Sunday, August 20, 2006

Martha Gellhorn

I reviewed Martha Gellhorn's letters for today's Washington Post. Here 'tis:

Addicted to War
Marriage to Hemingway was just one episode in this journalist's rip-roaring life.
Reviewed by Marc Weingarten
Sunday, August 20, 2006; BW15

SELECTED LETTERS OF MARTHA GELLHORN

Edited by Caroline Moorehead

Henry Holt. 531 pp.$32.50


Where is the Martha Gellhorn biopic? Why hasn't some enterprising movie producer figured out that this writer's rip-roaring life is the stuff of breathless action-adventure? War correspondent, novelist, short-story writer, playwright: She should be as well known as Truman Capote, but the fact that she's a historical footnote has more to do with the inbred sexism of American mythmaking than with Gellhorn. In a life dense with incident, her five-year marriage to Ernest Hemingway has overshadowed everything else.

Caroline Moorehead, the editor of this fascinating volume of letters, tried to rectify the situation with her excellent 2003 biography of Gellhorn. But, alas, it didn't exactly do boffo box office, and so we must now turn to this book in hopes that it will expose the curious reader to the extraordinary thrill ride that was Gellhorn's life.

Born into a family of overachievers, Gellhorn at first took the conventional path. She worked hard in school and attended Bryn Mawr but chafed at the regimented academic grind. In search of adventure, she turned to journalism. After a short stint as a cub reporter for a paper in Albany, N.Y., the 21-year-old upstart moved to Paris and began her career as a kind of writing nomad. During her long life, Gellhorn put down stakes in Africa, England, Cuba, Florida and Mexico and traveled to countless other countries for her work.

Gellhorn first made her mark during the Spanish Civil War. Sitting down with ordinary citizens and listening to their tales of survival, she filed a series of stories for Collier's magazine that revealed a gift for unflinching observation and unforced pathos. Her stories from Spain -- difficult to find today -- were much better than Hemingway's.

Gellhorn's correspondence from the 1930s and '40s reveals a strong desire to be in the thick of pitched battles. War was an addiction for her; it gave her the motivation to work hard and produce good work. Shortly after her assignment in Spain came to an end, she confessed to her college friend Hortense Flexner that her newfound placidity was dull. "Nothing in my life has so affected my thinking as the losing of that war. It is, very banally, like the death of all loved things." Gellhorn was desperate to make her mark as a writer of distinction, and epic global conflicts were the best kind of raw material. She was certainly everywhere she needed to be: Dachau after the liberation of the camps, the beaches of Normandy during D-Day, Vietnam. Disdainful of journalism despite her considerable skills (it was all just rent money to her), Gellhorn also gave short shrift to her fiction but produced a number of very good books, including a World War II novel, The Stricken Field .

This collection is punctuated with stinging lashes to her ego. "I would rather be a writer than anything else on earth," she wrote to Hemingway's editor Max Perkins in 1941, "but I am lazy and there are communal demands on time, and then besides, I feel very troubled in the head and heart." Those troubles could be traced to her stormy relationship with Hemingway. Her letters to Papa from the late 1930s are flush with flirtatious platitudes ("I love you. That's the main thing. That's what I want you to know"), but she later confesses to Flexner that "Ernest and I, really are afraid of each other, each one knowing that the other is the most violent person either one knows."The marriage ended in 1945 with a vicious and recriminatory letter from Hemingway: "Sleep well my beloved phony and pretentious bitch."

Other toxic relationships followed, including a marriage to former Time editor-in-chief Tom Matthews, which collapsed in 1963 when Gellhorn discovered he had been engaged in a long-term affair. Many of these letters are taken up with musings about the impossibility of enduring romance and her futile efforts to find a lasting relationship. To her good friend Allen Grover, she despaired of ever finding "comforting loving trusting arms that were to be guarantee forever against nightmares." But romance receded to the background as Gellhorn grew older. Work and old friends sustained her even when she felt "blind and helpless with unwriting." Her creative metabolism slowed down only when her body began betraying her. A hysterectomy in 1973 left her feeling like a "frail, bowed, little old lady, aged 102." Then, in 1974, while driving along a barren road near her Kenya residence, Gellhorn struck and killed a small child. "There was absolute silence," she wrote to her longtime confidante Diana Cooper, "nothing in the world, only me sitting dazed in the car in the ditch and a little body curled up in the road." Though she was held blameless, the incident, perhaps more than any wartime ugliness she had witnessed, left an indelible mark on her psyche.

Over the next two decades, the intrepid Gellhorn settled down a bit, but never stopped working. In 1996, two years before her death at the age of 89, Gellhorn wrote to her friend Victoria Glendinning that she had completed a 42-page article on Brazil for Granta, even though it had driven her "into exhaustion and despair. Typing and not seeing, trying to remember what I had already written and trying to get a mass of information when . . . I could not read my own handwritten notes." In 1998, sick with cancer and other maladies, Gellhorn calmly took a pill and ended her life, in control of her destiny until the very end.

These letters, which have been placed into their proper historical context by Moorehead's thoughtful annotations, reveal the indomitable spirit of a titan of American letters. It's high time for Gellhorn to emerge from the shadows of 20th-century literature into the bright light of mainstream recognition. ·

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

You may be curious to know that Gillian Anderson (yes, Scully from X-Files) bought the film rights to Caroline Moorehead's biography of Martha Gelhorn and hired Sharman Macdonald to write the screenplay. There is also another film, in the works for some time, with James Gandolfini as Hemingway and Robin Wright Penn as Gelhorn but hasn't yet gotten financing. Both films are said to focus on Gelhorn's relationship with Hemingway, which frankly seems like the least interesting thing about her but maybe the most marketable.

MW said...

interesting - thx for the enlightenment- but can gillian anderson get a film made at this point?

--R. B. Stuart said...

MW,
I've read your review in The Post...and it seems the only interest the media has today with personal stories from the war, is from those 70 years ago.

I find as a writer with many personal stories from the current war in Iraq--they fall on deaf ears...from the Times to the Post.

It's a shame the voice of our current vet's will be silenced until they are old and gray or have simply faded away, becoming more white markers in Arlington Cemetery or another wall of names....in liew of exposing the truth amist the war.

And as with agent orange and the Gulf War syndrome---the real unspoken casualties, will surface far too late.

Yours --RBS sistersoldier.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

can Anderson get a film made at this point? well that's a good question. she was going to produce with her soon-to-be ex-husband who had some experience as a film producer (mostly documentaries) so it is not clear where things stand. She's been working mostly in England so she may have more luck there than in LA. The Gandolfini Hemingway film is now being done for HBO as part of a production deal he has with them.

MW said...

gandalfi as hemingway? why does that strike me as unintentionally funny?

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