A Tale of Two Biographies
Although I have published two biographies of Martha Gellhorn, only the first one, Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave: The Story of Martha Gellhorn (St. Martin's Press, 1990), seems to be remembered—even though the book is out of print, has never appeared in paperback, and has not yet been issued as an e-book (more about that anon). The second Gellhorn biography, Beautiful Exile: The Story of Martha Gellhorn (Aurum Press, 2002), is still in print in paperback and as a SONY e-book. The second biography updated my treatment of Gellhorn’s life, added new material gleaned from various archives and interviews, and came to terms with her death.
When my first biography appeared, Gellhorn was very much alive. Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave received mixed to negative reviews. My second biography fared much better, garnering mostly positive reactions. And yet, in the past two years, a fairly well-informed scholar of Gellhorn’s period was amazed to learn I had written a second biography. A few months ago, a friend of mine said he had just read my Gellhorn biography for the first time. Which one? I asked. He, too, had not heard of Beautiful Exile. And then, just a few weeks ago, a writer working on a project involving Gellhorn was also quite surprised to learn there was a second biography.
What gives? Well, Beautiful Exile was largely a British affair. I had no American publisher, although Trafalgar Square distributed the book in this country, and it received an excellent review in the New York Times. Publishers Weekly also reviewed the book, but otherwise not much attention came its way. The first biography, in contrast, was hard to forget. Reviewers relished pouncing on it. In the NYT, Jane O’Reilly didn’t just trash Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave, she tried to bury me along with it. She started by noting I had published lackluster biographies of Marilyn Monroe and Lillian Hellman and had achieved no higher polish with Gellhorn. In the Women’s Review of Books, Helen Yglesias declared that I should never be permitted to write another book about a woman.
O’Reilly gave the game away by devoting part of her review to describing how she would have written a biography of Gellhorn. Well, exactly. Why had I scooped her? It just wasn’t right. I thought, by the way, that my treatment of Gellhorn was largely positive in Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave. But somehow that didn’t matter with most reviewers, since in a Vogue interview with Victoria Glendinning, Gellhorn herself had dismissed me as an “academic kook.”
The title of the first Gellhorn biography was a line from A Farewell to Arms that Gellhorn herself had quoted in a letter written before she had met Ernest Hemingway, who was to become her husband. The line evokes a certain youthful brashness and bravado that Gellhorn played out in a series of remarkable choices. Leaving Bryn Mawr College after her third year, she became a roving reporter in the United States and then in Europe, where she witnessed the rise of Hitler and fascism. Then she returned to the US to work for Roosevelt’s New Deal in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, charging out into the field, so to speak, and sending Harry Hopkins, FDR’s right-hand man, outraged reports about the Depression-era suffering among the people. Then she was later fired for advocating a strike by relief recipients, and she headed for Key West, where Hemingway became enamored of this glamorous globetrotter who had already seduced H.G. Wells and was now agitating for American intervention in the Spanish Civil War—and for Hemingway’s own participation in reporting the fascist assault on republican Spain. After Spain, much to the middle aging Hemingway’s chagrin, Gellhorn continued her career as an activist journalist, writing better dispatches about World War II than he did. The marriage ended badly, but Gellhorn, right up to the end of her life, went on covering wars and telling off the powerful. She was a very attractive, if prickly, subject. And she didn’t want anyone to tell her story, except herself.
A decade later Gellhorn was dead, and drawing especially on new material in the Ernest Hemingway collection at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, I presented still an admiring but much more critical view of Gellhorn than I had earlier. I had become increasingly uneasy about her blind spots—especially in her coverage of the Spanish Civil War—and I also realized she simply could not see the big picture of history the way Rebecca West (a later subject of mine) did. And in fact, the last pages of Beautiful Exile contain a sustained comparison of West and Gellhorn, who became a friend of West during the last decade of West’s life. I now took a somewhat more sympathetic view of Hemingway. He was still an oaf, in many respects, but Gellhorn’s constant hectoring took its toll not only on Hemingway, but also on me. I sympathized with his complaint that no husband could satisfy Martha unless he had “the organizing capacity of Henry Kaiser and the probity of Cardinal Newman.” Martha almost said as much herself. And besides, as she admitted in her letters, marriage bored her.
Actually, a lot of life bored Martha Gellhorn. When Caroline Moorehead’s authorized biography appeared, I was impressed with how many times Gellhorn used the word “bored” in her letters (many of which I had been prohibited from seeing). It seemed like every other page of Moorehead’s Gellhorn: A Twentieth Century Life included Martha’s complaint that she was bored. Only wars and public controversies seemed to keep her going. I had intuited as much, even though I did not have access to all of Moorehead’s evidence. Sometimes an unauthorized biographer can write a cleaner, more elegant narrative when not weighed down by quite so much substantiation. At any rate, my new title, Beautiful Exile, evokes not only Gellhorn’s essential loneliness and deracination (she spent most of her life after World War II in Mexico, Italy, and Britain), but also her sense of alienation—apparent even in childhood, when she scorned so much of her native St. Louis. The title was also, I confess, a way of pleasing a publisher who wanted to believe I had written a new book that ought to be taken on its own terms, rather than as a revision of an old one.
My second biography did provoke the ire of a few Gellhorn friends—notably journalist John Pilger, who laid into me on a Woman’s Hour program on the BBC. But in the main, the book got high marks in the press. And those high marks were for a book that retained substantial portions of Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave. Beautiful Exile is, word for word, the better-written book, but the first biography is indispensable because it contains material I cut out when producing the second biography. I omitted some scenes between Hemingway and Gellhorn’s mother. I cut out a prologue and epilogue, which told the story of how I came to write Gellhorn's life in the first place. The book shows how cautious I had to be in the wake of the Salinger decision, which made it almost impossible, in the late 1980s, to quote from my subject’s unpublished work. The law has changed since then, but in those bad old days, a lawyer went through and cut many of the most colorful passages in my book. I was left with three words from one Gellhorn letter, in which she refers to Hemingway's “hot jungle breath.”
Until recently, I thought it best not to re-issue Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave. After all, it is quite easily accessible from various out-of-print booksellers for a pittance. But I’ve changed my mind. Recently a start-up e-book publisher offered to put one of my books into digital form for free as long as I gave the firm an exclusive three-month period to market my work. I agreed, because those who really know the period have continued to use the book, and if they are like me, they will want a digital edition (which is still in production). And no one, I guess, remembers those dreadful reviews the way I do—or they are simply immaterial at this point. To re-issue Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave now seems like welcoming the prodigal biography home—not to forgive it, since I still don’t see that I did wrong, but rather to acknowledge its important and continuing impact on my own career, and on those who seek me out because they believe I have captured a vital element of an important figure from a significant period of history.
Books mentioned in this column:
Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews will appear this fall and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. He is currently writing a biography of Amy Lowell. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.