Martha Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn: 1908-1998

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By the time the United States entered WWII in 1941 after the Pearl Harbor attacks, Martha Gellhorn had been reporting war for 6 years: the Civil War in Spain, the Russian invasion of Finland, and the Japanese invasion of China.

Her career as a war reporter began shortly after meeting  writer and war reporter, Ernest Hemingway, in a bar in Key West in 1936. On vacation with her family after the success of her book The Troubles I’ve Seen (1936) — written for the Roosevelt Administration about the effects of the Depression on ordinary Americans, Gellhorn was intrigued by the famous author and flattered by his attentions. Hemingway was still married to his second wife, Pauline, and Gellhorn was eager to move on to the next phase of her life. They vowed to meet again in Spain.

In Spain, Gellhorn and Hemingway, met up with John Dos Passos, to report on the fascist uprising against the Republican government. Gellhorn felt ill-equipped to be a war reporter because she was not knowldegable about artillery or battle manouevers. Hemingway encouraged her to write about what she did know about: people. Thus began, Gellhorn’s style of war reporting: the effects of war on ordinary people.

Gellhorn and Hemingway first heard about the Pearl Harbor attacks while they were sitting in a bar on the Mexican border and a paper-boy ran in with newspapers, yelling “La guerra, la guerra.” By then they were married and had travelled around the globe while she reported on the various conflicts that would culminate in WWII. She described him as her UC – Unwilling Companion – in her amusing memoir Travels With Myself and Another (1978).

Upon their return to Cuba and their home The Finca, Gellhorn listened intently to news of the war on the radio. She and Hemingway were working on novels, but she was unable to remain on the sidelines of the war any longer.  Knowing her passion for covering war, Hemingway urged her to contact her Collier’s editor about an assignment. She was surprised to learn that despite her years reporting war and her intimate connection with the Roosevelt’s she would not be accredited because female reporters were not being permitted into war zones.

The assignment, she did finally create for herself in the spring of 1942 was to sail around the Caribbean to see how war was affecting the people in that area. She went armed with a copy of Proust; she returned with an 11,000-word description of life during war in the Caribbean and her travails getting from one island to another.

Coincidentally, Dickey Chapelle was in Panama at the same time reporting on the training exercises of the Bushmasters. Chapelle was a novice at this point in her career, yet both the novice and the veteran war reporter, Gellhorn, were excluded from the war zone because they were women.

In the fall of 1943, female reporters were finally accredited into war zones to report the war, but with specific restrictions: they could not go to the frontlines, have access to press camp or Jeeps, and they were to report on the activities of female military personnel. Gellhorn agreed to abide by the restrictions and received accreditation with Collier’s magazine.

Her reports from Europe covered a wide swath: reports from the so-called “rear-area” of the war zone in London where she covered the effects of the war by visiting hospitals and wounded soldiers, refugee camps, and writing about ordinary people living their lives during wartime.

Finally, she decided to abandon the relative safety of London and forge ahead on her own to get to the frontlines of the war. Amidst the destruction she witnessed and reported on from North Africa, Italy, the D-Day Landing Beaches in Normandy, France, to the horrors of Dachau was the deterioration of her own personal life – her marriage to Hemingway and the freedom of spirit in her soul that she said lost forever.

Gellhorn’s career as a war reporter spanned six decades.

Actor Elyse Mirto on portraying Martha Gellhorn.

“What is Martha Gellhorn’s legacy?” — Caroline Moorehead, author of Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life
Elyse Mirto portrays Martha Gellhorn


Women reporters during WWII were told war reporting was No Job For a Woman. Buy the DVD, available for purchase from Women Make Movies, to find out how these women over came the restrictions and created a new way of telling the story of war.
2011, 61 minutes, Color, DVD, English

Click here to purchase a copy of the film

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