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Letters Show Hemingway's Softer Side

 Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn at the Stork Club, 1941
Ernest Hemingway Papers, JFK Library, Boston
Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn at the Stork Club, 1941

On April 5, PBS debuts a three-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on Ernest Hemingway. WGCU looks at some lesser-known aspects of the writer’s life.


Ernest Hemingway is iconic as a macho outdoorsman, but he had a very tender relationship with his mother-in-law Edna. She’s the mother of his wife Martha Gellhorn, to whom he was married from 1940 to 1945. Hemingway and his mother-in-law had a close correspondence for many years.

Janet Somerville writes about this family dynamic in her book, Yours For Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn's Letters of Love and War, 1930-1949.

Martha Gellhorn was a war correspondent for Collier’s magazine, so she was often away reporting during their marriage. On her way back from a reporting trip in 1940, she stopped to see her mother Edna in New York. But Edna sent her on her way to get back to Ernest in Cuba, because she knew how lonely he was.

Here, Somerville reads a letter from Hemingway to his mother-in-law after that trip.

“I can’t thank you enough for giving up your time with Martha. You are taking care of me, and no one could ever do more. Almost no one gets what they should have, and I have. This is just a note, very illiterate as usual, to tell you how much I love you.”

In September 1940 Martha went away again to report on the war. Again, Hemingway wrote to his mother-in-law with uncharacteristic vulnerability, using one of his nicknames for his wife Martha:

“'I would rather be dead than live without Marty. That is not rhetoric. I can’t live alone.'” Later he said in the same letter, “'I love you very much, Mother, and I know this is a lousy letter. But I have to talk to someone. And you are taking the rap.'”

"He almost treated her like his psychotherapist," Somerville said. "He wouldn’t have gone to a psychotherapist. But he really dumped his emotional problems on Edna. And she encouraged him. A few years later in 1944, she said to him, “'Don’t tear up the gloomy letters. Send them. I know enough of you to love you, and to understand your loneliness.'”

In March of 1953, he lamented to her about his troubles with writing:

"He writes, 'Dear Mother, writing is harder to do all the time. I thought it would get easier, but it doesn’t. Do you suppose that is the way everything is? I do it better, I know. But it’s more difficult,'" Somerville said.

Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn divorced in 1945. Still, he and her mother Edna continued to correspond warmly for many years.

PBS will air the documentary “Hemingway” April 5-7 at 8 pm. This is part of a series looking into other aspects of the writer’s life.

Yours For Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn's Letters of Love and War will soon be available as an audiobook, read by Tony Award winner Ellen Barkin. Pre-order it here.

Copyright 2021 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Cary Barbor