Martha gellhorn

Out-scooping the men: six women reporters of the second world war

Two war correspondents were hitching a lift towards Paris in August 1944 when a sudden wave of German bombers forced them to dive for cover. What the hell were they doing trying to cadge a ride when ‘war correspondents have their own jeeps and drivers?’ an American officer barked at them as his car screeched to a halt beside the shallow crater they had commandeered. ‘We happen to be women,’ Ruth Cowan replied steadily, as she straightened up and shook off the dust along with his words. Cowan was the first female journalist attached to the US army but, as a woman, she was denied the official facilities provided for

The fakery of Martha Gellhorn

Gstaad Martha Gellhorn was a long-legged blonde American writer and journalist who became Papa Hemingway’s third and penultimate wife. She got her start when H.G. Wells, then nearly 70, fell for her rather badly, advised her on her writing, and paid her a small retainer to keep him up to date on American trends. She was 27 at the time. Wells had met Martha at the White House during the Franklin Roosevelt years before the war, Eleanor having been a friend of Martha’s mother, who was known around St Louis for having a mad crush on the First Lady. Yes, dear readers, sex existed even back then, but people didn’t

Lies born from fantasy

What is the most repulsive sentence in English/American literature? Even as a 12-year-old American boy, I cringed when reading, in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls: ‘But did thee feel the earth move?’ At school I bought the myth of Hemingway as the master craftsman of American letters, teaching us to keep our sentences short and our syllables few. At university, however, I was privileged to be taught by R.S. (Ronald Salmon) Crane (1886–1967), the doyen of the Chicago Aristotelian school of literary critics, who showed the 1954 Nobel Literature Prize-winner’s lack of art by a close reading of his most celebrated and enigmatic ‘Nick Adams’ short story, ‘The

Arms and the woman

In August 1939, Clare Hollingworth, a 28-year-old aid-worker, had been employed as a reporter for less than a week by the Daily Telegraph when she landed her first serious journalistic coup. Using feminine wiles and diplomatic skills extraordinaire, she convinced a friend in the Foreign Office to lend her his chauffeured car. Stocking up with supplies in soon to be starving Poland, and charming the border guards, she crossed into Germany with nothing but her gut instinct and her smarts — the most important of a reporter’s tools (together with ‘ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability’, in the words of the late Nicholas Tomalin). She didn’t

Girls about town

On 8 June 1920 an old beggar woman sat against a wall in Kingsway holding a mongrel in her arms and singing aloud. Virginia Woolf noted in her diary that there was a recklessness to her. She was singing for her own amusement, shrilly, and then fire engines came by singing shrilly, too. ‘Sometimes everything gets into the same mood; how to define this one I don’t know.’ In the mid-1980s, on my daily journey to Charing Cross Road, I would get off the 38 bus on the corner with New Oxford Street. Every morning I would see an old woman huddled in the doorway of what is now a

Putting Germany together again

The purpose of Lara Feigel’s book is to describe the ‘political mission of reconciliation and restoration’ in the devastated cities of Germany after 1945 (though no politicians were directly involved). The chief needs of the shattered population at the time were, of course, practical: food, water, sanitation and the reconstruction of buildings. But a vital supplementary effort was made to address what was left of German culture and history after the crimes and falsifications of the Nazis. The idea was that the arts should revive an alternative, peaceful and civilised way of life in the ruins of the country. It is surprising that no mention is made of the reform

The writing on the wall | 20 August 2015

‘Every day’, writes the foreign correspondent Wendell Steavenson in this account of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, ‘see-sawed between joy and death.’ She covered the 18-day cataclysm and stayed on in Cairo for another 18 months to report its aftermath, filing for the New Yorker among other outlets. The title refers of course to Tahrir Square, the heart of the conflict, a place ‘shaped like a giant teardrop with a traffic circle in the centre’. Steavenson’s previous books include The Weight of a Mustard Seed, a portrait of a Ba’athist general in Saddam’s Iraq; she also reported on the fall of the Soviet Union. In Circling the Square she artfully arranges

The beginning of the end

Christmas Eve 1944 found thousands of Allied — mostly American — troops dug into trenches and foxholes along the Belgian front, where they sucked at frozen rations and, in some places, listened to their enemies singing ‘Stille Nacht’. Their more fortunate colleagues in command posts gathered around Christmas trees decorated with strips of the aluminium foil more usually dropped from planes to jam enemy radar signals. The following morning a wave of Junkers dropping magnesium flares led the German Christmas Day onslaught, soon answered by American P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bombers, dropping napalm ‘blaze bombs’ or strafing with machine guns. On the ground, following reports of appalling atrocities, the battle was

A passion for men and intrigue

Moura Budberg (1892–1974) had an extraordinary life. She was born in the Poltava region of Ukraine, and as a young woman she danced at the Sanssouci Palace at Potsdam with the Russian Tsar and the German Kaiser. In her twenties by 1917, she had a well-placed aristocratic husband, two children and several fine homes in different countries. This might have been enough for most of us, but for Moura it was merely a preamble — we are only on page 15. Revolution, espionage, embezzlement, murder, executions, plenty of intimacy and arrests by several different nations take us through a few more chapters. She surges on, driven by her twin passions

The nervous passenger who became one of our great travel writers

Sybille Bedford all her life was a keen and courageous traveller. Restless, curious, intellectually alert, she was always ready to explore new territories, her experiences recounted in a sophisticated style that Jan Morris in her introduction refers to as ‘a kind of apotheosised reportage’. Bedford’s first book, A Visit to Don Otavio, describing an expedition to Mexico, was to become a classic of travel literature, and the essays in Pleasures and Landscapes show many of the same exceptional qualities. Over three decades, from 1948 to 1978, Bedford journeyed through Italy, Switzerland, France, Denmark, Portugal and Yugoslavia. Vivid, acutely observed and intensely personal, her accounts of these voyages of discovery provide

The Spanish Civil War hotel that Capa, Hemingway and Gelhorn called home

In February 1924 the Hotel Florida, a ten- storey marble-clad building with 200 rooms, a glass-roofed atrium and red plush furnishings, went up on Madrid’s Gran Via. Along with the Ritz in Paris, certainly the most celebrated hotel in the literary world, the Florida became, during the two-year battle for the capital waged between Franco’s nationalists and the republican forces, the meeting place for an eccentric, glamorous and self-important assortment of war tourists, zealots, opportunists, romantics, dreamers, buccaneers and writers who had come to observe the fighting, file dispatches of variable truthfulness and proclaim loyalty to the republic. In its own way, the Florida has become as emblematic of the