1. A Goofy State of Mind.
Dear Peggy: The letter I am about to write you is a monstrous impertinence. This is fair warning; you should now tear it up. It is, I think, insolent enough to give an opinion when asked for it; it is the outside limit to render judgments when no one desired them, and as a result of reading a letter not addressed to you… So. You better tear it up.
If you are still with me, I wish to tell you that, from the absorbing letter you wrote Mother (and which she showed me because you mentioned my book: always encourage authors) I have decided you are in a goofy state of mind.
Sometime around the year 1949, the eminent war correspondent and novelist Martha Gellhorn wrote the above letter from her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico to an Episcopalian clergyman’s wife living in the small town of Alma, Michigan.
Both women were devoted writers of vivid missives. Gellhorn’s pen pals included Eleanor Roosevelt, the editor Maxwell Perkins, H.G. Wells, her husband (later, ex-) Ernest Hemingway, and other luminaries. The housewife whom she was addressing, Peggy Schutze, nee Harvey, a native Kansan of pioneer stock, wrote mostly to her mother and sister. They came to know one another because Peggy (a.k.a. Nani Peg, my maternal grandmother) was a member of the St Louis League of Women Voters, which was run by Martha’s mother Edna. Both Martha and Peggy were imaginatively terrible cooks and tore through stacks of paperback thrillers like addicts, but other than that they seemed to have little in common.
My Uncle Jim found the stack of Gellhorn letters – typewritten on paper translucent as skin shards – when my grandmother died ten years ago. I was interested in them then (like everyone, awfully: “Hemingway’s wife?!”), but I only became truly obsessed with them recently. My first novel had just come out to very little fanfare, I was pregnant with my first child, and part of me was worried I had seen the beginning and end of my writing life. I hoped that if I studied Martha, the writer who wanted to be a mother, and Peggy, the mother who wanted to be a writer, some golden mean would eventually present itself.
2. A Monstrous Impertinence.
This state of mind might be desirable if you were a novelist, dreaming up the characters and plot for a new novel. This novel would be written from the point of view of the woman: the woman would describe herself for the reader, declaring her character as subservient and uncertain, wedded to a man (seen through her eyes) who combined the outstanding features of Rudolph Valentino – irresistible to all women – with the personal complexes of Don Juan Tenorio – to whom all woman were irresistible – with the moral passions and mental fierceness of Martin Luther. Our heroine, a mouse in her own eyes, is married to this paragon, which is somewhat like being married to Vesuvius in eruption, and she is at once awed, adoring, and terrified. She is never certain for a moment of this amazing figure, her husband; by contamination, she attributes the most exotic talents and knowledges to her children, since they have inherited the father’s magic. And she counts herself for nothing…
Martha Gellhorn spent the early 1930s in Paris, cutting her teeth as a foreign correspondent, having a torrid affair with the married French journalist Bertrand de Jouvenel, and generally courting scandal and adventure. From there she’d gone on to cover the Spanish Civil War, marry Ernest Hemingway, live in Cuba, and become one of the few female journalists to report on WWII. (She covered D Day by sneaking on to a hospital ship and illicitly crossing over to France, losing her military credentials as a result.) Her journalism tended towards a particularly empathetic form of reportage; her pieces describe the lives of ordinary people affected by war, often ending on an editorial moment of strong anti-war sentiment. By the late forties she’d published six books and divorced Hemingway.
Following the publication of her well-received (and totally heartbreaking) war novel, The Wine of Astonishment (later republished as Point of No Return), and a brief, frustrating period of time spent in Washington DC during the height of McCarthyism, Gellhorn fled to Mexico. She described her home in the mountain resort of Cuernavaca as “a small white house in a small walled garden, set among high soft trees. Beyond the trees is a circle of blue mountains, the loveliest I know. This is a valley where nothing happens, where people simply live, where there is sun, and the slow peacefulness of day following day.” She often said that Cuernavaca was the place she spent the happiest four years of her life; she was in love with the landscape and the locals, she felt happy and strong living alone after her difficult marriage to Hemingway. She was supporting herself by selling what she termed “bilgers,” popular stories about titled English ladies and Italian gigolos, or naïve young American women visiting Europe, to Good Housekeeping and the Saturday Evening Post. In a letter to a friend, she wrote, “I’m all right again. I know who I am… Here, where I am really alone, I am not lonely. Whereas in the US, I feel the whole time that something is desperately the matter with me.”
