Magazine article The Spectator

Quite a Horny Gel

Magazine article The Spectator

Quite a Horny Gel

Article excerpt

Quite a horny gel Byron Rogers BEAUTIFUL EXILE by Carl Rollyson Aurum, L18.99, pp. 304, ISBN 1854107240

I met Martha Gellhorn once. It was at a dinner party in London, where everyone had been told beforehand on no account to mention Ernest Hemingway, her second husband, the sort of proscription that invites disaster. With that hanging over us, I knew that whatever the subject, the weather, car insurance, Sunday opening in Wales, Hemingway would be waiting to jump out of every bush. But I needn't have worried. Martha was no listener.

I have only met one other human being who talked the way she did, and that was the actor Burt Lancaster. Burt talked about grosses and percentages and the Risorgimento and, of course, about Burt. She, then in her later sixties and by far the oldest there, was more aware of her audience. Staring at the young men round the table, she told them how wet and how wimpish the young had become.

This had something to do with causes we had not embraced, travels we had not taken, and other men's wars on which it should have been our duty to eavesdrop. I had wanted to tell her how much I had enjoyed her book Travels with Myself and Another, and how funny I had thought it, but did not get the chance, for the panzer tracks of her ego rolled on over everything. She did not eat very much. I came away feeling sorry for Ernest Hemingway, something I had not thought possible until then. He wrote of her that she was at her worst `when dealing with daily life, or, say, more or less natural life without runnings away or atrocities'.

She liked the famous, three of whom she married, afterwards commenting on their shortcomings. Hemingway, she said, was no good at tennis or at sex, a rum juxtaposition which must say something about her approach to both. But then her tennis was equally a matter of concern to Hemingway, who said she was `lead-footed'. Later he wrote a poem, `To Martha Gellhorn's Vagina', which he compared to the wrinkled neck of an old hot-water bottle, and claimed he read this aloud to women in bed. The two, according to this book, seem to have deserved each other.

Her first husband was Colette's stepson whom the novelist had herself sexually initiated. His tennis is a mystery, but there is a bleak end-of-term report on sex. `It was assumed that we had the hottest thing in bed since Antony and Cleopatra. In fact it was the opposite.' Her next two sentences are even bleaker. `But I felt sorry for Bernard. He'd followed me all round Europe on my travels with a knap-sack, a corkscrew and a bottle-opener, and I felt sorry for him.' It was that repetition, monstrous as an ice-cap, that did it for me. After that it was hard to feel any sympathy for her.

But old Colette, deprived of her toy-boy, had her revenge. She got Gellhorn, who was blonde, to pencil in her eyebrows and to get them to meet in the middle, which she did, stopping only when the effect of this was pointed out to her. Afterwards she wrote that she had been `in the presence of evil'.

Her third husband was a former editor of Time, and the man who had given her her first job. Though we are told nothing about what he was like at sex or tennis he would seem to have been the ticket on other counts. A friend said, `An attractive woman could do outrageous things to Tom.' But in the end she found the marriage `perfectly ludicrous and boring and hopeless'.

There were many lovers, many of whom, according her biographer, were of use. …

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