Before Barbra Walters, before Helen Thomas or Anna Quindlen or Diane Sawyer, there was Dorothy Thompson.
In the first half of the 20th century, Dorothy Thompson was the most famous female journalist in America. In fact, she may have been the most important American journalist, woman or man, in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
Her syndicated column reached more than 9 million readers through 170 newspapers. Even more listened to her on her NBC radio broadcasts. She warned America of the rising threat of fascism and anti-Semitism in Germany, and then after interviewing and profiling Adolph Hitler, became the first correspondent to be expelled from Germany on his orders.
A movie starring Katharine Hepburn was based on Thompson. Her likeness appeared in an illustration of Vogue magazine for an article about “Our changing tastes...1938.” Time editors put her on the magazine cover in 1939 and described her as the “second most influential woman in America” after Eleanor Roosevelt.
Such was the power of the woman who grew up in a Methodist parsonage on Union Street in Hamburg during the Victorian age.
Dorothy Thompson was the eldest of three children of the Rev. Peter Thompson, an English-born preacher, and his American wife, Margaret Grierson. Her father’s Methodist preaching influenced her for a lifetime. A gentle man, his sermons were not of fire and brimstone, but instead a celebration of life and love and forgiveness.
“My father believed that life was the most glorious gift of God,” she wrote later. “He really believed that God would take care of the human race and that no mistakes that we might make, as we certainly would, were irrevocable, and his own example was a loving proof that as pleasure may lie without us, happiness certainly comes from inside.”
That was a lesson she carried throughout her life, as she became regarded as “the First Lady of American Journalism.”
The woman who would become “the First Lady of American Journalism” got her start in Western New York, not reporting the news, but fighting for the right to vote.
After graduating from Syracuse University in 1914, she joined the suffrage movement in Buffalo, at first stuffing envelopes but soon taking a leadership role, campaigning throughout an eight-county region, speaking at rallies, writing press releases and organizing parties and parades. On one occasion, she took that fight to the Allegany County community of Friendship. As she prepared to speak at an Old Home Week celebration, a band—clearly opposed to women’s suffrage—drowned her out. So Thompson went across the street to a store where she saw a blackboard for sale. She bought it for $1, and wrote on it words that not only conveyed the message she hoped to deliver that day, but that could be seen as the motto for the life she came to lead.
“Noise is not an answer to truth,” she wrote.
She then erased that message and wrote more.
“Is this the treatment a lone gal gets?”
“The band knew it was beaten,” The Buffalo Evening News later reported. “It stopped playing and she made her speech.”
That determination and resourcefulness carried Thompson throughout her life. They were qualities she had learned in childhood.
Thompson described an idyllic childhood in Hamburg.
“She remembered a world of church suppers and sleigh-ride parties, of ice cream socials and benevolent orders, of swimming and skating and canning and quilting, choir-singing and berry-picking, candy making and chestnut roasting,” according to Peter Kurth’s biography of Thompson, “America’s Cassandra.”
The family lived in the parsonage at 180 Union, a white-and-green trimmed two-story home opposite the school and adjacent to the Methodist Church.
The family was poor. During one six-month stretch, they lived on rice and apples. Thompson later confessed that, except for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, she never left the dinner table without wishing she had more to eat. But that poverty had an advantage.
“My father was trying to keep up with a much higher standard than the Joneses,” she later said.
This idyllic childhood came to an end shortly before Thompson turned 8 when her mother died.
Margaret Thompson was pregnant again, and her own mother believed that she should not have another child, according to Kurth’s biography. Without Margaret’s knowledge, Grandma Grierson gave her “herbs and potions” to cause a miscarriage. Margaret hemorrhaged, and she died of a blood infection.
“I ran out of the room with screaming silent in my throat,” Dorothy recalled later. “Father followed me...He was not mad at me. He held me very tight.”
“Your mother has a new life,” her father said, “a beautiful new life.”
Three years after Margaret Thompson died, Reverend Thompson married the church organist, Eliza Abbott.
