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Wonder Woman

American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson

by Peter Kurth
Little, Brown, 587 pp., $24.95

Dorothy Thompson
Dorothy Thompson; drawing by David Levine

When Dorothy Thompson’s last collection of columns, The Courage to Be Happy, was published in 1957 and got a friendly review from The New York Times, its author professed to be disappointed. “It’s a magnificent testimony to my character—of the ‘whether you agree with her or not’ variety—“ she complained to her editor, “but it seems to be my fate always to be judged as a conscience and a character rather than as a mind and a writer.”

No degree of praise fully satisfies any author, of course, but Thompson had a point, and, despite the efforts of her exhaustive new biographer, Peter Kurth, to include an assessment of her ideas and her writing alongside the events of her crowded, peripatetic life, it is still primarily her conscience and character that hold our interest.

It is hard, more than half a century after the fact, fully to understand the power Dorothy. Thompson exercised during the prewar years. “She can do more for any cause than any private citizen in the United States,” Time reported in 1937; among American women, only Eleanor Roosevelt was said to be more influential. Her column, “On the Record,” appeared in 170 newspapers three times a week and had ten million readers. She had her further vigorous say every week on NBC Radio, every month in the Ladies’ Home Journal, and between deadlines she swept back and forth across the continent sounding her alarms in person. Her subject was almost invariably the same: Adolf Hitler meant precisely what he said in Mein Kampf, and the future of civilization depended upon stopping him in his tracks.

Her single-mindedness wearied even her admirers. “She was always one-ideaed,” an old friend remembered, “and difficult either to work or play with, unless the idea she had was shared by her playfellow.” Walter Lippmann privately compared her to the Statue of Liberty: “Made of brass. Visible at all times to the world. Holding the light aloft, but always the same light…. Capable of being admired but difficult to love.” But she got results. “Day by day,” wrote her friend, the novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher, “with a clang like that of a powerfully swung hammer, she beat upon [the] general confusion of mind till the will to defend democracy was forged.”

The zeal with which she produced that righteous din came naturally to Dorothy Thompson. Born in 1893, she grew up in a succession of threadbare Methodist parsonages in upstate New York. The Reverend Peter Thompson, the English-born father she adored, was a slight, frail man, over whom his wife and two daughters constantly fussed, but his message was unfailingly cheerful and robust: “It is our privilege to be winsome for Christ,” he assured his flock, and when for six months his family was forced to subsist largely on rice and apples, he got them through it by reminding the children that Asians throve on rice and “the heathen,… admirable people in some respects, [are] able to teach us many things.”

He was very nearly everything to his daughter; his example would remain with her all her life, the bench mark against which she measured both the world and herself and found both wanting:

[M]y…childhood was bathed in a warmth and light, which was nothing but the irradiation of a beautiful personality, a man whose sole being was warmth and light: my father. His intimate belief in the goodness and justice of God, his unconquerable faith in the inherent decency of men, made him a creature radiating cheerfulness, even gaiety, turning every misfortune into a challenge or an only half-rueful joke…. His was the liberal spirit.1

Her mother died when Dorothy was seven, after exacting a deathbed promise to “always care for your sister and your father.” She did her earnest best to fulfill that pledge, waiting at the door each afternoon for her father to return from his pastoral calls so that she could brew his tea and fetch his slippers, just as her mother had—and was rewarded for her fidelity by his remarriage to the church pianist, a hypochondriacal interloper who seems from the first to have loathed her eldest stepchild and whose loathing the little girl returned in full measure.

At fifteen, Dorothy was shipped off to Chicago to live with two aunts, ostensibly so that she could enjoy big-city “advantages,” actually because her stepmother could no longer abide her assertive adolescent presence. In later years, Thompson professed to have been delighted by this sudden move and the new vistas it opened to her (and she must in fact have felt some genuine relief in escaping the tensions of the parsonage), but her younger sister recalled that at the time she went “about in a sort of daze. She felt that Father had deserted her at last.”

