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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some birthday cake for an intrepid war correspondent.
** Linger to smile over finding a lost treasure box.
** Savor a last ½ cup admiring the skill of a world-class letter writer.
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She sends a long letter;
Gets back a post card.
Times are hard.
– from Mexico
lyrics by James Taylor
Slice of Cake:
I first heard about Martha Gellhorn from two wonderful books—
a biography and a collection of her letters.
Both are by Caroline Moorehead.1
Both books are ginormous.
I think that says a lot about Martha Gellhorn.
She lived a long life and a big life.
And she wrote thousands of addictively readable letters.
Her letters were written to her buddies: Lifelong girlfriends. Close male friends. Lovers. Two husbands. Her adopted son and stepsons. Heaps of famous names like Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, and H.G. Wells.
Martha’s favorite correspondent was her mom.
It is one of the best treats in life
to find someone that you can laugh with.
– from Travels with Myself and Another (1978)
by Martha Gellhorn
Blond and thin and sassy…
There was a glamour about Martha Gellhorn,
the glamour of black-and-white movies.
It was in her manner and
her way with the ways of the world.
– Bill Buford,
her friend and publisher
It’s appropriate that Martha Gellhorn is on a postage stamp.
In 2008, the U.S. postal service issued a tribute to 5 American Journalists:
they featured 4 men and Martha.
I’ve now read some or all of these books by Martha Gellhorn:
The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936),
a series of short stories inspired by her work as a field investigator for Roosevelt’s FERA (Federal Emergency Relief Administration), sometimes traveling with photographer Dorothea Lange.
(There’s a new 2012 edition from Eland Books.)
The Face of War (1959, updated in 1993),
a collection of articles she wrote as a war correspondent in 8 countries, spanning almost 50 years, from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to Vietnam in the 1960s and Central America in the 1970s.
Travels with Myself and Another (1978),
a funny collection of what she calls ‘horror journeys.’ In the introduction (2001 edition), Bill Buford calls this “her most revealing book, the closest thing we’ll get to an autobiography.”
The ‘Another’ in the title is a sly reference to her first husband. In the book, she calls him U. C., or ‘Unwilling Companion.’ (Outside the book, we call him Ernest Hemingway.)
Martha Gellhorn also wrote novels, novellas, and countless magazine articles.
But it’s her letters that, once I start quoting them, it’s hard to stop…
(See “Half Cup More” below.)
Given the classic question:
“What 3 books would you bring if stranded on a desert island?”
I’d say Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn would be a brilliant choice.
Challenged with sand, solitude, and survival, I’m guessing a steady dose of Gellhorn grit—
her adventurousness, raw courage, acceptance of her own foibles, and renewable capacity for laughter—would be just the thing.
Happy 111th Birthday
** Martha Gellhorn **
– born November 8, 1908
in St Louis, Missouri
Why don’t write me?
I’m out in the jungle,
I’m hungry to hear you.
– from Why Don’t Write Me
lyrics by Paul Simon
Been thinking this week about the late, great art of letter writing.
In the first line of her preface to the collected letters,1
Caroline Moorehead writes, “Martha Gellhorn belonged to the age—
perhaps the last age—when writing letters was a natural part of life.”
Oh, dagger in my heart.
I love writing letters. I love receiving letters.
I was in elementary school when my mom set me up with my two cousins as pen pals. I began to write back and forth with Ruth and Janice, in far-away Michigan and Ohio. I wouldn’t meet either of them until we were adults, but we were pen pals for years.
And it started me on a life-long habit.
A communication made by visible characters
from one person to another at a distance.
The style of letters ought to be
free, easy and natural.
– definition #2
Webster’s Dictionary, 1828 edition
During my gap year in San Francisco and Oregon, I easily wrote over a hundred letters.
Clearly, my daughter inherited the gene.
I’ve kept all the letters I received from friends and family over the years. I have them still, in boxes and one big suitcase. But I had a special box— a small beautiful wooden box with a key—where I kept the most cherished letters, notes, and a few mementos. I did this from the time I left home until after both my kids were born;
let’s call it 16 years.
