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Martha Gellhorn Loved Hemingway and Israel

Only one of the great 20th-century reporter’s passions survived a closer look

Rachel Shteir
May 19, 2021
FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Martha Gellhorn at a press conference held at the offices of the Spanish Refugee Appeal in New York City, circa 1946FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images
FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Martha Gellhorn at a press conference held at the offices of the Spanish Refugee Appeal in New York City, circa 1946FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images

In 1959, Martha Gellhorn wrote that her first marriage, to Ernest Hemingway, which lasted from 1940 until 1945, was “a distant dream, not very true, and curiously embarrassing.” More than 60 years later, you would think that she deserves more than to be cast as Hemingway’s third wife. But that is exactly what the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary Hemingway does.

Born in St. Louis in 1908, Martha bore witness to most of the wars of the 20th century, with her insights captured in 21 books. She believed that writing was in the service of fighting injustice, and her work demonstrated bracing honesty, unfathomable courage, and a strict code of right and wrong. Yet her old-fashioned virtues make her difficult to approach. Add this to her fierce, late-in-life defense of Israel and the fact that she killed herself in 1998 rather than lose her eyesight, and she becomes, as my students would say, less relatable. Never mind that she continued to travel and file stories into her 80s, defying the common wisdom that war correspondent is a job reserved for young people. Or that her lean, arresting style can make you weep. Too often written off as adjunct to Hemingway, she once said that she wanted her journalism to “eliminate the sound of me screaming.”

Meanwhile, Burns and Novick’s Hemingway is the queer victim of toxic masculinity (he liked to dress as a woman in bed with his fourth wife). B & N are too smart to paint Gellhorn as the “bitch” that some of Papa’s friends viewed her as, but they do introduce her as a writer who “had a crush” on him; Meryl Streep reads her letters in mid-Atlantic tones. Their Gellhorn, while sympathetic, shows too little of the brave, charming, bullying, vain, daring, mythmaking female writer and too much of a #MeToo heroine chafing at her husband’s tyranny.

Unlike Hemingway, Gellhorn loved her mother, Edna, a beautiful suffragist who married George Gellhorn, a gynecologist. Both were half Jewish. Martha, their third child, grew up assimilated. In her largely excellent biography, Carolyn Moorhead only reports one incident of antisemitism in Gellhorn’s childhood, when her friend, Johnny Stix, was not invited to a dance because she was Jewish and Gellhorn also refused to go in solidarity.

If the Gellhorns—especially the impressive George—worshipped anything in the Jewish tradition, it was education. After Gellhorn came home from school with female genitalia missing from the drawings in her biology textbook, her parents started their own progressive school. Gellhorn attended, and there she began to cultivate friendships with men and women she admired. It was this need that may have resulted in her marriage to Hemingway, which the documentary series does not explore. She needed heroes to model herself after, and she understood early on that there would be a cost. As she later wrote, she needed “my desperate faith in the human spirit … revived and rewarded.” She did not find that at Bryn Mawr, where she went in 1926 and where she read Knut Hamsun and edited the college newspaper.

Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was also published that year. Gellhorn, who had already been to France with her father, devoured it. She left Bryn Mawr in her junior year and began working for newspapers. By 1930, she was in Paris.

Gellhorn insinuated herself into a series of newspaper jobs and began a tormented affair with a handsome married French aristocrat, Bertrand de Jouvenel, who had been seduced by Colette—his father’s wife—years earlier. “You deliciously overturn everything you lay hands on, while I force myself, small-mindedly, to rearrange things that look untidy,” he told her.

She had the first of several abortions. Although she had the attention of multiple lovers, she did not feel much for them. She intuitively understood that to be a writer, she had to keep part of herself for herself. “Loneliness is the thing to master,” she wrote on her 27th birthday. Reading about Gellhorn’s early years makes me think about how, as recently as the late 20th century, it was difficult for a young woman to start writing. Is the 21st century better on this front? There are more women’s bylines. Today, many of the men who pursued her, including Hemingway, would be #MeTooed. Why isn’t there more beautiful writing, then? I am not romanticizing those days, but having to navigate men, as well as mines, gave Gellhorn a fortifying candor about her own motives and politics.

