Commentary Magazine


American Cassandra, by Peter Kurth

The German playwright Carl Zuckmayer’s word for Dorothy Thompson was “double-portion,” and it seems right. Everything that was important about her was characterized by an uncommon magnitude, from her multifaceted career as a foreign correspondent, syndicated newspaper columnist, radio broadcaster, and lecturer to her big-bodied, snow-goddess sexiness, her highly emotional argumentative style, her agonizing inner conflicts, and her astonishing energy, which she augmented with Dexedrine and a variety of “uppers.”

It was, then, entirely in keeping with her life that at the time of her death in 1961 she should have willed to her alma mater, Syracuse University, an archive of correspondence, family scrapbooks, manuscripts, diaries, notes, and miscellaneous papers that fills 150 research boxes and measures 70 linear feet. Her biographer, Peter Kurth, has indeed been fortunate in the materials he has had to work with. That he has largely been equal to their challenge is fortunate for us. American Cassandra brings an extraordinary woman to life.

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In the summer of 1900, just before her seventh birthday, a little girl stood in her parents’ house in Tonawanda, New York, and watched the approach of a killer cyclone. “Are we going to die?” she cried, and her father, a Methodist minister, replied as he always replied in crises, “We are in the hands of God.” Through all the vicissitudes of a cyclonic century, Dorothy Thompson was sustained by her father’s faith and uplifted by his example. As she declared in 1957, her political philosophy was grounded “in the Evangelium”—in “those precepts of respect for truth, mercy, forgiveness, humility, and charity, taught and admonished by Him whom I do not hesitate to call the Lord and Savior of my soul”—while her work as an opinion-maker was a secular form of preaching. “There is only one effective revolution,” she told the graduating class at Syracuse in 1937, “and that is the revolution represented by the evangelical idea of conversion: that men see where they have been wrong; that a light dawns upon them; and that they change their ways.”

After finishing college in 1914, Dorothy Thompson was involved in suffragist agitation and social-welfare reform for six years, then set sail for Europe, primarily with the intention of doing some free-lance reporting from Moscow. For a revolutionary force was still unfolding there which she likened to “the elemental force of nature itself, sweeping away the old and outworn, and creating in blood a whole great new order of things.” Her crossing of the Atlantic, however, was made in the company of a group of Zionists: rabbis, writers, and lawyers en route to London for a conference on the future of Palestine. She talked with them, she flirted with them, and with her pink-and-white complexion and everything that went with it, she wowed them. By the time she reached London, she not only had a newspaper story in her head but, as Kurth vividly notes, “the beginnings of a legend on her hands—the legend of a fresh-faced girl from the American heartland, ‘an amiable blue-eyed tornado,’ who roared through Europe stirring up trouble and making news happen wherever she went.”

Having acquired a set of credentials as a special correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, she established herself in Vienna. Guided by the Manchester Guardian’s bureau chief, Marcel Fodor, who wanted to marry her but settled for being her tutor, she began to supplement her familiarity with the classic works of English and American civilization, a fair number of which she knew more or less by heart (e.g., all the sonnets of Shakespeare, whole chapters of the Bible, lengthy sections of Leaves of Grass, dozens of the Psalms, and the Constitution of the United States in its sonorous entirety), with ambitious readings in the politics and culture of Central Europe. Over the next several years, she further widened her horizons through the interviews she obtained with a range of political figures extending from Trotsky to Ataturk to Thomas Masaryk and with such cultural giants as Freud, Richard Strauss, and Romain Rolland.

By 1924, her combination of sophistication and audacity made Dorothy Thompson the acknowledged equal of the American newsmen known as “the high-flying young falcons,” who had revolutionized foreign reporting in the years since the Armistice, transforming its traditional emphasis on diplomatic events into a search for scoops about anything that might earn a headline back home. “Most of us traveled steadily, met constantly, exchanged information, caroused, took in each other’s washing, and even when most fiercely competitive, were devoted friends,” John Gunther recalled, and the compatriots he was thinking of were the glamorous Floyd Gibbons, with his trademark white eyepatch, William Stoneman, Vincent Sheean, Frazier “Spike” Hunt, Edgar Ansel Mowrer, H.R. Knickerbocker, William L. Shirer—and Dorothy Thompson.