Then B and I, with our two small kids, moved out of town. A year later, we moved out of state. Three years after that, we moved internationally.
And I couldn’t find my box of love letters.
Other things were also missing:
Music CDs and a snow globe that had all been in that same bedroom.
For the past 23 years I have blamed the moving company for losing that precious box.
Last month, late at night, while trying to organize the impossible build-up of decades of loose family photographs, I opened a box marked simply ‘photos.’
And I pulled out a snowglobe…
I found letters, love notes, a beautiful necklace of dried rosebuds, and…
– a handkerchief that was a childhood gift from my mom,
– some birdseed from my wedding. (It was an 80s thing.)
– 2 letters from my dad during my college years,
– a note from my sister that she’d tucked into a lunch bag for my greyhound bus ride,
– a letter from my brother during his very brief military career,
– florist enclosure notes, valentines, a poem, a song, and a couple of sketches,
– several notes I wrote to myself while angsting about boys,
– 6 letters, 2 drawings, and 10 notes from my lifelong girlfriends: Carlyn, Kathy, and Lois.
– 4 shells, a plastic dinosaur, and a fortune that says ‘You are interested in higher education, whether material or spiritual.’
– 2 letters and 3 notes from B. (When we were college, we’d leave notes on each other’s bicycles on campus. A kind of texting before cellphones.)
– There are two letters from my friend Tammy. We’d worked together at a bakery in Corvallis, Oregon. She and I wrote back and forth a few years, but as we were both rambling girls in those days, we lost touch. Which was such a shame. I miss her still. And she wrote such terrific letters:
Jan 27, 1981
Dearest Kelly O Sweetmeat Pie,
Ah, there are so many goodnesses to come; that’s all I can say after skipping around the perimeter of this kibbutz and seeing all those damn stars. Yup, there are infinite good days to come! Been feeling pretty puppydoggish lately, kind of mischievous & kind of like a real kid, gutsy, self-centered, easily contented & imaginative. Your writing me a letter was like getting a bag full of chocolate by surprise. Ah Kelly, when will we be living near each other again? I’m (maybe) thinking of Corvallis for Fall…
Corvallis has a good vibe & good, fresh vegetables & a river. We’ll see. I miss fresh spinach, and my Schwinn Wasp… & Brad. I speak to Brad all the time from my heart so I don’t miss him too much. He’s my blood bro, my chewed bubble gum, my lit oil lamp, my woolen blanket, my yellow overalls…
Are girls in general more greedy for affection? When you’ve had a boyfriend have you been jealous of his other female friends? Kelly, isn’t life very beautiful & magical? And don’t moods just pass?
Oh, soo sleepee. Goodnight my treasured emerald ginger snap. I love you. Must catch some sleep. Love, Tam-Tam
“Half Cup More”
Here are more Gellhorn quotes. Because I can’t stop myself.
How I wish I were a journalist again,
that life of rushing and asking questions,
trying to tell the liars from the ones who maybe know the facts…
Where I want to be, boy, is where it is all blowing up.
– letter to John Gunther
I have just finished three books by Henry James.
Never read him before… he writes with such unique care.
I think the style is often ridiculous, don’t you:
and there is an old-lady quality that amazes me…
James reminds me of a philosophical discussion Ernest once had
with Scott Fitzgerald… He once said to Ernest,
in an admiring wistful way, ‘The rich are not like us, Ernest.’
And Ernest said, ‘No, they have more money.’
So that is the way James makes me feel too.
The man was in love with aristocracy (his word, and his meaning);
but I can never see how the aristocrats are so astounding,
except that they talk very fancy and spend more money. Am I all wrong?
Anyhow, James makes delightful war reading.
– letter to H. G. Wells
On D-day 1944, Martha Gellhorn had no authorization to travel with the troops. She was underfunded, underappreciated by her sometime-editor, and seriously undermined by her current-but-not-for-long husband. She went anyway. All the way to the beach. Some accounts say she was the only reporter that landed at Normandy. Some say she was the only woman on the beach that day.
