Project Description

Martha Gellhorn Remembered

by Nicholas Shakespeare

I had known Martha Gellhorn ten years when she decided to investigate the plight of street children in Brazil. I put her in touch with my sister who worked with children from the Pelourinho in Salvador. On the eve of her flight, Martha sent me a fax:


One of Martha’s blindspots was her inability to see how fearsome she could be. She told Sybille Bedford, severing their close friendship of thirty years: “You’re an awful bore, Sybille. I’m fed up with you.” As a child she had learnt a thing or two from her German governess who chased her round the kitchen table in St Louis, so she averred, with a knife. She wrote to me once, “I am always baffled by the idea that I am terrifying. If that’s true how come I have friends?” In a moment of candour she added in a PS to another letter: “I’m beginning to think you’re right about me being terrifying. I’ve been terrifying by telephone to the Daily Mail and the Irish Times and I find it comes easily.”

Martha, in fact, was super-humanly irritable and at her stroppiest with women. “Feminists nark me. I think they’ve done a terrible disservice to women, branded us as ‘women’s writers’. Nobody says ‘men writers’ and before we were all simply writers. This ‘woman’ tag leaves one seemingly apt only for women readers which is hardly my idea of my audience. I have slashed three of them and am about to slam a fourth, letters from idiot women wanting me to do or say or write things as a ‘woman writer’. As you see, bad temper prevails.”

At the other end of the world, in Cape Town, I began to worry for my sister. I had telephoned her already (without difficulty) to ask if she would act as Martha’s guide in Salvador. Before spending six years in the slums, she had lived in Peru with the Ashaninka Indians. Blonde, stubborn, with an instinctive concern for the underdog, she was, I realised, a younger version of Martha – of whom, it turned out, she has never heard.

“Then there’s something about her you ought to know,” I warn my sister, “but this must on no account be mentioned.”

I first met Martha Gellhorn one November evening in 1986 with her publisher, John Hatt, whom she adored not simply for resuscitating her fiction but because, among other virtues, he was not a phoney. She hated phoneyness above almost all else, save for bores (“I could kill them”) and cooking (a regular dish was a stomach-rumbling stir-fry of tuna fish, sweet corn, condensed milk).

John Hatt also made her laugh. That evening he retold the story of how he attended a dinner party in New York after which, on the subway, he was looking at a map when a man came up and smiled and Hatt said loudly “I’m sorry, I always travel alone,” whereupon the man, hurt, replied: “No need to be aggressive, but we were sitting beside each other at dinner.” This, Martha said, makes her “wake up” laughing.
She had come to her bare London flat from her cottage in Wales. There was a lightness in that room with its view, over the Edwardian rooftops, of a “pink boudoir” sky. She sat elegant on a sofa, dressed in red, drinking whisky. I remember arched nostrils, a thin face bright with what she called her “war-paint”, eyes wide. She drew on a long cigarette-filter and lost herself in the listening, encouraging me to go on. There was a flattering attentiveness in that expression. It made me, as it did everyone who met Martha, want to confide. I told her about the floating brothels of Iquitos and life behind the barbed wire in Wapping and she said, astonished and delighted, “No!”

Her voice was well described as “low, husky, Eastern-seaboard”. Something about her drawl, the way it took its time, its curious blend of American and English, inspired you to listen with the same care as you talked. “My father never let us say ‘X says’: that was gossip. Anything that begins with ‘I think’, ‘I did’ was OK.” She ground out her menthol cigarette, cast her eagle eyes from side to side. It was impossible to fathom a time when she had not known and spoken her mind.

The topics she roamed over that night included Robert Maxwell (“He wants to be Miss World”), politicians (“I don’t trust politicians: there’s a right or wrong according to humanity”) and Evelyn Waugh (“A small and very ugly turd”).

At the root of her dislike for Waugh, with whom she shared gutsy characteristics, was his treatment of her novel Liana. She had met him in Algiers in July 1944, at the house of her best friend, Diana Cooper. “He read my book on a chaise longue from beginning to end and when he’d finished he didn’t say a word.” She minded about her fiction.

