Ernest Hemingway had just returned to London, after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, when he ran into Roald Dahl, then a British Royal Air Force officer. Hemingway told Dahl he’d witnessed a soldier escaping a burning tank on Omaha beach. Dahl responded that Hemingway should include the scene in his next piece for Collier’s, the New York magazine he wrote for at the time.
“You don’t think I’d give them that, do you?” replied Hemingway. “I’m keeping it for a book.”
Collier’s, a glossy weekly with a circulation of 2.8 million, was known as a forum for stellar writing. It was perhaps the most prestigious magazine in America, rivaled only by The Saturday Evening Post. It had commissioned Hemingway to cover what are now some of the most famous events in history, including the western Allies’ invasion of France and the collapse of the Third Reich.
We might have remembered that reportage alongside the best of his fiction. But we don’t—because Hemingway’s stint at Collier’s was a disaster.
His editors in New York were unimpressed with the six articles he filed. They were heroic portrayals, as requested, but of himself as much as of the protagonists in the epic events he was covering. Though he’d proven himself a capable war correspondent in Spain, China, and elsewhere, he had grown to dislike journalism. The relationship with Collier’s was cursed from the outset, and by the end of the war it had descended into a spat over an expense claim for about $13,000—or $187,000 in today’s money.
Hemingway knew the magazine because his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, had covered conflicts for Collier’s in Spain, London, Finland, and China. She adored the editor Charles Colebaugh, described by publisher William Chenery as “one of those editors who are the true midwives of literature [who possessed] wit, a merry sense of humor, an almost eighteenth-century love of writers.”
The publisher, Chenery, was himself a demanding task-master. He and Hemingway had clashed previously, in 1941, when he had accused the novelist of scooping Gellhorn on a story in China, despite the fact the two were supposed to be collaborating on their coverage. Despite the previous bad blood, Hemingway signed a fresh contract with Collier’s in early 1944 that would pay him $3,000 per 2,500- to 3,500-word article and cover “reasonable expenses.”
In doing so, Hemingway, who could have worked anywhere, took a job that Gellhorn craved. “She saw his choice as full of spite,” Gellhorn biographer Caroline Moorehead wrote. “This way he effectively jeopardized her position on the magazine, which in theory at least was allowed only one accredited journalist at the front.”
Hemingway, then 45, flew to London on May 17, while Gellhorn sailed on a munitions ship. In her absence, he drank heavily, and began to court Mary Welsh, who would become his fourth wife. On May 25, he suffered a gash to his head, concussion, and leg damage in a car accident. When Gellhorn landed days later, they fought. Hemingway was physically and verbally abusive.
Meanwhile, at Collier’s, Colebaugh had died. The cause remains a mystery. There was no obituary in any major New York publication, and Collier’s paid no tribute to him. On May 13, New York papers announced that Henry La Cossitt, a 42-year-old Louisiana native who had joined the Collier’s group in 1941, would be the new editor. Hemingway had lost the one Collier’s executive he got along with.
On the night of June 5, Hemingway boarded the attack transport Dorothea L. Dix. His knees were still injured from his car accident, so he was lowered by a bosun’s chair into a landing craft, packed with soldiers heading for the Green Fox Sector at Omaha Beach.
His cover story, which Collier’s sold heavily on his celebrity, started strongly. “No one remembers the date of the Battle of Shiloh,” he wrote. “But the day we took Green Fox Beach was the sixth of June, and the wind was blowing hard out of the northwest.”
His description of the tension and confusion aboard a landing craft was wonderful. But the article stressed his own role in finding the proper landing spot, and gives the impression the officers sought his guidance. He neglected to mention that, as a correspondent, he was barred from going ashore, and had returned to sea with the landing craft after the troops charged the beach.
Gellhorn had learned about the invasion in a London briefing. She headed to the coast, stowed away on a hospital ship, and posed as a stretcher-bearer to get to the front. She is credited with being the first American correspondent to land on French soil after D-Day. She wrote a wonderful article—one that stands up to scrutiny more than most of Hemingway’s—entitled “The First Hospital Ship,” which later appeared in her anthology of war dispatches, The Face of War.