She was also forty, single, and had decided she wanted a child. She wrote, “It’s what one needs: someone, or several, who can take all the love one is able to give, as a natural and untroublesome gift.” A few years earlier she had written an ex-lover, “I want a child. I will carry it on my back in a sealskin papoose and feed it chocolate milkshakes and tell it fine jokes and work for it and in the end give it a hunk of money, like a bouquet of autumn leaves, and set it free. I have to have something, being still (I presume) human…”
In February of 1949, she wrote to my grandmother. Martha mentions in one of the letters that she hasn’t been to Europe in two years, and that she is “completely hag ridden” preparing to leave her house in order to go “gallivanting around [Italy] in search of an idea or two, and the chance for making an honest dime.” What she doesn’t say is that the main purpose of her trip to Italy was to adopt a war orphan. As my grandmother squirmed under her mantle of domesticity, Martha was seeking a child of her own.
I don’t have any copies of my grandmother’s responses to Gellhorn or the “absorbing letter” that started it all, but my uncles and mother remember her letters as well-written fits of whimsy. My Uncle Bill emails me, “Her Christmas letters were in an ‘Erma Bombeck’ vein which I found highly inappropriate,” especially, he notes, when he was a teenager. As my mother puts it, “she used to take incidents from life and theorize about them and slightly fictionalize them to coax out entertaining tales.” Great for a novelist, but a liability in a letter-writer, particularly when the letter-writer is your mother, and the letter-subject, you.
My grandmother was, as Gellhorn immediately nosed out, a repressed writer. When my grandparents met in 1935 they were both journalism students at the University of Kansas. My grandmother seems to have had lots of dates, and no wonder. Peggy Harvey was charming, bright, and lovely (in a well-coiffed college-era photograph she recalls Judy Garland in Meet Me in St Louis), though in a letter to her mother and sister she attributes her success with the college boys entirely to a new girdle. She soon settled on the tall, good-looking, serious Bill Schutze, and in 1936 they eloped. When Peggy and Bill were first married, they lived in a New Deal housing project in St. Louis, spending heady nights drinking cheap wine with other idealistic young Democrats, including the drama critic and playwright William Inge. Peggy worked for a radio station, writing radio plays and fiction on the side. It might not have been Gellhorn’s glamorous Parisian romp, but it was its own kind of urban excitement.
By the time of the Gellhorn letters, Peggy was in her mid-thirties, with three small boys (my mother would come along later). Five or six years after they’d married, my grandfather had found religion and decided to become an Episcopalian minister, which is how they’d ended up in Alma. From my journalist Uncle Jim: “I have to imagine their sojourn in boondocks Michigan was a tough price for their religious convictions. I think it was an especially tough price for my mother to pay for my father’s convictions.”
Fast-forward to the late forties. More from Uncle Jim:
My father was in his mid-30s, a tall rail-thin cleric with a hawk’s beak and a smile never quite certain, rector of the only Episcopal church in Alma… My mother was sort of the local mad woman of Chaillot, locked away in a tower in the tottering castle next to the church banging away at an ancient portable typewriter and emitting blood-curdling whoops and hollers whenever she thought she had written something especially funny or blood-curdling. She was very bright, truly eccentric and certainly had never bargained for the life of a middle western small town preacher’s wife loaded up with brats, scoured by the shrewdly appraising eyes of parishioners whenever she left the house.
I’ve always loved my uncles’ descriptions of their childhood. They claim to have been deposited outside on the stoop every morning like “empty milk bottles” and allowed to roam free all day while my grandmother wrote. (Things were, I gather, a little less loosey-goosey by the time my mother came along.) Peggy worked on letters and journals and scraps of fiction; as a college student in Kansas she had written a breezy gossip column for the LaBette County newspaper under the name “Betty LaBette.” Jim reports that when he was young she presented book reviews to local clubs and wrote for an Episcopalian newspaper: “I only remember that when we were small, the penalty for interrupting her at her writing was often a wildly unsettling outburst, even if one were bleeding, especially if one were bleeding.”
Meanwhile, Martha Gellhorn was clattering away at her own portable typewriter in her paradise of Mexico, uninterrupted unless she wanted to be.
3. Pull Your Socks Up.
You and I, let us assume, are neither one of us complete dopes: we therefore know that even in a joke your husband [doesn’t] give a damn about pictures on dust jackets; that women do not crowd the “confessional” for love of the confessor; that, even as metaphor, “patting fannies” won’t do. But these themes recur, in the extremely witty and well-written letter of an extremely witty and intelligent woman. And they give me, an old hand at peering at people, pause… I like you. I think you have a great deal of stuff. I think you are being a fool, to the point of goofiness. I think you better pull up your socks and stop inventing things. Life is bad enough without invention of any sort. You’ve got a good young man who loves you, and three children. Leave those complications to novelists, who take their whole lives out in invention, because they haven’t much real life to handle… I can only plead affection for you, and a sort of anxiety. As if I saw someone trying to fly, without adequate training hours, on the grounds that it would be interesting to see what happened.