Moorehead’s book describes Gellhorn’s D-Day story—
How, as the launch got closer, Martha had scrambled about for ‘her own way to France.’
She was nosing around the docks late at night when military police stopped and questioned her.
Gellhorn glanced up at the nearest ship, saw a huge red cross painted on its side, and improvised.
She’s supposed to interview the nurses, she said, on that ship…
It’s for a magazine, she added, flashing her expired press pass.
The police let her go.
Once on board, she hid in the bathroom until the ship was underway.
“Was drinking a lot of whisky…I was very scared, drank, got unscared,” she wrote a friend later.
No one questioned her presence on board.1
Gellhorn describes the Normandy landing in The Face of War, in the chapter The First Hospital Ship. Her reporting is exciting to read, even after all these years. She doesn’t mention how she—a reporter, not a nurse—ended up as a stretcher bearer on shore, bandage-carrier onboard, interpreting for French and German soldiers, organizing sandwiches for the wounded…
There were six nurses aboard…
They had been prepared to work on a
hospital train…instead of which they found themselves
on a ship…about to move across the
dark, cold green water of the Channel.
This sudden switch in plans
was simply part of the day’s work
and each one, in her own way, got through the grim business
of waiting for the unknown to start, as elegantly as she could…
No one aboard had ever been on a hospital ship before,
so the helpful voice of experience was lacking.
The water ambulance could not come inshore near enough…
so it left us to look for a likelier anchorage farther down.
We waded ashore in water to our waists, having agreed that
we would assemble the wounded from this area…and wait for
the water ambulance to come back and call for us. It was
almost dark by now and… everyone was violently busy on that
crowed dangerous shore. The pebbles were the size of melons
and we stumbled up a road that a
huge road shovel was scooping out. We walked with the
utmost care between the narrowly placed white tape lines
that marked the mine-cleared path…
– from The Face of War
in the chapter ‘The First Hospital Ship’
Women are just as interesting as men, often more so;
but their lives seem to me either too hard,
with an unendurable daily exhausting drab hardness
or too soft and whipped cream.
– letter to Eleanor Roosevelt
from South Carolina
Get over the last-chance feeling.
Work steadily, modestly, sincerely, but not desperately.
It is not that I have all the time in the world:
it is that panic will ruin the remaining time.
– list of instructions for herself
Anyone who can read a newspaper or listen to a radio knows that some of us mortals have the power to destroy the human race… By playing with our new weapons, we poison the air, the water, the soil of our planet, damage the health of the living, and weaken the chances of the unborn… The world’s leaders seem strangely engaged in private feuds. They hurtle in airplanes on their Olympian business; they meet each other, always each other… The world’s leaders appear to have lost touch with life down here on the ground, to have forgotten the human beings they lead.
As one of the millions of the led, I will not be herded any further along this imbecile road to nothingness without raising my voice in protest. My NO will be as effective as one cricket chirp. My NO is this book. It is hard not to sound like a harangue, not to boom or squeak. And very hard (for me, certainly) to make one-two-three sense… I see mysteries and complications wherever I look… Still one can sometimes say what one means, with immense effort.
There is a single plot in war; action is based on hunger, homelessness, fear, pain and death. Starving wounded children, in Barcelona in 1938 and in Nijmegen in 1944, were the same. Refugees, dragging themselves and whatever they could carry away from war to no safety, were one people all over the globe. The shapeless bundle of a dead American soldier in the snow of Luxembourg was like any other soldier’s corpse in any other country. War is a horrible repetition.
– from The Face of War
Oh Diana, Diana…This is something
I had never never thought of: ill-health…
I have always looked forward to my old age
…I saw myself as a ghastly old woman,
fat as a pig and not giving a damn,
not doing anything which bored me even for a second,
with a mean tongue and a lot of
equally tough old chums, sitting about
make derogatory comments on the human condition,
with a whiskey bottle at my elbow.
– letter to Diana Cooper
February 2, 1960
My life is positively starred with mistakes.