I remember something else she said that night. I wondered if, living on her own in Wales, she was ever lonely. “I was only lonely when I was married.”

We were a dozen or so. “My chaps,” she called us. About half her chaps were women, but she had grown up with three brothers and preferred, I think, the company of men: “I was the ugly sister who couldn’t dance, the guinea pig who was made to do things first.”
Now and then one of us slipped out of favour for non-attendance at court. She believed people unseen become curiously unloved. “Out of sight out of mind, is it?” Another of her letters read simply: “Where are you?”

She liked to see us separately. She was discreet, “not leaky” and unfailing in her eagerness to hear news. She was the person I wanted to tell about my travels and the first I telephoned upon learning of Lady Diana’s fatal accident. She knew already, having listened at 3am on the World Service. Next day I took her to Kensington Palace. She was “scarily blind” and I described the details: the notes on the flowers, the people kneeling with candles, a girl turning away with a tear falling from the end of her nose. Martha was mesmerised, though she could barely walk or see. “It’s all a con,” she whispered not quite softly enough. She had seen it before. “It reminds me of Jackie. They were very similar. The horror when Jackie went off with a Greek. But Jackie had more style and she didn’t want publicity. If you don’t want publicity, you don’t have to have it.”

I imagine Martha’s life as a war zone and she a young reporter sent to cover it. Wouldn’t she be enraged by the restrictions imposed?

Not long ago, she gathered her most private letters, took them to her hilltop near Chepstow, and burned them. Like others, I pleaded with her not to. Why not, instead, restrict access for fifty years, a century? But burn them? She replied that she did not want some biographer misunderstanding the past. What I saw as a loss, she understood as an act of self-protection.

She hated not to be in control, litigiously so. When she judged Bill Buford over-tardy in paying for a Granta piece, she took him, “trembling with rage”, to Chepstow’s small claims court. “I did say, ‘This time, Bill, you’re not going to get away with it.’”And when Die Zeit decided without her permission to footnote an article of hers about the Spanish Civil War (in order to explain the identity of a mysterious companion, referred to only as “E”), she ran up £ 1,400 in lawyer’s fees, preventing them.
The smallest thing excited her irritability. “I should be in a jolly mood but am instead scratchy and pissed off due to BBC Radio 4 which is now reading snippets of my View book in Books at Bedtime and had chosen as their reader an American with a voice of unparalleled ugliness and accent of startling vulgarity. They must know the difference between educated speech and cockney but apparently do not recognise that Yanks too have the basic difference as in all countries between educated and yobo speech. I feel outraged and humiliated and they firmly kept me away, making it clear I had no rights of supervisions or veto.

“Next: I have been taken in by a con man salesman about having my house painted with something that lasts forever, mould free. Due on July 3, they have not showed up and I find are not in the phone book. I now think it’s a cowboy outfit with maybe one job lot of housepainters and a genius salesman. I’m already in for £ 750 advance and much more to come, so tomorrow starts the solicitor bit. How CAN life be so annoying?”

I had known Martha four years when she agreed to make a documentary on her life for the BBC. This promised to raise a few sparks. She was always refusing to do interviews and then doing them and then grumbling about how they turned out.

One day she rang up to say that I was to present and narrate the film. No need to worry about the commentary, she had composed this already.

The bludgeoned producer showed me her words, which succeeded in preserving her life as vast blank. She might have sprung fully formed from Zeus’ forehead so few details did she tolerate. There followed strenuous efforts to persuade her to incorporate more of what she called acidly “the personal stuff”: her family, her upbringing in St Louis, her friendship with the Roosevelts, her marriages. “Everyone has parents, Martha – and your marriages are a public fact.” The efforts were futile.

