Columnist Damon Runyon described him as “the beau ideal of the radio fraternity, first for his complete artistry and second for his personality.
As the lights of London’s Covent Garden dimmed that early August evening in 1919, few people, including the young narrator waiting nervously in the wings, sensed the historic nature of the occasion. A full house of formally dressed English gentry listened expectantly through the overture by the Royal Welsh Guards Band as the rising curtain unveiled the Moonlight on the Nile. An exotic dancer glided onstage, while a tenor voice in the background spread a lyric Mohammedan call to prayer through the vast theater.
The man who then stepped into the spotlight was a young American war correspondent with a unique invitation. He offered to take them “to lands of history, mystery and romance” through the magical combination of music, motion picture, and narration. Thus, “through the nose of a Yankee,” as he put it, his audiences relived the triumphant conquest of Jerusalem and the hitherto unreported exploits of the legendary T. E. Lawrence.
Lowell Thomas and his illustrated show, The Last Crusade—With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, received a ten-minute standing ovation the first night. In the following weeks, the cream of England’s social and political nobility flocked to the show; finally, there was a command performance for the King and Queen. Later, Thomas moved to cavernous Albert Hall, where matinee and evening performances frequently played to more than ten thousand people in a single day. More than a million came to see him, including the prime minister and all members of Parliament.
Encouraged by his London triumph, Lowell Thomas launched his production on an equally successful world tour—Australia, India, Ceylon, Malaya, Canada, and finally the United States of America, all of which served as a prelude to the world-girdling high adventure that has distinguished his unusual lifelong career as a traveler, author, newcaster, and moviemaker. His remarkable voice, heard by literally billions of people through radio, Movietone News, television, and his Cinerama productions, has made Lowell Thomas “the stranger everyone knows.”
He was born April 6, 1892, in Woodington, Ohio, but his school-teacher-turned-doctor father soon moved the family westward to Iowa and thence to the booming gold camp at Victor in the Cripple Creek district of Colorado. High in the Rockies, caught up in the excitement of a gold rush, young Lowell worked as a miner, a range rider, a gold assay carrier, a mining-camp reporter and editor. He delivered newspapers, watched the growing tide of labor violence from his father's office window, absorbed the tales of danger and excitement related by the itinerant gold miners and muckers around him and wondered always what lay beyond the distant Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
His high school diploma launched Thomas on his pursuit of adventure. Financing his studies with newspaper jobs, he quickly gathered four degrees from two universities. He experimented with motion-picture equipment on summer trips to Alaska and worked these up into illustrated talks on the Yukon, which he delivered while a law student and then head of the speech department at Princeton. They attracted the attention of the Secretary of the Interior, Franklin K. Lane, who saw to it that Thomas got an assignment to tell America about the Allied war effort.
During his 1917 visits to the battlefields, Thomas learned that the British had named General Edmund H. H. Allenby, a Boer War cavalry hero, as their new commander in chief in Egypt. Correctly assuming that a major offensive against the Turks was about to be launched, Thomas, with his cameraman Harry Chase, hurried to the Near East in time to cover the campaign that succeeded in what Richard the Lion-Hearted had failed to do: capture Jerusalem. Then, at Allenby’s suggestion, he went to Arabia to see something of the revolt in the desert led by Emir Feisal, Colonel Lawrence, and others, the most important of his many scoops as a journalist.
Numerous expeditions throughout the globe followed his Afghan adventure, but from 1926 on, he made a permanent home for his wife, Fran, and son in the rolling Quaker Hill countryside of southeastern Dutchess County, New York. There he produced many of his fifty-six books—including his recent two-part autobiography Good Evening, Everybody: From Cripple Creek to Samarkand (1976); and So Long Until Tomorrow: From Quaker Hill to Kathmandu (1977). From there, too, he often broadcast his national nightly newscast, which began in 1930 and lasted for forty-six years, interrupted only when atmospheric conditions made it impossible for him to transmit from some obscure corner of the world.
His firsts—in radio, television news (1939), aviation, exploration, reportage—are, like his honorary academic degrees and other awards, countless. His accomplishments—from his shortwave description of the 1937 coronation of George VI to his report of the final battle between the Germans and Russians from a P-51 over Berlin to the development of the wide-screen process called Cinerama—would swell the résumés of a dozen famous people. He’s known and interviewed three generations of world leaders, and his philanthropies include fund-raising on behalf of the drive to save Abu Simbel on the Nile, the Goddard Space Center, Tibetan Relief, and, in recent months, Afghan refugees in Pakistan. He also financed a handsome six-story meetingplace in New York City for explorers from all over the world.