Dorothy Thompson would later credit her father with having taught her a host of things that comprised the core of her beliefs throughout her career: the sense that the world was “a continual struggle between good and evil, virtue and sin,” that “progress was furthered only through creative individuals, whose example and achievement leavened and lifted the masses,” above all, perhaps, the conviction that she could be one of those creative individuals, could do anything she wanted to do, in fact, once she set her mind to it.

But her father’s meek acquiescence in her exile also seems to have taught her other lessons, unacknowledged but no less formative. She evidently never stopped believing that her beloved father would somehow have managed to keep her with him had her already fierce independence not led her to neglect his needs. “Oh, my dear father!” she wrote in her diary years after his death in 1921. “I was never a comfort to you and you live in me like the truth of a thought. I wanted to grow up, amount to something, do something for you, make you proud of me.” All her life she remained torn between her drive to make her own, utterly autonomous way, and her guilt at failing to be “a comfort” to those she loved but left behind.

Outwardly, she displayed astonishing self-confidence throughout her life. Even as a child she had been thought by some too full of herself, too voluble, too “sassy” and “highty-tighty.” She exhausted her teachers in junior college, and at Syracuse University she established a reputation for rapid-fire talk on every imaginable topic, scared off male suitors (“She knew too much,” one remembered. “A fellow felt inferior.”), and formed ardent attachments with other women equally eager to free themselves of what she called “artificial repressions, conventions or traditions.”

After college she stumped western New York for the Woman Suffrage Party in New York, tried social work in the slums of Cincinnati and writing advertising copy in Manhattan, and fell in love, first with a much older woman, Gertrude Franchot Tone, a well-to-do Niagara Falls suffragist and pacifist (and the mother of the actor Franchot Tone), who encouraged her to believe that she was “a daughter of the gods,” and then with a married man, Wilbur C. Phillips, founder of the philanthropic National Social Unit Organization for which she worked for a time as chief publicist.

In 1920, she fled to Europe to forget Phillips—and to see if, at twenty-seven, and with little experience, she could make her way as a journalist. “[M]en are brutes,” she confided to a friend before she embarked, “nothing will make you happy except what you can find in yourself,…nothing else matters much except keeping your own self respect and having satisfactory work.” Her attitude toward men eventually mellowed, but her other priorities were set for life.

She got her first story aboard ship. After chatting with members of a Zionist delegation on its way to London for a conference on Palestine’s future, she talked the London office of the International News Service into believing that “I know more about Zionism than anyone else,” and got assigned to cover the conference. Soon she was scouring Europe for stories as a free-lancer, aided at first by Marcel Fodor, the distinguished correspondent of The Manchester Guardian, whose devotion to her survived her refusal of his marriage proposal.

She brought to reporting inexhaustible curiosity and vast energy—a colleague recalled her as “the blue-eyed tornado”—as well as a talent for making events in exotic Europe comprehensible to stay-at-home Americans and a gift for placing herself at the center of a story. It was “a wonderful, risky unforgettable time,” she later wrote. She survived riots in Budapest and Vienna, covered coups, wangled interviews with an astonishing number of important people—Atatürk, Trotsky, Masaryk, Richard Strauss, Romain Rolland. She liked to remember that when news of a Polish uprising took her by surprise at a Vienna dinner party, she boarded the night train for Warsaw, still in her evening gown and slippers and holding a ticket paid for with a late-evening loan from Freud.

It was not long before she was made bureau chief of The Philadelphia Public Ledger, with headquarters in Berlin, a salary of $50 a week, and nine countries to cover. The once-staid Ledger had recently been bought by Cyrus H.K. Curtis, publisher of the Saturday Evening Post, who was willing to provide what he called “unlimited funds” to beat the competition overseas. Thompson was not the first American woman to run an overseas bureau but she soon made herself the most celebrated, reporting on German affairs with such brisk authority that John Gunther declared her “the best journalist this generation has produced in any country….” Still, “[t]his isn’t enough for me,” she told a friend. “It’s not what I really want. I’m nothing in my own country. I want to be something there—something no woman has been yet.”

