Our Intrepid Reporter

By Stan Persky | October 15, 2017

Caroline Moorehead, Martha Gellhorn: A Life (2003).
Martha Gellhorn, The Face of War (1988).

Dwight Garner, a literary critic for the New York Times, has an occasional series called “American Beauties,” which celebrates “undersung American books of the last 75 years.” I like that word, “undersung.” The other day, Garner rescued Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another (1978) from the forgotten pile. (Dwight Garner, “Riding Shotgun on Martha Gellhorn’s Brave and Comic Adventures,” New York Times, Oct. 12, 2017.)

Martha Gellhorn, “The Face
of War.”

Being a peripatetic book reviewer myself (admittedly, a dying craft these days, peripatetic or not), and coincidentally having re-encountered Martha Gellhorn recently, one of the things that recurrently strikes me about the adventure of reading is the odd itinerary that leads to unlikely books and hindsight reflections on them. The present belated reading of Caroline Moorehead’s now more than dozen-year-old biography, Martha Gellhorn: A Life (2003), and Gellhorn’s own The Face of War (1988 edition) is a case in point. I’ll tell you about the twisty road that got me to Gellhorn (1908-1998) in a minute, but first, a word of identification about a once-fairly-prominent writer whom you’re forgiven in advance for not having  heard of.

As fellow biographer Hermone Lee put it in a long-ago review of Moorehead’s

Caroline Moorehead’s “Gellhorn.”

story of this particular life-and-times, “Gellhorn was a dauntless war journalist and traveller, and a minor fiction writer.” That’s about as succinct and accurate a thumbnail sketch as one needs to outline the career, if not the person. The word “intrepid” —  meaning fearless, adventurous, or as Lee has it, “dauntless” — is “often used for rhetorical or humorous effect” (as in the phrase,“our intrepid reporter”), but Gellhorn represents one of those rare instances where the term must be used literally, with respect to both life and career. (cf. Google, “intrepid.”)

As a 20th century journalist, she not only covered the war in Spain in the 1930s, and the Second World War after that, but her tour of duty extended all the way to Vietnam and Central America in the 1960s and 1980s (with a few stops for clashes in between). As a traveler to, and resident of, various odd places, she pitched up on African mountains; Cuban fincas; Brazilian, Vietnamese and Italian orphanages (she adopted an Italian war orphan); and spent a good deal of time snorkling in the pellucid waters off several continents. In short, “our intrepid reporter” knew her way around. (Hermione Lee, “One of the chaps,” The Guardian, Nov. 1, 2003. Lee, by the way, is the biographer of Virginia Woolf, among others.)

Hemingway and Gellhorn.

Gellhorn’s tour of alpha males makes for a soap opera story in itself – in Travels with Myself and Another, the “other” is none other than Ernest Hemingway, to whom Gellhorn was, as we say today, “partnered,” from the Spanish Civil War to the conclusion of World War II. She ended up – to put it mildly – loathing her fellow traveler.

Gellhorn’s erotic career was storied from the start. Her first major relationship, around 1930, was with the economist Bertrand de Jouvenal, the stepson of French novelist Colette (with whom the 16-year-old Jouvenal had had a scandalous affair of his own that is indirectly reflected in Colette’s masterpiece, Cheri). Along the way, Gellhorn had affairs and/or marriages with sundry others, including a glamorous WWII paratrooper general, James (“Jumpin’ Jim”) Gavin and a former editor of Time magazine, T.S. Matthews. (The latter, after the marriage ended, was the useful spigot of alimony that allowed Gellhorn to maintain her accustomed lifestyle and independence). Oddly enough, as biographer Moorehead makes clear, Gellhorn pretty much detested the sex part of her relationships, certainly with Hemingway, but also with men she otherwise liked. Even femmes fatales get the blues.


