An alternative honeymoon: Martha Gellhorn, 1941

Everyone's wrapped up in Prince William and Kate's wedding; we'd prefer to know about the honeymoon. Here's one we don't think they'd want to go on...

7 mins

The front line of the Sino-Japanese war was a strange place for a honeymoon, but this was what Ernest Hemingway insisted on calling it. He’d married fellow war correspondent and novelist Martha Gellhorn a couple of months before she was to report for Collier’s Weekly on the Chinese army in action – and he went, too.

Many years later, Gellhorn wrote about the experience in her book Travels with Myself and Another: Five Journeys from Hell, first published 32 years ago (2008 also marks the tenth anniversary of Gellhorn’s death). This is Gellhorn’s funniest book, and her account of her Chinese escapades, ‘Mr Ma’s Tigers’, is the most blackly comical part of it.

Gellhorn and Hemingway travelled to Asia via Hawaii. The voyage, Gellhorn wrote, lasted ‘roughly forever’ – and they were surprised by the traditional aloha welcome.

‘UC [Unwilling Companion – Hemingway] had a face of black hate. He said to me, “I never had no filthy Christed flowers around my neck before and the next son of a bitch who touches me I am going to cool him and what a dung heap we came to and by Christ if anybody else says aloha to me I am going to spit back in his mouth.”’

The Mr Ma of the story’s title was their Chinese interpreter, who was not good at his job. When Gellhorn asked what kind of trees they were passing, he replied, ‘Ordinary trees’.

They rode horses so small that Hemingway commented he could both ride and walk at the same time and, when his mount fell over, he picked it up and carried it. During the course of the newlyweds’ journey, they lunched with Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese nationalist leader, and his wife. (Chiang later lost the Chinese civil war and withdrew to Taiwan, which he governed as the Republic of China.) Martha felt sorry for him: the man had no teeth. They were later told that to be greeted by the Generalissimo with his teeth out was the greatest of honours.

However extraordinary her war reportage and political portraits, though, it’s the discomforts that Gellhorn painted most brilliantly: ‘We were quartered in a stone house in a stone room on a stone floor. It was very cold. The door opened on to the street and the smell thereof. The mosquitoes were competing with the flies and losing. The whisky, our only source of warmth, had run out owing to Generals’ enthusiasm for it. I lay on my boards, a foot off the floor, and said in the darkness, “I wish to die”.'

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