Years ago, in one of Thomas’s favorite eulogies, columnist Damon Runyon described him as “the beau ideal of the radio fraternity, first for his complete artistry and second for his personality. You never hear a knock for Lowell Thomas among his associates.” Now vigorously enjoying his ninth decade, Thomas, who gave up his nightly newscast four years ago, is by his own estimate as busy as ever. At Hammersley Hill, the rolling estate where he and his second wife, Marianna, are living pending its donation to his alma mater, the University of Denver, Thomas reminisced recently with AMERICAN HERITAGE about one of his least favorite subjects: his own life and career.
That wasn’t my last radio broadcast. However, it was the last of a forty-six-year series, the final one of my news broadcasts. I’ve been just as busy ever since. I still have a daily radio program on some three hundred stations, plus a weekly television show and am working on two more that may keep me busy for many more years—inshallah.
What sort of a radio show are you doing now?
It’s about personalities. People I’ve known and different situations and anecdotes about them. I’ve done more than three hundred so far. Later on, one hundred or so will be included in a book.
So you haven’t retired?
…when I reach a hundred, then maybe I’ll knock off, but I don’t know, it might not work out that way.
You sound convinced you’ll live past the century mark.
Do you believe growing up at a high altitude improves a persons physical constitution?
All I know is that when I was in high school we looked forward to having teams come from down below to play us. We thought it gave us an edge because they got out of breath.
Most people tend to view their work as only part of their lives. Is it possible, looking back over your career, that your life was and is your work?
It’s not easy to explain such things. I suppose what we do in later years is governed to a considerable extent by what we do in our youth. Just by chance, when I was younger, I got started doing not one thing, but many, and that’s been the pattern of my life. I wonder if I might have done a lot better had I concentrated on one or two things. That’s why I never advise young people to follow my pattern.
Can you give me an example?
I didn’t have to work my way through college, but, for some reason I’ve never been able to explain, I didn’t want my father to foot the bill. He was always willing, and occasionally when I did get in a financial jam, all I had to do was drop him a note, and he would see me out of it. I worked my way doing part-time jobs and enjoyed it. Then I doubled up my courses, and finished my first two degrees in two years. I’m not sure this was wise, because I neglected my studies. I usually sat in the front row, appearing to be enthralled by what the prof was saying. And I somehow managed to get by.
Appearing to take an interest?
Yes, but I have some regrets. Years later when I went off to the First World War and came in contact with young British officers, nearly all of them products of Eton, Rugby Harrow, Oxford, Cambridge, and so on, I was startled to find how well educated these fellows were. Most of them had superb, classical educations. From early childhood, they all had had Latin and many had had Greek. This gave me a shock. Most of them were killed, of course, men who could have played an important role in running the Empire in later years. I’m convinced the loss of so many of their ablest youth in World War I was one of the reasons for what later happened to the British Empire.
What sort of subjects did you study in college?
My father was a rather remarkable scholar, and associating with him was enough to cause any boy to want to study all subjects. My father was a near expert in almost everything, which is unusual. I’ve only encountered a few people in the world who had as broad an education as my father. Not nearly enough of it rubbed off on me. Living in a tough mining camp, the boys you associate with are rugged chaps, not the sort to encourage you to study the classics! But just living in the same house with my father turned out to be an incredible asset. I didn’t realize it at the time.
You’re not close to anyone who pushes you as hard as he pushed me. But looking back on it, I guess he didn’t push me too hard. After all, the contrast between my home and the mining camp with the red-light district and all the saloons and gambling halls was great. In that atmosphere it’s not easy to be close to a father who is a unique scholar. We got along all right, but we were never pals until after we both went off to the First World War, and when I woke up to the fact that he had been right.
You’ve described your father’s belief that personality is revealed by the way a person speaks. He was the one who first got you interested in public speaking?
