Recent Comments

    Dorothy Thompson: Forty Years of Truth

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    Whether she was canvasing votes for women, fighting fascism, championing refugees, or promoting world peace, Dorothy Thompson (1893–1961) always had a cause. Firm in her convictions, single-minded in their pursuit, she shared her concerns with millions of followers through her widely syndicated newspaper column, her monthly magazine articles, numerous radio broadcasts, and endless public appearances. At the peak of her prestige and with the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, no American woman was better known or more influential.

    After graduating from Syracuse University in 1914, Thompson took a job as a paid organizer for the New York Woman Suffrage Party. When the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920, she turned to other causes. She also fell in love for the first time, with a woman, 17 years her senior, who encouraged her to believe she could do anything she set her mind to.

    Dorothy Thompson

    Gertrude Van Vrancken Franchot Tone (1876–1953) knew that women could do the seemingly impossible. A progressive liberal member of a wealthy, socially prominent, and politically conservative upstate New York family, she became an early champion for women’s rights who led the Suffragists’ State Convention in 1917, and then went on to co-found the Women’s Peace Society in 1919. (Her son Franchot would become Joan Crawford’s second husband.)

    When Thompson’s affair with Gertrude ended, she turned briefly for comfort to Wilbur Phillips, a married man, and then left for Europe in 1921 with hopes of becoming a journalist. Often scooping her peers, she was overseas within six years as bureau chief for the New York Evening Post, headquartered in Berlin. Although not the first women to head an overseas news bureau, she became the most celebrated, and the “undisputed queen of the overseas press corps.”

    In Berlin, Thompson witnessed and reported about the most significant development of the era: the rise of Nazism and its eminent threat to civilization. She was not impressed with Adolph Hitler when she interviewed him in 1931, describing him as “inconsequent and voluble … the very prototype of the little man.” She was acutely aware of the dangers he and his ideology presented, however. Fascism, she warned again and again for the next ten years, “cannot be appeased; it can only be opposed.”

    In August 1934, after publishing a series of articles about the Nazis’ plans for the Jewish people of Europe, Hitler ordered Thompson to leave Germany; she was the first American journalist he expelled. She returned to the United States, writing and lecturing about the perils of fascism. In 1936 she began “On the Record,” a syndicated newspaper column that appeared three times a week in some 150 papers for the next 21 years. She also wrote monthly for the Ladies Home Journal from 1937 until her death in 1961.

    Thompson warned early and often about fascism, “the enemy of whatever is sunny, responsible, pragmatic, common-sense, freedom-loving, life-affirming, form-seeking, and conscious of tradition.” She called attention to the vast human tragedy Europe was facing, which other reporters and most governments minimized or simply ignored: the challenges facing refugees from the Spanish Civil War and Hitler’s threatened destruction of Europe’s Jewish communities. Europe’s displaced and persecuted, she argued, “could bring to a new country resources of skill which would increase its wealth and trade.”

    Thompson married three times. Her first husband was Joseph Bard, whom she wed in 1923. “Delirious with love, I was,” she said later; they divorced in 1927. The next year she married Sinclair Lewis, who two years later would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. After a tumultuous 14 years together and apart, they divorced in 1942. She married her third husband, the artist Maxim Kopf, in 1945. They remained married until Kopf’s death in 1958.

    While married to Lewis, Thompson began an affair with Christa Winsloe (1888–1944), whose play Gestern und heute (1930) became the basis of Mädchen in Uniform (1931), one of the earliest narrative films to explicitly portray female homosexuality. Although Thompson told one friend, “I prefer men,” she admitted how much she delighted in what she described as “this incredible feeling of sisterhood.” While she could not “account for this which has happened again,” her relationship with Winsole lasted more than three years.

    Representative Edith Nourse Rogers and Dorothy Thompson discuss a congressional bill to admit 20,000 German refugee children to the U.S. but it was never voted out of committee, April 1939

    “I think you’ll be coming after me soon,” Winsloe wrote her after returning to Europe from a visit to the United States. “Otherwise you’re kaput with me.” By the time they reunited in July 1934, however, their intimacy was over. Five years later, Winsloe met the Swiss writer Simone Gentet, ten years her junior, in France. Their relationship endured until both women, who became active in the French resistance, were killed in 1944 by four men who claimed they had mistaken them for German spies.

    The immediate dangers that Thompson warned against have passed, but her greater concerns about threats to freedom and equality remain prescient. As a crusader for human rights, she asked, “Can one preach at home inequality of races and nations and advocate abroad good-will towards all men?” A lifelong champion of women, she wondered why “their organizations lobby in Washington for all sorts of causes; why, why, why don’t they take up their own causes and obvious needs?”

    More than anything else, however, Thompson admonished her audience to safeguard its liberty. “No people ever recognize their dictator in advance,” she wrote in 1935. “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 … . They will greet him with one great big, universal, democratic, sheeplike bleat of ‘O.K., Chief! Fix it like you wanna, Chief! Oh Kaaaay!'” She well understood that “history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.

    Published January 16, 2020