In a 1990 interview, legendary English singer and songwriter David Bowie opined that being famous was not itself “a rewarding thing.” The co-composer (with John Lennon) of the 1975 funk rock hit, Fame claimed that “The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants.”
Fame is certainly fickle. Some people get it but don’t deserve it; others don’t get it when they do. It can also be disappointingly fleeting.
Its enemies include short memories, ideological bias, and new generations.
Fanny Crosby comes to mind. When my grandparents were young, millions of Americans were singing her songs. One President of the United States after another (21 in all) wanted to meet her. When she died in 1915, she was widely regarded as among the best known and most beloved women in the country. Now, I’d wager not five percent of Americans could tell you a thing about her.
Another example of fame won and lost, the subject of this two-part essay, is Dorothy Thompson. Does that name ring any bells?
Thompson deserves to be far better remembered than she presently is. Most Americans of just 80 years ago could tell you exactly who she was. Born in 1893 in Lancaster, New York, she was broadcasting news and commentary on the radio at a time when women were widely supposed to stay in the kitchen. As a foreign correspondent in the late 1920s and 1930s, she was “the undisputed queen of the overseas press corps, the first woman to head a foreign news bureau of any importance,” recounts one of her several biographers, Peter Kurth.
Her thrice-weekly newspaper column, begun in 1936, was syndicated nationally. It ran in 170 papers read by tens of millions of Americans. For a quarter century (from 1937 until her death in 1961), she authored a separate monthly column in Ladies’ Home Journal. She was known as “the First Lady of American Journalism” by 1940.
She was courted by presidents, prime ministers and potentates and admired by men and women alike for her trenchant writing. A celebrity herself, there was hardly another celebrity who didn’t relish a few moments with her. Over the years in movies and on stage, such actresses as Kathryn Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Lois Nettleton played characters based on Thompson. She counted among her best friends the fellow journalist Rose Wilder Lane, an influential libertarian political theorist.
In December 1931, thirteen months before Hitler took power as Germany’s Chancellor, Thompson was working in Munich. She had tried since Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 to speak with the Nazi leader but he proved elusive to her and other foreign journalists.
In his biography of Thompson, American Cassandra, Kurth revealed that when she read Hitler’s political manifesto Mein Kampf in the 1920s, she “recognized it for what it was”:
…[N]onsense, ‘one long speech’ filled with lunatic diatribes about nations and races, ‘eight hundred pages of Gothic script, pathetic gestures, inaccurate German, and unlimited self-satisfaction.’
Some read Mein Kampf and, like Katherine Atholl in Britain, warned of the coming danger it foretold. Others, like Thompson, were initially more dismissive, thinking it a disgusting rant that would go nowhere. She scoffed at the future Fuehrer’s boast that Germans would come to embrace Nazi rule. “Imagine a would-be dictator,” she sneered, “setting out to persuade a sovereign people to vote away their rights.” Of course, by making the Nazis the largest bloc in the Reichstag, that’s exactly what they did.
Hitler was likely unaware of Thompson’s personal view of Mein Kampf when he finally consented to a meeting with her in December 1931. Expecting his Nazi Party to win big in upcoming elections in March 1932 (they did), he decided it was time to engage with the world. He agreed to sit down with Dorothy Thompson. The result, her 1932 book titled I Saw Hitler!, proved embarrassing for both of them.
Hitler, she wrote, came to his scheduled interview an hour late and accompanied by a bodyguard “who looked like Al Capone.”
Biographer Susan Hertog, in Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson, describes the meeting:
As she watched and listened to the Nazi leader, the psychodrama began to unfold. Shy and cool at the outset, Hitler whipped himself into a frenzy, raising his voice to a crescendo, all the while banging his fist on the table to hammer his point. He spoke in a monologue, as if he were addressing an audience of thousands, and he seemed to be looking right through her. Cunningly shifting the focus of the meeting toward his own agenda, he sidestepped all but one of her questions…Dorothy was shocked to think that this great nation, this citadel of art, philosophy, and science, would voluntarily hand over its rights to a thug.
Though she detested the Nazi movement, Thompson offered an assessment of its leader in I Saw Hitler! that vastly depreciated his potential. Of her 1931 meeting, she recalled:
When finally I walked into Adolph Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. It took just that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man who has set the whole 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, ill poised and insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man.
Thompson would eat those words in short order but in the meantime, the interview boosted her worldwide profile considerably.
Why did an intelligent person like Thompson, who knew well the language, history, politics, and culture of Germany, so egregiously underestimate Hitler? Youthful naivete may partially explain it, but I believe the answer is primarily her overestimation of a people in crisis. Defeat in World War I followed by hyperinflation, political instability, and then the Great Depression combined to form the cauldron in which Germans stewed. By the early 1930s, they were more ready to flush their freedoms away than she (and many others) imagined.
Upon becoming Chancellor in January 1933, Hitler moved swiftly to consolidate power. “In less than a month,” wrote the reporter Rothay Reynolds, bureau chief in Berlin for Britain’s Daily Mail, “Germans had lost freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly.” But Hitler’s popularity at home was high and rising.
Thompson by then was back at home in Vermont with second husband and Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis. Soon, however, developments in Europe beckoned. When Nazi agents assassinated the Austrian Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, in July 1934, she knew she had to cover the aftermath. Thompson flew to Austria.
After a short stint in Vienna, she headed by car to Berlin. A few days later, she learned the hard way what Hitler had thought of her book. She recounted the episode in a piece for Harper’s magazine, “Goodbye to Germany”:
I was still in my room in the morning when the porter rang up from the desk. ‘Good morning, madam, there is a gentleman here from the secret state police.’ ‘Send him up,’ I said. He was a young man in a trench coat like Hitler’s. He brought an order that I should leave the country immediately within forty-eight hours, for journalistic activities inimical to Germany.
In the space of three years, Dorothy Thompson had become the first American journalist to interview Hitler and the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany. Though she didn’t at first believe that Hitler would talk his way to power, she more than made up for lost time once he did. In her columns in the late 1930s, she frequently and mercilessly assailed him and his Nazi thugs. That alone should earn her fame and recognition to this day and forevermore.
What were Dorothy Thompson’s political and economic views? Did she see any resemblance between the fascism of Hitler and the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt? What influence did Rose Wilder Lane’s libertarianism have on her? Why is she largely forgotten today?
These are questions I will explore in my next article. Stay tuned.
For Additional Information, See:
The Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War by Deborah Cohen
Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson by Susan Hertog
Dorothy Thompson: A Legend in Her Time by Marion K. Sanders
American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson by Peter Kurth
Dorothy Thompson and Rose Wilder Lane: Forty Years of Friendship, Letters 1921-1960 by William Holtz (editor)
Reporting on Hitler: How Foreign Correspondents in Nazi Germany Battled to Expose the Truth by Will Wainewright
Dorothy Thompson’s Political Guide: A Study of American Liberalism and Its Relationship to Modern Totalitarian States by Dorothy Thompson
The American Journalists Who Defied Nazi Intimidation (PBS video)