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Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn - World War II


On August 25th 1944, Martha Gellhorn was sitting on a beach overlooking the Adriatic reading D.H. Lawrence's Women In Love, drinking rum and watching a young Allied airman float down to Earth (dead or alive she did not know) hanging from the very life tentacles of his parachute. She wondered how many more young men must die before this bloody war was over.

As Martha flicked over the page, unable to concentrate as the airman came ever closer to earth, she came across this passage:

“ Whatever life might be, it could not take away death, the inhuman transcendent death. Oh, let us ask no question of it, what it is or is not. To know is human, and in death we do not know, we are not human. And the joy of this compensates for all the bitterness of knowledge and the sordidness of our humanity. In death we shall not be human, and we shall not know. The promise of this is our heritage, we look forward like heirs to their majority.”

Martha was struck dumb by this passage, by the very correctness of it, by the way it went right to her very soul, and illuminated all she had been feeling ever since she knew she had to break away from Ernest, even though she also knew that would leave a huge hole in her life, in her very body, in her very heart. But there was nothing she could do, not any more. If she didn't move on, move away, he'd kill her, oh, not physically, as if he'd put a knife into her throat, but bit by steady bit, as if he were to cut a portion away from her each day until she was gone. Lawrence knew a thing or two, she reasoned. The only writer who was both a giver of freedom, and a taker away, as Frieda soon realised when he gave her the freedom to love as she wished to be loved - by him of course - and not in the stuffy, Nottingham way of her stuffy, Nottingham university lecturer husband. But then, having given Frieda her freedom, her sexual freedom to be loved by a young man so bound up with himself as to be almost inhuman in his demands, he also, once they had run away from Nottingham to her relatives in Germany, forbade her ever to communicate with her children. That was the price of Lawrence's love, a complete and utter commitment to him. Frieda didn't obey of course - as Martha had not obeyed Ernest, not ever, not once - but kept in touch with her children - as any mother would - the odd half an hour here, a brief embrace there; and had Lawrence known he might, in his tubercular frenzy, have killed her. Then again he might not either, but Martha felt, as she read that passage again and again, that he probably would have, that the anger within him, the anger put there by the bitterness his coal mining father breathed every day of his bitter black coal dust life, a bitterness aimed at his wife, who, as a teacher, thought herself better than her husband, and something she instilled into her son, David Herbert Lawrence, namely a hatred of his own father that stayed with him all his life, culminating also in a hatred - and a blood stained daily handkerchief - and bitterness toward all women - although he tried to suppress it, but could not - that showed itself in a dreadful outrageous anger, and a dreadful outrageous sexual energy that was almost unbearable and evident in virtually all his fictional characters, which made him so compelling, especially to women readers (seldom ever to men, many of whom were afraid of their sexuality) who had never, ever, come across such empathy in a writer before, without realising it was an empathy built out of hatred, and fear, and bitterness, and the denial of love, and the accumulation of an unconsummated van load of love that his father had denied him, and his mother constantly reminded him was there, but only from her.

Martha felt all this as the Allied airman, a young American, no more than 22 years old, fell with a slow silence just a few yards behind her at the edge of the beach, as if it was the most ordinary
occurrence of any day of the week. Martha did not move, just looked out to sea, and cried like she had never, in her entire life - apart from the time when she had her first abortion - cried before, her sobs shaking the very sand beneath her like the explosions of artillery shells she had come so used to hearing in the last few months. It could not go on, this life she was leading, somehow she had to find something, someone. Martha flicked through the book and found another passage, this time a
reflection, literally, by Gerald, but it could as easily have been by Ernest, in those last few months in Cuba:

“But now he had succeeded - he had finally succeeded. And once or twice lately, when he was alone in the evening and had nothing to do, he had suddenly stood up in terror, not knowing what he was. And he went to the mirror and looked long and closely at his own face, at his own eyes, seeking for something. He was afraid, in mortal dry fear, but he knew not what of. He looked at his own face. There it was, shapely and healthy, and the same as ever, yet somehow it was not real, it was a mask. He dared not touch it...”

Martha screamed out loud to the almost empty beach, and the almost empty sky, apart from a couple of specks of aircraft in the distance heading back to North Africa, or somewhere, she no longer cared where. She screamed again, this time screaming the name of Ernest. A solitary seagull, standing at the water's edge, turned and looked at her, then loftily, and slowly, took off, also in search of something, a mate, or food, or a seagull war, or a seagull peace.

