Monday, 30 November -0001

The woman Hemingway could not tame

Martha Gellhorn was a dazzlingly brave free spirit – so there was trouble ahead when she met Ernest Hemingway, says his biographer

Written by Sir Christopher Ondaatje
Ernest Hemingway had four wives – but Martha Gellhorn was the only one his overbearing character could not tame. She was also the only one who left him. Gellhorn never wanted a biography written about her. When Carl Rollyson published one in 1990, she wrote a furious 10-page letter listing his errors of fact and called the book a ‘paean of hate’ – although, undeterred, Rollyson republished it (with corrections) after Gellhorn died in 1998.

In 2003, Caroline Moorehead published a much better biography. It is long and full of gossip but also raised the same issue as the first book in a more acute form: was Gellhorn really worth such a biography? And would biographers have written about her had she never been married to Ernest Hemingway?

Certainly she was one of the 20th century’s finest war correspondents. She reported directly, vividly and with considerable courage from most of the major conflicts between the Spanish Civil War and Vietnam. She was also a novelist and short-story writer, but her fiction received mixed reviews, even in its own time, and is now largely unread.

She also had a tempestuous and well-publicised relationship with Ernest Hemingway. It began in Spain in 1937, helped to inspire his novel For Whom The Bell Tolls, and ended acrimoniously in 1945. Martha Gellhorn became the third of Hemingway’s four wives. She met him in Florida when he was 37 years old and nearing the zenith of his literary career. She was 10 years younger and had just published her second book, The Trouble I’ve Seen, a collection of four Depression-era novellas. Later, in Spain, Hemingway insisted that Gellhorn write an article for Collier’s magazine about what she saw on the streets of civil-war Madrid and the courage of its civilians – her first piece of war reporting.

But she was not in love with Hemingway yet – although she did admire him, much as she would have admired a war surgeon. Hemingway taught her about war and their relationship was often stormy. He apparently made abusive cracks aimed at her promiscuity to drinking companions. She, for her part, wrote fiercely to her mother: ‘A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.’


From their break-up until her death, she refused to comment publicly on the relationship and froze out friends who raised the subject. It was clear she resented the fact that she was known more for her marriage to Hemingway than for her own writing.

She was also characteristically honest with herself. While she was living with Hemingway in Cuba, during the writing of For Whom The Bell Tolls, she wrote that his writing had ‘magic’ – and ‘what I do not have is magic. But magic is all that counts... without magic who will weep and who will protest?’

After the split, she noted to herself: ‘Basically what is wrong is that I do not take myself seriously, neither what I am, nor what I believe... A lot of my thinking and acting has been based on showing Ernest. For fear that I reached my highest point, with and through him, and that in every way I am only sinking into obscurity little by little.’

The truth is, though she claimed she had wasted eight years in the company of Hemingway, Gellhorn never got him out of her system, and that her most lively reporting belongs mainly to the period of their relationship. After 1945 there was an undercurrent of defeat and sadness in her writing. While this was partly the result of writing about the human suffering she reported, beginning with the liberated Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, she must by now have known, as a result of her intimacy with a great writer, that she did not possess the talent to fulfil her early driving literary ambitions for herself.

In 1966, she reported the horrors of Vietnam for the Manchester Guardian, and lambasted the US government. In the US, she published an article describing precisely what American weapons had done to maim Vietnamese children. ‘I have witnessed modern war in nine countries, but I have never seen a war like this one in South Vietnam,’ she wrote.


A young New York lawyer called Thomas Miller was so moved that he decided to abandon his practice and go to Vietnam, where he helped set up a plastic surgery unit to treat injured children. In 1967, at the time of the Six-Day War, Gellhorn went to Israel. Always partisan – she was impatient with what she called the ‘objectivity ****’ of journalism – she was especially so towards the Israelis. She saw only what she wanted to see and developed an unshakeable distaste for the Arab world.

She also formed a passion for East Africa (like Hemingway), and even lived for a while in a house in Kenya she had built near the top of Mt Longonot. It had no electricity, radio or telephone, but she was happy there for a while and was able to write in solitude. Then, while out driving, she ran over and killed a young Kenyan boy. She never really recovered from this accident, wishing that she herself had died instead of the child; and could write in Africa no longer. Despite returning to the continent for many years after the incident, she sold the house and based herself in Britain: in Wales and in a flat in a fashionable part of London.

Throughout her life, including during her second marriage, which also ended in divorce, she had been constantly on the move. She shied away from boredom and loneliness. In London, approaching old age, she surrounded herself with a coterie of new, much younger writer friends such as Rosie Boycott, Victoria Glendinning, James Fox, John Pilger and Nicholas Shakespeare. She sat up with them, drinking, smoking and talking vigorously – caustically of what she disliked – into the early hours of the morning about a huge variety of subjects, anything but her relationship with Hemingway. But as someone who had always cherished independence and personal elegance, she found getting old extremely hard; eventually blindness prevented her even from reading.

On a Saturday evening in 1998, Gellhorn, in her 90th year, decided that the moment had come to die. In her flat, she took a pill. Victoria Glendinning found her body on Sunday morning.

Martha Gellhorn was certainly a fearless, driven and hugely talented woman. But while Ernest Hemingway could not control her, he would always overshadow her. As he shouted at Gellhorn one day in Cuba: ‘They’ll be reading my stuff long after the worms have finished with you.’

Christopher Ondaatje is the author of Hemingway In Africa: The Last Safari, published by HarperCollins, priced £24.95.

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