- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

THE SELECTED LETTERS OF MARTHA GELLHORN

Edited by Caroline Moorehead

Henry Holt, $32.50, 531 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Martha Gellhorn was indubitably no coward, but she ran away far too often during her long life. She left Bryn Mawr without graduating, ditched all three husbands out of sheer restlessness, forsook America for Europe and then England for Africa.

A bundle of contradictions, this high-powered foreign correspondent had grit, but at the first bump in the road, her instinct was to hit another road and, as she would have put it, get the hell out of there. This much is clear from reading these hundreds of letters selected from the thousands she wrote to famous and not-so-famous correspondents, each missive bearing the distinctive stamp of her personality and character.

And what a personality she had: tough, no-nonsense, impatient, devastatingly hard on others but also on herself, this last supposedly being the saving grace which makes you accept her being so judgmental, and yet and yet … By the time you’ve read the 100th self-condemnation followed by an absolute determination to keep on repeating the same mistakes, the act wears a little thin — and downright tedious.

I have been amazed by the tendency of other reviewers of this collection to take Gellhorn entirely at her own face value and thus to evaluate her only on her own carefully chosen terms. Is it because she is an icon of the left or of latter-day feminism?

Perhaps, but it is also a testament to the strength of her personality and to her skill as a writer that she has managed to impose upon so many critics her particular spin on her life. You can recognize in almost all her letters the skills that made her such a powerful polemicist: against fascism and tyranny and in defense of the underdog nation, whether it be the Spanish Republic, Czechoslovakia in 1938 or Finland in 1939.

Yet this talented writer produced in the end only minor works of fiction to put alongside her spirited but on the whole second-rate corpus of journalism. Fervently admired by editors, who always seemed willing to commission works of fiction and nonfiction which she had a hard time fulfilling, and by critics, who tended to use superlatives when talking about her, Gellhorn finally lacked the discipline to produce most of what she envisioned herself doing.

Only during the short time of her marriage to her second husband, Ernest Hemingway, did she do the kind of disciplined, sustained work she needed to succeed as a fiction writer. But here, as so often, she seems to have been motivated as much by competitiveness as by true dedication to her craft.

The French writer, Colette, who was the stepmother and lover of Gellhorn’s first husband, Bertrand de Jouvenel, thought that the trouble with the young American was that she was just too intelligent. Well, hardly — unless by intelligence you mean the coruscating capacity to zero in on the flaws of every intended project.

Gellhorn was certainly self-critical to the point where the virtue became downright destructive, but the chief trouble with her was the cursed restlessness that made her move on as soon as a project gave her trouble. Sometimes this could work to her advantage, as when she abandoned Hemingway in Cuba in order to cover the war in Europe, landing with the troops at Normandy on D-Day.

But more often the place to which she ran had fewer obvious rewards, notably the house in East Africa which absorbed so much of her energies and gave her a convenient place to which she could escape each year. Many admire her story collection entitled “The Weather in Africa,” but seen as the product of all those years, it seems a poor return for so much time and effort.

When it came to her marriages, Gellhorn fell into a depressing pattern in which intense joy at being bonded to another was soon replaced by itchy restlessness and finally anger that her significant other had the temerity to resent her abandonment of him. Letter after letter reflects this tedious progression, making this reader at any rate see her simply as Donald Duck, “who’s never wrong but always right/who’d never dream of starting a fight!”

Always the injured party, Gellhorn seems constitutionally incapable of seeing things from the point of view of her abandoned mates. She appears to have been better suited to the role of mistress, finding a measure of happiness in a long-term affair with Laurence Rockefeller which seems to have been aided by the demands of his work, to say nothing of a wife he had no intention of divorcing, and at least one other steady mistress! Clearly, this was the kind of relationship that gave even Gellhorn enough space!

Perhaps the hardest letters to read are those dealing with, and addressed to, the hapless boy whom Gellhorn adopted in her 40s. When this adorable chubby little Italian orphan had the temerity to grow up — surprise — fat and in other ways fail to live up to his mother’s standards of masculinity and success, her harshness towards him was appalling.

This was one relationship from which, to her credit, she was not prepared to run, but it only serves to show why she was generally so eager to do so. Her continued attentions to her son bring to mind nothing so much as the image of a punching bag being repeatedly struck.

So whom then did Gellhorn continue to truly love and admire? Apparently her mother, Edna, a civic activist, to whom she wrote some of the most moving missives in this collection; and Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she seems to have hero-worshiped. Perhaps because of her veneration for the First Lady, her letters to her are among the few that seem to grate a little through being so gushing.

But of course she was still young when she wrote them. A truer measure of her regard appears in a letter she wrote after Roosevelt’s death to someone who shared her feelings, Adlai Stevenson:

“…always knew she was something so rare that there’s no name for it, more than a saint, a saint who took on all the experiences of everyday life, an absolutely unfrightened selfless woman whose heart never went wrong. And her hunger to give love…”

Other correspondents for whom her letters show an abiding affection are the English composer William Walton (briefly her lover but a lifelong friend), her Bryn Mawr teacher Hortense Flexner (whom she addresses by the cringe-making appellation “Teechie”), and conductor Leonard Bernstein, whom she awards the almost equally appalling moniker “Lenny-pot!”

A particularly unattractive theme in Gellhorn’s correspondence is what seems at first to be a reflexive anti-Americanism. This led her to embrace such figures as Fidel Castro, whose totalitarianism might otherwise have been expected to elicit her customary scorn for enemies of freedom.

On closer examination, she seems to have been not so much anti-American as anti the Republican administrations of Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan: A lifetime fan of Roosevelt’s New Deal, she went weak at the knees at JFK’s Camelot (especially after William Walton took her to meet the young president) and was a fan of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Only LBJ gave her pause: Her hysterical relief at his vanquishing of Barry Goldwater soon gave way to unwavering hostility towards his prosecution of the Vietnam War.

A pleasant surprise among such attitudes is Gellhorn’s staunch support of Israel. Fifty years ago, in the run-up to the Suez crisis, Gellhorn wrote: “And of course the life and death of Israel is like the life and death of the Spanish Republic, and is one of those simple issues: justice versus injustice.”

Her devotion was not just to an ideal, but extended also to the practical actions taken by the state: “…don’t know the details of the Israel rescue at Entebbe but only the fact. It is a marvel and joy. Israel alone has any guts in this hijacking business and I, not naturally a killer, would have all hijackers shot at once, next to the plane they’ve hijacked, no matter who they are, of whatever political persuasion.”

Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself was one cause to which Gellhorn remained ever faithful and from which she never seems to have contemplated running away. If only this could have been true of more things in her life, this selection of her letters might have been a less depressing read.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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