Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Beautiful Exile: The Life of Martha Gellhorn by Carl Rollyson

If you've never heard of Martha Gellhorn, then you have something in common with me before I picked up this book. It now seems strange to me that I had no idea who she was, knowing what I now know about her life, her work & her spirit.

Beautiful Exile is worth a read just for the discovery of such a punchy, ambitious & headstrong woman, who found the term 'feminist' offensive. I would have to agree with the book jacket quote deeming her 'plucky'. Martha Gellhorn was compassionate & perpetually outraged, and you certainly wouldn't have wanted to mess with her. Rollyson explores Gellhorn's mother Edna's life in a brief but interesting first chapter, which I felt set the scene for her entry into the world perfectly. Born in St Louis in 1908, Gellhorn had a childhood set by her mother's example; Edna being one of St Louis' prominent community servers. It therefore comes as no surprise that one of Gellhorn's main concerns throughout her life was endeavoring to ease the suffering of others.

In her teenage years, Martha Gellhorn married the french novelist Colette's stepson (and also, ahem, her lover), Bertrand Jouvenel. In her twenties she had an affair with H.G. Wells, before meeting, living with and eventually marrying writer Ernest Hemingway (she was his third wife, and they stayed married for 4 years). Gellhorn dropped out of college to pursue a career in journalism. She traveled to Paris & joined the pacifist movement. She reported about the humane issues all across the USA during the Depression. She stayed with the Roosevelts in the White House & struck up a lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt before she was 20. She reported practically from the front line during the Spanish Civil War, and then reported on World War II from all over Europe. By the time things started to sour in her marriage to Hemingway, he used his fame & connections to 'beat' her and maneuver himself closer to the D-Day landings at Normandy. To best him, she impersonated a nurse and managed to get right into the thick of things - even more than he was.

If all that isn't enough, she went snorkeling in her 80s, lived in a tiny cottage on a Kenyan mountaintop, adopted a boy from an Italian orphanage, traveled to more than 200 countries, either charmed the pants off or annoyed the hell out of everyone she met, and lived to be 89. Apart from the lack of compelling, page-turning narrative you find in a novel, this biography has it all. It is thorough, sympathetic, dramatic and contextual. It really was a pleasure getting to know the talented, contrary and utterly human Martha Gellhorn.

1 comment:

Carl Rollyson said...

I'm very pleased to see this review. My book is now available in an audio edition on audible.com