About Dorothy Lewis (Thompson)
Dorothy Thompson (9 July 1893, Lancaster, New York– January 30, 1961, Lisbon, Portugal) was an American journalist and radio broadcaster, who in 1939 was recognized by Time magazine as the second most influential woman in America next to Eleanor Roosevelt. She is notable as the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany in 1934 and as one of the few women news commentators on radio during the 1930s. Many fondly referred to her as the “First Lady of American Journalism.”
She was married three times, most famously to second husband and Nobel Prize in literature winner Sinclair Lewis, and cultivated many literary friends, particularly among exiled German authors.
Dorothy Thompson was born in Lancaster, New York in 1894 to Margaret and Peter Thompson. Margaret died when Dorothy was seven (in 1901), leaving Peter, a Methodist preacher, to raise his daughter alone. Peter soon remarried, but Dorothy did not get along with his new wife, Elizabeth Abbott Thompson. In 1908, Peter sent Dorothy to Chicago to live with his two sisters to avoid further conflict. Here, she attended Lewis Institute for two years before transferring to Syracuse University as a junior. At Syracuse, she studied politics and economics and graduated with a degree in 1914. Because she had the opportunity to be educated, unlike many women of the time, Thompson felt strongly that she had a social obligation to fight for women's suffrage in the United States, which would become the base of her ardent political beliefs. Shortly after graduation, Thompson moved to Buffalo, New York and became involved in the women's suffrage campaign. She worked there until 1920, when she went abroad to pursue her journalism career.
After working for women’s suffrage in the United States, Dorothy Thompson relocated to Europe in 1920 to pursue her journalism career. She was interested in the early Zionism movement. Her big break occurred when she visited Ireland in 1920 and was the last to interview Terence MacSwiney, one of the major leaders of the Sinn Féin movement. It was the last interview MacSwiney gave before he was arrested days later and died two months after that. Because of her success abroad, she was appointed Vienna correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger. While working in Vienna, Thompson focused on becoming fluent in German. In 1923 she married her first husband, Hungarian Joseph Bard; they divorced in 1927 In 1925, she was promoted to Chief of the Central European Service for the Public Ledger (Philadelphia). She resigned in 1927 and not long after, the New York Post appointed her head of its Berlin bureau in Germany. According to her biographer, Peter Kurth, Thompson was “the undisputed queen of the overseas press corps, the first woman to head a foreign news bureau of any importance.”
Thompson married Sinclair Lewis in 1928 and acquired a house in Vermont. They had one son, Michael Lewis, born in 1930. The couple divorced in 1942.
Reporting from Germany
Thompson's most significant work abroad took place in Germany in the early 1930s. While working in Munich, Thompson met and interviewed Adolf Hitler for the first time in 1931. This would be the basis for her subsequent book, I Saw Hitler. She wrote about the dangers of Hitler winning power in Germany. Thompson described Hitler in the following terms: "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, ill poised and insecure. He is the very prototype of the little man." Later, when the full force of Nazism had crashed over Europe, Thompson was asked to defend her "Little Man" remarks; it seemed she had underestimated Hitler. The Third Reich considered both the book and her articles offensive and in August 1934, Thompson was expelled from Germany. She was the first journalist of either gender to be kicked out… presumably because she was the greatest threat.
At the New York Tribune
In 1936 Thompson began writing "On the Record," an incredibly successful syndicated newspaper column. It was read by over ten million people and carried by more than 170 papers. She also wrote a monthly column for the Ladies' Home Journal. Thompson wrote a monthly article for the Ladies' Home Journal for twenty-four years (1937–1961); its topics were far removed from war and politics, focusing on gardening, children, art, and other domestic and women's-interest topics.
Around the time same as she started “On the Record”, NBC hired Thompson as a news commentator. She began in 1936 and remained with NBC until 1938. Her radio broadcasts went on to become some of the most popular in the United States, making her one of the most sought after female public speakers of her time. When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Thompson went on the air for fifteen consecutive days and nights.
Herschel Grynszpan Affair
In 1938, Dorothy Thompson championed the cause of a Polish-German Jew Herschel Grynszpan, whose assassination in Paris of a minor German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, had been used as propaganda by the Nazis to trigger the events of Kristallnacht in Germany. Thompson's broadcast on NBC radio was heard by millions of listeners, and led to an outpouring of sympathy for the young assassin. Under the banner of the Journalists' Defense Fund, over $40,000 USD was collected, enabling famed European lawyer Vincent de Moro-Giafferi to take up Grynszpan's case. The assassination inspired the composer Michael Tippett to write his oratorio A Child of Our Time as a plea for peace, and as a protest against the persecution of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Its haunting use of Negro spirituals to allude to the subjugation of the Jews was particularly innovative.
