My Favorite Woman Writer: Martha Gellhorn

David Corbett

Last Thursday, Phillipa released the results of her poll on preferences for male and female authors and protagonists. In my comment, I sheepishly admitted that I’d not really recognized my favoritism toward male authors until obliged to fess up.

And yet I knew there were women writers I not only enjoyed but admired and read greedily. So in a fit of atonement (I’m so Catholic), I felt obliged to discuss one of them here. A woman who has me awestruck, frankly: Martha Gellhorn.

I came upon her by accident—that is, while doing research.

John Updike once remarked that he realized early in his career that he could either be a reader or a writer but not both. Hearing that, I felt welcomed, as it were, to one of the severest regrets of many a professional writer—the lack of time one has to pursue reading for pleasure. Deadlines, the demands of research—not to mention the fear of a sort of stylistic or tonal contamination many novelists experience when they read fiction while at work on a manuscript—bars many of us from reading as widely as we would like.

And so much research requires plodding through impenetrable tracts of dense lifeless data, culling for that one crackling detail that might bring a passage to life. The joy is compound, then, when a source not only provides the information sought, but does so with a fresh, commanding style.

That’s how it was when I encountered the work of Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent for nearly fifty years (as well as a novelist and short story writer), too often known merely for her brief marriage to Ernest Hemingway.


Her collection, The Face of War, drawn from her work covering combat zones from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to Central America in the 1980s, provided one of those rare frissons every reader craves—the discovery of a fresh voice that is so unique, so penetrating, so sure-handed and clear, that every page seems to shimmer or haunt.

Opening the book at random, I came across her descriptions of the Nuremburg defendants, and was spellbound:

Goering’s “terrible mouth . . . a smile that was not a smile, but only a habit his lips had taken.”

Sauckel with his “puzzled stupid butcher-boy face.”

Hess, with “dark dents for eyes,” who “jerked his foreshortened head on his long neck, weird, inquisitive and birdlike.”

Frank with his “small cheap face, pink-cheeked, with a little sharp nose and black sleek hair. He looked patient and composed, like a waiter when the restaurant is not busy.”

Streicher compulsively chewing gum, his face blank: “the face of an idiot, this one.”

The “dreadful, weak” face of Schirach, who from the side sometimes resembled a hypochondriacal woman, who all her life “blackened her family’s existence with complaints.”

But the principal reason I was drawn to her was because, late in her professional life, she ventured to El Salvador, where much of my most recent two novels, Blood of Paradise and Do They Know I’m Running?, take place. She notes that she went there “in stupefying ignorance,” but it was her motive for going that I found inspiring:

As citizens, I think we all have an exhaustive duty to know what our governments are up to, and it is cowardice or laziness to ask: what can I do about it anyway? Every squeak counts, if only in self-respect. Gloomily, because otherwise I would be ashamed of myself, I made the small effort of a detour to El Salvador.

Gellhorn helped me with my own ignorance, just as she corrected her own. She spoke of a young American journalist who checked into the San Salvador Sheraton, left the hotel and then was never seen again until his body was returned to his family a year and a half later. The reason for his murder? No one could tell. Suggesting it might have been a case of mistaken identity, Gellhorn reflects acidly, “When killing is so easy, general and never punished, there must often be casual errors.”

Despite having been in war-ravaged cities such as Madrid, London, Helsinki and Saigon, she found San Salvador to be the most frightening of all. The violence didn’t come loudly from outside, but stealthily from within. The police hunted day and night, and she feared for the people who spoke to her. “Those who should have hated me as an American were friendly and trusting. But I knew what they risked and was awed by their courage.”

She came to admire the country’s poor: “Learning to read is the peasants’ rebellion. Their primer is the Bible. They were called the People of the Word, and that made them subversives. Subversives are prey.”

She was also outraged by the state of the refugee camps, the worst she’d seen since Vietnam. “Without the Church, courageous in El Salvador, the refugees would starve.” And her conversations with the wealthy women of the capital revealed a mind-numbing oblivion to the true state of affairs in their country: Only a few agitators were causing the trouble; talk of murdered civilians was propaganda; if there were any refugees, they were fleeing the Communists.

