Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway)

Banner image c. Vogue (Lee Miller, London, photographer).

Dr. Hilary Justice (JFK Library). Updated 11/2023.

In 1936, Hemingway’s love for Spain, its culture, and its people had him following the developing Spanish Civil War with an increasingly troubled soul. Late that year, he met established journalist and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998) in Key West; they agreed to work together to get to Spain. His literary career in the 1930s seemed to be ebbing (critics were saying “permanently”). And although he certainly benefited from Pauline’s family resources, that also must have chafed. His journalism career, now existing in part because of his famous name, was ongoing; covering the Spanish Civil War thus seemed a good idea in many ways.

Gellhorn, who is now considered one of the finest war correspondents of the 20th century, was in every way a spur to Hemingway’s ambitions. Where he feared he was growing comfortable and soft, she was a strong individual who seemed to seek out discomfort. Where he was approaching his middle years, she seemed vital and vigorous. Whether or not they were already romantically involved before they left for Spain remains a question, as thoughts and feelings happen before they appear on paper; in any case, their relationship ignited while abroad. 

EH02981P  Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn in Spain, circa 1937-1938.
Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn in Spain, covering the Spanish Civil War. Ernest Hemingway Photographs Collection 02981.

Hemingway remained with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, until 1939, during which time his relationship with Martha intensified, in part because she seemed elusive, traveling frequently on high-profile assignments, covering increasing political turmoil in Europe.  She was equal parts glamorous, athletic, and adventurous, all of which Hemingway found extremely attractive.

A black and white glamor shot of a platinum blonde Martha Gellhorn, her head thrown back, eyes closed, facing the sun.  Behind her is an out of focus palm tree against a clear sky.
Martha Gellhorn at the Finca Vigia, Cuba, c. 1939. Ernest Hemingway Photographs Collection 017 017 00876.

When they returned from Spain, they lived together openly in Cuba, renting the Finca Vigia (loosely translated "Lookout Farm") in San Francisco de Paula, just outside of Havana.  They traveled extensively throughout the American West, working on their writing and embracing the sporting life in the company of wealthy friends, many of whom were celebrities in their own right. After Ernest's divorce from Pauline was final (November 4, 1940), they married (November 21, 1940) and bought the Finca Vigia outright (December 28, 1940).

A black and white image of Martha Gellhorn leading against a fence in Sun Valley Idaho.  She holds two tennis rackets and looks away to the right, her face catching the sun.  Behind her is a flat field and, farther away, mountains.
Martha Gellhorn in Sun Valley, Idaho, 1940. Ernest Hemingway Photographs Collection 012 010 00842.

Martha seemed to fit seamlessly into Hemingway's preferred lifestyle.  She enjoyed spending time with his children, who participated enthusiastically in their father's outdoor pastimes. (Jack and Patrick's passion for the outdoors and nature conservancy informed their later careers; Jack ran the Nature Conservancy from his father's last home in Idaho, and Patrick has worked tirelessly on issues of land stewardship in the U.S. and abroad, especially Africa.)

A sepia image of Gregory, Jack, Ernest, and Patrick Hemingway with Martha Gellhorn.  They are all carrying rifles and are dressed for hunting.  They walk toward the camera; behind them two parked cars, an outbuilding, and a white house are visible.  Behind those are a line of trees marking the edge of a field.
Martha Gellhorn hunting with Ernest and his children, Idaho, 1940-41.  Left to Right: Gigi Hemingway, Jack Hemingway, Ernest, Martha, Patrick Hemingway.  Photographs Collection 012 014 05102.

We loved Marty. She was so much fun.

– Patrick Hemingway

A black and white image. Martha Gellhorn with Ernest Hemingway and his children Patrick and Gigi having an outdoor picnic.  Ernest and Martha are seated; Martha holds a sandwich.  Patrick is looking at something his father is holding; Gregory (Gigi) stands behind, his hands in his pockets.  Their car is visible behind them, with the trunk and rear door open.
A picnic break while duck hunting.  Left to right: Gigi, Patrick, Ernest, and Martha Gellhorn Hemingway. Idaho, October, 1941. Ernest Hemingway Photographs Collection 013 005 04821.

For a time, Ernest's and Martha's careers ran companionably alongside. Evenings, wherever they were, were devoted to writing—Ernest on For Whom the Bell Tolls, Martha on her own fiction.

