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Dorothy Thompson

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Dorothy Thompson
Thompson in 1930
Dorothy Celene Thompson

July 9, 1893
Lancaster, New York, U.S.
DiedJanuary 30, 1961(1961-01-30) (aged 67)
Lisbon, Portugal
EducationLewis Institute
Syracuse University
(m. 1923; div. 1927)
(m. 1928; div. 1942)
(m. 1945; died 1958)

Dorothy Celene Thompson (July 9, 1893 – January 30, 1961) was an American journalist and radio broadcaster. She was the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany in 1934 and was one of the few women news commentators broadcasting on radio during the 1930s.[1][2] Thompson is regarded by some as the "First Lady of American Journalism"[3] and was recognized by Time magazine in 1939 as equal in influence to Eleanor Roosevelt.[4] Recordings of her NBC Radio commentary and analysis of the European situation and the start of World War II (from Aug. 23-Sept. 6, 1939) were selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry in 2023, based on their "cultural, historical or aesthetic importance in the nation’s recorded sound heritage."[5]

Life and career[edit]

Dorothy Thompson was born in Lancaster, New York, in 1893, one of three children of Peter and Margaret (Grierson) Thompson. Her siblings were Peter Willard Thompson and Margaret Thompson (later Mrs. Howard Wilson). Her mother died in April 1901 when Thompson was seven, leaving Peter, a Methodist minister, to raise his children alone. Their father soon remarried, but Dorothy did not get along with his new wife, Elizabeth Abbott Thompson.[6]

In 1908, her father sent Thompson to Chicago to live with his two sisters to avoid further conflict. In Chicago she attended Lewis Institute for two years and earned an associate degree before transferring to Syracuse University as a junior. At Syracuse, she studied politics and economics and graduated cum laude with a bachelor's degree in 1914.[7] Because she had the opportunity to be educated, unlike many women of the time, Thompson felt that she had a social obligation to fight for women's suffrage, which would become the base of her ardent political beliefs. Shortly after graduation, Thompson moved to Buffalo and became involved in the women's suffrage campaign. During her time in the suffrage movement, Thompson also did advertising and publicity work in New York City and contributed op-eds on social justice to The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune. In 1920, she went abroad to pursue a journalism career.[8]

Journalism in Europe[edit]

Sinclair Lewis and Thompson during their honeymoon caravan trip in England, 1928

Thompson boarded a ship to London in June 1920 to become a foreign correspondent. Beginning by submitting articles to the International News Service (INS), she went to Ireland in August and was the last to interview the Sinn Féin Irish independence leader Terence MacSwiney. Later on the day of the interview, Aug. 12, MacSwiney was arrested for sedition by the British government; he died in prison on a hunger strike two months later.[8] The interview was sent by INS to American newspapers and led to Thompson being appointed Vienna correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger.[9]

While working in Vienna, Thompson became fluent in German. She met and worked alongside correspondents John Gunther and G. E. R. Gedye. In 1925, she was promoted to Chief of the Central European Service for the Public Ledger.[10] She resigned in 1927 and, not long after, the New York Evening Post appointed her head of its Berlin bureau in Germany.[3] There she witnessed firsthand the rise of the National Socialist or Nazi party. 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".[11]

During this time Thompson cultivated many literary friends, particularly among exiled German authors. Among her acquaintances from this period were Ödön von Horváth, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Stefan Zweig and Fritz Kortner. She developed a close friendship with author Carl Zuckmayer. In Berlin she got involved in a lesbian affair with German author Christa Winsloe, while still married, claiming "the right to love".[12]

Thompson's most significant work abroad took place in Germany in the early 1930s.[2] 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, in which she wrote about the dangers of him winning power in Germany.[1] Later, in a Harper's Magazine article in December 1934, 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."[13]

Biographer Kurth wrote: "Later, when the full force of Nazism had crashed over Europe, Thompson was asked to defend her 'Little Man' remark. 'I still believe he is a little man,' she replied. 'He is the apotheosis of the little man.' Nazism itself was 'the apotheosis of collective mediocrity in all its forms.' "[14]

Expulsion from Germany[edit]

