Blue plaque for US war correspondent Martha Gellhorn

Journalist and novelist gained reputation as one of great war reporters of 20th century

A blue plaque in honour of the American writer Martha Gellhorn has been unveiled at her former London home – the first plaque to bear the dedication “war correspondent”.

The journalist and novelist forged a reputation as one of the great war reporters of the 20th century for her correspondence on news stories including the rise of Adolf Hitler, the second world war, the Vietnam war and the Arab-Israeli conflicts, over a 60-year career.

The English Heritage plaque was revealed outside the flat she lived in for the final 28 years of her life in Cadogan Square, Chelsea, on Tuesday afternoon.

Martha Gellhorn's blue plaque
Martha Gellhorn’s blue plaque is unveiled outside her old flat in Cadogan Square. Photograph: English Heritage

Among the group of about 40 attendees were foreign correspondent and BBC world affairs editor John Simpson, BBC Radio 4’s Martha Kearney and documentary film-maker and journalist John Pilger.

Simpson, a personal friend of Gellhorn who met her in 1991, called her “the most important influence on an entire generation of journalists” and said she had had a lasting effect on his own work.

He said: “You had to do the right thing. You didn’t have to say what she liked as long as you were being honest. She’d have been incandescent about Trump. Truth was really important to her.

“A man who lies every day is somebody she would have loathed. She would have been so funny about him and so devastating.”

Gellhorn was born in 1908 in St Louis, Missouri to Edna Fischel Gellhorn, a prominent suffragist, and George Gellhorn, a German-born gynaecologist.

After dropping out of women’s liberal arts college Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania in 1927, Gellhorn began writing for the New Republic. She worked as a crime reporter for a local newspaper in New York before pursuing a career as a war correspondent.

She met her first husband, the Nobel prizewinning author Ernest Hemingway, while covering the Spanish civil war.

On D-day in 1944, Gellhorn was the only woman to land at Normandy. She was also one of the first journalists to report from Dachau concentration camp after it was liberated by US troops on 29 April 1945.

Gellhorn became somewhat disillusioned with war reporting after the Vietnam war, believing that the media’s role in bringing the conflict to a close led to military leaders trying to control coverage.

She said: “They realised the power of the press and have been controlling it ever since. Look at the Gulf war. If you wanted to go out and say to a soldier: ‘How is it, kid?’ you had to bring a minder so the kid says nothing.

In the 1980s, when Gellhorn was in her 70s, she covered civil wars in Central America. Her last stint as a war correspondent was during the US invasion of Panama in 1989, the year she turned 81.

She died at her London home in February 1998 aged 89, after years of declining health including having ovarian cancer.

Gellhorn was frustrated that her marriage to Hemingway had made her famous and was known to request that interviewers not mention his name. During one interview she said: “Why should I be a footnote in somebody else’s life?”

Their relationship was depicted in Philip Kaufman’s HBO biopic Hemingway and Gellhorn, in which she was played by Nicole Kidman.

She divorced Hemingway after five years of marriage in 1945, and later married TS Matthews, an American magazine editor who had served as the editor of Time magazine.

Though Gellhorn was best known for her journalism, she was also a successful fiction writer – penning five novels, 14 novellas and two short story collections. Many of them were based on the people and events she had encountered while travelling the world.

During an interview near the end of her life, Gellhorn reflected on her experiences, saying: “I’m overprivileged. I’ve had a wonderful life. I didn’t deserve it but I’ve had it.”

The Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism is awarded annually to journalists whose work has appeared in reputable English-language publications.


Amy Walker

The GuardianTramp

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