Martha Gellhorn and the wars of the 20th century, parkour considered, and plenty of reader reaction: newsletter, December 20, 2019

December 23, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,661) on Friday, December 20, 2019. 


Readers of this newsletter know that I am partial to good stories, especially when they are true; they involve writers and journalists; and they are women. We hit the trifecta this week with some good stuff about Martha Gelhorn, who is often remembered unfairly only for her marriage to another famous writer. Gelhorn was truly one of the outstanding journalists of the 20th century and should be recognized as such. Check out the piece below, and then dig deeper. There’s an excellent biography of her by Caroline Moorehead,

Last week, I mentioned something about listening to the BBC’s Radio 4 when I lived in Great Britain. Some of the radio dramas that Radio 4 produced have been loaded onto YouTube (yes, YouTube) and can be accessed here. There is no video, of course, but you can listen (and do other things).

I hope that your holiday week stays calm and happy. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,648 subscribers and had a 27.9 percent open rate; 4 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Martha Gellhorn: the first woman on Normandy beach, June 7, 1944

Martha Gellhorn had more than just her gender working against her when you wanted to cover the D-Day invasion for Collier’s Weekly magazine in 1944. She had her husband, Ernest Hemingway.

Gellhorn and Hemingway had been together, off and on, since 1936 when they left America to cover the Spanish Civil War. Gelhorn was a dedicated journalist; Hemingway was, well, Hemingway. The two were married in 1940, but the events in Europe kept Gelhorn moving.

Gellhorn had witnessed the rise of Hitler in Germany, the Munich pact with Great Britain, and the fighting in Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Germany.

When the time grew close for the D-Day invasion, Gellhorn tried to get accredited, but by then Hemingway had convinced the editors at Collier’s to make him their correspondent. It was a rotten act of betrayal — one of many that led to the breakup of their marriage in 1945.

But in the spring of 1944, the invasion was about to happen, and Gellhorn didn’t have time for anger or revenge. She had a story to cover, and she had a passion to be an eye-witness to any story that she wrote.

Her mantra of “being there” is still written in stone for those who follow the path she did so much to clear. “The only way I can write with any authority with the hope of influencing even a very few people is to write from firsthand knowledge.” Source: Yours, for Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters of Love and War 1930-1949 – review

Gellhorn found out about a hospital ship that was being fitted out for the invasion, and she boarded without permission and locked herself in the toilet, remaining there until the ship was sailing toward Normandy. She then volunteered to go ashore to be a stretcher-bearer, a difficult and dangerous task. But it got her on the beach, the only woman to be there on June 7, the day after the invasion had begun.

Here’s an excerpt from the story she wrote for Collier’s Weekly. She’s on the beach waiting for the wounded to be brought in:

Then there was our favourite American conversation: “Where’re you from?” An American always has time to look for someone who knows his home town. We talked about Pittsburgh and Rosemont, Pennsylvania, Chicago and Cheyenne, not saying much except that they were swell places and had this beach licked every way for Sunday. Then one of the soldiers remarked that they had a nice foxhole about 50 yards inland and we were very welcome there, when the air raid started, if we didn’t mind eating sand.

My companion, one of the stretcher-bearers from the ship, thanked them for their kind invitation and said that, on the other hand, we had guests aboard the LCT and we would have to stay home this evening. I wish I had known his name, because I would like to write it down here. He was one of the best and jolliest boys I’ve met any place, any time. He joked, no matter what happened, and toward the end of that night, we really began to enjoy ourselves. There is a point where you feel yourself so small and helpless in such an enormous, insane nightmare of a world, that you cease to give a hoot about anything and you renounce care and start laughing. He was lovely company, that boy was, and he was brave and competent, and I wish I had known his name. Source: ‘There is a point where you feel so small’ | World news | The Guardian

Gellhorn continued reporting for 40 years after D-Day. She covered the war in Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, and civil wars in Central America. She always resented being identified only as Ernest Hemingway’s second wife. Her life was far more than that.

Parkour, a modern version of the Natural Method of movement and physical development

The inevitable scene in a modern detective show has the detectives spot someone they want to talk to. The subject sees the police and takes off running.

Off he goes through streets and alleyways, leaping over fences and hedges, climbing over walls . . . you get the idea. You’ve all seen it.

What you may not know is that the pursued person is practicing something called “parkour.” Another term for it is “freerunning,” and yes, it is actually a thing. In fact, it’s a fairly ancient thing.

Parkour comes from the French word “parcours” meaning course or route. The practitioner of parkour does not see things such as fences, hedges, walls, stairs, or railings as obstacles. Rather, he or she see them as opportunities, if you will, to speed, bounce, and spring their way along. According to its adherents, this is the way that humans used to travel.

One of the founders of the modern and Western version of parkour is George Hébert, a French naval officer who promoted the idea of physical training based on what he had observed in the way indigenous tribes of Africa moved about. Rather than static exercises, Hébert emphasized movement — running, jumping, climbing, crawling, springing, balancing, swimming, throwing, etc. These are movements of children at play. Children don’t work out in gymnasiums. They move about and have fun.

Human strength, Hébert believed, arose from tendon and sinew development and flexibility rather than muscle-building.

Hébert, as a physical training instructor at a college in Reims, was interested in the psychological and moral aspects of this idea as well as the physical ones. He put all of his ideas together in something he called Natural Method, which had three forces: energetic (willpower, courage, coolness, and firmness), moral (benevolence, assistance, honor, and honesty) and physical (muscles and breath).

One of the great modern promoters of this idea is Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run: a Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, and Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of  Strength and Endurance.