Such bromides were echoed by President Reagan, for whom Gellhorn harbored a particularly fierce revulsion, describing him as “boyish,” with an “ultra sincere chocolate voice.” When he equated the Nicaraguan Contras with the Founding Fathers, she could barely contain her rage: “This is truly astonishing, since the Founding Fathers were not known to gouge out the eyes and mutilate the bodies of their enemies, or to commit other such unseemly acts.”

Gellhorn found many parallels between El Salvador and Vietnam, which she also covered as a journalist, and she remarked that it was not easy being a citizen of a superpower, nor was it getting easier. She would feel isolated in her shame, she said, if she didn’t belong to a perennial minority of Americans, the “obstinate bleeding hearts who will never agree that might makes right, and know that if the end justifies the means, the end is worthless.” She recalls with both fury and shame how Johnson and Nixon lied about their plans to escalate the conflict in Southeast Asia, cheating America of the leaders its citizens thought they had elected, only to blunder into atrocity:

Power corrupts, an old truism, but why does it also make the powerful so stupid? Their power schemes become unstuck in time, at cruel cost to others; then the powerful put their stupid important heads together and invent the next similar schemes.

Like I said, sometimes research isn’t a chore, it’s a joy, an inspiration. A call to arms. Reading Gellhorn reminded me that the battle against naked power never ends, and life is a daily choosing of sides—if only for self-respect.

* * * * *

Murderateros—who sits on the throne in your temple of revered writers, male or female?

Do you have a favorite war correspondent, or journalist, whose work anchors you once again in the world and reminds you of the stakes of being human, of being alive together at this time, in this place, on this planet?

What inspirational nudge, insight, or life lesson has your favorite writer bestowed?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Boy, this one’s hard, because the post is so damn serious. But I’m going with Arlene Auger, one of my favorite sopranos, who died far too young (age 53) of a brain tumor in 1993. She was a late bloomer, so her career was sadly far too short, but her voice was the essence of simplicity and clarity.

This clip shows her singing “Morgen” (Morning) by Richard Strauss. I chose this piece because Strauss, though exonerated of being a Nazi sympathizer, was nonetheless one of the composers sanctioned by Hitler as fitting for the Third Reich, and Thomas Mann condemned him after the war for being “a Nazi composer.” Despite the messy background, the song is stunning, and reminds me that man is complicated, stitched together from light and dark, and even the wise and gifted routinely fall far short of their ideals (ask Joe Paterno):



20 thoughts on “My Favorite Woman Writer: Martha Gellhorn

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    WOW. Those descriptions are incredible.

    I'm so guilty of not reading anything that's not directly research for whatever I'm working on, but this taste of Gellhorn might make me make an exception. Thanks, D.

  2. David Corbett

    Alex: I know the research trap only too well. But this digression might have its own rewards. Every time I read her I'm stunned, not just her eye for the telling detail but her conscience, her compassion and courage, her fire. And you can always just read one piece, let it sink in.

    Gang: I'll be checking in every couple hours — big workday. If I don't respond promptly, have faith — I will respond, I promise.

  3. Pari Noskin

    "Every squeak counts, if only in self-respect."
    This should be the answer to every single person who says they've given up on our government.

    "Power corrupts, an old truism, but why does it also make the powerful so stupid? Their power schemes become unstuck in time, at cruel cost to others; then the powerful put their stupid important heads together and invent the next similar schemes."

    Oh . . . man . . . the insight and appropriate acid here are staggering.

    As far as literary heroes, I have many. For today, I'll mention Mary McCarthy — I read her book, The Seventh Degree, when I was in college and it has stayed with me for its clarity of prose and unflinching insight.

    And, more recently

  4. David Corbett

    Pari: Looks like we lost you there at the end. I hope you're okay … Please get back to us and let us know if anything's up.

