Martha Gellhorn and all-American-lady-swearing

Sentimentally, we like to think that ladies of an earlier time — mostly our grandmothers and great-grandmothers — lived virtuous lives, without swearing. When Joseph Mitchell profiled A. S. Colborne, who spent much of his life trying to exterminate profanity, for The New Yorker in 1941, he captured the paradoxical view of women’s swearing, partly as a function of class, at that time. When Mitchell visited one day, Colborne explained, “I’m sort of sleepy … Sat up late last night studying over bar and grill profanity. Why, the women are worse than the men. And you can’t talk to them! Why, they’ll spit in your eye!” But then, he remembered that when he first started admonishing swearers on the street, he would insist, “‘Your dear old mother never taught you to talk like that. Think it over!” But maybe some mothers did, and some classy women of the mid-twentieth century apparently swore a lot, whatever our mythology.

I was reminded of this while reading Janet Somerville’s new selection of Martha Gellhorn’s letters, Yours, for probably always (Firefly Books, 2019) and then Caroline Morehead’s Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life (Henry Holt and Company, 2003). Gellhorn is a remarkable writer, perhaps most famous for her war reporting. The final edition of The Face of War (1988), collects dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, the wars in Finland and China, Word War II, wars in Java and Vietnam, the Six Day War, and Central American wars. She wrote fiction, too, perhaps most importantly The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936), four stories about the Great Depression. To my mind, Gellhorn is one of the best American writers of the twentieth century.

Besides that, she was an exceptionally interesting person. She grew up in a morally intentional St. Louis family, attended Bryn Mawr, lived a fast life some of the time and an expatriate life most of the time, wore haute couture, hunted elk, married and divorced, worried passionately about the fates of ordinary people living under the stress of war, smoked, drank, and swore. I think she swore a lot and very effectively, but I can’t be sure without access to her mostly inaccessible papers, so I rely on the works mentioned above to provide the evidence.

However much Gellhorn swore, she swore like a writer of reportage, fiction, letters. She used words deliberately; her very sense of self depended on it. “But goddam it,” she wrote to her friend and former Bryn Mawr professor, the poet Hortense Flexner, on 10 April 1935, “I want to write great heavy swooping things, to throw terror and glory into the mind.” In her own mind, profanity was part of the writer’s expressive repertoire, even if you couldn’t use it in the weeklies; it reflected and deflected the terror and glory of what she saw.

Profanity constitutes a fairly small lexical set, but within it, Gellhorn ranged widely. When, in January 1932, her liaison with the married French journalist and politico Bertrand de Jouvenel stalled, as it did several times, she advised him to have an affair: “Please be a conqueror for a bit; forget me. I’m a shit face; and make yourself realise what you knew before I came.” They pretended to be married at times, but it wasn’t always to her taste: “I should have married a musician or a painter or a guy with a SOUL; it’s just my luck to get a bloody reformer.” To Flexner she would write, in “Mid-June 1937,” “We will skip in bitter silence the fact that all doctors are evidently incompetent sons of bitches and that you could have been gamboling like a ewe lamb some time ago.” On 4 December 1939, she bragged to Ernest Hemingway, “There was a hell of an airraid which I wired you.” Meanwhile, those who desecrated Paris in 1940 were “Goddam maniac bastards,” and already, she wrote to Charles Colebaugh — editor of Collier’s — on 13 March of the same year, “We have seen too bloody much.” When it was almost over, and everyone knew it, she would write to Flexner (4 August 1944) of the Germans that “They were a damn sorry master race.” And there’s plenty more where all of that came from.

As for most of us, profanity figured in many types of verbal performance for Gellhorn. For some reason, she preferred euphemism with Allen Grover, of Time Magazine, or perhaps it was Grover who preferred it: “I wrote you a crotte of a letter yesterday” (6 August 1936); “For my fellow men (notably my own class) I now happily say: merde” (7 September 1936). Even if he preferred euphemism, Grover didn’t always get it, for instance, when Gellhorn was damned angry with him, as she was on 19 March 1940: “I have lived my life exactly as I thought best and it is a perfectly good life and I don’t give a goddam what anyone, who could possibly be influenced by TIME, thinks about it.”