So, as Martha sat on that Adriatic beach, with the young American airman dead behind her, and General LeClerc - and Hemingway - were liberating Paris, Martha decided - as if Lawrence had suddenly freed her, yet pinned her down - to head back to Paris and check out what was going on.
But before she did she covered the airman in sand, and placed a marker, the Lawrence book, at his head, under a large stone and headed back toward an American airfield just over the rise of the sand dunes.

She soon hitched a ride on a military plane heading for Lyon where she befriended four American intelligence officers heading for Paris in a couple of Jeeps. Half way there the Jeep carrying Martha careered off the road to avoid a stray dog, ending up in a ditch. Martha broke a rib, and was badly bruised. After righting the Jeep they continued, and finally arrived in Paris in the early hours of the morning. She found Hemingway in the long chrome bar of the Ritz, holding court as ever.

“ How are you, Ernest? asked Martha.

“ Fine, as you can see, as if you cared.”

“ If I said I do care you would not believe me.”

“ No.”

“ How are you anyway?”

“ Tired.”

“ Me too.”

“ Martha?”

“ Don't say it.”

“ No.”

Martha booked herself into the Lincoln Hotel, just a short distance from the Ritz, undressed, got into bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

Ernest Hemingway made his way back to his room, and Mary Welsh.

Although Martha Gellhorn walked past the same tanks as Hemingway, and the same artillery pieces, trucks and soldiers, in that late summer Paris of 1944, she also noticed one or two other things, things that always make her reports refreshingly, humanly, disarmingly, different.

Martha recorded, in her notebook, the beautiful women, and their beautiful clothes, and their beautiful hair and make-up, as if the war were in some other place, on another planet. She also noticed an old lady, wearing a lace cap, sitting on a pavement, not far from the Ritz hotel, eating breadcrumbs off a cloth spread across her knees, as, just a few metres away those beautiful women bought even more beautiful clothes and make-up, from the shops that still, somehow, managed to find stock. New clothes, lipstick and mascara there may have been, but because of the shortage of leather there were no new shoes, and Martha noted that those same beautiful women “clattered about the streets” on platform soles made from wood.

In her superb biography of Gellhorn, Caroline Moorehead describes how “...there had been hunger, and drabness and cold, but no starvation, and no severe bombing, but there was hunger now, and cold, the black market having largely disappeared with the Germans, and there was little coal
or gas about. In restaurants, you could see Parisians in their overcoats dining on carrot and turnip soup.” Unless of course, like Hemingway, you were staying at the Ritz, where supplies were still plentiful, at a price.

But Martha stayed away from such places if she could, which was not easy if you were looking for a good story, or the low down on the next offensive, or whatever. She also tried to stay away from Hemingway, but he was not a man used to being ignored by his women, and it soon became obvious to Martha - from the stories and rumours that filtered back to her - that he was making it clear he had left her, that he was the one who had had enough, and that he hated “...to lose anyone who can look so lovely and who we [he was writing to his son Patrick] taught to shoot and write so well.” Hemingway, as ever, took the credit for making Gellhorn whatever Hemingway thought Gellhorn had become in professional terms, but was absolutely taking no credit for the failure of their marriage. In the same letter to his son Patrick, who was in a private school in the States, Hemingway goes on to write, in his peculiarly clunky letter writing style, that he has “...torn up my tickets on her and would be glad never to see her again.”

Martha did her own walking tour of the Paris she remembered from the 1930s, to try and find some of the French writers she had known in those heady years before war came, only to discover that most of those she had known, many of whom favoured an alliance between France and Germany in
the 1930s - most especially the actor and playwright Sacha Guitry, the journalist Jean Luchaire, and Robert Brasillach the editor of the pro-Nazi paper, Je Suis Partout, who was the only one of those three to be executed - were already under arrest and about to be put on trial, in fact they were already being found guilty by many leading French intellectuals of the time, including the poet Paul Valary (who died less than a year later), and the novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1952, Francois Mauriac, who both seemed to take an enormous pleasure in persecuting their fellow writers, as if they themselves had not wavered and wobbled just ever so slightly in the
nervous 1930s. Martha also discovered that other, better known writers, such as Gide, and Henri de Montherlant - who were considered to be “passive” collaborators - were either in hiding abroad, or lying low somewhere in the French countryside waiting for things to get back to normal. Their fame too, as with Hemingway's and Joyce's old friend, the American poet Ezra Pound, also helped ensure they were not brought to trial, and, like many of their fellow countrymen, shamefully executed.

