Thompson, Dorothy (1893–1961)

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Thompson, Dorothy (1893–1961)

American foreign correspondent, columnist, and radio commentator who was the foremost woman journalist of her time. Born Dorothy Celène Thompson on July 9, 1893, in Lancaster, New York; died in Lisbon, Portugal, on January 30, 1961; daughter of Peter Thompson (a Methodist minister) and Margaret (Grierson) Thompson; attended Lewis Institute, Chicago, 1908–12, awarded A.A., 1912; attended Syracuse University, 1912–14, awarded B.A., 1914; did graduate study, University of Vienna; married Josef Bard (unpublished writer), on April 26, 1923 (divorced 1927); married Sinclair Lewis (the novelist), on May 14, 1928 (divorced 1941); married Maxim Kopf (an artist), on June 16, 1943; children: (second marriage) Michael Lewis.

In early years, family lived in upstate New York villages: Clarence, Tonawanda, Hamburg, Gowanda, Spencerport; became foreign correspondent for Curtis-Martin newspapers, Philadelphia Public-Ledger and New York Evening Post (1920–28); worked as columnist, New York Herald Tribune Syndicate (1936–41); also columnist for Bell newspaper syndicate (1941–58).

Selected writings:

The New Russia (Holt, 1928); "I Saw Hitler!" (Farrar and Rinehart, 1932); Refugees: Anarchy or Organization? (Random House, 1938); Dorothy Thompson's Political Guide: A Study of American Liberalism and Its Relationship to Modern Totalitarian States (Stackpole, 1938); Once on Christmas (Oxford University Press, 1939); Let the Record Speak (Houghton Mifflin, 1939); Listen, Hans (Houghton Mifflin, 1942); The Courage to Be Happy (Houghton Mifflin, 1957).

Late in 1931, Dorothy Thompson, then a correspondent for the American monthly Cosmopolitan, complained, "For seven years I have been trying to see Hitler." Now the time had come. She would be the first American newswoman to interview a man who, in little over a year, would be Germany's führer. She later recalled: "I was a little nervous. I considered taking smelling salts. And Hitler was late. An hour late." Yet when the interview took place, the journalist found herself measuring "the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog."

He is formless, almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, illpoised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the little man. The eyes alone are notable. Dark gray and hyperthyroid—they have the peculiar shine which often distinguishes geniuses, alcoholics, and hysterics.

Though Hitler addressed her as if he were speaking to a mass meeting, Thompson predicted that he would never gain power. Within a year, she wrote, "Oh Adolf! Adolf! You will be out of luck!"

On August 25, 1934, Adolf Hitler—now German chancellor—got his revenge on the author of the demeaning portrait. Indeed her articles exposing Nazi anti-Semitism, published in the Jewish Daily Bulletin, simply added to his fury. Thompson was expelled from Germany by the very "little man" she had found so insignificant. Having just finished breakfast in her room at Berlin's Hotel Adlon, she was visited by a Gestapo agent who gave her 24 hours to depart. In Western Europe, such orders were unprecedented, and nearly the entire American and British press corps saw her off. The event made headlines. Any banishment of Dorothy Thompson was front-page news.

Thompson was born in 1893 in Lancaster, New York, near Syracuse. Dorothy's father Peter Thompson was a Methodist minister who had immigrated from northern England. Throughout her youth, he held modest parishes in the industrial suburbs of Buffalo, and during one six-month period the family was so impoverished they survived on rice and apples. Her mother Margaret Grierson Thompson , the daughter of Scottish working-class immigrants, died when Dorothy was seven. Two years later, in 1903, her father married Eliza Abbott , parish pianist and rigid hypochondriac. Dorothy worshipped her father but despised her stepmother. As rebellious as she was intelligent, she was sent to Chicago, there to live with two aunts. In 1908, she began attending the Lewis Institution, a rigorous academy. Lack of money caused her to forego her dream of attending one of the Seven Sister colleges. Rather in 1912 she entered Syracuse University on a scholarship for children of Methodist clergy. Admitted as a junior, she completed all requirements within two years and graduated cum laude.

In September 1914, Thompson began work for the Buffalo headquarters of the New York State Woman Suffrage Party. Though she began as a clerk, stuffing envelopes at the salary of eight dollars a week, she soon became of one of the party's leading organizers, speaking and arranging promotional events throughout western New York. When, late in 1917, the state adopted women's suffrage, she moved to New York City. Here she worked for a religious publisher and an advertising agency. In the summer of 1918, she moved to Cincinnati, where she became publicity director for the National Social Unit Organization, a group fostering preventive medicine.

