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Dorothy Thompson:

June 2024
5min read

A Legend in Her Time

by Bessie Rowland James. Rutgers University Press, 447 pp. $15.00

by Marion K. Sanders. Houghton Mifflin Co., 432 pp. $10.00

At one point in her journalistic career Dorothy Thompson, learning of a proposed magazine piece on her life, wrote: “I wish someone would present me as a female. … [It’s] heresy which the feminists wouldn’t like, but … I’d throw the state of the nation into the ashcan for anyone I loved.”

It was not a wholly truthful statement, but an exasperated reaction to the dilemma of a successful woman who always had to face the direct or hinted accusation that competence outside the home was unfeminine. Anne Royall, born 124 years before Dorothy—and likewise a successful writer on topics of the day—once felt compelled in similar fashion to disown fellowship with feminists who downgraded the traditional interests and allurements of their sex. Condemning Amelia Bloomer’s emancipated costume of a loose smock over baggy trousers, she asked: “Do our sisters intend to part with their last and best treasure—modesty … the sweet rounding waist, the unspeakable charm of a swelling bosom?” Yet sweetness, modesty, and charm were never attributes of Anne Royall’s.

Both women, in their careers, offer food for reflection on the changing and changeless elements in womanhood and journalism in the United States. Both are the subjects of lively new biographies.

Anne Royall was born (as Anne Newport) in 1769 and was raised on the Pennsylvania frontier. She was often within earshot of Indian war whoops and had lost both a father and a stepfather by the time she was fourteen. She suffered the humiliation of being “domestic help” for a time but was rescued when her employer, Colonel William Royall, took her to be his woman and later his wife. Royall, a Revolutionary War veteran, was a Virginia planter who had gone west to make his fortune—an objective he never achieved, thanks to an absorption in books and brandy. When he died in 1812, he left his widow a modest subsistence. But relatives who had always resented his lower-class bride successfully sued to break the will.

In her fifties by then—quite old for that era—Anne Royall had to support herself. Frontier energy and self-reliance came to her aid. She had a knack for pungent pen sketches in her letters, and she now moved to Alabama (a brand-new state then, largely wilderness), wrote a number of accounts of people and places there, and then began the tedious task of travelling from town to town soliciting subscriptions that would pay for putting the reports into book form. By the time the volume emerged, she had settled in Washington to lobby for a pension as an exsoldier’s widow.

The Letters from Alabama were a scandalous success. Anne had, with country-girl bluntness, described the fluid, yeasty society she found just as it was—full of hornswogglers and hypocrites as well as heroes. She got a reputation best summarized by John Quincy Adams: “Stripped of all her sex’s delicacy, but unable to forfeit its privilege of gentle treatment … she goes about like a virago errant in enchanted armor.” (Adams, however, was relatively friendly to her—though biographer Bessie James finds no truth in the story that Anne once got an interview with him by surprising him during his morning naked swim in the Potomac and sitting on his clothes.)

From 1830 onward Anne continued to travel and to write, not sparing her enemies, among them evangelical preachers, anti-Masons, and all pompous males. Her enemies in turn paid no particular heed to her alleged woman’s “privilege of gentle treatment.” One Yankee defender of revealed religion threw her down a flight of porch steps (breaking her leg); a Pittsburgh bookstore clerk horsewhipped her—when she was nearly seventy!—and she was tried in Washington as a “common scold” and convicted (two reporters paid her fine as a gesture on behalf of a free press).

She founded two successive newspapers, Paul Pry in 1831 and The Huntress in 1836, each a compact package of powdered gall. She lived until 1854 —time enough to see her America span the continent and to be alarmed by sectional “fanatics” who would tear the nation apart. At her death she was eulogized by a local journal as a woman of “considerable literary attainments … and of strict integrity,” a description honorable enough for any member of the working press.

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.

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