After D-Day, Hemingway remained in England with Mary Welsh. He wrote a fine article about RAF pilots fighting unmanned “buzz bombs”—a kind of German rocket. Gellhorn joined Allied forces in Italy.
In July, Hemingway moved to France and joined the United States 22nd Infantry Regiment, which he would travel with until the Battle of the Ardennes began in December 1944. He continued to file articles to Collier’s, and to give the impression that he himself was a combatant.
On October 7, Collier’s updated its masthead to show Hemingway was its correspondent in France and Gellhorn in Italy. They were going through a brutal divorce at the time. In its September 7 and October 30 issues, the magazine ran a two-part article in which Hemingway described his own emotions in liberating Paris.
Hemingway seemed to consider himself more a soldier than journalist. When he wasn’t traveling with the 22nd or meeting with Welsh, he was fighting with a band of French guerrillas. On October 6, he appeared before a tribunal on charges he violated the Geneva convention by joining battle while working as a correspondent. He talked his way out of it.
In private correspondence, he spoke of wanting to write fiction, not journalism. And he told Gellhorn how much he hated the magazine that had made her famous. “Colliers cuts out everything good I write… all the life,” Hemingway wrote to her in December. He would file only two more articles, stories from the Allied advance toward Germany in late 1944.
Gellhorn herself “followed the war wherever I could reach it,” as she wrote in The Face of War. She returned to northern Europe, where she exposed Nazi torture chambers in Paris and wrote of American troops liberating Dachau.
Hemingway returned to North America in March 1945, and his battles with Collier’s intensified. He was furious Collier’s had not forwarded him personal letters that his family sent via the magazine, including one that would have informed him that his son Jack, missing in action in Europe, had been captured by the Germans rather than killed.
After visiting the magazine in New York in March, he wrote to Welsh: “La Cossitt, ed Colliers, now a BIG SHOT — told me yesterday he thought the buzzbomb piece was one of the lousiest (his words) things he’s ever read but that it had the ‘great reader reaction[‘] of anything they had ever published. This puzzled him.”
On August 27, Hemingway mailed La Cossitt the most remarkable document he ever sent to Collier’s: his expense account. The typed list ran to three legal-sized pages. His expenses in London included $680 (about $9,700 in 2019 money) for hire of a car and chauffeur, $220 ($3,100) for laundry, newspapers and tips, and a total of $1,824 ($26,000) for entertaining officers, meals with fighter pilots and three dinners with British politicians and newspaper proprietors.
His costs on the continent included the hire of two secretaries, a car and chauffeur on the black market, and “horse cabs for brief trips in Paris.” He charged the magazine for things that got lost or destroyed, including $350 ($5,000) for field glasses ruined in Schnee Eifel and a typewriter destroyed at St. Lo. His entertainment budget for this segment of the trip ran to $2,200 ($31,000). “All Paris entertaining necessarily Black Market because in War Correspondents Mess we [were] permitted only two guests per week,” he noted.
The total expense claim was $13,436.75 ($187,500 or so). He said he did not charge Collier’s for medical fees for his concussion in London, maintenance of vehicles used by his irregular troops, and the loss of a Mercedes Benz and Delahaye convertibles that were destroyed by enemy fire.
Chenery replied in October that the claim was “out of all proportion to the enterprise.” He offered Hemingway expenses of $1,000 ($14,000) for each story he had filed—a total of $6,000 ($84,000). The magazine had already advanced Hemingway $4,500 ($64,000), so he received expenses of $1,500 ($20,000).
“As a war correspondent in the Hitler war,” Roald Dahl said later, “I would rate him as very poor, but he didn’t try to be good then.”
Correction: A previous version of this piece said that there had been no obit of Colebaugh. There was an obit of Colebaugh in the Boston Globe.