Just before taking a second look at what matters about Gellhorn – namely, her writing from the front —  let me inject a thought or two about how I got from there to here. About a million years ago – okay, 30 or 40 years, then – while churning out books of political journalism, as well as subsidiary volumes documenting current events, and editions of landmark court decisions, I came up with the idea for a little anthology of the writings of great but more or less forgotten journalists that could re-appear under the title of Ace Reporters. I talked my journalistic buddy of the time, Tom Hawthorn, into co-editing this imaginary book with me. We quickly came up with a possible cast of writers that included Carleton Beals, Martha Gellhorn and various other journalists Tom knew of, such as John L. Spivak, who exposed Georgia chain gangs and Nazis in America. We thought about Josephine Herbst, Anna Louise Strong, George Seldes, and others whose names I’ve forgotten — all in all, a pretty intrepid lot.

The Ace Reporters project started around the time of Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution in 1979-80 when I went to Managua and visited my writer friend Margaret Randall (who was living and working there). Subsequently, I wrote some pieces about the Nicaraguan political upheaval for the Vancouver Sun. Somewhere within that investigation I discovered the journalism of Carleton Beals (1893-1979).

Carleton Beals writing in The Nation,

In the late 1920s, Beals was the correspondent for The Nation magazine who got an exclusive interview with Augusto Sandino, the legendary Nicaraguan leader fighting a guerrilla war against the United States and the local dictator whom they’d installed and were propping up. In my local library, I read Beals’ eyewitness dispatches from the Nicaraguan war in the yellowed pages of the radical magazine he wrote for in the 1920s and 30s. Though infrequently acknowledged today, Beals was a well-known writer in his day, the author of more than a dozen volumes of history, biography and travel.

As for Sandino, though a victim of political assassination, he was never defeated in battle, and his Central American war, both in terms of methods and politics, was something of a precursor to the later anti-imperialist guerrilla war in Vietnam in the 1960s. After his death in 1933, Sandino was remembered by Nicaraguans as a national hero and served as an inspiration for the rebel forces who in 1979 toppled Anastasio Somoza, the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan dictator. (Unfortunately, his overthrow didn’t mark the end of U.S. meddling in Nicaragua or elsewhere in Central America, as Gellhorn notes in her own collection of war reporting, The Face of War. I should add that my colleague, Margaret Randall, wrote one of the better books about the Nicaraguan events, Sandino’s Daughters (1981), focusing on women in the Sandinista revolution.)

I don’t quite remember how Tom Hawthorn and I got to Martha Gellhorn. There was something of a revival of her work in her later decades, as Moorehead records, but most likely we knew of her simply as the war-correspondent-former-wife of Ernest Hemingway, whose career took off when she was covering the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. As Hermione Lee notes in her review of Caroline Moorehead’s bio of Gellhorn, “Moorehead is interesting on how much better a reporter Gellhorn was than Hemingway (though he was incomparably better at fiction).” Lee adds that Moorehead also astutely explores “how they both failed, in their passion for the republican cause, to come clean about the violence and killings within the anti-Franco alliance,” a subject that only George Orwell unflinchingly examined in Homage to Catalonia (1938), his own reportage from the Spanish Civil War.

Of course, Ace Reporters was such a splendidly good idea that it never happened. I put Beals, Gellhorn, et al out of my mind until a million years later – okay, okay, 30, 40 years later, it just seems like a million years – when Karen X. Tulchinsky, a Vancouver novelist and old acquaintance of mine came to Germany this year to do some research for a book she was working on about Berlin in the 1930s. One of the characters in her manuscript is a woman journalist from Canada and Karen wondered about what sort of place she might have lived in. And that started us, or me, thinking about journalists and other writers who had lived and written in Berlin (or at least Europe) in the 1930s.

Obviously, there was Christopher Isherwood, who lived on the top floor of an apartment building near Nollendorf Platz in Berlin, where he began writing Goodbye to Berlin in the shadow of the rise of the Nazis. And then there was Janet Flanner, the longtime author of “Letter from Paris” for The New Yorker magazine, who had Parisien flats and countryside retreats with her various current and past same-sex partners, with all of whom she apparently maintained friendly relations. And that led to that other woman, what was her name?, who lived in Spain, France, and Germany at the end of WWII (she was one of the first reporters to write from the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp). It was on the tip of our tongues, but we couldn’t remember. As soon as Karen left, it came to me. “Martha Gellhorn,” I messaged her. Of course, our intrepid reporter. Which naturally – what else do we have to do? – led me to Moorehead’s engaging bio and Gellhorn’s own eyewitness accounts.