The latter title, which I recently finished, weaves itself around the story of the resistance on the island of Crete to the invasion of the Nazis during World War II. But the book ranges far and wide with lots of information about Hébert’s Natural Method and many other topics. McDougall writes with energy akin to a freerunning perp who is intent on evading capture. It’s an exciting read that I recommend.

If you want to find out more about parkour, head over to, where there are dozens of videos that will show you everything from the basics to leaping tall (sort of) buildings in a single bound. It’s a lot of fun to watch; it may even be fun to do.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

7 News in Australia: another quality true-crime podcast

7 News in Australia is developing a reputation for some excellent true-crime reporting and turning that reporting into riveting podcast series. Such is the case with The Lady Vanishes, which now has posted two separate stories and has begun a third.

The first story is about the disappearance in 1997 of Marion Barter, the former wife of an Australian football star, Johnny Warren, who stepped on a plane for England and has never been seen again by her loved ones. Barter was a teacher and mother, who had many relatives and friends. Records show that someone using her passport returned to Australia and emptied her bank account.

Barter’s daughter has had a two-decade quest to find out what happened to her mother.

You can find this podcast at…

The second story is about a woman who disappeared in 1978. It is described as such: The body of a young mother is found beside an isolated road on a dark, foggy night at Sarina in 1978. Was it murder or suicide? Experts have thought both. Could a killer still be on the run? 

These podcasts are well-produced and easy to listen to.

Not good news about libraries in the UK: nearly 800 branch closures in this decade

The library news from Great Britain these days is not particularly good: nearly 800 closures of branch libraries occurred in the decade we’re about to finish.

According to a recent article in The Guardian:

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s (Cipfa) annual survey of the UK’s libraries, excluding Northern Ireland, shows there are 3,583 library branches still open in the UK – 35 fewer than last year. Since 2010, 773 have closed.
The closure of almost a fifth of the UK’s libraries over the last 10 years comes against a backdrop of a 29.6% decline in spend, said Cipfa. National spending on the service topped £1bn in 2009/10 but dropped to under £750m in the last year, which saw a 0.4% increase on the 2017/2018 spend. Source: Britain has closed almost 800 libraries since 2010, figures show | Books | The Guardian

More ominously, library visits in 2019 are only about two-thirds of the level they were 2009-2010. Part of the decline, of course, could be blamed on the smaller number of branches, and indeed those two factors probably feed on themselves.

Still, it’s disturbing. None of this bodes well for the intellectual life of the nation that gave us the English language to begin.


Bruce H.: Your section on Robert Caro (see last week’s newsletter) especially got my attention this week. Your comment that his series on LBJ goes beyond magisterial is so true. I don’t think any historian, now or ever, has demonstrated his particular mastery of both general biographical research, story-telling, historical context and serious, nitty-gritty investigative reporting. That combination is what makes both his LBJ series and his book on Robert Moses so compulsively readable – he doesn’t only tell you what happened but precisely how it happened.

LBJ won that primary in 1948 with cheating at the ballot box? There’s just not the reported accusation, he shows just how and where it was done, and who did it. And then there’s the example you gave, with the yearbook. No historian flying in to Austin for occasional interviews and rummaging through the LBJ Library would have nailed that; Caro got it because he and his wife moved to the Hill Country in the 1970s and lived there for several years so that he could get to know the region and the dwindling number of people who had actually known LBJ growing up. Speaking of which, his history of the Texas Hill Country, contained within the first volume, is probably the best ever written about that stark area of the country. His history of the Senate in the second volume is also splendid.

His books were not, at first, well received by the LBJ crowd in Austin, especially when they touched on some of LBJ’s extramarital affairs (the most important of which involved a woman who was married to the owner of the Austin newspaper in the 1940s (the paper I later worked for). In time, though, I think the LBJ crowd came to understand that Caro was not only relentless and thorough but that he was writing what was going to be the definitive biography, no matter what else came later, and they began, at least some of them, to cooperate. In fact, eventually Harry Middleton, a former LBJ aide and then director of the LBJ Library, persuaded Lady Bird and the family to begin opening up, far sooner than originally specified, the thousands of recorded telephone conversations from the White House that had a highly candid LBJ talking with all sorts of people on all sorts of subjects, serious and trivial. Middleton pointed out that Johnson had said he wanted the Library to tell his history “with the bark off,” and those tapes certainly showed that.

Anyway – enjoyed the excerpt from Caro’s book. If I ever get thoroughly unpacked, I’ll go dig up my copies of his LBJ books and read them again – and I just hope Caro lives long enough to finish the last one.

A friend of longstanding, Bruce was a newspaper reporter in Austin, Texas, for many years.

Kathy M.: Merry Christmas, Jim, and all the best for 2020.  I enjoy reading your newsletter each week.

Janet L.: >>>”They” has been appropriated for singular reference for many years, and as a former writing teacher, I have corrected many a “they” for the more proper “he or she.” I’m out of that game now, but it’s still difficult for me to use “they” for a single entity.<<<

I share your sentiments. (I also have issues with some of the new ‘PC’=politicially correct…which I often feel should rather be =pure crap). Whenever I’m asked to edit a document, I tell the client that my English is “1960s Boston American”.

Vicki G.:  I really enjoyed the article about  Robert Caro, very interesting indeed.  Also, I thought ‘A Detectives Worst Foe’ was thought provoking. Keep up the great work!

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Bow and strings

Best quote of the week:

Oh, would that my mind could let fall its dead ideas, as the tree does its withered leaves! Andre Gide, author, Nobel laureate (1869-1951)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Advice to Robert Caro, America’s fourth man at Los Alamos, M-W’s word of the year, and more: newsletter, December 13, 2019



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