But Martha also discovered that fame, or notoriety, did not shield all of her old friends. Even the novelist Collette, who had unwisely written for the collaborationist paper, Le Petit Parisien, and whose husband was Jewish, was briefly arrested and given a rough interrogation by a police force that had itself, almost without exception, been collaborationist. The singer Arletty was also arrested (she also had her head shaved), as was the designer, and cosmetic house creator, Coco Chanel, who lived at the Ritz Hotel throughout the war, taking many German lovers. Martha was appalled at the double standards being shown by a French nation, all of whom now seemed to be saying that they had all been fully signed-up members of the French Resistance.

A now saddened Martha Gellhorn kicked around the bookstalls above the Seine, finding one or two copies of Hemingway's work - translated into a French that was almost unreadable - which she bought and then ceremoniously threw into the river; she found no copies of her own work.

She wandered the streets of the Latin Quarter, eventually finding a small corner cafe where she sat outside and sipped from a large glass of red wine that was beautifully gentle on the tongue and the throat, and nibbled at some strong cheese - which seemed to be the only food available - and read again from a new copy of D.H. Lawrence's Women In Love, and marvelled how that most unlikely of writers was so able to bring such characters as Gudrun and Ursula, Gerald and Birkin, so very
much alive, and at the same time create such feelings of despair, and of something just out of reach, yet still mockingly visible:

“She saw a shadow moving by the water. It would be Birkin. He had come back then, unaware. She accepted it without remark, nothing mattered to her. She sat down among the roots of the alder tree, dim and veiled, hearing the sound of the sluice like dew distilling audibly into the night. The islands were dark and half revealed, the reeds were dark also, only some of them had a little frail fire reflection. A fish leaped secretly, revealing the light in the pond. This fire of the chill night breaking constantly on the pure darkness, repelled her. She wished it was perfectly dark, perfectly, and noiseless and without emotion. Birkin, small and dark also, his hair ringed with moonlight, wandered nearer. He was quite near, and yet he did not exist in her. He did not know she was there...”

Martha looked up to see the waiter standing in front of her.

“ Plus vine, madam?”

“ Hmm? Oui, merci.”

The waiter poured more wine, refilled the little dish with more cheese, bowed and retreated, and as he did so Martha heard some distant machine-gun fire, and then all was silent, except for a radio, somewhere inside the cafe, playing Sidney Bechet, a mournful, growly piece on the soprano saxophone which Martha found hard to recognise, until Bechet suddenly, almost like a conjuror, slipped back into the familiar melody of George Gershwin's 'Summertime'. Martha smiled at the man's playing, at his ability to take something so familiar as a tune like 'Summertime', which everyone felt they knew - almost owned - and turn it into something else entirely. It was what Lawrence was doing in Women In Love, Martha thought, taking the familiar, and by the use of words, and repetition, disguise it, mix it up, and mix up the readers emotions. It is what Hemingway had done when he met Martha.

In 1935 Martha Gellhorn had published, to great acclaim, her book about unemployment, The Trouble I've Seen, a book that was to make her name. Martha's style was described by the columnist, Lewis Gannett – whose column was syndicated across the US - as writing that “...burns. Hemingway does not write more authentic American speech. Nor can Ernest Hemingway teach Martha Gellhorn anything about economy of language.” It was a best seller in the making. After a hectic round of book promotions across the States Martha suggested to her mother that she take her, and her brother Alfred, on a Christmas vacation to Key West. This they did, and after a tiring bus ride from Miami, and feeling rather stranded in a quiet backwater that was Key West in those days, which smelled of fish, and not much else, Martha's mother suggested they all take a drink in a bar across the road from the bus stop called Sloppy Joe's.

The now famous watering hole wasn't particularly busy that day, and after ordering three beers, Edna Gellhorn asked Martha if the large, rather scruffy, and rather dirty man sitting at the end of the wooden bar, reading his mail, was Ernest Hemingway? Martha said she didn't know. But she couldn't take her eyes of the man she knew was the famous novelist.



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