- Historic Sites
“Good Evening, Everybody”
An Interview With Lowell Thomas
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
If I did, I don’t think I’d thought about it much, because there will always be another. There will always be a Neil Armstrong coming along, going to the moon or somewhere. I sized up Colonel Lawrence as one who might survive as a hero for a thousand years. Most heroes are forgotten quickly. But there are a few who stand out, like Ulysses and Achilles, Sigfried and El Cid. Lawrence, it seemed to me, was a natural, because he was modest and apparently didn’t seek glory.
You once said you never do any thinking. What did you mean?
I’ve often thought I should have spent more of my life in contemplation, thinking things over. I suspect I’ve never stopped long enough to think. Most of my thinking has been done on the run. I find an airplane an excellent place to work. It seems as though most of my life has been spent in motion, perhaps attempting to do too many things.
Speaking of airplanes, weren’t you the first to film the Suez Canal from the air?
I guess so. There might have been someone ahead of me. I flew up and down the canal with Captain Guy Smith, an American soldier of fortune who was patrolling for lurking U-boats. During World War I, I was lucky in having a roving opportunity to be with practically all the armies. The time I spent in the Near East was the most memorable. The war ended before I had a chance to return home and do anything with all the material I had. So I stayed on in Europe and was the first to bring back an account as well as films of the German revolution.
After the Armistice, Germany’s borders were sealed. How did you get into that country?
At the time there probably were a hundred war correspondents in Paris, all wanting to get past the frontier guards into Germany. There were three who did elude the troops along the border but they were caught and brought back. I had a hunch we could do it. Webb Waldron, the European editor of Collier’s Weekly, and I got across the Swiss border, one dark night. I suppose I should have written a book about this experience. Following the German revolution was one of the most important events of my life. In December Waldron and I were in Bavaria. With the approach of Christmas I suggested it would be appropriate to go into the Bavarian Alps to Oberammergau, where the Passion Play is put on by the local people every ten years. There were no trains running so we got in touch with Kurt Eisner, the little red-haired Marxist who at the time was czar of Bavaria, and who a few weeks later was assassinated. He loaned us what he said was the only car in Munich. Then we had trouble getting petrol. Ten or fifteen miles from Garmisch Partenkirchen we broke down and had to get horses and a wagon from a farmer. Eventually we got to Oberammergau, where we were welcomed by Anton Lang, the man who played the part of Christ in the Passion Play. For two days we were his guests. All telephone and telegraph lines were down, and for weeks they had been completely cut off from the world. We were the first to tell them about the end of the war. For a month or so we followed the German Revolution. In fact we were in Berlin when Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the leaders of the Spartacus Marxist uprising, both were killed in the Tiergarten. It was a time of fighting in the streets, and someone put a bullet through my hat.
How did you get out of Germany?
Good luck again. After a visit to Kiel, where there had been much fighting, one day in Hamburg we ran into the commander of a French light cruiser that had brought Poles from France to help Paderewski, who had set up a government in Warsaw. He said he was willing to take us back to France, but on the way, when we told him how we had gotten into Germany, he decided he might get into trouble. So he put us ashore on a bleak beach. Loaded down with heavy cans of film, Kaiser Wilhelm’s dress helmet, and other loot, we made our way to a railway and by slow stages on to Paris, where we reported to Colonel Edward M. House, who asked us to give a report for the benefit of President Wilson, who had just arrived from America.
Your personal fame actually started with your illustrated show about Allenby and Lawrence, didn’t it?
Again how lucky I was in having had two of the great stories of all time, the story of Allenby driving the Turks from the Holy Land, and the story that Walter Duranty, Moscow correspondent for the New York Times called the number one scoop in the history of journalism, the unique story of Lawrence of Arabia. I never equaled that in later years, although I came close to it in 1924 when I was chosen to play the role of historian of Man’s First Flight Around the World. That event, involving four U.S. Army planes, was, of course, another of the major events in the history of man, a milestone equal to Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the planet by sea.
Your illustrated productions on World War I played at New York’s Century Theater and Madison Square Garden before the English impresario, Percy Burton, persuaded you to go to London, where more than a million Britons flocked to see and hear you. Did that make you a rich man?