Martha Gellhorn: Legend of Literature & Journalism in The Face of War

Written by Rosmery B. & Kimberly Anne

Who was Martha Gellhorn? Her name might sound familiar to you – and here is why. When talking about war journalism and travel literature of the 20th century, it is impossible not to think of Martha Gellhorn. She was an incredible reporter, crime writer, and worldwide traveler. 

Martha Ellis Gellhorn was an American author, travel writer, and journalist and is considered one of the best war journalists of the twentieth century. Gellhorn covered practically every major international crisis during the course of her 60-year career. Author of five novels, 14 novellas, and two collections of short tales, Ms. Gellhorn was a prolific journalist.

For over six decades, her life was narrated mostly by jumping between trenches, covering herself from explosions, and describing scenes of hunger and death.

Martha Ellis Gellhorn Biography - Facts, Childhood, Family Life & Achievements
Pictured: Martha Gellhorn. Photo: CBC (Martha Gellhorn, the only female participant on D-Day)

Gellhorn, driven by her rebelliousness and ideological solid convictions, defied the objectivity that her profession demanded. Her direct and humane chronicles gave great coverage to dozens of conflicts in the 20th century, making them the most important ones of the era.

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The Female Pioneer in War Correspondence

With great courage, she took flight into hell and found the right words to explain the suffering of people across the world. 

Martha Gellhorn and Rifle
Martha Gellhorn & Rifle.

Who was Martha Gellhorn?

Her Early Life 

Martha Gellhorn was born in St. Louis (Missouri) on November 18, 1908. She was the daughter of gynecologist George Gellhorn and suffragist Edna Fischell, both of whom were radical progressives that always made sure to raise their daughter with a social conscience. Martha even accompanied her mother to the protests that she attended.

From an early age, she already had strong convictions and a great sense of duty. Once she finished school, she was very clear about what she wanted to be, so she did not hesitate to give up everything to fulfill her dream of becoming a journalist. 

The Start of Her Career 

Without even waiting to graduate from college, Gellhorn left her studies to look for a job. Her first articles were published in The New Republic, which was a big step in her career. 

But she wanted to go much further than that. It was then that she decided she wanted to be a foreign correspondent. In 1930 she left everything behind to go to Paris, where she worked with the United Press office.

Martha Gellhorn: Non-Fiction Reporter & Journalist 

Martha Ellis Gellhorn Biography - Facts, Childhood, Family Life & Achievements

After her time in the French city, Martha returned to the United States where she was hired by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. This was an agency created by President Roosevelt to obtain information about the Great Depression that was haunting the country in those years.

Official Archives of the Great Depression 

While working under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Martha embarked on a journey through the most depressed areas of the United States. Seeing firsthand the poverty that abounded in the U.S.A., she started to document what she saw. 

Together with fellow photographer Dorothea Large, Martha Gellhorn produced an intensive body of work that became part of the official archives of the Great Depression.

Gellhorn Covered The Spanish Civil War & WWII 

After this experience, Gellhorn felt even more that she had a duty, to tell the truth about the reality of many. Without filters, without sugar-coating them; being an active spectator of the facts. 

For this reason, Martha Gellhorn traveled all her life and covered countless war conflicts. Among these, she covered the Spanish Civil War in 1937, in which another great and brave woman friend of Gellhorn’s, Gerda Taro, died.

“I was always afraid,” she wrote, “that I would forget the exact sound, smell, words, gestures which were special to this moment and this place.”

Martha Gellhorn

Gellhorn was also covering the fronts of World War II, especially in the fields of Finland, and China, among other areas of Europe and Asia. Also other events such as the Vietnam War, the Six-Day War in the Middle East, and the war in El Salvador, as well as other hidden corners of Central America. Gellhorn’s writing was intimate and resonant. She was a superb witness.

This impressive woman at the age of 81 traveled to Panama to report on the invasion of U.S. troops. If it wasn’t for her impending blindness and health problems, Martha Gellhorn would surely have taken her backpack, notebook, and pen to travel to every corner of the world to tell its true stories.

Martha Gellhorn Witnessed D-Day in Normandy WWII in 1944 – She Snuck In to the Battlefield 

The Face of War by Martha Gellhorn Book Cover - Quote: "One of the most fearless, determined and talented journalists ever to have covered wars. "- Wall Street Journal

When World War II began, there was not a single woman accredited as a war correspondent. In addition, the British Army did not allow women to go near combat zones. Therefore, the brave women had to duplicate the efforts of their male colleagues in order to enter forbidden places. 

