Gellhorn letters shed light on doomed Hemingway marriage

The Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, according to Christopher Benfey, reveal that she quit Ernest Hemingway “because he was a crybaby and got in the way of her work.” Gellhorn resented “being reduced to ‘a footnote in history, a passing reference in others’ books and letters,'” but she “maintained a dignified public silence.” (In Hemingway’s version of events, she was “a bitch and a phony.”)

Here’s Benfey on the early days of their courtship and marriage:

Gellhorn’s father died on Christmas Day, 1935, and she and her mother spent the following Christmas together at Key West. One night, they walked into a bar named Sloppy Joe’s, where “a large, dirty man in untidy somewhat soiled white shorts and shirt” just happened to be sitting. Courtesy Henry Holt (Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world….) She was twenty-eight, Hemingway was thirty-seven. Like most of the men in Gellhorn’s life, he was married. Of course, the encounter cannot have been completely by chance. It was hardly a secret that Hemingway hung out in Key West in the winter and liked to drink. And Gellhorn, along with half her generation, had already adopted Hemingway’s creed as her own. “I take my code out of Hemingway,” she had written to Stanley Pennell while still at Bryn Mawr. “Do you remember A Farewell to Arms. The hero talks to the woman; she is worried about something; and he says: ‘You’re brave. Nothing ever happens to the brave.’ Which is somehow enough–a whole philosophy–a banner–a song–and a love. And something to fill up time–busily, passionately.”

One of the oddest things about being Hemingway must have been the uncanny sense that so many of the people he met had stepped out of the pages of his own books. But Gellhorn modeled herself on Hemingway’s heroes, not on his women.

When he told her that he was going to Spain to write about the civil war, Gellhorn decided that she was going, too. When she arrived in Madrid in the spring of 1937, Hemingway, surrounded by his admiring entourage of fellow journalists and prostitutes, greeted her with the condescending words, “I knew you’d get here, daughter, because I fixed it up so you could.” She checked into the Hotel Florida, where Hemingway had two rooms on the quiet side away from the shelling. Hemingway locked her in her room the first night because he didn’t want her to be mistaken, as he wittily explained, for a “whore de combat.” Gellhorn was furious. “I should have known at that moment what doom was,” she remarked. The moment is emblematic of the seven bumpy years that followed. He wanted her home where he could find her, waiting and adoring; she wanted the life he had. According to Gellhorn, Hemingway was a “ghastly lover–wham bam thank you maam, or maybe just wham bam.”


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