Gellhorn pingponged between Europe and the States, where she befriended Mrs. Roosevelt and began a stint as a caseworker for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). In the textile mills of the South, she honed her style by writing about ordinary people’s suffering. It was here, even before she met Hemingway, that she had her first experiences with mythmaking and its costs.

In 1934, she published a novel, What Mad Pursuit, whose epigram quotes Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms— “Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave.” The novel’s central character is a young female journalist. Four publishers rejected it for its bold treatment of love affairs and STDs. Her most controversial piece of this era, however, was “Justice at Night,” which vividly describes a lynching. The piece was first published in The Spectator in 1936. After several American magazines picked it up, Gellhorn had to clarify that this was fiction. “I made it up,” she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, explaining why she declined to appear before Congress to testify for the need for an anti-lynching bill. Her blurring of fact and fiction haunts her reputation.

Hemingway is more focused on the Hemingway-Gellhorn meet-cute than the complexities of Gellhorn’s literary ethics. Just after Christmas of 1935, she went with her mother and brother to Key West where she met Hemingway, then 37, at Sloppy Joe’s Bar. She was wearing high heels and an LBD. Hemingway gives the viewer the idea that the attraction was instant, though he was then married to his second wife, Pauline. But although he may have fallen for her, according to Moorhead, she was more interested in a Swedish bum. Still, Hemingway convinced her to come to Spain, where he was reporting on the Spanish Civil War.

Gellhorn believed that fighting injustice was the point of writing. She referred to “that objectivity shit” and rejected reporting that showed two sides of the story. She was a radical. (FERA had fired her after she suggested to some unemployed farmers in Idaho that they protest by breaking the windows of a federal office.) Hemingway depresses these details.

While she was accomplished, Gellhorn needed Hemingway to believe in her, despite the fact that, when she arrived in Madrid in the spring of 1937, she had recently published The Trouble I’ve Seen, a book of stories about the hardships of the poor in the Depression. Graham Greene praised its style as “amazingly unfeminine.” She did not speak Spanish and did not start reporting on the war until Hemingway encouraged her. Holed up in the Hotel Florida, the two writers read each other’s drafts. Like H and many other comrades, she ignored the atrocities the Republicans committed.

Gellhorn and Hemingway became lovers in Spain. Hemingway, though, seems more interested in bedroom gossip than details about how the two writers influenced each other’s work. The documentary repeats the sentiment in Caroline Moorhead’s biography (also in Gellhorn’s letters) that she did not like sleeping with him, that she only did so as a matter of expediency. “I was just about the only blond in the country. It was much better to belong to someone.” But Gellhorn’s other biographer (albeit unauthorized), Carl Rollyson, presents evidence that she bragged about his prowess. Sex is complicated. But her great love was war—not men. As a woman writer, she longed for tenderness from a man but had to resist the pleasure of pleasing to preserve herself. Yet she was aware of her own limitations. She believed in getting the story straight, but she later wrote that her work “was the partial record of our times.”

While the documentarians assert that Gellhorn “covered the fighting every bit as fearlessly as Hemingway did,” late in life she told the editor Nicholas Shakespeare that she was more fearless than him. In Spain, Gellhorn turned the minimalist style she developed writing about the American poor to convey how war’s brutality affected the everyday lives of people. The descriptions could be called Hemingwayesque. “You know that pain was solid as rock, for instance.” Or his could be called Gellhornesque? But she is the one who doubts that her beautiful pieces would change history. To Mrs. Roosevelt she wrote, “I suppose I will go on doing humbly and rather badly the kind of thing I do, whether it is purposeful or not.”

When they returned to the States, Hemingway abandoned Pauline and went to live in Cuba with Gellhorn. Some of their time was lively. She did not suffer from Betty Friedan’s “the problem with no name” because although she was not domestic, they had a staff of 15. Yet the documentary stresses Hemingway’s tyranny as the greater reason for Gellhorn’s alienation. Well, it is hard for two writers to live together, especially when one is a woman. Joining forces can be a respite from a world that mistreats writers, but it also can be maddening or worse. At the same time, it’s hard to take the documentary series seriously when it quotes Gellhorn that Hemingway was not a good dinner companion. Writing is a deforming sport, whatever the genitalia of the one doing it.

