Today in Literary History – February 15, 1998 – war correspondent and novelist Martha Gelhorn dies

Martha Gelhorn, the war correspondent, novelist and third wife of Ernest Hemingway, died on February 15, 1998 at the age of 89. She was in poor health, suffering from ovarian and liver cancer and nearly blind. She choose to end her life by suicide.

Gelhorn came from a politically progressive Jewish family in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother was a prominent suffragist and co-founder of  The League of Women Voters. Her German-born father was a gynecologist.

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At the age of 22 Gelhorn moved to Paris for two years to work for the United Press. (She was fluent in French and German.) She also became active in the pacifist movement, the subject of her first book, What Mad Pursuit in 1934.

Back in America, she worked for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a New Deal Agency. Her work with photographer Dorothea Lange helped expose the ravages of the Great Depression on the lives of women and led to her collection of short stories The Trouble I’ve Seen in 1936.

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Gelhorn returned to Europe before the start of World War II, reporting from Germany on the rise of Adolf Hitler. She covered the War in Europe and in the Pacific. She was the only woman to land on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, despite having no credentials, and was one of the first journalists to enter the Dachau concentration camp with the American liberating army.

Gelhorn is generally regarded as being one of the greatest war correspondents of all time. She also covered the war in Vietnam and wars in the Middle East and Nicaragua. Her last war reports were from the American invasion of Panama when she was 81 years old.

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Apart from her journalism she also wrote five novels and 14 novellas – most famously 1988’s The Weather in Africa – as well as books of travel writing, including the highly regarded Travels With Myself and Another  in 1979.

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She was married to Hemingway for four turbulent years in the 1940s and always resented the fact that this overshadowed her other accomplishments in some people’s eyes.

”Why should I be a footnote to somebody else’s life?” she once asked, pointing out that she had already published two novels herself by the time she met him. Her writing career continued for nearly half a century after their divorce.

She was the only one of Hemingway’s four wives to leave him and he never forgave her.

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