- Historic Sites
May/june 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 4
She was prescient. She not only foresaw the havoc Hitler would create but also predicted the consequences of Soviet imperialism and, should a Jewish homeland be established in Palestine, endless strife in the Middle East. She seems to have possessed two qualities that don’t occur in the same person very often: clear-headed judgment and inspired foresight. Add to these ten times the energy of a normal human being and, for good measure, a bloated sense of personal mission, and we may begin to understand why her readers revered her as seer.
Thompson admired Franklin Roosevelt but gradually grew disenchanted with a government that sought to “persuade” rather than “inform,” though she did a good deal of this herself. She felt philosophically threatened by centralized power, hostile to any large, slow-moving bureaucracy, and in this, too, she was prescient. When, in the middle 1930s, she began delivering regular radio broadcasts, she became an instant oracle. In 1936 her column “On the Record” first appeared in the Trib , opposite Walter Lippmann’s “Today and Tomorrow.” By 1940 The New Yorker noted that she had seven and a half million faithful readers. Time magazine put her on its cover and called her “undoubtedly the most influential” woman in the United States—after Eleanor Roosevelt. She titled one of her columns “Cassandra Speaking"; she was never modest. Thompson had her detractors— most notably John Chamberlain, who wrote in The New Republic that her habit of appealing to the mind mainly via the emotions made her a “dangerous” person.
In 1937 Lewis left Thompson for good (their divorce did not become final until 1942). Her celebrity, her “messianic qualities,” and—I can’t help thinking— her swollen self-esteem were too much for him. It may be as hard to live with a prophet as with a drunk.
Thompson remained on her Olympian plateau for another fifteen years or so. She entertained constantly and had her own small brain trust—just like the President’s—of men (but nary a woman) who advised her on matters legal, financial, and so on. By 1939 she had three secretaries to take care of her huge correspondence. Hyperenergized, she popped Dexedrine and frequently retreated to her Vermont home in search of rest.
Next to Eleanor Roosevelt, said Time magazine, she was “undoubtedly the most influential” woman in America.
At a time when the United States was resolutely pacifist, Thompson continued to urge America to join the Allies against fascism. In a surprising turn she supported Roosevelt against Wendell Willkie’s presidential bid in 1940—a decision that got her fired from the very Republican Tribune . Thompson then took her column to the New York Post . In 1942 the movie Woman of the Year came out. Its heroine, played by Katharine Hepburn, was clearly modeled on Thompson.
Soon after this Thompson met the man who would be her third husband, a painter named Maxim Kopf, a Czech refugee sufficiently smitten to divorce his wife and marry Cassandra. It was an odd coupling, but it worked so well, some said, that it somewhat humanized the idol—at least at home.
By 1945 Thompson’s characteristic Old Testament stance had stiffened. From then on “moral indignation and flaming rage” informed her work. “I’ve gone through a lot in my life watching the world go straight to hell,” she said. In 1947 the Post dropped her column because she urged “understanding” in dealing with postwar Germany. For most of her working life she had flown along with or somewhat ahead of the prevailing mood of the country; now she was alone. No one felt much like “understanding” the Germans in 1947. She became violently anticommunist while, Kurth says, “simultaneously lambasting the United States for its [moral] complacency.” By 1948 her colleagues had begun to make fun of her shrillness. Is it incidental that her only son led a self-destructive life as sometime actor, heavy drinker, and philandering husband? As Thompson’s influence declined, she nevertheless remained happily married to Kopf until he died in 1958, driving her into genuine and prolonged grief. Her heart went bad, and she died, alone in a Lisbon hotel room, in 1961.
There is much to admire in Mr. Kurth’s biography. He certainly did his homework. His prose, while not remarkable, serves him well. On the other hand, American Cassandra falls into the oh-my-God-supposing-I-leave-something-out? category—the biographer as dustman. The woman whom the Herald Tribune called an American institution might have fared somewhat better in the hands of a biographer more willing to go for the big shapes and pass up the temptation to include so many trifles.