There is another story here, that of Gellhorn’s growing moral outrage about the Nazis’ intentions and the absence of heroes to stop them. It was after the Munich Pact that she began to understand the crisis of the refugees who had fled Germany to the Sudetenland, now being annexed by the Nazis. She made two trips to Czechoslovakia, which she wrote about for Collier’s. No one listened. So, she wrote a polemical novel, A Stricken Field, published in 1940, about a writer reporting on the crisis of Jewish refugees in Czechoslovakia. The book contains horror stories based on Gellhorn’s experience pleading with the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees for help to no avail. Like the journalist who was one heroine of the book, Gellhorn judged herself inadequate to help the world stop the tragedy. “What I have is patience, care, honor, detail, endurance, and subject matter. And what I do not have is magic.”

The year A Stricken Field was published, (to mixed reviews, many comparing her to Hemingway) the couple married. In 1942, Gellhorn learned that a French acquaintance took poison after two of her Jewish friends were arrested. Her marriage deteriorated as the war escalated, although in Cuba, she began working on a new novel, Liana, about a Caribbean girl beloved by two men. According to Carl Rollyson, Hemingway helped her and praised the book. In 1944, when Liana became a bestseller; critics lauded it for being the first novel whose heroine was not a stand-in for Gellhorn. Funny how male writers are allowed to have male stand-ins in their fiction, but women are criticized for doing the exact same thing.

In 1943, Gellhorn left for London to report stories about everyday life post-blitz for Collier’s. She promised to come home, but she complained to Eleanor Roosevelt about the difficulty of being a writer and a wife. “You cannot do your work and get on with it.”

Hemingway hints that Gellhorn was cold and unfeeling. In London, she visits him in the hospital when he was badly injured in a car crash and laughs at his head swathed in a turban, which angered him. The documentary quotes a letter from Hemingway to his son complaining that she did nothing to help him. According to Moorhead, she resisted because she did not like the parties he insisted on going to, headwound notwithstanding. But it also seems likely that for her, the marriage was less important than reporting the war.

It was Gellhorn—not Hemingway—who got to Omaha Beach on D-Day by sneaking onto a hospital ship and locking herself in the bathroom. The only female journalist there, she helped prisoners and medics. However, Hemingway’s byline was on the cover of Collier’s. Gellhorn never saw him again after London, and for the rest of her life she would fly into a rage when reporters asked her about him—as did he when asked about her, though he added the extra touch of antisemitic remarks.

This is where Hemingway leaves Gellhorn. But what happened next was more important than her marriage: Dachau. She reached the camp in the late spring of 1945, after it was liberated by the Americans. Her piece, “Dachau: Experimental Murders,” documented the horrors in her graphic prose. It indicted Americans. “It took us twelve years to open the gates of Dachau,” she wrote, recounting the meticulous records the Germans kept of their torture: They were “insanely wicked.”

In 1948, she published A Point of No Return (originally called A Wine of Astonishment). This novel about the European campaign follows Jacob Levy, a Jew from St. Louis, who confronts his own Jewishness and winds up killing three Germans. When he sees Dachau, he chastises himself for staying out of trouble during the Holocaust. He wants to defend the victims of the Nazis. The novel is filled with long, gruesome descriptions of what the soldiers found in the camps based on Gellhorn’s reporting.

Carolyn Moorehead observes that after Dachau, Gellhorn’s idea of protecting the underdog hardened. But she also seemed to have lost her belief in goodness prevailing. Part of this has to do with her attitude toward motherhood—a charged topic for so many female writers. To signify how unmaternal she was for the 1930s, Hemingway plucks a glib quote about how she preferred to be a stepmom, rather than risk becoming a mother, losing her figure, and “not know[ing] how the brat will turn out.” While Burns and Novick do juxtapose this with Patrick Hemingway’s fond recollection of her, the quote misses the opportunity to make a different point: At that time, women writers had to choose between writing and children.

So it is all the more striking that in 1949, at age 41, Gellhorn adopted a child, an Italian orphan, whom she named Sandy. Perhaps seeing Dachau motivated her to try to do something that was impossible. She would try a similar project with marriage a few years later, when she wed Tom Matthews, former editor of Time. (They would divorce in 1963.)

