American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson
by Peter Kurth
Little, Brown, 587 pp., $24.95
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 …