In an undated excerpt of my grandmother’s writing, she is renumerating what she loved about “keen old” St. Louis when they lived there in the early days of their marriage, and describes a visit – perhaps their first meeting – with Martha. At this point they had only one child, my Uncle Bill (“Billy”), and my grandfather (“Bill”) had not yet gone to seminary.
My grandmother writes:
One of my favorite activities has been politics and League of Women Voter stuff, this past year, and Bill greatly disliked both… His particular gripe was against Mrs. George Gellhorn [Edna, Martha’s mother], a perfectly swell woman who was president of the League, and despite being the usual clubwomanly matron type, had a healthy and youthful interest in honest-to-goodness down-to-earth politics in our precinct and helped us beat the local gang boss. Mrs. G. gave rather sumptuous old fashioned dinners for greatly mixed up groups of people and sometimes included us. Bill said all the other others were out-of-the-world college professors and theorists, and felt a trifle overwhelmed by Mrs. G because she was such a dominatin’ woman. So the other day, when her daughter was coming to call, Bill made elaborate arrangements to duck out and go swimming at the Y. He planned to take Billy with him, taking for granted that no Schutze man would wish to spend Saturday afternoon with a member of that rampant feminist family… just as the two boys were ready to make their getaway, there was a knock at the door and Bill, being nearest, answered. He opened the door and discovered on the threshold, a very tall and good looking blonde, about our age, with flashing eyes and instant appreciation of meeting a man in St. Louis in these manless times. Miss G. was here to discover what people in neighborhoods like ours felt about international affairs, to include in an article her boss was making her write for Colliers on middlewestern viewpoint in general. Bill suddenly discovered that he had a great of knowledge about all our neighbors, about politics, international affairs, and just anything this gal wanted to know. He seated himself in the master-chair and did not stir therefrom all afternoon.
I’d assume Martha didn’t find her occasional visits to St Louis quite as enthralling as my grandmother did. Gellhorn biographer Caroline Moorehead describes one such visit thus: “Edna’s many friends and acquaintances dropped in, and Martha sat watching their ‘round shapeless pudgy non faces’ with disdain, observing that these ‘nice’ people were made of ‘Wilton carpeting, cold cream, ice cream, cotton wool, everything bland and soft.’” It’s not as if she came to Missouri to steal any ministers’ hearts.
And yet, as Martha points out, Peggy seemed to assign to her husband “the outstanding features of Rudolph Valentino” and “the personal complexes of Don Juan Tenorio.” It’s an attitude that baffled even Peggy’s own family. Uncle Jim recalls her saying that, “Of course, all clergymen were attractive to women in the church, and of course, all clergy wives have to take precautions for that reason. I was probably 10 or 11. I remember chalking that remark up to my mother being nuts. I always saw my father pretty much as a walking icicle. I didn’t want to hear about my parents’ sex lives. And you could never tell which part of what my mother said was some strange refraction of reality or simple delusion. But they were in their mid-30s in a place and climate where repression was almost a sport. Who the hell knows?”
Or it could be that Peggy was, as Martha assumed, “terrifyingly busy at invention.” Somehow she ended up as one of those people who never quite lived in her own proper context, among people who might have appreciated her zany wit, and instead found herself in a life were she was perpetually out-of-step with what was expected of her as a small-town clergy wife. Martha wrote that when living in the US she had the feeling that something was “desperately the matter” with her – so she took off and lived abroad. Peggy didn’t have this option. She had to make life interesting somehow.
Personally, I get bored spitless as soon as folks cause me trouble (trouble being, in this instance, doubt.) I was made jealous once in my life and it was a jealousy to end all jealousies and the whole performance was done with drums and cymbals and enough to make the roof fall in. A really competent professional did the job, Miss Dietrich to wit, and I had cause as few women ever do. All that was lacking were neon lights to blazon the cause over the sky of Berlin. My immediate reaction, after the first shock of knowing I was jealous, was black rage. I got in a broken down airplane and left, like that, fast as winking. I also told the guy to pick up his chips and shove, as far as I was concerned: it didn’t make me feel more loving to have uncertainty introduced. It made me sore as hell, and secondly it made me think he wasn’t worth my time, and thirdly it bored me, oh but bored me in a very big way. Finally, no doubt as revenge, I took him back and treated him carefully to such a dose of indifference as would equal the score (in heaven) between my jealousy and his damaged vanity. But you see, I do not operate on a basis of doubt. I hate it… What interests me is how much one can give, how much one can get; but on the foundation of the idea that no one will ever tire of this pursuit and that one is utterly safe, in the heart.
