Martha Gellhorn was one of the first women ever to achieve an international reputation as a war correspondent, a tall order in what was then — and still is — predominantly a man’s world.* She came of age as the twentieth century did, reporting on virtually every major world conflict in her 60-year career, and Martha changed the face of journalism along the way.
She was born wanting to “go everywhere, and see everything,” and to write about it. In 1930, and just after her 21st birthday, she dropped out of Bryn Mawr for a job as a cub reporter for the Times Union in Albany. Martha covered women’s clubs, the police beat, and occasionally the morgue. The only female reporter on staff, she felt uneasy in the loud, boozy newsroom, and she often had to fend off the sexual advances of her editor. She stayed until the same lecherous editor told her to drop a story she deeply wanted to do. The piece was about a woman who’d unfairly lost custody of her children, because of a local judge who was punishing her for her life choices — working as a waitress, smoking, playing bridge. In that mother, Martha recognized an underdog who needed her voice. But she couldn’t use that voice, or her conscience. Not in Albany, anyway.
Martha wanted to be a serious writer and to be taken seriously, but the only articles she sold easily over the next few years were on fashion or the “woman’s angle” for American magazines she had little respect for. It wasn’t until she took a job with the Federal Relief Administration, documenting stories of the disintegrating towns and dispossessed families most beaten by the Depression, that her conscience, intelligence, and skill found a worthy target. She parlayed what she’d seen into a much-lauded book, The Trouble I’ve Seen, which made her the literary sensation of 1936.
Not long after, she met her literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, by chance in a Key West bar. When she learned he was traveling to Madrid soon to report on the Spanish Civil War, she was determined to go as well. She had no formal assignment, but a few months later, in the spring of 1937, she crossed over the border from France into Spain alone, carrying only a knapsack; a fraudulent letter stating her credentials, which she’d begged from an editor friend in New York; and $50 rolled and tucked into her boot.
Besieged Madrid was in its fifth month of bombardment. There, as the smell of explosives hung in the air, she began to write what she saw: of boys in pieces in makeshift hospitals and women in bread lines, of children walking to school through trails of blood and civilians living their lives bravely, even as their city fell to its knees. She wrote simply, and personally, convinced from the very beginning that if you cared about something enough, you could persuade others of its necessity. Enough with “all that objectivity shit.” She’d never believed it anyway.
The pieces Collier’s Magazine published from Martha’s time in Spain not only defined her voice and style but also radically changed how conflict was seen and reported. Instead of focusing on the usual subjects of war — tactics, generals, arsenals, artillery — Martha looked at the people, and she would continue to do so over the next several years, as nations tumbled toward World War II. She became Hemingway’s third wife and then his adversary, as he grew more and more frustrated by her ambition. The marriage reached its breaking point in 1944, when Hemingway, in retaliation for Martha’s choosing her work over him, offered his byline to Collier’s as senior correspondent for D-Day, effectively replacing her on the masthead.