As I prepare for cohabitation—which, given that I’ve never done it before, feels as monumental as graduating from college—I keep on encountering evidence of people who were not capable of it. First, there was that article in the New York Times that warned against it, which prompted an afternoon of wailing. Then, I came upon Martha Gellhorn, the writer, war correspondent, and third wife of Ernest Hemingway, who said of her difficulty domesticating:
“There is too much space in the world. I am bewildered by it, and mad with it. And the urge to run away from what I love is a sort of sadism I no longer pretend to understand.”
The funny thing is that all of my internal struggling against moving in with Caleb is really pretty half-hearted. I always say that you can tell the way you feel about something by the advice that other people give you—in subtle queues, in the tone of their voice, in the way that they phrase a question, they signal to other people how they would like them to respond. And every time I ask someone, even my therapist (although not my parents—I actually might never tell them that I’m moving in), if it’s the right decision, the answer is always an unequivocal yes.
Because in my secret heart of hearts, I’m really looking forward to it. It feels like an exciting beginning, the kind of thing that will change my life for the better. I’ve struggled for so long by myself, often depressed or disinterested, that the idea of having someone else—to do laundry with, to decorate with, to share bills with—feels like an incredibly luxurious relief. For the first time in my adult years, life might actually become so easy, that it can be lived rather than fought against.
What I’m really having trouble letting go of is the kind of childish idea—for I realize that to withhold yourself and your personal space is, in many ways, a way of delaying the eventuality that you must go through stages of life, and, in doing so, confront your own death WAA WAA—that I’m meant to live life as independently as did women like Martha Gellhorn.
Martha Gellhorn was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1908, where she seemed to have a pretty intellectually engaging childhood. In 1926, she left home, and enrolled at Bryn Mawr College, two years behind Katharine Hepburn. In 1927, I can only assume irritated by the “trophy wife preparation” feeling of women’s colleges at the time, she left school to become a full time journalist.
Writing—and traveling, and writing about traveling, and traveling to write—was the passion that sustained her for her entire life.
(Can you see why I want to be like Martha Gelhorn? There’s a part of me, sitting here in New York, feeling trapped by a lack of interest, that only feels alive when I’m somewhere else, writing and taking photographs. In India, my fingers couldn’t type fast enough. Here, I spend the first two hours of every morning trying to get excited about anything at all.)
In 1930, Martha moved to Paris, determined to become a foreign correspondent. She arrived with nothing but $75, and quickly fell into an affair with a French journalist named Bertrand de Jouvenel, who was unhappily married. Earlier in life—at the age of 16—Bertrand, from a family of French nobility, had an affair with his stepmother, the writer Colette, making him infamous throughout Europe.
Martha Gellhorn was no fool in choosing men. She saw them as tools to gain power—or at least that’s what it looks like from the outside. From Jouvenel, to later lovers, who included World War II General James Gavin, and the billionaire Laurance Rockefeller, Gellhorn chose her men pointedly. But she didn’t seem to enjoy them much at all.
“…I didn’t like sex at all … all my life idiotically, I thought sex seemed to matter so desperately to the man who wanted it that to withhold was like withholding bread, an act of selfishness … what has always really absorbed me in life is what is happening outside. I accompanied men and was accompanied in action, in the extrovert part of life; I plunged into that; that was something altogether to be shared. But not sex; that seemed to be their delight and all I got was a pleasure of being wanted, I suppose, and the sort of tenderness (not nearly enough) that a man gives when he is satisfied. I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents.”
If that’s the case, she must have made a damn good dinner conversation.
The interesting thing is that Gellhorn did want tenderness, and that the tenderness she received was never enough. It draws an interesting parallel with that now stupidly media-oversatured scene in Girls, when Lena Dunham, desperate from approval from a childish man, has sex without pleasure.
Every woman is capable of feeling good during sex (minus, I’m sure, a few aberrant weirdos), but not every woman is capable of acting like an adult in control of her own decisions, and seizing it for herself, especially if she’s still searching for daddy approval. It takes some guts to say, for fear of not making the man feel good about himself, “Stop finger banging me, and take it slowly.” I admit, I wrote that last sentence just because I wanted to write finger banging.
At the age of 27, on vacation with her family in Key West, her father recently deceased, she met Ernest Hemingway, still married to Pauline Pfeiffer.
