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The Woman at the Front

Caroline Moorehead's Gellhorn

Time for a quiz: In the 1920s, this novelist and journalist left a Midwestern home and secured shipboard passage to Paris in exchange for an article about the trip. Said writer soon became one of the preeminent war reporters of the time, as well as an author of twelve novels and short story collections.

If you've answered "Ernest Hemingway," you're close. Add a "Mrs.," and you're spot-on. Martha Gellhorn, who became Hemingway's third wife, thrilled American readers of magazines such as Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post with her reports from international war theaters. She covered the Spanish Civil War, the German invasion of the Sudetenland, the Allied invasion of Normandy, the Russian invasion of Finland, and the Communist takeover in China.

With countless biographies (not to mention high school compositions) devoted to Hemingway, Gellhorn's relative anonymity is unjust. British writer Caroline Moorehead tries to correct the problem with her eleventh book, Gellhorn: A Twentieth Century Life.

While Gellhorn's life spanned most of the twentieth century from 1908 to 1998, the dramatic crux occurred between 1930 and 1950 when she was at the height of her journalistic prowess and romantic allure. Moorehead contends that Gellhorn's beauty and charm not only allowed her entrance to places few women had seen, but so intrigued the men in her midst that they all fell in love with her. During her early years in France, Gellhorn seduced Betrand de Jouvenel, the stepson and lover of writer Colette. In Italy, America's youngest divisional commander James Gavin fell under her spell.

Her most famous liaison, with the then-married Ernest Hemingway, began when Gellhorn stopped in a Key West, Fla., bar called Sloppy Joe's while vacationing with her mother Edna. Two weeks later, she and Hemingway were covering the Spanish Civil War in Madrid. The relationship lasted eight years and included a five-year marriage, a shared home in Cuba, and tandem reporting excursions to Europe and the Far East. Hemingway dedicated For Whom The Bell Tolls to her.

Stricken with an incurable case of wanderlust, Gellhorn once wrote, "the only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster."

But the lack of disaster in Gellhorn's life outside the war years makes this biography a rather linear read. Moorehead tries to create dramatic tension post-WWII and post-Hemingway by describing Gellhorn as a woman in constant struggle with her value as a writer and her stigma as a childless woman. (At age 40, Gellhorn adopted an Italian war orphan in Italy and later married unhappily to Time editor Tom Matthews.)

Moorehead relies on Boston University's Martha Gellhorn Archive for most of her sources. Gellhorn was an avid diary-keeper and letter-writer; when BU suggested an archive, she not only gave the school all her letters but also asked her correspondents to donate letters they had kept. Much of the quoted work in Gellhorn comes directly from these letters, sent to recipients such as Gellhorn's mother Edna, son Sandy, and friends H.G. Wells and Robert Capa.

Moorehead met Gellhorn in London in 1969 but admits she was never one of Gellhorn's "chaps": "The close circle of younger friends, women as well as men, who gathered around her in the last twenty years of her life." This lack of intimacy translates into a biography of a subject held at arm's length. Considering the drama of Gellhorn's life, Moorehead's work conveys none of the spice of Carl Rollyson's 1990 biography of Gellhorn: Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave.

This is Moorehead's eleventh book; she has written biographies of writers Freya Stark and Bertrand Russell among others. Gellhorn contains 16 pages of photographs which convey more of the essence of those times than any paragraph contained within. When you see Gellhorn and Hemingway dancing at their wedding -- Hemingway's eyes on Gellhorn, Gellhorn's on the photographer -- the relationship is clearer than any chapter can evoke.

Readers unfamiliar with Gellhorn's work should use the biography as a jumping-off point to primary source material. Pick your travel destination: Fly with the 82nd Airborne in 1946 aboard a C-47 with 18 men sitting on chromium bucket seats. Walk the streets of Rome in 1948 surrounded by blind children selling sewing machines. (Gellhorn once wrote that only two countries won the war: the United States and Italy). Crouch atop the deck of a hospital ship in 1944 behind unused buckets of whole blood. Gellhorn was one of the most descriptive and compassionate war reporters of her time. It's unfortunate that the talent she had for making objective reporting emotive is not available to her biographer.

Gellhorn: A Twentieth Century Life
by Caroline Moorehead
Henry Holt & Company; ISBN: 0805065539
Hardcover: 463 pages (October 2003)

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