American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson

by Peter Kurth

Hardcover, 1990

Status

Available

Publication

Boston : Little, Brown, c1990.

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I don't think I would have liked Dorothy Thompson very much. She makes me tired. She was always the most and the best (fill in your own superlative): I'm sure she was always the brightest woman in the room--the most accomplished, the smartest, the one with the greatest career, etc.

Dorothy was a scholarship student at Syracuse University (Class of 1914). She and the other girls at the school felt they had a social obligation to their education--they owed something. She became a journalist who was "an avid student of the politics of chaos, eager to learn and tireless in her effort to find the story behind the story." She was hired by the New York Herald-Tribune to write a column "On the Record," "largely on account of her opposition to the New Deal." She was given an office, a secretary, two months' annual vacation, and "a guarantee to write as I please, provided I remain within the canons of good taste and within the libel laws." By 1939 she was making, in 2006 dollars, an estimated million and a half per year, "from all sources." She wrote the column until 1957.

"She was filled with contempt for the 'adolescence of American males.' High school boys, she called them, hopeless as lovers, all scared of their wives, undeveloped, childish, arrested. The whole damned country is full of impotent men. Afraid of emotion." Having said that, the biographer makes clear that Thompson preferred the company of men to women. Kurth says that she often treated the women around her as "ciphers"; wives of her colleagues and unofficial advisors sat out many an even [in her apartment] "in a cold fury" while their husbands formed a ring, literally, at Dorothy's feet." Yet despite her described contempt for American men, Dorothy's second husband wasn't exactly a real catch. He was the writer Sinclair (Red) Lewis, who was also a full-blown falling-down drunk--and everyone who knew him knew it. He asked Dorothy to marry him on the first day they met, and they had a chaotic marriage until their divorce 12 years later. Why do women like her marry men like him?

Dorothy was a complete dynamo, and it's easy to imagine that she had no use for people who weren't as driven as she was. She definitely would have been the sort of person who didn't suffer fools. This is from 1938: "I am living on quantities of adrenaline. The fury I feel for appeasers, for the listless, apathetic, and stupid people who still exist in this sad world!" Along with "adrenline," Dorothy was also living on speed--Dexadrine pills and a variety of "uppers" that her doctors gave her to function in her high-pressure world. Not to mention the cigarette smoking. Everyone smoked back then, but I think it's difficult for us in 2010 to appreciate the extent of the smoking: incessant, greedy, uncontrollable, crushing one half-smoked cigarette and immediately lighting another--smoking 3 and 4 packs a day, smoking literally everywhere. Dorothy also, as mentioned in another review, drank her fair share, and I'm guessing she also needed some sort of downer(s) to help her sleep at night after being hopped up all day on the uppers.

Politics was a huge part of Dorothy's life, and Kurth does a good job of discussing her as one of the most influential women of her time.

I like biographers who don't feel the need to present a "happy-face" version of their subject, who aren't afraid to look at the complexities of a person's personality. Kurth does a good job of that with this very complex woman. As I said, I doubt that I would have liked Dorothy, but I really enjoyed Kurth's biography. It's well-researched and complete with good notes and sources.
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