In July 1920, Thompson and a close friend, Barbara De Porte , moved to London, then to Paris. In part, she was escaping a romantic involvement with the Unit's director, Wilbur S. Phillips, a married man 18 years her senior. More important, she wanted to make her mark as a foreign correspondent. Almost immediately, she met with success, interviewing Zionist leaders, Irish nationalists, and Italian labor organizers. She was the last person to interview Terence MacSwiney, lord mayor of Cork, before he starved to death in a 73-day hunger strike. Her material was soon picked up by the New York Evening Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Outlook magazine, and the Hearst chain, though in Paris she usually had to support herself by writing publicity for the American Red Cross at a penny a line.

Finding the French capital saturated with shallow American expatriates, Thompson moved to Vienna, arriving early in 1921. She first wrote features for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, then went on to Budapest, where she continued Red Cross publicity work. She soon became a protegé of Marcel Fodor, the distinguished Hungarianborn correspondent of the Manchester Guardian. By May, the Public Ledger put her on a $50-a-week salary, in part because of her interviews of such European leaders as Czechoslovakia's Eduard Benes and Thomas Masaryk, Britain's Ramsay MacDonald, Germany's Gustav Stresemann, France's Aristide Briand, Turkey's Kemal Ataturk, Russia's Leon Trotsky, and Queen Marie of Rumania . All southeastern Europe became her beat. In the summer of 1925, she was transferred to Berlin, in the process becoming, according to her biographer Peter Kurth, "the undisputed queen of the overseas press corps, the first woman to head a foreign news bureau of any importance." When the Ledger's foreign bureau merged with that of the New York Evening Post, both owned by Curtis Publishing, her audience became even wider.

All this time Thompson was ever on the move. In October 1921, she scooped the world by covering an abortive Habsburg coup in Hungary. To gain access to Empress Zita of Parma and Emperor Charles I, grandnephew of the late Francis Joseph, Thompson disguised herself as a Red Cross nurse. Other feats included coverage of a uprising in Sofia, during which a machine gun peppered her balcony, and reporting a Polish rebellion in evening clothes and silk slippers. (She borrowed $500 for her trip to Warsaw from her friend Sigmund Freud, acting in the knowledge that the famous analyst was often paid in American dollars kept in an office safe.)

In the spring of 1922, Thompson entered into a love affair with Joseph Bard, a handsome Hungarian sophisticate of Jewish and Croatian background. After marriage, which took place in April 1923, Bard—supposedly a brilliant if unpublished writer—lived off her earnings while being openly unfaithful to her. Only in 1927, when Bard genuinely fell in love with a wealthy and beautiful British art student, did Thompson divorce him.

Soon she fell in love with Sinclair Lewis, America's most famous novelist, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1930. Lewis' biographer Mark Schorer describes Thompson in the following terms:

Her beauty was of herself rather than of her face alone, a shining expression of her warmth and vitality and intelligence. She had candid, hazel eyes, was fair and of imposing presence, with nothing petit or mincing in her gait, impulsive and generous, of a relaxed self-confidence that held no shred of self-importance.

Lewis proposed to Thompson within 48 hours after they met, then followed her when she covered the Soviet Union for the New York Evening Post. The couple lived near Naples, Italy, until Lewis' divorce was finalized. After their marriage in May 1928, they moved to "Twin Farms" in Barnard, Vermont, a 300-acre estate that served as an anchor amid their frequent moving. At first, the Lewises truly loved each other. Thompson (who always kept her maiden name) served as a genuine mother to Wells, Lewis' son by his first marriage, indeed far more so than to Michael, the child born to her and Lewis in 1930. She was the inspiration for Lewis' most successful novel of the 1930s, It Can't Happen Here (1935), which dealt with a fascist takeover in America. Once Lewis was so angered at Theodore Dreiser, who had plagiarized from Thompson's book The New Russia (1928), that he insulted the prominent novelist and got slapped for his pains.

She was a voice of rare eloquence and courage.