Nevertheless, she was never satisfied. “This isn’t enough for me,” she told the British novelist Phyllis Bottome, one of her closest friends in Vienna. “It’s not what I really want. I’m nothing in my own country. I want to be something there—something no other woman has been yet.” At the same time, she had no plans for returning to the States. Nor could she say what it was she wanted to become.

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Confusion also marked her love life. In 1923, she had the bad judgment to marry Joseph Bard, who “looked like an Egyptian prince,” but was actually a half-Jewish, half-Croatian native of Budapest. While he managed to support himself with part-time work for Reuter’s and the Associated Press, Bard had pretensions as a philosopher and made a great show of being in the throes of writing—in three languages, simultaneously—a vast treatise on the mind of Europe. The young Dorothy Thompson exaltedly regarded him as a genius and took forever to realize that his main interests in life were fleshly. “Have you ever met a man who has slept with 126 women?” she eventually asked John Gunther.

Her friendship with Carl Zuckmayer dated from 1925, the year in which she and Bard, much against Bard’s wishes, moved to Berlin, so that she could be where the action was. For as she later observed in the introduction she supplied to one of Zuckmayer’s books, “These were the brilliant, feverish years when Berlin was, in a cultural sense, the capital of the world. These were the days when the German mind was open to every stream of thought from every point of the earth. Every current beat upon Berlin.” The luminaries among whom she now moved at embassy parties included Klaus and Erika Mann, Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler, Lotte Lenya and Bertolt Brecht, Rebecca West and her latest lover, Lord Beaverbrook, and Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West.

Never had she been so stimulated. Phyllis Bottome remembered her from this period as “radiantly pretty,” and Zuckmayer affirmed that “her face always looked as if she had just been running in a stiff sea or mountain breeze, and her bright clear eyes flashed and gleamed with eagerness and enthusiasm.” Yet he also noted “a hidden nervousness,” which she expressed through her “incessant, hasty, uncontrollable cigarette smoking.” Certainly she was nervous about her marriage, especially after Bard left her for an extended stay in London. At last she learned that he had conveniently fallen in love with a rich young Englishwoman. Flings undertaken in reprisal with Floyd Gibbons and H.R. Knicker-bocker were forerunners of the adulterous affairs that would become common practice for Dorothy in her second marriage. She also made some experiments with lesbian love, although none of them had the significance of her intense relationship in the early 1930′s with the German writer Christa Winsloe, whose fictionalization of a Prussian girls’ school became the basis for the famous lesbian film, Mädchen in Uniform.

In January 1927, she filed for divorce. “I have been driven into a state of hysteria,” she reproachfully reported to Bard. For a time she was in treatment with the psychiatrist Theodor Reik, and as spring arrived she apparently thought of killing herself. Then on July 8, at a tea party at the German Foreign Ministry, she was introduced to Sinclair Lewis. His wit—and his fame as a novelist—inspired her to invite him to her thirty-fourth birthday party the following evening. Not only did he show up, but he stayed and stayed, long after Dorothy’s other guests had departed. Around three in the morning, he asked her to marry him. A day or so later, she described him to her ex-husband. “He is a very curious and demonic person, hard-drinking, blasphemous, possessed, I often think, of a devil. . . . he is getting a divorce and wants to marry me, but I am very doubtful.” Their wedding took place in London the following April.

“Why did she marry him?” Mark Schorer asks in Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, a book which is as soft on Dorothy as it is hard on Lewis. Her reason, Schorer says, is that “she loved him.” Pieces of evidence in American Cassandra serve to expose the shallow romanticism of this reply. Dorothy’s intimates in Berlin were aware that she continued to be assailed by doubts about the wisdom of marrying a man whose drunken, hate-filled rages had spared neither her nor her friends. Furthermore, the Chicago Tribune’s Berlin correspondent, Sigrid Schultz, remembered the day that Dorothy came to her and said that she was in a quandary because there were two men who wanted to marry her. (The other was H.R. Knicker-bocker.) Yet Dorothy’s Berlin diary reveals that she was sometimes moved by a tender passion for Lewis. The resulting emotional contest left her feeling utterly helpless. “I am afraid of my own ‘striving, energetic, ascending’ mind,” she cried out in another of the letters she was still writing to Joseph Bard by the dozens. “I feel the conflict between myself as a mentality and a personality and myself as a woman and a lover. I am divided. Broken.”