    I think we need those touchstone writers, the ones who awakened us in some way, showed us what was possible, fired us up, kicked our butts, shook us, or made us recognize the power of a feeling, or a good laugh.

  5. JJ

    Wow, beautiful post, David. It teaches on so many levels. And the aria was the perfect way to start the day here on the Left Coast. Thanks for all of it. Now I must find Gellhorn's book and learn more lessons.

  6. Richard Maguire

    A terrific post, David. I enjoyed reading it.

    I haven't read Martha Gellhorn, though I knew, of course, that she'd been married to Hemingway. She seems to have been a very courageous woman. And I'm sure it took a measure of courage, if not foolhardiness, to share a life with that abusive, narcissistic despoiler of wildlife. Who also happened to be one of the best prose stylists of the last century.

    Solzhenitsyn is a writer I admire for his courage and enduring spirit in the face of persecution. And this afternoon I saw it reported that a poet in Chechnya was murdered. His crime was to write about injustice and corruption in his country. Nothing changes.

    As regards war correspondents, I'm just wondering if print journalism has been overshadowed by 24/7 TV news channels. Reporting from war zones these days would seem to be relatively sanitized. Though I know that during the revolution in Libya journalists from both media were abused by the regime.

  7. David Corbett

    Shari: You're more than welcome, thanks for stopping by.

    Richard & Lisa: Michael Herr’s Dispatches (Vietnam) and Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone By, I Miss It So (the Balkan Wars) are both superb. Regarding Afghanistan & Iraq: Dexter Filkins' The Forever War and David Finkel's The Good Soldiers are both exceptional.

    David Simon adapted two of my other favorite books for an HBO miniseries. The books are Generation Kill and One Bullet Away, the former written by Evan Wright, a reporter for Rolling Stone, the latter by Nathaniel Fick, the lieutenant in charge of the marine recon unit Wright was embedded with. None are sanitized; they're quite candid, though there is a respect for military men and women, if not the military bureaucracy, in all these books.

    And though I haven't read it, Janine di Giovanni's Ghosts by Daylight is reportedly great (she was married to war photographer Bruno Girodon), and she covered Libya for Vogue.

  8. Jenni L.

    I am going to have to read Martha Gellhorn now.

    A book that resonates with me, gave me a feeling that some of the experiences I've had have some sort of value beyond myself, is Chris Hedge's War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. He uses a lot of classical literature – Homer's Iliad and The Odyssey and some of Shakespeare's works to amplify his message. It was a book that helped me come to some big realizations about military conflicts I've been through in Africa (Nigerian civil war when I was 6-7 years old) and Asia (military coups in Pakistan and Afghanistan).

    Jeez, David, two posts in two days that relate to our treatment of "others" – it's put my mind in a track I try not to let it go.

    I almost responded to Reine's post yesterday with examples of numerous Muslim friends I've had who've been ill-treated since 9/11, but I held my tongue. My experience in speaking about how I feel about the actions of my own country in waging war on an entire religion have not encouraged me. Martha Gellhorn's expression that as citizens we have a duty to know what our government is up to resonates, and I think that the print media is out there covering these issues, but TV news is busy covering up.

    September 11 forced terrible memories to the surface of being caught, at age 17 on a school outing, in a Russian-backed coup in Kabul. I stood outside and watched for hours as Russian MiGs bombed the other side of the city, until the battle moved closer and we were forced inside by gunfire. I watched through a window as the neighbors were murdered – machine gunned down while pleading for their lives, snipers on every rooftop and soldiers breaking down their door. I felt helpless and shocked. The house I was staying in was shelled, and all night tanks roared up the street in front of us, firing at the president's palace. After that conflict, it was Afghans who looked out for us, made sure we had enough blankets since bombs blew all the windows out of the home I was staying in. I still have split loyalties. I love my country, but I also have deep feelings for people who have struggled through so much conflict in that part of the world through no fault of their own.

