Gellhorn's Literary Achievements

Thursday, April 3, 2014


Martha Gellhorn might have been the best journalist of World War II, her reporting exceeding in excellence even that of her husband Ernest Hemingway. That's an arguable point, although the fact she was heroic is not. She beat Hemingway to cover the D-Day landings and was there when the infamous concentration camp, Dachau, was liberated, an experience she never forgot.

The Trouble I've Seen, based on Gellhorn's reports on the Great Depression, was published in 1936, only a few months before she met Hemingway, but it was her coverage of World War II in Spain and other parts of Europe that secured her place as a great journalist. She was unflappable covering the horrors of war on the front, and also brought attention to the ravages of war in its aftermath.

In a report from Rome on how children pay for war, published August 1949 in the Saturday Evening Post, and collected in A View From the Ground, Gellhorn wrote:

…”A nun led up a small brown-haired boy with beautiful but frightened eyes. He would look at no one and kept turning away his head, and you could see the cords standing out in his neck. He was mumbling or whispering something. Then I realized that this child was telling how the Germans came to arrest his father, a Partisan, but his father was not home and the Germans were angry, so they took his mother and his aunts and his grandmother into the streets and shot them. He was with his mother, but she fell on top of him and he was hidden by her skirt and the Germans thought he was dead, so they went away.”

She was influenced by Hemingway's writing style, but her independence, intelligence and compassion were her own and became distinguishing trademarks of her career. Born in 1908 to cultured, socially prominent parents--her father was a doctor and her mother, a graduate of Bryn Mawr--Gellhorn grew up in a progressive household, encouraged to acquire an education and uphold her views. But the independent-mindedness that became a hallmark of her career was a liability in her marriage to Hemingway, who abused her ruthlessly.

One of the fullest accounts in print of the horrors of her life with Hemingway, was in a letter to David Gurewitsch, one of her lovers, written in 1950, six years after Gellhorn had left Hemingway and right after he had included an unflattering caricature of her in his mediocre novel, Across the River and Into the Trees. Gellhorn wrote, “... I beg you to understand this. Ernest had a theory that brutality was all women understood; if they seemed recalcitrant (like me) they only needed to be beaten more… I had honestly thought that Ernest would drive me mad with cruelty.”

She continued her life as a journalist after leaving Hemingway, covering Vietnam, the Six-Day War in the Middle East and Nicaragua and was known as much for the quality of her reporting as her fearlessness. At the age of 79, while walking near her house in Nyali, outside Mombasa, she was assaulted and raped. According to Lesley McDowell in Between the Sheets, Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers, Gellhorn “simply dusted herself down, walked back to her house, treated her cuts and bruises, then drove herself to a nearby doctor.”

Determined to control her path, even at its end, she took her own life. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, she took care of her business, cleaned her flat in London and took a pill she had been saving for just such an occasion, and, after downing some whiskey quietly passed away. Gellhorn had never been afraid of death. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


In the rural section of Ohio I now inhabit, time seems stuck in particular grooves--the 50s, the 80s, and sometimes dark regions of the collective American mind. A friend recently observed that where we live reminds him at times of the creepy landscape of Blue Velvet, that 80s flick in which strange occurrences often disrupt the mundane--Remember suddenly seeing that human ear lying in a field? Such images jar consciousness while reminding one that anything can happen in the midst of the everyday.

In this small village, among rows of compact ranch houses, much the same, so quiet you can hear a dog barking for miles in winter when it snows, a man drinks too much and a fight breaks out between him and his wife. He pulls a gun and by the time the police arrive, he has shot and killed himself. The local paper doesn't print his name. The incident passes. No one mentions it again.

In the local high school of 200 students, football is everything: America. Success. Manhood. The Future--here and distant. At the start of every school day children take turns at a mike delivering perfectly enunciated announcements that go out to each classroom. There is no tom foolery. No graffiti mars the lockers. No one is sent home for misbehaving or kept after school. The boys all sport crew cuts and the girls wear long hair and dress neatly, conservatively. As Jim, who works at the Board of Ed, once explained, "The guys all know they won't get a job if they have long hair."