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Upon her return to America, Dorothy denounced her native land as “fundamentally hostile to women.” Yet as Dorothy Thompson and as Mrs. Sinclair Lewis, she herself had no difficulty in arranging public appearances or landing assignments from magazine editors. With the rise of the Nazis, she researched and wrote the first of more than a dozen pieces on Germany for the Saturday Evening Post. By 1934, she was widely recognized as, in John Gunther’s words, “the best journalist this generation has produced in any country.” Two years later, the New York Herald-Tribune offered her a three-times-a-week column, to be positioned, on alternating days, in the space opposite Walter Lippmann’s. At the pinnacle of the column’s twenty-two-year run, “On the Record” was syndicated in 150 newspapers with a combined circulation of seven and a half million. Through radio commentaries for NBC, incessant lecture tours, and more articles for the Saturday Evening Post (not to mention the Ladies’ Home Journal and other publications), she reached an even huger audience. Time’s cover story about her in 1939 called her the most influential woman in America next to Eleanor Roosevelt.

By placating Hitler, many people in the 30′s thought, peace in Europe could be maintained; but the nub of the Thompson message, enunciated as early as 1934 in a speech to the Foreign Policy Association and elaborated upon for the next five years, was that “Germany has gone to war already and the rest of the world does not believe it.” Cassandra was also right about Japanese aggression, stating a full week before Pearl Harbor that the United States would be attacked, since the breakdown of the Washington negotiations with Japanese diplomats indicated war, and the predictable Axis tactic was undeclared assault.

Kurth argues—and I agree—that, having begun World War II as America’s undisputed primary agitator against the Nazis (her record on this score included expulsion from the Reich in 1934), Dorothy Thompson ended it as America’s strongest voice in defense of a sane, rational, reasonable peace for a nation that Hitler had left in rubble. Although “neither pro- nor anti-Germany, as a nation and people,” she nevertheless stuck to a “dogged conviction that someday, somehow, Germany will lead herself and help Europe to a new humanism. . . .”

After the war, too, she was fervently anti-Soviet, yet this did not prevent her from arraigning America for its shortcomings. The “downward adjustment of standards” in the schools bothered her particularly, as did the concomitant triumph of relativism, the emphasis on “self-expression,” and the erection of anti-discrimination into a shibboleth of our times. “For the first time as far as I know in any society,” she wrote,

mediocrity has been clothed in the raiment of morality. It is “anti-American” to be discriminating on any level—socially, racially, religiously, culturally. Everything and everyone is as good as anything and anyone, and whoever does not think so is an enemy of democracy. But if everything and everyone is as good as anything and anyone, then the measure of value has to be set at the lowest social and intellectual level. . . . And this simply means the disappearance of culture.

Concerning the domestic political scene, she wrote in the 30′s about FDR’s New Deal that his was

the most literate administration that this country has ever had since the early days when politics was believed to be a gentleman’s profession, and it is certainly the most talkative. It is also probably one of the most truly representative of administrations, for it shares practically all the illusions of the typical American intellectual. It believes that any action is better than none, that the scientific attitude is synonymous with being willing to try anything once; that economic reform can be interpreted in terms of social uplift; and that the lion and the lamb can be brought to lie down together by persuasion.

At the end of her life, she contemplated without enthusiasm the Nixon-Kennedy race for the presidency. She had never had any use for Nixon, but the “obvious movie-star qualities” of Kennedy bothered her, too. “There is something about him,” she wrote, that is “spoiled and slightly neurotic. I have seen too many of these charismatic personalities in public not to feel queasy about them.”

