American Beauties: Riding Shotgun on Martha Gellhorn’s Brave and Comic Adventures

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But “Travels With Myself and Another” is her most intimate book and not well-enough known. As Bill Buford wrote in his foreword to a 2001 reissue of it, in the complexity of her observations “she prefigures the works of people like Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux and Jonathan Raban and the renaissance of first-person adventure writing.”

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Credit Patricia Wall/The New York Times

Gellhorn was a close student of what she called “horror journeys.” One feature of them: acute discomfort mixed with grinding boredom. “Another feature,” she wrote, “is that once you are on them you cannot change your mind and get off them.”

This book recounts travels through China and the Caribbean during World War II, when Gellhorn was a reporter for Collier’s magazine. (The “another” in the title is Hemingway, who accompanied her through China, winning drinking contests and eating everything in sight.) The book includes a later trip through Africa, and one to Moscow.

Gellhorn was willing to put herself into dangerous situations, and unwilling to let men dictate her direction. When one condescending fellow forced upon her a small pistol for her protection, she observed: “It looked just the weapon for a crackpot wearing a negligee trimmed in ostrich feathers who planned to shoot her lover.” She intentionally lost it.

She was tough and brash yet delicate in her way. She sunburned easily. She hated to be dirty. Her stomach was easily upset. These contradictions make her excellent company on the page. She writes about politics and culture and war while never losing sight of the daily indignities that vex all travelers.

Terrible boats journeys are recounted. While traveling with Hemingway in 1941 from San Francisco to Honolulu, they were “hurled into nailed-down furniture unless unnailed-down furniture hurled itself into us.” Upon arrival, so many leis were placed around their necks that Hemingway said, “The next son of bitch who touches me I am going to cool him.”

There is excellent writing in this book about flying on Chinese airlines in the early 1940s, bouncing in the air “like a butterfly in a hurricane.” Landing strips, when located, were lit by flare pots. On one flight Hemingway carried with him a folding menstrual cup, from which he sipped gin.

Gellhorn gives an account of using the toilet while on another flight in China. It was “behind a green curtain” and “gave a small circular view of the ground below.”

Some of this book’s rolling comic tone comes from the author’s experiences with toilets (or the lack of them) across remote regions. Inevitably they are either overflowing or the room has spiders; one loo “ejects water at the sides.”

“I planned to go mad,” she writes after one filthy toilet experience. At another point, while in Chad, she reports, “The latrine broke my lion heart.” She couldn’t face it, so she wandered out on the sand in her nightgown.

Gellhorn was always on the lookout for epiphanies, and on this night she had one. She “saw, drugged with sleep and shivering, the great African sky which I have been seeking — a riot of stars, velvet black, felt as an arch, and the air seeming to glint with starshine.”

She loathed big-game hunters and all despoilers of nature. She was constitutionally anti-authority. “I mistrust power for myself and everyone else, especially power bestowed by race, creed or color.”

Among her observations about the power dynamics in romance is that people are often pried apart by “boredom, the real killer in human relations. We do not laugh at the same jokes. We bore each other sick.”

No one will have trips quite like these again. The world has become a smaller place; it is harder to get as thoroughly lost as Gellhorn frequently did. The size of her expense account with Collier’s, necessary to escape from tough situations, will rarely be seen again either.

There are moments in this book when the prose has a slight sepia tint. Gellhorn lived like a character out of a big black-and-white movie. Indeed, Buford in his foreword likens her to “a young Lauren Bacall, except that she was a whole lot brainier than a young Lauren Bacall.” But her canny insights into herself and the world keep you on the hook.

“My heart rose like a bird,” Gellhorn writes about boarding an ancient boat on a trip to Tortola. “It always did incurably, except in rain, as soon as I felt I had fallen off the map.” It’s a pleasure to fall off the map while riding shotgun alongside her.

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