You often feel you are living in the 50s here, among people who don't yet know there was a love revolution in the 60s, who smoke like there is no warning on the package, gossip endlessly, know everybody's business, drink in secret and have affairs that never take them further away than down the road a piece.

Whoever doesn't drive a truck, drives a car so grimy, you can't figure out its make or its color, particularly in winter. Should dust on it clear for a moment, you will probably see stickers that read, "I'm a Catholic and vote," "Pro Life," and "Support the Troops," slapped across the back fender. Philosophies to live by and calls to prayer harken from the roadside, like the Jib Jab Hot Dogs along Route 422, where something like a blue steeple rises around the marquis whose statements read like a cross between Chinese cookie fortune and a biblical verse. Today's Jib Jab reminder: "Whoever worries lets it master the mind."

This town is a good place to hide if you know what you want and where you are going and worrisome for those that stray, who yearn for more than the agreed upon ticket to adulthood and success. I'm reminded of this every time I stroll along its placid sidewalks, senses alert, trying not to be distracted by what I might encounter along the roadside.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Here is a recently published work of creative nonfiction in GAMBLING THE AISLE. "A Girl's Hands" is on page 32.

If you find yourself asking questions about the nature of all the relationships at the end, then my little story has succeeded.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


          Susan Sontag isn't mentioned in the Collier's Encyclopedia--a row of which fills the lower shelf of a bookshelf that lines a wall in the room where I sleep. Then again, Collier's, which went defunct in the late 90s (I believe), contains few references for women--mostly photographs and stories of men--so it's no wonder there is no entry for Susan Sontag in the book marked "SAN San Francisco STU Stutgart."
         The copyright for the Collier's series is 1960. The second wave of feminism had not yet come; America was flagrantly misogynistic and had not yet been rent by Vietnam, the women's movement or the Black Power movement, and Sontag herself had yet to produce her seminal work: Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), and her monographs, On Photography (1977) and Illness as Metaphor (1977). Her journals are yet another prize many readers may not know so well.
          I am reading As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh, Journals & Notebooks 1964-1980, edited by David Rieff, (Sontag's son and editor)--the title is taken from a segment in these journals.
          It's been a while since I read Sontag, and I am awed once again by the range of her curiosity and interests and the intensity of her self-scrutiny. She explored even Buddhism and meditation, on which she muses in entries on August 5, 1966, for example. This is the second of three collections of her journals, and they are composed of fragments, ideas tossed into the void, the facebook of her imagination.
          In his loving introduction, Rieff relays that his mother had spoken of writing her autobiography and that the idea went unfulfilled, although he goes on to suggest that her journals may have filled that void. I would tend to agree.
          This compilation of the great scholar's threads of thought on politics, war, literature, photography, art, happiness, music, her relationships, other writers--most notably, Joseph Brodsky--her engagement with the problems of philosophy, morality, society and even her own contradictions makes this fascinating autobiographical reading, and more--a moving examination of history from the arc of a remarkable woman's life. On March 15, 1980, (at 47), Sontag wrote..."The function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history." For her, this was certainly true.
         What strikes me above all as I read Sontag's journals is how much she was--as a woman, Jew and intellectual--the product of a unique time, place and culture now gone that will never come again. The very notion of an intellectual has changed radically since the last century. Since technology took hold, sometime in the 90s--intelligence, which Sontag called "taste in ideas" in her essay, "Notes on 'Camp,'" has been measured less by how well one thinks than by how fast one can do it. It's a virtually inarguable fact that our "taste in ideas" has gone downhill along with our taste in general and that simultaneously the world is now run by nerds. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, we have a greater need than ever for intellectuals in the marketplace--individuals unafraid to explore and divine who we are, where we are and where we are going and who are also capable of sharing their ideas without prejudice or insularity in the realm of technology.