Issue 79, Spring 1981
Martha Gellhorn: On Apocryphism
“Apocryphal, a. Of the apocrypha; of doubtful authenticity; sham, false.”
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1925.
Apocryphal stories would not be worth worrying about if their inventors stuck to the spoken word. What’s a bit of bragging or slander among friends? But when these tales reach print they become accepted fact. No matter how implausible or self-serving, how spiteful or absurd, they are believed. Distinguished professors, scholars, biographers repeat and thus validate the fantasies of apocryphiars (new word). Built-in falsehood, children, is bad.
The form for apocryphiars is to wait until witnesses to the apocryphal episode are dead. The motive for an apocryphal story is the build-up of the inventor or the put-down of the subject or both. There has to be something very odd about apocryphiars. Undigested grudges.? Vanity out of control? Historical social climbing?
A second new word is needed: apocryphism, a meld of apocryphal story and apocryphiar. I stop reading wherever apocryphism rears its two-faced head. If what I know about is untrue, why trust the parts I cannot check? For that reason, long long ago I stopped reading anything on the Spanish Civil War or Ernest Hemingway. Apocryphiars thrive on both to this day. I would not have touched apocryphism with a twenty foot pole but for a recent apocryphism in this elegant magazine and a current literary cause célèbre* in which I have not the slightest personal interest. Over forty years ago, I met briefly the plaintiff; I have never met the defendant. The goings-on of the stars of the literary world do not concern me. The literary world is not my home ground. But all of a sudden I knew how that camel felt about the last straw: enough is enough.
I am definitely not dead and may be the sole surviving witness to a few years during the Spanish War. Who knows, these painfully researched pages might filter far from the Paris Review and warn off present or future apocryphiars. How could they ever be sure that a forgotten witness is not lurking by a typewriter?
And so to a selection of apocryphisms. It is astonishing that they have not been noticed and mocked before.
“Ten years later, lunching with Stephen Spender during the Spanish Civil War, Ernest said that he had cured Martha Gellhorn of her squeamishness by taking her to the Madrid morgue each morning after the fascist shellings. He then drew from his pocket a sheaf of photographs depicting wartime atrocities and advised Spender to-inspect them closely. The British poet, he’d decided, was far too squeamish himself.” (Scott Donaldson, interview with Stephen Spender, April 24, 1975 from By Force of Will—The life and Art of Ernest Hemingway, 1977.)
“Another time, my first wife and I met him and Marty Gellhorn in Paris. They invited us to lunch, someplace where there was steak and chips, things like that, but my wife ordered sweetbreads, also she wouldn’t drink. So Hemingway said, ‘Your wife is yellow, that’s what she is. Marty was like that and do you know what I did? I used to take her to the morgue in Madrid every morning before breakfast.’ .. . At that same meeting in Paris, he told me again that I was squeamish and then he said, ’This is something you ought to look at, it will do you good.’ He produced a packet of about thirty photographs of the most horrible murders which he carried around in his pockets.“ (Stephen Spender Interview, May 1978, p. 124, The Paris Review, Vol. 22, No. 77, 1980.)
Well now, I wonder how many other variations of this comically ghoulish story are drifting about, though Spender muffed it: the end of the second version could have been much better. He should have said that he knocked Hemingway down for insulting his wife and I pushed over the table and flounced out, enraged by the slur on my courage. The trouble is: it didn’t happen, any of it.
I never knew Spender had a first wife, I never lunched with him and the unknown wife in Paris and logically neither did Hemingway. I didn’t know there was a morgue in Madrid though now on reflection I see that there had to be one, as in every big city, and it was surely full due to the unnatural deaths of war, but the only morgue I ever frequented was in Albany, New York, when a cub reporter on the Hearst paper in my distant youth; and I’d bet a diamond tiara that nothing on earth would have got Hemingway near the Madrid morgue. He didn’t even set foot in any of the appalling Madrid military hospitals where I spent much time. Then and in later wars, I observed that male reporters steered clear of all places where war was shown in ruined bodies. This is a statement not a criticism.
And is it not strange that Hemingway carried ghastly photos in his pockets and no one except Spender ever saw them? If such photos existed wouldn’t Hemingway have shown them to me or to Herbert Matthews or to anyone and everyone he met, since that was rather his style? Why, why, unique among mortals was Spender so privileged? Does “squeamish” sound like a Hemingway word? lam fond of the “steak and chips“ putdown; Hemingway the hick as well as morbid brute. Spender can’t have remembered that Paris was Hemingway’s first oldest town where he treated himself to the good food from the moment he could afford it. But since we weren’t there anyway it hardly matters what wasn’t eaten. The entire story is lunatic except that I’d just as soon not be recalled, a minor footnote in history, as the woman who spent every morning before breakfast in the Madrid morgue. The next Life and Work of E. Hemingway should omit that whimsy. Hemingway was long dead when this apocryphal story first appeared, and Spender forgot about me.
The major part of Spender’s remarks on Hemingway in the Paris Review (p. 124-5, P.R.) is extension and invention based on the apocryphal Hemingway reminiscences in his autobiography (World Within World, 1951; later repeated by at least one misled writer, Stanley Weintraub in The Last Great Cause, 1968). Spender’s reckoning of his actual presence in Spain is dim, but it seems to have been two days in Barcelona in early 1937, followed by a visit to Valencia, Albacete and Madrid—March 1937—leaving Madrid for Valencia sometime during the Guadarrama offensive, any day between March 9 and 18. His book suggests that he spent from two to three weeks in Spain in March. Up to him to fix the dates. Spender’s final visit to Spain was in July, 1937 (cf. Hugh Thomas The Spanish Civil War) when he attended the Writers’ Congress. On his first trip to Spain, Hemingway arrived in Valencia on the night of March 16, 1937 and left for Madrid on the morning of March 20. He did not return to Valencia until May when leaving for Paris. If this time table seems tedious to you, I agree from the heart, but it is necessary.
The Paris Review interviewer, Peter Stitt, asked Spender: “How well did you know Hemingway?”
Spender, “an authentic man of letters in the modern world” (cf. the Paris Review), has known many famous people and is, one would think, sufficiently famous himself, and he behaved very well in WW2, unlike his hero Auden, so why couldn’t he have answered, simply, “Not at all. I met him once in Valencia.” I wish he had, but he chose apocryphism. And rather grand, rather supercilious apocryphism at that.
“Hemingway I knew during the Spanish Civil War. He often turned up in Valencia and Madrid and other places where I happened to be. We would go for walks together and then he’d talk about literature.” (p. 124, P.R.).