American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson
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.”
Dorothy Thompson's Political Guide (Stackpole Publishers, 1938), p. 94.↩
Dorothy Thompson’s Political Guide (Stackpole Publishers, 1938), p. 94.↩