But they all had value one way or the other.
The dread Ernest taught me things about
the world I’d never have known, and living with him
I wrote more than at any time before or since,
which is reason enough not to regret him.
I’ll have to tell you about Mombasa
but I don’t know what description will mean…
A lot of Vervet monkeys live on my place…
sometimes perched on my window sill watching me type.
The sea is right there, two minutes away, blue like the Mediterranean
with a line of surf over the reef like the South Seas…
It is hot, I live in a bikini, dressing in shorts for dinner….
There are insects of every possible variety; one fights them hopelessly.
…Here I write, read, putter on the place (outdoor men’s work),
swim, sunburn, attend to my cottage industry, and sleep.
– letter to Diana Cooper
from Mombasa, Kenya
February 25, 1964
Always glad to postpone shopping, I compromised by buying a hot water bottle and…tubes of acrylic paint, as I was in an ardent phase of Sunday painting, tiny cards for solitaire, the only card game I know, fine binoculars to gaze upon elephants and giraffes, my particular passion, a rotten little portable typewriter for writing short stories in my ample leisure time, and books—ranging from War and Peace, for nourishing length, Jane Austen, and Shirer on the Third Reich, to paperback thrillers.
Luggage being a proven misery, I took only one suitcase and a cosmetics case for medicines but I was worried about books. Solitude is all right with books, awful without.
On 23 January 1962, I left London, both arms throbbing hotly [from inoculation shots], switched planes in Paris and spent the next thirteen hours overnight, jammed in…with a bunch of young European mothers and their small children and babies, all heading for the Congo where a war was going on.
That took the edge off any sense of my risk at charging into Africa.
– from Travels with Myself and Another
Dearest Lennypot of youre;
Did you chaps manage Xmas all right?
I’ve been suffering my usual yuletide despair,
perhaps worse than usual this year…
Well it’s over now for another year and the hell with it….
Are you all right?
What happened to laughter? Do you know?
I remember it as the central and loveliest fact of life.
I remember when you came with Felie to Cuernavaca…
I remember laughing constantly.
Are other people doing it still or has it gone out of fashion?
I’d give anything I have to meet someone who made me laugh.
A good New Year to you, old friend.
– letter to Leonard Bernstein
December 27, 1979
I don’t bother myself with thinking about death at all,
except to take the trouble to make a new will.
Thinking about here and now is all I can manage.
I think about old age from time to time, with dread…
The only thing that scares me is that: not being able
to rush around and do what I want to.
The afterlife either is or isn’t
and one will find out one way or the other in due time.
Personally I hope very much that death is uninterrupted sleep
and manure for the grass.
– letter to Campbell Beckett
May 16, 1981
People seem to think I have time on my hands
whereas I am going mad from lack of time…
I have more than enough to do, too much, just managing my life,
which also pisses me off
because there’s too much chore stuff, not enough luxury waste time.
My dream, never fulfilled, is
to do nothing except read thrillers, drink whisky, loaf about.
– letter to Milton Wolff
Jan 11, 1991
I have a little gaggle of chaps in London,
all half my age or less, who make me laugh.
That’s the only essential for company.
I need people to laugh with, otherwise am fine alone.
– letter to Milton Wolff
Nov 5, 1991
I’d go screaming dotty without books.
– letter to Victoria Glendinning
July 15, 1992
I woke to look out my window at a saba tree,
so beautiful that you can’t believe it,
and hear the palms rattling in the morning wind, and the
sun streaking over the tiled floors, and the house itself,
wide and bare and clean and empty,
lying quiet all around me. And I am delighted,
and … feel myself at last very serene and safe …
It seems, somehow, shameful to be so well off
in such a tragic world, but I console myself by saying
that my money will run out in due course and I’ll be back
working hard for it, and paying again for this
brief breathing spell.
– Martha Gellhorn
Cuba, March 18, 1939
in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.
You Can Read More…
Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn (2006)
edited by Caroline Moorehead
Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life (2003)
by Caroline Moorehead
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© Kelly J Hardesty 2023