Highlighting War Correspondent Martha Gellhorn

Martha as young girl with grandmother and baby Blanche; undated. By O.C. Conkling Studio, St. Louis. From the Washington University Archives Edna Gellhorn Collection.

For International Women’s Day, we are highlighting the work of international war correspondent Martha Gellhorn.

Martha Gellhorn was born in St. Louis in 1908. Her mother, Edna Gellhorn, was a well-known supporter of women’s suffrage, and brought Martha with her to political events when she was still a child. In 1916, when Martha was only eight, she joined her mother and thousands of other suffragist women wearing yellow sashes in forming “The Golden Lane” of women outside the Democratic convention in St. Louis. Washington University Archives has a large collection of Edna Gellhorn’s materials documenting her participation in suffrage and other civic activities. You can read previous blog posts about her involvement in suffrage here and here, and about her participation in the war effort during WWI here.

Edna Gellhorn’s League of Woman Voters Ribbon. From the Washington University Archives Edna Gellhorn Collection.

A Passion for Writing

Martha Gellhorn attended John Burroughs School, the first co-educational high school in St. Louis, which her mother had had a hand in founding. Even as a teenager, Martha was already beginning to develop her writing, and helped to found the John Burroughs Review, to which she contributed poetry. She left St. Louis to attend Bryn Mawr College, but eventually dropped out and traveled to Europe, determined to write. Below is a letter from the Edna Gellhorn Papers in which she explains her decision to leave school to pursue her passion, saying, “You see, writing is my only ambition. …other things would be entertaining–and of course I do want to live abroad. But writing is the main thing; the solitary hope.”

Letter from Martha Gellhorn to her grandmother, circa 1926. From the Washington University Archives Edna Gellhorn Papers.

War and Love with Ernest Hemingway

Martha Gellhorn spent two years in France writing articles and her first of many books, What Mad Pursuit, before returning to America and covering the impact of the Great Depression with the famous photographer Dorothea Lange. In 1936, she met Ernst Hemingway, who was married at the time to another St. Louisian, and they decided to cover the Spanish Civil War together. Below is a page from a letter from Gellhorn to her family in which she discusses “Ernest” leaving for the war before her and her plans for covering the war.

Letter from Martha Gellhorn, May 26th, 1938. From the Washington University Archives Edna Gellhorn Papers.

Hemingway and Gellhorn married in 1940, but the marriage soon turned sour when it became clear that Hemingway wanted her to act like a wife and not a war correspondent. He complained of her traveling to the front during WWII and even deliberately blocked her attempts to cover the war, stealing her job as war correspondent for Collier’s Magazine. This infuriated Gellhorn, but she still managed to become the only female journalist to land on the shores of Normandy on D-Day by stowing away in the bathroom of a hospital ship. She arrived at Normandy before her husband and was able to send off a dispatch about what she saw there, but was arrested by military police upon her return.

Martha Gellhorn on a hunting trip in Idaho, circa 1940. Photograph by Robert Capa. From Washington University Libraries, Reporting America at War Photos.

Continuing A Long and Monumental Career

After the Normandy landing, Gellhorn and Hemingway divorced and Gellhorn returned to St. Louis to visit her family. She was still in St.Louis, preparing for another overseas trip, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. She describes the mixed emotions such a lethal demonstration of these weapons evoked in her 1959 collection of war articles, The Face of War, saying of the people in her hometown “They were uneasy… and talked of saving our boys and bringing them home and it was fine the war was ended, but their faces and voices were troubled” (189).

Cover of The Face of War, Martha Gellhorn’s 1959 collection of war articles.

In the introduction to The Face of War, Gellhorn writes about why she felt that the work she did was so important, saying,

“When I was young I believed in the perfectibility of man, and in progress, and thought of journalism as a guiding light. If people were told the truth, if dishonor and injustice were clearly shown, to them, they would at once demand the saving action, punishment of wrong-doers, and care for the innocent”

Although she admits to losing some of this idealism after WWII, she argues that describing the horrors of war can act as a deterrent for new atrocities. She remained a dedicated war correspondent for most of her life, going on to cover the Vietnam war, Arab-Israel conflict, civil wars in Central America, and the US invasion of Panama. She finally retired from covering war from the front lines in 1990 when she was in her early 80s, but in spite of her failing health and severe cataracts that had left her nearly blind, she continued to write articles on other topics until a year before her death in 1998.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.