Picks and Pans Review: American Cassandra

updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Peter Kurth

In the '30s and '40s, journalist Dorothy Thompson was a household name—sometimes an accursed one, depending on the political orientation of one's house. Today, she is known best, if at all, as the model for Katharine Hepburn's power-columnist role in 1942's Woman of the Year and as novelist Sinclair (Main Street) Lewis's wife.

Kurth's fine new biography, which is far superior to 1973's Dorothy Thompson: A Legend in Her Time by Marion K. Sanders, should introduce the exuberant, opinionated and passionate force of nature that was Dorothy Thompson to a new generation.

In 1920 Thompson, a 24-year-old minister's daughter raised in upstate New York, headed to Europe as a would-be foreign correspondent. Her timing was perfect. Her arrival coincided with the economic and cultural tumult that followed World War I and led to the rise of Nazism in Germany.

"Unless things change radically, there will be war in Europe within the decade—before the 1930s are out. And I've been where it will start," she wrote from Berlin in 1931. Thompson even scored an interview with Hitler ("He is the very prototype of the Little Man," she wrote).

Thompson, who had moved back to an American base in 1929 as Mrs. Sinclair Lewis (thanks to Lewis's drinking, the marriage didn't last out the '30s), lectured and wrote on foreign affairs until finding her calling in 1936 as a columnist for the then-influential New York Herald Tribune. Thompson's "On the Record" was soon syndicated in some 170 papers; as many as 10 million readers lapped up her hardheaded, softhearted, well-informed commentary. While Thompson's career waned after World War II, she kept up the column until 1958, three years before her death.

American Cassandra (so titled because, like the Trojan seeress who warned of the coming of the Greeks. Thompson was among the first Americans to ring a warning bell on the Nazis) is solidly researched and carefully written. Kurth, whose previous book was Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, skillfully describes the complex geopolitics of the time and how well Thompson covered them, backing himself up with judiciously chosen quotes.

He is illuminating on Thompson's contradictions, both political and personal. (For instance, she offered to be an unofficial campaign adviser to Adlai Stevenson, then voted for Eisenhower. And though Thompson wrote numerous gushing columns about the responsibilities of matrimony, she consistently sacrificed her home life in pursuit of breaking stories.)

Most significantly, Kurth provides a good sense of Thompson's place in history. Thanks to him, she clearly will have one. (Little. Brown. $24.95)

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