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Words of Warning

Dorothy Thompson's 1930's journalism still rings true


Published October 27, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Society is deranged ...It is dominated by moral and emotional morons ...I want sabotage and opposition ...sabotage and opposition ...sabotage and opposition, against militarism in all of its forms.

-- Dorothy Thompson, 1939

Funny, isn't it, that a woman who said that should vote Republican all her life? Well, damn it, she did. There was one cantankerous exception, in 1948, when "the disaster of the Peace," as Dorothy Thompson regarded the outcome of World War II, led her to cast her vote for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate. It was Thompson's way of protesting the lack of "serious ideas" in American politics, and it marked the end of her eminence as a writer and pundit -- "the best reporter this generation has seen in any country," as her colleague John Gunther remarked, "and that is not saying nearly enough."

What could say enough? In 1939, as Adolf Hitler made war on the world, Dorothy Thompson was featured on the cover of Time, poised before an NBC radio microphone over the caption, "She rides in the smoking car."

She was "the most influential woman" in the United States, after Eleanor Roosevelt -- "and it may be said of Miss Thompson," said Time, "that she came up over a rockier path." Her thrice-weekly column, "On the Record," originating in The New York Herald Tribune, was syndicated to more than 200 papers in America; she was heard nightly on the radio by tens of millions of people; and during just one week, in 1937, she was obliged to turn down 700 invitations to speak to them in the flesh -- at rallies, conventions, clubs, forums, dinners, commencements, business "roasts" and so on.

That same year, Dorothy Thompson received honorary degrees from six colleges and universities (among them Dartmouth, Columbia, Tufts and Syracuse, her alma mater), and became the first woman ever to address the Harvard Club and the Union League. She was profiled in The Nation and em>The New Yorker, Collier's, Scribner's and The Saturday Evening Post, while every wit, wise-guy and political stunt-man in America made jokes at her expense.

"Dorothy Thompson is perhaps the only person in the United States who makes a career out of stewing publicly about the state of the world," said Jack Alexander, a well-known magazine writer of the time. "She ingests the cosmos and personalizes its pains."

Sir Wilmott Lewis, Washington correspondent for The Times of London, quipped that Thompson had "discovered the secret of perpetual emotion," while Alice Roosevelt Longworth, in a line that has been famous ever since, declared that Dorothy was "the only woman in history who has had her menopause in public and made it pay."

Thompson was also called "a breast-beating Boadicea," in one report, "wet nurse to destiny," "our self-appointed anti-fascist Joan of Arc," combining "the seeing eye of Cassandra and the appearance of Brunnhilde with the gusto of General Patton and the holy fire of a crusading apostle."

Dorothy Thompson was the model for "Tess Harding," the chic, sexy, globe-trotting foreign correspondent and newspaper columnist, first portrayed by Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942) -- Hepburn's first film teaming with Spencer Tracy -- and later by Lauren Bacall in the Broadway musical Applause. In her off-moments, Thompson confessed to friends that she had always wanted to be "blonde and kittenish," but could never do it.

She was also a Vermonter, a resident of Barnard, just north of Woodstock. And you've never heard of her, have you?

Thought not. But why? I was Dorothy Thompson's biographer, some years ago, and while I imagined that my book about her, American Cassandra (Little, Brown, 1990), must resurrect her in the public mind, it never did. The reviews were terrific, the features prominent, the gratitude immense from her surviving family and friends.

"Dorothy Thompson!" George Seldes cried to me one day in Hartland -- "What a woman!" They weren't just neighbors in Vermont, but had been cub reporters together in Berlin in the 1920s. Both had chronicled the rise of the Nazis for American newspapers, but it was Thompson, not Seldes, who was the first to be kicked out of Germany when Hitler came to power. Indeed, she was the first foreign correspondent in Europe to whom any such thing had ever happened.

