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Hemingway and Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn on a Collier’s assignment with Ernest Hemingway with unidentified Chinese military officers, Chungking, China, 1941.


I considered myself a fan of Martha Gellhorn, although I have only read Travels With Myself and Others, being unaware of the many novels and nonfiction books that she wrote, which I will soon remedy.   I have been studying Hemingway for many years in conjunction with writing a novel in which he is largely tangential, so perhaps it is rather in the spirit of those who fancy catastrophe in biography.  I have read every scrap that he has written, every biography I can find, critical work, you name it. 

Therefore, I came to the HBO Hemingway and Gellhorn movie quite fully prepped.  I enjoyed the effort to make their rather public lives real, and thought that Kidman was flawless as an older Gellhorn being interviewed as the movie opens.  

A few things bothered me.  I saw Kaufmann, the director on the Charlie Rose show before watching the movie and was faintly annoyed with his take that Hemingway inspired Gellhorn to be a foreign correspondant.  She was one before she met him.  She was apparently the only woman Hemingway married out of love and admiration–he married Hadley because she could support his ambition to write fiction, and Pauline because Hadley’s source of money dwindled after the crash of ’29 whereas Pauline’s fortune was assured enough to afford the purchase of a nice home in Key West (yes, I know there was attraction each time, but he was conveniently not attracted to unmoneyed women).  In Gellhorn, he had a mirror and a soulmate, someone he could discuss craft with, someone he could never bully with the sarcastic label “poor old mama” (as he did Pauline after she gave him two sons, a home, and opulent safaris).  When he did pointedly bully her and try to force her into the position of subservient wife by stealing her Colliers position as war correspondent, that was the last straw.  Reluctant at the outset to marry him, she trumped him by actually landing on the beach on D-Day and divorced him shortly thereafter. 

I was really surprised at the frequent characterization of Gellhorn as somewhat squeamish.  I don’t believe that for a second.  It just doesn’t fit the rest of the picture.  But perhaps that is supported by the copious written record.

I disliked the way the movie tried to say that Hemingway carried a torch for Gellman for years after their divorce.  The lietmotif of H & G knowing a particular Spanish song and singing it together in Sloppy Joe’s when they meet is repeated when Hemingway tries to teach it to Mary Welsh, also a war correspondent, in Paris when separated from Gellhorn.  Unlike Gellhorn, Welsh did give up her carreer for Hemingway, so she had nowhere to go when the inevitable grand-scale bullying began.  However, I do not think that she sang that song to him in Ketchum, Idaho, right before he committed suicide, thus implying that he did so because he’d lost Gellhorn (if you could call it that) fifteen years earlier.  He did not kill himself while she sang in the kitchen, as the movie shows–he did so early in the morning, being sure not to wake Mary, who had prevented earlier attempts.  That may have been cinematic shorthand to show fifteen years of his life, but in that case it is also false.  He was mentally ill; he had suffered concussions and shock treatment.  I believe he was a sensitive child and, just as the prototype child in Alice Miller’s psychology book The Drama of the Gifted Child does, took everything to heart in ways that became hidden to him as he grew, as happens to most of us.  When he “deadpans,” as the Newsweek review points out, that he learned how to have fun in hell “On family vacations,” the Newsweek review makes fun of that bit of dialog.  I think it actually makes perfect psychological and historical sense.  Their vacation home in Michigan was the scene of many deciding experiences in his life, experiences that left scars. 

No ostensibley biographical movie gets it all right; there is the need to dramatize, cut and compress, to flout reality for a few seconds of false punch.  But I enjoyed this new look at these writers who became willing characters in their own dramatic lives. 




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