“This letter concerns awful Omnibus. How happy we shall all be when that’s out of the way.
“Now, I will NOT accept one word of the proposed stuff that you want, no parents, no marriages, no nothing. I am presented on the basis of my work and ideas/beliefs.” Furious that the editing process had removed from the script any word of her collected short novels, about to be republished, she was adamant that we reinstate this information. “By the way I am myself impressed by my range both in journalism and fiction. I wrote a huge definitive piece on Eton and the Old Bailey, one year, and the fiction (and the people therein) are all over the lot.” Again, she was protective of her fiction.

She hated “the dread Omnibus” when it was broadcast, although was pleased to hear from someone it had made her appear “rather rosy” at times: “I hardly saw or heard it, being blurred by extreme anxiety and general shame.” She disliked in particular the bald reference we had inserted to her father and mother. “You did not have permission to mention my parents, of course, and did so in a way that distresses me. The main good thing is that it’s over and done with, quickly forgotten, and never never to be done again. Your help is truly appreciated, my honey. I just wish you hadn’t leapt off on your own about my parents.”

In twelve years, this was as splenetic as she got with me. I was lucky. Her wrath could be abrupt and final. It came from the same fabric as her courage and curiosity and what others perceived as her heartlessness. “Ernest told me once, ‘You like humanity, Martha, but your trouble is you can’t stand people.’”

Perhaps she did prefer people in the abstract. One of a stream of stories she repeated against herself related to an incident which took place on the day after D-Day. She had smuggled herself to the beach in the bath-room of a hospital ship. She was told to be useful, ordered to carry a stretcher. She started to undress one wounded soldier, all the while asking him to tell her what had happened, and was tugging at his boot when he screamed: “THAT’S MY BLOODY FOOT YOU’RE PULLING OFF!”
So busy with her questions, she hadn’t noticed: his leg was almost severed.

“She acknowledged a sense of shame, but she never learnt from it,” said a woman friend to whom she described this episode. “A sense was missing, which explained her insensitivity. She couldn’t be so arbitrary about her relationships otherwise.”

After staying with Martha in Spain, the same friend sent her a frivolous thank-you note. “I wrote a line implying that she was older than me – which she was, by thirty years.” As with Sybille Bedford, that was the termination of their friendship. If you hit a particular nerve, uttered one wrong phrase, she banished you irrevocably.

Her wrath was egalitarian. It observed no party line, rank or sex. (She once described herself to Bernard Berenson as equal parts male and female). And yet her savagery towards those who came close could be a sign of approbation, especially with men and especially in friendship. But not in love. “In the beam” was Martha’s expression for being immobilised by passion and she did not savour the experience. She found herself caught in the beam only three times. “Twice in my life the beam ended when they said a sentence.”

Once, when I was in the beam, she looked at me and said: “I’ve never seen such a six foot two death wish. If I was you I’d fly immediately to Chile.” She was hungry to know every detail. But I was coming back from a front-line that remained foreign. I could tell it frustrated her. If she wanted love to split her open, it never did.

“There were many worlds she didn’t understand, which she thought she understood,” said Sybille Bedford.

When my love affair ended, Martha took this as confirmation of extreme good luck. “I’m delighted it’s over. Diana Cooper said to me on the day I broke up with Ernest, ‘You’ll look back on this as the happiest day of your life.’”

In 1930, Martha caused a scandal by living openly with Bertrand de Juvenal in Paris. Bertrand had been the stepson and lover of Colette who suggested Martha paint her eyebrows black, “which made me ugly deliberately.” She said: “I regret it bitterly. My father never forgave me, or only just before he died. Everyone assumed Bertrand and I had this wonderful sexual life. I was pinched by every member of the French cabinet because, since he’d given up his wife and I was living openly as his lover and this was causing a huge scandal on both sides of the Atlantic, it was assumed that we had the hottest thing in bed since Anthony and Cleopatra. In fact, it was the opposite. But I felt sorry for Bertrand. He’d followed me all round Europe on my trips with a knapsack, a corkscrew and a bottle-opener and I felt sorry for him.”