In Madrid in July 1937, “at first the shells went over: you could hear the thud as they left the fascists’ guns, a sort of groaning cough; then you heard them fluttering toward you. As they came closer the sound went faster and straighter and sharper and then, very fast, you heard the great booming noise when they hit,” Gellhorn begins.

Spain, 1939.

Three-quarters of a century later, when I mentioned this direct precursor to World War II in a classroom of bright college students, I looked up, feeling the little void in the room that teachers are trained to detect, and asked, “Have you heard of the Spanish Civil War?” They hadn’t. “But now, for I don’t know how long – because time doesn’t mean much – they had been hitting on the street in front of the hotel, and on the corner, and to the left in the side street,” wrote Gellhorn. “When the shells hit that close, it was a different sound. The shells whistled toward you – it was as if they whirled at you – faster than you could imagine speed… There wasn’t anything to do or anywhere to go: you  could only wait. But waiting alone in a room that got dustier and dustier as the powdered cobblestones of the street floated into it was pretty bad.”

In the reports from the Spanish front that Gellhorn wrote for Collier’s magazine, there wasn’t a need for a lot of ideological explanation. Most people knew what side they were on – except perhaps for the democracies, like Britain, France, and the U.S., that failed to come to the aid of Republican Spain, thus allowing the spread of fascism. What there was, was a need for an intrepid reporter to convey a sense of what it was like to be in Madrid as the bombs whistled down. That’s what Gellhorn did. Since it was “pretty bad” waiting in a room, Gellhorn went “downstairs into the lobby, practicing on the way how to breathe. You couldn’t help breathing strangely, just taking the air into your throat and not being able to inhale it.” The concierge was in the lobby, with his impeccable manners to the end, “and he said, apologetically, ‘I regret this. Mademoiselle. It is not pleasant. I can guarantee you that the bombing in November was worse. However, it is regrettable.’”

What could you do? “You could only wait,” Gellhorn says. “All over Madrid, for fifteen days now, people had been waiting. You waited for the shelling to start, and for it to end, and for it to start again… Looking out the door, I saw people standing in doorways all around the square, just standing there patiently, and then suddenly a shell landed, and there was a fountain of granite cobblestones flying up into the air, and the silver lyddite smoke floated off softly.” Getting the picture? Sometimes the right 1,000 words is worth more than a picture.

“Later, you could see people around Madrid examining the new shell holes with curiosity and wonder. Otherwise they went on with the routine of their lives, as if they had been interrupted by a heavy rainstorm but nothing more.” You went where you had to go, the corner café, a shoe store, “Chicote’s bar at the end of the day, walking up the street which was No Man’s Land…  on the way you had passed a dead horse and a very dead mule, chopped with shell fragments, and you had passed crisscrossing trails of human blood on the pavement.” In the Plaza Major, “for a moment it stops. An old woman with a shawl over her shoulders, holding a terrified thin little boy by the hand, runs out into the square. You know what she is thinking: she is thinking she must get the child home, you are always safer in your own place… Somehow you do not believe you can get killed when you are sitting in your own parlor, you never think that. She is in the middle of the square when the next one comes.” No, you don’t want to know what happens next, but Gellhorn will tell you if you bother to read her.

In WWII, Gellhorn was one of the first reporters and the only woman journalist in June 1944 to arrive with the armada of ships hitting the Normandy beaches – “people will be writing about this sight for a hundred years and whoever saw it will never forget it… it seemed incredible; there could not be so many ships in the world,” Gellhorn wrote from the hospital ship she had snuck aboard.

Cologne, Germany, 1945.