The incident to which she refers happened in late 1945 or early 1946. She had just divorced Hemingway. (Tellingly, she wrote to my grandmother, “If marriage were usually as enthralling as you find it, more people would stick to it. My own experience with said state was comparable to living in Sing-Sing, which a touch of the Iron Maiden of Nurnberg thrown it.” Um, ouch.) Shaken from the marriage’s messy end and fresh from covering the disturbing Nuremberg trial, Gellhorn went to Berlin where her new lover, the handsome young Commander James Gavin, was stationed. According to biographer Caroline Moorehead, “Marlene Dietrich, who had apparently long had her eye on [Gavin], arrived in Berlin [as a USO performer] and was ‘sick with rage’ to find Martha installed as his mistress.” Martha spent her days palling around with other foreign correspondents, including CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood, and Dietrich told Gavin that Martha and Collingwood were in love. As revenge, Gavin told Martha he was going out for a walk and disappeared, spending the night with Dietrich. “Jealousy was not an emotion Martha had experienced before. But, recognizing the ‘disgusting, cheap, ugly’ sensation that now overcame her, she left Berlin for Paris, declaring that no relationship with a man was ever going to work for her and that henceforth she would stick to friendship.”
Martha described her reaction when she realized her lover had gone to bed with Dietrich: “I stayed in that room weeping as I really did not believe I ever could or would again… and every night since it has come back to me the same way, like a pain that hurts too much.” As she intimated in the letter to my grandmother, she took off for England. When Gavin followed her, she relented and took him briefly back, but their lives were headed in separate directions and they soon split for good.
In March of 1946, Martha was covering the Japanese surrender in Indonesia, but she was already writing to a friend that what she really wanted “was a little white house, with a picket fence around it and some toddlers.” While my grandmother was imagining inklings of drama, her accomplished epistler was weaving her own rosy-viewed, fiction-tinged story about what life as a mother would be like. They were both, I suspect, fairly busy at invention.
4. A Fine Cast of Characters.
See? If you want to write a book, you have started a fine cast of characters. But, presumably, you are not writing books, and are living. And on that basis, your cast of characters won’t stand; and to a novelist, you are (terrifyingly) busy at inventing complication…
Anyhow, you’re not average (since we take “average” to be an ugly word) and you’ve nothing to worry about (and certainly you know it) and if you like to keep life intense by believing it to be uncertain, go ahead. It all ends up the same. The point is to be alive, any way you know how. You are. You know.
And here it is, the assumption that we all secretly share (or maybe by “we” I mean only “me”) that there are two paths – writing books, or living; wife/mother, or novelist – and never the twain shall meet. I always feel like I’ve swallowed a dull coin of dread when I read those lines, but perhaps this is only how things were at that time, or maybe only how they seemed to Gellhorn.
When she was in her twenties, Martha wrote to her French lover Bertrand de Jouvenel: “I know there are two people in me. But the least strong, the least demanding, is the one that attaches itself to another human being. And the part of me which all my life I have shaped and sculpted and trained is the part that can bear no attachment, which has a ruling need of eloignement, which is, really, untamed, undomesticated, unhuman… Since I was a child people have wanted to possess me. No one has.” She was proud of the untamed part of her, but it also caused her pain. Never to sustain a relationship, her greatest successes came from that other life path – the daring war correspondent, the brazen world traveler, the independent-minded novelist.
Even when Gellhorn was married to Hemingway, writing and relationship didn’t quite mesh. Early in their courtship they supported each other while covering the Spanish Civil War and then at home in Cuba, where Hemingway encouraged her to be a more disciplined writer and they spent every morning working on their novels. But once they married her work became a point of contention with Hemingway, who resented her going away to cover World War II while he enjoyed the success of For Whom The Bell Tolls (and spent a lot of time drinking and fishing) back in Cuba. Martha wrote to her mother about the difficulty of being a journalist while still being “a good woman for a man;” meanwhile, Hemingway wrote to his son that Martha was “selfish and ambitious.” By the time he joined her in Europe to cover the war they had engaged in a kind of journalistic competition for the best reporting jobs, and unsurprisingly the much more well-known Hemingway won out. At this point, their marriage was all but over.
Which was essentially fine by her. She later wrote travel essays dismissively casting Hemingway as “the Unwilling Companion,” but for the most part refused to talk about her time with him. Maybe Martha foretold her own future when, 24 years-old and living in Paris, she wrote a letter to her mother saying that only in work “can one have a real sense of life, of the wonder and surprise and joy of being alive.” She was most happy when alone and traveling and writing. In the end, as she wrote, “I want life to be like the movies, brilliant and swift and successful.”
