In her Bryn Mawr years, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn ’30 forged a lifelong friendship with one of her teachers: Hortense Flexner.
Yours, for Probably Always, the recently published collection of Gellhorn’s letters edited by Janet Somerville, gathers their intimate and revealing correspondence.
Martha Gellhorn ’30 followed in the footsteps of her suffragette mother, Edna Fischel (Class of 1900) by studying at Bryn Mawr. Martha considered Edna her moral compass, her “true north,” her entire life. When Edna graduated, she was elected lifetime president of her class. But in spring 1929, Martha, unlike her mother, dropped out after her third year, one year shy of her degree, determined “to go everywhere, see everything, and sometimes write about it.”
While in her first year at Bryn Mawr, Martha took a poetry class with Hortense Flexner* and considered Flexner the only teacher she had “who meant anything” to her. Some of the most intimate letters she wrote were to Flexner and her cartoonist husband, Wyncie King—people Gellhorn insisted were her “chief consolation” during her three years at college and lifelong examples of “endurance, courage, and gayety.” Mostly, she addressed Flexner by an affectionate nickname, “Teecher,” or a diminutive thereof. (Gellhorn was a maniac for nicknames: Her mother Edna, for instance, could be “Mate,” “Mud,” “Muddy,” and Ernest Hemingway, whom she would famously marry in 1940, was “Pig,” “Scrooby,” “Bongie,” and more.)
In 1935, Gellhorn returned from four years abroad in France. She had already written about the 1933 World Economic Conference in London and the role of women in the League of Nations and published her debut novel What Mad Pursuit (1934). Back home, she worked for Harry Hopkins at the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, where she reported on the treatment of the unemployed.
In April, Gellhorn confessed, “I want to write great heavy swooping things, to throw terror and glory into the mind.” In more than 60 years of reporting, she would do exactly that as she made her “tiny, squeaking noise about the wrongness of things.” She found her narrative voice writing about the most disenfranchised.
To Flexner, she wrote frequently about war and the writing life and relationships, both romantic and those with her mother and the children in her life. There was little that mattered to Gellhorn that she did not reveal to “Teechie dearest” in their correspondence. In one, she wrote, “I love your letters Teechie and maybe you don’t know what you and Wyncie are to me… You’re my friends. It is very lovely to have had you all my life for myself, for no reason I could ever see and not because I deserved it, you were my friends, just like that, for me.” The letters provided insight about their joys and sorrows in equal measure.
Gellhorn covered the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War and wrote articles for Collier’s Magazine as well as novels. A Stricken Field (1940) was grounded in the German-Jewish refugee crisis in Prague in 1938. After reading it, Flexner wrote Gellhorn, “Dear Menace to my Peace of Mind…I do most deeply appreciate you sending us not only a story, but a state of mind, a terrifying emotion, a sense of rage to keep handy on the bed table… Between you and Mrs. Roosevelt, I am just about to go out and enlist in an army.” A bespoke illustration by Wyncie, personifying the novel as a generic soldier charging with a bloodied bayonet, was included.
Later that same year, in receipt of a signed copy of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, she noted the book’s dedication to Martha: “This book is for—a man’s dedication. So glad there was nothing about inspiration and devotion,” and how lovely it was for her and Wyncie “to be so placed with him in affection for you.” The inscription read, “To Mr. and Mrs. Wyncie King from somebody who loves Marty too—Ernest Hemingway.”
Gellhorn’s collection of stories, The Heart of Another (1941), was dedicated to Flexner and King, and its title was lifted from “your old pal Dostoyevsky, you know, ‘the heart of another is a dark forest.’” Gellhorn was rarely pleased about anything she wrote, but she felt that these stories were “better than I knew how to write, and good, good, good, and not dull (which is what I always fear), and lean and full of things that I did not know I knew.”
On Sept. 22, 1941, in one of her most revealing letters, Gellhorn confessed, “It is, Teecher, a grave but not important error that I happen to be a woman. I do not think that history will, shall we say, suffer: that mass destinies will be altered and blackened because of this. But, on the other hand, what a waste. I would really have been a something man, and as a woman I am truly only a nuisance, only a problem, only something that most definitely does not belong anywhere and will never be really satisfied or really used up.”
For all of her long life, Martha Gellhorn was most at ease in the company of men, men who particularly considered her just one of the boys; she called them her “chaps.” She embraced the grab-bag world that war reporting provided, and after the Normandy invasions in June 1944, she wrote to Flexner, “I think maybe the reason one is so very gay in a war is that the mind, convulsed with horror, simply shuts out the war and is fiercely concentrated on every good thing left in the world. A doorway, a flower stall, the sun, someone to laugh with, and the wonderful fact of being alive.”
That letter, written Aug. 4, 1944, closed, “I love you both immeasurably…we will all eat ourselves sick in Paris one day before we die.” Isn’t it pretty to think that they did just that.
*A poet, playwright, journalist, and suffragist, Hortense Flexner King (Class of 1907) spent only her freshman year at Bryn Mawr but later taught poetry in the English Department for many years. After Bryn Mawr, she joined the faculty at Sarah Lawrence, where she spotted another young talent. “I made a ‘blind date’ the other day with a young writer from the N. Yorker,” she wrote in a memo to the College’s president, “and he made a great hit with my girls. By name, J.D. Salinger. He also made a hit with me.”