“What a Woman!” The Story of Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis

The intelligence and intensity of Dorothy Thompson, which made her so successful as a reporter, could be nearly overwhelming in person. She attracted a great many admirers for her work—and for her personality. Post writer Jack Alexander tried to capture some of the force of her character in a 1940 article.

Great as her gifts, objectivity toward herself has never been one of them. She is one of the most extroverted of humans, aggressively gregarious and tireless in debate. For combined intellectual, physical, and emotional energy, she has no known equal, male or female.

Miss Thompson is statuesque and handsome. She is a master of the dramatic entrance and immediately makes herself the center of attention whenever she enters a roomful of people. It works unfailingly, whether the occasion is a birthday party for someone else, a cocktail soiree, or a christening. Women who go to the same social affairs begin by being annoyed and wind up sitting things out in a cold fury. The men surround miss Thompson and hang on her words.

It was inevitable that such a woman would find a determined admirer. In her case, the admirer was the Nobel-winning author, Sinclair Lewis. He first saw her in Berlin while he was on a book tour of Europe. With one look, he cancelled his tour and begged a friend to introduce him to Ms. Thompson at dinner that night.

Thus began one of the strangest of courtships. During the supper, Lewis’ eyes hardly left his hostess, and after the table had been cleared he maneuvered her into a corner and asked point-blank whether she would marry him.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I want to build a lovely house in Vermont and you are the only person I ever met that I wanted to share it with,” Lewis replied.

“That isn’t a good enough reason, but thank you very much—especially for asking me on this particular day,” Miss Thompson said. [It was both Ms. Thompson’s birthday and the day her divorce became official.]

Lewis said that his own divorce was not final as yet, but added, “I’m going to propose to you every time I see you, and from now on, in public and in private.”

Dorothy Thompson, newspaper columnist recently returned from Europe, calls on President Roosevelt at the White House.

Two days later his publisher arrived in Berlin and gave a public dinner in Lewis’ honor. Lewis insisted that Miss Thompson attend too. When called upon for a speech, the novelist arose and, ignoring everything else, faced her.

“Dorothy,” he said, “will you marry me?”  That was all there was to the speech.

Rioting broke out in Vienna a few days later and Miss Thompson left for Tempelhof airdrome to charter an airplane. Lewis, getting wind of her departure, taxicabbed after her. He hated airplanes and had never ridden in one, but he jumped in alongside her. “Marry me, Dorothy, will you?” he asked. Frances Gunther, the wife of John Gunther, who had come to see Miss Thompson off, was pressed into service as a chaperone, and the ship took off with Lewis grimly holding on to the armrests.

A low-hanging fog made visibility almost zero and for a couple of hours the plane yawed and groaned over roofs and treetops, then turned back to Tempelhof to wait for better weather. Lewis’ normally ruddy face showed signs of paleness, but he was aboard when the plane departed again. At the Vienna airport Miss Thompson bolted away in a cab and Lewis pursued her in another.

During the week that disorders lasted, Lewis proposed several times a day. Miss Thompson told him that she would consider his request if he wrote his own impressions of the riots for the Public Ledger syndicate. He did, at space rates.

In the fall, Miss Thompson slipped out of Berlin and flew to Moscow to cover the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevist revolution. The love-and-air-sick novelist flew after her. Lewis, whose interest in the Russian experiment was nil, was nevertheless rated a great man in the Soviet Union, where his novels were widely read in translation. News of his flight had preceded him and a delegation of notables met him at the air field with a brass band.

The band played a welcoming hymn. The chairman of the committee delivered an address of greeting. Then, perhaps in the hope of evoking a plug for the anniversary, he asked the author why he had come to Moscow.

“To see Dorothy,” was the reply.

The chairman, puzzled, asked him again.

“Dorothy,” Lewis explained, “just Dorothy.”

During the celebration, the Russians never did get to understand Lewis, and he wasn’t interested in understanding them. But the trip was a success for him. He got in dozens of proposals in Red Square when the tanks passing in review weren’t making too much noise.

Dorothy Thompson at a dinner party.

In March, 1928, Miss Thompson gave up her job in Berlin, preparatory to her marriage to Lewis in the Savoy Chapel, in London. For a honeymoon, they toured the English countryside in an automobile trailer which Lewis had bought in a moment of whimsey.  Trailers were an American oddity at the time, and everywhere the honeymooners went they aroused the curiosity of the simple natives.

Afterward, they lived a helter-skelter life. Lewis bought a farm in Vermont and a house in Bronxville, and when they weren’t living in one of these places they were traveling about Europe. Dorothy bore a son, Michael, who, in the fullness of time, learned to defeat her in argument, which is more than anyone else has succeeded in doing, and to put castor oil in her company cocktail shaker.

The movie inspired by Dorothy Thompson’s career, “Woman of the Year,” concerned a pair of writers juggling their careers and their marriage. The movie was successful partly because of the chemistry between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and partly because the writer didn’t try to write a script as unbelievable as the true-life courtship of Thompson and Lewis.