Tall, fresh-faced and striking, with a big, resolute jaw and brilliant blue eyes, Thompson was a distinctive presence among her male competitors, and a number of them pursued her without success. “Yes, dear,” she is supposed to have told an especially ardent Austrian begging for a kiss, “but right this minute I’ve simply got to get to the bottom of this Bulgarian business.”

Among her most persistent suitors was Joseph Bard, a handsome Hungarian Jew with philosophical pretensions, then embarked upon a trilingual treatise, The Mind of Europe, that never quite got finished. “He looked like an Egyptian prince,” Thompson remembered, “his hair lay on his head like burnished wings…. Something emanated from him…. Tenderness…beauty…one felt always shy before it. A little blinded.” Her friend Rebecca West was less impressed: Bard was “not an unkindly soul,” she remembered, “but the equivalent of a hairdresser, with a naive passion for fancy vests.”

In any case, he talked her into marrying him in 1923. “Delirious with love, I was,” she remembered, “delirious with youth and love together, and yet in the midst of it that blackness over my heart, that certainty of apprehension: This man will let me down; I shall break my heart over this.”

He did let her down, living off her salary and seducing her woman friends, while accusing her of devoting too little time to him. She stuck with him for four years, having persuaded herself that no matter how he treated her it was her duty to nurture his creativity, to provide him with the comfort she had somehow failed to provide for her father: “It is my one consciousness of worth,” she wrote, “—the feeling that there is in me a source of strength renewed from some deep inner spring, some rich abundance of nature, which others who have talent to give it form can draw upon.” When she herself spent a drunken night with the flamboyant, one-eyed reporter, Floyd Gibbons, her husband demanded a divorce.

It came through in 1927, the year she fell in love with another man of whose creative genius she was still more certain—Sinclair Lewis, then the most celebrated writer in America, already the author of Main Street, Babbit, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry.

The marriage that began the following year, one of the most spectacularly unhappy in American literary history, may also be the most exhaustively chronicled: Mark Schorer’s Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, Vincent Sheehan’s Dorothy and Red, and Marion K. Sanders’s Dorothy Thompson: A Legend in Her Own Time have all gone over the same ground, and it is not her latest biographer’s fault that he adds little to their harrowing battlefield reports.

Lewis was distant, demanding, and very often drunk and vituperative, by turns proud and envious of the wife whose celebrity grew as his own creative powers waned. For her part, Thompson came to detest her husband’s sodden self-pity, could not bear to watch him drink himself to death, and, despite the fact that she did not wish to lose him through failing to be a source of everlasting support—as she was convinced she had somehow lost her father and her first husband—was unwilling either to cut back on her work or to curtail the travel that work demanded. “You will have to choose,” Lewis told his wife once while she was away. “I can’t stand this. I haven’t a wife.”

She hadn’t much of a husband, either. Even when she was at home, Lewis disappeared for days at a time, coldly ignored their only child, Michael, was routinely rude to her friends, and to her in front of her friends: a guest remembered her struggling to continue a conversation about the situation in Europe while Lewis crouched beneath the dinner table, bellowing that he could not stand to hear another word about “the Situation.” Sex was never among his priorities—“I exist mostly above the neck,” Lewis once admitted—while Dorothy Thompson flourished everywhere: “She was the most obviously sensual woman I have ever met,” remembers a friend who did not first set eyes on her until she was in her late fifties.

