May/june 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 4
To come up with a contemporary parallel for Dorothy Thompson, I suggest imagining a large plumed creature composed of equal parts Barbara Walters, Jesse Jackson, Garrison Keillor, George Will, and William Bennett. I would further suggest that even such an animal could make only about half the noise created by Thompson during the quarter of a century in which she turned out a thrice-weekly newspaper column, lectured, and, by various other verbal means, shaped and swayed the opinions of a hefty portion of the American public. The wingspread of her influence is hard to convey; “household word” doesn’t begin to do it. When I asked my ninety-eight-year-old father— many of whose friends were Dorothy Thompson’s friends as well—to describe her, he said she was the “most powerful woman in America.”
What interests me in Peter Kurth’s exhaustive (and, in some ways, exhausting) biography American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson (Little, Brown and Company, $24.95) is not only Thompson’s influence but how she came to wield it and what made people—both ordinary readers and those with plenty of clout themselves— listen to her. Heavy-duty brains flocked to her house and sat rapt while she lay big Big Thoughts, like the Fate of the West, on them.
Although her personal style was mesmerizing, she could be a perfect pain in the neck. Her second husband, the novelist Sinclair Lewis, was driven at one point to shout, “God damn it, if I hear anything more about ‘conditions’ and ‘situations’ I’ll shoot myself.” He didn’t follow through on this threat but instead slipped deeper and deeper into the bottle that had been his asylum even before he married Dorothy in 1928. Their life together was punctuated by just the sorts of battles one would expect between a drunk and a wife who described him as a “vampire.”
Born in the western New York town of Lancaster in 1893, Thompson was the daughter of an impoverished Methodist minister. Her adored mother died after a botched abortion when Dorothy was seven years old. Her father remarried; she and her stepmother did not get along. Dorothy shone in school, discovered books and her own superior intellect, and began to soar. Many years later one of her classmates remembered Thompson’s “personal magnetism.”
Her first job after college was as an organizer for the women’s-suffrage movement; her brains, energy, and nerve made her hugely successful. She then did a brief stint in social work and began to write and publish small think pieces in important papers like The New York Times , the Sun , and the Herald Tribune . When she was twenty-seven her father gave her some advice: “Since you are obliged to earn your own living, it will not always be possible for you to remain a lady. But I pray you, Dorothy—please promise me, that you will always remain a gentleman.”
She began in the early twenties to travel, in search of material for articles, to Ireland, England, and France. In Paris she involved herself in the labor movement (at this time her sympathies lay with the left). While abroad she talked the head of the Philadelphia Public Ledger ’s European news bureau into making her its Vienna correspondent; with this job she was on her way. Over the next few years she managed to interview world leaders like Eduard Beneš, Leon Trotsky, Kemal Atatürk, and Aristide Briand. As Thompson’s reputation as a reliable and often brilliant correspondent grew, her reach grew right along with it. Apparently— if one believes contemporaries interviewed by Kurth—she also was “incandescent,” “radiant,” a “physical” woman. She met her first husband, Joseph Bard, a journalist, in Hungary. His attitude toward fidelity was casual at best; Thompson herself was skeptical about sexual love, claiming it was “possessive.” Nevertheless, the two were married in 1923. They separated four years later, in 1927. That year she met Sinclair Lewis, the author of Main Street and Babbitt , and after a harrowing courtship they married.
Right after this she began to separate herself from the women’s movement: "[I] find myself so fundamentally out of sympathy with it,” she wrote a friend. Lewis meanwhile was insulting guests and smashing the furniture. Thompson recognized his neurosis; it would take her ages to realize that she didn’t have to put up with it. In 1930 her only child, Michael, was born. She was too busy with her own concerns to be a loving mother; as for Lewis, he “was inclined to pay a child a visit once every other day.” That same year the bad father won the Nobel Prize.
By 1931 Thompson’s already powerful reputation was enhanced further by her interview with Adolf Hitler, a man whose lunacy she spotted immediately; her hostility to the Nazis and their leader grew to be an obsession. Lewis said, “If I ever divorce Dorothy, I’ll name Adolf Hitler as co-respondent.”
Thompson had a couple of affairs, then, unexpectedly, fell deeply in love with a woman, a writer named Christa Winsloe, surprising even herself. In 1933 the two women lived together in Italy during a brief idyll. Back home, Thompson committed herself to work against the Nazis.
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.
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.