Martha Gellhorn, an observation


I love the breadcrumb trail the world of reading offers when we are open to it. I recently found myself wrapped up in a wonderful book titled The Hotel on Place Vendome by Tilar Mazzeo. The author writes about the world of the famous Ritz Hotel in Paris. She primarily focuses on the time period of the Second World War although she sets the stage by introducing us to Paris and the exciting world of the rich and famous starting at the turn of the last century when the Ritz was first opened.

Among the many characters we are introduced to in this book, I was taken by Mazzeo’s descriptions of the world of Martha Gellhorn and her challenges as woman correspondent and journalist during the second world war. This description can be found in chapter 16. Balancing the demands of those paying for her to write against an unknown world of horrors and excitement, not the least being that she was at the time the spurned wife of the great Ernest Hemingway. Yes, Hemingway appears to get first billing but Gellhorn is an amazing writer in her own right. The snippets presented in Mazzeo’s book caused me to dug deeper into the life and world of this author, global traveler and gutsy, articulate woman and I discovered a 60-plus year career of writing and traveling where she encountered war and the travails of ordinary people all over the globe. She found (or placed) herself in almost every conflict starting with the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s right through to the early 1990’s when she wanted to go to the Balkan’s but realized her health and age prevented such an opportunity. I can imagine that at a certain point the lifestyle became the only thing worth living for.

Her writing is beautiful. She was known as a chronicler with a very in-your-face style of prose that must have been honed by years of seeing a reality that greatly challenged her belief and understanding of humanity. I have read some of her work and I have just begun a book titled The Face of War. She originally wrote the book in 1959 and edited and rewrote parts of it in 1986. A fascinating part of this book is the evolution of her thinking and her passion and compassion for the human race. She writes, in part, in her 1986 edition:

After a lifetime of war-watching, I see war as an endemic human disease, and the governments are the carriers. Only governments prepare, declare, and prosecute wars. There is no record of hordes of citizens, on their own, mobbing the seat of government to clamor for war. They must be infected with hate and fear before they catch war fever. They have to be taught that they are endangered by an enemy, and that the vital interests of their state are threatened. The vital interests of the state, which are always about power, have nothing to do with the vitals interests of the citizens, which are private and simple and are always about a better life for themselves and their children. You do not kill for such interests, you work for them.

Our amazing species is programmed from childhood in my-country-right-or-wrong patriotism. It is a nonsense phrase, despite its compelling power. Invoked for the purpose of rallying citizens to war, the correct phrase should be my-government-right-or-wrong. I always liked Tolstoi’s crusty remark that “governments are a collection of men who do violence to the rest of us”.

At this point in history (1986/87) the USSR had yet to fall apart and the ensuing changes to the world order had not been imagined but if we augment Gellhorn’s nuclear fears with other forms of terror and global disruption her message could be much the same today, just add more zeros to all of the figures quoted.

It is now almost thirty years beyond the final date in this book of wars and what have we learned? My age and my generation want to believe it is never too late to hear, to learn, and subsequently do something to move away from a perennial world of wars big or small. I wonder, however whether our world of one-percenters’ has developed a too powerful sway in the overall global decision processes. I continually attempt to encourage my students to see and know the power each of them possesses especially if and when they work together. Sadly many are overly focused on the here and now of bill paying and future life planning to be able to appreciate the connection.

The Martha Gellhorns of the world are few and far between. I wonder if despite the continual adventure and driving force her life must have been whether she was also very lonely. Maybe what we all see and benefit through her writing was her life’s mission. I am beginning to see a richness of layers in her writing and believe that there may be much value in her prescient observations today and tomorrow. To be continued…