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A Hellion Who Outdid Hemingway : NOTHING EVER HAPPENS TO THE BRAVE The Story of Martha Gellhorn By Carl Rollyson (St. Martin's Press: $24.95; 398 pp.)

December 16, 1990|Steve Oney | Oney's book on the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank near Atlanta, Ga . , will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

With a "body like Circe," two novels to her credit and a rebellious streak that had already led her to drop out of Bryn Mawr, move to Paris and take up with a man who was both stepson and lover of French author Colette, 28-year-old Martha Gellhorn walked into Sloppy Joe's bar in Key West, Fla., one day in 1936. There she saw a bulky, barefooted figure clad in a "grubby T-shirt" and "odoriferous Basque shorts." This "large, dirty" gent was, of course, Ernest Hemingway, and while it's unclear whether Gellhorn's appearance in the writer's lair was a product of happenstance or calculation, there's no doubt that her inevitable romance with, marriage to and acrimonious split from Papa hold a conspicuous place in the annals of American literary gossip.

If Gellhorn had done no more than wed Hemingway, she would merit nothing beyond the requisite mentions in those volumes that lionize and psychoanalyze her famous husband. Most assuredly, she would not deserve an exhaustive, albeit unauthorized, biography. Yet in "Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave" (the title comes from a passage in "A Farewell to Arms"), Carl Rollyson offers Gellhorn up as a major literary figure in her own right.

Alluring, intrepid, observant, passionate and independent, Gellhorn--who at 82 continues to live and write from her home in Wales--has in fact accomplished so much as a journalist, fiction writer and social activist that her involvement with Hemingway could be viewed as just another interlude in an endlessly intriguing life. But while Rollyson gives the many facets of Gellhorn's varied existence a fair shake, he rightly does not lose sight of the fact that the woman's relationship with Papa is the central drama here, for it was in this thrilling yet ugly folie a deux that his elusive subject came closest to revealing her true self.

The product of a progressive, turn-of-the-century upbringing in St. Louis, Mo. (her doctor father was Jewish, her suffragette mother a Christian), Gellhorn grew up believing that it was her duty to give something back to the world. Yet idealist though she was, she also was a little rascal--Rollyson paints her as a girlish Huck Finn--and once she got to college, she had scant patience for either the pieties or the social niceties of a Seven Sisters school. She wrote poetry, smoked cigarettes and fell under the spell of the book that limned the lost generation: "The Sun Also Rises." In short, dropping out, going into journalism--first as a reporter for a Hearst paper in Albany, N.Y.--then rushing off to Europe all seemed perfectly in character.

Not long after settling in Paris, Gellhorn grew infatuated with Bertrand de Jouvenal, a writer whose obsession with European politics was eclipsed only by the sophisticated sexual appetites awakened by his stepmother, novelist Colette, who had seduced him at 17. To an adventurous American expatriate, this impossibly debauched yet intellectual swain was irresistible, and soon the two were entangled in a torrid affair. In 1933, they married and toured the continent, pursuing Jouvenal's great cause: a rapprochement between increasingly hostile France and Germany. The next year, Gellhorn published "What Mad Pursuit," an autobiographical first novel about a girl who abandons a bourgeois life for one of meaning.

Entranced though she was by her Parisian conquest, Gellhorn wasn't yet ready to forsake her native land. In 1934, her marriage to Jouvenal souring, she returned home, took a job as an investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and began crisscrossing America, monitoring lives ruined by the Depression.

Thrust into the grim realities of New England tenements, North Carolina mill towns and Midwestern Hoovervilles, Gellhorn eventually grew enraged by the government's inability to improve the lot of its huddled masses, and in the fall of 1935, she incited a group of down-and-out Idaho laborers to commit acts of violence in pursuit of economic justice. Harry Hopkins, FERA's open-minded chief, was left with no choice but to fire his overzealous charge, a move that produced an improbable turn of events that could have occurred only during the New Deal: Gellhorn was invited to come and live at the White House.

Due to their mutual participation in such causes as the League of Women Voters, Gellhorn's mother and Eleanor Roosevelt had become friends, and the First Lady regarded Martha as something of a protegee. Thus it was that this budding hellion found herself ensconced in Lincoln's bedroom, writing "The Trouble I've Seen," a fictionalized account of three Depression-era families. Published in 1936, the book not only received wildly positive notices but it also made its author famous. Soon Gellhorn's pretty face adorned the cover of The Saturday Review of Literature, and shortly thereafter, she appeared in Key West at the side of the bearish great man of letters himself.

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