Gellhorn was one of the few civilian witnesses to the landing of Allied troops in Normandy on D-Day (June 6, 1944). This was the day on which the liberation of Western Europe from the Third Reich’s army took place.

Unlike the rest of her colleagues, who were transported to the landing zones by ships under strict military surveillance, Gellhorn decided to infiltrate. She knew that the protection offered by the armies was only a way to protect the military from the disclosure of their failures. 

Therefore, she decided to hide in the bathroom of a hospital ship and camouflaged herself in nurse’s clothes to disembark on Omaha Beach (being the only correspondent to cover this area). Thus, Gellhorn helped transport the wounded soldiers and got the news scoop.

Martha Ellis Gellhorn Biography - Facts, Childhood, Family Life & Achievements
D-Day June 6, 1944

And so many times Martha Gellhorn risked her skin to dignify the chronicles of wars and write them from the battlefront, and not from a press room. For her, this was the only way to lay bare the reality behind the wars. 

No one was as raw and truthful as she was in her reporting. Her immense figure is still not studied in universities as it should be, despite her legacy, her books, and the films and documentaries that have been inspired by her.

Her Achievements & Life Accomplishments 

Each of her achievements established her as one of the best journalists ever seen, and an inspiration to many. I would even go so far as to say that Martha Gellhorn has not received the level of recognition and renown she truly deserves.

When she passed away in February of 1998, Martha Gellhorn had nearly reached the age of 90 years old. Long before she passed away, she had already attained the stature of a legend.

She covered battles all the way from Panama in the 1980s to Spain in the 1930s, and her travel books are considered classics today.

In addition to her marriage to Ernest Hemingway and her relationships with famous lovers like H. G. Wells, she also had relationships with two presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. These relationships are symbolic of her struggles against tyranny and poverty as well as her rage at the brutality and corruption of current governments.

Famous Books by Martha Gellhorn 

  • Travels With Myself and Another 
  • The Face of War 
  • The View From the Ground 
  • Novellas of Martha Gellhorn 
  • Liana 
  • A Stricken Field 
  • The Weather in Africa 
  • Point of No Return 
  • The Wine of Astonishment 
  • The Trouble I’ve Seen 
  • The Honeyed Peace 
  • The Lowest Trees Have Tops 
  • Pretty Tales for Tired People 
  • The Weather In Africa (Three Novellas) 
  • His Own Man 
  • Two By Two 
  • The Short Novels of Martha Gellhorn 

In each of her experiences, Martha Gellhorn took the time to write them down to perpetuate them for the rest of the world. 

Martha Ellis Gellhorn Biography - Facts, Childhood, Family Life & Achievements

The Face of War by Martha Gellhorn 

Among her most famous publications is the collection of her war articles The Face of War, published in 1959. 

This work was constantly renewed in 1967, 1986, and 1993 as she continued to travel and report all kinds of conflicts in every step she took around the world.

 Travels with Myself and Another 

In 1978 she published her autobiography Travels with Myself and Another, where she narrates all her adventures, and also alludes to her ex-husband, Ernest Hemingway.  

Martha Ellis Gellhorn Biography - Facts, Childhood, Family Life & Achievements

In Travels with Myself and Another, we can travel by her hand and go back to a China invaded by Japan, or to the Caribbean in search of German submarines. Undoubtedly a great piece to really know the steps of Martha Gellhorn and at the same time feel that we travel with her. 

What was Martha Gellhorn’s most famous fiction work? 

Gellhorn’s novel A Stricken Field (1940), it’s her most powerful and acclaimed work of fiction.

Martha Ellis Gellhorn Biography - Facts, Childhood, Family Life & Achievements

Gellhorn: The Journalism Legend & Fearless Woman Who Inspired Women Worldwide 

Although many have tried to leave her in Hemingway’s shadow, there is no doubt that as a woman and as a person, she was much more than her love affairs and failed romances. 

She was fierce, courageous, intelligent, and a legend in journalism. 

Photo Credit: The Atlantic

She never desired more than to travel and uncover the truth. Her unbounded love and vocation for what she did is something that has inspired many. Her footsteps led to other women correspondents covering wars, reporters putting objectivity aside, and giving clear and truthful news. 

Martha Gellhorn not only inspired her colleagues, but she was also the spokesperson for thousands of people in grief. 

Her motto was “another country, another sky, another landscape,” and she lived her life that way until her last days. 

Her last wish was to have her ashes scattered in the Thames so that she could continue to travel. That is how a woman like Martha Gellhorn should be remembered. 

Martha Ellis Gellhorn Biography - Facts, Childhood, Family Life & Achievements
Martha Gellhorn

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