Thompson's anti-Nazi journalism and, in particular, her depiction of Hitler in her book, I Saw Hitler, led to her becoming the first American journalist to be expelled from Germany.[15] On August 25, 1934, she received the expulsion order, delivered by a Gestapo agent to her hotel room in the Hotel Adlon, Berlin. She was given 24 hours to leave the country.[1] Thompson did so on August 26, taking the Etoile du Nord train from Berlin to Paris. Numerous journalists gathered to see her off at the station, who gave her bunches of American Beauty roses to show their solidarity.[1]

Thompson's expulsion received extensive international attention, including a front page story on the New York Times. Biographer Peter Kurth said "her expulsion from Berlin had turned her overnight into a kind of heroine – a celebrity of note, the dramatic embodiment of the nascent war against fascism."[1]

At the New York Herald-Tribune[edit]

Dorothy Thompson House, New York City, New York

In 1936, Thompson began to write "On the Record", a New York Herald Tribune newspaper column that was also syndicated nationwide.[2] It was read by over ten million people and carried by more than 170 papers. With a new column appearing three times a week, the feature lasted, uninterrupted, for 22 years.[1]

She also wrote a monthly column for the Ladies' Home Journal[2][3] for 24 years, from 1937 to 1961. Its topics were far removed from war and politics, focusing on gardening, children, art, and other domestic and women's-interest topics.

Radio and the Herschel Grynszpan affair[edit]

Around the time when she started to write "On the Record", NBC hired Thompson as a news commentator. Her radio broadcasts on the network from 1936 to 1938 would become some of the most popular radio broadcasts in the United States, making her one of the most sought after female public speakers of her time.[2] When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Thompson went on the air for fifteen consecutive days and nights.[6]

In 1938, Thompson championed the cause of a Polish-German Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan, whose assassination of a minor German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, in Paris, had been used as propaganda to trigger the events of Kristallnacht in Germany by the Nazis. Thompson's broadcast on NBC radio was heard by millions of listeners, and it led to an outpouring of sympathy for the young assassin. Under the banner of the Journalists' Defense Fund, more than $40,000 was collected, enabling the famous European lawyer Vincent de Moro-Giafferi to take up Grynszpan's case.

Fame and controversy[edit]

By 1939, Thompson was one of the most respected women of her age and as a result, she was featured on the cover of Time along with a picture of her speaking into an NBC radio microphone, captioned "She rides in the smoking car". The article declared that "she and Eleanor Roosevelt are undoubtedly the most influential women in the U.S." and 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."[4] In Woman of the Year (1942) Katharine Hepburn played Tess Harding, a foreign correspondent modeled on Thompson. The 1981 Broadway musical adaptation starred Lauren Bacall as Tess.[1]

During the 1936 presidential race, Thompson characterized Black voters as a bloc which was "notoriously venal. Ignorant and illiterate, the vast mass of Negroes are like the lower strata of the early industrial immigrants, and like them, they are 'bossed' and 'delivered' in blocs by venal leaders, both white and black."[16]

In 1941, Thompson wrote "Who Goes Nazi?" for Harper's.[17]

Zionism and the State of Israel[edit]

Thompson had been sympathetic to the Zionist movement since she first travelled to Europe in 1920. During her visit, she had "endless discussions" about the movement with delegates who were traveling to the International Zionist Conference which was then being held in London.[18] In the late 1930s, as Thompson emerged as a leading advocate for Jewish refugees who were fleeing from persecution in Europe, she grew close to the Zionist statesman Chaim Weizmann and she also grew close to Meyer Weisgal, Chaim Weizmann's lieutenant in the US.[19] As World War II unfolded, Thompson went from being a sympathetic commentator to being an outright advocate for the movement. She was a keynote speaker at the 1942 Biltmore Conference, and by the war's end, she was regarded as one of the most effective spokespersons for Zionism. However, Thompson's attitude towards the movement had already begun to shift, most especially after a 1945 trip to Palestine, because she grew more concerned about the activities of the movement's right-wing adherents, she was especially troubled by its escalating terrorism against the British. After penning several columns which were critical of right wing Zionist terrorism, Thompson provoked a tremendous backlash that ultimately led her to cooperate with the leaders of the Jewish anti-Zionist organization, the American Council for Judaism.

