No Intention of Retreating

Lorna Scott Fox

  • Martha Gellhorn: A Life by Caroline Moorehead
    Vintage, 550 pp, £8.99, June 2004, ISBN 0 09 928401 4

Martha Gellhorn, the war reporter and writer who feared nothing on earth so much as boredom, and hated the ‘kitchen of life’, was enamoured of a different drudgery – life’s cardboard boxes. She moved house obsessively from continent to continent, America to Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, back and forth: I daren’t venture an exact number of proper residences, but it’s more than a dozen, in almost as many countries. She was willing to spend weeks on the road, reporting on earth-shaking events or just drifting. But while she wanted to see and know and denounce everything, terrified at being left behind ‘while the world hums at a great distance’, the pull was dwarfed by the push: the need to get out of whatever it was. In 1931, when she had already dropped out of Bryn Mawr, resigned from the Albany Times Union, and seduced and momentarily abandoned her first married man, she wrote to another disconsolate suitor: ‘This urge to run away from what I love is a sort of sadism I no longer pretend to understand.’

‘No longer’: what world-weariness from a 23-year-old! Not much was to change in her nature between that letter and the sign she put up in a London bathroom in 1973, after giving up on one of her Kenya homes: ‘When Things Get Bad, Run.’ Here’s an early snippet from Caroline Moorehead on a related theme, the socialite/misanthrope dilemma, which recurs, essentially unchanged, throughout the book: ‘Martha was happy, she had discovered, on her own; happy, but already aware of the particular dangers of prolonged solitude. Real life, she assumed, something that continued obstinately to elude her, must ultimately mean being with other people. After five weeks wandering along the Mediterranean coast, she returned to Paris.’ There are many such returns, and as many prickly or anguished retreats from society. It seems Gellhorn had to forget that she already knew a thing, and had been through its opposite, and knew all about that, too; belying the passion she brought with buoyantly refreshed language, in diaries and letters, to the contradictions that powered a brilliant, meteoric life, is a consistency that scarcely develops the initial givens. It was the unwanted process of ageing that modulated her trajectory.

Gellhorn’s childhood in St Louis, where she was born in 1908, set her up to be both star and misfit. Her parents were middle-class progressives, each of them half Jewish, the father an immigrant German doctor, the mother – Martha’s greatest love, she always maintained – a suffragette and social reformer. It was a gender-blind, ‘talking family’. Being clever and opinionated was rewarded; conceit or self-pity were as obnoxious as referring to anyone by their colour. Dinner-table rules that surely shaped Gellhorn’s journalistic principles included ‘no gossip or hearsay but everything reported from personal experience’. She lost no time in acquiring this experience, and her early life was a glorious adventure in which being a beautiful, spirited woman among men, decades before we were liberated en masse, was an advantage. Of course, you had to be untainted by any physical or social insecurity, indeed not know the meaning of fear, but then the world was yours: to the discomfort of Gellhorn’s father, who felt she might have taken her socially responsible upbringing the wrong way, and become brash. But courage, passion and confidence earned her a wonderful time in the first half of her life, and journalism allowed her to experience the world at first hand. ‘Even when not pleased with what I write, I am immensely pleased with what I have understood.’

Merely between 1930 and 1934, while trying to make up her mind whether to commit herself to the French political journalist Bertrand de Jouvenel, she covered the League of Nations for the St Louis Post-Dispatch (she was to give the ‘woman’s angle’, which did not interest her, though the spectacle of power did); crossed America coast to coast, for $25 a story, interviewing union leaders, oil millionaires, bullfighters, boxers and poets; bluffed her way into Mexico, where she was soon writing about Rivera and Eisenstein; toured America again with de Jouvenel, working in cafeterias and as a film extra; got a job at Vogue in Paris, covered the World Economic Conference in London, and went with de Jouvenel, Drieu la Rochelle and other young idealists to Berlin for a gruesome attempt at a Franco-German rapprochement. That’s about half of what she did. The writing, quoted here, seems already as concrete, intense and precise as it would ever be. Although she had the self-made woman’s disdain for feminism, the qualities of her style were ‘female’ ones, neglecting abstraction, intellectualism and the big picture in favour of vivid observation of detail, and curiosity about ignored lives. (Admittedly, it’s a dubious cliché to label such attention female. And in many ways Gellhorn was as androgynous as they come. But when, let’s say, a male photographer sneers at her for focusing on civilian suffering in Vietnam – ‘Why do women always have to look for orphanages?’ – we know there’s something to it.)