—Marion K. Sanders

Yet Thompson found Lewis increasingly distant, demanding, and vituperative. Already facing a sharp waning of his talents, he was continually rude to her friends. She saw him wallowing in self-pity and literally drinking himself to death. She mocked his political apathy in columns entitled "Conversations with the Grouse." Lewis in turn became increasingly jealous of Thompson's fame and angered by her continual traveling and her crusading posture. Once he commented, "If I hear anything more about 'conditions' and 'situations' I'll shoot myself." He frequently said, "If I ever divorce Dorothy, I'll name Adolf Hitler as co-respondent." He revealed his hostility by thinly disguised portraits in the novels Ann Vickers (1933) and Gideon Plantish (1943). By 1933, they rarely lived together. In 1937, they separated, though only in 1942 did she finally grant Lewis a divorce.

In 1931, Thompson had resumed reporting activities overseas, frequently contributing to the Saturday Evening Post. She also became a regular on the lecture circuit throughout the United States, beginning years of a grueling schedule. Moreover, she engaged in brief affairs with unidentified men. In 1932, she entered into a three-year intimate relationship with Christa Winsloe , a beautiful sculptor who wrote the play Gestern und Heute (Yesterday and Today), which was the basis for the film Mädchen in Uniform.

On March 16, 1936, Helen Rogers Reid , the de facto publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, hired Thompson to contribute a column, "On the Record," three times a week. By 1939, Thompson had 7.5 million readers in 196 newspapers. In the spring of 1937, she added a monthly column in the Ladies' Home Journal. Furthermore, thanks to a Monday night radio program over the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), she reached 5.5 million listeners. Thompson had definitely achieved celebrity status by 1939, when Time magazine found her second only to Eleanor Roosevelt as America's most influential woman. Indeed, Time commented, "She can do more for any cause than any private citizen in the United States."

Because of her pronounced views and her intense personality, Thompson always made good press copy. Wrote editor Charles Angoff, with only slight exaggeration:

She became sufficiently important for writers and cartoonists to satirize her. She was portrayed as giving advice to the Pope, to the President of the United States, to the Emperor of Ethiopia, to the President of the New York Stock Exchange, to the President of Harvard University. She became the Woman of the Year. She became the Woman of the Decade. She became the Woman of the Twentieth Century.

To her admirers, Thompson was the "blueeyed tornado," "the first lady of American journalism," a cross between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nurse Edith Cavell or between Cassandra and Joan of Arc . Correspondent John Gunther called her "the best journalist this generation has produced in any country." Critics labeled her a "blood-thirsty, breast-beating" Boudica , a "wet nurse to destiny," the "Delilah of the Ink-Pot," the "Molly Pitcher of the Maginot Line." Many on the left used such metaphors as the "Florence Nightingale

of the wounded Tory intellect," and the "Clara Barton of the plutocrat in pain."

As far as U.S. domestic policy was concerned, Thompson was strongly conservative. By 1935, she found the New Deal "on the rocks." To Thompson, seeds of fascism lay in such measures as large-scale relief, the Federal Writers Project, the Wagner Act, social security, and Supreme Court "packing." On December 3, 1938, she wrote, "I wish for us all, for the New Year, a Congress that is no longer willing to be a Nazi Reichstag." Franklin D. Roosevelt reciprocated by calling her "the oracle of Wall Street." At the same time, she opposed "roughshod capitalism," which she defined as mindless accumulation at the expense of individual worth.

Always Thompson sought to alert Americans to the dangers of fascism. Although her 1932 prediction that Hitler would never rule often came back to haunt her, she soon found Germany an extremely dangerous power. Frequently predicting a general war, she often lambasted America's neutrality acts and Britain's appeasement policies. She wrote a preface to Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg's My Austria (1938), in which she said she would have given her life to save that country from Nazism. In February 1939, she "dropped in" on a meeting of the German-American Bund at Madison Square Garden. Wrote Kurth in American Cassandra:

She was on her way that night to deliver a speech to a meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and her decision to take a detour to the Bund rally was not so casual as it appeared. She had been worrying a lot recently about the limitations of the First Amendment. She wondered to what extent free speech might need to be curtailed in the interest of its own protection. She had no answer to the problem…. She knew she would be on familiar territory in a sea of Nazi flags, and she arrived at Madison Square Garden with the express purpose of causing an uproar. She took her seat in the front row of the press gallery and commenced to interrupt the speakers with strident gales of raucous laughter, humiliating and infuriating the pride of American Nazism so deeply that after about ten minutes of this, while the Bundists shouted "Throw her out!," she was actually surrounded by a unit of Fritz Kuhn's "Storm Troopers" and muscled out the door…. It may have been her finest moment—the indelible dramatization of her promise to Hitler that she would not be muzzled by thugs.