He didn’t get me interested so much as he put me through it. That’s a good deal like a coach on a team putting you through training that may be a bore. My father thought ability to speak in public could be a major asset to any human being. I resisted I guess, and even more so when it came to training in elocution, because as a speaker you are on exhibition. And if you are a youngster, you may not want to be on exhibition. So he experimented with me; although apparently he had never bothered too much about it himself.
When did you discover he was right?
Before I finished high school. In my third year the gold mines began to show signs of playing out. Also there had been a major strike with much violence. My father was fed up and decided to go farther west to see if he could find some other area where he might start again. So he sent mother, my sister Pherbia, and me back to Ohio. There I had a rather odd experience. I think we are controlled in life to a great extent by chance. At this high school in Darke County, Ohio, I happened to be in a class in English presided over by Ada Bowen, a little red-haired, good-looking teacher who ordered the boys in the class to memorize a famous oration or part of one and deliver it before the student body. Who had ever heard of anything like that being done in a high school? I don’t remember why, but I selected the climax to Wendell Phillips’ famous tribute to Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Negro hero of a rebellion in Haiti. It’s a spread-eagle, colorful oration. My classmates all went down in flames. They were doing something they had never done before. As a result of my performance, from that day on practically everybody in the school, and there were nearly a thousand students, spoke to me when we met in the halls or outside. Later, when I went out for the school football team, and not even sure I would make it, they elected me captain. That’s quite a responsibility to take on. “Two-gun Thomas from Cripple Creek” they called me.
Experiences like that build a person's confidence, don’t they?
Yes, but I may have gotten a little too much confidence, because I got into trouble. My father was not there, and I began spending some of my time in a pool hall playing with a pool shark named Jelly Burns, who had been a legendary minor-league baseball star. I lost my money to him regularly. Years later when I was invited to Greenville, Ohio, to make a speech, and they had a parade for me, they asked me if there was anyone from the old days I wanted to meet again. I told them I wanted to take on old Jelly Burns for one more game of pool. It was arranged. I scratched the cue ball on my first shot, whereupon Jelly cleared the table, just like in the old days. Anyhow, I had made the mistake of colliding with the football coach, who had a hot temper. He threw me down a flight of stairs, and I was expelled from school. My father came back before the end of the school year, which was fortunate. He talked things over with the superintendent, who had been his roommate in college, and I was reinstated. That summer we went back to Colorado, and there I finished high school.
When you enrolled at the University of Northern Indiana, did you have any particular goal in mind?
I suspect my thoughts on that changed from time to time—gold mining, the law, but mainly something to take me to all parts of the world. Looking back I think what I wanted when I went away to college was to get away from my father; out from under his thumb. Not that he was all that hard on me. He was always patient and understanding. I had worked in the gold mines in the summer, and sold newspapers in the gambling halls and to the daughters of joy in the brothels. I guess I thought I’d had enough contact with life that I could get along on my own. That’s a temptation nearly every boy has to face. Later, when I returned to Colorado, I found that my two degrees made me eligible to work with a pick and shovel. So I again went to work on a gold mine. Then I had good luck. George Khyner, owner of the Victor Daily Record, remembered me. I had distributed papers and run a folding machine in his press room. Now Khyner asked me to take over as editor. It was a lively twelve-page daily paper. His veteran manager, “Honest John” White, coached me at first. I suppose it was the ideal training, because I had to write half the paper, do the heads, the layout, take the national and foreign news over the telephone from a United Press editor in Denver, handle local news, and even write most of the editorials. At the end of a year or so, and after helping launch another daily paper, I decided I had reached the end of the line. Also I must have figured I needed more education. So I went down to the University of Denver where I got two more degrees and worked on the Denver Times. After the year in Denver, still not certain what I wanted to do, I decided to go on to Chicago and study law. By then I had had more experience with public speaking and knew that could be important, especially if you were a trial lawyer or if you entered politics.
In Chicago, you continued what seems to be a lifelong habit of doing a number of different things simultaneously.
Too many things. A full day’s job on a newspaper and law school at night should have been enough. But after I had been at the Chicago-Kent College of Law for only two weeks, the dean called me in and said they had lost the head of their speech department. He asked me to fill in until they could find a replacement, which they never did. As I remember it, I was a year younger than any of the men under me in this night school. It was quite an experience, but I was working so many hours that I tried to get others to do some of it for me. Being with a newspaper made it fairly easy for me to lure prominent lawyers to the law school. One who helped several times was the great trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow.