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Among her errors of judgment—and there were many of them—perhaps the most arrogant was her attack on the Social Security bill, and by all odds the most preposterous was her 1939 plea for an unbelligerent response by the British cabinet to Hitler’s imminent invasion of Poland. In a ten-page cablegram to Harold Nicolson, she declared that

The british cabinet must. . . delay its answer while it engages in meditation and prayer trusting in god to reveal to england’s leaders the way to a true and just peace for all peoples everywhere poles and germans and italians and frenchmen and englishmen calling on all christians throughout the world to hold fast to the faith which they profess. . . .

Then there was her change of mind about Zionism. For years, she had been widely regarded as one of the movement’s most effective non-Jewish spokesmen. After her first trip to Palestine in 1945, however, she announced that Zionism was not a righteous crusade, because the Zionist leaders envisaged “not a small state of Jews who chose to live in Israel,” but an aggressive, chauvinistic powerhouse. While she privately described the Arabs as a “super-sensitive” bunch who had been victimized by “a psychological trauma involving ‘status’ and inferiority,” she publicly avoided the question of the survival chances of a powerless Jewish state in a pathologically anti-Jewish part of the world, instead referring scornfully to Israel as “the 49th state” of the Union, and “the only nation in history to have been canonized at birth.”

Terrible guilt feelings about Michael Lewis, the troubled, violence-prone child of a nightmarish marriage and the victim of neglect by both his parents, prompted America’s second-most influential woman to affirm on the one hand that children would “understand it” if their mothers stayed away from home for long periods of time in connection with their engagement in “useful and necessary” work, and on the other hand to assert disingenuously that she had “an ever-increasing respect for women who stick to their knitting.” Even more nauseating was the assurance she offered to homemakers that “It is never futile to grow sweet peas, or arrange roses in a bowl.”

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While the fame she had attained was thrilling, maintaining it was nerve-wracking. She drank too much in consequence, she could not operate without her pep pills, and in the summer of 1940 she came close to a nervous breakdown. In 1937, the bitter, drunken Lewis, reeling in defeat from the loss of his novelistic gift, deserted Dorothy and Twin Farms, their lovely acreage in Barnard, Vermont, but their divorce did not take place until January 1942.

The following summer, Dorothy met a refugee artist and sculptor, Maxim Kopf, fifty years old to her forty-nine, who had been born in Vienna and raised in Prague. A year later, for the third time in her life, she took a husband whose sensibility she regarded as more creative than hers. Kopf was different, however, from his predecessors. Six feet one and hugely muscled from the year of hard labor he had spent in a Vichy-France concentration camp, he was a “hunk” and a “stallion” (in the recollection of his Barnard friends), and his powerful sexuality was totally focused upon his bride, her history of sexual ambivalence notwithstanding.

Dorothy’s affair with Christa Winsloe had ended in 1934, when Christa attended the Salzburg Festival and fell in love with the Italian basso, Ezio Pinza. It was reminiscent of Dorothy’s breakup with Joseph Bard that she sent Christa valedictory letters. “I had a strange dream last night,” she said in one of them. “I dreamed I was putting out into a very rough sea in a frail ship, and the crew were all women. I was afraid, and woke up, sweating . . . Christa!”

Did she continue to have such dreams for the rest of her life? American Cassandra offers us no warrant for thinking so. What we do know is that she achieved a profound sexual satisfaction with Kopf. While crossing the Atlantic in the late 1940′s, she whispered to the publisher Cass Canfield that “When I make love the house shakes.”

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On April 5, 1942, the Nazi propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels, devoted a passage in his diary to Dorothy Thompson. How had it ever come to pass, he wondered, that “such dumb broads [so dumme Frauen-zimmer], whose heads can be filled only with straw,” had been permitted to criticize “a historic figure of the greatness of the Fuehrer”? Clearly, through all the years of its evil successes, the Nazi leadership had continued to be bugged by the eloquence, the intelligence, the wit, and, above all, the moral passion of this American journalist. American Cassandra very usefully reminds us of those qualities and of the woman who embodied them.

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