“Peter Thompson’s children did not want a mother, nor did Eliza Abbott ever betray the faintest aptitude for the job,” according to Kurth’s biography.
The stepmother publicly rebuked young Dorothy for her faults, often reducing the child to tears. One Christmas, “Eliza handed her a small, daintily wrapped package, which, when opened, was found to contain a baby’s bottle and a card: ‘Merry Christmas to a cry-baby.’ ”
By the time she reached her teenage years, Dorothy was sent to live with her father’s two sisters in Chicago. She blossomed under her aunts’ guidance, and after completing high school in Chicago, she went on to graduate from Syracuse University, where tuition was free for the children of Methodist ministers.
Thompson stood five-foot six, had blue eyes and brown hair. Journalist-author John Gunther, who became friends with her while they were correspondents in Europe, described her as a “blue-eyed tornado.”
She arrived in Britain in 1920, after New York state voters had passed the suffrage amendment.
That work done, she decided to “become some sort of writer” and headed across the ocean. The same resourcefulness and determination she displayed in Friendship quickly won her full-time employment as a reporter in Europe for American newspapers.
She was the last person to interview Terence MacSwiney, a leader of Sinn Fein in Ireland, shortly before he was arrested, imprisoned and died during a hunger strike. She posed as a Red Cross medical assistant and infiltrated the inner circle of the former King Karl I, who sought to reclaim the Hungarian throne.
“It scooped the world, of course, that story. The only interview with Karl. The other correspondents were—well, you can imagine,” she later recalled.
These were hard-hitting news stories at a time when women reporters were mostly writing advice columns and or society news for the “women’s pages.”
Thompson became the Vienna correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and then in 1925 was named its chief of the Central European Service. In 1927, the New York Post appointed her head of its Berlin bureau.
That is where she learned about the “Little Man.”
A disgruntled German veteran of World War I rallied 2,000 followers at a beer hall in Munich in November 1923 and attempted a coup. The revolt failed miserably, and its leader was arrested not long after.
But Adolph Hitler had arrived.
Thompson had wanted to interview Hitler since “Beer Hall Putsch,” as he was evading police and taking refuge in Bavaria. But she did not get that opportunity until 1931, when he was on his ascent.
She had read his Mein Kampf and described it as “one long speech” filled with nonsense, “eight hundred pages of Gothic script, pathetic gestures, inaccurate German, and unlimited self satisfaction.”
But by 1931, Thompson was a popular journalist, read by millions of Americans. In addition, she had married Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel Prize author. She had the ears and eyes of America, and Hitler was searching for some good press there.
He did not get it, at least not from her.
“When I finally 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 I was not,” Thompson wrote.
That prediction of his political future would later haunt Thompson. Still, her assessment of his character was scathing.
Her Hitler profile appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in March 1932 and then in her book “I Saw Hitler!”
“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…
“There is something irritatingly refined about him. I bet he crooks his little finger when he drinks tea.”
But in the 1932 national elections, the Nazis won a considerable number of seats in the Reichtag, though not a majority, and from there, Hitler was appointed chancellor and began his consolidation of power.
Thompson had underestimated his political potential, but as she watched his ruthless crackdown on his opposition and his persecution of Jews and others, she wrote a series of stories that again warned about the dangers of the “Little Man.”
“(Nazism) is a repudiation of the whole past of western man,” she told America. “It is a complete break from Reason, with Humanism, and with the Christian ethics that are the basis of liberalism and democracy.”
While that observation was clear after the war, it was not universal during Hitler’s rise to power.
“Some papers downplayed reports of violence against Germany’s Jewish citizens as propaganda like that which proliferated during the foregoing World War,” Smithosinian magazine noted.
An editorial in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on Jan. 30, 1933, asserted that “there have been indications of moderation” on Hitler’s part. The Cleveland Press claimed the “appointment of Hitler as German chancellor may not be such a threat to world peace as it appears at first blush.”
As Kurth wrote in his biography of her: “There was no one in journalism, anywhere in the world, who spoke louder than Dorothy in the fight against nazism.”
Hitler had not forgotten her.