Pity not lust got Martha into bed. “In bed was the only time I was ever passive,” she said rather amazed, as though discovering this as she spoke it. She computed that “90 per cent” of her sexual life had been a waste of time, nothing. “I thought I was frigid. I never saw a man and said ‘I want him’. They wanted me. Eventually I said ‘Yes’. Then I said ‘No’. I always walked out. They knew what I was but once they got me they wanted to change me.”

She had one night stands in the war because, she said, they were going to be killed. “It was my Florence Nightingale act. They so desperately wanted it. It meant nothing to me.” She had a weakness for handsome men who filled doorways. “And if they were not politically revolting I slept with them.”

There was the artillery officer in Nijmegen, opposite Arnheim. The town was on fire. They’d pushed bodies from the rubble. They went home and to bed. “I didn’t even know his name. I usually know their names. It was as if I had a piece of bread and he was hungry and I let him have it.”

There was the Pole in Italy, from the Carpathian Lancers. “The beach was mined so we held hands on the basis we’d blow up together and tip-toed into the sea. We made love in the water. It was wonderful for him – but it just left me cold.”

She had a very good understanding of the game and she deployed her voice, her blonde hair (“like a wheatfield,” wrote Hemingway), her long distracting legs to play it, but ultimately she never understood male desire. “They had to have it, but it was like going to the bathroom. Look at the animals. You see elephants mate. You see lions mate. The females are bored shitless. There’s the lion trying to get it in and the lioness is running away or biting him. Sex is the big joke. I realise that now. And nobody cracks it. We spend time and energy on this for so little pleasure. All that sales talk, making us feel desirable. It’s the great hideous solemnity, the doom. I thought I was singing for my supper with sex. I wanted to laugh.”

She laughed a lot during the Blitz. She had a room at the Dorchester, paid for by Collier’s magazine, and sometimes she slept in the bath while the Free Dutch used her bed. Among the Dutch was a man who was dropped into Holland wearing a dinner jacket so he could join the Germans at a smart party and then return. “The war was cold, hungry, horny.” The waiters at “the Dorch” wore grimy jackets because there was no soap and dished up sandy bread and a dollop of jam which tasted as if made from boot polish. She remembered how angry everyone was with Loelia Westminster because she had two eggs and made a cake which she ate all by herself.

“It was a time of laughter, hysterical or not, but laughter as well as hunger. We’d lie on the roofs watching the bombs because it was safer than in the Turkish baths and drink miniature gin bottles given to us by Mr Gilbey who was an Air Raid Warden. And laugh. Coming back from Italy four of us had to lie down on a loose bomb flap because we’d have been sucked out. And we laughed the whole way.”

What most of us keep to ourselves and think, Martha said. “I’ve never been any different my whole life,” she wrote to me. She behaved at eighty-nine as she behaved at fourteen, the age she composed these verses at John Burroughs School:

“Peace! do not mourn the dead,
They’re in a happier land,” I said
And be a man! (yes, be a man)

But when to me great sorrow came
It seemed the case was not the same
Forsooth, why should I be a man? Why? Why?”

She needed to be alone to write. “I always live alone to work, cannot do it otherwise except as total immersion.” She was not especially happy on her own. “Life in the sun would be the best life, the only life for me for writing and well being. If only there was someone at pm. for talk, jokes, drinks.” But her loneliness was a self-made choice: neither was she happy in a relationship. The kitchen of life, the discussions over electricity bills and canal ducts, plunged her into a Greek rage.

She was at her happiest striding out alone on a journalist’s cause. The Spanish Civil War, the liberation of Italy, Israel, Russia, Poland, Vietnam, adoption, snorkelling, thrillers. This is what turned her on.

