Jonathan P. Baird: Remember Martha Gellhorn? Here’s why you should

  • Writer and correspondent Martha Gellhorn is shown in this undated photo. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 11/27/2019 7:00:28 AM

Not too long ago, I wrote about Dorothy Thompson, a journalist who warned early about the danger of fascism in the 1930s. She tirelessly wrote about the German Nazis at a time when their threat was downplayed and underestimated.

I might have created the impression that Thompson was alone in her heroic efforts to expose the horrors of fascism. That was certainly not the case.

Along with Thompson stands Martha Gellhorn, a reporter, novelist and war correspondent who deserves far more recognition than she has ever received.

Gellhorn was a type of journalist we almost never see now. Fueled by a sense of outrage at injustice done to everyday working people, Gellhorn repeatedly traveled to war zones and covered conflicts for 60 years. She especially covered the victims of war. She was more likely to interview bombing victims than generals or heads of state.

Gellhorn’s career had an unusual trajectory. She dropped out of Bryn Mawr College, where she was bored as a student. She moved to Paris and started a journalism career working for the New Republic and a Hearst paper. In 1934, she returned to the United States, where she got a job working for Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration under F.D.R.

In her new capacity, she traveled through Southern states and interviewed all kinds of people. It was the Great Depression. She was horrified by the poverty, sickness and malnutrition she found, and she wrote about it. Hopkins forwarded her reports to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt was so impressed she invited Gellhorn to the White House for a visit. That was the start of what proved to be an important relationship in the lives of both women. Martha and Eleanor became fast friends. The Roosevelts invited Gellhorn to live in the White House, which she did for a while. Mrs. Roosevelt became a close confidante and adviser.

As a journalist, Gellhorn had a desire to be where the action was. She had returned to St. Louis, her hometown, to write novels but she was drawn to Spain and the Spanish Civil War. She wrote: “We knew, we just knew, that Spain was the place to stop fascism. This was it. It was one of those moments in history when there was no doubt.”

Gellhorn’s Spanish reporting was a high point in her journalism career. She wrote for Collier’s Weekly. The contending forces of democracy and fascism were lining up in an epic confrontation that proved to be a prelude to World War II. The Republican government fought against the fascist forces of General Fransisco Franco. The Australian writer John Pilger said this about Gellhorn: “I first understood the importance of the struggle in Spain from Martha Gellhorn. Martha, who was one of my oldest friends, is remembered as one of the greatest war correspondents and especially for her dispatches from Spain during the civil war. In November 1938 she wrote: In Barcelona, it was perfect bombing weather. The cafes along the Ramblas were crowded. There was nothing much to drink: a sweet fizzy poison called orangeade and a horrible liquid supposed to be sherry. There was, of course, nothing to eat. Everyone was out, enjoying the cold afternoon sunlight. No bombers had come for at least two hours. The flower stalls look bright and pretty along the promenade. ‘The flowers are all sold, Senores. For the funerals of those killed in the eleven o’clock bombing, poor souls.’ It had been a clear and cold day all yesterday… ‘What beautiful weather,’ a woman said and she stood, holding her shawl around her, staring at the sky. ‘A catastrophe,’ she said. Everyone listened for the sirens all the time, and when we saw the bombers, they were like tiny silver bullets, moving forever up, across the sky.”

Time and again, Gellhorn saw the human cost of those bombers and the misery inflicted on unarmed civilians. She used to invoke a Tolstoy quote that “governments are a collection of men who do violence to the rest of us.”

She was a premature anti-fascist. Recognizing the danger early, she saw that World War II would be a necessary war. In the late 1930s her position was not widely held. In that era, there was plenty of confusion, lies and deceit obscuring the fascist threat. She wrote: “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.”

During World War II, Gellhorn ignored American military restrictions on female war correspondents, stowing away on a hospital ship to gain a first-hand account of the Allied invasion of France in 1944. She reported from the beaches of Normandy in a nurse’s uniform. She spent the rest of the war filing from various front lines. She said she never knew if she was going to be alive the next day and that was immensely interesting.

At the end of the war, Gellhorn went to Dachau with the liberation troops and described it as a “circle of hell.” She wrote: “Behind the wire and the electric fence, the skeletons sat in the sun and scratched themselves for lice. They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky.”

Gellhorn’s biographer, Caroline Moorehead, wrote that exposure to Dachau changed Gellhorn in a profound, despairing way. She lost her belief that truth, justice and kindness always prevail in the end. It was her dark side education. She said: “I’ll never forgive the Germans. Never. Never.”

Although her later career history is less well known, Gellhorn continued traveling to war zones and reporting, working for the Atlantic. She covered the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Vietnam War, the civil wars in Central America and the U.S. invasion of Panama.

To the extent that Gellhorn is now remembered, it seems to be mostly because of her short-lived marriage to Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway dedicated his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls to Gellhorn. There was a 2012 movie, Hemingway and Gellhorn, where she was played by Nicole Kidman. Gellhorn resented being known as Hemingway’s ex-wife.

On Feb. 15, 1998, suffering from ovarian cancer, Gellhorn took her own life in London.

The writer Victoria Glendenning, a friend, said Gellhorn was “a woman who was afraid of nothing and nobody. Though she held her convictions with passion, she had no self-conceit.”

Since 1999, there has been a Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism for exposing what Gellhorn called “official drivel.” That seems fitting. We might want to ask why a writer of her stature remains so little known now.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at

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