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Annals of Journalism: Martha Gellhorn, War Correspondent


After years of being thought of mainly as the dedicatee of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, as well as the famous author’s third wife (and, oddly enough, his third consecutive wife from St. Louis), Martha Gellhorn has begun to come into her own, with a recent biography by Caroline Moorehead, an HBO film in the works and a possible feature film as well.

Gellhorn and Hemingway

On D-Day, Gellhorn was first on Omaha Beach after the beach was secured (while her estranged husband Hemingway — also a great war correspondent — stewed on board a troopship in the English Channel). For Collier’s, which gave her her start as as a war correspondent, she had been in the middle of the fighting during the Spanish Civil War, was at the liberation of Dachau and the liberation of Paris, and later covered Vietnam and the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. She hated her years with Hemingway and later in life refused to discuss him or their time together.

Here’s a sample of her work, written in Madrid while the city was under siege from Franco:

An old woman, with a shawl over her shoulders, holding a terrified thin little boy by the hand, runs out into the square. You know what she is thinking: She is thinking she must get the boy home, you are always safer in your own place, with the things you know. Somehow you do not believe you can get killed when you are sitting in your own parlour, you never think that. She is in the middle of the square when the next one comes. A small piece of twisted steel, hot and very sharp, sprays off from the shell, it takes the little boy in the throat. The old woman stands there, holding the hand of the dead child, looking at him stupidly, not saying anything, and men and women run out toward her to carry the child. At their left, at the side of the square is a huge brilliant sign which says ‘ Get Out of Madrid’.

Gellhorn brought a novelist’s eye to her work and — despite her oft-professed “anti-war” nature was always the first to run to the sound of the guns. A limousine liberal and an admirer of socialism, in her personal life she lived very well; Hemingway famously said of her: “Marty loves humanity. It’s people she can’t stand.” But no one ever doubted her courage, or her resolve to get the story — by any means necessary.

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