In August 1934, she received a letter from the Gestapo informing her that she was being expelled from Germany for “numerous anti-German publications.” She left Berlin for Paris by train, her arms filled with bunches of American Beauty roses that her colleagues had given her.
“My offense was to think that Hitler is just an ordinary man, after all,” she later wrote.
Fascists in New York
Nazis and fascists were not only in Europe in the 1930s. Thousands lived, marched and rallied in the United States.
Twenty-two thousand Nazis, many of them wearing gray uniforms, paraded into Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 1939 for an “Americanism” rally and celebration of George Washington’s birthday. Giant swastikas and portraits of Adolph Hitler adorned the great hall.
After pledging allegiance to an “undivided” America, the crowd heard speakers who ridiculed President “Roosenfeld” and denounced Jews who were “the driving force of Communism.”
Dorothy Thompson sat in the front row in the press gallery. As the speakers delivered their messages of hate, she laughed. Loudly. Derisively. Defiantly.
She “commenced to interrupt the speakers with strident gales of raucous laughter, humiliating and infuriating the pride of American Nazism,” Kurth recounted in his biography.
It wasn’t long before a chant of “Throw her out!” erupted, and then uniformed “Storm Troopers” surrounded her. As she was escorted out of the gardens, Thompson cried out “Bunk! Bunk! Bunk!”
“It may have been her finest moment—the indelible dramatization of her promise to Hitler that she would not be muzzled by thugs,” Kurth wrote.
Return to Buffalo
Kleinhans Music Hall opened in Buffalo over three celebratory days in October 1940, but more than music was on the program. So was Dorothy Thompson.
An “audibly enthusiastic audience packed Buffalo’s new Kleinhans Music Hall” the night of Oct. 14, 1940 to hear her speak, according to the Courier Express.
Upon returning to the United States, Thompson had toured the country giving speeches that warned of a coming war, urged a strong military and advocated an alliance with Europe.
Now Europe was at war, but the United States was not yet in the fight.
“If we assist Britain with money, munitions and ships, there is no doubt but that we, the English speaking nations, will win this struggle,” she told the Buffalo audience. “There isn’t any financial cost as high as the price we will pay if the Nazis win…Let’s take up what we once laid down—that the world will not only be safe for democracy but that democracy will be safe for the world.”
In the film “Woman of the Year,” Katharine Hepburn played the role of a star reporter known for her determination, independence and knowledge of world affairs.
“Nobody had to tell Americans in 1942 who the ‘Woman of the Year’ really was,” according to the Saturday Evening Post. “Who else could it be but Dorothy Thompson?”
But few people today recognize her name or know the role she played in warning Americans about the hurricane clouds of fascism, hatred and bigotry. Perhaps that is because of the transient nature of journalism. And perhaps it is partly because of some views she expressed after the war.
Thompson was an early supporter of Zionism, beginning with her first trip to Europe in 1920, when she encountered a group of Zionists aboard her ship and then was commissioned to cover the conference they were attending in London.
On her radio broadcasts after Hitler’s rise to power, she spoke passionately about the persecution of Jews in Germany. “They are holding every Jew in Germany as a hostage,” Thompson said in one broadcast. “Therefore, we who are not Jews must speak, speak our sorrow and indignation and disgust in so many voices that they will be heard.”
But after World War II, Thompson visited the emerging Israeli nation, and her opinions shifted 180 degrees. She said that the establishment of Israel was “a recipe for perpetual war” in the Middle East.
It wasn’t long before newspapers like the New York Post dropped her column “On the Record.” Her last newspaper article appeared in 1958, the year that her third and last husband, artist Maxim Kopf died. She died Jan. 30, 1961, and was buried in Barnard, Vermont, where she had lived since 1928.
In one of the two obituaries that appeared in The Buffalo Evening News following her death, she was quoted about who had most shaped her life.
“I am sure that the strongest, longest and most persuasive influence in (my life) was my father,” she said. “I have never known anyone else as good, as pure in motive or as basically humane and civilized.
Story topics: Community