During my research on Lillian Hellman I ran into Martha Gellhorn—not literally, but to encounter Gellhorn while writing on Hellman is rather like a collision. Gellhorn’s Paris Review article dismantles many of Hellman’s stories, showing they could not have happened—or at least could not have occurred as Hellman told them. Gellhorn’s demolition job was done with such glee that I wondered why no one had written a biography of this celebrated journalist, sometime novelist, and third wife of Ernest Hemingway. At the time I did not realize there was another reason—again latent—for what turned into an obsession with Gellhorn. She went out and got the story, traveling to the battleground of the Spanish Civil War on her own hook and writing with uncommon clarity about what she saw there. I didn’t know then that my biography of Gellhorn would be my farewell to the life I had been trained to follow: that of a bookish English professor. I would stay in the academy to enjoy the teaching and other perks, but my heart was out there beyond the books I read.
What I did was turn Martha Gellhorn into a book, and she hated it. Ironic, don't you think? But that’s a story for another day. What I mean to suggest here is that I became disenchanted with simply reading about Gellhorn. As I had done with Monroe and Hellman, I had to travel to many of the sites Gellhorn reported on and interview people who knew her.
Surely you can think of any number of reviews which ask rhetorically, “Do we really need to know that . . . ?” You can fill in the blanks. When I wrote to Martha Gellhorn asking her for an interview and telling her I was writing her biography, I enclosed an article I had published on William and Estelle Faulkner. She wrote back a cordial but firm letter saying my article was well written, but she did not need to know about Faulkner’s marriage and did not believe in biography—for herself or for any other writer. Not all writers take that tack, of course, but a great many deplore the biographical genre, giving it at most two cheers—as John Updike did, when he sought to outwit a prospective biographer by publishing an autobiography, Self-Consciousness.
But it is biography itself that abides our question, not Shakespeare alone. The genre endures and will not yield to the scorn of its literary detractors. Why? Because biography carries intrinsic interest quite apart from that generated by what the literary figure has published. Suppose, for example, a letter or journal came to light that included a firsthand account of Shakespeare doing something, anything. Would Tennyson, Gellhorn—anyone—refuse to read it? Hardly. The desire to have even a glimpse, a vestige of Shakespeare the man, would be overwhelming.
I got stuck trying to describe what happened to Gellhorn after her marriage to Ernest Hemingway broke up. Why she decided to marry T. S. Matthews, then retired from managing Time and living in England while writing his memoirs. I had no letters. Matthews refused to speak with me. So did Gellhorn. I was able to interview a few people at Time who knew the couple, but my documentary evidence concerning what happened in the marriage and why it ended in divorce amounted to next to nothing. But Matthews’s autobiographies created a very powerful sense of the kind of man he was, and I knew a great deal about Gellhorn and her attitudes toward marriage—plus I was making all those sorts of inferences that provoke biographers to tell you about how things “must have seemed” to their subjects.
I was still hoping to find more evidence before writing the chapter on Gellhorn and Matthews, but I was on a short deadline and had to do something. So I wrote the chapter as though I had the evidence. I thought of it as a nonfiction short story. Then I got lucky. A tip from Hemingway biographer Kenneth Lynn led me to the Bernard Berenson Papers. There I found a marvelous exchange of letters between Berenson and Gellhorn that explained a good deal of her motivation for marrying Matthews, even as she predicted the marriage probably would not last. What she wrote jibed with much of what I had already written. Then I even got luckier when I called someone who had earlier refused to be interviewed. She agreed to talk after I told her about what I had found in the letters. I implied that she might as well fess up—and she did.
My biography of Martha Gellhorn has been optioned many times, although no one has ever actually filmed it. Just saw the trailer for an HBO film, Hemingway and Gellhorn. It is truly atrocious. The Martha Gellhorn who appears is just not the woman I wrote about. Not even close. And I could tell as much in just one minute!
Living figures use copyright law as a form of censorship. Martha Gellhorn, for example, forbid any quotation from her work (outside of fair use) in hopes that prohibition would discourage Doubleday from going ahead with my biography of her. Her tactic worked once she had a powerful Manhattan law firm send the publisher a threatening letter. My agent then had to resell my book to St. Martin’s Press, who had their own lawyers give my book a good going over before it appeared.
