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“IT WAS MARVELOUS,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. “The battle was spread out before us.” Hemingway, America’s most famous writer, was crouching in a bombed-out building in Madrid with several other reporters, including Martha Gellhorn, who was his mistress and would later become his third wife. It was April 1937 and they were covering the Spanish Civil War, staring through binoculars as government troops attacked Francisco Franco’s rebel soldiers about a thousand yards away.

“Just as we were congratulating ourselves on the splendid observation post,” Hemingway wrote in his dispatch, “a bullet smacked against the corner of a brick wall.” More bullets rattled the walls and soon the reporters scrambled out of the building. “I crawled back on my hands and knees,” Hemingway wrote.

Hemingway, 37, was reporting for a newspaper syndicate and collaborating with Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens on The Spanish Earth, a documentary about the war. Gellhorn, 28 and already a veteran reporter, was writing for Collier’s magazine. When they’d met a year earlier in Key West, Hemingway lusted for the beautiful young blonde who possessed, as he put it, “legs that begin at her shoulders.” Less smitten, Gellhorn wrote to her friend and mentor Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she’d met in 1934 when she was a field investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. She described the famous novelist as “an odd bird, very lovable and full of fire and a marvelous story teller.”

Neither Hemingway nor Gellhorn was an objective observer of the Spanish Civil War. Like most liberals of the day, they supported the democratically elected Spanish Republic against General Franco’s fascist rebels. The war was an international cause célèbre: Hitler and Mussolini sent troops to fight for Franco while Stalin sold arms to the Republican forces, which were reinforced by 40,000 foreign volunteers, many of them communists. The United States government remained neutral, despite lobbying from leftists to aid the Republic and pressure from the Catholic Church to support Franco.

Hemingway and Gellhorn covered the war for two months and then sailed to New York on separate ships. Hemingway returned to his wife, Pauline, and children in Key West, then took the family to Bimini, where he edited the manuscript of his novel To Have and Have Not, which was scheduled for publication that fall. Gellhorn remained in New York, helping Ivens with the soundtrack of The Spanish Earth. In a long night working in a CBS recording studio, Orson Welles read the narration that Hemingway wrote for the documentary, and then they all experimented with ways to re-create the sounds of war to spice up Ivens’ silent footage.

In a letter to Mrs. Roosevelt, Gellhorn described how she and Ivens had simulated the frightening scream of incoming shells using “a football bladder, an air hose and fingernails snapping against a screen, all tremendously magnified and it sounds so like a shell that we were scared out of our wits.”

Gellhorn went on to ask the first lady for help in arranging for Spanish refugee children to enter the United States. “As you know, they are welcomed in England and France,” Gellhorn wrote, but American bureaucrats were dragging their feet. “It seems to me amazing that only America should offer no sanctuary to them.”

The first lady wrote back, chiding Gellhorn for being overly “emotional” about the Spanish children and suggesting that she should raise money to take care of them in Europe. But Mrs. Roosevelt eased the sting of that rebuke by inviting her young friend to screen The Spanish Earth for the president at the White House.

Gellhorn accepted the invitation and summoned Hemingway to meet her in New York. On the afternoon of July 8, 1937, Ivens, Gellhorn and Hemingway few to Washington. While waiting for their plane in Newark’s airport, Gellhorn ate three sandwiches. Tis amazed and amused Hemingway because they were scheduled to eat dinner at the White House in a couple of hours. But Gellhorn, who had dined in the White House several times, informed him that the food there was dreadful. Regular visitors to the Roosevelt table, she said, always remembered to chow down before going to dinner.

Hemingway wrote about that memorable evening in his own much imitated style in a long, chatty letter to his mother-in-law, Mary Pfeifer.

“Mrs. Roosevelt is enormously tall, very charming and almost stone deaf,” he wrote. “She hears practically nothing that is said to her but is so charming that most people do not notice it. The president is very Harvard charming and sexless and womanly, seems like a great Woman Secretary of Labor, say. He is completely paralyzed from the waist down and there is much skillful maneuvering of him into the chair and from room to room. The White House, when we were there, was very hot, no air conditioning except in the President’s study, and the food was the worst I’ve ever eaten. (This is between us. As a guest cannot criticize.) We had rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad and a cake some admirer had sent in. An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.”

After dinner Ivens screened his documentary and the Roosevelts were impressed: “They both were very moved by the Spanish Earth picture,” Hemingway wrote, “but both said we should put more propaganda in it.”

Gellhorn described the president’s reaction a bit differently. She said he suggested the film could be made “stronger…by underlining the causes of the conflict.”

On July 10 Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about her three visitors and their movie in her nationally syndicated newspaper column, My Day. She noted that the film bristled with interesting faces: “No matter what their occupations were— farmers, soldiers, orators or village housewives—all were interesting types whom you felt you would like to study.” She also noted that all profits from the movie would go to “purchase ambulances to help the sick and dying in a part of the world which is at present torn by war.”

Strangely, she did not reveal just what part of the world that was. In fact, she never mentioned that the film was about Spain. And she never revealed the name of the movie. Why not? Perhaps she forgot. More likely, she did not want her husband associated with the politically polarizing Spanish Civil War.

After his White House visit, Hemingway few to Hollywood, where he screened the movie at a fundraiser hosted by actor Fredric March and raised $17,000 for ambulances for the Spanish Republic. That fall Hemingway and Gellhorn returned to Spain to cover the war and resume their love affair.

They got married in 1940 but it was a short, tempestuous union. In 1944, while they were both in England preparing to cover the Allied invasion of Normandy, Gellhorn caught Hemingway in an affair with another attractive young reporter, Mary Welsh, who later became his fourth wife. War seemed to bring out the romantic in Ernest Hemingway.


Originally published in the April 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.