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Her World

Getting to Know an Adventurer You Wouldn't Dare Call 'Mrs. Hemingway'

November 18, 2001|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Browsing in a bookstore recently, I chanced upon a copy of "Travels With Myself and Another" by war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. It's about terrible trips she took between 1941 and 1972, on assignment and for pleasure. I read it in one sitting from cover to cover, laughing aloud, alternately loving and loathing its outrageous, intrepid, opinionated author, a woman traveler like no other.

Getting to know Gellhorn, who was born in 1908 in St. Louis, went to Paris in 1930 to become a foreign correspondent and spent the rest of her long life traveling to war zones and other difficult places (including Brazil, where, at 87, she reported on the harrowing lives of street children), is the chief joy of the book. The other is its all-too-true theme, which the author explains in the introduction. "All amateur travelers have experienced horror journeys, long or short, sooner or later, one way or another," Gellhorn says. "As a student of disaster, I note that we react alike to our tribulations: frayed and bitter at the time, proud afterwards. Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival."

The first section of "Travels With Myself and Another" is about a particularly difficult trip Gellhorn took to China in 1941 to cover the Sino-Japanese war for Collier's magazine. She went with a fellow writer, whom she dubbed "U.C.," for "Unwilling Companion." Together they took planes, trains, sampans and horses to the front in southeastern China, accompanied by an incompetent escort and translator called Mr. Ma.

She got her story but had a difficult time of it, even though she tried not to complain because she was the one who wanted to go to China in the first place, as U.C. frequently reminded her.

It wasn't until I read "Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave," an unauthorized biography of Gellhorn (which its subject tried to suppress) by Carl Rollyson, that I realized U.C. was Ernest Hemingway, whom she met in 1936 in Key West, Fla., and married in 1940. Gellhorn would have loved my ignorance; she spent most of her life trying to escape Hemingway's long shadow, refusing to talk about him when interviewed and burning his letters before her death in 1998. Critics of her books often said she learned her terse, down-to-earth style from him, which enraged her.

The couple spent their happiest years together covering the Spanish Civil War (Hemingway dedicated "For Whom the Bell Tolls" to her) and at a villa outside Havana (which became the Hemingway Museum). She was elegantly tall and beautiful, with hair "like a wheat field," Hemingway wrote. He was a famous novelist, wild and hard-drinking. "Just at the point when I wanted to kill him he made me laugh," Gellhorn said.

But when the U.S. entered World War II, Gellhorn wanted to report from the front in Europe. Hemingway finally went, stealing her job as a correspondent for Collier's. Undaunted, she stowed away on a hospital ship and outmaneuvered him by getting the D-day story with U.S. troops landing on the beaches of Fance. She also reported on the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp and the invasion of Italy, where she got a telegram from Hemingway that said, "Are you a war correspondent or my wife in bed?"

Separation and rivalry took a toll on the marriage. Gellhorn walked out on Hemingway and divorced him in 1945.

In "Messing About in Boats," the second section of "Travels With Myself and Another," Gellhorn makes a nutty tour, without Hemingway, searching for German submarines in the Caribbean. It was 1942, and the Germans had sunk 251 merchant ships there, though the U.S. government kept it quiet and even Gellhorn knew she was reporting on a World War II sideshow. Moreover, it was hurricane season.

On Tortola she hired a dilapidated sloop with a lackadaisical crew and "no lifebelts, no sextant, no log, no barometer and no charts. A compass wobbled on the stern by the tiller. The single sail resembled a patchwork quilt." From there they went to Virgin Gorda, Anguilla, St. Martin, Saint-Barthelemy, Saba, Suriname and French Guiana, as Gellhorn grew despondent over her failure to spot a German sub.

Not surprisingly, it turned out to be another terrible trip, except that she got to see the Caribbean in its halcyon days. And there was one magical afternoon she spent at a deserted beach on St. Martin: "Under a china blue sky, I sat naked in the shallows to watch schools of fish, recognizing only silver baby barracudas ... and waded out to swim through glass-clear Nile-green water.... I forgot the war; it was somebody else's nightmare. I was in that state of grace which can rightly be called happiness, when body and mind rejoice totally together. This occurs, as a divine surprise, in travel; this is why I will never finish traveling."

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