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Martha Gellhorn – obituary 1998

Martha Gellhorn was one of the finest war-correspondents of the twentieth century. She learnt her craft for war reporting in the Spanish Civil War where she worked for Colliers; this was where she grew up politically: ‘We knew, we just 
knew, that Spain was the place to stop fascism. This was it. It was one of those moments in history when there was no doubt.’

She was in Spain with Hemingway, whose third wife she became in 1940; he dedicated  For Whom the Bell Tolls
 to her. She never talked about her time with, and marriage to, Hemingway, quite rightly wanting to be her own person and not part of the Hemingway band-wagon. However she did build their house in Cuba which became the Hemingway Museum.

Although she did not actively seek out war, her passion for causes and sense of outrage meant that she wrote about most of the wars which happened during her lifetime. During wartime she said that you ‘operate on a basis of functional schizophrenia – you can’t stand it for anybody else but yourself…I liked having no possessions, no problems and you never knew if you were going to be alive the next day and that was immensely interesting.’

She saw the function of a reporter as one of  seeing and hearing as much as possible. This accurate record could then be passed on so as to be seen, heard and felt by others. ‘Journalism is education for me; the readers, if any, may get some education too but the big profit is mine. Writing is payment for the chance to look and learn.’  She was a natural and highly intelligent writer who combined being able to write with having something important to say. In later life when she was being bullied to write her autobiography, something she always refused to do, she said that she might possibly do one just about her sex- life, because that was all that anyone would be really interested  in.

Martha Gellhorn was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1908; her father was a doctor and her mother, whom she described as ‘a wonder’ was a believer in excellence and a campaigner for female suffrage who managed to lure people into doing good.  Gellhorn was never to like the stridency of feminism, but felt strongly about the disadvantaging of women, something she, with three brothers, never suffered from.

She left Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, out of boredom, and after jobs on the New Republic and the Hearst Times Union spent a period in Paris. In 1934 she returned to the United States and worked for Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. She travelled round America seeing how people existed in the Depression  reporting how the relief was working. For a while she lived in the White House at the request of President and Mrs Roosevelt, both of whom she greatly admired, referring to Mrs Roosevelt as ‘a moral true north’ and the person she most valued after her mother. 
The Trouble I’ve Seen
, a collection of tales which drew on her experiences during the Depression was published in 1936  with a preface by H.G.Wells who referred to her as a writer with ‘an instinctive directness and vigour.’

During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 she worked for Collier’s Weekly and it was for the same paper in 1940-1 that she went to China. She wanted to see the Orient and from there covered the Sino-Japanese War. She saw World War 11  as the ‘necessary war’, but for the only time in her life encountered problems  as a woman reporter. She went to Dachau with the liberation troops and described  it as the ‘circle of hell’, and the worst abomination of man, saying afterwards ‘I’ll never forgive the Germans. Never, never.’

Much of the best war-reporting she ever did was as a freelance from Vietnam in 1966/7. She covered the War out of a sense of rage, feeling, as an American, personally responsible for what happened.   Her articles were so good, but so critical, that no newspaper in the US dared to publish them. Eventually the Guardian published five of her reports, effectively ending her career as a war correspondent in Vietnam; she never got another visa. She was so passionately angry about the American involvement in Vietnam, ‘this unforgivable evil’, that  it drove her into a writer’s block made of ‘solid concrete’. It was the worst time of her life and she barely wrote anything between 1969 and 1975.

Fiction, which she believed had to be sound on place, always played a large part in her life. She found it much harder to write, but used it as a therapy to forget about war and to amuse herself. Her novels include 
Stricken Field
 (1939), The Heart of Another(1940), 
The Wine of Astonishment
 (1948), The Lowest Trees Have Tops
 (1967) and three novellas – The Weather in Africa

She always enjoyed travelling and
 Travels With Myself and Another
(1978) is   her ‘account of my best horror journeys’ The View from the Ground
(1988), a selection of articles written during six decades of peace-time reporting, which includes a piece on the Eichmann trial, is an eloquent testimony to her convictions and pathological passion for the truth. 
The Face of War
(1959) is a collection of her war reporting from Spain, Finland, China and the Second World War.

In 1948 she adopted a son and in 1953 married  Tom Mathews, the former editor of Time magazine whose secretary she had been on the New Republic in 1929. But the marriage did not last and she did not marry again saying she was much happier being single.

Gellhorn had a great gift for friendship, with both men and women, although she did like to be the centre of attention and whilst being a good talker and listener, she did not suffer fools, hating stupidity of both thinking and feeling. Being her friend was described to me by one woman as being ‘one of the great privileges of life.’ She was funny, generous, well-read, a prolific letter-writer  and very beautiful, being both tall and elegant, and she went on minding about her appearance into old age.

She bought a flat in London in the 1960s which she used as a base for the rest of her life; she was not concerned about  luxury and lived in rather Spartan surroundings, only spending money on travel, as an abiding passion, but even as an old woman she could  travel rough if necessary, investigating the US involvement in Panama in 1990, aged 82. She had no interest in domesticity, although she was impressed by other people’s cooking; if you went to lunch with her you would often have to take your own sandwiches. She loved and needed the heat and was an inveterate snorkeller.

Francois Mauriac’s saying ‘
Travail, opium unique’served her all her life and she maintained her curiousity and convictions, despite failing eyesight, until her death.


Sarah Anderson – Independent