Chapter 20: A Long Way from Home

“Miss Gellhorn, you said that when you returned from Finland, you joined the defendant in Cuba intending not to return to the war. How did it happen, then, that in November you began lobbying for Collier’s to send you to China?”

“Mr. Prosecutor, when you were in the physical world, did you ever change your mind? I didn’t start asking to be sent to China until I have been home a good ten months. By then, the Nazis had taken most of Europe, and then there was the Battle of Britain, and I hadn’t done anything useful. Japan’s war on China had been going on for years, and I thought Ernest and I could report on it.”

“I’m tired and I’m ready to relax after a year and a half’s hard writing. The book is getting excellent reviews. Scribner’s has ordered a 100,000-copy initial press run, and so has Book of the Month Club. I want to celebrate, and she has to see about the war in China. Why go halfway around the world with her?”

“Well, Mr. Hemingway, since you did go, why?”

The equivalent of a shrug. “I can’t remember. True love, I guess, or maybe not enough sales resistance. Marty clearly had her heart set on it, and she was going to do it whether I liked it or not. And besides, I had noticed that I liked pretty nearly anything I did, once I got started on it.”

“Were you perhaps influenced by traces of your boyhood thoughts of seeing China, like your missionary uncle Willoughby?”

Another shrug. “Not consciously.”

“Miss Gellhorn, how did you prepare for the trip?”

“Eleanor got me a letter from the President asking U.S. officials to help if I requested it, and we arranged to leave from L.A. at the end of January, and meanwhile we went to Cuba to spend Christmas.”

“And since I had the money, I bought us the Finca as a joint Christmas present.”

“Which you didn’t buy in both our names, and which eventually turned out to be yours alone.”

“Not until after you practically deserted me, wandering around the Caribbean.”

“Could we return to the matter at hand? Your honor, with your permission I propose to question them about this matter jointly.”

“Seems to me you are doing that already, counselor. Proceed.”

“So, Mr. Hemingway, in January 1941 you went to China. The trip had unexpected and wide-ranging consequences, did it not?”

“You mean the report to Morgenthau?”

“That, and everything that followed from that. Would you briefly explain to the court how it came about that you wound up committed to producing a secret report for the government?”

“It was one thing leading to another. Once I agreed to go, I decided I’d get Ralph Ingersoll to pay for it. He had started an afternoon tabloid in New York called PM, and of course like any new paper he had to build up circulation. I proposed sending him a series of reports on the strategic situation in the Pacific, and he could see the value for his paper, so he said yes.”

“Did this involve enough money to be worthwhile?”

“You can always use more money, especially when you’re in the 60% tax bracket, but the point for me was to get some kind of official status as a journalist, rather than just travel as my wife’s traveling companion. But then I get a phone call from this guy in the Treasury Department, Harry Dexter White, a top assistant to Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury at the time. Years later it would turn out that he was a member of the Communist Party, which is ironic as hell, because it was at just this time that the lefties started to attack my book as a betrayal of the cause in Spain. But all I knew about White was that he worked for Treasury. He says he wants me to keep my eyes open over there and when I came back, tell him if I thought Chiang Kai-shek going to be able to stay in power, and if he would continue fighting the Japanese. We were shoveling a lot of  money in Chiang’s direction, and White was sure a lot of it being stolen or wasted, but he wanted an informed opinion on whether the effort was worth continuing.”

“Did you object to the idea of filing a secret report?”

“Why should I object? It was my government asking me to help. And it was my tax money they were sending over there.”

“So you became an unpaid spy.”

“It was really just reporting. I kept my eyes open, I talked to people, I figured things out.”

To skip ahead for the moment, when you returned you wrote up a report summarizing your conclusions.”

“I reported to Morgenthau and White in person, and then at the end of June I sent Morgenthau a confidential letter spelling out the ins and outs of the military and political situation. And, by the way, I said the Japanese would probably attack us, and probably not sooner than December, 1941. It was a nice piece of work, even if I do say it myself. But I didn’t dream that the Japs would attack Pearl Harbor, or that the Navy would let them get away with it!”

