Dorothy Thompson (9 July 1893 – 30 January 1961) was an American journalist and radio broadcaster, who in 1939 was recognized by Time magazine as the second most influential woman in America next to Eleanor Roosevelt. She is notable as the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany in 1934 and as one of the few women news commentators on radio during the 1930s. Many fondly referred to her as the “First Lady of American Journalism.”
She was married three times, most famously to second husband and Nobel Prize in literature winner Sinclair Lewis. Thompson married Sinclair Lewis in 1928 and acquired a house in Vermont. They had one son, Michael Lewis, born in 1930. The couple divorced in 1942. In 1923 she married her first husband, Hungarian Joseph Bard; they divorced in 1927 She married her third husband, the artist Maxim Kopf, in 1945, and they were married until Kopf's death in 1958.
Dorothy Thompson was born in Lancaster, New York, in 1893 to Margaret and Peter Thompson. Margaret died when Dorothy was seven (in 1901), leaving Peter, a Methodist preacher, to raise his daughter alone. Peter soon remarried, but Dorothy did not get along with his new wife, Elizabeth Abbott Thompson. In 1908, Peter sent Dorothy to Chicago to live with his two sisters to avoid further conflict. Here, she attended Lewis Institute for two years before transferring to Syracuse University as a junior. At Syracuse, she studied politics and economics and graduated with a degree in 1914. Because she had the opportunity to be educated, unlike many women of the time, Thompson felt strongly that she had a social obligation to fight for women's suffrage in the United States, which would become the base of her ardent political beliefs. Shortly after graduation, Thompson moved to Buffalo, New York and became involved in the women's suffrage campaign. She worked there until 1920, when she went abroad to pursue her journalism career.
and Dorothy Thompson during their honeymoon caravan trip in England, 1928
After working for women’s suffrage in the United States, Dorothy Thompson relocated to Europe in 1920 to pursue her journalism career. She was interested in the early Zionism movement. Her big break occurred when she visited Ireland in 1920 and was the last to interview Terence MacSwiney, one of the major leaders of the Sinn Féin movement. It was the last interview MacSwiney gave before he was arrested days later and died two months after that. Because of her success abroad, she was appointed Vienna correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger. While working in Vienna, Thompson focused on becoming fluent in German. In 1925, she was promoted to Chief of the Central European Service for the Public Ledger (Philadelphia). She resigned in 1927 and not long after, the New York Post appointed her head of its Berlin bureau in Germany. 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.”
During this time Thompson cultivated many literary friends, particularly among exiled German authors.
Reporting from Germany
Thompson's most significant work abroad took place in Germany in the early 1930s. While working 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. She wrote about the dangers of Hitler winning power in Germany. 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." Later, when the full force of Nazism had crashed over Europe, Thompson was asked to defend her "Little Man" remarks; it seemed she had underestimated Hitler. The National Socialists considered both the book and her articles offensive and in August 1934, Thompson was expelled from Germany. She was the first journalist of either gender to be kicked out.
At the New York Tribune
In 1936 Thompson began writing "On the Record," an incredibly successful syndicated newspaper column. It was read by over ten million people and carried by more than 170 papers. She also wrote a monthly column for the Ladies' Home Journal. Thompson wrote a monthly article for the Ladies' Home Journal for twenty-four years (1937–1961); its topics were far removed from war and politics, focusing on gardening, children, art, and other domestic and women's-interest topics.
Around the time same as she started “On the Record”, NBC hired Thompson as a news commentator. She began in 1936 and remained with NBC until 1938. Her radio broadcasts went on to become some of the most popular in the United States, making her one of the most sought after female public speakers of her time. When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Thompson went on the air for fifteen consecutive days and nights.
Herschel Grynszpan Affair
In 1938, Dorothy Thompson championed the cause of a Polish-German Jew Herschel Grynszpan, whose assassination in Paris of a minor German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, had been used as propaganda by the Nazis to trigger the events of Kristallnacht in Germany. Thompson's broadcast on NBC radio was heard by millions of listeners, and led to an outpouring of sympathy for the young assassin. Under the banner of the Journalists' Defense Fund, over $40,000 USD was collected, enabling famed European lawyer Vincent de Moro-Giafferi to take up Grynszpan's case. The assassination inspired the composer Michael Tippett to write his oratorio A Child of Our Time as a plea for peace, and as a protest against the persecution of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Its haunting use of Negro spirituals to allude to the subjugation of the Jews was particularly innovative.
As Hitler waged war on the Bolsheviks, Thompson took the world stage. She was featured on the cover of Time (magazine) that same year, with an accompanying picture of her speaking into an NBC radio microphone. The article was captioned “she rides in the smoking car” and it named her the second most popular and influential woman in the country behind Eleanor Roosevelt. She was one of the most respected women of her age. This same article 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.”
In Woman of the Year (1942) Katharine Hepburn played Tess Harding, a character directly based on Dorothy Thompson. The Broadway musical is based on Thompson as well, this time played by Lauren Bacall.
Thompson died, aged 67, in Lisbon, Portugal.