And then when it was just about over, in April 1945, Gellhorn was there, with the troops crossing the Rhine into Germany. She could be scathingly sardonic when the occasion called for it: “No one is a Nazi. No one ever was. There may have been some Nazis in the next village… To tell you the truth, confidentially there were a lot of Communists here. We were always known as very Red. Oh, the Jews? Well, there weren’t really many Jews in this neighborhood. Two maybe, maybe six. They were taken away. I hid a Jew for six weeks… We have nothing against the Jews; we always got on well with them… They all talk like this. One asks oneself how the detested Nazi government… managed to carry on this war for five and a half years. Obviously not a man, woman or child in Germany ever approved of the war for a minute, according to them.”

Then it’s over, May 1945.  Gellhorn’s in Dachau, the newly-liberated

Gellhorn on Dachau.

concentration camp just a few kilometers outside Munich. “Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence, the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themseves for lice. They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky.” Her reportage goes on for quite a while. After all, there were more than quite a few deaths. The injection of a deadly bacteria as a Nazi medical experiment could wipe out a few thousand people in a single go. Gellhorn tells you everything. You probably don’t want to know. But if you do, it’s there. You can read it for yourself. One of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century is also one of its greatest anti-war writers.

There’s a lot more to Gellhorn’s life, and Caroliine Moorehead, whose mother was a friend of Gellhorn’s, deftly traces it from Gellhorn’s birth in 1908 in St. Louis to a suffragette mother and a German-born gynecologist father of Jewish origin, all the way to her death in London in 1998, at age 89. Blind, and suffering from ovarian cancer, she swallowed a cyanide capsule.

Martha Gellhorn.

The last years were tough – a strain of self-lacerating depression had long been part of the package — but by Moorehead’s account, there were some rewards. For most of her life, Gellhorn was a wandering loner. She had  friends – from her activist mother to Eleanor Roosevelt, and there was always that string of interesting, ultimately unsatisfactory men – but for the most part Gellhorn preferred to correspond with friends by mail rather than have them around. She appeared to be happiest living in the middle of somewhere remote, with little more company than the local housekeepers she managed to hire. But toward the end, in London, Moorehead tells us, she attracted a group of mostly young people who liked to visit her – among them, her future biographer – and to sit, so to speak, at the master’s well-traveled feet. They found her good company and she, for once, was not agitated by their presence, but welcomed it. Our intrepid reporter, who had been everywhere, had set anchor.


Of course, one of the reasons for thinking about Martha Gellhorn at this moment — in addition to the quality of her work, which is the main thing — is that it sharpens our thoughts about, first, the state of journalism today and, second, the state of journalism in the Era of Trump. I’ll be brief.

Journalism is facing its greatest period of disruption in more than a half-century. The digital transformation has knocked the economic pins out from under newspapers. City news rooms are ghost caverns. The “news hole” is shrinking. The disappearance of book reviewing, much of which has migrated to Amazon and Goodreads, is so complete that it’s barely worth lamenting. There’s still good reporting around, but much of it is inundated by vapid online “fake news.”

To make matters worse, there’s the Era of Trump. The current American president, Donald J. Trump, has made the attack on the media his signature policy (given his failure to pass any significant legislation, perhaps that counts as an accomplishment). He’s called journalism “the enemy of the people.” He’s taken the phrase “fake news” and attempted to pin it on the New York Times and CNN. He’s come within a hair of undercutting the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution, which guarantees a free press. He’s called for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to think about revoking the broadcast licenses of stations whose coverage of him he doesn’t like.

Yet, oddly enough, Trump has also inspired a lot of journalists to dig deeper. Deeper into the record, rage, incoherence and ignorance of Donald Trump, that is. If we manage to survive this period (and I’m not giving odds on it), we may look back at the journalism of the Trump Era as one of the things that held the country and/or the world together. Our present situation, where facts, truth and reality are all a little more precariously conceived, makes “dear reader” increasingly appreciative of the days when ace reporters sent in their dispatches from the front. Today, they call old-fashioned mainstream journalism “legacy media.” If you need reminding of what such an ace reporter looks like in action, of what the “legacy” is worth that’s been bequeathed to us, Martha Gellhorn is a good place to start.


Berlin, Oct. 15, 2017





  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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