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Pressure Groups and Censorship

Remembering Dorothy Thompson

Peter Kurth
October 26, 2004

Dorothy Thompson
“Do you feel as I do – a fantastic, dream-like quality? ... Something ominous ... a sense of sickness – as though all the world and everybody in it, and you and I, were sick in our nerves and in our brains and in our hearts?”
“Society is deranged. ... It is dominated by moral and emotional morons. ... I want sabotage and opposition ... sabotage and opposition ... sabotage and opposition, against militarism in all of its forms.”

– Dorothy Thompson, 1939

Funny, isn’t it, that a woman who said such things should vote Republican all her life?

Well, damn it, she did. There was one cantankerous exception, in 1948, when “the disaster of the Peace,” as Dorothy Thompson regarded the outcome of World War II, led her to cast her vote for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate. It was Thompson’s way of protesting the lack of “serious ideas” in American politics, and it marked the end of her eminence as a writer and pundit – “the best reporter this generation has seen in any country,” as her colleague John Gunther remarked, “and that is not saying nearly enough.”

What could say enough? In 1939, as Adolf Hitler made war on the world, Dorothy Thompson was featured on the cover of Time, poised before an NBC radio microphone over the caption, “She rides in the smoking car.” She was “the most influential woman” in the United States after Eleanor Roosevelt – “and it may be said of Miss Thompson,” Time observed, “that she came up over a rockier path.”

Dorothy Thompson was the model for "Tess Harding," the chic and sexy, globe-trotting foreign correspondent and newspaper columnist, first portrayed by Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942) – Hepburn’s first film teaming with Spencer Tracy – and later by Lauren Bacall in the Broadway musical of the same name. Her thrice-weekly column, “On the Record,” originating in The New York Herald Tribune, was syndicated to more than 200 papers in America; she was heard nightly on the radio by tens of millions of people; and during just one week, in 1937, she was obliged to turn down 700 invitations to speak to them in the flesh – at rallies, conventions, clubs, forums, dinners, commencements, "roasts" and so on.

And you’ve never heard of her, have you?

Miss Thompson (r.) and Mrs. Roosevelt, 1942
Miss Thompson (r.) and Mrs. Roosevelt, 1942

Thought not. But why? I was Thompson’s biographer, and while I imagined that my book about her, American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson (Little, Brown, 1990), must resurrect her in the public mind, it never did. The reviews were terrific, the features prominent, the gratitude immense from her surviving colleagues and friends.

“Dorothy Thompson!” the reporter George Seldes cried to me one day – “What a woman!” They had been cub reporters together in Berlin in the 1920s. Both had chronicled the rise of the Nazis for American newspapers, but it was Thompson, not Seldes, who was the first to be kicked out of Germany when Hitler came to power. Indeed, she was the first foreign correspondent in Europe to whom any such thing had happened. The German Foreign Ministry, on Hitler’s order, actually established something called “The Dorothy Thompson Emergency Squad,” whose job it was to translate and monitor every word she wrote against the Nazi regime.

“Nazism has once more demonstrated its utter inability to understand any mentality but its own,” said The New York Times in its front-page story about Thompson’s expulsion. This was in August 1934, in the wake of the Night of Long Knives. But in its essence, and its innocence, it might easily be a comment on the Bush regime today – love it or hate it, it has only one point of view. And anyone who knows Thompson knows on which side of that she’d have come down.

"As far as I can see," Thompson remarked after leaving Berlin, "I really was put out of Germany for the crime of blasphemy. My offense was to think that Hitler is just an ordinary man, after all. This is a crime against the reigning cult in Germany, which says that Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent by God to save the German people – an old Jewish idea.”

Thompson had met and interviewed Hitler for the first time in 1931, in Munich, where she was so bowled over by his “utter insignificance” that she “considered taking smelling salts” to keep from fainting. In her columns, she worried a great deal about "the Common Man. The Common Man is important," she explained, "because there are so many of him."

“There was a lot of fussiness connected with the preparations,” she remembered about her encounter with Hitler. “Not, somehow, what one would expect from a man to whom The Deed is everything. ... I’ll bet he crooks his little finger when he drinks his tea.” The Nazis altogether she regarded as “a lot of wavy-haired bugger-boys,” “pink-cheeked mediocrities” making “a fetish out of brotherhood” and in thrall to a homoerotic exaltation.

“He is formless,” she wrote about Hitler, “almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man.”

What else is George W. Bush? From where – which segment of frustrated manhood – does his power arise? “Looking at Hitler,” Thompson said, “I saw a whole panorama of German faces; men whom this man thinks he will rule. And I thought: Mr. Hitler, you may get, in the next elections, the fifteen million votes you need. But fifteen million Germans CAN be wrong.”

Later, when the full force of Nazism had crashed over Europe, Thompson was asked to defend her "Little Man" remark.

"I still believe he is a little man," she replied. "He is the apotheosis of the little man." Nazism itself, for that matter, was "the apotheosis of collective mediocrity in all its forms." This remark anticipated by many years Hannah Arendt’s more famous comment about “the banality of evil,” but the idea was the same. Only because Dorothy, at the end of World War II, threw her lot with the Palestinians, as against Israel, has her contribution since been entirely ignored. The creation of the Israeli state, she feared, was “a recipe for perpetual war.”

And you still haven’t heard of her, have you? She is lost to history – the general fate, I suspect, of any woman who makes waves without screwing people, and the specific fate of a woman so famous in her time that her second husband, Nobel Prize-winner Sinclair Lewis, author of Main Street, Babbitt, Dodsworth and It Can’t Happen Here, declared that if he and Dorothy were ever divorced, he’d name “Adolf Hitler as correspondent.”

The houses the Lewises lived in during their summers in Vermont – two of them, originally, called “Twin Farms” – have since been reduced by fire to only one, and that one is now such a madly expensive “bed-and-breakfast,” a “resort so upscale,” as a recent AP travel story puts it, that you need at least $1000 a day just to stay in one of its outbuildings – none of which were there when Thompson was. And that's without meals. And that's without wine.

Neither will the Lewis estate allow the names of Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis to be used in any sort of promotion for this money-drenched thing. There is – or at least was – a plaque at Twin Farms, which George Seldes got up, announcing that “in this house, Nobel Prize-winner Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here.”

OK, George, fine, wherever you are. But you know and I know that without “Miss Thompson,” Sinclair Lewis would never have written or even dreamed about It Can’t Happen Here. All his biographers admit it; all of Dorothy’s are sure of it. And now that George Bush and his troops have won “another four years,” it is Thompson’s words, not Lewis’s, that need engraving on a plaque. Please, for starters, listen to this:

“No people ever recognize their dictator in advance. He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument [of] the Incorporated National Will. ... When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American. And nobody will ever say ‘Heil’ to him, nor will they call him ‘Fόhrer' or ‘Duce.' But they will greet him with one great big, universal, democratic, sheeplike bleat of ‘O.K., Chief! Fix it like you wanna, Chief! Oh Kaaaay!'” (1937)

-- Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961)

“I know now that there are things for which I am prepared to die. I am willing to die for political freedom; for the right to give my loyalty to ideals above a nation and above a class; for the right to teach my child what I think to be the truth; for the right to explore such knowledge as my brains can penetrate; for the right to love where my mind and heart admire, without reference to some dictator's code to tell me what the national canons on the matter are; for the right to work with others of like mind; for a society that seems to me becoming to the dignity of the human race.” – Dorothy Thompson, 1937

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