“At the proper time we will want to examine how that report changed your life in the longer term. But we need to look at the trip itself.”

“You mean the Oriental luxury tour.”

The ghost of a smile, from the ghost of a prosecutor. “That’s the one.”

He looked over at her. “Hey Marty, who wanted to go to China?”

“Oh, shut up.” But she said it without heat.

“You and Miss Gellhorn left Los Angeles for China on the Mauretania, on January 31, 1941. Is that correct?”

“Yeah, it is – unfortunately. From Hawaii on, Colliers was sending us by China Clippers, but they couldn’t get us seats from L.A. to Hawaii, so we had to go by boat, getting thrown around in rough weather all the way. Then, from Hawaii, we flew. Those flying boats were comfortable, and they stopped at the end of each leg of the trip. Hawaii to Wake, Wake to Midway, and Midway to Guam, with a good hotel on each of the atolls. So you’d fly all day, and you’d get a good meal and you spent the night in an honest-to-God bed, and then you’d get up and do it all over again the next day. It took you several days to get there, but you were comfortable on the way.”

“Did you get impatient?”

He didn’t, but I did, more fool me. We didn’t land in Hong Kong until the 22nd of February, three weeks after we left L.A., and it took another month in Hong Kong before we got permission to enter China itself. All I wanted to do was get to China, and it seemed like we weren’t ever going to get to.”

“And when we did get there, you couldn’t wait to get out.”

“But I didn’t know that ahead of time. I had no idea.”

“And what did I tell you at the time? You could hardly stand the crowding and noise and filth in Hong Kong, which had been governed by the English for a hundred years. Why wouldn’t you know that China in the middle of a war would be worse?”

“It’s always easy to see things clearly after the fact.” She sizzled.

He laughed. “Reminds me of old times,” he said.

“Miss Gellhorn, we appreciate your continued assistance. Your testimony can be of great value in assisting the defendant to see himself as he appeared to others.”

That would be an achievement, getting Ernest to see anybody’s point of view but his own.”

“Doesn’t apply to you, of course.”

“Miss Gellhorn. during your month of enforced inactivity in Hong Kong while you waited for your papers, how did you and the defendant spend your time?”

I spent it moving around, seeing what I could see, trying to understand the city. He spent it at the bar, talking with all the new buddies he made. That’s how he worked. That was his system. He just stood there, or sat there, and the information came to him. I used to tell people, I’m the part of the team who has to work. But not him! Within days – within minutes, it sometimes seemed – he had made friends everywhere.”

“Because as a best-selling author he was a celebrity?”

“Probably that helped with some people, but it doesn’t explain how he could become instant buddies with just anybody he’d meet. In a couple of days he was able to carry on animated conversations in the street, full of laughing and joking, and I wouldn’t understand a word. Just like in Spain. I don’t know how grammatical he was, but he could always make himself understood.”

“Mr. Prosecutor, do you mind if I explain my way of working?”

“Please do.”

“Think about it. You’re in a strange place for a few days, a week – a month, even. How much are you going to understand? Marty went all over the place trying to see for herself, because that’s the way she worked, she had to see. But I knew you needed context, and the way to get it was to pick the brains of people who have been around forever, then go see. If you do it that way, it’s like you’ve lived there for years.”

“But how would you know the right people to talk to?”

“You don’t. You can’t. So you talk to as many people as you can, and you try to find out their story. If you talk to enough people, you’re going to put together a picture in your mind. It will be a simplified picture, but it will be better than anything you could put together by relying on your own observation alone.”

“Is that why you didn’t read up on the subject ahead of time?”

“Much faster and more reliable to talk to people. The people I learned the most from don’t write books.”

“But were you not concerned that people might be trying to use you for their own purposes?”

He stared at the prosecutor. “Of course they were. You think I believed everything anybody told me? But sometimes people’s lies tell you more than you could have learned by them telling the truth. And if you listen to enough different people, the contradictions among them are going to tell you things. You can pick up all sorts of things if you listen – and I knew how to listen.”