Certain libraries aid and abet literary estates that seek to define literary history on their own terms. You would think a librarian who is supposed to disseminate knowledge would feel some compunction about slavering after the papers of the renowned. But instead, many of them have heeded the siren call of the later Howard Gotlieb, the entrepreneurial head of special collections at Boston University's Mugar Memorial Library. Howard promised writers like Martha Gellhorn that he would lock away her papers and exhibit them only to a select few—otherwise known as authorized biographers. Poor Howard used to get hectoring calls from not so poor Martha, who would berate him with oaths about that rogue Rollyson who had not sought and did not wish her blessing.
Scott Donaldson, author of an unauthorized biography of John Cheever, became a policeman for the Hemingway estate and wrote me a cautionary letter about not quoting too much from Hem in my unauthorized biography of Martha Gellhorn. In other words, Papa’s estate had its eyes on me. When the editor of my Hellman biography suggested to Mariel Hemingway that I was the perfect writer to help her with her autobiography, Mariel replied, “Oh no, Martha says he is a bad man.”
If Marilyn Monroe materialized as the angel her cowboy-lover sees her as in Bus Stop. Hellman etched her way into the American pantheon. If Marilyn Monroe represents the soft side of fame, Hellman is hard core. Martha Gellhorn, my #3, is their improbable mixture: beautiful but also wiry, with a toughness that sentimental old puss Ernest Hemingway first adored and then abhorred. Visit Hemingway’s house in Key West, which still has generations of his cats lounging about, and then read about how hard it was for him to domesticate the feline Martha, who had to roam the world for her stories. Norman Mailer, fourth in my line of icons, worshipped Hemingway and lusted after Monroe—in both cases admiring idols who had succeeded in the ambition he coveted for himself to capture the consciousness of his time.
Beautiful Exile: The Life of Martha Gellhorn
Martha Gellhorn died in February 1998, just shy of her 90th birthday. Well before her death, she had become a legend. She reported on wars from Spain in the 1930s to Panama in the 1980s, and her travel books have become classics. Her marriage to Ernest Hemingway and affairs with legendary lovers like H. G. Wells, and her relationship with two presidents, Roosevelt and Kennedy, reflect her campaigns against tyranny and deprivation, and her outrage at the corruption and cruelty of modern governments. This controversial and acclaimed biography portrays a vibrant and troubled woman who never tired of fighting for causes she considered just.
“This fascinating account presents a well–rounded portrait of a woman whose writings are fast disappearing from US consciousness. Highly recommended.” -- CHOICE
"This perceptive, well-researched and well-written book leaves one full of admiration for a woman so plucky, so witty and so talented." --The Literary Review
"Clear, dispassionate and admirably well informed about the larger context through which she moved so forcefully and for so long."-- The New Statesman
A Tale of Two Biographies
Although I have published two biographies of Martha Gellhorn, only the first one, Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave: The Story of Martha Gellhorn (St. Martin's Press, 1990), seems to be remembered—even though the book is out of print, has never appeared in paperback, and has not yet been issued as an e-book (more about that anon). The second Gellhorn biography, Beautiful Exile: The Story of Martha Gellhorn (Aurum Press, 2002), is still in print in paperback and as a SONY e-book. The second biography updated my treatment of Gellhorn’s life, added new material gleaned from various archives and interviews, and came to terms with her death.
When my first biography appeared, Gellhorn was very much alive. Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave I received mixed to negative reviews. My second biography fared much better, garnering mostly positive reactions. And yet, in the past two years, a fairly well-informed scholar of Gellhorn’s period was amazed to learn I had written a second biography. A few months ago, a friend of mine said he had just read my Gellhorn biography for the first time. Which one? I asked. He, too, had not heard of Beautiful Exile. And then, just a few weeks ago, a writer working on a project involving Gellhorn was also quite surprised to learn there was a second biography.
What gives? Well, Beautiful Exile was largely a British affair. I had no American publisher, although Trafalgar Square distributed the book in this country, and it received an excellent review in the New York Times. Publishers Weeklyalso reviewed the book, but otherwise not much attention came its way. The first biography, in contrast, was hard to forget. Reviewers relished pouncing on it. In the NYT, Jane O’Reilly didn’t just trash Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave, she tried to bury me along with it. She started by noting I had published lackluster biographies of Marilyn Monroe and Lillian Hellman and had achieved no higher polish with Gellhorn. In the Women’s Review of Books, Helen Yglesias declared that I should never be permitted to write another book about a woman.
