Gellhorn, Martha, 1908-1998Variant names
She reported on virtually every major world conflict that took place during her 60-year career. Gellhorn was also the third wife of American novelist Ernest Hemingway, from 1940 to 1945. She died in 1998 in an apparent suicide at the age of 89, ill and almost completely blind. The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism is named after her.
Gellhorn was born on November 8, 1908, in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Edna Fischel Gellhorn, a suffragist, and George Gellhorn, a German-born gynecologist. Her father and maternal grandfather were Jewish, and her maternal grandmother came from a Protestant family. Her brother Walter became a noted law professor at Columbia University, and her younger brother Alfred was an oncologist and former dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
In 1926, Gellhorn graduated from John Burroughs School in St. Louis, and enrolled in Bryn Mawr College, several miles outside Philadelphia. The following year, she left without having graduated to pursue a career as a journalist. Her first published articles appeared in The New Republic. In 1930, determined to become a foreign correspondent, she went to France for two years, where she worked at the United Press bureau in Paris, but was fired after she reported sexual harassment by a man connected with the agency. She spent years traveling Europe, writing for newspapers in Paris and St. Louis and covering fashion for Vogue. She became active in the pacifist movement, and wrote about her experiences in her 1934 book What Mad Pursuit.
Returning to the United States in 1932, Gellhorn was hired by Harry Hopkins, whom she had met through her friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The Roosevelts invited Gellhorn to live at the White House, and she spent evenings there helping Eleanor Roosevelt write correspondence and the first lady’s “My Day” column in Women’s Home Companion. She was hired as a field investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), created by Franklin D. Roosevelt to help end the Great Depression. Gellhorn traveled around the United States for FERA to report on how the Depression was affecting the country. She first went to Gastonia, North Carolina. Later, she worked with Dorothea Lange, a photographer, to document the everyday lives of the hungry and homeless. Their reports became part of the official government files for the Great Depression. They were able to investigate topics that were not usually open to women of the 1930s. She drew on her research to write a collection of short stories, The Trouble I've Seen (1936). In Idaho doing FERA work, Gellhorn convinced a group of workers to break the windows of the FERA office to draw attention to their crooked boss. Although this worked, she was fired from FERA.
Gellhorn met Ernest Hemingway during a 1936 Christmas family trip to Key West, Florida. Gellhorn had been hired to report for Collier's Weekly on the Spanish Civil War, and the pair decided to travel to Spain together. They celebrated Christmas of 1937 in Barcelona. In Germany, she reported on the rise of Adolf Hitler and in the spring of 1938, months before the Munich Agreement, she was in Czechoslovakia. After the outbreak of World War II, she described these events in the novel A Stricken Field (1940). She later reported the war from Finland, Hong Kong, Burma, Singapore, and England. Lacking official press credentials to witness the Normandy landings, she hid in a hospital ship bathroom, and upon landing impersonated a stretcher bearer; she later recalled, "I followed the war wherever I could reach it." She was the only woman to land at Normandy on D-Day on June 6, 1944. She was also among the first journalists to report from Dachau concentration camp after it was liberated by US troops on April 29, 1945.
Gellhorn and Hemingway lived together off and on for four years, before marrying in November 1940. (Hemingway had ostensibly lived with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, until 1939). Increasingly resentful of Gellhorn's long absences during her reporting assignments, Hemingway wrote to her when she left their Finca Vigía estate near Havana in 1943 to cover the Italian Front: "Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?" Hemingway, however, would later go to the front just before the Normandy landings, and Gellhorn also went, with Hemingway trying to block her travel. When she arrived by means of a dangerous ocean voyage in war-torn London, she told him she had had enough. She had found, as had his other wives, that, as described by Bernice Kert in The Hemingway Women: "Hemingway could never sustain a long-lived, wholly satisfying relationship with any one of his four wives. Married domesticity may have seemed to him the desirable culmination of romantic love, but sooner or later he became bored and restless, critical and bullying." After four contentious years of marriage, they divorced in 1945.
The 2012 film Hemingway & Gellhorn is based on these years. The 2011 documentary film No Job for a Woman: The Women Who Fought to Report WWII features Gellhorn and how she changed war reporting.
In her last years, Gellhorn was in frail health, nearly blind and suffering from ovarian cancer that had spread to her liver. On February 15, 1998, she committed suicide in London apparently by swallowing a cyanide capsule.
The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism was established in 1999 in her honor.
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