“It’s true, you know. Sometimes he’d tell me something and I would say, how can you know that, and he’d say this one told me this, but that one told me that, and a third one told me something else, and what I just told you is the only way it makes sense.”

“It’s what we used to do covering the economic conferences, and what I did in Spain, and in France later, in the second war. It’s just basic intelligence work, really, and for that matter, basic journalism. There isn’t any magic to it, but you have to talk to enough people.”

“Miss Gellhorn, the defendant mentioned your reaction to conditions in Hong Kong, and later in China. Would you spell out what he was referring to?”

“It makes me ill, remembering it. The crowding, the filth, the continuous unending noise. People spitting everywhere, all the time, so that you walked down sidewalks covered with spittle. I had to get away from it. I was glad to move to the British sector where things weren’t so bad. I was ashamed, a little, but glad.”

“And the defendant?”

“He said to me, `The trouble with you is that you think everybody else is going to feel about things the same way you do. If these people were as miserable as you think they are, they wouldn’t keep having kids and they wouldn’t keep shooting off firecrackers in the street.’”

“And did he convince you?”

“No.” A moment’s thought. “That would be too much like saying the way things were was all right.”

“You were always wanting to remake the world, Mart, but it never seemed to occur to you that the mess the world was in was the result of other people remaking the world earlier. And wasn’t Hitler trying to remake the world?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean you can just –“

“And even supposing you’re right, we weren’t going to cure anything in a month. The whole idea of traveling is to understand what you see, not criticize it for not being what you want it to be. Before you can change anything, you have to know what you’re changing, or you’re just going to make an even bigger mess. That’s one reason I stayed away from politics. Politics leads people to believe in easy answers, and there aren’t any.”

“You stayed away from politics? How can you say that?? What was For Whom the Bell Tolls about, if not politics?”

“Not politics in the way you mean it. I was on the side of the people, but I didn’t have to see everything as either left or right. I believed in the individual, and I had compassion for the little guy. So what does that make me?”

“It makes you infuriating and inconsistent. Those weren’t the beliefs that made you the man I fell in love with in Spain, when you were doing what you could to help the Spanish workers against the fascists.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. You understood that sometimes you have to chose between two evils, but you never could understand that sometimes the evil that exists is better than the evil you’re likely to call forth by resisting it.”

“Perhaps the two of you should agree to disagree. Meanwhile, let’s proceed to your time in China after you left Hong Kong.”

“I will concede that Ernest was right about one thing: China was even worse than Hong Kong. If I’d known ahead of time how it was going to be, I never would have done it.”

“Miss Gellhorn, in the six weeks after you received your papers, you and the defendant entered the 7th war zone, near Canton, observed the army there, then flew on to the seat of China’s wartime government at Chunking. After interviewing members of the government, you flew to Burma, and then he returned to Hong Kong and you went on to Java and then Singapore. Is that an accurate precis?”

“It took longer than it sounds when you put it that way, but yes.”

“A challenging trip. And precisely because the trip turned out to be so challenging, it gives us an interest in hearing your view of the defendant’s actions and demeanor during those weeks.”

“I know what you want. In everyday life, he could be totally impossible, but in emergencies, or in situations requiring ingenuity and endurance, he was as good as anybody I’ve ever met. That’s certainly how he was in China.”

“You mean I did something right?”

“Proceed, please, Miss Gellhorn.”

“He was always at his best in difficult circumstances, and China provided them. We didn’t dare drink the water without boiling it, we could eat nothing uncooked, unless it was a fruit that could be peeled. Exposure of any kind to their water could be dangerous. He even told me I was crazy to try to get clean by washing.”

“Which you ignored, and which gave you a good case of China Rot, and at that you were lucky it wasn’t worse.”

“China Rot, Miss Gellhorn?”

“Whatever it was, it was affecting the skin of my hands. Ernest made sure I found a doctor, who prescribed some kind of stinky ointment for it, and I had to wear gloves from then until the trip was over.”

“And if I hadn’t made you get medical attention, sure as hell you would have picked up leprosy.”

