and truly over. Come and see me soon’). I couldn’t find the article and realised then that I’d never seen it in print. It had been commissioned by the New York Times, but they had no record of it. Nor had the Abraham Lincoln veterans in New York or San Francisco. Fred Keller’s daughter, Joany, told me that the New York Times hadn’t run it but it had been picked up by the LA Times. I remembered it as one of the most open and untended of Martha’s pieces, although I only had her reading to go on. What I wanted was the encounter between reader and written word minus ambassadors, the very privacy denied her in her last few years by her bad eyesight.

Joany Keller faxed the piece as it appeared in the LA Times. It starts out refusing to be either an obituary or an ‘In Memoriam’ – too ‘pompous’; Fred Keller ‘never wasted a minute of his life being pompous’. It goes on to say how amusing Martha found his letters over the years (56 since she’d known him, 20 since she’d seen him): ‘we shared a similar way of looking, though he was funnier and sharper.’ She met him in Madrid, probably in the spring of 1937, and ran into him again about a year later in Barcelona, after the Loyalist retreat from the Ebro. He had a bullet wound in the thigh when he swam to safety. ‘The Ebro is a wide, deep, cold grey river with a deadly current running to the sea. I have only now learned that Freddy swam the river several times, ferrying wounded comrades across.’ She reflects bitterly on the collapse of the Spanish Republic, the last stand, the place ‘where fascism must be stopped’. This passage contains one of her frankest, most succinct admissions; a sentence which takes the combined weight of her passion and her disappointment without buckling: ‘Then the war, our war, ended in defeat and none of us ever got over it in our hearts.’

As a Lincoln veteran, Keller, like Martha, was on file with the FBI. But after Spain, he was able to sign up as a private in the 82nd Airborne Division and the two of them met again by chance in Berlin. Martha was in the market in Alexanderplatz, part of the Russian Zone and so forbidden to Americans. She was trying to sell a suit that belonged to Robert Capa, who urgently needed the cash. Keller appeared in the crowd. ‘He was neither buying nor selling; he was risking disciplinary punishment, I am sure, to see the Russian soldiers ... Not knowing Russia, as none of us did, he believed or hoped, or both, that socialism existed there, a dream of equality and justice for workers, his kind of people. Freddy was in the Alexanderplatz looking at his heroes.’ After that, she lost track of him again. ‘One of the many features of war is this: everything changes, everyone meets by chance, everyone disappears to someplace else. I think the mind adapts to the chaos of war by becoming chaotic too.’

Martha Gellhorn’s never did, or not for long. Conviction kept her house in order. It may seem to us now an old order that belongs to an old century – Martha’s century – but appearances, in this case, could turn out to be misleading.

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