What was Darrow like?
He was fantastic. A gifted public speaker, as you know. He knew how to get the attention of an audience and then hold it. I remember one night he started off by saying “all lawyers are crooks. ” This to a thousand law students. Then he spent the next few minutes proving it, and pointing out how there is good and bad in all of us.
After touring Alaska with a heavy, early-model motion-picture camera, you abruptly decided to give up your schooling and job in Chicago. Why?
Later, after you left Princeton to accept an assignment from members of President Wilson’s Cabinet to carry out a mission in Europe, Silas Strawn helped you raise one hundred thousand dollars from eighteen Chicago millionaires to finance the project. Do you believe in luck?
I do indeed. But as we all know luck can be affected by many things—over some of which we may have little or no control. Being at the right spot at the right time, for instance. Or if you are shot at and the bullet goes through your hat and not through your head, that’s luck. I had that happen. Perhaps it also helps if, like me, you are a born optimist. Yes, luck is important, and maybe I’ve had more than my share.
With the money you raised in Chicago and letters from President Wilson and others, you and your cameraman, Harry Chase, covered the Allied fronts in France and Italy, then headed for the Near Eastern headquarters of the new British commander, General Sir Edmund H. H. Allenby, who had his hands full battling the Turks. Why did he allow you, an American, to join T. E. Lawrence in the Arabian desert?
Here again I had good luck. One day, on the Mount of Olives, I had lunch alone with Allenby and the Duke of Connaught, the uncle of King George, who had been sent out to present decorations. Allenby said they had tried to keep news about the so-called Arabian revolt out of the press. They wanted it to appear to be a 100 per cent Arab affair without the British seeming to be responsible for it. Then he told me it had been so successful that it was no longer necessary to do this and if I wanted to join Lawrence, well okay.
But there were other reporters in Palestine who could have gone?
There were only two. They were British and they had to stay with Allenby and his army. That was their assignment. I was not tied down as they were.
I’m not going to ask you what Lawrence was like.
If you did it would be difficult to answer. He was a man of great charm. King Edward VIII, after he became Duke of Windsor, called me on the phone. After chatting about the Duchess, who that day had been taken to a hospital, he asked me if Lawrence was a fairy, a homosexual. The Duke was still upset over an incident in London. Lawrence had been called to Buckingham Palace to receive honors, which he declined. The Duke was displeased. He thought T. E. had been disrespectful to his father, the King. (Incidentally, Lawrence agreed on this and later told me he, too, regretted he had done it.) When the Duke asked me if Lawrence was a homo, I told him I thought not, that Lawrence seemed to enjoy the company of women; but only highly intelligent, interesting women such as his friend Lady Astor. Had Lawrence been a deviant, it would have been known to his associates in Arabia. They were a rugged group. His tentmate was a Scottish doctor, Major William E. Marshall, a magnificent human being, and he of course would have known if Lawrence had been out of line in that way. Although Lawrence was small, he was a superb athlete. If a man is small in stature that doesn’t mean he’s any less manly than if he’s a colossus. Lawrence even outdid the Arabs at those things for which they were well known, physical endurance for one. He was a phenomenon in several ways. He was a brilliant conversationalist. Shy in a way, but if he had a job to do, he could push his shyness aside in a hurry.
Lawrence was captured by the Turks at Derna and, as he wrote in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, endured a night of sexual molestation and torture that violated “the citadel of my integrity.” Do you have any idea what he meant by that?
No, I don’t. I saw him soon after and he was in top form.
Did the ultimate British triumph in the Near East shorten the war in Europe?
Yes, it was the keystone of the arch. When Allenby, with the cooperation of Lawrence and the Arabian forces, overwhelmed the Turks, that brought down the Turkish Empire. This quickly was followed by the collapse of Bulgaria, then Austria-Hungary, and soon Germany when the Kaiser fled. What Allenby did led to all this. So Allenby may have been the most successful general in World War I, with a big assist from Lawrence and the Arabs.
You don’t have much respect for the movie Lawrence of Arabia, do you?
You once called Lawrence the last romantic …
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?
By 1926, you had successfully toured the United States with the Allenby-Lawrence show, published well-received books about Lawrence, your first world flight, and your visit to Afghanistan, and settled on a farm in Dutchess County, New York, with your wife, Fran, and little Lowell, Jr. What led you into radio?