“It was pretty bad. And then there was the transportation. Except for getting over the Japanese lines, and then getting to Chunking and out to Burma, all our travel was by the most primitive means imaginable. We were jolted along theoretical roads in poor excuses for trucks, we rode diminutive horses that were scarcely able to carry us, we walked through great expanses where there were no roads at all, we took one long river journey on the deck of the only motorized craft on the river, a Chris-Craft towing a barge.”

“And did these hardships get him down?”

“In the half dozen years we lived together, I  never saw him so patient and so considerate. And not just to me, but to everyone he came into contact with. During the whole trip, I saw him blow his stack only once, and that was well deserved. That was after we’d been up to the front lines, and we were trying to get to Chunking to talk to government officials. Before we even left for the front, right after we landed on the other side of Japanese lines from Hong Kong, Ernest had carefully arranged for an airplane to fly us to Kunming after we returned from the front lines. When we got back, no airplane and no prospect of an airplane. Nobody had bothered to do what had to be done to get the plane, and nobody was in any particular hurry to do it.”

He remembered it well. Bland incompetence, smugly certain that Oriental inertia would overcome Occidental impatience.

“So on this occasion he lost his temper?”

“He erupted! He went into full Hemingway-volcano mode, and he seared everything and everybody within half a mile. He chewed them out as they’d never been chewed in their life, whether they understood English or not, and we got our airplane. But, as I said, this was the only time, and well deserved.”

“So you have no complaints of his treatment of you during the trip?”

“I could have done with fewer renditions of `Who wanted to come to China,’ but I’m sure he could have done with me doing less complaining. It really did throw me off my stride, the whole situation.”

“Marty, it was all about learning to roll with the punches. There’s an old saying, ‘What can’t be remedied must be borne.’ I put it into poker terms, ‘What you draw is what you get.’ As you know.”

“I should!”

He laughed. “I still remember that night, you’re lying across the room, on one of those pallets that passed for beds, and out of nowhere, no preamble, I hear you matter-of-factly saying, `I wish to die.’”

“Yes, there I am at the end of my rope and I say I wish to die, and you say, `Too late. Who wanted to come to China?’”

“Doesn’t it seem funny now? At least a little?”

A small smile. “Three percent, perhaps. And certainly not at the time.”

“No, not at the time. If I remember right, we’d run through all the whiskey I had so carefully brought along to share with our thirsty military hosts. I’m surprised I didn’t wish to die.”

“Why should you? You were just as happy drinking snake wine with them.”

“The only two things we could safely share in China were cooked food and liquor. You just had to learn to make allowances.” He smiled. “Snake wine, with the dead snake in the bottom of the bottle. Not too bad, actually, once you get used to it, if you don’t have anything better. If war had broken out while we were over there, I was supposed to be PM’s on-site correspondent. I might have wound up drinking snake wine for four years.”

“Did you see any real action, Mr. Hemingway?”

“Nah. The closest we came to seeing the war was when we inspected the army in the field, and they pretended to attack Japanese lines. It was just a dog-and-pony show for our benefit. The enemy wasn’t even in sight.”

“Why would they go to that trouble for two American journalists?”

“Do you really think that’s how they saw us, as two American journalists? When we were traveling with a letter from the president of the United States, and Marty was known to be a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt?”

“Do you think they knew about your own investigative mission?”

“Mr. Prosecutor, the term `Government secrecy’ is a contradiction in terms. Chiang naturally would have had agents all over D.C., trying to find out what was going on and what was likely to go on. It wouldn’t surprise me if they knew my mission before I did.”

“In any case the Chinese government attempted to influence your judgment by determining what you would see.”

“Well, sure, you’d expect that. But their bigger problem was preventing us from seeing what was too big to be missed. For instance, it was clear that nobody in power gave a good goddamn for the welfare of the troops. They’d conscript these poor boys and send them off somewhere and the families would never hear from them again. How could they? Even if the boys had known how to write, which they didn’t, there wasn’t any postal system. So China’s armies were full of kids whose old world was lost forever. Even if China somehow beat the Japs, who was going to see that these kids got home? And as to what it was all about, all they knew is that the Japs had invaded their country. All this was all right there to be seen.”