“I prefer men,” she once told a friend. “But better keep off this subject. Nowadays every time one opens one’s mouth a psychoanalyst peers into it.” She had a number of affairs with women as well as men, and her lengthiest liaison during her marriage to Lewis was with Christa Winsloe, the beautiful, divorced Baroness Hatvany of Budapest, author of The Child Manuela, the novel about a girl’s school upon which the film Mädchen in Uniform was based. In her journal, Thompson worried over her feelings for the baroness with the same theatrical intensity with which she would later brood over world events:

There’s something weak in it, and even ridiculous. To love a woman is somehow ridiculous. Mir auch passt es niche. Ich bin doch heterosexuel. [“Anyway it doesn’t suit me. I am heterosexual.”]

Well, then, how account for this which has happened again….

She continued the relationship for more than three years, reveling in what she called “this incredible feeling of sisterhood,” while assuring her husband that he needn’t worry, “I ain’t thata way,” until her lover abandoned her, for Ezio Pinza.

H.L. Mencken’s recently published diary includes an account of a characteristic weekend at Twin Farms, the Lewises’ summer home near Woodstock, Vermont, during which a perpetually drunken Lewis deliberately drove his car into a ditch, smuggled a bottle of rye into his desk, and then, after he had finished it, could not be dissuaded from angrily demanding that his wife uncover the liquor supply she kept hidden from him. “He craves whiskey,” Mencken concluded, “and when he gets the chance he drinks it straight, drink after drink…. He is in a sad mess, and his poor wife is a tragic figure.”2

Later, when Thompson was leading her interventionist crusade, Mencken altered his opinion, partly because Thompson’s ideas differed so completely from his: “Ignorant bitch,” he would then say of her. “Shrieking hurricane…. Poor Red Lewis, stuck with that.” That was more or less what Lewis hoped posterity would think, and he caricatured her mercilessly in one of his least memorable novels. Gideon Planish, as

Winifred Homeward the Talking Woman,…an automatic, self-starting talker. Any throng of more than two persons constituted a lecture audience for her, and at the sight of them she mounted an imaginary platform, pushed aside an imaginary glass of water, and started a fervent address full of imaginary information about Conditions and Situations that lasted till the audience had sneaked out—or a little longer.

Lewis himself left for good in 1937, but Thompson refused to grant him a divorce until 1942, reluctant perhaps to admit that she had again failed to provide sufficiently selfless support to someone she loved, and she continued to look after both Wells Lewis, the son of Lewis’s first marriage (killed in Europe in 1944), and their own son, for whose alcoholism and instability she continued to blame herself to the end of her life.

Early in their marriage it amused Lewis to say that if he were ever divorced he would name Adolf Hitler as corespondent. Certainly, it was Hitler who ensured that his wife would no longer be known primarily as Mrs. Sinclair Lewis. In November 1931, before he became Führer, she interviewed him and was unimpressed:

When finally I walked into Adolf Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure I was not.

It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog.

He is formless, almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, illpoised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man….

The Little Man himself was enraged by her scornful dismissal and shortly after he came to power, following a series she wrote for the Jewish Daily Bulletin in New York warning of what the Nazis were planning for the Jews, he ordered her expelled from Germany.

She wept as her train pulled out of Berlin, her arms filled with roses from the reporters assembled to see her off. She never lost her love for the Germany she had known before the Nazis commandeered it. But her expulsion made her famous. She set out on a thirty-city speaking tour as soon as she got home, warning that “Germany has gone to war already and the rest of the world does not believe it.” She was soon offered her own column in the New York Herald Tribune.

This, Thompson believed, was the real beginning of her career. After fifteen years of reporting events, she was now in a position to shape them. Her politics were always distinctively her own. Having visited the Soviet Union and lived in Nazi Germany, she learned to distrust “collectivism” of any kind, and declared herself faithful to what she called the “aristo-democratic…liberalism of the Founding Fathers,” of which she had her own characteristically grandiloquent definition:

To be a Liberal means to believe in human freedom. It means to believe in human beings. It means to champion that social and political order which releases the greatest amount of human energy; permits greatest liberty for individuals and groups, in planning and living their lives; cherishes freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of action, limited by only one thing: the protection of the freedom of others.