    We tend to honor our military in this country without ever a thought for what it is like to be a child, a civilian with no recourse, no weapons, on the ground in the distant places we wage war. I can tell you, it is terrifying. At 4:00 a.m. sitting on a cold kitchen floor with our backpacks on, ready to run for the hills if the soldiers came through the door. Looking out at the bloated dead days later, avoiding soldiers and tanks, jumping at every sound. It is not something to wish on your worst enemy.

    I always felt 9/11 should have been handled as a police matter, that the perpetrators should have been tracked down and brought to justice in a court of law. That bombing people would only create more people who hate us. Afghanistan had already been through more than 25 years of war at the point Bush decided to take out our collective angst on people who had already been through so much. And it was our failure to live up to promises to rebuild Afghanistan after the Russian conflict that allowed terrorists to gain a foothold in that country, our own CIA that had provided weapons and trained the worst of the extremists to fight the Russians. I had so much internal conflict it was almost unbearable. Yet in our media, few of these facts were being covered.

    I read the Hedges book, and it gave me some peace of mind that I wasn't going crazy, that war is and always has been about greed and corruption, about domination and control of resources, about terrorizing people into submission. That politicians will always lie about the reasons and the majority of people will go along, buying into the lies, until reality smacks them in the face. I just wonder why it's taken so long in my own country.

  9. David Corbett

    Jenni: America seems particularly beholden to the notion of righteous violence. It inspired John Brown as well as the Confederacy, Wilson’s “Making the World Safe for Democracy,” Roosevelt’s War Against Facism, the Cold War and now the War on Terror. It's part of our DNA, for better and for worse.

    Mike Connelly once said that what distinguishes American from British crime novels is the conviction that a climactic ass-kicking will solve most problems. All of which unsderscores how egregious the oversight is, the neglect to issues such as you raise, what it means, especially for civilans and most especially children, to be in a war zone. Being liberated is great, unless you can’t see much difference between the new boss and the old boss. And the scars and nightmares persist.

    B.: Ernie Pyle is great, with that pithy, taut, non-nonsense style good reporters from that era all shared. Another great book about WWII is by J. Glenn Gray, a philosophy professor who served in a counter-intelligence unit attached to his infantry division, assisting the campaigns in Africa, Italy and France. The book is called Warriors, and is one of the best reflections on what it means to be in combat I’ve ever read. (I heard about it by reading another excellent book, On Killing, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a military psychologist.)

  10. PD Martin

    Thanks, David for yet another great post. I loved Martha Gellhorn's descriptions too.

    Like you, I find reading for pleasure hard/impossible. And it was comforting that you feel the same 🙂

    Great comments too. And Jenni L…a horrific experience but a great reminder of the people 'on the ground' in war-torn areas.

  11. Reine

    I have more to read, I see. Thank you, David.

    For me it would be Nancy Scheper-Hughes' field research, activism, and writing on violence, suffering . . . death squads and the extermination of street kids in Brazil, the Catholic Church, clerical celibacy, and child sex abuse, repatriation of the brain of Native American Yahi, Ishi (a specimen stored in the Smithsonian) . . . the global traffic in humans for their organs an ". . . invisible and sacrificial violence," THE ENDS OF THE BODY: THE GLOBAL TRAFFIC IN ORGANS.

    She also makes a great latte on the kitchen stove with an old beat-up aluminum pot and wire whisk.

  12. David Corbett

    Reine: Ms. Scheper-Highes sound like inspiration indeed, with a caffeine kicker. And what an interesting thematic segue from the repatriation of Ishi's brain to the international traffic in organs. I'd not be surprised to learn there a story in there somewhere.

  13. Reine

    Yes, many stories there.

    Her latest book on organ trafficking is to be released soon. Nancy's investigation of a ring of organ sellers based in New York, New Jersey and Israel led to many arrests by the FBI in 2009. I'll never forget her telling me about this unbelievable horror in 1992. I really wondered about her – but only momentarily. She is passionate like no one else I have ever met or come to know in "the academy.".


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