O’Reilly gave the game away by devoting part of her review to describing how she would have written a biography of Gellhorn. Well, exactly. Why had I scooped her? It just wasn’t right. I thought, by the way, that my treatment of Gellhorn was largely positive in Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave.But somehow that didn’t matter with most reviewers, since in a Vogueinterview with Victoria Glendinning, Gellhorn herself had dismissed me as an “academic kook.”
The title of the first Gellhorn biography was a line from A Farewell to Arms that Gellhorn herself had quoted in a letter written before she had met Ernest Hemingway, who was to become her husband. The line evokes a certain youthful brashness and bravado that Gellhorn played out in a series of remarkable choices. Leaving Bryn Mawr College after her third year, she became a roving reporter in the United States and then in Europe, where she witnessed the rise of Hitler and fascism. Then she returned to the US to work for Roosevelt’s New Deal in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, charging out into the field, so to speak, and sending Harry Hopkins, FDR’s right-hand man, outraged reports about the Depression-era suffering among the people. Then she was later fired for advocating a strike by relief recipients, and she headed for Key West, where Hemingway became enamored of this glamorous globetrotter who had already seduced H.G. Wells and was now agitating for American intervention in the Spanish Civil War—and for Hemingway’s own participation in reporting the fascist assault on republican Spain. After Spain, much to the middle aging Hemingway’s chagrin, Gellhorn continued her career as an activist journalist, writing better dispatches about World War II than he did. The marriage ended badly, but Gellhorn, right up to the end of her life, went on covering wars and telling off the powerful. She was a very attractive, if prickly, subject. And she didn’t want anyone to tell her story, except herself.
A decade later Gellhorn was dead, and drawing especially on new material in the Ernest Hemingway collection at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, I presented still an admiring but much more critical view of Gellhorn than I had earlier. I had become increasingly uneasy about her blind spots—especially in her coverage of the Spanish Civil War—and I also realized she simply could not see the big picture of history the way Rebecca West (a later subject of mine) did. And in fact, the last pages of Beautiful Exile contain a sustained comparison of West and Gellhorn, who became a friend of West during the last decade of West’s life. I now took a somewhat more sympathetic view of Hemingway. He was still an oaf, in many respects, but Gellhorn’s constant hectoring took its toll not only on Hemingway, but also on me. I sympathized with his complaint that no husband could satisfy Martha unless he had “the organizing capacity of Henry Kaiser and the probity of Cardinal Newman.” Martha almost said as much herself. And besides, as she admitted in her letters, marriage bored her.
Actually, a lot of life bored Martha Gellhorn. When Caroline Moorehead’s authorized biography appeared, I was impressed with how many times Gellhorn used the word “bored” in her letters (many of which I had been prohibited from seeing). It seemed like every other page of Moorehead’s Gellhorn: A Twentieth Century Life included Martha’s complaint that she was bored. Only wars and public controversies seemed to keep her going. I had intuited as much, even though I did not have access to all of Moorehead’s evidence. Sometimes an unauthorized biographer can write a cleaner, more elegant narrative when not weighed down by quite so much substantiation. At any rate, my new title, Beautiful Exile,evokes not only Gellhorn’s essential loneliness and deracination (she spent most of her life after World War II in Mexico, Italy, and Britain), but also her sense of alienation—apparent even in childhood, when she scorned so much of her native St. Louis. The title was also, I confess, a way of pleasing a publisher who wanted to believe I had written a new book that ought to be taken on its own terms, rather than as a revision of an old one.
My second biography did provoke the ire of a few Gellhorn friends—notably journalist John Pilger, who laid into me on a Woman’s Hour program on the BBC. But in the main, the book got high marks in the press. And those high marks were for a book that retained substantial portions of Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave. Beautiful Exile is, word for word, the better-written book, but the first biography is indispensable because it contains material I cut out when producing the second biography. I omitted some scenes between Hemingway and Gellhorn’s mother. I cut out a prologue and epilogue, which told the story of how I came to write Gellhorn's life in the first place. The book shows how cautious I had to be in the wake of the Salinger decision, which made it almost impossible, in the late 1980s, to quote from my subject’s unpublished work. The law has changed since then, but in those bad old days, a lawyer went through and cut many of the most colorful passages in my book. I was left with three words from one Gellhorn letter, in which she refers to Hemingway's “hot jungle breath.”