Martha Gellhorn: War Reporter, D-Day Stowaway
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
BRUSSELS, Belgium, Mar. 6, 1998 Women reporting news today from Baghdad, Bosnia or any other world hot spot is not unusual. But 60 years ago, women war correspondents were a breed apart. Pioneers like Martha Gellhorn paved the way for CNN's Christiane Amanpour and others.
Gellhorn, a veteran American journalist who covered the Spanish Civil War, World War II, Vietnam and, at age 81, the U.S. invasion of Panama, died of cancer at age 89 at her London home in February.
The London Daily Telegraph hailed Gellhorn as "one of the great war correspondents of the century; brave, fierce and wholly committed to the truth of a situation." She was one of the first women to be acknowledged by male journalists as an equal, according to her obituary.
Throughout her career, she focused on war's civilian victims and those fighting to survive. She avoided briefings by defense leaders, choosing instead the company of soldiers.
Gellhorn distrusted politicians. "All politicians are bores and liars and fakes," she once said. "I talk to people." She told one interviewer the reporter's job "was to limit yourself to what you see or hear and not suppress or invent."
After visiting a hospital in Spain in 1937, Gellhorn said she was not concerned with reporting objectively. "You go into a hospital and it's full of wounded kids. So you write about what you see. You don't say there's 37 wounded children in this hospital, but maybe there's 38 on the other side. You write about what you see."
Born in 1908 in St. Louis, Gellhorn began her journalism career in the 1930s writing from Paris for Vogue magazine. She also produced the first of 13 novels, "What Mad Pursuit?", about three American women set in 1930s Europe.
Returning to America during the Depression, Gellhorn worked for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Based on her travels for the agency throughout the United States, she produced her second novel, "The Troubles I've Seen."
In 1937, the Spanish Civil War sparked Gellhorn's career as a war correspondent. Encouraged by second husband Ernest Hemingway, she submitted an article about the war to Collier's Weekly magazine.
From then on, her work took her to the front lines of the Sino-Japanese conflict, to the blackouts and bombings of World War II London, and to the ravaged landscape of Nazi Germany. Without official press credentials, she reached the beaches of Normandy on D-Day as a stretcher bearer after hiding in the lavatory of a hospital ship.
Gellhorn traveled across World War II Europe with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. She was among the first to enter the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. She also witnessed the fall of Prague, Czechoslavkia, and covered the Nuremberg war crimes trials.
When civil war erupted in Bosnia, Gellhorn finally accepted she was too old to go. "You have to be nimble," she reportedly said.
During her life, the prolific writer and frequent traveler lived in France, Cuba, Mexico, Italy and Kenya. In her later years, she owned a cottage in Wales, but lived in a London apartment where she wrote mainly travel articles and book reviews for British newspapers. After a cataract operation damaged her eyesight and prevented her from using her manual typewriter, Gellhorn turned to radio reporting.
"What distinguishes her journalism is her eloquent outrage and commitment to fair play," Bill Buford, literary editor of The New Yorker, told The Guardian newspaper. "She was amazing. She was nearly 90, smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish, and well into her 80s, with her high cheekbones, she could flirt as easily as women 50 years younger."
In another Guardian tribute, writer Julia Pascal said Gellhorn did not fear the horrors of old age. Gellhorn reportedly said, "Those who find growing old terrible are people who haven't done what they wanted with their lives."
Gellhorn's other works include novels "Liana" (1943) and "The Weather in Africa" (1978), and nonfiction books, "The Face of War" (1959) and "Travels with Myself and Another" (1978).