In 1989, I persuaded her to become the thriller-reviewer for the Daily Telegraph. Thrillers, for Martha, were parables of good versus evil and not boring. “I stuff my imagination on novels that nobody has ever called art,” she wrote passionately in their defence. “They are pure unadulterated story-telling… Unless the reader is compelled to turn the pages, what next, what next, all is lost.”
Every couple of months, until she lost her eyesight, she grudgingly apportioned one, two or an exceedingly rare three stars (to a newcomer who wrote about Libya). Mostly, she preferred to award half a star. She warned: “I am finicky about my writing, even when it is brief and hardly world shaking.” A progress report attended each batch. “I will not read Ludlum for love or money. The Deighton is a mess. He ought to be ashamed. Surely he has enough cash in the bank not to rehash badly his other books. Another is unreadable. I’ve found one that rates one star…”

Another time she wrote: “I am trying to read a book that looks as if it might be a winner but am defeated by the print. The publisher is a shit.”

In 1990, under disguise as the Daily Telegraph’s thriller reviewer, Martha smuggled herself into Panama. She had been snorkelling in Belize, trying to write a novel when she decided to chuck it in (“if it bores me it cannot be good”) and tackle the scandal of the American invasion. “I mean to go to Panama when the troops have left… Nobody there but the natives, like going to the Eichmann Trial after the world press had departed. This is for me a duty trip, I guess, the sense that as long as I am around I have to keep on with the record, how things really are, as near as I can find out.”

She asked me to send her a To Whom It May Concern letter. “You know the form, ‘the bearer, MG, is our special correspondent and any courtesies extended to her will be appreciated.’ That kind of thing. I think a well known rightish paper would be the best camouflage for me as I poke into the underside of totally illegal invasion.”
I heard nothing until one day there arrived a post card of skyscrapers. The legend read: the banking quarter in Panama City. On the back she had scribbled a note. “You’ll be pleased to hear that nothing has happened to this. On the other hand the story is fascinating.”

She was then eighty-one.

Six years after Panama, Martha read reports of destitute and defenceless little girls, “killed as casually as if they were rabbits with myxomatosis.” Throwing herself into the cause of Brazilian street children, she flew to Salvador.

For a fortnight, my sister acted as her fixer and guide. The children opened up, a convicted child killer was tracked down for her to interview. In the evening she relaxed with a talking book beside the pool in white lycra hot pants and low-heeled sandals. She also found time to snorkel.

Far from biting off her head, she decided my sister was a saint. (“Compared with you, she’s model of selflessness”).
Instead, her accumulated wrath found a target in the form of poor Colonel Paraiso, a former chief of the state police and literary man who served on the board of my sister’s project. One lunchtime he invited Martha and Amanda to the Tempero de Dada. He was under strict orders from Amanda to say nothing, but as they sat down in the restaurant he could not contain his excitement. He turned to Martha and with the broadest of smiles said, “Oh, I’m such a fan of Ernesto!”

In a Borges riddle to which the answer is “knife”, the only word that may not be used is “knife”. Practically everything Martha did was more incredible than being the third wife of Ernest Hemingway. For 84 of her 89 years she succeeded in not being married to him. “To be lumbered with that fucking name…” Yet in some way Hemingway, the great unmentionable, is Martha’s “knife”.

“Of course, you can see why I am maddened by the link to Hemingway,” she wrote during “the dread Omnibus” period. “The very idea that being married to him was the most important action of my life is enough to make me want to scream. How can I lay this bloody ghost? Surely not by an autobiog. But since I now have a lot of time, due to a secretary on Thursdays, I do fiddle with such a book. I’ve begun by explaining why autobiographies should NOT be written.”

She did not have a good word to say about Hemingway, except that he had changed English literature a bit. He prided himself on his bull-shit detector. Hers was stronger. It prevented her from writing fiction as good as his, but it made her the better reporter.

The meeting between reporter and novelist in Sloppy Joe’s bar, Key West, revealed to each a heady possibility. It was the inevitable attraction of opposites. “Just at the point when I wanted to kill him he made me laugh,” said Martha. “He could be charming. He told Leonard Bernstein in the company of his next wife, Mary: ‘Martha is the bravest women I have ever met.’ Lenny told me: ‘I didn’t see how you could have married him. Now I don’t see how you could have not.’”
She wrote to Mrs Roosevelt about meeting the barefoot Hemingway at Sloppy Joe’s and how he was a story-teller which is forgiveable in a writer. “So even then I must have known.” She was vulnerable to story-tellers. She spoke the truth more or less when she said: “People can tell me anything and I’ll believe them because I don’t lie. I never lie. I can’t, and it’s all because of vanity.”

