Hemingway and Gellhorn – Passion is Where the Action Is!

“We were good in war, and when there was no war, we made our own”

Hemingway and Gellhorn is a film in the famous tradition of the old fashioned Hollywood love movies, which were made between the 30’s and 50’s. They were always about a collision between great, intelligent formidable thinking characters who had been brought together by a great romance. This one begins amidst the chaos of war, when spying, suffering and just surviving to live another day was the only thing foremost in most people’s minds. Martha Gellhorn (1908 – 1998), played by Nicole Kidman, is a war journalist and writer of some wit, great charm and naive vulnerability. She meets the already well-known writer Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961), played by British actor Clive Owen, in a bar in Key West at Florida. She is 28 and he is 37 and already married. She is a rebel with a cause and a chain smoker, whose deep raspy beautifully spoken voice becomes a personal trademark.

Within months they were both reporting on the Spanish Civil War, having traveled to Spain to cover the rise of fascism. She was passionate about supporting the democratically elected socialist government of Spain saying in 1939, “Nothing in my life… affected my thinking as the losing of that war,” she wrote in a letter to her friend Hortense Flexner “It is, very banally, like the death of all loved things.”^

Her wartime dispatches are among the most notable of the twentieth century, and her raft of personal letters chronicle her friendships with many historical figures, including the US President Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor, musical genius composer, conductor, pianist and music lecturer Leonard Bernstein and the English writer HG Wells, who known for his work in the science fiction genre, as well as her own marriage to Ernest Hemingway.

They had a passionate and sometimes stormy love affair and marriage that lasted for a seven year period and she produced reports throughout five of the most terrible wars of their time. He dedicated his Spanish Civil War novel For Whom the Bell Tolls’ published in 1940 to her in the year she became his third wife. Their relationship was tempestuous to say the very least, and seemingly based on the two opposite emotions love and hate becoming co-travelers. In reality it could not, and would not last.

Gellhorn’s working life spanned the Spanish Civil War, the Great Depression, World War I and II and the conflict in Vietnam. Following World War II she lived in permanent exile in Britain, because she was ashamed to be American. Somewhere along the way she had lost her belief that in the end ‘truth, justice and kindness’ would always prevail.

“Let me tell you something about writers… the best ones are all liars”*

Martha Gellhorn was 22 years of age when she first offered her services as a reporter to the bureau chief of The New York Times at Paris. She was full of fire, passion and vision. That made her want to speak on behalf of the victims of war, of those bound by poverty and the callous governments that caused great misery.

Gradually I came to realize that people will more readily swallow lies than truth, as if the taste of lies was homey, appetizing: a habit**

She became a journalist, friend, mother and wife, however all these roles involved both sensational success and fantastic failure, including her five-year stint as Ernest Hemingway’s wife.

When she was honest with herself it was the work in the end that mattered the most and gave her a fulfillment in a way that love never could. Boredom was what she was escaping from, which meant that she spent her life relentlessly in search of a truth she would never find. An intemperate friend to those in her immediate circle, she lived her life on her own terms, mainly it seems because she wanted to feel good about herself.

Citizenship is a tough occupation, which obliges the citizen to make his own informed opinion and stand by it**

Born in St Louis Missouri in 1908 her parents had a great deal to do with evoking the rebellious nature of their daughter, who hated poverty and corrupt officials with just as much passion as she loved Hemingway when she first met him.

Her mother was an active suffragette and her half Jewish German émigré doctor father advanced his own progressive ideas about health, hygiene and education. Together they both inspired her continual curiosity and her outstanding display of confidence in the face of chaos and catastrophe.

In the last camp they all ate grass, until the authorities forbade them to pull it up. They were accustomed to having the fruits of their little communal gardens stolen by the guards, after they had done all the work; but at the last camp everything was stolen**

Hemingway became known as the master of the ‘one true sentence’. He traveled overseas to serve in World War 1 as an ambulance driver in the Italian Army. However he sustained injuries and ended up in a hospital in Milan. His famous novel ‘Farewell to Arms’ was born from those experiences and a brief love affair that he had with a young nurse who left him for another man.

At home in Chicago he met Hadley Richardson, who became his wife. They moved to Paris so that he could work from there as a foreign correspondent. This is where he also befriended the infamous American born writer Gertrude Stein, who lived most of her life in France. She became Hemingway’s mentor and he became one of the expatriate writers and artists that she labelled her ‘Lost Generation’.

They all gathered in her salon and included F Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson and Ezra Pound.

The real Martha and Earnest

In 1925 Hemingway went to the Festival of San Fermin at Pamplona in Spain. This experience formed a basis for the novel, still considered one of his best, The Sun Also Rises. He divorced his first wife and went off with Pauline Pfeiffer, who became his second wife, at least until he met Martha Gellhorn and started their new and fiery relationship.