I heard my first broadcast in England on October 6, 1923, the day Lowell was born. Harry Chase had rigged up a crystal set for Fran. Picking up the headphones I heard Lord Curzon, the ex-viceroy, reporting about India to the House of Lords. Although stunned by this I didn’t imagine I would ever be involved. Later, when we returned to America, I was weary of speaking and resolved never again to appear before audiences, and I began writing books. If you are as busy writing as I was, you don’t think you have time to listen to some new invention.
Anyhow, one day a man who had heard me speak in London called me and asked if I would audition to succeed Floyd Gibbons, who had had the first network news broadcast anywhere in the world. Gibbons, a foreign correspondent with a top reputation had become too friendly with John Barleycorn. Out of curiosity I did the audition and then continued the program for both NBC and CBS for forty-six years.
You never learned the identity of the man who called you for the audition?
No, and Bill Paley (president of CBS) lost track of him, too. Didn’t even know his name. When he had called me, he said I was the only person in the world who could save his job. So he thought. Which apparently I didn’t do. But in going to his rescue I landed a unique job for myself.
At the beginning of your first show at 6:45 P.M. on September 29, 1930, on both CBS and NBC, you introduced yourself with “Good evening, everybody,” which soon became your trademark. Who was responsible for that opening and your “so long until tomorrow” ending?
I don’t know. It just seemed natural. I wanted to be conversational. I was fortunate in being there right at the beginning of radio and then lucky to survive all those years. Even now, it’s hard to believe there was a time when one newsman had the airwaves of the entire world all to himself. Today I believe there are more than twenty thousand men and women handling news on the air. Also, radio suited me because I could get away occasionally and broadcast from here and there and everywhere. I also launched television news many years later, pioneered it for NBC in 1939. The timing on my radio news show may have been an important factor in its success, as explained in a piece of doggerel written as an epitaph for me by Cy Caldwell, a New York columnist:
During all the years you occupied radio’s center stage, how did you manage to avoid becoming personally involved in controversy?
If you have a radio or TV news program, whether or not you include commentary, it’s impossible to avoid controversy. After I had been broadcasting the news for a year, I brought out a book to which I wanted to give the title Making Millions Mad. I had quickly discovered that my evening program was a perfect way to make listeners angry. You could step on millions of toes at the same time. The Literary Digest, my first radio sponsor, insisted that everything be played right down the middle, and when possible include both the pro and the con. Basically it was the way they played the game in their magazine, a formula that suited me perfectly. I thought it was the only way to play the role of observer. Let your listeners make up their own minds. Most of those who tuned in seemed to know this was what I was trying to do. Even so the mail swept down on us like an avalanche. My publisher, Funk & Wagnails, not liking my Making Millions Mad, gave it an innocuous title—Fan Mail.
What’s this about babies being named for you, and also some geographical places and even an L.T. museum?
In 1930, when I became involved in a daily news program, both on NBC and CBS, we began receiving letters from mothers who said they had named their infant sons for me. Often a picture would be included. Sixteen or seventeen years later, invitations came to attend their high school commencements—with some suggesting that I might like to provide college scholarships. We kept a file of these youngsters, and in later years I occasionally met some of them.
You mentioned that radio didn’t interfere with skiing, and I notice you’re a member of six—or is it seven—halls of fame? Four as a skier. You were instrumental in helping popularize the sport in this country?
If you have an unusual opportunity such as I had, talking to millions every day, and if for background you tell where you are and add a bit of local color, naturally many are grateful—especially if it helps them financially. For more than thirty years I did my news program from almost every ski area in North America, at my own expense—not paid for by my sponsor or the network. Alpine skiing was a new sport that didn’t emerge here until the early 1930’s, when an unusual young woman in New Hampshire, Katherine Peckett, hired the first four Austrian ski instructors. My son and I were in the first class, whereupon I became just about the number one U.S.A. ski enthusiast. I enjoyed it so much I wanted everyone to know that it was the most exhilarating, the most thrilling, the most fun, of all sports. This was obvious in my broadcasts. In fact, over the years this enthusiasm of mine cost me more than a million dollars. My being put in a number of ski halls of fame doesn’t mean I am in the same league as Jean-Claude Killy or Emile Allais. It’s not a tribute to my skiing technique.