This brave soul who never thought of herself as a mother or a wife until midlife also never thought of herself as a Jewish writer, or even a Jew. But the same year she adopted Sandy, she made her first trip to Israel, where she felt that “something good” would come out of the war. She would write many pieces about the country and even considered writing a book about it. She was enchanted by Israel in a way she had not been by a country since Spain: It served as a hero for her, filling in where individual people had failed. In a 1949 letter to a friend, she wrote:

It’s a hard uncomfortable country, with one million individuals in it; you’d never have known how many different kinds of Jews there are, until finally there is no such thing as a Jew … But their stories, a gold mine of stories, the equal of which I’ve never before seen. And then they’re brave, or they wouldn’t be there and alive, and because they’re brave they are gay (I am now certain that gloominess and cowardice go together) and face the more than uncertain future with a steadiness which delights and dazzles me.

Of the pieces Gellhorn filed from Israel, the best known are “The Arabs of Palestine,” (1961) and “Eichmann and the Public Conscience” (1962), both of which appeared in The Atlantic. Read today, at a moment when Human Rights Watch is using the word “apartheid” to describe the Israelis, “The Arabs of Palestine” could seem tone deaf. Gellhorn, visiting U.N. refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, found the Palestinians if not flourishing, doing far better than other refugees she had seen. She is openly unsympathetic.

She was not the only one. Others noticed the antisemitic propaganda coming from Arab radio 13 years after the Holocaust ended. Fueled by her experience trying to stop the war, and the horrors she saw at Dachau, “The Arabs of Palestine” is extremely sharp. “Arabs gorge on hate,” she writes. She was reporting the piece during the Eichmann trial and she thought it was important to reject the point of view, adopted by many global powers, that Israel was a bully. Her villain was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who she described as brainwashing Palestinians into thinking that Jews were evil. She met some Arab Holocaust deniers and had what she called “Mad Hatter” conversations. In one famous passage, she writes that the Arabs do not pity the Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, therefore she cannot pity them.

It is easy to dismiss “The Arabs of Palestine,” or talk about what Gellhorn missed or how she couldn’t see that this situation was different from Europe. But Gellhorn brought an important perspective to the conversation—the necessity for a Jewish state in a post-Holocaust world. Published in The Atlantic the following year, “Eichmann and the Public Conscience” may be the more enduring piece because it is about a subject universally agreed upon as evil. It appeared before Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” ran in The New Yorker, but in fact, the two pieces are difficult to compare. Arendt provides sociological and biographical background on Eichmann. Gellhorn, focusing on Eichmann’s testimony in the courtroom, draws from her years of reporting from different parts of the front. She singles out for praise especially Scandinavians who provided asylum for the Jews or resisted the Nazis in other ways. She criticizes the press for protesting “in weariness” as the trial went on. She insists that the reader pay attention, that politicians pay attention. In an echo of her fascination with the level of detail in the Nazi records at Dachau, she calls Eichmann the worst kind of organization man and asked how he could even be human. “His voice is ugly, with a hard R, a sound that makes one think of a hammer and a knife.” She feared that if the world flinched, there would be another Holocaust.

As in her Dachau piece, she laid the heaviest amount of blame on the United States. Also as in that piece, she provides many surreal images. One of the most stunning moments comes after Eichmann describes how, after he decided he wanted to learn Hebrew, he paid for lessons (instead of grabbing and arresting a rabbi), and “he was startled by the low wave of sound” coming from the courtroom. She describes how, when various European governments made efforts to get special people back, Eichmann “replied icily that these Jews could not be found” when he knew exactly where they were.

In 1967, Gellhorn returned to Israel to write about the Six-Day War. She filed pieces on it for The Nation, The Guardian, and Vogue. She still considered Israelis heroes and Arabs villains. She admired Israelis’ informality, the way they comported themselves in war, and seems at times more Zionist than her friend Moshe Dayan. In the Vogue piece, she writes of “the glorious, incredible, matter-of-fact, Israeli army” which “seems to operate on the revolutionary principle that everyone is glad to be there.” She writes that “the secret weapon of Israel is Israelis.”

Although Gellhorn would be a Zionist until her death, she stopped going to Israel in the ’70s. She should be remembered for her devotion to heroes and for her writing, which she believed “is better than silence.” And she should also be remembered for trying to live up to the phrase “Perhaps it is impossible to understand anything unless it happened to you yourself.”

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.