Had both had less pride they might have been able to learn the best of each other’s craft. Instead, each seeking to complete themself devoured the other. In her view, he became a phoney and a liar, so inimical to her reporting instincts. And she, in her turn, lacked his understanding of people without which she could never match him as a novelist. Both behaved badly.
She resented him enormously and forbade any public coupling of their names. But to her friends she talked of him incessantly. Sometimes I wrote it down.

“He chased me. I didn’t want to marry him. If I’d said ‘No’, he’d have killed me. When I told him, ‘What will happen when I don’t love you?’ he was dé raché .” Her parents were against it. “After he proposed my mother came and said: ‘You can’t do this, you’re happy. You should just live together.’ My mother was the only person he always liked – until he sent her the manuscript of The Old Man and The Sea and she sent it back saying sweetly thank you, she’d already read it, in book form. He never spoke to her again. I think he was insane, I really do.”
After Spain, they lived in Cuba. This was the most prolific writing time of her life and his. “He’d get up early, reread everything he had written to get back into it. At the end he had very little time left for writing. He’d write till one o’clock and think he’d done a good day if he’d written 350 words. 500 was very good. Meals happened when he decided. He wasn’t a great conversationalist. He’d eat lunch in silence, then go out with a gun to kick up a guinea fowl. In the evening he’d exercise, play tennis – also in silence, he wasn’t very good – or fish. Then he’d read. He was widely read, but didn’t let his literary reading affect his writing. He read anything that didn’t interfere with his style, like The History of the Peninsular War. He had a requisite for genius, which Lenny Bernstein also has, which was a perfect memory. He didn’t take notes because he could remember all he needed, a hill, the soil, the trees in the soil. He used to read me what he’d written early on. He was writing For Whom the Bells Toll { dedicated to her} and I thought it was dreadful, so he didn’t go on with that.

“He saw no one from Monday to Saturday and never answered the ’phone. On Saturday night he’d go and get drunk and on Sunday afternoon he’d have people round to tell stories to. He told them with a lot of swearing. He liked chaps. He wasn’t gay, not a shred of that, but women frightened him. He wasn’t talented for intimacy.

“Then when he’d finished a book he’d drink because he had nothing to do and he’d go fishing for Nazi submarines. I had to get Roosevelt to give him a machine-gun – which he sent, being an adventurer. Ernest claimed he found a submarine, but I didn’t believe him.”

She could not be herself in the blaze of that light, but she learned an enormous amount from Hemingway about “the painstakingness” of writing.

“He was a complete egotist, but he did liberate English prose from mandarins like Henry James and Edith Wharton. He freed everyone into being able to write about what they felt. After Ernest it was possible to use ordinary words. He only used the words he knew, but he had this poetry. Plainspeak and cadence. He didn’t get it from anywhere, he got it from himself. He said to me, ‘We’re just sitting cross-legged in a bazaar and if people aren’t interested in what we’re saying they’ll go away.’”

With astonishment, Martha came to understand that he was jealous of her. He was nine years older, the most glamorous writer in the world – at Bryn Mawr her generation had adopted The Sun Also Rises for their bible – and he was jealous. “After twenty years I realise that’s what it was. It was like being jealous of Mickey Spillane. He hated the fact I earned my living. He wanted every other writer dead. He told me Dos Passos was a shit, never wrote a puff for any younger novelists. So far as he was concerned there was only him. When I showed him Liana he said, ‘Not bad for a Bryn Mawr girl.’”

In the meantime, he wrote to his mother saying Liana was better than anything he had written.

