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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Martha Gellhorn Proved That Women Can Be War Correspondents

It was reading Martha Gellhorn's WWII novel, Point of No Return, which I reviewed here  that led me to search for a biographical account of her life.  I was impressed with the authenticity and grittiness of her portrayal of war.   When I learned that she'd been a war correspondent in WWII and in other wars throughout her life, I wanted to know more.  I suspected that she must have encountered difficulties with being accepted in this very dangerous profession.  It wasn't considered a job for a woman.

There were several biographies of Martha Gellhorn for me to choose from.   I selected Nothing Ever Happens To The Brave.  That title is a quote from her second husband, Ernest Hemingway.  I wanted to know why author Carl Rollyson chose it, and how it applied to Martha Gellhorn's life.


Rollyson's book begins with Gellhorn's childhood in Saint Louis, Missouri.  I was delighted to learn that her mother, Edna Fischel Gellhorn, had been a women's suffrage activist and that she brought British suffragist, Sylvia Pankhurst to address the students at her daughter's elementary school.   This reference caused me to remember that I need to read a biography of Sylvia Pankhurst.

 Gellhorn's  mother was also a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt who was the wife of New York's governor when Gellhorn began her journalistic career at The Albany Times-Union.   Later her mother's connection with ER meant that Gellhorn was welcome at the White House.   This means that while FDR was in the White House, Gellhorn was able to take some formidable risks and get bailed out.   So Gellhorn may have been courageous, but she was also privileged by her political connections.
I admired Gellhorn's determination to succeed and achieve her goals, but she could be very unlikeable.  Rollyson portrays her as unable to commit to a relationship for more than a few years.  After that, she would feel trapped in it and need to move on.  This was especially troubling when she adopted an orphan.   Rollyson apparently believes that the only relationship in her life with any permanence was the one with her mother.  It seemed to me that abstract causes and principles meant more to her than individuals.

Hemingway also doesn't come off very well in this biography.   He became extremely vindictive when Gellhorn didn't give up her career.   He called Collier's, the magazine that had hired her to report on WWII, and got her assignment.  This meant that Gellhorn didn't have credentials, but she got to the front by acting as a nurse, and sweet-talked military personnel to get to the locations where she needed to be in order to obtain the interviews for the stories that she wanted to write.  Hemingway obviously felt that he and Gellhorn were in competition.  Rollyson writes that Gellhorn was a better war correspondent than Hemingway.  I thought that she was certainly more dedicated to covering war as her profession.  Hemingway prioritized writing novels.

Rollyson draws attention to the contradiction of Gellhorn being  a pacifist who felt compelled to witness the events of wars.   She evidently believed strongly that she was called to record the truth about each war she reported on.  She had the distinction of being blackballed by South Vietnam for writing about war profiteering and the callousness of the rich in South Vietnam.  That's impressively honest journalism.

Since Rollyson's biography was written without Gellhorn's permission, he had no access to Gellhorn's letters.   Other reviewers have pointed out that Gellhorn's correspondence is of key importance to understanding Gellhorn and her relationships.   So I may be reading the authorized biography by Caroline Moorehead at some point in the future.  I don't regret reading this one, however.  I thought that Rollyson was insightful despite the limitations of being unauthorized.






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