Dorothy Thompson’s spectacular climb to the top of European journalism

March 9, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Dorothy Thompson knew from a fairly early age that she wanted to do something significant. In her early twenties, she realized that journalism was the tool to do just that.

Born in 1893 to a Methodist minister and his wife in upstate New York, Thompson’s mother died at a fairly early age, and her father would take her along as he made his ministerial rounds. When he remarried, Dorothy and her stepmother did not get along (“She had an allergy to children.”), and she was shipped off to Chicago to live with an aunt.

Her time in Chicago freed her from the strictures of small-town life and introduced her to art, music, theater, and a way of thinking that fit with her natural spunk. When she returned to New York, it was to attend Syracuse University where she earned a degree in 1914. She then took to the streets as an organizer for the New York suffrage movement and learned how vicious the world could be toward a woman who was asserting her rights. Suffrage was defeated in the New York State Legislature in 1915, and the movement in that state was deflated.

Dorothy, however, was not. She continued to develop her social conscience and was drawn to the promises of Bolshevism — something her cold-eyed realism led her to abandon after Lenin took power in Russia. Still, Europe seemed to be where the action was and Dorothy wanted to be there, so she decided to launch herself into journalism. Along with a female friend, an invitation to a Zionist conference in London, and $150, Dorothy set said for Europe in 1920. Her plan was to write about the emerging Zionist movement and present an article to the International News Service.

The INS rejected the article, but Dorothy talked her way into the service’s freelance realm. Her first break came when she traveled to Ireland and interviewed Terrance MacSweeney, one of the leaders of the Sinn Fein movement. It was the last interview MacSweeny gave before being hauled off to prison and dying there two months later.

The money she earned from the INS allowed her to travel to Italy where she covered the general strike that led to Benito Mussolini taking power, gaining more respect and more money from the INS. She had also joined the Red Cross, and she went from Italy to Vienna where monarchists were planning to reinstate the King of Hungary. Her position in the Red Cross gained her entry into the King’s entourage, and her interview with him was a sensational journalistic coup. It also brought her to the attention of the Curtis Publishing Company, which hired her as the Vienna and Balkan correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

During her time in Vienna and Budapest, Dorothy met Marcel Fodor, Eastern European correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, who mentored her with great kindness and generosity. She also learned German and became fluent in the language.

In 1923 she married Joseph Bard, a Hungarian intellectual, but their marriage had few happy moments. They were divorced in 1927. During that time, however, she continued her upward spiral in journalistic circles, adding Germany to her list of countries that she had covered. In 1925 she became chief correspondent for central Europe for the Public Ledger, and in 1927, she took over as head of the bureau in Berlin for the New York Post.

Thus, in less than a decade, Dorothy Thompson became the unchallenged queen of foreign correspondents in Europe.

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