Though she hadn’t yet made the trip through Depression America that would provide the material for her second and possibly best volume of fiction, The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936), she was beginning to see her mission as to speak on behalf of the ‘voiceless and poor’, and for this, not ‘“fine writing", the beautiful mellow phrases and the carefully chosen strange words’, but a ‘faultless carpentry’ was required. The ‘artificial and dead’ Proust was the epitome of everything she loathed about high-flown literature, and she read mostly thrillers throughout her life.

In Gellhorn’s long leaving of de Jouvenel, the future pattern of her love life was set down. He is adoring, yet ultimately repressive; she blows hot and cold, is lonely if she doesn’t, trapped if she does, and agonises about her own perversity. Like other people who knew Gellhorn, Moorehead says more than once that she had little self-knowledge and was not given to introspection. This is puzzling, since I have seldom encountered such clear-eyed and articulate self-knowledge as I found here. That Gellhorn stubbornly fails to learn from her mistakes is not the same thing as superficiality. On her relationship with de Jouvenel, Gellhorn wrote a friend a letter that could equally well apply to the Hemingway marathon, to the fling with James Gavin (hero of the 82nd Airborne), to the affair with David Gurewitsch in Cuernavaca, even the marriage to Tom Matthews in 1954 that made her so ‘plain silly happy’ at first:

You see, I have chalked it up too well, and see where and how I am caught – and how tightly. Through ignorance, carelessness, pride and generosity; and the passionate desire to burn all boats, to prove that I had no intention of retreating . . . I am happy with myself, you see. I have enough in me to fill my life. But all my life boils and simmers, stews and burns, because something is asked which I cannot truthfully give.

She always persuaded her men she might give that ‘something’. They withdrew battered, bewildered and baulked, and Hemingway handled it worse than anyone; only de Jouvenel accepted without resentment that the need for freedom would always outweigh the need for home and intimacy, painfully strong as that need also was. He wrote in parting (his decision, uniquely): ‘You told me once that I was standing in your sun, keeping its light from you. I remove myself from it, dear love. The world is so limited with me, so wide open, so limitless if you’re alone. Take this chance, my little one. Escape.’

She escaped into the apocalyptic excitements of the Spanish Civil War, egged on by Hemingway, whom she happened to pick up in a Key West bar and whose attentions intrigued her, even if at first she told her friend Eleanor Roosevelt that he was an ‘odd bird’ and she was more interested in a nameless but decorative Swedish ‘bum’. Spain was the place to be, she said later, the place where a titanic confrontation was being played out at ‘one of those moments in history when there was no doubt’ – she’d never been a fan of the grey area. At the Hotel Florida, among journalists and writers and tourists of the Civil War, Gellhorn and Hemingway began sleeping together; she took his condescension and misogyny for ‘the foibles of genius’. Madrid under Fascist shelling seems to have been one long party for foreign correspondents. ‘The Fascists had the better gramophone and played a song called "Kitten on the Keys” again and again,’ Moorehead tells us. ‘The anarchists held the golf course.’ Gellhorn’s diary conveys the innocent frivolity that accompanied their heady feeling that this was the end of a world, and her assumption that she would be killed:

went and priced silver foxes and got desperately greedy wanting them . . . At three a shell ricocheted from the Telefónica and killed five women in front of the Gran Vía . . . Home, after a bitter seance with the shoe man. How those shoes have turned out, like gunboats for a clubfooted pregnant woman . . . Got a little tight with Hem and Dos [Passos] and grew pontifical about modern Spanish art, and dinner was foul with all the spinach having run out because the Duchess of Atholl’s party got served first.

Gellhorn wrote with a different sensibility for publication: strong spare articles for Collier’s and the New Yorker about the small lacerations of war, paced with a modern, dramatic self-consciousness which some say influenced Hemingway.

