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RETRO: At the Ritz in Paris: August 1944 (Fiction/Excerpt)

Author and journalist Martha Gellhorn, third wife of Ernest Hemingway, circa 1940.

For Paula McLain

(Note: This is an excerpt from the author’s novel FOR PARIS ~ WITH LOVE & SQUALOR. The nameless female narrator is a woman “talking out” her memories by recording cassette tapes while she’s in hospice in 2015. Here she recalls her time as a WAC—a uniformed member of the Women’s Army Corps—in World War Two. Her primary recollections revolve around the Liberation of Paris in August 1944, when she was briefly in the company of a 4th Infantry Division soldier named “Jerry,” who was later known as J. D. Salinger. Hemingway and other authors were also on the scene.)  

Ernest Hemingway (center) and GIs in Paris, 1944. Photo credit: ernestmillerhemingway.blogspot.com.

Their ribald hollering and raucous voices and the overlapping insights, insults, accusations, challenges, and other nonsense made it clear that while we’d been gone, the whole crowd surrounding Hemingway in the old bar at the Ritz had sopped up gallons of champagne, cognac, and Scotch.

You could tell right off the bat that everyone had tied one on. They were bombed. And it seemed like a downright relief to Hemingway to receive the copy of the Post that Jerry handed to him; and to excuse himself. “I’ll read this in my room right now,” he said. And as he rose to exit the table, all the others looked crestfallen.

The focus on Papa and the hunger for his attention was palpable; and it was even sort of pathetic. Like it or not, he was the red-hot center. And in our absence, it was easy to assume that all the weird undercurrents of competition, fawning attention, patronizing praise and sexual jealousy collided. No sooner had Hemingway risen from his chair (slowly, holding the magazine with Jerry’s new story in it, and for a moment appearing to be unsteady; he wobbled just the slightest bit, but it reminded me of how Pop sometimes had to steady himself if he’d had a few too many and so the moment was all too familiar to me), when the boisterous others made noises.

They were half-kidding as they booed and feigned their theatrical chagrin, but then the gregariously loud and nearly bug-eyed curly-haired one started to riff in a way that was interesting to me but also awkward as can be. It was Irwin Shaw acting up and his goal (no need for Sherlock Holmes to solve this) was baiting Hemingway.

“Another disciple in the making? Will this kid be your next wife, Papa?”

That’s how drunk they were. In those days, homosexual jokes –or what most people called “fag jokes”—usually didn’t burst forth until all the vats were loaded and booze liberated the idiocies within. I could see that no one thought Irwin’s crack was all that funny. It flopped on too many levels. First, it drew unwanted attention to the reason that Hemingway was leaving the party. Second, when Jerry twitched as Hemingway used the rolled-up copy of the Post to smack Irwin Shaw on one of his broad shoulders, the feeling wasn’t fun. It was a bit sour.

“At least I’m capable of cultivating disciples, Mr. Shaw. If you’re lucky, someday you’ll do the same. But I have my doubts, junior.”

And, right then and there, a look of open hostility flashed across Irwin Shaw’s no-longer-jovial face. Which made the look on Mary Welsh’s face even more awkward. She’d been sitting right in between the two men, and both of the guys were vying for her attention like boys at a prom mutually swooning over the prettiest girl in the room. But it lacked that kind of innocence. They were snarling at each other, with phony smiles on display.

“Time is all I need,” Shaw said. “And yours might be up.”

Holy Moses, believe you me, that zinger went over like shit on toast. Hemingway shot a glance at Mary Welsh, and he caught her staring with star eyes at Irwin Shaw. She and Hemingway had been circling around each other for the shortest time, but they were all in heat (despite being married to others) and at the same time she was doubtless enjoying Irwin’s crush on her. My eyes could scarcely take in all the varied signals, cues, hints, and non-verbal fury. Soap opera!

That’s when Jerry piped in with his own putdown and it was directed right at Irwin Shaw: “Any chance you’ll ever get a first novel done?” Jerry inquired. Sardonically. And as he pointed at Hemingway, Jerry added: “His wife has published two already.”

J.D. Salinger in 1944.

Ouch! That couldn’t mean all that much to the tanked-up Maquis hanging out with Hemingway at that time, and even I had to mentally calculate in a jiffy to figure out the depth of that insult. But insult it was. It was a quip that cut to the quick, all across the board. Jerry had needled Irwin most of all, but also Mary Welsh right there. And this was before all of that “Miss Mary” LIFE Magazine PR years later.

“So she did,” Irwin weakly replied, “but who read them? Did you?”

Hemingway knew what he meant by that, and said: “The work was done and her books are out there, for all the world to see. Maybe someday they’ll get their due. Meantime, fuck off.”

Everybody was so drunk that they exploded with guffaws. But just as there’s a spooky silence after anything from firecrackers to artillery fire going off, there was then an immediate and discomforting silence. Dead air time. A really heavy sag in the room. Briefly.

“I read them,” I said. “Both of them. And Martha’s two novels are worth rereading.”

“On a first-name basis, are we?” That was how Mary Welsh knocked me down a peg. But I didn’t care. I really had read and I truly admired Martha Gellhorn’s two novels.

She published more and more (of everything) in the many decades that she lived after the war. But no matter what, she was always pigeonholed and usually referred to as “Hemingway’s former wife.” And as former wife Number Three, her own work and her own identity were terribly discounted. A real shame. She was a trailblazer.

“Give her the credit she earned,” I said, looking at Mary Welsh and Irwin, one after the other. “Her articles about the Spanish Civil War educated probably millions of Americans. And when that first novel of hers came out in 1940, I know that folks like my parents and several people I worked with considered it a revelation.”

A STRICKEN FIELD, Martha Gellhorn’s first novel.

That sounds overblown, but it was true. Martha Gellhorn had made her way out of Spain after 1937 and into Prague later in 1938. She was in Czechoslovakia right on time for its October collapse, shortly after Chamberlain and the others sold out the world with the Munich Pact that October. Martha didn’t read all about it or visit briefly as a correspondent. She lived there. And took it all in. Living there as she did for many months on end allowed her to witness the horrendous suddenness of the Gestapo’s takeover there. Somehow, while still pounding out reams of articles, Martha Gellhorn also wrote her debut novel and it dovetailed with the history in the making, right in our time. She called it A Stricken Field and the gist of the novel was the main character’s dangerous ways of allying herself with refugees and others who were on the run, day in and day out, being hunted by the Nazis and their spies.

I recalled how moved and provoked my parents were by that novel in 1940. But of course it was all overshadowed by the massive success of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

As Hemingway excused himself from the crowd of sloshed companions in the bar at the Ritz, he looked directly at me and asked: “Did you read her second one? Gellhorn’s?”

I nodded. Vigorously. Martha Gellhorn’s second novel was then almost brand-new. God only knows how she found the time to write that one, while also dispatching her wartime correspondence from here, there, and everywhere. Its title was Liana and it broke new ground. There were scant few novels about interracial romances. And there was nothing Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner-ish about Liana.

LIANA by Martha Gellhorn

“I liked it very much,” I said. Hemingway squeezed my shoulder and walked away.

Jerry and I declined invitations to sit and drink with the others. We went to the main lobby at the Ritz, wondering what to do for the hour that Hemingway said he’d need to look “truly” at Jerry’s new story in the Post.

“Tell me about Liana,” he suggested.

Martha Gellhorn’s official USPS stamp, 2008.

(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published by Heliotrope Books last October. He’s now completing a biography of Mario Puzo.)

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