Thompson, Dorothy

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Dorothy Thompson

Born July 9, 1893
Lancaster, New York
Died January 30, 1961

Lisbon, Portugal
American journalist

Dorothy Thompson was one of the world's most famous reporters in the 1920s and 1930s, and one of the first women to reach the top of the journalism field. She wrote newspaper and magazine articles and made radio broadcasts, informing her audience about world events and some of the most important issues of the time—especially the rise of dictators (absolute rulers) like Germany's Adolf Hitler (1889-1945; see entry) and Italy's Benito Mussolini (1883-1945; see entry). Thompson helped people understand the causes and events of World War II, and hers was one of the earliest and strongest voices raised against Nazism, the brutal German political system that led to the deaths of millions of people.

A childhood both happy and sad

Thompson was born in Lancaster, a rural town in upstate (northern) New York. Her parents, Peter (a Methodist minister) and Margaret Thompson, were both kind and compassionate people. The family, which included two other children besides Dorothy, was poor but they shared what they had with those in greater need. Thompson was a bright, sassy child who loved practical jokes.

Thompson was only seven when her mother died tragically, killed by strong herbs Dorothy's grandmother had given to Margaret in order to end a pregnancy she feared would be too great a burden on her daughter. Three years later, Peter Thompson married a woman named Eliza Abbott. Dorothy did not get along with her stepmother, and she also resented her father for not defending her. In 1908 she was sent to Chicago to live with her two aunts.

Discovering a talent for writing

This was a happy period in Thompson's life, for her aunts paid her a lot of attention and she did well in school. She attended the Lewis Institute, which combined high school courses with a two-year college program. She entered New York's Syracuse University as a junior in 1912, her tuition paid for by a scholarship for the children of Methodist ministers. Known as an intelligent, well-spoken young woman, Thompson graduated in 1914.

Thompson's first job after college was working for the women's suffrage (the right to vote) movement, which was gaining strength in many parts of the United States. For eight dollars a week, she worked at the New York State Women's Suffrage Party Headquarters. By 1917 (the year New York women did gain the right to vote), Thompson had proved herself a good writer and speaker and she was sent out to give lectures about suffrage.

These experiences stirred up Thompson's interest in becoming a writer and she began to compose articles on various political and women's issues, which were published in local newspapers. After an unhappy six months working as a copywriter for an advertising agency, and another short stint as a publicity director for a social reform agency, Thompson decided to travel to Russia in search of reporting opportunities.

A journalist's career begins

In 1920 Thompson boarded a boat headed for London. During the journey across the ocean, she met a group of zionists, people who were working to establish a Jewish state in the middle eastern country of Palestine (now Israel). Interested in their cause, she interviewed them and did some research on Zionism. Twelve days later, when Thompson reached London, she wrote an article on Zionism that was published by the International News Service. Her career as a journalist had begun.

Soon Thompson was a successful, busy reporter with many assignments, writing stories about the Irish independence movement and an Italian autoworkers strike, among other topics. She decided to drop her plan to go to Russia, since there was plenty to write about in Europe.

The next year, when Thompson was 28, she went to Vienna, Austria, to report on events in central Europe. It was an exciting and dangerous time in Europe, and she was right in the middle of it. World War I had just ended and most of the European countries were suffering from economic hard times, which was causing a lot of social unrest. She once almost made the mistake of wearing a fur coat into a mob of angry demonstrators who, she was warned, might think she was a rich person who didn't belong there (afterward she made the famous quote, "Never wear a fur coat to a revolution"). In 1921, she was shot at during a riot in Bulgaria.

A busy career and two marriages

By 1924, both the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post had made Thompson their central European bureau chief. From her headquarters in Berlin, Germany, she covered events in that city as well as Vienna and Warsaw, Poland. She interviewed many famous people, including the great psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, and became rather famous herself.

In 1927, Thompson divorced her husband, a handsome Hungarian writer named Joseph Bard whom she had married five years earlier. She traveled to the Soviet Union and published a series of articles about that country that were published as a book, The New Russia, a year later. Also in 1928, Thompson married Sinclair Lewis, a major American novelist who had written Babbitt (1922), Main Street (1920), and other works.

Thompson and Lewis were very much in love when they began their marriage. They bought a 300-acre farm in Vermont that they named Twin Farms, because it had two houses, so that both writers had private space to continue to pursue their successful writing careers. Thompson grew very attached to her stepson, eleven-year-old Wells Lewis.

