(starred review) Somerville makes an impressive book debut with a life of novelist, journalist, and intrepid war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998), told through a captivating selection of her letters to friends, family, husbands, and lovers. The volume is enriched by Somerville's biographical narrative and her decision to include responses of many recipients and, in some cases, letters between individuals who were especially significant in Gellhorn's life... An engrossing collection that burnishes Gellhorn's reputation as an astute observer, insightful writer, and uniquely brave woman.
--Kirkus, July 08, 2019
"A titan of American letters. It's high time for Gellhorn to emerge from the shadows of twentieth-century literature into the bright light of mainstream recognition."
--The Washington Post Book World (on Martha Gelhorn)
Before email, when long distance telephone calls were difficult and expensive, people wrote letters, often several each day. Today, those letters provide an intimate and revealing look at the lives and loves of the people who wrote them. When the author is a brilliant writer who lived an exciting, eventful life, the letters are especially interesting.
Martha Gellhorn was a strong-willed, self-made, modern woman whose journalism, and life, were widely influential at the time and cleared a path for women who came after her. An ardent anti-fascist, she abhorred "objectivity shit" and wrote about real people doing real things with intelligence and passion. She is most famous, to her enduring exasperation, as Ernest Hemingway's third wife. Long after their divorce, her short tenure as "Mrs. Hemingway" from 1940 to 1945 invariably eclipsed her writing and, consequently, she never received her full due.
Gellhorn's work and personal life attracted a disparate cadre of political and celebrity friends, among them, Sylvia Beach, Ingrid Bergman, Leonard Bernstein, Norman Bethune, Robert Capa, Charlie Chaplin, Chiang Kai-shek, Madame Chiang, Colette, Gary Cooper, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Maxwell Perkins, Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, Orson Welles, H.G. Wells -- the people who made history in her time and beyond.
Yours, for Probably Always is a curated collection of letters between Gellhorn and the extraordinary personalities that were her correspondents in the most interesting time of her life. Through these letters and the author's contextual narrative, the book covers Gellhorn's life and work, including her time reporting for Harry Hopkins and America's Federal Emergency Relief Administration in the 1930s, her newspaper and magazine reportage during the Spanish Civil War, World War II and the Vietnam War, and her relationships with Hemingway and General James M. Gavin late in the war, and her many lovers and affairs.
Gellhorn's fiction of the time sold well: The Trouble I've Seen (1936) -- her Depression-Era stories based on the FERA activities, with an introduction by H.G. Wells; A Stricken Field (1940) -- a novel inspired by the German-Jewish refugee crisis and set in 1938 Czechoslovakia; The Heart of Another (1941) -- stories edited by Maxwell Perkins; and The Wine of Astonishment (1948) -- her novel about the liberation of Dachau, which she reported for Collier's.
Gellhorn's life, reportage, fiction and correspondence reveal her passionate advocacy of social justice and her need to tell the stories of "the people who were the sufferers of history." Renewed interest in her life makes this new collection, packed with newly discovered letters and pictures, fascinating reading.
Janet Somerville taught literature for 20 years in Toronto. Since 2015, she has been wholly immersed in Martha Gellhorn's life and words, privileged to have ongoing access to Gellhorn's restricted papers in Boston, Massachusetts.
Martha Gellhorn was my stepmother. She married my father after she divorced Ernest Hemingway. Martha used to tell me that her inspiration for writing a letter was a heartfelt complaint. That was her dynamo. And when she started to write it, she wrote it to someone, person to person. That way she could focus her complaint in a more direct way that didn't have a scattergun effect and dissipate the emotion in her letters.
She always claimed not to be an intellectual. But there was a contradiction in her here because she loved ideas. She was also very much against what she called 'navel inspection' and yet her heartfelt letters, often included an analysis of a relationship or the person she was writing to.
Martha and I started off on the left foot. I had been airlifted from my very comfortable, seemingly successful life in Princeton, living with an aunt, into an exciting, grey, post-war London, where I didn't seem to fit very well. But then we had a geneticist who came to visit us at our school in Devon and he said that we will go to a party in maybe thirty-five years and not know who is man-made and who isn't. The thought horrified me and I wrote to Martha about it. Instead of saying "get on with your studies," she wrote right back and said "yes, isn't it terrible?" I replied that, as far as I could see, we were living like one-eyed cyclopes and Hollywood was the opiate of the masses. And, in the meantime, the wool was being pulled over our eyes by a few scientists, who were taking the responsibility for the future, and how dare they, and how could they, and so on and so forth. And Martha wrote right back fulsomely and with growing concern.
We then cemented our friendship on anti-nuclear campaigning, she with her magnificent book, The Face of War (cf. the 1986 introduction), which, in my view, is the best thing she ever wrote. I went on anti-nuclear marches, which she supported avidly. This is how we became pen pals and created our friendship through letters.
Her letters delve deeper into her, I think, in some ways better than her presence. She nearly always had a party face and made the best of whatever company she was in and that served to hide away the true Martha. Only in her letters did her feelings emerge ... and with gusto. She opened her heart to you and it was a great compliment and privilege and treat to be in on such a display. It presaged affection and trust and they were an education. I probably got more out of Martha's letters than I did out of my schooling.
Janet Somerville has painstakingly put together a rich collection of Martha's letters for you, the reader, to enjoy. And then there are the replies from her friends. People who helped to shape the 1930s and 1940s. What you are getting in this book is a very articulate account of those fascinating times. Not just the history but the feelings, thoughts and aspirations of those who shaped the history of the time. Janet Somerville has done a wonderful job. I invite you to enjoy the fruits of her labor of love.
Chapter 1 Nothing Ever Happens