In her heyday, during the depths of the Depression, Dorothy Thompson was one of the most famous women in America. ”The First Lady of American Journalism,” she was the first foreign correspondent to be expelled from Germany by Adolf Hitler. A reporter of legendary verve, she served as the model for the Katharine Hepburn character in the 1942 film Woman of the Year. Hugely popular as a newspaper columnist and radio commentator, she was courted by presidents and businessmen. More than any other single figure in the media, she alerted Americans to the growing menace of fascism, earning the sobriquet ”Cassandra” for her trademark tone of vehement alarm.
At the same time, as Peter Kurth suggests in his meticulously researched biography, American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson, Thompson’s private life offers a fascinating mirror on her times. Born in 1893, Thompson grew up in upstate New York, the daughter of an itinerant Methodist preacher. Part of the first generation of American women to attend college in substantial numbers, she enlisted in the ranks of the Progressive and suffrage movements after graduating from Syracuse University. The Red Scare abruptly ended her career as an activist, and in 1920 Thompson set sail for Europe with the crazy idea of becoming a foreign correspondent.
Amazingly enough, she did just that. By 1925 she was in Berlin working for the Philadelphia Public Ledger and New York Evening Post. The first American woman to head a foreign news bureau. Dauntless in her efforts to scoop the competition, she left male colleagues agog. ”The story quickly got around,” writes Kurth, ”of two hard-bitten newspapermen moping in a bar. ‘Have you heard?’ said one. ‘Dorothy Thompson got into town at noon.’ ‘Good God,’ said the other. ‘What happened at one o’clock?”’
In Berlin in 1927, Thompson met Sinclair Lewis, then at the height of his fame as a novelist. A year later, they were married and returned to America. From the outset, their relationship was volatile and probably doomed. The Nobel prize-winning author of Main Street was a hopeless alcoholic. Thompson, for her part, escaped into an intense love affair with Christa Winsloe, the author of The Child Manuela, a pioneering piece of feminist literature. The affair with Winsloe did not last. But Lewis’ drinking did. And when Thompson became a national celebrity after launching her newspaper column, ”On the Record,” in 1936, Lewis felt eclipsed; they were formally divorced six years later.
At the peak of her influence, from 1937 until 1941, Thompson’s column appeared in the prestigious New York Herald Tribune, opposite Walter Lippmann’s. From this pulpit she railed against Hitler, the Nazis, and Franklin Roosevelt, whose charisma and power she distrusted. When FDR declared that ”this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny,” she snapped back, ”This generation had better not make any blind dates.”
As her fame grew, so did the imperiousness of her manner and the stridency of her moralizing. ”Society is deranged,” she shrilly informed the readers of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1939. To stem the ”decline of the West,” she (of all people!) counseled housewives to stay at home: ”I have an ever-increasing respect for those women who stick to their knitting.” In the same flaky vein her letter to President Harry Truman in 1948 begged him to call ”a day of national prayer” in response to the spread of communism in Europe.
By then, Thompson had understandably lost much of her political clout. That & she nevertheless continued to write a widely syndicated column for another decade attests to her phenomenal popularity — and also to America’s insatiable appetite for authoritatively ”independent” commentary, no matter how cranky.
Detailed to a fault, Kurth’s biography rises and falls with its subject. When Thompson is bounding with youthful energy and out to conquer the world, she carries the narrative; when she becomes a boring public scold, you begin to wonder why you’re reading about her. ”Did you ever realize how much Dorothy is like the Statue of Liberty?” Walter Lippmann once said, privately summing her up. ”Made of brass. Visible at all times to all the world. Holding the light aloft, but always the same light… .Capable of being admired, but difficult to love.”
And so it is with Kurth’s book: easy to admire, hard to love.