PAST Out: Who was Dorothy Thompson?
|by Paula Martinac|
|Dorothy Thompson was an American foreign correspondent who got her start in the male-dominated world of journalism in the 1920s. With the publication of her condemnations of Hitler and her expulsion from Nazi Germany in 1934, Thompson catapulted to the top of her profession. At the same time, however, her personal life was fraught with turmoil as she struggled with her own bisexuality.
The daughter of a Methodist minister, Thompson (1893-1961) was born in a small, predominantly Protestant town in western New York state. According to her own recollections, she had an adventurous, tomboy childhood, marred only by the death of her mother when Thompson was eight. An early fantasy of hers included sailing on a steamer to foreign lands.
Although she longed to go to an elite women's college like Vassar or Smith, Thompson's family finances necessitated that she attend the less expensive Syracuse University, a Methodist institution that awarded her a scholarship as a clergyman's daughter. One of the strongest influences on her college career was Dean of Women Jean Marie Richards, with whom Thompson was infatuated and spent many long afternoons and evenings reading poetry. Thompson later described Richards as "all together an exquisite woman."
After graduation in 1914, Thompson took her first job, working for women's voting rights with the New York State Woman Suffrage Party. During the next few years, she became deeply attached to another suffragist, an attractive older woman named Gertrude Tone, who was her mentor, companion, and, eventually, housemate in Greenwich Village.
With suffrage achieved in 1920, Thompson decided to try her hand at journalism, a field that had long interested her. She and a female friend took off for Europe with only scanty savings and vague connections that they hoped would earn them freelance assignments. At the pier, Thompson's father teased her, "Please promise me that you will always remain a gentleman"a quip Thompson repeated with amusement throughout her life.
Through a series of lucky breaks and scoops, Thompson earned a reputation as an "intrepid girl reporter" who would risk life and limb to get a story. Within a year, Thompson became the salaried Vienna correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and by 1927 had worked her way up to bureau chief for central Europe, the first woman to head a major American news bureau overseas. Stationed in Berlin, she was as well-known as her fellow correspondents and friends, John Gunther, Vincent Sheean, and William Shirer.
In Berlin in 1927, Thompson met American novelist Sinclair Lewis, who was visiting the city. Lewis was the author of a string of successful and acclaimed novels, including Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry. On the very night he met Thompson, Lewis proposed marriage. Although she didn't immediately accept, the two had a whirlwind courtship and wed that same year.
From the start, the marriage was a difficult one. Lewis, a violent alcoholic, both admired his wife and resented her success, demanding that she give up her Berlin post and take freelance assignments that she could write from their homes in Manhattan and Vermont. Lewis was also fearful of her history of intimacy with women.
After the birth of their son in 1930, the couple became increasingly estranged, with Thompson spending long periods working abroad. In 1932, while basking in the success of an exclusive interview with Adolf Hitler, Thompson fell in love with German writer Christa Winsloe. Winsloe's novel, The Child Manuela, was the basis of the first lesbian-themed film, Maedchen in Uniform (1931), for which Winsloe had also written the screenplay. Like Thompson, Winsloe was passionately anti-Nazi, and her script was an early indictment of the right-wing nationalism that brought Hitler to power.
The affair with Winsloe coincided with Thompson's rise to international fame. Thompson published numerous scathing articles against Hitler and, in 1934, became the first foreign journalist to be expelled from Germany by the Nazis. She and Winsloe returned to the United States, where their affair was apparently known to Thompson's colleagues, friends, and Lewis himself.
Although Thompson was self-assured and confident in her professional life, she wrestled with her sexual feelings for women. In her journals, Thompson wrote about Winsloe as a soul mate, but she ultimately chose the security of heterosexual marriage. By 1935, she and Winsloe had parted ways. During World War II, Winsloe and her female lover were murdered in France by French patriots who mistakenly took the writer for pro-Nazi.
Thompson's fame continued to grow throughout the 1930s and 1940s. She penned a widely read syndicated column, "On the Record," and broadcast a weekly radio show for NBC. In a 1938 cover story, Time magazine pronounced Thompson and Eleanor Roosevelt "the most influential women in America."
After 15 tortured years, Thompson's marriage to Lewis ended in 1942. She then married an Austrian painter named Maxim Kopf and continued writing on international politics, including the ferment in the Middle East. In the 1950s, however, her work became more domestic in theme, as she focused on a monthly column for Ladies Home Journal.
Unlike other women of her era who destroyed evidence of their lesbian relationships, Thompson preserved Winsloe's passionate correspondence and her own journal writings about their relationship. They are now among her papers at Syracuse University.
Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books, including The Queerest Places: A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites. She can be reached care of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth or at POcolumn@aol.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 11, No. 13, September 21, 2001.