"When you're daydreaming as a child you're Joan of Arc or Richard Coeur de Lion: that's the one pleasure of childhood. But it's supposed to change. Ernest always cast himself in a bigger light. He didn't mythomane down, only up. He had an accurate memory of things you don't mythomane about: scenery, places, names. That worked very well. The scenery was exact and correct, but the hero striding through it was larger than life. Finally, in The Old Man and the Sea, he was a mixture of himself and Christ."-- Martha Gellhorn on ex-husband Ernest Hemingway, quoted in Nicholas Shakespeare, “Martha Gellhorn,” Granta, Summer 1998
I don’t have HBO, so no, I haven’t seen its movie Hemingway and Gellhorn, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. But it’ll be high on my list when it comes out on DVD. I’m dying to see what they did with the story of the closest thing the 20th century had to a Byronic hero and the only one of his four wives fully a match for him in writing and adventuring. Maybe that competitive factor also made this the shortest of Papa's marriages.
Well, that’s one reason why it didn’t last. Another was Ernest Hemingway’s talents as a fabulist—one, as I discussed in a prior post, that he shared with Mad Men’s similarly troubled macho man, Don Draper. You would expect that Martha Gellhorn—for whom a prize was named which celebrates “journalism that challenges secrecy and mendacity in public affairs”—would have a difficult time accepting that in private life, and she did.
It rubbed Gellhorn every kind of wrong way that she was remembered largely as an appendage to her husband, even though she stands in the front rank of reporters of all time. In the contest of egos between herself and the novelist, that stung, and you have to read everything she wrote or said about him with that in mind.
And yet, there’s rough justice in what she told Nicholas Shakespeare about her ex. At the Ernest Hemingway Museum in his native Oak Park, Ill., a surviving piece of his father’s stationery shows makeshift sketches by 2 1/2 –year-old Ernie Hemingway of a giraffe, a sailor, two guns, Noah's ark, a tree, a pipe, and a man on the moon—all testifying to his future love of adventure. He could not accumulate the material for his books without that love. Gellhorn, a woman lied to—and emotionally abused—by this psychologically frail man, had little understanding of her ex’s need.
Still, despite her annoyance, she could not help but admit that there were some things he got right: “scenery, places, names”—an unconscious echo of one of the most famous passages in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (“Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments, and the dates”).
Gellhorn also puts her finger on the problem of Hemingway studies: his corroding ability to sustain a piece of fiction after For Whom the Bell Tolls. The progressive battering taken by his mind and body were key to that deterioration, of course, but just as problematic was his growing capacity for myth-making. True, identifying himself with the protagonists of his fiction allowed him to enter fully into their lives. But there was something disturbing in the way that Hemingway not only identified with Santiago, the simple fisherman hero of The Old Man and the Sea, in his recent lack of good fortune (Santiago has not caught anything much in far too long, while Hemingway’s Over the River and Into the Trees was widely scorned by critics), but also with Christ.
Hemingway’s life, if nothing else, will keep people returning to his books. With the release of the Owen-and-Kidman literary epic, along with an upcoming Mint Theater Co. revival of her 1946 play co-written by Virginia Cowles, Love Goes to Press, we might, at last, also be having a season for Gellhorn. Sometimes truth does work to one’s advantage, after all.
(The photo of Hemingway with Carlos Gutierrez, first mate of his beloved boat Pilar, is from the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.)