Because journalist Dorothy Thompson’s political intelligence had been schooled in Europe, she could not rid her mind of wariness about the spread of fascism. Having seen representative parliaments and the rule of law give way to authoritarianism in one European nation after another, she worried whether any nation was immune. The pattern of Germany’s descent into Nazi rule made her especially leery of concentrated executive power and state control of the economy. When President Roosevelt mobilized Congress to pass extraordinary new economic measures to deal with the Great Depression, alarm bells rang in her head. She gave John Gunther an earful of her concerns when she met him in Chicago in October 1934, telling him her fear that FDR’s party would become “dictatorial—Fascist.” The National Recovery Administration especially perturbed her. The NRA’s codification of wages and prices in industry seemed to her ominously parallel to emergency decrees issued in the Weimar Re- public in 1929–1930 and subsequently used by the Nazi Party to great advantage.
Thompson’s political acumen put her on constant alert in the 1930s. She remained critical of what she saw as FDR’s overreach and sharply aware that the Depression evoked in the United States the kind of economic resentments that had driven ordinary Germans to look to Hitler as a savior. In 1934, more than one-fifth of the American workforce was unemployed; industries stood still, and drought was turning the southern plains into the Dust Bowl. Homegrown varieties of fascism and communism surged in the United States as well as elsewhere around the globe. While Thompson stayed on alert for warning signs in her own country, it was the alarming progress of fascism in Europe that really claimed her attention. Jimmy Sheean joined her in that. The two of them were among the most insistent voices urging American awareness of the threats implied in fascist militarism and aggression. On that topic, Thompson’s effectiveness and celebrity—some would say notoriety—were unequalled.
Thompson saw no reason to assume that Americans were immune to fascism. She kept her eye on demagogic leaders of right-wing movements in the United States and on President Roosevelt’s moves. In fearing that the NRA could slide toward fascism, she was not alone, for other reasonable Americans on both the left and right likened Mussolini’s corporatism to the way the NRA operated or saw similarities between Roosevelt’s policies to counter the Depression and Hitler’s policies of limiting production and manipulating wages and prices.
Sinclair Lewis echoed Thompson’s concerns in his satiric novel It Can’t Happen Here, in which a folksy, popular, yet dictatorial fascist-like politician was elected president of the United States after bamboozling his audiences and the press with propaganda. Lewis dashed off the novel in six frenzied weeks in the summer of 1935. He modeled the antic power of his fictional character on controversial presidential aspirant Huey “Kingfish” Long, a rabble-rousing Louisiana senator (and previous governor) whom Thompson had interviewed in Washington earlier that year. An assassin’s bullet put Long out of the way in September. Lewis’s novel caused a political sensation when it was published a few weeks later, and it sold 320,000 copies.
Since the Nazi regime had made Germany inaccessible to her, Thompson turned to the United States and began examining New Deal programs devised to relieve unemployment. Her view that Germany’s use of public works employment had done more harm than good, making men’s resentments fester rather than assuaging them, influenced her inquiry from the start. First going to Washington to interview central administrators, including Harry Hopkins and Rexford Tugwell, she then traveled around the country to speak to workers at Works Progress Administration and Federal Emergency Relief sites. She spoke also with social workers who dealt with recipients of direct aid, and with homeless men residing in transient camps set up for them.
Her three long articles in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935 made clear her doubts about the wisdom and efficacy of bureaucratically structured government aid. Life on relief seemed to her an alternative reality of social workers’ visits and small checks—a benevolent “serfdom” backed up by government bureaucracy. The men housed in transient camps were treated like children: they led “infantile” lives “without personal responsibility” and would “make excellent shock troops for a radical-Fascist movement,” she concluded. Public works projects had the advantage of supplying actual jobs, but she called the projects unnecessarily costly, because of the bureaucratic accounting required. Government power over the economy reeked of fascism to her. “If the state aggrandizes the economic power, for whatever purpose,” she believed from what she had seen happen to the Weimar Republic, “then it is driven toward dictatorship by the sheer necessity of fulfilling what always must be its two prime functions: maintaining order and avoiding bankruptcy.” Apart from her genuine alarm about germinating conditions for fascist mobilization, Thompson’s criticism of New Deal programs resembled what wealthy Republican opponents said of the New Deal.
