Gellhorn, Martha (1908-1998)
Plaque erected in 2019 by English Heritage at 72 Cadogan Square, Knightsbridge, London, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
War Correspondent and Writer
Journalism and Publishing, Literature
MARTHA GELLHORN 1908-1998 War Correspondent and Writer lived and worked in a flat here
Martha Gellhorn was a pioneering war correspondent whose passionate but lucid reporting style became highly influential in the practice of journalism. Best known for her coverage of the Spanish Civil War and Second World War, she continued to write into late life. She is commemorated with a blue plaque at 72 Cadogan Square in Knightsbridge, where she lived from 1970 until her death in 1998.
SPAIN AND THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Martha Gellhorn was born in Missouri, United States, but travelled extensively throughout her life. She moved to Paris for two years in the early 1930s to pursue her dream of becoming a foreign correspondent, but it was her coverage of the American Great Depression in 1934 that launched her career. Using a clear and simple style, Gellhorn expressed fury at the treatment of the poor, weak and dispossessed, and worked with the photographer Dorothea Lange to document the effects of the Depression. Soon afterwards she published a book of short stories based on these experiences – The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936) – and continued to write fiction alongside her journalism throughout her career.
In 1937 she reported on the Spanish Civil War for The New Yorker and the liberal weekly magazine, Collier’s. Gellhorn made her mark by writing about the effect of war on the lives of ordinary people. As a partisan journalist she always disdained ‘all that objectivity shit’ and, in her support of the Republican cause, let atrocities committed by that side go unreported.
She covered the build-up to the Second World War for Collier’s, travelling in France, England, Czechoslovakia, Finland and the Far East. The American military disapproved of female war correspondents and she was forced to stow away on a hospital ship in order to report first-hand on the Allied invasion of France in 1944. Gellhorn spent the rest of the war ducking and dodging from front to front, filing articles as she could. She entered the Dachau concentration camp shortly after its liberation and later reported from the Nuremberg trials.
Gellhorn’s novel The Wine of Astonishment (1948), based on her experiences at Dachau, is regarded as her finest work of fiction.
Gellhorn published a collection of her war articles in The Face of War (1959), which was updated in 1967, 1986 and 1993 as she continued to travel and report on conflicts around the world. Her vehement opposition to the Vietnam War led Gellhorn to return to war reporting for the first time in 20 years, writing six articles for The Guardian in 1966 about the devastating effects on civilians.
The 1960s was the most political decade of Gellhorn’s life. Of mixed Protestant and Jewish heritage herself, she was a passionate supporter of Israel and wrote long critical articles about Palestinian refugees for the Atlantic in 1961 and The Guardian in 1967.
She published her peace-time articles in the collection The View from the Ground in 1988, while her autobiography – Travels with Myself and Another (1978) – recounted her adventures over many decades. The ‘other’ in the title referred to her former husband, the writer Ernest Hemingway.
72 CADOGAN SQUARE
Gellhorn lived at 72 Cadogan Square for 28 years, from 1970 until her death. Although she reportedly loathed the English weather and felt perpetually chilled and lowered by it, she had maintained a base in London since 1953. At Cadogan Square, she entertained a group of friends and admirers from the worlds of literature and journalism. Visitors recalled the flat as ‘sparsely furnished, a little austere’ with a fine view across the West London rooftops towards the Kensington museums. The flat comprised the top floor and attic of a six-storey, red brick, Queen Anne Revival house designed by Richard Norman Shaw in 1878, which was Grade II* listed in 1969.
In her old age Gellhorn contracted ovarian cancer which spread to her liver. Suffering from her illnesses, and nearly blind, she took her own life at Cadogan Square at the age of 89.
The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism was established in 1999 to support journalists who expose establishment conduct and propaganda – or ‘official drivel’ as Gellhorn called it.