You know what she is thinking: she is thinking she must get the child home, you are always safer in your own place, with the things you know. Somehow you do not believe you can get killed when you are sitting in your own parlour, you never think that. She is in the middle of the square when the next one comes.

In her diary she recorded another lifelong half-truth: ‘I like writing . . . In the end it is the only thing which does not bore or dismay me, or fill me with doubt.’

By 1939, Hemingway (soon to be divorced) and Gellhorn were nesting together in Cuba. Bitter at the defeat of Republican Spain, she lost – not for the first or last time – her faith in humanity. ‘For now Europe, and its cowardly retreat before Fascism, was to be held at bay in her mind; democracy was destroying itself and she did not want to watch it happen,’ Moorehead writes. ‘The Finca Vigía was where she wanted to be, a "beautiful desert island with mod cons".’ But Hemingway was entering the lumpish stage of his life and Gellhorn, with her curiosity about the world that was so rapidly replenished by withdrawal from it, could never have fitted in. There were fragile moments of balance when both were writing away, he at For Whom the Bell Tolls, she at A Stricken Field, a novel about the betrayal of Spain disguised as that of Czechoslovakia, but too journalistic to work as fiction. He felt the competition more than she did. And when her restlessness struck – she filed striking reports from Finland under Russian threat – he began to play the neglected husband. The war in Europe beckoned her. He was into boozing and fishing, and banned the radio from the house.

Interlude: in 1941 she dragged him to the Far East to report on the Chinese army in action, and the state of British defences against Japanese attack. A comic account of this journey features in Travels with Myself and Another, revealing the tough, pally humour of their relationship when they could mock the world around them. They boiled and froze and ate sea slugs. The whisky ran out. One sodden day, Hemingway’s horse fell over. He picked it up and and started walking. ‘Put that horse down,’ Gellhorn said. ‘You’re insulting the Chinese.’ When she left him to visit military installations in Burma, he wrote: ‘I am lost without you . . . with you I have so much fun even on such a lousy trip.’ But when she exhorted him to get off his ass and go to World War Two, he pouted. He was much happier with the ‘Crook Shop’, a Boy’s Own outfit for hunting Nazi submarines off Cuba, manned by eight dyspeptic exiles and financed by the FBI. Gellhorn, chafing at the US military’s ban on female correspondents, dawdled separately in the Caribbean, then came back, finished her novel Liana and tried to think of Hemingway as ‘my job’, even though his silly spying and body odour were driving her crazy. As though to reassure themselves, they wrote soupy letters when she went to New York for beauty treatments, pending a passage to Europe, with or without accreditation. She pretended it was just a phase: ‘I am happy like a fire-horse . . . But like women, and your women, am sad: only there isn’t anything final, is there, and this is just a short trip.’

We think of embedded journalists as a new grotesquery, but Eisenhower was already out to ‘win over reporters by declaring them to be "quasi staff officers"’. Gellhorn would have none of this, so in London in 1943, banned from the front, she wrote about the impact of war on ordinary people, rediscovering her great talent, the distillation of her mother’s or Eleanor Roosevelt’s activism into pure observation. She pestered Hemingway to join her. At last he caved in, grumbling that he felt like an old racehorse, being ‘saddled again to race over the jumps because of unscrupulous owner’. Not being a good reporter, he made a veritable performance of intervening in events, and his buffoonery over the Normandy landings – he claimed to have led one of them, with tranquil mastery – was among the embarrassments that, together with his public abuse and humiliation of Gellhorn, ended the marriage.