After she raised the specter of dual loyalty by publishing a 1950 critique of American Zionism in Commentary, that backlash grew more intense.[20][21] This included accusations of anti-Semitism, which Thompson strongly rebuffed, after being warned that hostility toward Israel was, in the American press world, "almost a definition of professional suicide".[22] She eventually concluded that Zionism was a recipe for perpetual war.[23] As Thompson's distance from the Zionist movement grew, she became an advocate for Palestinian refugees.[24] After she travelled to the Middle East in 1950, Thompson was involved in the founding of the American Friends of the Middle East, an organization which was secretly funded by the CIA.[25]

Personal life[edit]

Thompson with Lewis and son in 1935

She was married three times, most notably, to her second husband, the Nobel Prize in literature winner Sinclair Lewis.[2] In 1923, she married her first husband, Hungarian Joseph Bard; they divorced in 1927.

Thompson met Lewis on July 8, 1927, at an afternoon tea at the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin, held by German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann. The two arranged a dinner the following day, which was both Dorothy's 34th birthday and the day when her divorce from Bard was finalized.[1]

In 1928, she married Lewis and acquired a house in Vermont. They had one son, Michael Lewis, born in 1930.[26] The couple divorced in 1942.[1]

She married her third husband, the artist Maxim Kopf, in 1945, and their marriage lasted until Kopf's death in 1958.[3]

Thompson died in 1961, at the age of 67, in Lisbon, Portugal, and she is buried in the town cemetery of Barnard, Vermont.[27]

In popular culture[edit]

The Katherine Hepburn film Woman of the Year, 1942, was her first film with Spencer Tracy, and in it she played Tess Harper, a journalist who was loosely based on Dorothy Thompson.

Her marriage to Sinclair Lewis was the subject of Sherman Yellen's Broadway play Strangers,[28] where she was played by Lois Nettleton. The play opened on March 4, 1979, and closed after nine performances.

The Silencing of Dorothy Thompson[edit]

In 2014 the media company Alternate Focus was raising money for a 90-minute documentary entitled The Silencing of Dorothy Thompson.[29] The project had the backing of Alison Weir, the founder of If Americans Knew.


