- Historic Sites
A Legend in Her Time
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
Dorothy Thompson was born the daughter of a Methodist minister in 1893, spent her childhood in upstate New York parsonages, and was graduated from Syracuse University in 1914. As a proper “new woman” of the day she was mildly interested in social work and female suffrage. As a girl of unusual intelligence and vitality she was passionately interested in the great world around her and in lively and articulate people who either ran it or described it with style. In 1920, after holding various public-relations jobs, she went to Europe in flight from a painful crush on a married man. Armed with letters of introduction, she soon numbered labor leaders, journalists, artists, and politicians among her friends. They were the top layer of a European society politically and economically ruined by war but full of intellectual ferment.
Soon she found a base in Vienna and a job as a foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger . She rejoiced in liberation from smalltown Methodism’s patterns of conduct, but she lost none of its moralistic zeal. She enjoyed liquor, late hours, keen companions, and romances in Paris, London, Vienna, and Berlin—and wrote dispatches that were tense, imaginative, and deeply committed to exposing the perils surrounding European democracies. In a day of great foreign correspondents—Duranty, G’fcnther, Sheean, Shirer—she held her own.
In the late 1920’s she returned to the United States to “settle down” as the wife of Sinclair Lewis—a second marriage for both, which ended in divorce in 1942. It was then that she came into her own as a regular columnist for the New York Herald Tribune , as well as a prolific lecturer, magazine contributor, and radio commentator. What made her noteworthy and notorious was her untiring and stormy anti-Fascism. (Hitler had thrown her out of Germany in 1934 for her unflattering reporting of Nazi ways and works.) Many of us who were her readers in those days still remember her flaming warnings, to an America still dreaming of isolation and security behind ocean “barriers,” that a world dominated by Fascist bullies would be a nightmare of insecurity for us all. Her vigorous interventionism, violent castigation of opponents, occasional streaks of pontifical self-righteousness—all made her numerous enemies. But like other controversial figures of that stormy era (John L. Lewis, Fiorello La Guardia, or F.D.R. himself), she scorned impartiality when convinced that she had truth on her side.
The postwar years brought both comforts and the inevitable sadnesses of old age. Unlike poor Anne Royall, Dorothy Thompson was a financial success whose generous earnings sustained a pleasant life-style. But friends and followers tended to fade away as a new generation, indifferent to its elders’ battles, emerged. When she died of a heart attack in 1961, many had forgotten her—and those who remembered shared mixed impressions of her as a woman courageous and shrill, generous and petulant, sophisticated and rigid—a collection of turbulent contradictions, all well illustrated in Marion Sanders’story.
Yet both ladies, stormy critics that they were, illustrate a point. Fault-finding is a basic attribute of American journalism—ever since the first newspaper here, Boston’s Publick Occurrences , was suppressed after one issue in 1690 because editor Benjamin Harris had made “Reflections of a very high nature” on the authorities. Anne Royall awakened her countrymen to their own vast potential and raw energies, often outraging them in the process by querulous observations. Dorothy Thompson was one of a generation of newspapermen (and women) who aroused the United States, early in the twentieth century, to the unavoidable responsibilities of strength in a shrinking world. The audience often cared little for the message or the tone of its deliverers.
History has given us this kind of contentious and faultfinding press as both our burden and our advantage. For a responsible press is one that will goad and pry—and our best-known press workers have often had brassy personalities, strong appetites for drink and dispute, and erratic domestic lives. The public hardly admires men with these characteristics and is shocked out of its wits by women with them. Yet the nation owes some gratitude to these unhonored prophets, and perhaps a special debt to women in the field, who are twice alienated from the comforts of conformity: they are neither average citizens nor average women.