Much of Thompson's attention was given to the plight of Europe's refugees, particularly Jews. She personally intervened on behalf of many stateless individuals, contributed financially to their welfare, and was often successful in finding them asylum. In November 1938, she defended the Jewish refugee Herschel Grynszspan, whose assassination of a German diplomat in Paris resulted in the horrors of Kristallnacht. A year and a half later, she collaborated on a play centering on refugees: Another Sun, written with a lover, Fritz Kortner. Because of a muddled plot, it closed on Broadway after a week's run.

When, on September 1, 1939, war broke out in Europe, Thompson immediately cabled British statesman Harold Nicolson, saying that the British Cabinet must engage "in mediation and prayer." Within days, however, she became a fervent interventionist. After the fall of France, she called for universal conscription. In May 1941, at a New York banquet of 3,000 held in her honor, she even started a small organization, the Ring of Freedom, which sought to put the United States on a war footing. On September 15, 1941, she called for an outright American declaration of war against Germany. No isolationist was safe from her attacks, and she particularly sought to label aviator Charles A. Lindbergh as "pro-Nazi." In turn, leading isolationist senators sought her investigation as a "British agent."

Although originally enthusiastic about Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential standard-bearer in 1940, Thompson saw Roosevelt possessing the needed experience in foreign policy. She toyed with a bipartisan Roosevelt-Willkie ticket, but finally "jumped ship" in October by directly calling for Roosevelt's reelection. On October 14, in a speech at Buffalo, she claimed that Willkie was "a man supported by Axis agents, whatever his personal attitude toward them may be." (Once the election was over, she suggested that Willkie receive a Cabinet appointment.)

In March 1941, the strongly Republican Herald Tribune, angered by Thompson's endorsement of Roosevelt, failed to renew her contract. Her column was immediately picked up by the Bell syndicate, which distributed her column to over 200 papers, including the arch-liberal New York Post. During the early '40s, her prestige was at its height. She received so much mail that it had to be delivered in special trucks. Roosevelt occasionally used her as a speechwriter, and she also drafted material on Germany for the State Department and the Office of Strategic Services.

In June 1943, Thompson married Maxim Kopf, a German-Bohemian artist who was born in Vienna and raised in Prague. She had to bribe Kopf's third wife, actress Lotte Stein , to secure his divorce and the return of a damaging letter Thompson had written her.

During the war, Thompson defended the mass bombing of Germany. She was, however, horrified by Hiroshima, maintaining that the atomic strike had not been necessary to defeat Japan. In 1942, she made weekly shortwave broadcasts to Germany, calling upon Hitler's subjects to overthrow Nazi rule. Her scripts, which were anthologized in Listen, Hans (1942), took the form of messages to a non-Nazi German friend, in reality Resistance leader Helmuth von Moltke. She opposed the "barbaric" policy of unconditional surrender, claiming that it squelched "the forces in Germany that were anxious for peace." For the rest of her life, she was haunted by the belief that Wells Lewis, killed by a sniper's bullet in France in October 1944, would have remained alive had peace negotiations been opened. Appalled by the wartime conferences of Yalta and Potsdam and strongly anti-Communist, she hoped that Roosevelt would deal with the Russians when the war ended.

After the conflict, Thompson criticized the Nuremberg trials, saying major Nazi offenders should be summarily shot rather than be subject to what she saw as a travesty of the judicial process. She made marked comparisons of German treatment of the Jews and Allied treatment of German-speaking exiles from such areas as Poland, Silesia, and East Prussia. "It would have been more humane," she told an audience at New York's Town Hall, "to reopen the gas chambers for German children" than to permit mass starvation to continue.

In the immediate postwar period, Thompson foresaw an era of "endless minor wars" and "formless imperialism," an age of "lawlessness for the powerful and servitude for the weak." Hence, she sought international laws against rearmament and military conscription. By 1948, the once-militant interventionist was calling upon the United States to exercise caution in the world arena. She denied that the U.S. could serve as "world policeman," warned against continued dissipation of American troops and morale, feared "a hemorrhage of savings and income," and bemoaned the power of the military in American life. In the summer of 1950, she reluctantly endorsed American participation in the Korean War, finding it the product of "blind commitments" that must still be honored.