What is it about skiing that attracts you?
Since I was a youngster I’ve felt at home in the mountains. Basically I’m an outdoor fellow, and to me Alpine skiing is the ultimate, a sport where you are really on your own, and where your problem changes every moment. You can think of nothing else when you go into action. I have done quite a bit of glacier skiing with my son in Alaska, and some of the same in Canada and New Zealand. It’s a thrill to land with an airplane on a mountain where no one has ever been.
Then when you go down the mountain, how about the crevasses, and who goes first?
Wherever I go I usually ski with experts. One of the greatest thrills was when I went over the Tuckerman Headwall, on Mount Washington. It’s a one-thousand-foot precipice. It’s almost perpendicular and can only be skied in late spring when the bowl below fills with snow to a depth of a hundred feet or so. It’s so steep you can’t see over the lip. Expert skiers can zigzag down by doing what we call jump turns. I tried the Mt. Washington New Hampshire Headwall on my fiftieth birthday and fell eight hundred feet. I usually try something unusual on my birthday.
You have repeated over and over that you have been lucky. Have you had failures and frustrations?
Ah yes, indeed I have. I was in debt for many years after going overboard in making a film in India, a picture in which I used more than a million people. But financial failure never seemed to bother me too much. I am the sort who rarely wears a carnation in his lapel. But when I hit bottom financially, I wore a flower every day, usually an orchid. I was positive that sooner or later I would solve my problem. It took some years, and then radio and later motion pictures, Cinerama, and TV came to the rescue.
As for frustrations, I could do a book on the subject. Quite unintentionally I played a part in causing one King to lose his throne. Amanullah Khan, Emir of Afghanistan, wanted to modernize his country. He asked me to come to Kabul. I did the first film ever made in Afghanistan and brought out the first book to be written by anyone from the West, Beyond Khyber Pass. The mullahs strenuously objected, much as their counterparts in Iran recently did, and he lost his throne.
There have been endless other frustrations. I wish I could have done far more for my wife, who did so much for me. She was an ideal, inspiring companion. And of course, I was frustrated over what happened to Lawrence of Arabia. He had resolved not to return to archaeology in the Near and Middle East, and I always wondered whether I might not have lured him into spending his later years solving some of the mysteries of the Mayan civilization in Central America, or uncovering Inca cities in the Andes. Although I doubt he would have accepted any financial help, I always wondered if I might have found some roundabout way of doing this.
Where haven’t you been? In the course of your thirty or more expeditions, military campaigns, and other journeys, what countries have you not visited, and what more would you like to do?
Although I have managed to visit nearly all the major areas on our planet, there are hundreds of places where I haven’t been, all the way from Zamboanga to the volcanoes of Kamchatka. Oh yes, and there has been one Western country that has been virtually inaccessible. Since King Zog lost his throne, Albania has been closed to noncommunist travelers. I hope to go there some time this year. And then there are innumerable islands I have missed, such as the Maldives and the Seychelles. Twenty-three years ago I accompanied a dozen international astronomers to the South Seas, to film and study an eclipse, and to launch huge rockets into the stratosphere from the deck of a navy ship as a part of our early space program. These astronomers all agreed there were billions of stars and planets and that surely some of them, outside our own solar system, had to be inhabited. Although years ago I asked to be put down as number one for a journey into outer space, what I really would like to do is visit an inhabited planet, similar to our own. So, you see, there are endless things I would still like to do.
Nearly every year I’m asked to address the annual Explorers Banquet at the Waldorf. When I do, I usually try to interest young people in exploration by telling them that this is the golden age. More so even than in the days of Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Drake, Cook, and others of that era. First of all, much of the land mass on our planet remains to be explored in detail. And there is the undersea, an area that covers three-fourths of the surface of the earth. And we have only just begun to explore outer space.
People, for some reason, often ask where are today’s giants of exploration. They are here, Neil Armstrong and his astronaut colleagues; Jacques Cousteau and others who are taking us into the depths of the seas; Sir Edmund Hillary and the other great climbers who have been getting to the top of our loftiest mountains. Then there is Thor Heyerdahl, whose books on his fabulous voyages have sold over twenty million copies. And there are many more who are not well known. Yes, this is the golden age of exploration.