In the Trenches & the Clenches: A review of Beautiful Exiles by Meg Waite Clayton

Lake Union Publishing, 2018.  pages. ISBN: 9781503900837

By Katheryne Mero

After just becoming Ernest Hemingway’s new wife in Beautiful Exiles, Meg Waite Clayton’s fictionalized version of writer Martha Gellhorn makes a very precise point when she says: “Martha G. Hemingway, that’s who it says I am. The real me reduced to a single letter and the most important bit of me is now that I am someone’s wife.” While Clayton’s Beautiful Exiles is a brilliantly fictionalized account of the nearly ten-year relationship between Gellhorn and her ex-husband Ernest Hemingway, it is also an exploration of a legacy of a woman that disappeared against the stature of her historically famous husband. Gellhorn, a war correspondent who smuggled herself onto a hospital ship and found a way to cover the allied invasion of Normandy, was already well-respected for her honest portrayal of war by the time she married Hemingway. Never as famous as her husband, Gellhorn found herself kicked to the side as the war in Europe began, but she didn’t let that stop her from getting the story. Through moving emotional insight twisted throughout the story, Clayton elaborates upon the complexities of two equally talented lovers who create a bevy of work while existing within their own chaos. At times incredibly funny, tragic, volatile, and heartbreaking, Clayton leads us through the beautiful mess of a marriage that contained too much ego to survive.

Clayton’s story begins with their first meeting: in a bar in Key West, Florida 1936, when Gellhorn was on vacation with her mother and brother. Having already published her first book, she is an impressionable writer attracted to Hemingway’s brilliance, while he is a star that attempts to offer guidance to the fledgling journalist. While their initial relationship is just as friends, their excitable conversation and witty banter playfully hint at the flirtation that eventually becomes romantic. The true excitement of the story doesn’t begin until their arrival in Spain, where Gellhorn first experiences a taste of war:

I lay hugging the muddy earth and praying to a god I wasn’t sure I’d ever believed in, tensing in readiness at the boy’s every twitch. I couldn’t think for the fear. I could only run when he ran, and flatten when he did, and try to keep from crying from the pain and exhaustion and fear.

The war description doesn’t spare any details, always remaining clear and honest in its attention to the downsides of war:

“An old woman and a terrified little boy hurried through the square toward the imagined safety of home one afternoon as a shell crashed into shards of hot, sharp steel that pierced the boy's neck. It happened, and because it could happen to any of us—anytime, anywhere—as long as it didn’t happen to us, we lived as best we could.”

Clayton’s language is gutsy, a voice one might expect of someone witnessing war in a personal way, but she also delivers vulnerability in the midst of explosions and death. The budding relationship between Gellhorn and Hemingway is written so delicately, with a painful shyness between them that goes almost beyond intimate.

“I suppose I might write about the boys in the hospital,’ I said, rolling over to face him, wanting to give back some of the attention he was forever giving me. He’d once been a wounded boy in the hospital. He could make readers feel that story. He was so like Bertrand, with such a thick crust of charm and success that no one looked more closely, no one saw the thin fissures which the real stuff he was made of oozed.”

As Gellhorn peels away Hemingway’s layers, Clayton explores the little pieces that made him so lovable but traumatic. 

While the story often focuses on Gellhorn’s relationship with Hemingway, Clayton also explores the relationships that build Gellhorn to the level of emotional maturity to exist within her marriage.

“Dad was dead a year by the time I danced with The Swede in Key West, but I carried his disapproval in my head like a tumor. If I led a man on, if I swam with him and danced with him and kissed him, well, I ought to be thinking of my reputation and be a better girl than that.”

These nagging criticisms haunt her. As a positive influence, Gellhorn’s mother, Edna, nicknamed Matie, is a true delight to read. Once a suffragette who lobbied for the woman’s vote, Matie’s influence is one that sounds too modern for a woman born in the 1900’s.  “She preferred a man who would believe her his equal in every way when men just didn’t, who would gather liberal minds of all races to his dining table and the devil be damned if a white man wasn’t supposed to invite a black one through the front door.” Matie’s interactions with the younger Gellhorn serve to challenge and invigorate, as she quotes her daughter’s own letters, suggesting her mistakes lay directly in front of her. In one pivotal scene, after making the trip to Idaho for the wedding, Matie tries one final time to discourage her daughter from what she feels is the wrong choice. “You’d rather I live in sin?” Gellhorn asks. Her mother’s response: “Yes, I would.” These parental viewpoints often bleed into the dialogue she has with Hemingway, and others, as she tries to build a confident impression of what kind of woman she is.

The story is a careful piecing together of intricate details and life-changing events that somehow made their lives. While Clayton’s research includes visiting the Hemingway homes and piecing together of Gellhorn’s written material, it also includes the perspectives of other correspondents and celebrities the pair interacted with. As Gellhorn and Hemingway bounce across the globe writing, drinking, and loving, Clayton’s prose breezes easily through wherever in the world they decide to go: leaving Key West as Hemingway’s marriage crumbles beneath him; family vacations in Idaho; the new home shared by Gellhorn and Hemingway in Cuba; business trips to New York, and Presidential dinners in Washington, to the eventual coverage of war: in Hong Kong, Helsinki. London, Paris, and Madrid. There is even a chapter in Texas, where the pair stop to enjoy a few daiquiris only to find out the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor. In the middle of this globe-trotting are moments that are sensational celebrity antics: Hemingway’s fist fight with Orson Welles, having dinner with the Roosevelts, going on vacation with Gary Cooper and Howard Hawkes, or getting war credentials with the wrong name on them with Ginny Cowles in London. This stylish imagining offers the reader the fantastic possibility of adventure against a war-torn world of sadness and despair, hope and revival, friendship and love.

Martha Gellhorn's amazing life is a logical choice to be fleshed into reality by historical fiction. She was exactly the type of woman that the world doesn't see enough of, an impeccable balance of modern womanhood: valiant but vulnerable, intelligent and compassionate, resourceful and forgiving. This true beauty is expressed by Clayton's storytelling, as she attempts to capture two larger than life individuals with cohesive charm and style. Clayton's prose is in as delicate a balance as their entire relationship: always tempestuous, but vibrantly light and dark, full of love and hate, jealousy and admiration. And in the middle, a frailty that exists in all humanity, a deep-seated rejection that keeps us always leaving to avoid pain. As Clayton has Gellhorn explain:

"But there was no me in his magic, and the way the magic came to him wasn't the way magic came to me. I had to go out and find it. I had to live in the world, not holed up in a quiet corner with a cook and a pool and cats to rub against my legs."

Fundamentally, these two clashed, but for a little while they shared enough to produce unique magic. While history will always remember them for the period that they shared together, Beautiful Exiles validates how important that time really was to the careers of two powerhouse writers.