Critical of all power politics, in 1948 Thompson served as chair of the World Organization of Mothers of All Nations (WOMAN), a group seeking to revise the United Nations Charter by breaking the "monopoly" of the Security Council. Long-range goals included total disarmament of all nations and the abolition of "the right to wage international war." In 1951, under her direction, WOMAN sought to entrust the Society of Friends with the Korean truce negotiations. She maintained that the U.S., no less than the Soviets, menaced humanity by developing nuclear weapons. She had said four years earlier, "A corpse is neither a Communist nor a democrat."

Increasingly, Thompson found solutions lying in the realm of the spirit, not politics, and in November 1946 she called for a revival of a belief in "the absolute." American schools, she claimed, taught a dangerous relativism. In April 1949, she admitted she had unwittingly harbored a Soviet agent as a research assistant, writing an article for the Saturday Evening Post entitled "How I Was Duped by a Communist." Though she did not object in principle to congressional investigation of suspected subversives, she called McCarthyism "childish, and positively useful to the cause it seeks to injure."

In 1948, Thompson voted for the Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas on the grounds that the major parties lacked "serious ideas." In 1952, she originally sought to become an adviser to the Democratic presidential candidate, Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, but ended up voting for Dwight D. Eisenhower as a protest against "Truman and Trumanism."

Since she first covered the London Zionist Conference in 1920, Thompson had been a major voice for the movement, and during World War II she ardently supported Jewish immigration to Palestine. By July 1946, she was becoming a leading opponent of Jewish nationalism, calling it "an aggressive, chauvinist movement." She expressed strong sympathy for Arab refugees, opposed terrorist activities of the Stern gang and the Irgun, and called the nationstate of Israel "an expansionist power." Despite her long-standing effort on behalf of Jewish refugees, her early and militant opposition to Hitler, and the fact that husband Bard was half-Jewish, she was frequently labeled anti-Semitic.

In 1951, at the request of Rabbi Elmer Berger, executive director of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, Thompson became president of American Friends of the Middle East (AFME), a group promoting Arab speakers in the U.S. and student exchange programs financed in part by the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1957, pressure from the Bell Syndicate caused her to resign this office, although she always remained a strong supporter of the organization.

Thompson's anti-Zionism led to her being dropped by the New York Post as early as March 1947, thereby depriving her of any outlet in the nation's largest city. Writes biographer Kurth:

For the rest of her life she would function without a flagship paper, as an "independent" commentator, subject to cancellation without notice, censored regularly by local editors, and not knowing from one day to the next whether she would still be read by the thousands of people who wrote to praise or condemn her.

Her final years were anti-climatic. Thompson continued her lecture tours, sometimes for weeks at a time. Her husband Kopf, whom she deeply loved, died in July 1958, and at the end of August, weary and grieving, she gave up her column. Her son Michael was a strong disappointment, a heavy drinker whose marriage was in shambles and who was unable to keep a job. Overindulgence in food, amphetamines, and alcohol took its toll on Thompson herself, and moves to Hanover, New Hampshire, and Southern Pines, North Carolina, were simply occasions for boredom. On January 30, 1961, Dorothy Thompson died of a heart attack in Lisbon, Portugal, while visiting her daughter-in-law.

Thompson was by no means flawless. She, like Lewis, neglected any responsibility for raising her son, arbitrarily fired German nationals upon falsely hearing that they were "Nazi spies," overstated many issues, and personalized legitimate differences of opinion. There was a self-conscious showmanship that could degenerate into exhibitionism. On a deeper level, she lacked the kind of philosophical base that would have given cohesion to her often disparate opinions. Little wonder her eight books were all anthologies of speeches or columns. More important, however, she was a crack correspondent in a great age of frontline reporting, second to few in her knowledge of Central Europe, and always a woman of great courage and absolute integrity. In the history of American journalism, few individuals have been able to wield such influence in a period of immense crisis. What she did, said Winston Churchill, "can never be overestimated."


Kurth, Peter. American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1990.

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

suggested reading:

Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1961.

Sheean, Vincent. Dorothy and Red. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.


The papers of Dorothy Thompson are located at Syracuse University.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College, University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida