THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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05 December 2012

Ernest vs Martha vs War

Ernest_Hemingway_at_the_Finca_Vigia,_Cuba_1946
Ernest Hemingway relaxing in Cuba in the 1940s, sans Martha. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/JFK Library, Boston.

I wonder whether Ernest Hemingway, as he chewed his meal of moose after marriage to Martha Gellhorn in November 1940, hadn’t quite understood his new wife's taste for war. He may also not have fully understood how his third wife's taste for combat probably far surpassed her taste for him. Such a thought might have made the wedding moose all the chewier.  

Both Ernest and Martha had been war correspondents during the Spanish Civil War from 1937-39. In honeyed wartime, they seemed happy: Martha discovered the joys of war-reportage; Ernest, the joys of playing away from his second wife, Pauline.

Martha’s return to peaceful Cuba appeared a difficult transition. Surrounded by a fat crop of alligator pears and creeping bougainvillea, her desire to return to war strafes the page like a machinegun: ‘Only a fool would prefer to be actively achingly dangerously unhappy, rather than bored,’ she wrote, concluding: ‘I am that class of fool.’ Cuba, she complained, was drowning her in ‘flowers and martinis.’ 

As Ernest kept up the home front, and Martha finally found a job reporting on the European theatre of war from London, the marriage foundered. When Ernest cabled ARE YOU A WAR CORRESPONDENT OR A WIFE IN MY BED? one doesn’t need much imagination to know which of these identities Martha had already chosen. When Ernest finally did arrive in London, a fellow correspondent, Mary Welsh, caught his eye. She was to become his fourth wife a year later in 1946. 

Though for a time Martha was heartsick about the separation from Hemingway, what is remarkable in her letters is war’s totally energizing effect on her. ‘Maybe the reason one is so very gay in a war is that the mind, convulsed with horror, simply shuts out the war and is fiercely concentrated on every good thing left in the world. A doorway, a flower stall, the sun, someone to laugh with, and the wonderful fact of being alive.’

Ernest wondered, after their divorce, whether Martha wasn’t a little ‘war-crazy’. But Martha’s war reportage, it seemed, just made her sane.

Naomi Wood is one of the 2012 Eccles Centre Writers in Residence at the British Library. Her second book, Mrs Hemingway, is a historical novel that explores Ernest Hemingway’s four marriages to Hadley, Pauline, Martha and Mary. Excerpts from the letters are from The Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn (ed. Caroline Moorehead). Martha’s war-reportage can be found in The Face of War. 

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