On encounters with Martha Gellhorn

Julia PascalJulia Pascal is a London playwright/theatre director whose plays have mainly focused on women’s lives. She was the first woman director at London’s National Theatre and has written about, and worked for, women’s equality in theatre for many years. She is currently completing a PhD at the University of York on The Absence of Jewish Women Characters on the English Stage from 1945 to the present day. Her plays are published by Oberon Books. Pascal’s productions have been seen in the UK, France, Germany and the USA. She is a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Martha Gellhorn. She was the most famous woman war correspondent alive. I had to meet her. Spain. Dachau. Vietnam, The Six Day War, Nicaragua. She had been there. She had written. But it was Nuremberg I wanted to hear about. Nuremberg that drew us together. I wanted her memories of her at The Nuremberg Trials for a play I was researching. Other women writers tried to scare me off her.

She’s a bitch. She’s hard. She’ll crush you.

I didn’t care.

I wrote her and fast there was an American edition of her war journals on my desk. She included a postcard with best wishes and her London number. On the phone her voice was sharp, educated, American. I asked her if I could take her to lunch. That’s what younger women do when they want information from older ones. Her voice got louder.

I don’t eat. I DRINK.

We drank. She Scotch. Me vodka. If I was going to keep up with her I needed purity. She smoked continually and talked of Germany in the late 30s and how she couldn’t wear a chignon because the Nazi doctors had ruined her ear in a botched operation. She turned to me with disapproval at my wild gypsy air. You should wear your hair up. A woman has to look good. It’s a public service.

I have to explain how we looked, siting and drinking in the luxury Belgravia apartment. We were two women divided by forty years. She highly educated, the child of enlightened German settlers. Me the child of parents who cared nothing for female education; small, dark, inelegant with a lot of hair- maybe Italian, Greek?- or just plain Jewish. And yet, we connected. And, when I left, she called me dear girl and offered her cheek.

Why isn’t your hair up?’ she rasped on my second visit. This time I brought smoked salmon to go with the alcohol. She simultaneously pleased at the food – did she ever eat? -and angry at the frizz. She had claimed she was half blind after a cataract operation so how could she see my hair? I was already in trouble with her for being late and her mood was waspish. She was drinking Scotch and puffing hard at her cigarette. As for me I was getting through a bad migraine and massive fibrous tumour blood loss. She was right. I wasn’t at my best. But I had to come as she had read one of my plays and I wanted her reaction.

We sat down on her pristine sofa with our drinks when and she blurted You can’t write men. I admire your skill, not that I understand playwriting, but you’ve got the men all wrong. It’s taken me decades to understand men and now they come to me and they tell me how they experience women. They tell me now that I am no longer in the running. You know I had men chase me all my life. But, after a certain age, that just stops happening. A woman becomes invisible. Still there are compensations. Young men now come up to me at the station to help me carry my suitcase. Not out of interest. Out of pity.

All I heard was You can’t write men.

I should have been hurt. But something inside me was pleased. Those women who warned me she was terrifying. They were wrong. Here was the great woman telling me her inner thoughts. They told me she was no friend to women. That she had spent her whole life in the company of men. That she was a man’s woman. But she was the mother or grandmother I admired. She had gone where men went and taken some of their territory. She had walked into war zones without a passport, without papers and cared nothing about danger. No wonder I felt proud to know her. Of her generation I was used to bitter, little-girl-women who had jettisoned their lives to be some-man’s-wife. I had never met anyone like Martha.

She had, of course, been Ernest Hemingway’s wife. And she hated his name, hated to be defined by him. And yet it was she who kept bringing his presence into the smart, London apartment. Ernest had divorced his Catholic wife for Martha, pressurising her to marry him as soon as the decree was absolute. It was a mistake. He was jealous of my writing, So he screwed around to get his own back. Well, well, the world’s most famous American novelist was jealous of his wife. How was I to know that? I only considered myself a journalist. He even wanted me to change my name to Martha Hemingway so that my writing would credit him. She stubbed out her cigarette with disgust.After nine years they divorced. She remarried. Another disaster. Never get married, she warned me. You start with romance and end up talking about gas bills.