To be a Liberal did not mean to be a supporter of the New Deal, in which she thought she saw signs of incipient fascism. It was all very well for FDR to proclaim that “this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny,” she wrote, but “this generation had better not make any blind dates,” and she opposed the Wagner Act, the Federal Writers’ Project, and Social Security (because, she said, it violated “my constitutional right to be insecure”). Roosevelt dismissed her as “the oracle of Wall Street.” At the same time, she deplored what she called “roughshod capitalism,” and its mindless focus on material gain at the expense of individual worth.

She had also been brought up to believe that mankind’s real problems—and the answers to them—were finally spiritual. “There is only one effective revolution,” she said in 1937, in words that might have been spoken by her father, “and that is the revolution represented by the evangelical idea of conversion: that men see where they have been wrong; that a light dawns upon them; and that they change their ways.”

It was her task, she thought, to help them see that light. Nazism was “the apotheosis of collective mediocrity,” she wrote, bullying, bigoted, evil, godless.

In its joyful destruction of all previous standards; in its wild affirmation of the “drive of the Will”; in its Oriental acceptance of death as the fecundator of life and of the will to death as the true heroism, it is darkly nihilistic. Placing will above reason; the ideal above reality; appealing, unremittingly, to totem and taboo, elevating tribal fetishes; subjugating and destroying the common sense that grows out of human experience; of an oceanic boundlessness, [Nazism]…is the enemy of whatever is sunny, reasonable, pragmatic, common-sense, freedom-loving, life-affirming, formseeking, and conscious of tradition…. [I]t cannot be appeased; it can only be opposed.

Thompson opposed it more implacably than any other prominent American journalist, at a time when public opinion was overwhelmingly against increased American involvement in European affairs. Fierce with indignation at the evil of the Nazis and frustration at the timorousness of the democracies, she sat at her typewriter beneath a hand-lettered sign that read

GOD PROTECTS US

FROM

TRAITORS AT HOME

AND

TYRANTS ABROAD

and took it upon herself to stiffen the American spine. No one seemed to intimidate her. She took on Charles Lindbergh when other interventionists quailed at attacking America’s greatest hero, and after Father Charles Coughlin patronized her as “Dotty” on the radio, she routinely referred to him as “Chuck” in her columns. When she covered a German-American Bund rally in Madison Square Garden, she shouted “bunk” from the front row of the press gallery so loudly that the rattled brown-shirt at the microphone ordered her ejected.

Nor was she afraid to face squarely the issue about which most of her colleagues kept timidly silent—Hitler’s threat to Europe’s Jews. She identified herself with their plight despite death threats and hate mail accusing her of being “Jewry’s protegé”: “The crisis is not a Jewish crisis,” she wrote after Kristallnacht. “It is a human crisis.”

To help meet it, she urged the Roosevelt administration to adopt a coordinated political strategy with other nations to shelter Hitler’s victims.

But whether any comprehensive plan will be proposed at all by any body of responsible people…depends in the final show down, on whether there is a will anywhere in the world to deal with it. …[W]e are moved not merely by pity for the exiles, but by the need to reaffirm our own beliefs, to take a stand for them, to re-capture the ground which our indifference has lost, lest all our precepts become hollow dogmas to which, at last, not even lip service will be given anywhere.

For the most part, lip service is all she got. Largely because of her exhortations the Roosevelt administration convened the 1938 conference at Evians-les-Bains, but the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees created by it was feeble at birth and moribund the moment the war began.

As her fame spread, Thompson grew increasingly imperious and eventually came to be seen by many—including herself in the end—as the personal embodiment of the struggle against Nazism. She did not demur when introduced over the radio as “a cross between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nurse Edith Cavell,” and when she was complimented for having “spoken like an angel,” she nodded gravely in agreement, then added “and every word was true.”

