A turbulent life, lived in turbulent times

Monday Book Reviews

August 12, 1991|By Mary H. Cadwalader

AMERICAN CASSANDRA: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. By Peter Kurth. Little Brown & Co. 584 pages with notes, index and photographs. $19.95; $12.95 in paperback. FOLLOWING the career of this redoubtable woman journalist and prophet takes us rampaging through the major historical events of the first half of this century, rousing vivid memories of the 1930s, '40s and '50s among those who recall the period and painting equally vivid scenes for those born later.

Dorothy Thompson, whose columns ran for two decades in the New York Herald Tribune and other publications, wrote pungently on topical matters and vehemently against Hitlerism and communism.

An important asset of this big, solid book, which will be reissued in paperback in September, is author Kurth's prolific use of Thompson's own words. She left 150 file cases of published and unpublished writings, her ideas, notes and voluminous letters -- chunks of private thoughts and musings on her three husbands and her own sexuality one would have expected her to burn, except that the conflagration, in a more reticent time, might have required a fire company on hand to douse it. Kurth has battled through this paper blizzard and emerged with a clear-as-ice-water picture of a turbulent, complex personality.

Not that Thompson was icy; far from it. Warm, hospitable, generous, also a bit headlong and unpredictable, she was a Junoesque figure who loved and lost, drank, talked and ate her way freely to middle-aged spread -- drawing, toward the last, a snide comment from H. L. Mencken: "My God, she's an elephant, isn't he?"

Daughter of a gentle Methodist minister who held churches around Buffalo, N.Y., Dorothy ("My impatient child," her father called her) was born in 1895, graduated from Syracuse University, spent a few years in votes-for-women campaigns, then scrimped her way at age 27 to London where she earned a meager living free-lancing to whatever magazine or paper would buy her vignettes. "An amiable blue-eyed tornado" one reporter called her. A year later, International News Services sent her to Vienna where she learned how to be a foreign correspondent and fell madly in love with a dapper Hungarian, Joseph Bard. Within six years, however, they split; Bard to another love, Thompson to Berlin.

Always a hard worker she combined total dedication to her profession with a tendency toward earth-mothering; it proved impossible to settle for one or the other. When she met Sinclair Lewis, foremost writer and novelist of the day, a terrible 13-year marriage ensued. "Red" Lewis drank like a whale and wearied swiftly of his bride's absorption with international politics, her lectures and monologues on statecraft. Her immersion in world affairs bored him as much as his furious alcoholism drove her to distraction.

Her reputation as a correspondent steadily grew, nonetheless. She goofed when, in 1931 in an interview with Adolf Hitler, she thought him "the very prototype of the Little Man." The "startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog," who seemed formless, faceless, "voluble, ill-poised, insecure . . . " were words she would wish she had eaten when 1933 brought the storm troopers goose-stepping past her hotel and she recognized that the Nazi grip of Germany made war a certainty. From then on she warned with such urgency, her reporting detailed such devastating accounts of Nazi atrocities, that in late 1934 the Gestapo gave her one day's notice and expelled her.

Colleagues, who respected her, gave her a brotherly send-off. She was friends with dozens: Edgar Ansel Mowrer, John Gunther, H. R. Knickerbocker, Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, William L. Shirer. She always got along with men, which occasionally miffed their wives; but the men debated her on matters she cared deeply about while women, she felt, muted their voices and opinions and didn't speak up.

Back in New York, her column "On The Record" was soon syndicated to 170 U.S. periodicals and, next to Eleanor Roosevelt, she was, according to Time, the second most influential woman in the country.

Sinclair Lewis thereafter departed. The pair had fought, separated, reunited, produced one son and bought a Vermont farm where all varieties of friends descended and where at intervals Thompson gardened, farmed and even cooked. But the couple's genuine mutual love could not transcend their warring natures.

She met a Czech-born artist, Maxim Kopf, a few years later. He was married, but that didn't stop Thompson, who demanded his wife release him. That poor woman did, and until Kopf's 1958 death Thompson found, finally, the serenity and affection she had craved. In early 1961 on a trip to Portugal to visit her grandsons her weakened heart gave out. She died alone in a Lisbon hotel and was buried the following spring in Barnard, Vt., alongside her husband.

Biographer Kurth has brought to life the pre-eminent woman journalist of her time, and the tumultuous time it was.

Mary Cadwalader writes from Joppa.

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