We were moving on to the smoked salmon on toast when she told me Men are only after one thing. They have this liquid inside themselves and they have to get rid of it. All my life I tried to understand men and now I begin. Men will say anything to get a woman in to bed. But have you noticed that when a man talks he expects the woman to be listening to him all the time but when a woman talks a man never really listens because he’s really just wanting to get her into bed.

I said nothing. A woman who had walked through borders, crossed battlefields, lied and cheated to get herself into men’s wars to tell the world what she saw, this woman was telling me what my mother had told me; what all our mothers had told us. If was as if sex was just something that concerned men and which women suffered. How could I say that my life was different. That sometimes, if I didn’t have sex, then I too was, only interested in one thing.

I didn’t need to respond. She was lighting up again and she was on a roll.

When my periods stopped that was a godamn relief. Menopause was the best thing that happened to me. If I’d known I’d’ve had a hysterectomy at thirty. Get rid of all that. And sex itself? I used to think, well, it’s only ten or fifteen minutes. If it means so much to them. What’s ten minutes to me?

And then it was back to Hemingway, she never used his first name, and how he had never satisfied her in bed. She talked of faking orgasm. So the great macho god had a wife who faked it. Well, well.

Haven’t you ever been in love?

Something changed. She put out her cigarette and poured more whisky.

There was a man once. He was Jewish. I used to go to his place in a town several miles away from New York. We met for weekends and just stayed in bed. It went on like that for several months. Then one morning he touched me. I was repulsed. I knew it was over. I spoke to a friend about it and she said that maybe there was no tenderness. He was younger than me. Well we didn’t have a lot in common. He was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Everyone thought she and he were lovers but that was wrong. That was a cruel thing to say about dear Eleanor.

As she spoke of this Jewish lover I felt the blood seeping through my black skirt and excused myself to visit her bathroom. There was a lot to clean up.

Have you blocked it?’ she yelled through the door, as I was flushing away the blood and tissue paper. You shouldn’t put anything down that toilet she said angrily coming in.I felt panic. She forced me out and made straight for the bowl fishing out the tiny offending tampon as I looked on from the hall.

I went back into the lounge. I had broken the rules. I had not had a hysterectomy at thirty. I was still bleeding. I had broken decorum. I had arrived late, without my hair up and worst of all I had allowed an inch long tampon to block her toilet. I thought of the great Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent, touching the tampon which had just been inside me, she who hated her own blood and the whole mess of sex, plunging her hand into the essence of my womb. I looked at the couch where I had been sitting. To my horror I saw a fresh stain. What was I to do?

The sofa was dark blue. Perhaps with her rotten vision she wouldn’t notice? I turned a cushion on top so that the bloodstain was hidden. I washed our glasses. By now she was in the other room, lying on her bed, smoking and watching television. She motioned for me to sit on the chair by her side.

In our silence I felt the disgust of a generation of mothers cleaning up the blood of their daughters. But she had had no children and I was not her flesh.

We watched a documentary about the break up of the Soviet Union-now-Russia and the rise of the Russian Orthodox Church. One leading cleric, in his forties, told the camera how the Jews had controlled Russia with their Communism and now the revenge belonged to the Church. Although the room was warm, I shivered and Martha sighed, Oh God will they never learn? Russia was not a far off country to me. It was the land my great grandparents had fled only thirty years before Martha was born. The report cut to a young woman attending Church services against her parents’ wishes. The young woman’s face was in soft focus juxtaposed against a wide-angle shot of her mother’s clenched fist held up in Communist solidarity in front of Lenin’s portrait. The documentary ended with images of packed service. The priests, who were the same age as Martha, looked triumphant. Talking of the old Communists Martha whispered I feel so sorry for them. I looked at her lying on the bed. Grace Kelly, at 83, was suddenly frail and thin.

It was late. I should leave.

She got up from the bed to see me out. She was so tall, so elegant, so beautifully coiffed with her blonde chignon. The most famous woman war journalist in the world filled me with awe. As she opened the front door I wanted to hug her but knew that my blood had built a wall between us.

This time she didn’t kiss me goodbye or call me dear girl.