Death in the Present Tense: On Martha Gellhorn’s Love Letters to Ernest Hemingway
Ellen Barkin Narrates Yours, for Probably Always
“I haven’t been in such a rage for a long time, but where can one dump one’s rage?”
–Martha Gellhorn, letter to Eleanor Roosevelt
Eager to travel to Finland where, as far as Martha Gellhorn could determine, people “looked after each other’s needs and rights, with justice: a good democracy,” she noted that it “was unusual timing to arrive in a strange frozen country one dark afternoon and be waked the next morning at nine o’clock by the first bombs, the declaration of war,” on November 30th. Her first piece for Collier’s there, “Bombs on Helsinki,” among many vignettes, showed a nine-year-old boy outside his home watching Russian bombers, holding himself “stiffly so as not to shrink from the noise. When the air was quiet again, he said, ‘Little by little, I am getting really angry.’”
Another, “Death in the Present Tense,” had a 12-year-old bellhop who stood near the door of the Hotel Kamp “listening to the dreadful music; a long-drawn siren, the sharp, angry, too-close metallic pounding of the machine guns, the faint distant thud of the bombs.” With shaking hands, the youngster closed faded brocade curtains over a rattling window, “waiting for death as those do who cannot understand it.”
In Paris at the end of December, Martha would later recall that “Paris was the Sleeping Beauty. Blue dim-out lights shone on the snow in the empty Place de la Concorde… There were no crowds, few cars, no sense of haste or disaster. Paris had never been more at peace. I felt that I was looking at this grace for the last time.”
While she was in Paris, her mother was home in St. Louis, hosting lunch for Ernest’s first wife Hadley and their son Jack. In a December 29th letter to Hemingway, Edna Gellhorn wrote that all three of them enjoyed the visit and when she asked Jack about where he planned to go to college, he told her that he “didn’t know exactly, but wanted some place where he could fish.”
Edna wrote several letters to her future son-in-law over the next two weeks as they both waited for accurate details about Martha’s return from Europe, one reassuring him that Martha would “gallop through whatever needs doing in New York and speed her way to Cuba,” and another insisting, “we make a very devoted threesome—a safe, dear, happy one.” From Lisbon, Martha wired Ernest that she was delayed due to foul weather preventing the clipper’s departure, and she was heartbroken. A telegram he sent on January 6th, 1940 became an affectionate testament to her imminent arrival, noting, “AT LAST SCHATZY.”
When Martha arrived at her home in Cuba in mid-January 1940, she found herself playing stepmother to Ernest’s sons. She was especially fond of Patrick, known mostly as Mouse, to whom she referred as “a wonder creature.” She began working on stories to be collected in The Heart of Another, the title lifted from a phrase in a letter from Pauline Pfeiffer: “The heart of another is a dark forest.”
In March, her novel A Stricken Field was published, with one reviewer dubbing her “Walt Whitman in a woman’s dress.” Ernest wrote to Max Perkins in April, declaring that he was “so damned happy with Marty that it seems that made everything work better. Sort of as though there were a lot” of him that was never “really used before and that is all working now.” He believed himself “a damned lucky bastard to be alive.”
That fall, For Whom the Bell Tolls would sell out its initial print run of 75,000 copies by the time Hemingway arrived in New York in September. Early in November, Ernest’s divorce from Pauline was finalized on the grounds of desertion, and he and Martha married on November 21st in Wyoming. Robert Capa was there to photograph the newlyweds for a spread in Life. Of their marriage, Scott Fitzgerald observed that Hemingway being married to a “really attractive woman… will be somewhat different than with his Pygmalion-like creations.”
In December, the sale of film rights to David O. Selznick for For Whom the Bell Tolls for $100,000, an enormous amount of money in 1940, meant that Hemingway could buy the finca, for the princely sum of $12,500. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack that month in Los Angeles. Gellhorn was fond of Fitzgerald and blamed his death on his script doctor work for the studios, writing later to Max Perkins, “Hollywood ruined Scott, unless he was terribly dead before.”
MG to Ernest Hemingway
December 4, 1939
I got your two lovely cables today (December four) and am so happy you are proud of me—though what for? I’m just surviving—and you are my own and beloved and I knew you’d want to come but don’t. The book [For Whom the Bell Tolls] is what we have to base our lives on, the book is what lasts after us and makes all this war intelligible. Without the book our work is wasted altogether.
And as I love you I love your work and as you are me your work is mine. I could not have you maul that about and mess it up. We will come back later maybe, but now you must go on and finish this.