"Nazism has once more demonstrated its utter inability to understand any mentality but its own," said The New York Times in its front-page story -- this was August 1934. The German Foreign Ministry, on Hitler's order, had actually established something called "The Dorothy Thompson Emergency Squad," whose job it was to translate and monitor every word she wrote against the Nazi regime. These were plenty: Of the quarter-million words she wrote between 1938 and 1940 -- and these don't include her radio talks or her lecture programs -- three-fifths were devoted to attacking Hitler and the cowards who sustained him.

"As far as I can see," Thompson remarked after her expulsion from Berlin, "I really was put out of Germany for the crime of blasphemy. My offense was to think that Hitler is just an ordinary man, after all. This is a crime against the reigning cult in Germany, which says that Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent by God to save the German people -- an old Jewish idea."

She had met and interviewed Hitler for the first time in 1931, in Munich, where she was so bowled over by his "utter insignificance" that she "considered taking smelling salts" to keep from fainting. In her columns, she worried a great deal about "the Common Man. The Common Man is important," she explained, "because there are so many of him."

"There was a lot of fussiness connected with the preparations," Thompson remembered about her first tea with Adolf. "Not, somehow, what one would expect from a man to whom The Deed is everything." The Nazis altogether she regarded as "a lot of wavy-haired bugger-boys," "pink-cheeked mediocrities," making "a fetish out of brotherhood" and in thrall to a homoerotic exaltation.

"He is formless," she wrote about Hitler, "almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man. ...Looking at Hitler, I saw a whole panorama of German faces; men whom this man thinks he will rule. And I thought: Mr. Hitler, you may get, in the next elections, the fifteen million votes you need. But fifteen million Germans CAN be wrong."

Later, when the full force of Nazism had crashed over Europe, Thompson was asked to defend her "Little Man" remark. "I still believe he is a little man," she replied. "He is the apotheosis of the little man." Nazism itself was "the apotheosis of collective mediocrity in all its forms."

And you still haven't heard of her, have you? No, you've got Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil," in the same way that you think -- as you've been conditioned to think -- that modern journalism began with Edward R. Murrow. Dorothy Thompson is lost to history -- the general fate, I suspect, of any woman who makes waves without screwing people, and the specific fate of a woman so famous in her time for her boldness that her second husband, Nobel Prize-winner Sinclair Lewis, author of Main Street, Babbitt, Dodsworth and It Can't Happen Here, declared that if he and Dorothy were ever divorced, he'd name "Adolf Hitler as correspondent."

"Red is so funny," Thompson said, using Lewis' universal nickname. She kicked him out, finally, not over Hitler, but drunkenness. The houses they lived in during their summers in Vermont -- two of them, originally, called "Twin Farms" -- have since been reduced to one by fire, and that one is now such a madly expensive "bed-and-breakfast," a "resort so upscale," as a recent AP travel story puts it, that you need at least $1000 a day just to stay in one of its outbuildings -- none of which were there when Thompson was. And that's without meals. And that's without wine.

Neither will the Lewis estate allow the names of Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis to be used in any sort of promotion for this money-drenched thing. There is -- or at least was -- a plaque at Twin Farms, which George Seldes got up, announcing that "in this house, Nobel Prize-winner Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can't Happen Here."

OK, George, fine, wherever you are. But you know and I know that without "Miss Thompson," Sinclair Lewis would never have written or even dreamed about It Can't Happen Here. All his biographers admit it; all of Dorothy's are sure of it. And as America, in this next week, makes a choice between an evil neo-fascism under George W. Bush and a "let's-try-it-on-and-see-if-it-works" democracy under John Kerry -- it is Thompson's words, not Lewis', that need engraving on a plaque.

Please, listen to these:

I know now that there are things for which I am prepared to die. I am willing to die for political freedom; for the right to give my loyalty to ideals above a nation and above a class; for the right to teach my child what I think to be the truth; for the right to explore such knowledge as my brains can penetrate; for the right to love where my mind and heart admire, without reference to some dictator's code; for the right to work with others of like mind; for a society that seems to me becoming to the dignity of the human race.

Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961) R.I.P.

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