Hemingway, clearly a fan of reliving the past, had also met Pauline while he was married to his first wife. She was also a wealthy girl from St. Louis, Missouri, who wanted to be a journalist. Eventually going to work for Vogue, she differed from Martha because she didn’t have much of an adventurous spirit. Also, she wasn’t that cute.
Hemingway was taken with Martha’s desire to be on the front lines of atrocities. He brought her with him to cover the Spanish Civil War. There, she wrote correspondence for newspapers, and letters to Eleanor Roosevelt, one of her many famous friends: “…every time I drive on the roads here and see the rock mountains and the tough terraced fields, and the umbrella pines above the beaches, and the dust colored villages and the gravel river beds and the peasant’s faces, I think: Save Spain for decent people, it’s too beautiful to waste.”
For their honeymoon, the couple went to the front of the Sino-Japanese war, where they posed for many pictures together, carrying guns. Later the subject of a story in Gellhorn’s book entitled “Travels With Myself And Another: Five Journeys From Hell,” the couple’s mutual hatred of the journey bonded them together. There, Gellhorn and her “Unwilling Companion,” as she referred to Hemingway, displayed a mutual disgust for garlands of flowers; rode horses so small that the UC joked he could carry them; lunched with Chiang Kai-chek, who reputedly had no teeth; and generally joked about the stupidity of their translator, Mr. Ma.
Martha, for all of her worldliness, nevertheless found living in the countryside of China to be an abysmal affair:
‘We were quartered in a stone house in a stone room on a stone floor. It was very cold. The door opened on to the street and the smell thereof. The mosquitoes were competing with the flies and losing. The whisky, our only source of warmth, had run out owing to Generals’ enthusiasm for it. I lay on my boards, a foot off the floor, and said in the darkness, “I wish to die.”
Even great adventurers do not like open sewage or flies. I feel vindicated that I am not alone in that.
(There seems no way possible this is a picture of them, even though it’s marked as such, so I’m going to say that it’s a “dramatic re-staging” of their life together.)
Upon their return back to “civilization,” they moved to Cuba, to an estate called La Finca Vigia. If it wasn’t apparent before (and one must assume that it was, very much), then Martha quickly realized that she had married an over-grown child, not a man, who wanted her to devote her time exclusively to the pursuit of his career.
In a spoof pre-wedding contract, she wrote of him, “he and his business are what matter to me in this life, and that also I recognize that a very fine and sensitive writer cannot be left alone for two months and sixteen days.”
But leave Hemingway alone, Martha did, to travel to the Italian front in 1943. There, Hemingway wrote her a letter asking, “Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?” Soon after, he traveled to the site of D-Day landings. Martha was eager to join him. He tried to block her entry. She got there anyway, by impersonating a stretcher carrier. Their marriage dissolved immediately after, in the wake of her infidelity not only to his control over her career, but also because she fucked the aforementioned Army General, who had none of the portliness of Ernest Hemingway, and all of the charms of a man in uniform.
Looking back on her marriage to Hemingway a few years later, she wrote: “I weep for the eight years I spent … worshipping his image with him, and I weep for whatever else I was cheated of due to that time-serving.”
Martha married only one more time, to an editor named Tom Matthews, who was anything but Hemingway. Safe, stable, and not prone to shooting out windows in the middle of a fight, Martha found discontent in his security, and left him after nine years of marriage. She never married again.
During her life, she reportedly lived 19 different places, and had houses in six countries, including Kenya, Cuba, and the United Kingdom.
She covered most of the major wars, and wrote of them in novels, books, and short stories. Something of a rageful woman later in life, Martha was a fervent supporter of Israel, and an absolutely terrible mother to the Italian boy, Sandy, whom she adopted in 1949.
“You are a poor and stupid little fellow in my eyes. I’d be so damned ashamed to be you, I’d want to jump off a cliff,” she wrote to him when he was 19. I am too lazy to do the research to find out if he ever spoke to her again.
In 1998, at the age of 89, Martha Gellhorn, blind and alone, ended her own life.
To you, Martha Gellhorn, for being an independent woman when independent women were mostly French.
For your extensive writings, of which I am furiously jealous. For being at times funny, and at times prosaic. For making me laugh with your unfiltered observations.
For your, it must be said, great beauty. For always having a cigarette in your hands.
For being the star of an upcoming biopic starring Clive Owens and Nicole Kidman, who is far more crystalline perfect looking than you ever were, and no doubt will play you far too sympathetically. Admittedly, a trailer for the picture is the only reason I know of your existence.
For you, Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent, traveler, writer, terrible lover, you’re my Icon of the Week.