Danger and Romance from HBO’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn”

A new made-for-television movie airing May 28 recounts the stormy love affair between the writer and the war correspondent

Ernest Hemingway
Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen are the stars of HBO's fictionalization of the relationship between Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway. Image courtesy of HBO

Heads up: On May 28, HBO will air a made-for-television movie that should fascinate travelers: “Hemingway & Gellhorn.”

With Clive Owen as Papa and Nicole Kidman as the daring and beautiful war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, it is being billed as one of the greatest romances of the 20th century. OK. The star-crossed couple met and made love in steamy Key West in 1936, traveled to exotic places together and married four years later. But the network is going to have to sprinkle plenty of love dust on the true story of their relationship to make viewers’ hearts palpitate.

That’s because they divorced acrimoniously after a brief five years of wedded bliss, during which time both had affairs and cohabitated only intermittently. Eventually Hemingway gave her an ultimatum and she read the tea lives about her future as a “footnote in someone else’s life.” After they divorced in 1945, Gellhorn granted interviews on the proviso that Hemingway’s name would not be mentioned.

We all know what happened to him, but Gellhorn’s story is seldom remembered even though she wrote a dozen books based on her adventures before taking her own life in 1998 while suffering from cancer. My favorite is “Travels with Myself and Another,” published in 1978, a book about colossally bad trips in which she wrote, “The only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster.”

One of the essays therein, “Mr. Ma’s Tigers,” is a travel classic that recounts the agonies of a 1941 trip to China to cover the Sino-Japanese War with Hemingway, coyly identified only as U.C., which stands for unwilling companion. Along the way she got to meet the unsavory head of the Republic of China Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, fly over the Himalayan “hump” in a shuddering DC-3 operated by China National Aviation Company, the strappy outfit that kept lines of communication open to the free Chinese capital of Chungking, and witness at firsthand hapless, ill-equipped Chinese soldiers attempting to fend off the Japanese, soon to join forces with Hitler as an Axis power.

Gellhorn was a sharp observer and terse, evocative writer as able to describe a dress dinner with the king and queen of Hawaii as Hong Kong brothels and opium dens. And honest. Throughout “Mr. Ma’s Tigers” she never tries to hide her private schoolgirl horror of filthy customs like spitting and squalid conditions she encountered in the Orient causing her to shriek, whine and occasionally vomit. Her reactions are set in stark, self-aware contrast to those of Hemingway, who only had to take a drink to live and let live. At one point she reports him telling her, “The trouble with you is that you think everybody is exactly like you. What you can’t stand, they can’t stand. What’s hell for you has to be hell for them. How do you know what they feel about their lives? If it was as bad as you think they’d kill themselves instead of having more kids and setting off firecrackers.“

Both responses inevitably coexist in the hearts of travelers, engendering the internal edginess we feel on extreme trips to places like India and Africa. That’s what I’d like to see in the HBO movie because—never mind Hemingway—few writers have depicted it better than Gellhorn.