Many readers will probably know who Martha Ellis Gellhorn was, but for those who don’t, they just need to know that she’s not one of those characters who sometimes force their way into war movies. She was the only woman, as far as is known, who landed in Normandy on D-Day covering World War II as a reporter, just as she had done with the Spanish Civil War before and then would do with other wars. However, the merits of that adventurous life are often relegated to the background when she is presented simply as Ernest Hemingway’s wife.
To be exact, she was the third wife of the famous writer, whom she met at Christmas 1936 in Key West. Hemingway had spent the winters there since 1928, when he was looking for a place to recover from a domestic accident in Paris and another illustrious writer, John Dos Passos, recommended it to him. By then he was already a successful author, with works such as In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms or The Snows of Kilimanjaro, for example, and he was working on To Have and Have Not.
He was then married to a Vogue journalist named Pauline Pfeiffer, for whom he had divorced his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in 1927. And Martha appeared, who dazzled him with her boldness and independence, surely also because she was the first one who was younger than him. Born in Saint Louis in 1908, her father was a gynaecologist of German origin who together with her mother, Edna, gave her two brothers, Walter and Alfred, both prestigious university professors although in different disciplines (Law and Medicine respectively).
And that Edna was none other than Edna Fischel Gellhorn, a famous suffragette who participated in the founding of the National League of Women Voters and defended the recognition of women’s suffrage with all her might. She was the one who marked her daughter’s character because she involved her since she was a child in the fight for women’s rights. Thus, in the photographs of The Golden Lane, a Democratic convention held in the city in 1916 in which some women appeared adorned with golden umbrellas to symbolize the states where they could vote and others did so with black accessories for the ones where they couldn’t, we see two girls representing the voters of the future; one of them was Martha.
In 1927 she began working as a journalist at The New Republic, despite not having the corresponding university degree. However, her articles must have pleased enough to continue for three years, until she decided to go to Europe to be a correspondent. She settled in Paris until 1932 in the service of United Press and Vogue (like Pauline Pfeiffer), alternating that occupation with participation in the pacifist movement, which she would embody two years later in her first book, What mad pursuit.
At the end of this period in the old continent, she returned to the United States with an offer from Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s advisor – both of them friends of Eleanor – who at that time was immersed in the application of the New Deal, the federal government’s interventionist policy to confront the terrible effects caused by the Great Depression that followed the Crisis of 1929. One of the entities in charge of implementing the different programmes was FERA (Federal Emergency Relief Administration), which focused on the creation of unskilled employment as an alternative to subsidies.
Martha served as an inspector for FERA, collecting data on the situation of poor people in North Carolina. She then expanded her field of research in collaboration with photographer Dorothea Lange. The result of that mutual cooperation was a series of written and graphic reports (the photo Migrant mother became especially iconic) that today are very useful for studying the period but, in the case of the former, also served as a basis for documenting a new book, The trouble I’seen, published in 1936.
That was the year she coincided with Hemingway in Florida. They became friends and the writer separated from Pauline to settle with Martha at Finca Vigía, a 61,000-square-meter hacienda about 20 kilometers from Havana. But they agreed to go to Spain, where a military coup resulted in a civil war. He travelled as a correspondent for the NANA (North American Newspaper Alliance) and was accompanied by the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, who was filming the movie The Spanish Earth and wanted the help of the famous writer with the script. Martha was hired as a correspondent by Collier’s Weekly magazine, a pioneer in investigative journalism and with an editorial line defending social reforms.
In Spain they consolidated their relationship and lived in Madrid and Barcelona. After celebrating Christmas together in 1937, Hemingway wrote The Fifth Column (her only play) and she went to Czechoslovakia to follow the current situation of the thriving German Nazi regime. In 1940 she published her first novel, A stricken field, as a testimony of this period, when the Spanish war was over and the world war was unleashed. Of course, Martha did not return to her country but moved through the places where the conflict was hottest, from Finland to Singapore, through Hong Kong, Burma and Great Britain.
