Stephen McGinty: Meeting Mrs Hemingway

Martha Gellhorn with husband Ernest Hemingway, whom she married in 1940. Picture: Getty
Martha Gellhorn with husband Ernest Hemingway, whom she married in 1940. Picture: Getty
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War correspondent Martha Gellhorn was one of the reasons I became a journalist and she was one of my first interviewees. It was an encounter that certainly lived up to expectations, writes Stephen McGinty

WHEN I was 20 years old I took the bus to meet Mrs Hemingway. The night bus from Glasgow to London left, as it still does today, from Buchanan Street bus station at 11pm and after a restless night trying to sleep against the rattling glass window, I arrived in the capital shortly after 7am.

It was the early summer of 1992 and I remember the smell of sweat, rubbish and petrol fumes that percolated through the bus terminus at Victoria. My appointment wasn’t until 12 noon and so I treated myself to a cooked breakfast in one of the greasy spoon cafés that belt Victoria like a ribbon of fat round a heart. I can’t quite remember if I stained my shirt with the yolky fried egg or if the journey left me unsuitably dishevelled, but afterwards I set off to buy a new white shirt.

It was Alison Kennedy who first introduced me to the work of Martha Gellhorn, one of the great war correspondents of the 20th century, and the third wife of Ernest Hemingway. At the time, Alison was an arts worker in Clydebank with an office in my secondary school, and her debut collection, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, was still a heft of manuscript pages. I’d hang out in her office during free periods and she’d lend me books; one of them was Gellhorn’s collection of journalism, The View From The Ground, then recently published by Granta, in a striking black hardback.

Divided into decades, from the 1930s to the 1980s, it was 50 years of brilliant reportage, which began with an article titled “Justice At Night”, which was Gellhorn’s eyewitness account of the lynching in Mississippi of a black teenage boy somewhat oddly called Hyacinth.

Gellhorn was 21 at the time and had set off with her friend Joe to drive coast to coast in an eight-year-old convertible Dodge bought for $28.50. It wasn’t worth $20 and packed in late at night when the pair were 30 miles outside Columbia. Eventually, two men in a pick-up offered them a lift. “Then he reappeared and said they’d give us a lift to Columbia later, but first they were going to a lynching and if we didn’t mind the detour … We climbed into the truck.”

“Justice At Night” had a huge influence on me. There was the spare, chilling descriptions: “There was no moon. I saw an enormous tree and, though there was no doubt others, it stood by itself and had a curious air of usefulness.”

Then there was the ease of its composition. Gellhorn explained in the introduction how she had written the article in a single morning while sitting in the garden of HG Wells, in order to demonstrate to the author that she could be disciplined when she choose to be. She was 27 at the time and, afterwards, sent it to the Spectator, who paid her £50. The article was also published in America, where it was reproduced as a booklet by a civil liberties group to demonstrate the perils still faced by blacks. The hardback collection had other superb articles, such as “Eichmann and the Private Conscience” from the 1960s and “When Franco Died” from the 1970s and from there I tracked down The Face of War, Gellhorn’s reportage from the Second World War as well as her largely forgotten novels such as Liana.

When, at 20, I hung up my coffee tray and “retired” as a copyboy from the Glasgow Evening Times, I secured a commission from the Herald to interview Gellhorn, who was 83 and still living part of the year on a hill farm in Wales, as well as in a small one-bedroom apartment in Cadogan Square. I still have a copy of the oily letter I wrote: “Ms Gellhorn, I lost all my heroes when I decided I wanted to become a journalist. They simply became angles to sell stories. Since discovering your work and reading about your life, I feel I’ve recaptured that lost thrill.” (Infuriatingly, I lost her reply, inviting me to visit but insisting the photographer stay put.)

When she opened the front door, she was tall, though slightly stooped and wearing black trousers, a black cashmere jumper and pearls. She ushered me into the small spartan living room, whose furniture seemed to consist of two two-seater sofas at right angles to each other, with a small coffee table at the corner. I had been told by letter I could have half an hour. She began by criticising the novels of James Crumley, which I had sent her as part of my Uriah Heep pitch: she preferred straight thrillers but was soon talking about her coverage of the Second World War.

What prompted these memories was this week I read a new novel, Mrs Hemingway, by Naomi Wood, which tells the story of the novelist through his four wives and, of course, the chapter entitled “Martha” captured my attention. In the novel, she arrives in Paris after its liberation to track down Hemingway, whom she had married in 1940, with a view to asking for a divorce.

It had been a fractious marriage: he wanted an obedient wife and she needed to be a writer. He once sent her a telegram that read: “ARE YOU A WAR CORRESPONDENT OR A WIFE IN MY BED?” She replied: “WILL ALWAYS BE A WAR CORRESPONDENT STOP WILL BE A WIFE IN YOUR BED WHEN I CHOOSE.”

Her recollection to me of arriving in Paris was different. She talked about finding herself in a small hotel and how on that first night she looked out into the darkened streets, which were illuminated by celebratory bonfires, and began to cry and couldn’t stop.We got on rather well and the half hour came and went and for the next few hours she told tales of her adventures, yet when I dared to mention Ernest Hemingway she snapped: “Do not dare mention that man’s name!”

He was not to be mentioned now or in the forthcoming article – I mumbled rather than agreed – but as her temper passed she said how she regretted the marriage and the shadow it had cast on her own work. She thought him a great writer but said he was mad. Before I left she asked if I would move some heavy boxes and files of paperwork then she lent me two photographs for use in the finished article and showed me to the door.

Six years later, aged 89, partially blind and diagnosed with cancer, Martha Gellhorn, went round the flat in Cadogan Square putting stickers with friends’ names on her possessions, then lay down on her bed, with an audio book of Three Fatal Englishmen by Sebastian Faulks, and took a pill of poison.

Her biography, Martha Gellhorn: A Life by Caroline Moorehead was published in 2003 and is brilliant, but it was to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Moorehead cast a cold light on “Justice At Night” which was not, as Gellhorn claimed, a piece of eyewitness reportage but of informed invention. She made up Hyacinth and his disturbing death, including the jug of gasoline with which he was posthumously immolated.

I put the book down and didn’t pick it up for more than a year. Today, I still consider Gellhorn a great journalist but one whose work should come with a caution. Re-reading “Justice At Night” armed with this knowledge, there are some interesting lines: “I kept looking at Hyacinth and thinking: it can’t have happened.” While in her introduction to “The View From The Ground”, she appears, rightly, uncomfortable: “I don’t know that it belongs here since it is not direct reporting: recollection in tranquillity four and a half years later. Recollection is not infallible.”

Certainly, neither was Gellhorn, but she does deserve to be remembered more for a long life lived in service to the typewriter and not simply for him to whom she once said: “I do”.