“And how did you react?”

“You mean, how did I feel about it, or what did I do? How I felt was that just like everything else in China, it was worse than the worst I’d seen in Spain. But what did I do? I acted like we were the honored guests we were supposed to be. I looked at what I was shown, I ate and drank with the generals, I kept my eyes open, and I made speeches to the troops whenever the generals asked me to.”

“May I say something, Mr. Prosecutor?”

“Of course. That’s why you’re here, for your insights and memories.”

“Ernest was always passing himself off as hard and calloused. But sometimes you could get a glimpse of something else. You see, I heard those speeches to those boys. He told me he felt sorry for them. They took it for granted that they would have no control over their lives, because they’d never known anything different. He said it was like Frost’s poem about the hired man, with nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope. So he tried to give them a sense that they were part of something larger, a struggle to make a better world.”

“At least, that’s what I said. God knows what they actually heard after it was translated.”

She looked over at him. “My point, though, is that you cared for those boys, even if you were afraid to realize it.”

“It wasn’t a question of being afraid to realize it, I couldn’t afford to really feel it. If you’re going to get torn up about everything you can’t do anything about, you’re going to spend your whole life like that. There wasn’t anything I could do about any of it. All I could do was smile and exchange toasts, and uphold the honor of the Western World.” A specific memory brightened his mood. “Remember that luncheon, our last day on the front?” And suddenly they were laughing together. “Tell them, Mart.”

“You have to understand, Mr. Prosecutor, this was the big farewell luncheon to the visiting journalists, representatives of America, etc., etc. There was plenty of food, for once, but after a while I realized that they were trying to get Ernest drunk. There were fourteen officers around that table, and each one of them in turn stood up and toasted Ernest. That meant he had to stand up and say something in return, and then they’d empty their glass of this god-awful rice wine. Time and again, until some of them are turning strange colors and falling over. But Ernest is still on his feet, ready for more if need be. He looked a little grim, and I was afraid he was going to kill himself, but finally the general announced that there was no more wine, and we were able to get away.”

“She asked me how I felt, and I said, `Like a man who’s never going to make a speech or a toast ever again.’ Showed ’em, though.”

“So, Mr. Hemingway, after your visit to the front, you made your way to the wartime capital, Chunking, arriving in April. And there you found your way smoothed, somewhat, by the Finance Minister, did you not?”

“H.H. Kung, sure. Our first day there, we had all three meals with him. He was married to Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s sister, which made him one of the chief insiders in the government, not just the finance minister.”

“And I was so surprised when he called you Ernie!”

“That was me reaping the benefit of the good deeds of my Uncle Willoughby, who had gotten Kung into Oberlin College. Kung and I had met several times when I was a boy and he visited my family in Oak Park. I remember him teaching my sisters and me how to sing `Jesus Loves Me’ in Chinese. One of life’s little tricks. Kung didn’t actually have all that much power, but it was a good connection.”

“If you don’t count his avaricious, empty, calculating wife, living like a princess and clearly all that appalling poverty on every side never bothered her.”

“Well, Marty, she was what she was. Who knows what we would have been, raised the way she was? And how different is it anywhere? People who have been given a lot tend to think they deserve it, and when you’re surrounded by enormous social problems that you don’t understand, it’s tempting to assume that nothing can be done, so you might as well enjoy your own life.”

“It was still revolting.”

“You never had any use for missionaries, but you have to admit, people like my uncle did what they could. They put their lives on the line.”

“A drop in the bucket. If you’re going to change things, you have to organize. Missionaries didn’t change China, the Communist Party did.”

“Mr. Hemingway, do you agree?”

“Well, what the reds produced isn’t a society I could live in, but it’s head and shoulders above the situation we experienced. Granted, we were there during a war, but Chiang’s government was never going to do what the communists did. You could see it in the difference between the government men we were meeting and Chou En-lai.”

He was an impressive man.”