Thompson’s amalgam of New Deal criticism and Europe-bred antifascism puzzled John Gunther. As much as he admired and agreed with her on European matters, he found her objections to the New Deal hard to swallow. His ambivalence influenced the canny and affectionate profile he wrote of her at that time, at the request of the New York Herald Tribune Magazine, in which he summarized her affect as “impersonal, disinterested, sometimes brutal, often inconsiderate, generous, excessively single-track in her devotion to compelling enthusiasms, reasonably ambitious and unfalteringly cheerful.”
Thompson’s views drew the attention of Helen Rogers Reid, wife of Ogden Reid, the owner and publisher of the New York Herald Tribune. The Reids were stalwart Republicans, as was the Herald Tribune (like most leading newspapers), but they were not among the isolationist hard-liners in the Republican Party. Helen Reid had masterminded the paper’s rising prominence since the mid-1920s, and in 1931 she began an important new trend by hiring Walter Lippmann to write a political column. She lured him with an outsize salary, a secretary, a travel budget, and full scope to express himself three times a week.
At the time, political columns barely existed—the sole political opinion was typically on the editorial page, the owner’s province. Syndicated columns of the 1920s dwelled on personalities, humor, gossip, or homely wisdom and very rarely on political questions. Op-eds did not exist, with one exception: the page in the New York World, a Democratic paper, where Lippmann wrote until the paper folded in 1931. Reid’s risky hire of Lippmann, whose political views were not easy to place on a standard political spectrum, paid off in readership. Other papers then jumped to hire their own political columnists.
Political columnists became a new phenomenon in the 1930s, but not one of them was a woman until Reid approached Thompson about writing a column in the Herald Tribune. Having already put an extraordinary number of women into responsible positions, Reid now offered Thompson a marvelous opportunity, and Thompson gladly grabbed it. She asked for perks like Lippmann’s and a firm guarantee of freedom to speak her mind, and Helen and Ogden Reid more or less promised what she wanted. Neither they nor Thompson envisioned significant friction occurring between them.
Thompson named her column On the Record. It began on March 17, 1936, appearing on an ordinary newspaper page (as Lippmann’s did) rather than on an opinion page. Producing a thousand to fifteen hundred snappy and meaningful words every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday would be no easy ride, Thompson understood, and Lippmann said as much in a welcoming note. Helen Reid had imagined a “woman’s voice”; Thompson wrote about whatever was on her mind. She took on national and foreign politics, breaking news, court decisions, cultural innovations, social habits, historical change, intellectual trends. Six weeks into the job, she loved it, she told her friend Alexander Woollcott, a well-known New York drama critic, radio voice, and master of the bon mot. “I hope you are right about it getting to be easier,” she replied to Woollcott’s praise. “I’m like the gal who is put to teaching French to the High School kids. She means well, but she doesn’t know French and keeps just one jump ahead of the class.” To John Gunther she confided, “You have no idea how hard it is to write about American politics. This country is in a mess politically. I don’t know half time whether I’m on my head or my feet.” But she added delightedly, “I have the world’s best job.”
She made the column provocative, critical of many of FDR’s policies at home and vividly antifascist on the European situation. Pathos, condemnation, fierce analogy—all of these contributed to making her political feelings clear. Seventy daily newspapers signed on for syndication rights immediately. Soon that number doubled. Within two years, her column reached between seven and eight million newspaper subscribers. Of seven leading columnists profiled in The Nation in 1938, only Walter Lippmann’s potential audience of eight million exceeded Thompson’s, and not by much.
Packing lots of information into short space, and writing in down-to-earth language, Thompson moved easily from fire-breathing indignation to folksiness from one day to the next. For humor she invented the Grouse—a petulant and satirical character (often assumed by readers to represent Sinclair Lewis) with whom she held spirited dialogues. She did her writing in the mornings at home, at Twin Farms in the warm months and in New York during the winters. A generous hostess at both homes, she had a habit of directing social conversation to spark ideas for her columns. As a result she became known—not always kindly—for pumping knowledgeable people for tips. She trusted a coterie of well-informed male friends to give her insights and corrections on foreign affairs and employed three women as secretaries and research assistants.
Fascism continually pressed on Thompson’s mind not only as a monstrous reality in Europe but also as an American possibility. “It Can Happen Here,” she titled her column on May 28, 1936, playing on the title of her husband’s novel to decry a thuggish vigilante group of white Protestant men who had murdered a relief worker in Detroit. Wherever she saw anti-Semitism she came down on it. She insisted that persecution of Jews ought to concern every American because it was antithetical to principles of democracy. In July she devoted two successive columns to “the lunatic fringe,” after the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, an effective speaker who attracted Huey Long’s supporters, defiantly adopted that phrase in self-description.