It’s remarkable that this eminent woman took such time and effort to reach out to my grandmother, this “mouse in her mind.” It’s maybe more remarkable that this relative stranger is able to see right to Peggy’s spine. In one of her letters she must have referred to her plan to start a career of her own once her children were in school, because Martha writes in response, “Okay. But I think you better write books instead of doing social service, when the time comes. You’d be wasted on social service.” That young idealist from the St. Louis projects hadn’t entirely disappeared, however, and social service it was. Once my mother was in kindergarten my grandmother went back to college and became a teacher, teaching English at a predominately black school in Pontiac, Michigan where she was the only white person in either the staff or student body – this was in the 1960s. I like this part of her biography. I like the blithe way she is said to have dealt with complicated race relations at a tempestuous time. But still I wonder where that urge to write books went. In Gellhorn’s novella “The Fall and Rise of Mrs. Hapgood” Mrs. Hapgood muses:
Did people ever give up what they really wanted? Those numberless women who had rejected careers as concert pianists in favor of wifehood and never forgot their sacrifice were more apt to be cowards than concert pianists. When you set out, alone, you were up against competition and doubt; you might turn out to be nobody, not a wife nor a concert pianist. You threw away security for hope; but those who were driven by hope did not stop to add and subtract; they could not help themselves; they did what they had to do, undaunted by final results.
You do what you have to do. Peggy always wrote, even when the work went unpublished, even when it would seem impossible that she would have any time for it. She wrote because she wanted to. Did it count as “giving it up” because the writing never led to commercial success or financial gain? Because she didn’t “throw away security for hope?” She might not have had a career as a writer, but she was always a writer.
An undated letter from my grandfather. This must have been in the mid-forties, when he had gone to seminary in Virginia and my grandmother and my Uncle Bill were living with her mother in Wichita. She was pregnant with my Uncle Jim at the time, and they were planning on moving to be with my grandfather soon — so it would have been after the visit from Martha in St Louis, but before the letters.
My grandfather writes, “I found myself telling somebody that [Gellhorn] isn’t the type of person you would think… When you get right down to the facts I don’t know of any reason for defending her gadding about, getting married, and unmarried. There is that which can’t be explained away. I’m not passing judgment but believe this might be explained by her lack of religion. It is true that such people scurry about seeking something but don’t know what it is so they try marriage, Europe, cars, etc.”
There is something telling about his pat explanation of this complicated woman. It’s all so simple in my grandfather’s estimation – Gellhorn’s unsettled life was result of lack of religion – a conclusion which would have probably made Martha laugh. And yet, she was seeking something, some nebulous thing that she herself might have been hard-pressed to define. She wrote in one of the letters to Peggy, after describing some upcoming travels, “This is a way of life too. But, honestly, I believe the sons and husbands are a better way of life.”
Who can say how much she meant this? And can’t there be a way of life that encompasses both?
Neither Martha nor my grandmother was ever able to reach a satisfying conclusion. Martha did adopt her Italian orphan, and wrote about the experience in a 1950 piece for the Saturday Evening Post that my grandmother clipped and kept among her letters. She writes, “the miracle had happened; I was struck by love as if by lightning.” The essay concludes on an uplifting, undeniably rosy note: “I found the little boy, all right, but in the end, the way I see it, he has adopted me.” In the end, however, she did not find that motherhood came naturally to her, and her relationship with her adopted son was always strained. He developed into a troubled adult, a drug addict who floated in and out of jail. From a particularly brutal letter she wrote him when he was a young man: “I have no respect for you, and at present little affection… And I’ve never been able to go on loving people I don’t respect… Honey, you are neither a job nor obligation: you’re a selfish, lazy, pointless young man.” Clearly motherhood was not the unconditional love affair Martha had been expecting.
Peggy Schutze was an adoring and adored wife, mother, and grandmother, and she enjoyed (despite her doubts) a long and happy marriage. When she had a stroke towards the end of her life, my grandfather’s fierce devotion to taking care of her impressed even the nursing home staff. A few months after she died, he followed. At his funeral, my Uncle Jim delivered a eulogy that was a tribute to their enduring love, faithfulness, and loyalty to one another.
As for her writing ambitions, despite the encouragement from Gellhorn, she never produced much more than Christmas letters and stories for us grandchildren. And yet, as Martha wrote, “It all ends up the same.” It is good advice for any writer, I think (or for that matter, any mother): The point is to be alive.