“He certainly was. I knew of him as a friend of Joris Ivens, the guy who made the `Spanish Earth’ film, who was a communist himself. I think they met when Chou was living in Paris in the 1920s. We only saw Chou the one day, for an hour or two – after a lot of cloak-and-dagger stuff to be sure the government didn’t know what we were doing – but you could see that he was somebody.”

“He was the only decent man we met in China.”

“On the other hand, I’d seen the communists close up in Spain, and one way they prepared themselves to govern was to lie like governments. So I didn’t believe everything Chou told me. But he was a force in himself, no question about it.”

“Your newspaper articles did not mention your meeting him. Why was that?”

“Because I had been told not to write anything that would stir up animosity between the reds and the government, and I felt bound by that. I wasn’t there to make the situation worse. All I could do was report on what I had learned, and hoped that somebody in the government would listen.”

“Did you ever consider going public?”

“No I didn’t. Who wanted to give aid and comfort to the Japs? If I wasn’t going to lie, I had to keep my mouth shut, and that is what I did.”

“And years later?”

“It never came up. After I got back from Europe in 1945, my days as correspondent were over.”

“You left the wartime capital, you and Miss Gellhorn flew to Rangoon, to see what you could learn about the effectiveness of the Burma Road, and then you returned to Hong Kong. Were you sorry to leave?”

“Sorry? No. But China was an interesting experience. I never forgot the day I watched 100,000 men building an airfield. They were working with the crudest tools you could imagine – carrying dirt in buckets, smashing rocks with sledges – but they got it done. That taught me that it was true, what a guy had said to me, that China could do anything it set its mind to. So, it was all interesting, and I never hated it like Marty. But I had spent weeks not writing, and ahead of me were more days of travel, and then sometime in May I’d need to write my articles for PM, and prepare a report for Treasury. After that, with luck, I would be able to return to my normal life.”

“But that didn’t happen.”

“It did not. We had a few months of recuperation, and then we got Pearl Harbor for an early Christmas present, and that was the end of the world between the wars.”

“So, the China trip took nearly half a year of your life, but never used the material in a book or story. Why was that?”

“Same reason I didn’t write about Eskimos or penguins. I didn’t know enough about it. And by the time the war was over, the China trip was ancient history.”

“You returned home by way of New York City, where you wrote the articles you had promised PM.”

“Well, I wrote three of them in Hong Kong, and smuggled them out in my shoes so the limeys couldn’t censor them. I wrote the others in New York. Ingersoll came up to my suite at the Barclay and interviewed me at length, with a secretary taking shorthand, and he used those notes to write another article, introducing my series. He and I didn’t get along so well, but he was a good newsman, a professional.”

“Looking back, any thoughts about the job you did?”

“I think it stands up. But whether it was worth the time and effort, I don’t know. I did get Martha out of China alive. I’m not sure that would have happened if she’d gone in alone.”

“I hope it won’t astonish you if I say that I agree.”

“Well, good. I thought maybe later events made you choose to forget.”

“I wasn’t going to advertise it, but I didn’t forget.”

“So in mid-June, you were reunited in New York City.”

“And then we went to Washington, D.C. so I could report, and I wound up talking to the Navy. That’s when I met John Thomason, at ONI. He was quite a guy, half a dozen years older than me, a Marine, and in 1918 when I was handing out chocolates and cigarettes on the Italian front, he was winning the Silver Star and the Navy Cross. He could draw, he wrote short stories, and he wrote a biography of Jeb Stuart. He knew how to listen, both him and his boss Colonel Charlie Sweeney, and they asked good questions. But they were sure wrong about what Japan would do in the Pacific. I didn’t argue with them. A few weeks on the ground doesn’t make you an expert. They were wrong, but hell, it was in their favor that they listened to us at all.”

 

 

2 thoughts on “Chapter 20: A Long Way from Home

  1. I haven’t had time to read all the chapters but this one was very interesting. Do you get the material the same way you get other Hemingway material? Thanks as always.

    1. This is a more complicated question than appears. I can’t think of a simple way to answer it. Fiction requires a lot of work on the author’s end, and it requires extending to an imagined persona as well. Defining all this would be to define imagination, intuition, ILC, various other forms of ESP. Not so easy to do.

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