Martha Ellis Gellhorn was the only woman journalist who landed on the beach in Normandy during World War II.
She was born on November 8, 1908, in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the daughter of Edna Fischel Gellhorn, a suffragist and George Gellhorn who was a German born gynecologist. Her older brother Walter, became a noted law professor at Columbia University and her younger brother Alfred was an oncologist and former dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
In 1926 she graduated from John Burroughs School in St. Louis and enrolled in Bryn Mawr College. A year later she left Bryn Mawr without graduating, in order to pursue a careen as a journalist. Her first published articles appeared in The New Republic. In 1930, determined to become a foreign correspondent, she went to France for two years, where she worked at the United Press bureau in Paris. While in Europe, she became active in the pacifist movement, writing about her experiences in her book What Mad Pursuit (1934).
After returning to the United States, Gellhorn was hired by Harry Hopkins, whom she had met through her friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, as a field investigator for the for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) during the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt created FERA to measure and report on the impact of the depression on the country (1929-1939). She worked with Dorothea Lange, the great photographer, to document the everyday lives of the hungry and homeless. Later, in 1937, she travelled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s magazine. During this period she reconnected with Ernest Hemingway, who was also in Spain as a correspondent. Gellhorn first met Ernest Hemingway during a 1936 Christmas family trip to Key West. They married in 1940, and she became Hemingway’s third wife.
During World War II, the government had prohibited women from being on the front lines. They were not allowed to cover the stories from the front. Understandably, the women journalists were not pleased by this ban. Martha, in particular, was irate and wrote a scathing letter to the military authorities stating: “It is necessary that I report on this war. I do not feel there is any need to beg as a favour for the right to serve as the eyes for millions of people in America who are desperately in need of seeing, but cannot see for themselves.” Martha Gellhorn was not ready to bow out, gracefully or otherwise.
Gellhorn and Hemingway’s marriage was troubled from the start. Hemingway refused to let go off his second wife even when both of them were seeing each other, and Gellhorn’s long absences during her reporting assignments irritated Hemingway. When D-Day approached, their marriage was already dead in the water. To get even with Gellhorn, Hemingway,"a cocky, raspy-voiced, chain-smoking maverick,” got himself accredited as the correspondent for Colliers, the magazine Gellhorn worked for, blocking any chance Gellhorn might have of getting to the front lines.
On the night of June 6, 1944, before the ships departed for Normandy, Gellhorn made her way to the waterfront on the pretext of interviewing the nurses aboard a hospital ship. Once on board, she hid herself in the bathroom. Gellhorn knew that if she got caught, she would lose her accreditation and might even get deported back to America. Still, to witness the great invasion was worth the risk. Gellhorn remained in her hideout for several hours and only emerged when the ship was well on her way to France. Later that night, after the troops had landed and the massacre on the beach was finally over, Gellhorn sneaked ashore with a couple of doctors and medics as a stretcher bearer to collect the wounded. In the chaos of the war, nobody gave a damn that Gellhorn was a woman.
Martha Gellhorn became the only woman to land in Normandy the same day the troops did. Other women followed, but much later. The first batch of women—members of the United States Women’s Army Corps—landed in Normandy thirty-eight days later.
Soon after Gellhorn had filed her story to Collier’s, the military police arrested her. They took away her credentials and transported her to a nurse’s training camp outside London. Gellhorn escaped from the camp by convincing a British pilot to fly her to Italy.
When she finally arrived, by means of a dangerous ocean voyage in war-torn London, she told Hemingway that she had had enough. She had found, as had his other wives, that, as described by Bernice Kert in The Hemingway Women: "Hemingway could never sustain a long-lived, wholly satisfying relationship with any one of his four wives. Married domesticity may have seemed to him the desirable culmination of romantic love, but sooner or later he became bored and restless, critical and bullying.” After four contentious years of marriage, they divorced in 1945.
She continued undaunted in her career as a journalist. “I followed the war wherever I could reach it,” Gellhorn recalled. She wrote about the innocent victims of the war: the civilians who lived in daily fear of being killed by bombs. She was motivated to write – not about tactics and statistics - but about the devastating effects of war on the lives of civilians. It was a remarkable career spanning some sixty years. Gellhorn continued covering conflicts her country was involved in.
She covered the Vietnam War and the Arab-Israel conflicts in the 1960s and 70s. She was still out at the front reporting the civil wars in Central America at the age of seventy, and incredibly, United States’ invasion of Panama in 1989 at the age of eighty-one. It was only when war came to Bosnia that she decided to quit, announcing that she was “too old” and not “nimble” enough for war anymore.
She had homes in Mexico, Africa and Britain, ending her life in an apartment in London. She carried on reporting well into her eighties when, half-blind, and suffering from ovarian cancer that had spread to her liver, she traveled alone to Brazil to report on the plight of street-children who were being murdered by death-squads. Martha Gellhorn was committed to reporting the truth and she worked hard for her reputation as one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century.