Flashbacks August 2006

Remembering Martha Gellhorn

A longtime Atlantic contributor, Gellhorn's career was far more glorious than her brief marriage to Ernest Hemingway
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Gellhorn in The Atlantic

This summer has seen the publication of The Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, a book that offers fresh insight into the personal thoughts and professional aspirations of one of the world's first female war correspondents. Gellhorn was a contributor to The Atlantic Monthly for more than three decades. In light of the renewed interest in Gellhorn sparked by publication of this book, we're making available a few of her major contributions to The Atlantic, along with a brief look back at her frutiful life.

Gellhorn began her career as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War, arriving in Madrid in 1937 with nothing but a knapsack, fifty dollars, and an assignment to cover the conflict for Collier's Weekly. During this period she met Ernest Hemingway, also in Spain as a correspondent; they married in 1940, he becoming her second husband and she his third wife. The marriage lasted five years, ending when Gellhorn left Hemingway, the only of his wives to do so.

A gutsy reporter, Gellhorn would go to great lengths to get a story—stowing away on a hospital ship and sneaking ashore as a stretcher bearer during the D-Day landings at Normandy, riding along with British pilots on night bombing raids over Germany, accompanying Allied troops when they liberated Dachau. And her energy reserves seemed inexhaustible: incredibly, in 1989, at the age of eighty-one, she was still out at the front reporting—on the United States invasion of Panama. It was only when war came to Bosnia that she had to pass on taking an assignment, saying that she was too old and not "nimble" enough for war anymore.

In 1961, she made her way to the Middle East to live and travel among the Arabs displaced by the creation of Israel. In "The Arabs of Palestine" she reported at length on what she found.

The unique misfortune of the Palestinian refugees is that they are a weapon in what seems to be a permanent war. Alarming signs ... warn us that the Palestinian refugees may develop into more than a justification for cold war against Israel... Today, in the Middle East, you get a repeated sinking sensation about the Palestinian refugees: they are only a beginning, not an end. Their function is to hang around and be constantly useful as a goad. The ultimate aim is not such humane small potatoes as repatriating refugees.

Although not war reporting per se, Gellhorn's Atlantic coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial shows the extent to which she was influenced by her experiences during the Second World War. In "Eichmann and the Private Conscience" (February, 1962), Gellhorn grappled with questions of good and evil that the trial inevitably brought to mind.

This is a sane man, and a sane man is capable of unrepentant, unlimited, planned evil. He was the genius bureaucrat, he was the powerful frozen mind which directed a gigantic organization; he is the perfect model of inhumanness; but he was not alone. Eager thousands obeyed him. Everyone could not have his special talents; many people were needed to smash a baby's head against the pavement before the mother's eyes, to urge a sick old man to rest and shoot him in the back of the head; there was endless work for willing hands. How many more like these exist everywhere?

Two years later, in "Is There a New Germany?" (February, 1964), Gellhorn gauged Germany's ideological recovery from the Second World War by speaking with many German students. Her findings were harsh and unflattering.

The adults of Germany, who knew Nazism and in their millions cheered and adored Hitler until he started losing, have performed a nation-wide act of amnesia; no one individually had a thing to do with the Hitlerian regime and its horrors.... The young realize this cannot be true, yet one by one, each explains how guiltless his father was; somebody else's father must have been doing the dirty work. Santayana observed that if a man forgets his past he is condemned to relive it. Germans trained in obedience and dedicated to moral whitewashing are not a new people, nor are they reliable partners for anyone else.

Although Gellhorn was known best for her reporting, she was also an accomplished writer of fiction. In her lifetime she wrote five novels, fourteen novellas, and two collections of short stories, several of which were published in The Atlantic. One of these stories, "The Smell of Lilies" (August, 1956), received the O. Henry Award First Prize in 1958. The story depicts the relationship between an adulterous husband and a terminally ill wife who is ignorant of his affairs. Its style is trademark Gellhorn: painfully honest.

She isn't guilty, he thought with terrible weariness, she has committed no crime, she doesn't prefer death to life. She is blind and completely unreal from these years of nothingness, but she isn't guilty. Why can't she die? Fighting to live on a chaise lounge, fighting off the need of a child. Why can't she die? Die. God, make her die.

Ironically, during her lifetime, Martha Gellhorn was better known for her brief marriage to Hemingway than for her long career as a writer. This was something she openly resented. Nearly a decade after her death in 1998, we hope these articles will help demonstrate that Gellhorn was a writer and reporter deserving of serious attention in her own right, one whose style and ambition have influenced subsequent generations of journalists.

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