Byron Rogers

A tendency to collect kings

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The Letters of Martha Gellhorn

selected and edited by Caroline Moorehead

Chatto, pp. 400, £

Some day this book may be in the footnotes of all social histories of the early 21st century, not for what it contains but for what it is: 500 pages of not the collected, but the selected letters of one human being. For, sidelined by the telephone and the email, the letter-writer is about to follow the fletcher and the high-street fishmonger into the past.

And until they find some way of retrieving the spoken word from space, future historians, with only printed emails to go on, will puzzle over the terseness which at the turn of the century came into human communication. Suddenly we are as tight-lipped and purposeful as Western gun-fighters. Will anyone ever again write letters the way Martha Gellhorn did, 3,000 words, 4,000 words long, and one of 40 pages? More to the point, would anyone, apart from historians and the odd biographer, want to read them?

On the strength of this selection, I doubt if many will. I loved Martha Gellhorn’s collection of travel writings, Travels with Myself and Another. They were intelligent, beautifully written, funny; I have read them over and over. But they were about other people. Reading letters not addressed to you is like overhearing a monologue in a trapped lift: the one voice goes on and on. To enjoy them you really have to get to like the personality endlessly on display. And that is the trouble with this book.

The Martha of the letters is not an entirely likeable human being. As you read on and on, page after page, you begin to realise that the recipients mostly had one thing in common: they were already famous, and thus might be of some use. The lame, the halt and the weak, you will not find them here. Instead there are letters to Eleanor Roosevelt (in whose White House she stays), to Adlai Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Bernard Berenson, Leonard Bernstein, Diana Cooper. ‘I pick brains everywhere.’

Sometimes, when they are men and potentially of great help to her, she sleeps with them, as when, trying to get accreditation as a female war correspondent, she starts an affair with the second world war General Gavin, this in spite of the fact that she could not see what all the fuss was about sex (‘I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents’). To give her credit, she did worry about this. Sometimes.

‘All my life idiotically, I thought sex seemed to matter so desperately to the man who wanted it that to withhold it was like withholding bread, an act of selfishness.’ This to an ex-wife of Cary Grant. So she went through with it, and the men seemed duly grateful. It is just that the roll-call of the grand is so relentless, as is, curiously enough, the turnover. One moment the chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank is ‘some sort of golden gift of good fortune’, and then he, too, is gone, bobbing astern just like her husbands, though, unlike them, remembered fondly.

For when men were of very great help she did tend to marry them. Her mother said as much:

When you were very young, what interested you was France, and you found or were found by the most complete Frenchman available. Then you were interested in writing, so you found or were found by what you thought the finest writer.

And that was her first two marriages done. ‘I did tend to collect kings,’ says Martha lamely. Others might say she was just being pushy.

Old Mrs Gellhorn went on:

In the war, finally, you were interested in bravery and you found or were found by one who was considered perhaps the bravest of all. But some day you will find a man, and not someone who represents something.

Martha was honest enough to say of this, that ‘it was a kind way of putting it’. But she seems never to have found such a man.

Instead they come and go, at first as objects of all those professions of love (throughout her life, like those incapable of love, she was lavish with such), all those nicknames (Hemingway, her husband from 1940 to 1945, was variously ‘beloved Bug’, ‘beloved Binglie’, ‘Pup-pup’, ‘Muckle-bugletski’). But then Mucklebugletski, having turned war correspondent himself, became the rival who beat her to D-Day, so there was General Gavin. It didn’t take long: one year the nickname, the next just the passing reference in a letter to someone else. Finally the vengeance:

Such a ghastly lover — wham bam thank you maam, or maybe just wham bam. No experience. Two virgin wives before me, and me not about to raise my voice in complaint because I imagined it was my fault, not getting anywhere. The great sex talker and writer must, in fact, have been terrified of women. Interesting...

Mucklebugletski had, bleakly, become E. H. ‘I think I am, largely, a man,’ reflects Martha.

The war ends, as, naturally, does her affair with the General. ‘I must straighten that up; I can’t go on being romantic and wasting his time... and also get some clothes and furniture.’ For there are other people to meet, places to see (‘I wish to see Amsterdam. I’ve got a sudden intense curiosity about it’).

Another time, improbably, it was Clapham Common, where some murder involving Teddy boys had provided new grist for her mill (‘I am going to start a new life on Clapham Common’). It was all one to her, becalmed between wars, and it is a great pity that, but for the timing, she might have encountered Ron Davies.

New addresses, new recipients of her letters. The main casualty seems to have been her adopted son, who had two main faults: he was ordinary and he was fat. But she was a brave woman who, when there were no new places to see or people to meet, killed herself.

I think I should have liked her more had I been less exposed to Martha; in short, had there been fewer letters. That is Caroline Moorehead’s one editorial mistake. There are no others.