“I am living,” she wrote, “on quantities of adrenalin[e], self-distilled from the fury I feel for appeasers, for the listless, apathetic and stupid people who still exist in this sad world!” That fury, often further fueled by Dexedrine, infused everything she said or wrote or broadcast. One critic suggested that Let the Record Speak, a collection of her columns, be retitled Let the Record Shout because her “prose style…reproduces with extraordinary fidelity the effect of having someone bellowing in your ear.”

It is difficult for us now to understand just why Thompson was so often attacked for being overwrought during the prewar years. Her apocalyptic tone, with its unequivocal moral judgments, its elbows-out style, and thickets of exclamation marks, seems just what those apocalyptic times demanded. For we know, as neither she nor her contemporary critics could possibly have known, that Nazism was still more radically evil than she thought, that the nightmare about to befall Europe would be worse than even she could dream of. Read today, her opinions seem not so much shrill or even prescient as self-evident: of course, there would be no “free rides to freedom” for America; democracy certainly would “not be preserved by geography or by the insistent chant, that no matter where else it is raining it is bound to be sunny here—if not today, then tomorrow”; Hitler was indeed a “psychopath,” and Munich, a temporary peace “established on betrayal” and sustainable only by “further betrayal.”

While she may have been gracelessly self-aggrandizing to call herself Cassandra, as she did in a 1939 column that sonorously called the roll of past prophecies that had proved all too accurate, she was in fact far more often right than wrong during the prewar years, and that American opinion swung slowly but inexorably toward the hard fact that Hitler could not be beaten without American help was owing in no small part to the relentlessness with which she foretold what was coming and explained what was at stake.

In the end her single-mindedness cost her her column. In October 1940, after helping to promote Wendell Willkie’s Republican candidacy for president, she deserted him in favor of FDR, afraid that even Willkie would in the end prove unable to withstand the isolationist wing of his party. The Republican publisher of the Herald Tribune refused to renew her contract.

She then went to work for The New York Post and shortly thereafter fell in love again, this time happily, with Maxim Kopf, a big, amiable Czech émigré painter of mediocre portraits and religious scenes. She fretted that her celebrity would drive him away: “My experience of intimate personal things has been very bitter,” she warned him. “For it is hard for a man to be constantly shoved aside by the crowd.”

She needn’t have worried. Calling her “my Great Woman” and “Sweet Majesty,” he jettisoned his third wife to marry her in 1943. Their marriage was vigorously physical—“When I make love the house shakes,” Thompson gleefully confessed to a startled friend as she approached sixty—and whenever she came home from her travels she knew she could count upon finding the bed made, the house clean, dinner in the oven, her drink chilled and waiting. Dorothy Thompson had found herself the perfect wife.

She would need his support as her attempts to apply her moral indignation to new and more elusive targets drove away old allies. While most Americans were preoccupied with winning the war, Thompson was already exercised over the kind of peace that should follow it. In 1943, she denounced the Allied policy of unconditional surrender as a “barbarity,” sure to prolong the bloodshed by discouraging decent Germans from suing for peace. She took a dim view of what she called the “Hollywoodizing” of the war, too: “If I have to read another ad in which a wounded soldier tells me that he is fighting for fluorescent lighting I will go on strike.” And as the fighting ended she angrily opposed those who attributed Nazi crimes to some unique flaw in the German character. After visiting Dachau in 1945 she wrote:

If only one could say, and dismiss it with that, “These people are savages.” They are—but they are a new and terrifying kind of savage…. For modern man has set himself up in his own image; or rather, he has set up his own creations as the image of God. He is “functional.”…Hitlerism is not a unique, isolated phenomenon, but a terrible example and warning. It is a symptom of universal moral crisis which even in cries for revenge and reprisal emits the animal-like cries of Nazism itself.

