In my last blog I said I’d give Paula McLain’s latest book, Love and Ruin, its own post. McLain writes biographical novels that shine a light on little-known women. This latest book is about writer Martha Gellhorn.
When most people hear her name, they think, Wasn’t she married to Ernest Hemingway? Yes, she was his third wife—the marriage lasted five years, from 1940-1945. But it would bother Gellhorn to be remembered only in relationship to Hemingway, as she was also a novelist and one of the great war correspondents of the twentieth century. She once said that she refused “to be a footnote in someone else’s life.”
Although Love and Ruin focuses on the stormy, passionate relationship she had with Hemingway, it also shows that she was indeed more than a footnote. The book’s story is how she becomes herself and holds on to that identity even when she could have been totally overshadowed by him. McLain believes that Gellhorn was the only one of Hemingway’s wives who could hold her own with him and match him in courage and intellect. “They were two strong personalities,” she says, “so it is not surprising they butted heads constantly.”
Gellhorn was born in St. Louis in 1908. She was an adventurer from the time she was a child and hid in an ice delivery cart because she wanted to see the world. The trip wasn’t very successful, as the cart just circled around and brought her back to where she started. But when she was older, Gellhorn did indeed see the world.
She left college before graduating in 1927 to concentrate on a career as a journalist. She worked and wrote both at home and in France, but her life changed in 1936 when she met Hemingway in a Key West bar while vacationing with her mother and brother. They quickly became friends. She was intrigued to learn that he was about to leave for Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, in which the elected government was trying to fend off General Francisco Franco and his army. Volunteers came from all over the world to help. Encouraged by Hemingway, Gellhorn decided to cover the war as well, and she and Hemingway made plans to meet if she could get over to Spain. Initially using fake papers and saying she was a correspondent, she did get to Spain where she joined Hemingway. They covered the war and also began an affair that eventually led to marriage.
As a correspondent, Gellhorn covered the war differently from most of the male reporters. While they wrote about battles and statistics, she focused on what happened to ordinary people whose lives were ripped apart. Her stories featured women with no homes who had to stand in line for bread, knowing they and their could be children killed at any time, or on fathers searching desperately for their children.
Back home, Gellhorn and Hemingway settled down together in Cuba, where she found a house in the hills, restored it, and for a few years lived her dream with Hemingway—two writers working under the same roof.
In World War II, she lost her correspondent credentials when Hemingway, now her husband, offered his byline to her publisher. Their marriage was already having problems, and this only added to them. Still, she got herself to England and had a real scoop on D-Day. When the legal correspondents were on one of the invading ships, she stowed away on a hospital ship, which turned out to be the first to arrive at the Normandy battlefield. Gellhorn worked as a stretcher bearer, bringing wounded soldiers to the ship. No matter how much horror she saw, she never got used to it, never lost her compassion for the people she met, and never stopped writing about the human side of war.
It is said that after their divorce in 1945, Gellhorn refused to have Hemingway’s name spoken in her presence. She wanted to be known as herself. Paula McLain’s Love and Ruin is a good step in that direction.
If you've read the book, I'd love to hear what you think.