The Magazine

Women in Love

The high cost of mixing success and attachment.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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In 1942 George Stevens made a romantic comedy for MGM called Woman of the Year. Based on the journalist Dorothy Thompson, one of the subjects here, it concerned the obstacles to marital bliss faced by an emancipated woman and her former colleague turned husband. With Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as the combative partners, everything turned out well. In Dangerous Ambition, we learn the unvarnished truth about Thompson’s marriage to Sinclair Lewis, who, despite being a major novelist (and Nobelist), was an abusive alcoholic who felt emasculated by his wife’s public success. With the help of lots of prescription drugs, Thompson kept her career from flagging and a terrible marriage going for a very long time.

Photo of Dorothy Thompson

Dorothy Thompson, 1920

This movie is mentioned at the outset because Dorothy Thompson, unlike the other subject of Dangerous Ambition, may not be familiar—even to readers of The Weekly Standard. Like the ambitious career woman in Woman of the Year, Thompson represented a new phenomenon in American life in which the public took much interest.

An authentic American product, from a small town in upstate New York, in 1924 she became the first woman to head a major overseas news bureau, in Berlin. Her reporting from interwar Europe was legendary. One biographer has written that “she had a gift for walking in where news was breaking.” She reported from Russia on the “experiment” going on there in the late 1920s and was the first foreign reporter to interview Adolf Hitler. Her radio broadcasts advocating U.S. intervention in World War II helped to keep Franklin Roosevelt in the White House for a third term. In Time’s cover story on her in 1939, she was named the second-most influential woman in America (after Eleanor Roosevelt).

In criss-crossing chapters, Susan Hertog, biographer of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, couples this rise with that of another relentlessly ambitious woman, Rebecca West. (Born Cicely Fairfield, she took her public name from the heroine of Ibsen’s drama Rosmersholm.) West came from a more typical middle-class European background, but, like Thompson, she achieved success as soon as she put pen to paper. The two were friends, and Dangerous Ambition narrates a kind of “parallel lives” against the background of the political dramas of the first half of the 20th century: suffrage and socialism, World War I, German rearmament and fascism, World War II and the succeeding realignment of political power, the creation of Israel and the rise of the Palestinian problem.

West was likewise a celebrity journalist featured on the cover of Time. Her journalistic coup was coverage for the New Yorker of the Nuremberg trials (during which she had an affair with Francis Biddle, one of the two American judges). Both women, however, became superannuated after reaching this zenith. By the 1950s, as the Cold War heated up, their outspoken opposition to totalitarianism left them misunderstood or abandoned by their intellectual cohort, mostly on the left.

Dangerous Ambition offers many insights into the attempts of that intellectual class to influence the ideological milieu of the West in the first half of the 20th century. For instance, though disliking FDR’s New Deal, Thompson embraced him over Wendell Willkie in 1940 because of the latter’s isolationism. Her writings and broadcasts kept up a steady drumbeat for intervention in World War II and, later, internationalism and the Arab cause when, according to Hertog, she crossed the line into outright advocacy journalism. 

A gifted writer, Thompson got some things right (“Experience has demonstrated the obstinacy of the principle of private ownership in the matter of sauce pans,” from The New Russia) and other things wrong (her 1931 interview with Hitler convinced her of his “utter insignificance”). West is the bigger thinker, with a number of considerable literary achievements, including her prescient 1941 study of the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. This work, too, had a large aim: It “was to be her means of preserving democracy” in the face of “the poison of fascism.”

As the title indicates, ambition had its perils. The lesson we are to draw concerns the conflict suffered by two women in thrall to what Hertog calls “Victorian” gender expectations: Like Tess Harding in Woman of the Year, both wanted a career but also to be loved and cherished by a life partner. Here, too, the “parallel lives” work well. Both women were born in the 1890s and had a broken background in common. Thompson’s mother died when she was eight; and père Fairfield abandoned the family home when Cicely was eight. The central calamitous event for both was the misfortune of entering into a relationship with a famous man. Thompson married Sinclair Lewis, to whom she was introduced in Berlin, and West had a 10-year liaison with H. G. Wells, beginning in 1913. For West, this liaison led to a period of social isolation, just when she was taking her place as a major literary figure. She had a child out of wedlock, a circumstance she spent the rest of her life trying to keep from becoming public. Thompson’s son with Lewis was legitimate, but like Anthony West, Michael Lewis suffered from parental neglect.

Many of the gory details have been published elsewhere, especially concerning West’s son, and neither woman comes off well in the telling. For instance, West deemed Anthony “a total loss, he has spoiled my work and my friendships, he is the worst thing that ever happened to me. .  .  . He is like some horrible dwarf in a fairy tale.” Similarly, at 18 months, Michael Lewis was left in the care of a nurse while Thompson “embarked on a whirlwind tour of forty cities, hellbent on informing Americans about the changing landscape of German politics.” His childhood was spent in schools out of sight of either parent.

The great gap between appearance and reality seems to characterize the human type portrayed here, the world-improver who neglects those near and dear, especially those most dependent on her. But the travesty of professed ideals does not end there. Absolutely no one ends up looking good in this book. In their relations with friends, spouses, and lovers, West and Thompson show themselves alternately to be needy, irrational, irresponsible, vindictive, disloyal, backbiting, and petty. Their contempt for ordinary folks ran deep: Americans were spoiled, materialistic (this during the Depression!), vulgar, superficial, hedonistic, devoid of ideas and ethical underpinnings, and small-minded. Among other things, we are reminded that public intellectuals like to buy houses and entertain in lavish style, even while reporting on food shortages from a war-ravaged continent.

What is Susan Hertog’s attitude toward her flawed subjects? It is difficult to decide. While much is worthy of condemnation, she stands at a distance. 

Rebecca and Dorothy were delusory when it came to love. They projected idealized stereotypes onto their men, and demanded more of them than any man could fulfill. Given their emotional deprivation as children, and their impulse toward social legitimacy, there was no amount of piety for Dorothy, or psychoanalysis for Rebecca, that could compensate for the emotional damage they caused and incurred. And the men they chose .  .  . were equally crippled.

Ultimately readers will agree with Hertog’s conclusion: “While the conflict that existed within them lives in all those whose aspirations exceed the social expectations of their time and place, the distortions their ambitions engendered in their personal relations are uniquely
their own.”

Elizabeth Powers is the editor of Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea (Bucknell).