One day in 1941 Hemingway uttered the sentence which ended their marriage. “I’d known him four years when I realised he was a liar. It was shocking. Mr Josie, who’d run the bar in Key West, came to see him in Havana. He saw Ernest only once because Ernest was writing and then Josie got so drunk he was arrested and put in a straight jacket and he died. Ernest said: ‘I couldn’t see him because Marty wanted to spend the day on the boat.’ It was a lie. I never wanted to go on the boat. Anything uncomfortable he off-loaded with a lie. He lied about everything.”

Again she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt. “What you and I see as a lie, in a writer is called imagination.”

If one was tough, one might understand this as a defence of her own failure to write persuasive fiction. She took a long time to accept that the virtues which made her journalism unique are, in novels, a vice. It was not enough to be there. One could go further and say that her fiction is pinioned by the reporter’s topicality. Unable to transcend her own experience, she doomed her characters to enacting her political cosmology. Always there is the plucky liberal heroine, usually a black Martha, and then there are the bigots who stumble around in the darkness of her devising until she reveals the political errors of their ways and they’re punished with a genuine contempt for their failing.

In the same way, she spoke scathingly of what she called Hemingway’s “mythomania”. “Having lived with a mythomane,” she wrote, “I know they believe everything they say; they are not conscious liars, they invent to increase everything about themselves and their lives and believe it.”

Once in Spain she and Hemingway rode up a hill on horseback and came down again in a makeshift armoured car. “That was that,” she said. “But to him, when he described it there were machine-gun bullets and one as I remember that came in and ricocheted around. But it was shit. Not a bullet. I was so baffled and stunned I didn’t know what to say. If you say to a mythomane, ‘But I was there!’ they just look at you like you’re a half wit. It’s you who were wrong. It was terrible having me around, my eyes open, my mouth open.”

She noted with mounting exasperation how in his novels he had to be the hero. “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.”

It was the same in bed. There was no question of the earth moving for Martha. “He was meant to be a great lover. Absolute balls. He was a rotten lover. Sex for him was a necessity, like having vitamins. He took it regularly every night, but he gave no thought to the woman’s pleasure.” She believed he had been a virgin when he married. “He had to marry his women to have sex. I’m convinced he only went to bed with five women: the women he married and one other I know of. And he was no good at it.”

A year or two ago, Martha saw herself portrayed in a television drama. “We’re making love and his friends come in and say ‘Hem, we’re off to the front,’ and I creep naked out of bed and say ‘Hey! Wait for me.’ It’s not just the plot and the lines that are wrong, it’s the facts. He never wanted to go to the front.”

It was Martha who bullied a reluctant Hemingway to cover the D-Day landing. “We were living in Cuba and not going to the war. I thought this was wrong.”

Out of revenge, she believed, he took her job at Collier’s. The magazine, able to accredit one correspondent only, chose Hemingway. He flew to Europe via Roald Dahl, the Defence Attaché in Washington. She meanwhile had to sail for fifteen days on a freighter loaded with explosives. They saw each other in the Dorchester. He had spent one day covering the D-Day landings and hared back, never having actually reached shore. She had been aboard the hospital ship with the troops. When he saw her come in, he said: “Killed any Germans, Mookie?” She went and slept in his room and locked the door.

Later, she saw a doodlebug “like a child’s toy across the sky” dash into the Cumberland Hotel. Hemingway came out of the lift with his swarm of acolytes and said to her: “So it missed you, then. I wish it had hit you.” Martha said, “This was taboo: to talk about casualties, and to wish harm.”

She left him and asked for a divorce. She read about her divorce in Time. She never heard from him except once. He sent back her stuff in a metal box, unwrapped, with everything shattered and he made her pay for it “when I had taken nothing”. When she complained he wrote to say, indignantly, that Mary had packed the box and Martha’s complaint was an insult to her.

“He was always crazy, but after he was wrongly diagnosed and they put electrodes on his head, he lost his memory and that made him suicidal. He had often talked about how he would do it. He’d point a shot-gun at his mouth and pull the trigger with his toe. He did it at the top of the stairs so she would see.”

“What did you feel when he killed himself?”