Sometimes, the performance is self-admiringly clever: “It’s exhilarating to shit but one doesn’t wave the shit in the air for everyone to admire” (23 March 1934). To her friend, Cam Beckett, she could complain: “Cam cutie, I have a folder of the goddamndest letters which are supposed to be answered. When I was young, my mail was fun. Now it is blah and has to be answered. It is all about the Spanish war, and lynchings and odd little people who think I am rich and successful and social workers who want me to make speeches” (8 February 1937), in which the cutely alliterated “Cam cutie” purrs as it rubs alongside goddamndest — how could Cam or anyone object to such cute cursing? So much for woman to man, but woman to woman, given their intimacy, Gellhorn could capitalize on profanity to Flexner in 1937: “Likewise I am suddenly become a theatrical agent, attempting to thrust a fine film Joris Ivens made and Ernest [Hemingway] wrote (on the War naturally, done in the war, done dangerously attacking with the infantry and tanks, during the shelling of Madrid and the bombing of Morata, and written with genius and so GODDAM [sic] good).” The editor of Gellhorn’s letter sicced the GODDAM; I see no reason for siccing, as the emphasis makes perfect sense, both contextually and stylistically.

Gellhorn decried “all that objectivity shit” in journalism more than once during her long career. “There is so much shit written in our business that finally you feel very ashamed: you cannot write the straight truth because people resent it, and are conditioned (by the shit) not to believe it. So, finally, you write a certain amount of evasion yourself, carefully shirking the definitely dung features of journalism. … You have to be very young, very cynical and very ignorant to enjoy writing journalism these days.” By the time she wrote that, as Morehead puts it, “She herself was no longer any of these things.” Instead, she hoped to “jar the hell out of the popular, shatter them out of their smug complacency.”

At her cleverest, Gellhorn could play blazing profanity and demure euphemism against each other in the same epistolary breath. She wrote almost contritely to Flexner (29 March 1940), “I love you very much and I can easily see that my last letter was very bullying … When I bully, the thing to do is send me a telegram, of one four letter word, or one four letter word with ‘you’ added on to it,” her implied profanity still giving her the upper rhetorical hand. So much for bloody this and goddam that and all the objectivity shit — the words present in their absence are the ultimate profanity litmus tests, unless Gellhorn just can’t count and includes bitch among the four-letter words. You might come away from the letter in question thinking that Gellhorn wouldn’t go so far as to actually say cunt or fuck. That would underestimate a woman well known — and respected, at least by me — for refusing underestimation.

Again, we lack a concordance of all the times Martha Gellhorn said fuck, but the published relics of her speech suggest that it happened a lot. Later in life, when she might not have given a damn, she protested, “I don’t give a fuck about clothes.” An anti-Vietnam War journalist, she wondered of Henry Kissinger, “Why don’t those fucking professors stay at their universities?” But her fucking around wasn’t old age assurance — fuck had been in her vocabulary from early on. So, she could explain her frustration in writing to Hemingway (May 1937), “This is a business letter; also the typewriter is French which adds to the charm as the damned or even fucking keys are thrust all over the place as they never were before.”

On the Fourth of July, 1943, she described the world’s mayhem to Hemingway, paradoxically, as “What a jolly ratfuck …,” which underscores the importance of her war reporting to her profane proclivities. Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word pegs first print use of rat-fuck at 1930, defining it as “A confused or bungled situation, especially an assault,” and labeling it “Originally Army.” Gellhorn picked it up from Army friends in the course of reporting during the 1930s — her profanity was notably current, perhaps unusually so for the average American lady of the time. Sheidlower’s entry picks the word up again as late as 1964, which makes Gellhorn’s use all the more important as evidence of its history but also reflects the exclusion of female private profanity from the largely male public record — not Sheidlower’s fault, as the lexicography depends on what’s available in print — which serves only to fortify the myth of feminine lexical purity.

