The Clare Spark Blog

July 29, 2013

Gellhorn: the “we are all lost” generation

MGEHWhat follows are very personal thoughts and intuitions I have about Martha Gellhorn. I have drafted a review of the HBO movie Hemingway and Gellhorn for an academic journal. I may not disclose it, so here are some of my impressions that are not in the review.  The movie has been discussed in newspapers and websites all over the world, with only two critical ones: in Vanity Fair and GQ. But neither delved into the politics of the movie. One should wonder at the capacities of movie reviewers to open up a film for critical scrutiny (by that I mean its ideological content). (The politics are described here:

Briefly, MG was much more interesting than the picture drawn in the silly HBO movie. She reminds me of all the Pacifica radio listeners and programmers I have ever known; i.e., she presented herself as a pacifist and the champion of the underdog; she was often despondent. What her connections might have been to the hard Left is unknowable: she was dogged, but not optimistic about the future, unlike Party members.  None of her articles on the Spanish Civil War suggests any kind of historical understanding of the differing factions in either the Loyalist side or the Franco-led Rebels. She retained a love for the Spanish “people” (they were not Reds!); she loved them as she would later love “Poles” but not Russians. That she despised “America” is clear; she appears to have believed in national character, much as today’s anti-American New Left does. HBO capitalized on the British Left’s elevation of her as a feminist heroine, to the detriment of Hemingway. He was sexist, vindictive, mendacious, and needy, while she was a liberated pioneer in journalism: up and about living her own life. In the HBO ending, she tenderly reads a letter of EH that she had kept in a drawer. This defies explanation, for she refused to discuss him with interviewers, and was enraged at the mention of his name. (She had “rage attacks” frequently, as one biographer reports.)


In 1959, she brought out a collection of earlier articles (The Face of War) with added material suggesting that we are the “all is lost” generation. Between the bomb and pollution, she saw only decline and death ahead. But as a vibrant personality, she attracted the arty celebrities of her day, Leonard Bernstein for one. She had great patter (humorous), but was, as EH said, ambitious and attracted to danger. She continued the politics of Edna Gellhorn, her uber-progressive mother (who became a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt), but was most influenced by her doctor father, hence the cleanliness fetish and her preoccupation with public health, along with the detailed obsessive descriptions of damage to bodies from war and poverty.

More: George Gellhorn, her gynecologist father, a German immigrant, (“half-Jewish”) was disappointed that she dropped out of Bryn Mawr after her third year and thought that her first novel, WHAT MAD PURSUIT (1934) was trashy. It is not surprising that she committed suicide when she was diagnosed with cancer at age 89. Earlier, she was a non-stop smoker (using it for calm?) and a heavy drinker. The movie got that right. But she put up with sex as an ineluctable male need that she must needs gratify until she met a doctor friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Daddy! He wouldn’t leave his wife for MG. In my view, she was as neurotic as hell, a superheroine and daredevil, seeking scenes of so much fighting and danger that sometimes I think she made stuff up; other times I think she was just plucky and lucky. With all that said, I would have liked to have known her. She is ever so much more intelligent, even fascinating, than the character played by Nicole Kidman.


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