Her outrage targeted several groups of extremist nationalists in whose rhetoric she saw the early Nazi movement mirrored. They included followers of the anti-Semitic “radio priest” Father Coughlin and of William Lemke, presidential candidate of the miniscule Union Party, who excoriated liberals, socialists, communists, immigrants, and people of color.
“No people ever recognize their dictator in advance,” Thompson warned. “When our dictator turns up, you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys . . . and he will stand for everything traditionally American.” In her echo of Lewis’s novel, she was alluding to what she saw as President Roosevelt’s overreach. She admired the president’s talents, but his 1937 “court-packing” proposal in- censed her. FDR became so frustrated by the Supreme Court striking down New Deal policies that he proposed increasing the number of justices—whom he would have the power to appoint. FDR’s proposal never became a reality, but his attempt underlined Thompson’s grim belief that the state “is by its nature a predatory instrument.”
After the president called the Supreme Court a headache, Thompson opened her column with the Grouse “crankily” opining, “‘There is one certain cure for a headache. . . . It is cheap, instantaneous and guaranteed. That remedy is decapitation.’” The ridiculousness of such a “cure” led to Thompson playing the Grouse’s interlocutor and explaining the unconstitutionality of FDR’s scheme. An observation by the Grouse—“‘I see . . . that we are going to keep out of war’”— likewise animated her critique of the Neutrality Act of 1937. Certain that Nazi Germany was preparing for war, she repeatedly hammered the point that neutrality legislation was mistaken in theory and practice, a brake on the exercise of American foreign policy.
As if her column were not enough, the radio networks also wanted Thompson. Three national networks (NBC, CBS, and the Mutual Broadcasting Service, MBS) operated in 1936, and Americans owned 33 million radios—eleven times as many as a dozen years before. Surveys indicated an average of three listeners for every radio, which suggested that 80 percent of the population could tune in at once. Thompson accepted a weekly spot on NBC, hosting a short late-evening program on personalities in the news. Her horror at fascist use of radio as a tool in Europe made her appreciate the airwaves’ impact; cold newsprint could not match the immediacy of a radio voice.
She found it thrilling to address potential millions at once, especially in contrast to exhausting lecture tours. Broadcast, her voice was at once feminine, forceful, authoritative, and elegant, her pronunciation precise, with an accent hinting at upper-class Britain more than upstate New York. She could be heard on radio programs beyond her own, too, when called upon to address particular issues or events.
With programs such as Thompson’s, radio moved into political commentary. When radio programs began in the 1920s they were locally broadcast and consisted of sports, music, and entertainment, not news, because the newspaper industry monopolized news broadcasting. Newspaper owners defended their monopoly ever more aggressively when the Depression sank their income from advertising, just as radio programs’ popularity zoomed ahead and networks became national. The newspaper–radio battle over control of the news reached a compromise in 1934, allowing stations to broadcast five-minute news briefs twice a day, without commercial sponsorship; newspapers in turn agreed to publish radio program schedules. Radio networks continued to press into news reporting, and over time, the line between news and commentary blurred: NBC hired Thompson to attend both Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions in 1936, for example. Still, Americans relied principally on newspapers for news, and especially for foreign news, until the end of the 1930s.
Millions of Americans already listened to Thompson on the radio and read her pithy column three days a week when the Ladies’ Home Journal came knocking, asking her to write a column that would spark women’s interest in politics. The Journal’s circulation outran that of every other women’s magazine and even that of the Saturday Evening Post. Thompson happily agreed to write a column every month for $1,000 each, equivalent to more than $17,000 today. She received six honorary university degrees in 1937; invitations to speak at forums, clubs, dinners, and commencements poured in by the hundreds. Americans debated her views over breakfast tables and at dinner parties, in office breaks and on the street. Whether revering or deploring her, they recognized her as the “First Lady of American Journalism.”
Sinclair Lewis could not endure it. When the German situation dominated conversation at home, as it often did during social occasions, Lewis became furious. “Many is the time I have heard him say ‘No more situations or I will go to bed,’” Jimmy Sheean recalled. “Generally he pronounced it sityashuns in order to make it seem more contemptible.” Although Lewis had a sudden best seller in It Can’t Happen Here, and more than one reviewer judged it his best since Dodsworth (1929), he knew that his 1930s novels lacked the brilliance of his earlier fiction. His sense of creative decline contrasted starkly with Thompson’s ascent. He “had a horror of being known as ‘Mr. Dorothy Thompson,’” Sheean thought, watching the marriage fade into “a hopeless simulacrum.” Moments of solidarity between the couple became the exceptions rather than the rule.
