Saturday, May 3, 2014

Extraordinary Women: Martha Gellhorn (WGBH/PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a PBS item called Extraordinary Women: Martha Gellhorn, which proved a lot more interesting than some of the other shows in this series have been (though I can appreciate her struggle to make it, I’m really not interested enough in the world of fashion to be that big on the story of Coco Chanel, whereas Gellhorn covered wars and wrote journalism, something I can identify with and legitimately admire). Like me, she was a red-diaper baby, getting her politics almost literally with her mother’s milk — her mom, Edna Gellhorn, was a suffragist and feminist in the early part of the 20th century and Martha grew up with a low threshold of tolerance for men who belittled women — which makes it seem utterly preposterous that she would end up married to Ernest Hemingway, since just about every word Hemingway wrote about women reveals his utter contempt for them (Hemingway was one of those straight men who would probably have been happier being Gay if his attractions had run that way; as it was, he needed women for sex but had little other interest in them). In the mid-1920’s she attended Bryn Mawr women’s college (also Katharine Hepburn’s alma mater) but quit before graduating to pursue a career as a journalist. She also became a pacifist, something this show makes sound as if it were merely a trendy view she picked up in the inter-war years. In 1930 she went to Paris to make a career as a foreign correspondent and ended up in an affair with a married French nobleman (all her life she was attracted to men who were married — including Hemingway, who divorced his previous wife to marry Gellhorn and then wanted her to be the traditional housewife, cooking his meals, cleaning his house, washing his clothes and presumably changing his typewriter ribbons for him). She returned to the U.S. in 1934 at the height of both the Great Depression and the New Deal, and she went to work for the government to report on how the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) was helping the plight of America’s rural poor — though, true to character, she was much more interested in writing about the rural poor than documenting what the federal government was doing for them. (The idea that the federal government both can and should be doing something about America’s poor people is itself an index of how dramatically the ideological Zeitgeist has shifted; these days both major parties pay lip service to preserving the middle class but couldn’t give a damn about the poor — the Democrats more or less defend the existing social programs left over from the 1930’s and 1960’s but don’t dare suggest extending them, while the Republicans can’t wait to take full power in Washington, D.C. so they can get rid of what’s left of the social safety net once and for all.)

Gellhorn’s articles attracted the attention of no less than Eleanor Roosevelt, who offered to put her up as a houseguest in the White House so she could write a book based on her FERA researches. Then the civil war broke out in Spain, and despite (or maybe because of) her pacifism Gellhorn realized that it was essentially a dress rehearsal for World War II, with Germany and Italy intervening on the side of Franco (and the Soviet Union, more cautiously and less effectively, coming in on the side of at least some of the elements in the republican government Franco was out to overthrow). She’d already met Hemingway in a bar (where else?) in Florida, but they re-met in Spain and became lovers, covering the war and ultimately getting married and returning to the U.S. Once World War II broke out Gellhorn was determined to get to the front and write about it — she made it to the D-Day landing by disguising herself as a nurse and sneaking on board a hospital ship — and at one point Hemingway tried to sabotage her by offering himself as a war correspondent to the same magazine she was writing for, Collier’s. After the war she adopted a son, Sandy, from an Italian orphanage, but given her peripatetic lifestyle she really wasn’t cut out for motherhood — especially single motherhood — and he grew up estranged from her and became a drug addict, though eventually he cleaned up and they reconciled. In the 1960’s she returned to the battle front for one trip to Viet Nam (the U.S. refused to let her back in once she wrote a series of incendiary articles comparing the U.S.’s excuses for intervening in Viet Nam to those of the Nazis and the Soviets) and did one final article about the youth gangs in Brazil before she hung it up, retired and finally committed suicide that was partly self-euthanasia (she’d been diagnosed with ovarian and liver cancer and also had gone almost totally blind) and partly a determination that she ought to decide for herself when she was going to leave this life instead of having that decision made for her by the increasing decrepitude of her body. Gellhorn is a fascinating character who towards the end (this show features an actor reading from her works but also has some late-in-life interview footage from Gellhorn herself) expressed only two regrets: she’d never written a best-selling novel (one of her friends is quoted here as saying she was too locked into the real to be a capable writer of fiction) and she’d never had a successful relationship.