  • 1928: The New Russia (Holt)
  • 1932: I Saw Hitler! (Farrar and Rinehart)
  • 1935: Maps
  • 1938: Dorothy Thompson's Political Guide: A Study of American Liberalism and Its Relationship to Modern Totalitarian States (Stackpole)
  • 1938: Refugees: Anarchy or Organization? (Random House)
  • 1937: Concerning Vermont
  • 1939: Once on Christmas (Oxford University Press)
  • 1939: Let the Record Speak (Houghton Mifflin)
  • 1939: Christian Ethics and Western Civilization
  • 1941: A Call to Action, Ring of Freedom
  • 1941: Our Lives, Fortunes, and Sacred Honor
  • 1941: Who Goes Nazi?
  • 1942: Listen, Hans (Houghton Mifflin)
  • 1944: To Whom Does the Earth Belong?
  • 1945: Wrangled by Two Cowboys
  • 1945: I Speak Again as a Christian
  • 1946: Let the Promise Be Fulfilled: A Christian View of Palestine
  • 1948: The Truth About Communism (Washington: Public Affairs Press)
  • 1948: The Developments of Our Times
  • 1955: The Crisis of the West
  • 1957: The Courage to Be Happy (Houghton Mifflin)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kurth, Peter (1990). All American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. Boston: Little Brown & Co.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Nancy, Cott (April 30, 2020). "A Good Journalist Understands That Fascism Can Happen Anywhere, Anytime: On the 1930s Antifascist Writing of Dorothy Thompson". Literary Hub. Retrieved May 2, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d Sanders, Marion K. (1973). Dorothy Thompson: A legend in her time. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  4. ^ a b "The Press: Cartwheel Girl". Time. June 12, 1939. Retrieved January 25, 2019.
  5. ^ "Recording Registry: 2023". National Recording Preservation Board. Library of Congress. Retrieved April 12, 2023.
  6. ^ a b "Dorothy Thompson". Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. Retrieved April 6, 2011.
  7. ^ Galpin, William Freeman; Barck Jr, Oscar Theodore (August 1984). Wilson, Richard R. (ed.). Syracuse University: Volume III: The Critical Years. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press. pp. 388–90. ISBN 978-0-8156-8108-3. OCLC 1023038841. Archived from the original on March 22, 2023. Retrieved January 29, 2023.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  8. ^ a b Kurth, Peter. "She Made It: Dorothy Thompson". Museum of Television and Radio. Archived from the original on December 19, 2010. Retrieved April 1, 2011.
  9. ^ Telushkin, Shira (June 7, 2017). "Dorothy Thompson: From Dismissal to Outrage". FASPE Journalism. Retrieved November 19, 2023.
  10. ^ Moritz, Cyndi (March 21, 2018). "Q&A: Karina von Tippelskirch on Journalist Dorothy Thompson". SU News. Retrieved March 17, 2021.
  11. ^ Kurth, Peter (August 9, 2019). American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. Plunkett Lake Press.
  12. ^ Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Dorothy Thompson Quotes". About.com. Archived from the original on August 18, 2007.
  13. ^ Thompson, Dorothy (December 1934). "Goodbye to Germany". Harper's Magazine.
  14. ^ Kurth, Peter (October 27, 2004). "Words of Warning". Seven Days. Retrieved November 19, 2023.
  15. ^ "Dorothy Thompson Expelled from Germany". History Unfolded.
  16. ^ Gregory, James N. (2005). The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. p. 244. ISBN 0-8078-7685-2. OCLC 70273090.
  17. ^ Thompson, Dorothy (August 1941). "Who Goes Nazi?". Harper's Magazine. Vol. August 1941.
  18. ^ Sanders, Marion K. (1973). Dorothy Thompson : a legend in her time. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. ISBN 0-395-15467-7. OCLC 617891.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  19. ^ Robins, Walker (January 2022). ""Weizmann to her was God": Dorothy Thompson's Journey to and from Zionism". American Jewish History. 106 (1): 55–80. doi:10.1353/ajh.2022.0003. ISSN 1086-3141. S2CID 249419976.
  20. ^ Thompson, Dorothy (March 1, 1950). "Do Israeli Ties Conflict with U.S. Citizenship?: America Demands a Single Loyalty". Commentary
  21. ^ "Obama's role model to journalists — Dorothy Thompson — turned against Zionism and was silenced". Mondoweiss. April 28, 2015. Retrieved June 4, 2024.
  22. ^ Maguire, Gil (April 28, 2015), "Obama's role model to journalists – Dorothy Thompson – turned against Zionism and was silenced US Politics". Mondoweiss.
  23. ^ Hertog, Susan (2011). Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson: New Women in Search of Love and Power. Random House, New York. p. 344.
  24. ^ Stonebridge, Lyndsey (2017). "Humanitarianism Was Never Enough: Dorothy Thompson, Sands of Sorrow, and the Arabs of Palestine". Humanity. 8 (3): 441–465. doi:10.1353/hum.2017.0027. ISSN 2151-4372. S2CID 152073268.
  25. ^ Wilford, Hugh (February 2017). "American Friends of the Middle East: The CIA, US Citizens, and the Secret Battle for American Public Opinion in the Arab–Israeli Conflict, 1947–1967". Journal of American Studies. 51 (1): 93–116. doi:10.1017/S0021875815001255. ISSN 0021-8758. S2CID 151467368.
  26. ^ "Michael Lewis, the actor, Sinclair's son, dies at 44", The New York Times, March 7, 1975. Retrieved April 29, 2018.
  27. ^ Wilson, Scott (2016). Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Locations 46777–46778). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition. ISBN 1476625999
  28. ^ "Strangers" (play). ibdb.com
  29. ^ Maguire, Gil (April 28, 2015). "Obama's role model to journalists — Dorothy Thompson — turned against Zionism and was silenced". Mondoweiss.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]