Gellhorn immersed herself in war, a thing Hemingway accused her of loving more than love. (Did it ever occur to him that he was a terrible lay? Gellhorn said, years later: ‘He needed me to run his house and to copulate on – I use the word advisedly, not "with” but "on".’) Debarred from the invasion of 6 June, she stowed away on a Red Cross ship, locking herself in the lavatory and emerging at dawn to contemplate ‘the greatest naval traffic jam in history’. At Omaha Red she interpreted, waded out to collect casualties, and filed articles about the hospital ship and the unexpected ‘flaccidness’ of German prisoners. She was arrested by the military police for going to France without permission, and banished, bizarrely, to an American nurses’ training camp. With magnificent contempt for authority she escaped by rolling under the perimeter fence. Nothing says as much, not even her valour in being the first woman correspondent to talk her way on board a terrifying Black Widow night flight over Germany in 1945. Gellhorn was paralysed, at times, by the violence and destruction, but it didn’t cure her addiction to the life of the semi-rogue reporter: ‘ducking and dodging from front to front, using her energy and charm to win over officers into allowing her to travel with their regiments, scrounging lifts and filing stories whenever she could cajole wireless operators into giving her a line’, as Moorehead writes. No hack, female or male, can avoid thrilling to her embrace of the job, or feeling regret for a time when it was possible to get away with it.

Yet something important changed for Gellhorn when she entered Dachau, a couple of days after US troops: she lost the optimism that had always counterbalanced her lurking horror at the human race. It was not, she now realised, perfectible, as her parents’ generation of socialists had believed. ‘I do not really hope now,’ she wrote. ‘I only feel one can never give up.’ But what to do with that, in the anticlimax of peace? Boredom and slackness threatened, and she was homeless in every sense: ‘For the war, the hated and perilous and mad, had been home for a long time too.’ She had felt her best self as one of the men. ‘What shall I do when this easy comradely life goes to pieces? Am really unsuited for anything else.’ She delivered a magisterial condemnation of McCarthyism and its implications to the New Republic, before fleeing the ominous climate of America for good; having been a habituée of the Roosevelt White House, she never felt well in her country again, and hers became a permanently ‘shameful passport’. Abruptly signing off from public life, a convalescent from emotional and historical trauma, she rented a house in trendy Cuernavaca, where the next four years, spent basically doing nothing, were purportedly the happiest of her life. It doesn’t add up in the light of her life so far, unless perhaps some vital energy had become imperceptibly and then irrevocably blocked. There were no models in 1948 to guide a woman like Gellhorn through middle-aged singleness and vocational dérive. A demanding loneliness set in, which at its most unthinking moment she tried to assuage by adopting an Italian war orphan, Sandy. After the charming puppy stage he exasperated her by becoming dim and overweight – a moral failing, in Gellhorn’s opinion. But then she, who was always so quick to feel trapped, to run from love, was not the parent to him that hers had been to her. From the celebrity point of view, the second half of Moorehead’s book reads like a long epilogue, though some readers – women especially – may find it the more affecting.

Gellhorn never gave up. She drove herself into brick walls searching for a balance between love and independence, society and solitude, outwardness and inwardness, and was beset by a profoundly American indecision between the road and the homestead; her strategy was to veer from one to the other, with repentance never far behind. To an extent these struggles were reflected in her alternation between journalism (outward) and fiction (inward). More than we do today, she regarded these skills as hierarchically distinct, even if each fed into the other; one consequence was that she never widened her testimonial scope into the more searching format of a non-fiction book. (Her contemporary George Steer had a similarly subjective and erratic practice vis à vis the news establishment, but he developed his Basque experience into the influential Tree of Gernika.) And because her ambition was rather to write a great novel, she periodically devalued or denied the primacy of journalism in her approach to literature, a primacy she had once defended to a novelist: ‘Everything I have ever written has come through journalism first . . . I have to see before I can imagine.’ She decided that journalism was compromised, intrusive and possibly futile. Moorehead, who knew her well, concludes: ‘To admit that her strength lay more in what she perceived and translated than in what she was able to imagine was not acceptable to her. It would, in her own eyes, have diminished her as a novelist.’ The denial of her fiction as autobiographical, based on truths seen and felt, was one of Gellhorn’s rare but intractable blind spots.