A black and white image of Martha Gellhorn writing.  She sits on a rustic chair before a wall of raw boards.  She holds papers and a pen.  She is wearing a knitted turtleneck and tweed pants, and sports a wedding ring.
Martha Gellhorn writing, probably working on her short fiction collection The Heart of Another (published 1941). Although they were not yet married, she wears Ernest's ring. Sun Valley, Idaho, 1940. Ernest Hemingway Photographs Collection 012 010 05619.

Martha Gellhorn's experiences with Ernest Hemingway in wartime Spain (and perhaps her long absences from him afterward) were fundamental to his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), which he dedicated to her. She lends her appearance to Maria, and her strength, toughness, and fierce loyalty and commitment to both Maria and Pilar. (Pilar, a composite character, also owes much to Gertrude Stein.) 

The sale of the movie rights to For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940 marked the first time in Hemingway’s career that his literary income was sufficient to live on, even given his many dependents (his children and members of his family of origin, including his mother).  He no longer needed to supplement his income from publishing by working as a journalist and relying on wealthy relatives-by-marriage (especially Pauline's uncle, Gustavus (Gus) Pfeiffer).  Even given the high-profile lifestyle he'd enjoyed since marrying Pauline in 1927, his own income was finally sufficient to meet it.

Not long after their marriage, the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Martha's completion of The Heart of Another, and the purchase of the Finca, Martha Gellhorn's contract with Collier's magazine to cover the Sino-Japanese war had the Hemingways traveling together to China, with a layover in Hawaii.  Although both their stars, already luminous, were on the rise, for the first time in his life, his career wasn't setting the map; his wife's was.

Black and white image of Ernest Hemingway, wearing a dark t-shirt, light shorts, and sneakers, and Martha Gellhorn, wearing a light striped dress and low-heeled light shoes, leaning against a palm trunk by the ocean.
Martha and Ernest Hemingway in Hawaii, en route to China, 1941.  That Ernest is somewhat out of his element is clear in his posture. Ernest Hemingway Photographs Collection 007 009 05639.
Black and white image of Martha Gellhorn and an unidentified Chinese soldier. The soldier is on horseback; they stand on a mountain trail.
Martha Gellhorn with a Chinese soldier, on assignment for Collier's. China, 1941.  Ernest Hemingway Photographs Collection 007 010 05551.

Of the many roles Martha Gellhorn fulfilled in her lifetime—writer, war correspondent, outdoorswoman, athlete, celebrity, even stepmother—the only one she never fully integrated was "Mrs. Hemingway."

Her ever-rising star and dauntless pursuit of her journalistic calling sparked a darker side of Ernest Hemingway: his competitiveness and his insecurity. The combination proved disastrous to their relationship. During the build-up to D-Day (June 6, 1944), Martha informed him she was leaving for Europe to cover the war for Collier’s magazine. He did not want to go, perhaps because he did not want to relive past trauma in what would be his third war (or fourth, counting his brief trip to accompany Martha to China), but when it became clear he couldn’t convince her to stay with him in Cuba, he offered his own services as war correspondent to the very same magazine. 

As he must have known it would, his fame won out. He received a contract. 

Martha Gellhorn was justifiably furious.

Journalists were prohibited from crossing the English Channel on D-Day. Ernest Hemingway obeyed this restriction.  Although he did get a glimpse of the beach from the Channel, he delayed his landing until the next day.  But Martha snuck aboard a medical ship, hid in a closet, and arrived in Normandy only hours after the battle, giving her first-hand experience of its aftermath. Check. But when their D-Day pieces appeared in Collier’s, Ernest's was the cover story. Check mate. The marriage was over.

A black and white image of Martha Gellhorn standing next to a tank, talking to soldiers.
War correspondent Martha Gellhorn tours the battlefront with the Fifth Army, Cassino, Italy, February 13, 1944. Photo by Lieutenant Gade. Courtesy Imperial War Museums © IWM NA 11895. 

In 2008, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of stamps marking contributions of five 20th-century journalists: "Working in radio, television, or print, the journalists reported—often at great personal sacrifice—some of the most important stories of the 20th century. They did their part to keep people informed about the world around them."  

Martha Gellhorn was the only woman among the five.

Color image of a USA postage stamp (42 cents) featuring Martha Gellhorn's face and name.  In typewriter font on green, additional text reads "with her wartime writings from Spain, China, Normandy, Dachau."
The Smithsonian Institution/National Postal Museum NPM-2008.2021.149Z. © 2008 United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.