Day 6

The only woman at D-Day: What Martha Gellhorn's letters reveal about the trailblazing war correspondent

Janet Somerville's new book is Yours, for probably always: Martha Gellhorn's Letters of Love and War 1930-1949, which details the journalist and writer's life through her personal correspondence.

'Nobody said no to Martha Gellhorn,' says Janet Somerville, author of Yours, for probably always

Martha Gellhorn has been described as the 'greatest war correspondent who ever lived.' (Ernest Hemingway Personal Papers/JFK Library Boston)
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Martha Gellhorn was the only woman on the beaches of Normandy in the days after troops stormed the area — but the American journalist wasn't supposed to be there.

She didn't have accreditation from Colliers, her publisher, to cover the war. Her then-husband Ernest Hemingway convinced the magazine to offer him the correspondent job instead.

Undeterred, Gellhorn made her way to the south of France as a stowaway on a Red Cross ship meant only for medical staff, hiding in a lavatory with a flask of whiskey until the ship set sail.

"Once it was underway, she wandered about the hospital ship to find out how she could make herself useful," said Janet Somerville, a Toronto-based author.

"In the days following D-Day — D+1, D+2, D+3 — she actually went ashore with some of the medics and soldiers to bring the wounded back to that boat," and went on to publish the story of working with medics alongside Hemingway's piece in Colliers.

Gellhorn's life and personal correspondence are detailed in Somerville's new book, Yours, for probably always: Martha Gellhorn's Letters of Love and War 1930-1949.

Starting with the Spanish Civil War, Gellhorn was the first woman war correspondent to be accredited and covered every major war through six decades in journalism. She's been described as the "greatest war correspondent who ever lived." 

Gellhorn talks to Indian soldiers of the British Army on the 5th Army's Cassino front in 1944. (Keystone/Getty Images)

"Nobody said no to Martha Gellhorn. If they did say no to Martha Gellhorn, she didn't pay any mind. She just decided if she wanted to do something, she would do it," said Somerville.

Known for report on Dachau

Gellhorn, who died in 1998 at 89 years old, was known for writing that told the stories of ordinary people.

"She just liked to go where the story was. And she wanted to put everything on record, whatever it was that she saw and heard," Somerville told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Though her dispatches from Normandy and Spain, which documented a mother's grief after her child was killed by a bomb, brought humanity to tragedy for years, it was a report on Dachau — the first Nazi concentration camp — that made her famous.

Gellhorn, third from left, is pictured in 1946 with actor Ralph Michael, left, writer Virginia Cowles and actor Irene Worth, right, discussing a play based on the experiences of Gellhorn and Cowles as war correspondents. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

"My personal war aim was to get into Dachau," Gellhorn told John Pilger in a 1983 television interview. "I did get there and I was there the day the war ended. 

"I didn't have to be objective, in the sense that what was there to be objective about? It was a total and absolute horror and all I did was report it as it was."

But her success was overshadowed by literary giant Hemingway, her husband of five years.

According to Somerville, it was a source of tension for Gellhorn.

"I don't think anybody could have been with the most famous English-speaking writer in the world and not be considered a bit of a footnote, regardless of how talented or prescient or timeless their writing is," Somerville said.

'You don't realize how lucky you are'

Somerville had become interested in Gellhorn by "accident."

Initially, she had hoped to write a novel based around Gellhorn's life, but quickly realized she "couldn't compete" with Paula McLain's bestseller, Love and Ruin, about the author.

At the suggestion of a colleague, she instead searched for her personal writing leading Somerville to Gellhorn's archives at Boston University.

"When I got there to Boston, the archivist assigned to me said, 'You don't realize how lucky you are, so few people are granted access to these papers,'" Somerville recalled.

Janet Somerville is the author of Yours, for Probably Always, a collection of Martha Gellhorn's personal correspondence. (Firefly Books)

After three years of sorting through the papers, Somerville compiled Gellhorn's personal correspondence — including letters to and from Hemingway, Eleanor Roosevelt and many others — into the book.

"She's fierce. She's funny. She's indefatigable. She's singular. She's not tolerant of idiocy. She's great company," Somerville said about Gellhorn's voice in the letters.

While much has been written about Gellhorn, including a feature film starring Nicole Kidman as the intrepid reporter, Somerville says she has more to come.

"I'm only just beginning to talk and write about Martha."


To hear the full interview with Janet Somerville, download our podcast or click Listen above.

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