Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival," wrote Martha Gellhorn. Her pithy aside prefaced Travels with Myself and Another, in which she humorously recounts a series of horror journeys. It was a wry comment on the dangers she experienced as travel writer and war correspondent, one of the first women in this field. Courage was her metier. "Fear is a hideous burden and useless," she told her adopted son.
Gellhorn lived life to the hilt. She went where history was being made, reporting on the siege of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War, observing the rise of Hitler and the advancement of Fascism in Italy. She had a talent, her husband Ernest Hemingway observed, for "taking the pulse of a nation". At her editor's behest, she came to England to learn what people felt about the possibility of war and harangued strangers on the evils of Hitler. Though women reporters were banned from the front, she turned up on Omaha Beach on D-Day, having stowed away on a hospital ship.
Her bravado was, like travel, a means of keeping fear at bay. "I regard the getting and keeping (and the upkeeping) of possessions a waste of life," she declared. Nevertheless, she went to elaborate lengths some dozen times to set up home, at one point living on the Kenyan coast, then building a mountain-side house in the shadow of Kilimanjaro. Equally powerful was her need for change which unmoored her, from husbands, lovers, family and places. What remained constant was her deep rage against injustice.
Gellhorn, who died in 1998 aged 89, unsuccessfully fought off a previous biographer. When Carl Rollyson's book appeared, she sent a ten-page letter to her agent listing errors. Caroline Moorehead's account doubles Rollyson's in length and is far more engaging. Her own work on human rights underlies her sympathy and she is adept at placing Gellhorn's work in context. She enjoys contingencies, often building up character with small, seemingly unrelated facts. A bracing portrait emerges of a tough, dedicated, fearless woman.
Brash and assertive, she left Bryn Mawr college without finishing her degree. In 1930 when, aged 21, she turned up in Paris with two suitcases, a typewriter and $75. She went straight to the offices of the New York Times and told them she could start immediately. They simply laughed. Gellhorn had to make do with menial jobs on the fringe of the fashion world. She cut her teeth as a reporter during the Depression, in the textile towns of North Carolina, witnessing human tragedy and incompetent administration. She drew on this experience for the characters in The Trouble I've Seen, her first collection of stories. This habit of transmuting journalism into fiction continued.
She rarely lacked admirers, being blonde, tall and stylishly dressed. Gellhorn engaged in casual affairs, though she claimed a distaste for sex. Hemingway, at first sight, struck her as a "large, dirty man in untidy, somewhat soiled shorts and shirt". Having been seduced by the clarity and economy of his prose, she remained disappointed by his air of mess. Nevertheless their marriage was the high point in her life. Its bitter aftermath made it additionally difficult to live down.
Her relationship with Hemingway began in Spain. It was then she began to see her work from a different perspective. She no longer wanted to "jar the hell out of the populace". Instead, she took a humbler line, saying she wanted to pay back what she owed by trying "to make an angry sound against injustice". The white heat of her anger, in her reports dealing with liberated Dachau or napalm victims in Vietnam, resulted in penetrating lucidity. Attitudes to war have changed, thanks to Gellhorn and others, but not the challenge she discerned: "I I do not admit that one can turn away: one has no right to ignorance, one has no right to spare oneself."
Frances Spalding's 'Gwen Raverat' is published by Harvill PressReuse content