Obituary: Martha Gellhorn

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MARTHA GELLHORN was one of the finest war correspondents of the 20th century. She learnt the craft of war reporting in the Spanish Civil War, and it was then that she grew up politically: "We knew, we just knew, that Spain was the place to stop Fascism," she said. "This was it. It was one of those moments in history when there was no doubt."

She was in Spain with Ernest Hemingway, whose third wife she became in 1940; he dedicated For Whom the Bell Tolls to her in 1941. She rarely talked about her time with, and marriage to, Hemingway (they were divorced in 1946), quite rightly wanting to be her own person and not part of the Hemingway bandwagon. The house she built for them in Cuba became the Hemingway Museum.

Although Gellhorn did not actively seek out war, her passion for causes and sense of outrage meant that she wrote about most of the wars which happened in her life. In wartime, she said, you "operate on a basis of functional schizophrenia - you can't stand it for anybody else but yourself . . . I liked having no possessions, no problems, and you never knew if you were going to be alive the next day and that was immensely interesting."

She saw the function of a reporter as one of seeing and hearing as much as possible. This accurate record could then be passed on so as to be seen, heard and felt by others. "Journalism is education for me. The readers, if any, may get some education too but the big profit is mine. Writing is payment for the chance to look and learn." She was a natural and highly intelligent writer who combined being able to write with having something important to say. In later life when she was being bullied to write her autobiography, something she always refused to do, she said that she might possibly write one just about her sex life, because that was all that anyone would be really interested in.

Martha Gellhorn was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1908; her father was a doctor and her mother, whom she described as a "wonder", was a believer in excellence and a campaigner for female suffrage who managed to lure people into doing good. Gellhorn was never to like the stridency of feminism, but felt strongly about the disadvantaging of women, something she, with three brothers, never suffered from.

She left Bryn Mawr College, in Pennsylvania, out of boredom, and, after jobs on the New Republic and the Hearst Times Union, spent a period in Paris. In 1934 she returned to the United States and worked for Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. She travelled round America seeing how people existed in the Depression and reporting how the relief was working. For a while she lived in the White House at the request of President and Mrs F.D. Roosevelt, both of whom she greatly admired, referring to Mrs Roosevelt as "a moral true north" and the person she most valued after her mother. The Trouble I've Seen, a collection of tales which drew on her experiences during the Depression, was published in 1936 with a preface by H.G. Wells, who referred to her as a writer with "an instinctive directness and vigour".

During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 she worked for Collier's Weekly, and it was for the same paper in 1940-41 that she went to China. She wanted to see the Orient and from there covered the Sino-Japanese War. She saw the Second World War as the "necessary war", but for the only time in her life encountered problems as a woman reporter. She went to Dachau with the liberation troops and described it as the "circle of hell", and the worst abomination of man, saying afterwards, "I'll never forgive the Germans. Never, never."

Much of the best war reporting she ever did was as a freelance from Vietnam in 1966-67. She covered the war out of a sense of rage, feeling, as an American, personally responsible for what happened. Her articles were so good, but so critical, that no newspaper in the US dared to publish them. Eventually the Guardian published five of her reports, effectively ending her career as a war correspondent in Vietnam; she never got another visa. She was so passionately angry about the American involvement in Vietnam, "this unforgivable evil", that it drove her into a writer's block made of "solid concrete". It was the worst time of her life and she barely wrote anything between 1969 and 1975.

Fiction, which she believed had to be sound on place, always played a large part in her life. She found it much harder to write, but used it as a therapy to forget about war and to amuse herself. Her novels include A Stricken Field (1939), The Heart of Another (1940), Liana (1943), The Wine of Astonishment (1948), The Lowest Trees Have Tops (1967) and - three novellas - The Weather In Africa (1978).

She always enjoyed travelling and Travels With Myself and Another (1978) is her "account of my best horror journeys". The View from the Ground (1988), a selection of articles written during six decades of peacetime reporting, which includes a piece on the trial of the war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1960, is an eloquent testimony to her convictions and pathological passion for the truth. The Face of War (1959) is a collection of her war reporting from Spain, Finland, China and the Second World War.

In 1948 she adopted a son and in 1953 married Tom Matthews, the former editor of Time magazine, whose secretary she had been on the New Republic in 1929. But the marriage did not last and she did not marry again, saying she was much happier being single.

Gellhorn had a great gift for friendship, with both men and women, although she did like to be the centre of attention and, whilst being a good talker and listener, she did not suffer fools, hating stupidity of both thinking and feeling. Being her friend one woman described to me as "one of the great privileges of life". She was funny, generous, well-read, a prolific letter- writer and very beautiful, being both tall and elegant, and she went on minding about her appearance into old age.

She bought a flat in London in the 1960s which she used as a base for the rest of her life; she was not concerned about luxury and lived in rather Spartan surroundings, only spending money on travel, as an abiding passion, but even as an old woman she could travel rough if necessary, investigating the US involvement in Panama in 1990, aged 81. She had no interest in domesticity, although she was impressed by other people's cooking; if you went to lunch with her you would often have to take your own sandwiches. She loved and needed the heat and was an inveterate snorkeller.

Francois Mauriac's saying "Travail, opium unique" served her all her life and she maintained her curiosity and convictions, despite failing eyesight, until her death.

Sarah Anderson

Martha Ellis Gellhorn, writer: born St Louis, Missouri 8 November 1908; married Bertrand de Juvenel (marriage dissolved), 1940 Ernest Hemingway (died 1961; marriage dissolved 1946), (one adopted son 1948), 1954 T.S. Matthews (died 1991; marriage dissolved 1963); died London 15 February 1998.