There is no doubt that Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn would have hated HBO’s bio-pic about their eight years together, for different reasons.
Hemingway would have hated it because it would mine his life, a field he would rather leave exclusively for use in his fiction. After achieving literary fame — a far different creature than writing a good book — Hemingway was beset with biographers and college professors wanting to analyze him, and he fended them off for the rest of his life.
(In one letter, he wrote, “all these guys have theories and try to fit you into the theory,” and of future biographer Carlos Baker, wondered, “do you suppose he can con himself into thinking I would put a symbol into anything on purpose. It’s hard enough just to make a paragraph.”)
Gellhorn would have hated the movie, not just because her name came second in the title, but because it would focus on her relationship with Hemingway, a prickly topic to raise with her throughout her life. The movie would have been an admission that a lifetime of writing and reporting mattered less than the man she married.
At the time they met, she was 28, a correspondent of eight years and with two books under her belt, a collection of stories about the impact the Depression had on the American people. Hemingway was by far the brighter star, a public figure notorious as much for his macho behavior — hunting, fishing and fighting, and “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms.”
Now, thanks to HBO and director Philip Kaufman — who covered another literary relationship in “Henry and June” — we get to see the high points of the Hemingway/Gellhorn relationship recast into a storybook mode. You’ve seen the trailer, and marveled at the incredible special effects that inserts Owen and Kidman into historical newsreel footage — which now means you shouldn’t trust video of Barack Obama and Bill Ayers shaking hands with Lenin at the Third Congress of the Party Internationale.
There’s no doubt that there’s enough material in their lives for several movies. They were the power couple of the literary world, a Bragalina whose concerns mattered. They flew to China when the Japanese were sharpening their knives and preparing to invade. They covered the Spanish Civil War and supported the Communists because they were fighting the Fascists. The democracies didn’t have any skin in the game, a fact which was tidily swept under the run when the U.S. went after them in the 1950s.
Heck, the movie even shows Gellhorn and Hemingway battling each other to cover the invasion of Normandy, which I told in “Writers Gone Wild” and have used in my talks ever since. It’s a great story that shows Hem in his worst light and Gellhorn in her best. More journalists should be emulating her grit and go-to-hell attitude.
But what’s most amusing, judging by the talk among people who’ve seen the movie, is the number of sex scenes. While I’m the last person to stand in the way of a good sex story — I devoted a chapter to sexplay among the literari in my book — but when ranking the great literary lovers, Ernest and Martha rank among Mr. and Mrs. George Bernard Shaw and A.A. Milne. Hemingway’s first wife reported that Hem would, in the middle of coitus, was not above reading a book (video link). Gellhorn notorious would characterize his technique as “Wham bam thank you ma’am, or maybe just wham bam.”
Not that she was any great shakes in bed, either. She derived little pleasure from sex, except as a way of eliciting comfort from her man. “I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents,” pretty much sums her up.
She also wasn’t one for staying in place for very long. In fact, if they knew what they were about, Hemingway and Gellhorn should never have gotten married at all. Hemingway could go out and gather the experiences necessary to transmit into fiction, but once he was done, he needed solitude, his croneys and plenty of drink to keep working.
But not Martha. A roving reporter needs to rove, and his desire to stay home during World War II pissed her off mightily (that he had been blown up in the first war and dodged bullets with her in Spain held no truck with her). Small wonder that he fumed in a letter to her, “Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?” Once they both knew the answer, the marriage was over.
But a little sympathy for them, please. When they met, she was 28 and he was 39. We tend to think of the great writers as fully formed creations, wise beyond their years, but, really, they’re no more aware and sympathetic than we are. Instead, if you want to watch “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” watch it sympathy for both these damaged souls, who have given us so much. At least, while they were married to each other, didn’t make two more people equally miserable. That should count for something.