A troubled family life

After only a few years, however, Thompson's marriage was in trouble. Lewis had lost some of his popularity as a novelist, and he had become an alcoholic. He resented the time Thompson spent with her close women friends, and accused her of caring more about her career than her family.

The couple hoped that two events of 1930—the birth of their son Michael and Lewis's winning the Nobel Prize for literature—would solve their problems, but this was not to be. Instead, both parents neglected their sons, Lewis by withdrawing into himself and Thompson by spending long periods away from home on reporting assignments. In 1931 she and her husband separated.

An interview with Hitler

In December 1931 Thompson went to Germany to interview Adolf Hitler for Cosmopolitan Magazine. At that time, Hitler was the leader of the anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) Nazi Party, which was gaining popularity in Germany. Thompson found Hitler an unpleasant, unimpressive person, and she predicted that he would never achieve the power he desired.

While she was in Germany, Thompson did take note of the German people's support for Hitler and the Nazis, as she watched the Nazi soldiers called "storm troopers" march by shouting "Perish the Jews!" She was alarmed by the red, white, and black Nazi flags bearing swastikas (the symbol of the Nazi party) flying from many houses. She also came upon a Hitler Youth camp, where about 6,000 young boys were being trained to fight for the Nazi cause.

In several articles and a book (I Saw Hitler! [1932]) Thompson kept attacking the Nazis and made fun of their quest for power; these writings increased her fame even more and she was much in demand for lectures. But by 1933, Hitler had taken control of Germany, proving Thompson wrong about his chance for success. She was embarrassed and dismayed by this turn of events.

Kicked out of Germany

Thompson remained in Germany and continued to condemn the Nazis, begging the rest of the world to do the same and thus somehow prevent them from gaining more power. Angered by Thompson, Hitler finally got revenge. On August 25, 1934, he sent a Gestapo (the secret state police of Nazi Germany) agent to her hotel room with an order giving her twenty-four hours to leave the country. Thompson left quickly and got a warm welcome home from her fellow journalists and admirers, who praised her for her courage in criticizing Hitler for as long as she had. She was the first of many foreign journalists to be expelled (forced out of the country) by Hitler.

Fame and respect grows

Suddenly famous as the enemy of dictators like Hitler and an expert in international affairs, Thompson went on a lecture tour around the country. Two articles published in Foreign Affairs magazine gave her a reputation as a serious political commentator. Lewis was also inspired by his wife's work, and wrote a novel called It Can't Happen Here (1935) about the possibility of a dictator taking over the American government.

In 1936, Thompson's popularity as a speaker led to her being hired as a radio commentator for NBC (the National Broadcasting Company), a job she held throughout World War II. She also began writing a column, "On the Record," for the New York Herald Tribune that also appeared in 170 newspapers and was read by an estimated eight to ten million people every day. In 1937, she started writing a column in the monthly Ladies Home Journal magazine.

As the 1930s drew to a close, people everywhere worried as war seemed close to breaking out in Europe. Every Monday evening, five million listeners gathered around their radios to hear what Thompson would say about what was happening in the world. Although she reported the news, she also made it clear in her personal commentaries that she was passionately opposed to Nazism.

Concerned about refugees

World War II officially began with Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939, when both Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. Now a flood of refugees (people forced to leave their homes because of war or other events) began pouring out of Europe, and Thompson's concern for them led her to open her own home to some. She was nicknamed Cassandra, after the character from Greek myth who stands on the walls of Troy to predict that war is coming. Thompson also wrote articles urging governments to take the refugees' plight seriously and do something to help.

Thompson was called on to advise President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945; see entry) in 1940. She continued to lecture and write, taking great care to make her work easily read and understood by all the worried, confused people who were eager for news of the war in Europe.

Broadcasting into Germany

The day after Japan bombed the American naval baseat Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (December 7, 1941), the United States entered World War II. Thompson's contribution to the war effort included broadcasting into Germany by short-wave radio. Hoping to reach a wide variety of Germans and inspire them to rebel against Hitler, she pleaded for an end to the fighting. She also continued to show concern for refugees, working as a member of the Emergency Rescue Committee.

In 1942, Thompson was divorced from Lewis. That same year, a movie called Woman of the Year was released. It featured a journalist heroine, played by Katherine Hepburn, who was loosely based on Thompson. Thompson found the movie unrealistic because it ends with the character giving up her career, which Thompson claimed she would never do. In 1943, Thompson married Maxim Kopf, an Austrian-born artist with an easygoing personality. They remained happily married until his death in 1958.

