THE word “refugee” is drenched in memories which stretch back over too many years and too many landscapes: Spain, Czechoslovakia, China, Finland, England, Italy, Holland, Germany. In Madrid, between artillery bombardments, children were stuffed into trucks to be taken somewhere, out of that roulette death, while their mothers clung to the tailboards of the trucks and were dragged weeping after the bewildered, weeping children. In Germany, at war’s end, the whole country seemed alive with the roaming mad — slave laborers, concentration camp survivors who spoke the many tongues of Babel, dressed in whatever scraps they had looted, and searched for food in stalled freight cars though the very rail-yards were being bombed. From China to Finland, people like these defined the meaning of “refugee.” – Martha Gellhorn
Martha Gellhorn may be best known for her short-lived marriage to Ernest Hemingway but she would have far prefered to be remembered for her work as one of the greatest war correspondents of her time. Her legacy was to leave a set of fearless articles on some of the major conflicts of the 20th century, including the Spanish Civil War, World War Two and Vietnam – articles which were all characterised by a profound sense of right and wrong, astute observations on human nature and true courage.
Martha was the third child of Edna and George Gellhorn and was born in 1908 in St Louis. Her father was a doctor, who had been born in East Prussia before arriving in the USA in 1900 and her mother Edna was a suffragette and social reformer. On her second attempt at college exams, Martha won a place at Bryn Mawr and took up her place in 1926. However, she didn’t complete her education at the school and left in June 1929. By Spring 1930, Martha had arrived in Paris with a typewriter and $75 determined to become a journalist. Whilst in Paris, she found employment with United Press bureau and reported on the League of Nations.
In 1934, Martha moved back to the USA and took up a position with Federal Emergency Relief Administration in Washington. At 25, Martha was the youngest reporter on a team of 16 and was tasked with reporting on the effects of the Great Depression in textile areas of the Carolinas and New England. The trip around these areas in America exposed Martha for the first time to the harrowing effects of the Depression on the working classes of America and the desperate state of the country. It was also during this time that Martha became close to Eleanor Roosevelt, and after she left Washington the two women would continue to correspond until Eleanor’s death in 1962.
Following her tenure at FERA, Martha published The Trouble I’ve Seen in September 1936. Informed by her time reporting on the Great Depression, the novel was a collection of interwoven short stories and was received with critical acclaim upon its publication. Whilst celebrating Christmas in Key West with her mother that year, Martha met Ernest Hemingway.
In 1937, Spain was a deeply divided country torn between the right-wing Nationalists led by General Franco and Republicans. Martha was not accustomed to writing about war, she had been previously been writing about politics, but whilst in Spain with Hemingway Martha wrote about the effects of conflict on the civilian population. Her dispatched were published by Collier’s Weekly in the USA and it was here that her reputation as a war correspondent truly started. In Spain, Martha and Hemingway’s affair began and Martha also became friends with famed war photographer Robert Capa.
Following Spain, Martha wrote dispatches from Czechoslovakia and the UK in anticipation of the breakout of war before moving to Cuba with Hemingway in Spring 1939. In September 1940, From Whom The Bell Tolls was published with a dedication to Martha and the couple were married in November 1940 in the Dining Room of the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming.
During World War Two, the military would not accredit women to report from the front line but this didn’t deter Martha. After reporting on submarine warfare from the Caribbean she took to Europe, without formal press accreditation, determined to report on the war. This period was a turbulent time for Martha and Hemingway’s relationship and in addition to this he had taken her place as the primary war correspondent for Collier’s. After being denied access to travel to Omaha Beach, Martha stole away on a hospital ship in order to gain access to the site during the Allied invasion. She landed in Normandy and wrote two pieces for Collier’s which included information on the German prisoners who she had seen. Hemingway, who had been allowed to travel to Omaha Beach, did not make it to the site. Following the war in Europe, Martha and Hemingway divorced in 1945 and Martha went on to report on the liberation of concentration camps across the continent as well as the Nuremberg trials. In 1948, Martha moved to Mexico and in 1949 adopted her son, Sandy, from an orphanage in Italy.
In 1954, Martha married Tom Matthews which led to relative period of inactivity and they divorced in the late 1960s. Martha’s relationship with her son was difficult as he got older, as a teenager Sandy Gellhorn struggled with his weight, which was at odds with Martha’s fixation on fitness and exercise. Sandy was arrested as an adult for possession of drugs and fell out of contact with his mother. They reconciled later in her life.
In 1966, Martha was commissioned to report from the war in Vietnam. She visited hospitals and refugee camps and has she had done in the Spanish Civil War and reported on the effects of war on the larger population. Her reports were harrowing and added to the growing discontent with the Vietnam war. Following the publication of her pieces, Martha never returned to Vietnam but campaigned for the anti war movement and to raise funds for Vietnamese children. Following the Vietnam war, Martha continued to write on foreign affairs until her last major article in 1994, at age 85, where she wrote a dispatch from Brazil for the London Review of Books reporting on the actions of the police against homeless children.
In her later life, Martha settled in the UK with homes in London and Wales. In 1978 she published The Weather in Africa and Travels With Myself And Another both of which received critical acclaim and solidified her standing as one of the brilliant war correspondents of her time. In these later years Martha became good friends with a younger generation of writers and journalists who she referred to as ‘the chaps’, the group included John Pilger, Rosie Boycott, Victoria Glendinning, John Simpson and Jon Snow.
Martha died on 15 February 1998 at the age of 89 and her ashes were scattered in the Thames.