She had demanded a divorce to be free of him and return to who she was. “I just wanted my name back on my passport.”

The Gellhorns, not Hemingway, had made Martha who she was. In 1899, her father George Gellhorn arrived from Breslau to St Louis after spending two years as a ship’s doctor in the Far East. He had an introduction to the top intern, whose daughter he fell for, courted with fresh violets and married, and became the only gynaecologyst in town. He set “icily high” standards and regarded Hitler as a personal insult. From her Prussian father Martha inherited a desire to travel and an instinct for the literal truth.

Martha counted on one hand the perfect marriages she had known. “It’s as rare as a great ballerina or a novel by Tolstoy.” Her parents’ marriage was one of them. “She runs as fast to meet me as when we were first married,” said George Gellhorn. Another was the marriage of Martha’s younger brother Alfred.

At her wake, Alfred spoke of the moment when his sister first registered him as a baby. He was sitting under the table when Martha dashed through the kitchen chased by Miss Peters. She stopped in her tracks. “What’s that?” And then, when the matter was explained, “But mummy wasn’t fat.”

Edna Fischel was a blue-eyed suffragette who founded the St Louis League of Women Voters. From her campaigning mother, Martha evolved her articulate hatred of injustice. After she left home, at seventeen, she wrote to Edna every day for several years. “Mother thought something was wrong if Martha didn’t say what a disaster something had been,” said Alfred. On December 18, 1968, Martha awarded her mother a star of survival, first class. “This decoration is awarded for lifelong and unfailing gallantry, generosity and gaiety, with an added citation for beauty. Only grown-ups (ie 80 & over) are eligible and as the combination of required qualities is so rare this medal is bestowed for the first time in history on Edna Fischel Gellhorn on her 90th birthday.”

Maybe, said Alfred at Martha’s wake, it was time to bestow this star again.

The last time I saw Martha was with my sister and two other “chaps”. She was standing against her skyline, dressed in a red velvet pant suit and Robin hood boots with smart pointed toes. She could no longer drink, smoke, travel, read, but she looked ravishing. She talked about her solution for Iraq (to arm the Kurds in the north and south) about the media harassment of Clinton, about the books she had been listening to. She was excited because my sister had come with a tape of The Spy Who Cape in From the Cold. I remember her saying, rather too matter of factly, “I’m not a natural novelist because I can’t invent.”

Afterwards, going down in her juddering lift, I wished I had found the courage to tell Martha that what clipped the wings of her fiction and grounded her imagination is what made her soar as a journalist.

She turned from her pink skyline and said: “And now you must all leave.”

At four in the morning on Sunday 15 February, 1998, round about the moment of her death, Martha’s son Sandy was woken by what he thought was the cry of a strange bird. The sound went straight through him and the hair, as he says, stood up on the back of his neck. “I’d never heard a sound like it. It was scary, but I wasn’t scared.” He rose from his bed, looked over the courtyard, saw nothing. But the sound was insistent, like someone wagging a finger, saying “now you remember this”. There was also a softness. “And I love you.”

Martha was not religious. She trusted the world in front of her eyes, not any other. “Oh, me I just want to get there, put on my mask and start swimming,” she wrote about Belize. In Brazil, she had so loved the trees near Salvador that she sought out a botanist and spent a day with him. Her last outing, four days before she died, was a visit to the Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. The same age as the photographer, she found his work “too arty” and criticised him for aestheticising experience. “It’s all media hype. This is supposed to be a testament of our century, yet there’s no record of human suffering.” She could not bother herself to ride the escalator down to see the Francis Bacon canvases – “so many slabs of meat at the butcher.” She said: “Nothing interests me any more except the natural world. It has the most to teach.” In Wiltshire, the snowdrops had come out. She wanted to hear about them.

On the day after her wake, as instructed, Martha’s ashes were strewn on the Thames near Tower Bridge for her “continuing travels”. Her instructions had ended: “and if it’s inconvenient, what the hell.”

“Was it an outgoing tide?” I asked her step-son.
“Oh God, I hope so.”