Life is elsewhere

Beautiful Exile: the life of Martha Gellhorn

Carl Rollyson <em>Aurum Press, 304pp, £18.99</em>


Martha Gellhorn was one of those people - the Duchess of Windsor and E M Forster being two others - who lived so long that, by the end, they were almost existing outside time. When the news came that Gellhorn had died, just shy of her 90th birthday in 1998, it seemed incredible that she had not gone years before. Her best work, the source of her fame, were the reports she filed from Spain in 1937 and from the rest of Europe during 1943 and 1944. Likewise, the relationship that defined her in the public's mind was her marriage to Ernest Hemingway from 1940-45, which had the effect of sealing her into the mid-century. The photographs of Gellhorn familiar to everyone are all from that time: her and Papa lounging by the pool in Cuba, or togged up ready for hunting in Sun Valley, or sitting in a New York nightclub, exuding smoky sophistication.

Yet Gellhorn continued to live and work for decades afterwards. Wherever there was a war, especially when it seemed obvious who was right and wrong, you could be sure to find her filing her clear, unfussy reports (Hemingway's, by comparison, read as blustery and self-involved). When a career as a roving reporter abroad no longer seemed feasible - she was nearly 60 by the time she went to Jerusalem to work on the Six Day War - Gellhorn settled in London and turned her passionate attention to describing the conditions of the poor in Thatcher's Britain. Right up to a few months before her death, she was struggling into radio studios to give interviews in the Waspy East Coast accent that made everyone think of Katherine Hepburn.

In fact, Gellhorn was neither a Wasp, nor from the East Coast. Her German, part-Jewish family came from St Louis, a city that, despite the boost of the World Fair in 1904, was obliged to play second fiddle to Chicago. Still, the city was sufficiently established to support an upper-middle-class elite of those such as the Gellhorns, who combined professional success (her father was an eminent doctor) with a strong ethical and social conscience. Dr Gellhorn's wife, Edna, was a woman of extraordinary vision and vigour, who could be found at the front of any and every project to raise the quality of life of the poor and excluded. It was in this atmosphere of sceptical, passionate and puritanical (the German influence remained strong) radicalism that Martha and her three brothers were raised.

Gellhorn left Bryn Mawr College early, finding it stuffy and pointless after the education she had received at the progressive St Louis school devised and built by her mother. Instead, she took a job on a newspaper in rough, tatty Albany and entered a Hold the Front Page world of clanking typewriters and sassy girl reporters in well-cut slacks. But, from the moment Gellhorn started at the Albany Times Union, it was clear that she had the instincts and personality of a natural freelance - easily bored, snappy with authority, always wanting to be somewhere else. Leaving for Paris in 1930 with only $75 in her pocket, she embarked on a restless tour of the world, which was, over the following 60 years, to involve residence in Cuba, Africa, Mexico, London and Wales.

How well Gellhorn's journalism stands the test of time is debatable. In one sense, there is no reason why it should: this was writing produced under all kinds of pressure and designed to have a very particular effect. Pieces such as "Only the Shells Whine", filed from Madrid in 1937, were intended to make the reader feel what it was like to be living in the middle of the war zone. Gellhorn describes having an artillery shell whizz past your ear, and takes us to a military hospital where we see young men with their faces completely gone. Despite the lucid, transparent prose, the article feels more like a short story than it does a piece of journalism (ironically, none of Gellhorn's dozen or so novels ever managed the passion and power of these ad hoc pieces).

What Gellhorn was not particularly interested in were the confusions and contradictions of the bigger picture. Passionately identified with the Republican cause, she never reported (perhaps because she could not bear to acknowledge) the cruelty and violence inflicted by the Soviet agents who were supposed to be on the same side.

Gellhorn was not an easy woman to get to know, and Carl Rollyson does not pretend to have managed it. An American academic, he does not claim an emotional intimacy with a subject who would have been appalled by that kind of sentimental presumption. As a result, however, Gellhorn remains always in the middle distance of this biography - clear in outline, but never allowing us a good close-up view. This is not helped by some odd lacunae in Rollyson's account of Gellhorn's emotional life. For instance, he tells us that, for all her good looks and multiple lovers, she didn't really enjoy sex, yet he never speculates as to whether this was connected with her failure to have children. And when he gets to the part of the story where, in 1949, Gellhorn, now 40 and single, adopted a child, he never stops to wonder what might have prompted this late (and, as it turned out, rather unsuccessful) foray into motherhood.

Still, this apparent lack of interest in Gellhorn's inner life is no doubt the price one has to pay for a biography that is clear, dispassionate and admirably well informed about the larger context through which she moved so forcefully and for so long.

Kathryn Hughes is a biographer and critic

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men