In the spring of 1937, Lewis announced that he was leaving. He had become crazy about the theater—writing plays, acting in summer stock, and falling in love with a very young actress, Marcella Powers. Thompson did not see casual infidelity as fatal, but felt stricken by the withdrawal of his love. When Lewis blamed her work for ruining their marriage, she protested unhappily that she loved him intensely, uniquely, and that, quite the contrary to what he thought, her work had saved their marriage. Lewis’s “overcharged” presence was “too intense to be born[e]” at times, she explained: “I couldn’t live with you, every minute, wholly, . . . [in] so charged and electric an atmosphere. And work has always been my way out.” Only “constant baths in the cool air of work” enabled her to return to him whole. (Lewis’s “appalling restlessness” had been caricatured by Bernard de Voto as “a kind of electrical disturbance. He wasn’t actually spinning like a top or hanging by his toes from the ceiling but you had a dizzy impression that he must be.”) Thompson insisted to her husband, “I am grateful to work. Next to you, I love it best of anything.”
Very reluctant to see the marriage end, she continued to harbor the belief that she and Lewis would reunite—but they never lived together again. The implosion of their marriage was a source of great pain to her, exaggerated by her previous experience with Bard. Thompson could tell herself rationally that both of her marriages had failed through her husbands’ faults as much as (if not more than) her own. Still, the marriages had failed. That meant, to her, that she had failed. That was a common view of the day and her own heart’s view, despite her reasoned justifications of her behavior.
Thompson’s distress affected what she wrote in her Ladies’ Home Journal column, the one public place where she wrote about gender roles, though only occasionally even there. Although as a professional journalist Thompson always downplayed the pertinence of sex to individual capacity or achievement, she identified deeply as a woman and believed women and men had essentially different needs and roles to play in sexual and family relationships.
Her first column, in May 1937, championed the life-giving, civilizing nature of women, echo- ing gender expectations familiar to Journal readers. Addressing “the Girl Graduate” in June, she undermined her self-defense to Lewis by assuring the graduate of high school or college that if she married and spent her life at home, using her husband’s earnings wisely and raising her children “to be good people,” she should not “feel inferior to women ‘with careers.’” It was “harder and rarer,” Thompson wrote, “to be a good wife than a good newspaperwoman.” Her sense of having failed in two marriages bore on her mind. In a later column she slammed her generation’s “illusion” that a happy marriage could accompany a demanding career and sexual freedom. “Making a successful marriage is, by and large, a full-time job for most women,” she concluded. She added, “If I had a daughter I would tell her that she had to choose.”
Yet through the 1930s she energetically opposed the damaging (and misplaced) Depression-provoked outcry against married women stealing men’s jobs and insisted eloquently on wives’ need and right to have paid employment of their own. American efforts to eliminate married women’s public and private employment fed her suspicions about creeping fascism. In a keynote speech called “The Changing Status of Women,” given before thousands of women at a Herald Tribune forum in 1934, she deplored retrogressive Nazi dictates for women and urged wariness about American intents “to put women back into the home in order to create extra jobs for men.” The impulse “runs counter both to the best interests of women and the best interests of society,” she declared firmly. “The traditional activities of women cannot again in the modern world be centered in the home, to any great extent.” With the Nazi example in mind, she continued, “a society in which women are reduced to a diminished role will, I am convinced, become in the end a sterile and a dead society tending toward militarism.”
She urged her audience to have “in their own minds” the convictions that shaped her attitude: “Work is not merely a job: work is not merely a means of earning money or supplementing a man’s income. Work is an essential of life itself as necessary as bread and love; it is the means by which the individual establishes a relation between himself and a larger society than the family unit; it is his—and her— chief medium for growth and development. The chance to choose one’s work, and to pursue it, is the chance to become a more effective human being.” Her words expressed her own self-justification.18 She did not stop holding that view, despite her Journal columns appearing to deny it. In 1938 in On the Record, for example, she defended wives’ employment against a conservative columnist’s attack. Her underlying conviction that women deserved to have both love and work persisted, although the demise of her second marriage robbed her of joy in it.
Excerpted from Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home Between the Wars by Nancy F. Cott. Copyright © 2020. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.