Martha Gellhorn was born in 1908 in St. Louis, Missouri, and almost immediately was desperate to be somewhere else. She left for France in 1930 and embarked on a 60-year career as a foreign correspondent covering every major conflict around the globe, including the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War, and the U.S. invasion of Panama. When she wasn’t in an active war zone, she was reporting on social issues, such as poverty, or writing fiction that reflected what she had seen and felt.
In Yours, for Probably Always, editor Janet Somerville has curated a collection of letters to and from Gellhorn and some very notable people, including family, friends, and lovers. Somerville includes summaries at the beginning of each chapter and occasional interjections between letters to establish the timeline of Gellhorn’s life. These sections can be a bit repetitive, but they are very effective at establishing why Gellhorn was travelling and the obstacles she faced.
In addition to her passion for reporting and writing, Gellhorn’s letters lay bare her tumultuous romantic relationships. She initiated an affair with the married French intellectual Bertrand de Jouvenel in the early 1930s, and this began a pattern of dalliances with men who were utterly enraptured with her intellectual prowess even after she had moved on. The more the men in her life tried to cling to her, the more likely Gellhorn was to pull away. “A man is of no use to me, unless he can live without me,” she wrote, and very few of the men in her life ended up being able to live up to that expectation.
Gellhorn’s legacy has always been compromised by her marriage to Ernest Hemingway. From the beginning of their affair in 1937 to their divorce in 1945, her name was inextricably linked to him and his fame, much to her frustration. Despite the relatively short span of their relationship, the bulk of the letters in Yours, for Probably Always are between Gellhorn and Hemingway, which is a bit disappointing if one of Somerville’s goals was to give Gellhorn the independent recognition she deserves. That being said, in addition to being achingly beautiful, her missives to Hemingway illustrate her development as a writer.
You don’t need to be familiar with Gellhorn’s other writing in order to enjoy her letters; this collection simply fuels the desire to seek out and read all of her work. Her correspondents and Somerville speak so movingly about Gellhorn’s reporting that the reader aches to experience these pieces first-hand, and reading how Gellhorn herself describes her fiction-writing process prompts a yearning to track down the final product.
It is difficult, after finishing Yours, for Probably Always, to decide whether Gellhorn is likable as a person. Her writing is so interesting that the reader is compelled to push forward, even when the content of the letters is off-putting. For example, it is jarring to read a missive that expresses sympathy for people living in poverty while also lamenting their indiscriminate breeding and inferior intelligence. While Gellhorn seems to have cared deeply about the individuals she met during her life, sometimes raging at their terrible circumstances, she does not come off as having been overly fond of people on the whole. It is also hard to reconcile the fiery, independent Gellhorn, who craved a life outside contemporary female domesticity, with the woman who wrote saccharine letters to men who treated her poorly, often praising them while putting herself down.
These mixed feelings on the part of the reader are mitigated by Gellhorn’s remarkable self-awareness. She seems to have been fully cognizant of both her strengths and her flaws, and the pros and cons of her relationships. She writes clearly of her desire for freedom above all else, expressing the need for “flowers and sun and grass to roll in and air to breathe and sun and long, intensely empty days,” even as this conflicted sharply with the role expected of her as a woman. She is even able to articulate to Hemingway exactly why their relationship began failing when he could not accept her career: “I have to live my way as well as yours, or there wouldn’t be any me to love you with.”
In the end, the reader’s feelings about Gellhorn as a person simply don’t matter in the face of the sheer power and beauty of her writing. She was compelled to commit words to paper – it was her “mind’s and spirit’s purge” – and she recorded what she saw as the only way to feel part of bigger things: “I swallowed the world around me whole and it came out in words.”
Whatever she wrote, she always wanted her writing to be of service. As we learn more about women whose achievements have frequently gone unrecognized in the shadow of the men they stood beside, it is important that Gellhorn take her place as a trailblazing journalist and author who made the world better for having written about what she saw.