With the loss, as she thought, of her looks, came loss of direction, though not of effort. Writing with austere discipline almost all of the time (there was a nine-year lull as Mrs Tom Matthews, a finger-drumming London hostess, until she discovered that her husband, the rich and apparently dependable former editor-in-chief of Time, had been cheating on her for five years), sporadically publishing her more serious work, to lukewarm reviews, grimly discarding thousands of worked and reworked pages, she kept herself afloat, in between vaguely journalistic bouts of globetrotting, with ‘bilgers’. These were ‘popular stories about titled English ladies and Italian gigolos, or naive young American girls on their first visits to Europe’, snapped up by Good Housekeeping and the Saturday Evening Post. I can think of only two writers who got away with this kind of rehearsal for greatness, Simenon and Balzac; but there were few satisfactory options available to a woman of her temperament, suited neither to wifehood nor to the workplace. While taking such an artistic risk, she reflected constantly on the experience and practice of writing, in private notebooks and letters to colleague-confidants like Sybille Bedford. Some notebooks, undated, contain particularly distressing passages:

Week after week of dead pages . . . I have no discipline in work hours, no order in my mind, no theories of literature, no universal view of anything.

Oh I am lost, lost, in the maze of my untrained mind. I cannot imagine who I was, when young . . . now, I feel that half the time I am lying, an impostor . . . and some sort of ectoplasm – a grey substance made of sympathy, curiosity, concern, admiration, amusement, indignation – links one to the surrounding scene.

A deficit of ‘male’ qualities, perhaps, just when feminism was conceiving the idea that concreteness, intuition and all the things listed in Gellhorn’s last sentence were women’s strengths. In this light, much of the drama of her unfulfilled promise derived from the compulsion to work against her nature. Her gifts included human solidarity, provided humans did not invade her private space; an almost unfailing political clarity (i.e. an almost perpetual anger); and a way with words that was better raw than macerated, as testified by her fabulous off-the-cuff expressions. These gifts all suited her for the role of crusader-journalist, or ‘chronicler’, as they call it in France or Spain, a contributor on current events who is slightly less bound by ‘all that objectivity shit’. Gellhorn’s reportage, personal but never self-glamorising, was so good because it brought her literary skills to the material she covered as a journalist. And it was as this kind of reporter that she once more made an impact, aged 58, in 1966, when her fury about the Vietnam War made it impossible for her to go on being ‘an unwilling, revolted, powerless accomplice in crime’.

The Guardian was persuaded to take six articles on something no one had thought to cover – the civilian angle. I have them in a slim booklet called A New Kind of War. The title comes from the ‘indoctrination lecture’ read to US troops on arrival, beginning: ‘You and I know that we are here to help the people and the government of South Vietnam.’ How the people were being helped becomes clear in Gellhorn’s accounts of hospitals, refugee camps, stricken villages and the US Aid ‘Open Arms’ defection programme. Poised, ironic, emotive and yet factual, mercilessly contrasting official intentions with realities, her reports expose the people’s suffering and even more shaming resilience under an onslaught of ignorance, brutality and bureaucracy. Little had yet appeared, Moorehead says, that was so ‘frankly critical and disbelieving about the American presence in Vietnam’. Gellhorn, simultaneously launching the paperback of her collection The Face of War, was a controversial figure again. Refused another visa for Vietnam, she campaigned, outraged and impotent, from the sidelines. Meanwhile, the young John Pilger was instructed by the Daily Mirror to follow her lead, and won prizes for his stories about civilian casualties. Later, the two became close friends, but it would be fair to say that the pioneer of a kind of war reporting epitomised today by Pilger, Maggie O’Kane and Robert Fisk did not receive the recognition that was her due, when it was due.

Instead there was more pain and guilt in store for Gellhorn, as her mother slowly died and she couldn’t give what she felt, and her love-starved son went increasingly off the rails. She was seriously, variously ill herself, not least from the affliction she called ‘lockjaw of the brain’. She could not write.

Cut to the happyish end: Gellhorn in England, making a success of being old as she had of being young, surrounded by an affectionate coterie of junior writers and intellectuals (mostly men, naturally) who were seduced and inspired by her dry wit, abrasive political wisdom and veiled reminiscence; her rare brand of vehemence and style in an eternally stuffy Britain. They in turn challenged her, and they made her laugh – something she had long ago put at the top of a list of what she needed from people. She was travelling and writing, in a brave struggle against failing sight. And she was at peace – with her son, too – when she took her ‘bye-bye pill’ in February 1998.