Photo:Martha Gellhorn, Chungking (Chongqing), China, 1941. Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.WikiCommons
Do you know that song of Alicia Keys “ Girl on fire”?
“She’s just a girl, and she’s on fire
Hotter than a fantasy, longer like a highway
She’s living in a world, and it’s on fire
Feeling the catastrophe, but she knows she can fly away
Oh, she got both feet on the ground
And she’s burning it down
Oh, she got her head in the clouds
And she’s not backing down”
That was Martha Gellhorn, a girl on fire! She was a girl that went to ground zero to cover the Spanish Civil War, one that hid in a ship’s bathroom to be able to go cover the Normandy landings, one that was among the first to report from Dachau concentration camp.
I think she is best remembered for her marriage with Hemingway, but she should be remembered for being one of the best war correspondents of her time and for being a fighter for justice and a fighter for the poor.
Should I pose the question: what is inspiring about her? I guess her strength and courage is unquestionable and so is her passion to pursue her dreams. But let me elaborate on that…….
She was born in 1908, in St. Louis Missouri. Her mother went to Bryn Mawr—with Eleanor Roosevelt—and became a founder and vice-president of the National League of Women Voters. Martha went to Bryn Mawr herself(this is an all women college, in Pennsylvania, with many famous alumni) but she did not complete her education. Instead she left to Paris, armed with a typewriter and $75 and determined to become a journalist.
She did eventually become a journalist. She moved from Paris back to USA and she wrote a book “The Trouble I’ve Seen” that vividly describes the hardship and the collapse of the American way of life during the Great Depression.
And then what did Martha do?
She went to Spain and covered the Spanish Civil War, in 1937. She crossed over the border from France into Spain alone, with $50 rolled and tucked into her boot. She lived among crumbling buildings; she went to the front. What was unique about her is that instead of focusing on tactics, generals and weapons, Martha looked at the people. She wrote about the makeshift hospitals, lines for bread, the smell of explosive, the war and its horrors.
She wanted to give a real account of the war and she said that : “I was always afraid that I would forget the exact sound, smell, words, gestures which were special to this moment and this place.” ( this is an excerpt from her book,The Face Of War, by Martha Gellhorn).
This is the time when her affair with Hemingway started.
Photo:Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway with unidentified Chinese military officers, Chungking (Chongqing), China, 1941. Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Photo public domain
Martha and Hemingway were married in 1940.She managed to stay married to him for about 5 years(1940-1945). They lived in Cuba.
She left to cover World War II, but back then the military would not accredit women to report from the front line. Still, she found a way, because where there is a will there is a way, isn’t it? She hid in the bathroom of on a hospital ship and this way she landed in Normandy. She went to the shore as a stretcher bearer….
She was there on the D Day and she was also one of the first journalists on hand when American soldiers liberated Dachau in May of 1945.
After World War II she and Hemingway got divorced. I’m not one that is assuming the worst so I don’t know if he was jealous on her achievements (because that’s what most historical accounts say) or if they just found out that they had different paths in life. There is a movie about their marriage, Hemingway & Gellhorn(2012) that portrays a restless, critical and violent Hemingway.
Martha also reported on Vietnam war, where she went to visit hospitals and refugee camps. She wanted to show people’s pain.
I love her for her courage, for her free spirit and for being a fighter for justice.
And I am going to close with an inspiring quote, one that should remind us to fight for what we think it is right, one that should remind us that not everybody is lucky and if there is anything that we could do, we should do it :
“I am certain that not one word ever did the slightest good. But I am a writer and know nothing else to do. It is tiring and unrewarding. On the other hand, complete silence is worse, so even if it’s only a mouse squeak it is better than nothing.” ( Martha Gellhorn)
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