Woman of the year
As Hitler waged war on the Bolsheviks, Thompson took the world stage. She was featured on the cover of Time (magazine) that same year, with an accompanying picture of her speaking into an NBC radio microphone. The article was captioned “she rides in the smoking car” and it named her the second most popular and influential woman in the country behind Eleanor Roosevelt. She was one of the most respected women of her age. This same article explained Thompson’s influence: “Dorothy Thompson is the U. S. clubwoman's woman. She is read, believed and quoted by millions of women who used to get their political opinions from their husbands, who got them from Walter Lippmann.”
In Woman of the Year (1942) Katharine Hepburn played Tess Harding, a character directly based on Dorothy Thompson. The Broadway musical is based on Thompson as well, this time played by Lauren Bacall.
She married her third husband, the artist Maxim Kopf, in 1945.
Disenchantment with Zionism
Seeking a new issue and a new audience after the war, Thompson turned her attention to the Middle East. Although she had supported Zionism (the movement to establish a Jewish nation in Palestine) since 1920, she ultimately became anti-Zionist and pro-Arab when their methods appeared imperialistic. She wrote an article in Commentary cautioning American Jews about Zionism as it would lead to dual loyalty. The Jewish Oscar Handlin rebutted her in the same issue. Later, she became very critical of the newly created state of Israel. She visited the Palestinian refugees camps in 1948 after the establishment of the state of Israel. She began to write and talk about the refugees' conditions during (Nakba or the Palestinian exodus) and criticized Israel.
In 1950 she produced a documentary film about the Palestinian refugees under the title Sands of Sorrow, one of the oldest documentary films on the plight of Palestine demonstrating the tragedy of Palestinian refugees and the joint suffering. As a result, she was blocked by various media that were previously wish to work with her or even to hold a meeting with her, until she died in Portugal in 1961.
Depictions in Popular Culture
Her marriage to Sinclair Lewis was the subject of the Broadway play Strangers, where she was played by Lois Nettleton. The play, written by Sherman Yellen, opened on March 4, 1979 and closed after nine performances.
On Herschel Grynszpan Affair
"I am speaking of this boy. Soon he will go on trial. The news is that on top of all this terror, this horror, one more must pay. They say he will go to the guillotine, without a trial by jury, with the rights that any common murderer has…" "Who is on trial in this case? I say we are all on trial. I say the men of Munich are on trial, who signed a pact without one word of protection for helpless minorities. Whether Herschel Grynszpan lives or not won't matter much to Herschel. He was prepared to die when he fired those shots. His young life was already ruined. Since then, his heart has been broken into bits by the results of his deed." "They say a man is entitled to a trial by a jury of his peers, and a man's kinsmen rally around him, when he is in trouble. But no kinsman of Herschel's can defend him. The Nazi government has announced that if any Jews, anywhere in the world, protest at anything that is happening, further oppressive measures will be taken. They are holding every Jew in Germany as a hostage." "Therefore, we who are not Jews must speak, speak our sorrow and indignation and disgust in so many voices that they will be heard. This boy has become a symbol, and the responsibility for his deed must be shared by those who caused it."
Partial text of the Christmas Declaration by men and women of German ancestry
"[W]e Americans of German descent raise our voices in denunciation of the Hitler policy of cold-blooded extermination of the Jews of Europe and against the barbarities committed by the Nazis against all other innocent peoples under their sway. These horrors ... are, in particular, a challenge to those who, like ourselves are descendants of the Germany that once stood in the foremost ranks of civilization. ... [We] utterly repudiate every thought and deed of Hitler and his Nazis ... [and urge Germany] to overthrow a regime which is in the infamy of German history.
"Age is not measured by years. Nature does not equally distribute energy. Some people are born old and tired while others are going strong at seventy."
"As far as I can see, I was really put out of Germany for the crime of blasphemy. My offense was to think that Hitler was just an ordinary man, after all. That is a crime in the reigning cult in Germany, which says Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent by God to save the German people— an old Jewish idea. To question this mystic mission is so heinous that, if you are a German, you can be sent to jail. I, fortunately, am an American, so I was merely sent to Paris. Worse things can happen." (1934)
"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 'Führer' 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!'" (1935)
"Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live."
"Courage, it would seem, is nothing less than the power to overcome danger, misfortune, fear, injustice, while continuing to affirm inwardly that life with all its sorrows is good; that everything is meaningful even if in a sense beyond our understanding; and that there is always tomorrow."
"It is not the fact of liberty but the way in which liberty is exercised that ultimately determines whether liberty itself survives."
"They have not wanted peace at all; they have wanted to be spared war--as though the absence of war was the same as peace."
"Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict."
Dorothy Thompson's Timeline
July 9, 1893
Lancaster, Erie, New York, United States
May 14, 1928
January 30, 1961
Lisbon, Lisbon District, Portugal