Having defeated the Germans, Americans did not wish to be told they were in any way like them. Nor did they much like her criticism of the Nuremberg trials as hypocritical. Or her sympathy with German civilians struggling to survive. Addressing a Town Hall audience in New York, Kurth writes, she warned of mass starvation if something were not done: “To drive the point home,” she remembered, “I suggested that it would be more humane to reopen the gas chambers for German children,” and to her horror—“just at Christmastime, perhaps in commemoration of the Babe of Bethlehem,…the response was a scattered applause. The vicarious spectacle of the famished bodies and charred bones of Nazi victims had only turned the applauders into vicarious baby-killers themselves.”

In 1947, the Post dropped her column; she was still syndicated but she would never again have an outlet in New York. “Politically,” a friend remembered, “she was like a great ship left stranded on the beach after the tide had gone out.”

Yet with her audience steadily shrinking, and her passionate certainty fully intact, she continued to set her own course for another eleven years. As always, her views were consistent only in the stubborn conviction with which she proclaimed them. She went after progressive education and big-city “sophisticates,” saw less to fear from Joe McCarthy than from Moscow’s agents in America, and was disappointed when Harry Truman refused to declare a national day of prayer that she was convinced would keep the Soviets from expanding further into Europe.

In 1948, she decided that men had proved themselves unworthy of world leadership; only women could bring about a genuine peace. “Gentleman beware!” she began “A Woman’s Manifesto” that even her editors at the Ladies’ Home Journal found “nauseating” in its “earth-motherish” tone:

I come…not to beseech but to warn. I come humbly, but without fear. For I am pushed forward by the hosts of the mothers, for whom you first groped in the dark, and without whom you wander now, in the dark…. Gentlemen we would relieve you of your fears. But first you must lay aside your guns. You cannot talk to your mothers with planes and atomic bombs. You must come into the room of your mother unarmed.

She was flattered that her writings served as the central document of a short-lived international women’s peace group, the World Organization of Mothers of All Nations (WOMAN), but she declined to get deeply involved; she was too “apocalyptic” for committee work, she said.

She further alienated her old constituency by opposing creation of the State of Israel, which, she predicted, would ensure “perpetual war” in the Middle East. The “extermination of the European Jews could not be laid at the door” of the Arabs, she wrote. “I should be opposed to it if I were a Jew with the undimmed memory of the dispersion of my own people in mind. I should not want any Arab to sit beside the waters of Babylon and weep because he remembered Zion….”

Thompson’s prewar efforts on behalf of European Jews were at once forgotten by many American Zionists; false rumors were spread that she was an alcoholic, on the take from Ibn Saud, a prisoner of her new husband who was secretly a Nazi. “What a world,” she wrote a friend, “when even the Jews have gone crazy”—but she refused to give in: she was a founder of the pro-Arab American Friends of the Middle East and served as its president for five years, mostly, she later confessed, out of anger at how her record had been distorted.

Only the death of her third husband silenced her. A month after Maxim Kopf’s death in 1958, weary and grieving, she gave up the column she had turned out three times a week for twenty-one years. She attempted an autobiography, but never got much beyond her childhood, which she remembered as uniformly sunny, suffused with the memory of her beloved father. “Certainly my life had its essential pattern fixed before I was 12,” she wrote. In comparison, the years afterward seemed largely to have lost their meaning:

Odd that I never really knew what I wanted to “do” with my life except live it, and not work from 9 to 5 in an office, at a “job.” Journalism was only a means to an end—to see, to learn, if possible to be. The means swallowed the end and the search for freedom became a (voluntary) slavery. I find today that the “success” I had means nothing to me whatever. I wonder exactly what went wrong.

She died in 1961, disappointed that her tireless efforts to spread something of her father’s warmth and light could not finally stop the world from growing steadily more cold and dark.

  1. 1

    Dorothy Thompson’s Political Guide (Stackpole Publishers, 1938), p. 94. 

  2. 2

    Charles A. Fecher, ed., The Diary of H.L. Mencken (Knopf, 1989), pp. 29–30.