Friday, October 12, 2007

Martha Gellhorn

Just finished a scabrous and entertaining biography of Martha Gellhorn by Caryl Rollyson. I've always admired her journalism and her doughtiness but knew little about her life other than what I'd gleaned from her occasional appearances in Granta. She started life as a bright and ambitious literary moppet. Her family were well-got and during periods of rootlessness she would stay in the White House no less - she was a very good friend of Eleanor Roosevelt (through her mother). Determined to be a successful writer she started by catching the eye of that infamous pussy hound H.G. Wells. He agreed to write a preface to her first collection of stories and she was on her way. She of course provided the kind of reciprocation the old goat appreciated. All through her life she had a pragmatic view of sex as a means to an end. She didn't enjoy it much or set too much store on it - she once famously compared it to giving a piece of bread to a starving man; an act of mercy really. She moved on from Wells to the biggest lion in the literary jungle, Ernest Hemingway. He was equally susceptible to a well-turned ankle and soon they became lovers and eventually married. However, he wanted a home bird and she was intent on keeping on the move and so their Cuban idyll soon fell apart. And the acrimony, oh dear. She described sex with him as "short and sharp". He retaliated by likening her nether portions to an old hot water bottle - not a gentleman then old Papa.

When her literary epitaph is written I reckon she is nailed in this description by Hemingway: "She had more ambition than Napoleon and about the talent of the average high school Valedictorian." She was never an intellectual and found Proust a challenge that was beyond her. A woman of action then and a very fine journalist - although with a serious blind spot about Palestine. Maybe her experiences at Dacchau were to blame for this.