Besides that, if Collier’s is willing (and perhaps if they are not) I am leaving next week. I have wonderful material, the best war stuff of this year—and no competitors in the field by Golly [sic]—and tomorrow at six in the night that never seems to end (six in the morning and six in the night are indistinguishable but this time the morning and Christ have I been getting up early and boy do I hate it) I am leaving for the front. No other journalist has this privilege but due to R’s [FDR’s] letter I am on my way. I think it will be quite something.
War in the arctic is very remarkable business. The climate is the best protection as are the forests and it is curious the way in the end the only way to fight man’s inventions is with these uncontrollables. It snows and we are not bombed. The Finnish mist sets in and we are safe. The night begins at four in the afternoon and ends at eight in the morning, so we take to the woods at eight. I find the cold absolute torture and love the snow because it is warmer then as well as safer. Anyhow, I shall have been here a week tomorrow and plan to be here a week more or almost that long and I will have—from Helsinki, environs, front, enough for three bangup articles if they want that many and will have stuff no one else has. Then one week each in Norway and Sweden and home. So you see, it is not even worthwhile joining me. You open our home in Cuba, as a Xmas present for me, and I shall return and wallow in sun and quiet and above all my Schatzy [sweetheart] I shall be glad to be home with you where I belong.
There was one hell of an air raid which I wired you. I was in a sort of pocket which they bombed, the three main messes all within three blocks. It was a terrific job though they didn’t use as heavy bombs as Barcelona. I judged by the damage about 100-150 kilo bombs. But they used thermite and burned the places to bits. There was no time for an air raid warning. This was the first day, the first taste of war and you should have seen the Finns. They took it as if they had been seeing this every day for ten years; there was no sign of any panic. They stood and watched; they walked about; I never saw such control and discipline. It is like iron. I think it can be a very long war and I think it is possible that—unless Russia sends an army of four million against these people—that the Finns will win. They have been steadily successful to date and their pilots are wonderful. And they can’t be starved like our beloved Spaniards; they already produce 90 percent of their own food. Petrol is going to be the problem, and planes and munitions. I’ll put my money on 3 million Finns against 180 million Russkis [sic]. After all, they are fighting for their lives and their homes and God alone knows why the Russians are fighting.
So. Now I must go to bed. I have had a hard day. It has been quite alarming to see the panic amongst the diplomatic corps and the journalists notably American and English. Last night a real panic set in started by the English who began to evacuate their nationals (they have done it twice already) at 2 a.m. saying that gas would be used this morning. Geoffrey Cox waked [sic] me and told me to beat it and I told him what the hell and went back to sleep. I had arranged with an Italian journalist (it is too funny being such pals with them, a story in itself) to go in his Legation’s car out to the country at seven thirty to escape the probably eight thirty bombing which the Russkis [sic] must do one of these days in revenge for having had 16 planes shot down…
The book is what lasts after us and makes all this war intelligible.
I have the curse and am somewhat wore out but I got exercise and I needed air and a change of scene and talk. I have been sleeping in town every night, while the English speaking contingent pulls out and am feeling very snotty and superior. But Rabby, my God, if they begin being scared pissless of probable dangers now, what are they going to be later when it really breaks loose on them. I am scared when it is three minutes off and am scared blind three minutes after, but would be sick by now if I thought about it all the safe time. Besides that, the Finns give a very good example of taking it and keeping the trap shut and I learned from you not to have the vanity to think the planes were looking for me and all bullets had my name on them.
I am tired Bongie and wish I were with you. When I get back I shall go to Washington briefly to talk to R [President Roosevelt] about this and then hurry to you. That will delay me one day; it is my sort of repayment to these people for their goodness to me and their elegance and courage in undertaking this war rather than be kicked around. The little nations are rather more first class than the big ones I think, these days. I have a steady pain in my head from thinking about the folly of mankind.
I love you so much that it is almost hurting to think about it and I try to behave as you would want me to, and hope I am not mean to anybody though you know people sometimes think you are being snotty when you are only in a hurry, but I try to be good and I try to be very serene and I do my work hard and as well as I can and hope I am a credit to you and a sound workman. And soon I will be with you and where I want to be, and Bongie let’s never never leave each other again. Or rather, I’ll never leave you and you can go anywhere you want and do anything you like, only please, I’ll come too.
Goodnight my dearest love. Sleep well. And take care of Mother for me. I cannot write and write to you both so hand everything in the way of news to her and keep in touch with her and keep her unworried and all right. This is the biggest thing to do for me. Because she is ours too, like the book [For Whom the Bell Tolls], something we have to take care of together.
I love you.
Excerpted from Yours, For Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters of Love and War 1930-1949 by Janet Somerville. Used with the permission of the publisher, Firefly Books. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2019 by Janet Somerville and the estate of Martha Gellhorn and respective correspondents. Audio excerpt, read by Ellen Barkin, used with permission of Penguin Random House Audio. Production copyright 2021, Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.