On November 20, 1940, she and Hemingway took the final step by marrying (Pauline’s divorce was formalized the year before). They did it in Cheyenne, Wyoming, establishing their domicile in Sun Valley, Idaho, although in winter they escaped to their home in Cuba, which they shared with dozens of cats. That fall Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel set in the Spanish war that he wrote at the behest of Martha and with which he won the Pulitzer Prize, taking pride of place in the literary world.
That professional triumph had no equivalent in the personal sphere. The marriage was a failure almost from the beginning because the writer did not take well the absences of his wife. In January 1941 Collier’s Weekly sent her to China and he accompanied her but he was sulking all the time because he didn’t like the country. The imminent entry of the U.S. in the world war made them return but later, when Martha went to Italy in 1943 to cover the advance of the allies, he reproached that new departure asking her by letter if she was a war correspondent or his wife.
However, the worst was yet to come. Knowing that the Allies were preparing Operation Overlord, a large landing on the French coast that would open a new front, she decided to go to England with the idea of reporting from the front line, finding that her husband, who was already in London, not only did not help her but did everything in his power to prevent her from doing so, refusing to give her a press pass and the corresponding ticket to cross the Atlantic by plane.
In the British capital he had met another journalist, Mary Welsh of Time magazine, with whom he was having an affair. In that sense the betrayal was reciprocal, as Martha also had a love affair with a military man, James M. Gavin, commander general of the 82nd Airborne Division. In fact, the journalist had also had affairs in her youth, when she was in Paris, with the French economist Bertrand de Jouvenel, who almost left his wife for her.
Martha did not back down; she was determined to go wherever the war was, as she said in her own words, and made the crossing on a freighter carrying explosives. When he disembarked in London he went to see Hemingway at the hospital, where he had been admitted due to a car accident. They went their separate ways and did not see each other again until the final moments of the war; six months after the peace was signed, the writer married Mary.
But before that, the curious episode of D-Day took place. Martha, as intrepid as she was tenacious, had to stretch her imagination and daring because she lacked a press card. What she did was hide in the toilets of a hospital ship and, when the first waves secured the beaches of Normandy, she went ashore with the sanitary equipment disguised in a stretcher uniform. She was the only woman among the hundreds of thousands of men who set foot on French soil that June 6, 1944. Her husband was also there but was not allowed to leave the landing craft for fear that something would happen to an American literary glory.
Martha’s audacity on D-Day was not an isolated episode. She followed the troops on their way through Europe and was among the first to inform the world of the horror of the Dachau concentration camp, which she met in situ. She then returned to London for divorcement; she had spent four years with Hemingway and would relieve him with a long list of names: businessman Laurence Rockefeller, journalist William Walton, doctor David Gurewitsch and editor of Time T. S. Matthews (whom she would marry in 1954… for divorce in 1963).
Now, if anything brought her those divorces was full freedom to continue exercising her profession. She was at the Vietnam War and at the successive Arab-Israeli conflicts, to cite just two of many over so many decades. Missions that separated her from Sandy, the Italian orphan she had adopted in 1949, but which did not prevent her from continuing to publish, both essay and fiction. Being a septuagenarian, she still travelled to Central America to report on the civil wars that struck the region in 1979 (Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua…). In 1989 she did the same for the US invasion of Panama.
Of course, the years did not go by in vain; some badly operated cataracts left her half blind and practically unable to work. The time came for her definitive withdrawal, which she could not bear, and in 1998, suffering from cancer, she put an end to her life by ingesting a cyanide capsule. It was the end of the hectic life of a woman determined to be known for herself, demanding that Hemingway not be mentioned when she was interviewed because she refused to be a footnote in his life.
Sources: Heroínas de la Segunda Guerra Mundial. 26 historias de espionaje, sabotaje, resistencia y rescate (Kathryn J. Atwood)/Martha Gellhorn. A life (Caroline Moorehead)/Beautiful exile. The life of Martha Gellhorn (Carl Rollyson)/Women on war. An international anthology of women’s writings from Antiquity to the present (Daniela Gioseffi, ed)/War, women and the news. How female journalists won the battle to cover World War 2 (Catherine Gourley)/Wikipedia