Saddened by the war

Soon after Germans surrendered in May 1945, Thompson went to Europe to visit some wartorn areas, including the concentration camp at Dachau, Poland, and the heavily bombed city of Dresden, Germany. Thompson had lost some good friends, as well as her beloved stepson, to the war, and she returned feeling very sad and tired. She was already back in the United States when the dropping of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in August 1945 brought the war in the Pacific to a close.

Having witnessed so much destruction, Thompson was no longer as idealistic (believing that one's ideas of how things should be can be fulfilled) as she had been before the war. She even wrote an obituary (death notice) for the earth: "It died because its inhabitants, being endowed with brains to penetrate the secret of all matter, preferred to perish rather than use them any further."

Still writing after the war

Thompson continued to write her newspaper column for two years after the war, and also published several books. She became deeply interested in the struggle between citizens of the new state of Israel and the Arabs who had been uprooted by its creation. Thompson's pro-Arab stance angered some of her former admirers, who accused her of being anti-Semitic. She responded that she was opposed not to Jews but to the violence some Jews used against Arabs.

During the 1950s, other issues that concerned Thompson included the influence of television on young people; in particular, she was one of the first to note the amount of violence on television. She also encouraged women to stand up for their rights, and she warned about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Thompson's last newspaper column appeared in 1958, but she continued to write her column for Ladies Home Journal until the end of her life.

While on vacation in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1961, Thompson was alone in her hotel room when she died of a heart attack. She was buried next to her third husband, beneath a stone that reads: "Dorothy Thompson Kopf—Writer."

Where to Learn More


Jakes, John. Great Women Reporters. New York: Putnam, 1969.

Kurth, Peter. American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. Boston, Toronto, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 1990.

Sanders, Marion K. Dorothy Thompson: A Legend in Her Time. Boston:Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Whitelaw, Nancy. They Wrote Their Own Headlines: American Women Journalists. Greensboro, NC: M. Reynolds, 1994.

Web sites

"Dorothy Thompson." [Online] Available (March 25, 1999).

Dorothy Thompson wrote about the rise of European dictatorships before World War II, and continued to report and comment on world events during the war.

Margaret Bourke-White: Photographs of War

A talented photographer who created "photo-essays" on many events and topics, Margaret Bourke-White helped people to see the war that journalists like Thompson were describing.

Bourke-White was born in 1904 in New York City and studied photography at Columbia University. She attended several midwestern universities and married and divorced before finally earning her bachelor's degree at Cornell University in 1927. At Cornell she took many photographs of natural settings, but later she became more interested in technology.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Bourke-White worked on celebrating, through photography, the beauty of machines and the products they made. In 1927 she established herself as a professional photographer in Cleveland, specializing in architectural and industrial subjects. She began working for a new magazine called Fortune and moved to New York to build a career in advertising.

Bourke-White traveled to the Soviet Union in 1930 and later published the photographs she took there in a book. She also chronicled the drought that had overtaken the "Dust Bowl" area of the American plains with photos that showed the great human tragedy of this natural disaster. In the late 1930s Bourke-White worked with writer Erskine Caldwell to portray the hardships endured by poor people in the southern United States.

Bourke-White was in Moscow with Caldwell (whom she had married several years earlier) when, in 1941, the Germans attacked the city. The only foreign correspondent in Moscow at the time, Bourke-White photographed the event while Caldwell wrote about it. After the United States entered World War II (December 1941) Bourke-White became an official Army Air Corps photographer whose work was used both by the military and by Life magazine.

Although she was not allowed to fly with the American pilots when they moved from England into action in North Africa, she went there instead on a ship that was torpedoed along the way. In January 1943 she was finally allowed to go along on a bombing mission in Tunisia.

When the Allies invaded Italy later that year, Bourke-White photographed the bloody combat in the Cassino Valley, and as the war drew to a close she traveled with General George Patton's (1885-1945; see entry) Third Army into Germany. Bourke-White took many photographs inside the Nazi concentration camps as they were liberated, creating such unforgettable images as "The Living Dead of Buchenwald."

After the war Bourke-White continued to work for Life, photographing such subjects as India's leader Mohandas Gandhi, life in South Africa, and guerrilla fighters in the Korean War. She died of Parkinson's disease in 1971.

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