Martha Gellhorn was a journalist, novelist and one of the greatest war correspondents of her time. During her long career she covered dozens of wars, including the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Arab-Israeli War and the Vietnam War. Gellhorn was a fearless woman, whose writing and travels were driven by the desire to see “more of the world and what´s in it”.
She was born in St. Louis in 1908, the daughter of a gynaecologist and a suffragette and activist. Deciding to become a journalist, Martha left college and in 1930 went to Europe with a typewriter and $75 determined to start a career as foreign correspondent. She worked in Paris for various newspapers, and returned to America in 1934, when she published her first novel What Mad Pursuit and took up a position with Federal Emergency Relief Administration in Washington. At the age of 25, Martha was documenting the devastation wrought by the Great Depression in textile areas of the US. During this time, she also became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1936 she published The Trouble I´ve Seen, an account of her experiences, and in the same year she met Ernest Hemingway, which eventually became her husband and with whom she went to Spain during the Civil War.
Reporting from Madrid, Gellhorn wrote about the everyday impact of war on the city and the people living there. She was walking daily around the besieged capital and describing her reporting as “a gesture of solidarity”. Spain was the front line in the fight against fascism and totalitarianism, and Gellhorn was on the side of the Republican forces trying to put down Franco´s uprising. Hemingway suggested she used her writing skills to contribute to the war effort. Indeed, her first pieces were published by Collier´s, for whom she officially started covering the Spanish Civil War.
After Spain, her reputation as a war correspondent truly started. In 1941 she was sent to China by Collier´s to report on the Sino-Japanese War and from 1943 to 1945 she reported from England, Italy, France and Germany. If there was a story to be told, she had to get it: during World War II, women could not be accredited to report from the front line, but this did not deter Gellhorn: when she couldn´t report on the D-Day invasions, she disguised herself as a nurse and stowed away on a ship. After the war, she started reporting on the liberation of concentration camps across Europe, and she also recognised that the act of witnessing would not leave her unscathed. After visiting and reporting about the concentration camp in Dachau, she said she reached her “point of no return”. Gellhorn wrote three novels about the war: A Stricken Field (1940), Liana (1945) and Point of No Return (1948). Thereafter, she covered wars in Vietnam in the 1960s, and the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 for the Guardian of London.
Through the rest of her life, Gellhorn never stopped travelling and writing, always championing the cause of the oppressed and rejecting the idea that a responsible journalist has to be neutral, objective, and reporting a subject from all sides. Gellhorn published many books, including a collection of articles on war, The Face of War (1959), an account of her travels with Hemingway, Travels with Myself and Another (1978), and a collection of her peacetime journalism, The View from the Ground (1988).
Martha Gellhorn spent her last years in London. Nearly blind and very ill with several forms of cancer, she took her life in 1998, at the age of 89. As Elkin wrote, “she decided when and how she would ‘leave’. As if death were just another place to go”.
By Elena Floriani, WAVE Intern
Elkin Lauren, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, Chatto & Windus, 2016
“Martha Gellhorn.” Authors’ Calendar, authorscalendar.info/gellhorn.htm
Sherwood, Sara. “BIOGRAPHY: Martha Gellhorn – War Correspondent.” The Heroine Collective, 25 Aug. 2016, www.theheroinecollective.com/martha-gellhorn/