When he married Martha in 1940 he purchased a farm near Havana, Cuba for a winter writing residence. From there they went together to Hong Kong to cover the Chinese Army’s retreat from the Japanese invasion.

Witnessing the slave labour conditions that would become so abhorrent to her, is what drove her to try and change affairs through her writing ability.

He on the other hand stoically accepted the world as it was and wanted her, as he and all the men of his time did, to defer to him in a patriarchal role that she could never accept. She said year’s later that she had not wanted to end up as being just ‘a footnote to someone else’s life’.

“Ernest and I really are afraid of each other, each one knowing that the other is the most violent person either one knows,”*

The USA entered the war in 1941 and he reported on many of the key moments, including the D Day landing, forming friendships with many of the key protagonists including General Omar Bradley Commander of the US ground forces who was invading Germany from the west.

In 1945 the year Gellhorn left Hemingway she traveled on to Europe gaining an opportunity to enter Dachau along with the American troops for the liberation of that terrible concentration camp. She was forever scarred by the experience.

The result was a piece of journalism she become renowned for.

“Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice. They have no age and no faces,” she wrote, “they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky”

Following the war Hemingway would receive the Bronze Star for his bravery, despite having been kept on a landing craft because he was ‘precious cargo’ and fabricating accounts of his going ashore.

He also got into trouble over giving advice to Resistance members. He wanted to cover the conflict known as the ‘Battle of the Bulge’, but instead ended up in hospital with pneumonia.

Towards the end of the war Ernest Hemingway had met another war correspondent Mary Walsh and the pattern of his life, at least with women, began to repeat itself as yet again, one relationship ended and a new one began.

Each new wife for Hemingway inspired a new novel and in 1951 he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, his Pulitzer Prize winning novel. In 1954 he also won the Novel Prize in literature but by now he was in decline, with depression and various illnesses, including liver disease causing him great distress.

The last decade of his life is notable for its many dramatic events and incidents, including being thought dead in a plane accident and being badly burned in a bushfire. The accidents caused him continual pain from his injuries.

On a visit to Paris at the end of 1956 he discovered trunks filled with notebooks and jottings from his years spent there. From 1957 to 1959 at Cuba he wrote ‘A Moveable Feast’, his memoir of that time and feeling disillusioned with life there left Cuba for Idaho in 1960, where on July 2, 1961 he committed suicide.

Martha Gillhorn after exiling herself from the United States following the war and traveled from her base apartment in London or from her Welsh cottage, covering war trials.

She went to Israel in 1967 to write about the Arab-Israeli war from her own pro-Israel standpoint; her Dachau experience still very much at the forefront of her memory

She loathed the war in Vietnam, finding that there were victims on both sides. Following the theme of her life she also covered wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and the US Invasion of Panama.

In South America she wrote about the street children in Brazil during the mid 1990’s and this would be her last report as a journalist.

British Journalist George Orwell perhaps sums it up the best when he revealed to ‘Susie Linfield in the ‘Nation’ – “journalism equaled truth and that truth would inspire people to protest, to intervene’

Martha Gillhorn believed that a journalist should be true to ‘what you see or hear and not suppress or invent’. She wanted fame and fortune, but despite writing a number of novels, it elusively passed her by. She had many lovers, but never found the perfect companion. She had one son, adopted another and had three unsuccessful marriages because her heart was not really ever engaged, except for perhaps one brief moment in the great span of her life, with Ernest Hemingway.

As always, Martha Gellhorn in living life on her own terms, ended it suddenly when she learned she had terminal cancer. Suffering was something she had seen for most of her life and when she died on February 15, 1998 she finally found the peace she had been seeking.

“War happens to people, one by one. That is really all I have to say and it seems to me I have been saying it forever. Unless they are immediate victims, the majority of mankind behaves as if war was an act of God, which could not be prevented; or they behave as if war elsewhere was none of their business. It would be a bitter cosmic joke if we destroy ourselves due to atrophy of the imagination.”*

The last word perhaps should go to Hemingway who observed

‘…from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention…’

The quotation was like his writing style, understated and characterised by an ‘economy of effort’.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012

Watch the Trailer


Hemingway and Gellhorn

Directed by multiple Academy Award® nominee Philip Kaufman

Script by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner


Academy Award® nominee and Golden Globe winner Clive Owen
Academy Award® and three-time Golden Globe winner Nicole Kidman


Academy Award® nominee David Strathairn, SAG Award nominee Molly Parker, Rodrigo Santoro, Golden Globe nominee Parker Posey, actor-musician Lars Ulrich, Santiago Cabrera, Saverio Guerra, Emmy® Award nominee Peter Coyote, multiple Emmy® and Golden Globe nominee Diane Baker and Emmy® and Golden Globe winner Tony Shalhoub.

Watch John Pilger interview Martha Gellhorn, the American novelist, travel writer and journalist considered to be one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century – 1983


* Martha Gellhorn
** Ernest Hemingway
^ Marc Weingarten, The Washington Post

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