For the big picture, we rely on John “Bumby” Hemingway, one of Ernest’s sons. I suppose I can’t avoid mentioning here what I’ve resisted for the last few paragraphs, that Gellhorn was married to Hemingway (Ernest) briefly. After their divorce, she refused to discuss him or the marriage in interviews — an independent and self-sufficient character and a brilliant journalist, she did not want to be defined by her relationship with Papa, which seems perfectly right to me, and I hate to bring him in, but it’s the only way, really, to explain why Bumby would say in an interview, well after the divorce, that Gellhorn was the “first attractive lady I ever heard use the f-word.”

That does capture the problem, doesn’t it? Ladies don’t say fuck and especially attractive ones don’t, because swearing is supposedly both unladylike and unattractive. Except it wasn’t in Gellhorn’s case. Bumby loved her; so did the other brothers. So did Hemingway, himself, for a while, swearing and all, perhaps because of the paradox she represented, the paradox Bumby identifies. Gellhorn, often confused in love, nonetheless had many a lover either turned on by her profanity or at least not turned off by it. She swore with, to, and at her friends, and when she lost them, as she did occasionally, it wasn’t because of the swearing. Face it, she says to us from back then: attractive ladies swear and get away with it — no, given the paradox, they get more out of it than the rest of us schmoes.

To some Gellhorn will seem an exception, in lots of ways. She came from an affluent urban home, not from a small town or farm, her father a prominent physician, her mother a founder of the League of Women Voters. She was educated and a free spirit, a professional woman and public figure much in demand to speak about poverty in America or one or another war. She was the friend of H. G. Wells and other writers, Lady Diana Cooper and other social luminaries. She was also a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and often visited the White House while FDR was president. As a woman in the man’s world of war reporting, she often performed as one of the guys, so walked their walk and talked their talk, including profanity. Her parents had drawn firm lines, and from an early age, she colored outside them. Maybe facts like these construct the matrix of personality that enables profanity in an attractive lady and makes her profanity acceptable to so many others. Or maybe ladies have always cursed more than we like to think. For instance, about the same time, Dorothy Parker was, by her own account, “too fucking busy — or vice versa” — she and Gellhorn disliked each other. Then, as Morehead recounts it, Gellhorn “was maliciously delighted when [Gary] Cooper’s wife, Rocky, told her how much she sympathized with the central character in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. ‘Having a living bitch meet a fictional bitch and feel the sisterhood at once is my idea of doing a good job.’” Elite bitches knew how to swear and, at least among themselves and related others, they got away with it. We know about Gellhorn’s profanity, and Parker’s and Cooper’s, because they were famous enough for biographies, editions of their letters of love and war, and books of quotations (you can find Parker’s quip here). Perhaps swearing belonged to elite women, then, but perhaps we also need to reconsider our assumptions about women and swearing in mid-twentieth century American culture.

3 thoughts on “Martha Gellhorn and all-American-lady-swearing

  1. Rebecca Brite December 9, 2020 / 8:17 am

    Love Gellhorn, and appreciate this analysis of her swearing, but am still trying to figure out what “morally intentional … family” means.


    • Patrick Collins December 10, 2020 / 10:06 pm

      I had a problem understanding that, too. I decided the family must have intended to be moral, but usually failed.


  2. Michael Adams December 10, 2020 / 11:54 pm

    Sorry to be so confusing about Gellhorn morality! I don’t mean that they tried to be moral and failed (though I’m sure they did on occasion) but that they were a family of focused moral intentions — they thought about moral behavior a lot, wrote to one another about it. Some families are less intentional about morality, even though they probably manage to be good people anyway. I suppose I could have said “morally serious” — maybe I’ll change it. Anyway, thanks for reading!


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