A brief look into the life of ‘The First Lady of Journalism’, Dorothy Thompson

“Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live.”

—Dorothy Thompson

 

Dorothy Thompson was a renowned, ambitious, and opinionated journalist from the 1930-50s. She was known as a pioneer in her field; the ‘First Lady of American Journalism’, she was recognised by Time magazine as the ‘second most influential woman’ after Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany in 1934, and was one of very few female news commentators on radio during the 1930s. Her column ‘On the Record,’ reached millions, and in 1937, she started writing for Ladies’ Home Journal, where she stayed until her death in 1961.

Background

Thompson was born on July 9, 1893, in Lancaster, New York. Her mother, Margaret Thompson, died in 1901, and her father Peter remarried; she and the stepmother butted heads so much that she was sent away to Chicago to avoid conflict.  Here, she went to Lewis Institute for two years, then transferred to Syracuse University as a junior. There she got a degree in politics and economics, graduating in 1914. Because unlike many women, she had the opportunity to be educated, Thompson felt that she was obligated to fight for women’s rights in the US. In the early 1910s, she began giving speeches in support of women’s suffrage. She found her own way to Europe during World War I and became a foreign correspondent, and became the New York Evening Post’s bureau chief in Berlin during the 1920s.

An Interview With Hitler

Thompson was known both being very conservative and for becoming one of the early, vehement voices against Adolf Hitler and his regime. She interviewed Hitler for Cosmo(!). Thompson was later criticized for calling him a man of “startling insignificance” and questioning whether or not he could actually become Germany’s dictator (obviously he did, which she did not expect. She saw the promise of madness, not of leadership). But she recognized in Hitler (the “very prototype of the Little Man”) what would later be called “the banality of evil”— ‘the rise of Fascism as the malevolent triumph of mediocrity’.

Thompson was a savvy reporter with a keen eye and a crisp style, and she’d been angling for an interview with Hitler since 1923, when he was arrested while trying to seize power in the unsuccessful “Beer Hall Putsch.”  When he finally agreed to meet with her, she interviewed German politicians and Nazi supporters, watched his speeches and read Mein Kampf, all in preparation for the big interview. She saw that he was a “magnificent propagandist” and “an orator with the tongue of the late [William Jennings] Bryan.” She understood his political beliefs and described them, accurately, as “a mixture of fascism, racialist philosophy that teaches that ‘Aryans’ and especially ‘Nordics’ are created to rule the earth, anti-Semitism and muddled socialism.” Thompson was prepared for the interview, but she wasn’t prepared for the man she met, who seemed nothing but pathetic.

She wrote: “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, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man. A lock of lank hair falls over an insignificant and slightly retreating forehead. . . .The nose is large, but badly shaped and without character. His movements are awkward, almost undignified and most un-martial. . . .The eyes alone are notable. Dark grey and hyperthyroid—they have the peculiar shine which often distinguishes geniuses, alcoholics, and hysterics.” To that, she added: “There is something irritatingly refined about him. I bet he crooks his little finger when he drinks a cup of tea.”

But I’ve Never Heard of Her!

She became one of the most well-known figures in American media, her voice being heard both in print and on the radio. It is thought that perhaps we know so very little of her today because Zionists at the time tried incredibly hard to make her seem like a racist. She started out a vehement Zionist but after a trip to Palestine came to the conclusion that the movement was impossible. This angered many of her Jewish friends and her boss (of the NYT) who dropped her in 1947. To be fair to the claims of racism, she did (presumably out of frustration) tell Churchill that Jews were ‘collectively the stupidest people on earth.’

Fun Facts

  • She was married three times.
  • There’s a movie based on her life: ‘Woman of the Year’ is about a character called Tess Harding – played by Katharine Hepburn. The Broadway production of the same name starred Lauren Bacall.
  • In 1938, Thompson championed the cause of a Polish-German Jewish man, Herschel Grynszpan. His assassination in Paris of a minor German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, was used as propaganda by the Nazis to trigger the events of Kristallnacht. Thompson’s broadcast on NBC radio was heard by millions of listeners, and led to an outpouring of sympathy for the young assassin. More than $40000 was raised to get him the best possible lawyer.
  • In her first book, she explored her anti-communism position in New Russia (1928). Other works include Essentials of Democracy (1938), Let the Record Speak (1939) and Developments of Our Times (1948).

 

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