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A woman left unexplained

Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life; Caroline Moorehead; Henry Holt: 464 pp., $27.50

October 05, 2003|Susie Linfield | Susie Linfield is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Caroline MOOREHEAD'S biography of pathbreaking journalist Martha Gellhorn is subtitled "A Twentieth-Century Life," and a quick look at Gellhorn's friends and intimates suggests why: They included Robert Capa, Eleanor Roosevelt, H.G. Wells, Leonard Bernstein and Ernest Hemingway (a husband). But it's the places she wrote about as an eyewitness that reveal much more: Spain and China, during their civil wars; the American South, crushed by the Depression; Czechoslovakia, betrayed by the great powers; Finland, invaded by Russia; Dachau, on the day the Germans surrendered; Israel, soon after its declaration of state; Vietnam, bombarded by America.

Gellhorn's life was a 20th century one in other ways too, for she epitomized what Doris Lessing dubbed, albeit with irony, a "free woman": Gellhorn had numerous love affairs, two marriages and several abortions, and she raised an adopted child on her own. Moorehead's "Gellhorn" is the study of a fascinating woman, so how could it fail to be fascinating too? Indeed, it often is. And yet it shies away from contemplating the most interesting questions raised by Gellhorn's life and work.

"Happy children have no history," Moorehead writes, and Gellhorn's early years were blissfully undramatic. She was born in 1908 in St. Louis to parents who enjoyed what Moorehead calls "a singularly happy marriage." Her father was a prosperous, progressive doctor, her mother a suffragist. From her father, Moorehead writes, Gellhorn learned "about justice, independent thought, and compassion," and she remained extraordinarily close to her mother throughout her life.

After dropping out of Bryn Mawr, Gellhorn embarked on a career in journalism and began the restless travels that would become her signature. In 1930 she arrived in Paris, and there, it may be said, her life began. She was 21, tall, blond, rebellious, self-confident, and she plunged: into the political debates of the prewar left, her education conducted "in the smoky meeting rooms of the poorer Parisian districts"; into a four-year affair with journalist Bertrand de Jouvenel, a former lover (and stepson) of Colette; and into learning the craft of writing. "Already," Moorehead writes, "the bones of what was becoming her particular style were being laid: the subject pinned down by the memorable and seemingly insignificant detail ... which would later turn into a talent for describing the ordinariness in tragedy, the horror of war framed by the smallest of scenes."

Gellhorn's style in men was forming too: Like virtually all her loves, de Jouvenel was married when she met him, and, as with virtually all her paramours, she was neither deeply in love with nor sexually drawn to him. "A man is of no use to me," she once wrote, "unless he can live without me." For better or worse, her womanhood would be more eventful than her childhood.

The Spanish Civil War was Gellhorn's Rubicon. It made her into a writer, brought her and Hemingway together and transformed her from a pacifist into an anti-fascist. Spain, she later succintly explained, is "the affair of us all, who do not want a world whose bible is Mein Kampf." Spain broke her too, for the Republic's defeat shattered her belief that the "angry sound against injustice" would ultimately be heard. Beyond all this, though, I would argue that Spain and the Spaniards gave Gellhorn something priceless that present-day journalists often sorely miss: a vision of courage and solidarity as simultaneously heroic and quotidian.

After Spain, Gellhorn moved to Cuba with Hemingway and enjoyed an idyll that combined what Moorehead calls "the two aspects of life she most valued -- loving the right person and doing the right work." (There was also a beautiful old house and lots of sun, which Gellhorn adored -- she preferred to write sitting outside, naked.) But Gellhorn wasn't good at idylls; as she wrote to journalist John Gunther, "Where I want to be, boy, is where it is all blowing up." So she returned to a blown-up Europe to cover its liberation, perfecting what Moorehead terms "her particular trademark, the ability to weave the daily scenes of war into an infinitely large picture made up of history and memory and hope." Hope, though, became harder to come by. The discovery of Dachau, Gellhorn would write 25 years later, created an unhealable wound: "I have never again felt that lovely, easy, lively hope in life which I knew before, not in life, not in our species, not in our future on earth."

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