Grandes Dames who Didn’t Give a Damn

Book review of Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson, New Women in Search of Love and Power by Susan Hertog

Books Literature

Over the decades, I have encountered more than my fair share of grandes dames, both the British and American varieties. The former I find formidable; the latter flatter me shamelessly and I flatter them back, also shamelessly. Grandes dames don’t give a damn: they sail through life like liners, indifferent to icebergs and U-boats alike. 

The grandest of them all was Rebecca West, one of the two subjects of Susan Hertog’s biographical panorama. I met Miss West only once, in her last years when she was ailing, cantankerous and lonely. But she left an indelible impression of defiance. Having long outlived both her fame, her husband and her lovers, including H.G. Wells and Lord Beaverbrook, her heart broken by her estrangement from her only son Anthony, Rebecca West had nothing to look forward to but death. Yet she was undaunted, seeming to relish her unenviable fate. Larger than life in every sense, she chain-smoked and gossiped with gusto through lunch. Her zest for ideas and her detestation of cant never deserted her. Susan Hertog records the fact that on her deathbed this notorious freethinker and scourge of conventional morality summoned a Catholic priest. Evidently she looked forward to one final adventure. The pity is that she could not write an article about it.

Dorothy Thompson, the other subject of this book, was a friend of Rebecca West and the two women had enough in common to justify yoking them together. Susan Hertog’s focus, as her title suggests, is on their ambition, both amorous and professional. Both women were among the first female journalists to become household names. Both were among the first to recognise the impending threat posed by Hitler and did what they could to rouse the British and Americans to resist the Nazi threat. Both defied the sexual morality of their day, but paid a heavy price in personal happiness. Both, finally, had the misfortune to outlive their own reputations, being unable or unwilling to adjust to the new realities of the postwar world. Despite (or because of) their pioneering achievements, both lives were touched by tragedy and inspire not only admiration but also pity.

Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson were born within a year of one another, in 1892 and 1893 respectively. Each had to overcome the early loss of a parent, and Hertog argues that neither emerged into adulthood without emotional damage. These were nevertheless exciting times for young women: no previous generation had enjoyed such opportunities for sexual freedom and economic independence, and both Thompson and West seized theirs with both hands. Indeed, the very name “Rebecca West” was adopted from an Ibsen play; you can see why such a fierce young woman might dislike the name she was born with, Cicely Fairfield. 

Women’s suffrage was the issue that aroused their passions and absorbed their energies. In each case, however, the quest for sexual fulfilment came up against the constraints of a society in which men still held the best cards. Both women had a succession of lovers, but neither could keep them.

As the mistress of H.G. Wells, Rebecca West found herself kept out of sight, even more so when she became pregnant. Despite her later marriage and other relationships, Wells was the great love of her life, but he was never prepared to commit himself to Rebecca. Her son, Anthony West, turned out to be a talented writer who never fulfilled his promise. At first he blamed his absent father for his misfortunes, but later turned much more violently against his mother; his animosity was obsessive, and it clouded her later years. 

Much the same fate afflicted Dorothy Thompson. She married Sinclair Lewis, the author of the best-selling novel Main Street; though Hal Lewis won the Nobel Prize, his alcoholism overshadowed not only their lives but that of their son, Michael, whose artistic aspirations never found an adequate outlet. Needless to say, neither woman allowed family considerations to impede her professional career, or indeed her romantic inclinations. But in the end, ambition trumped everything else.

The high point for both women came in the Thirties. Thompson was among the first to interview Hitler and then became a heroine when the Nazis deported her. With her tales of life in Berlin during the rise of Hitler, and later her campaigns on behalf of Jewish and other refugees, Thompson became a leading columnist, broadcaster and lecturer, commanding at the peak of her celebrity the astronomical fee of $7,000 a speech. She also helped Lewis to write It Can’t Happen Here, his 1935 fantasy about an American dictator, which prefigured the mythology of McCarthyism.

Yet Thompson was jealous of West, who produced one book of enduring value alongside ephemeral fiction and journalism. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which chronicled her travels in Yugoslavia and concluded with the German invasion in 1941, remains a classic, even if her admiration for the Balkans strikes us as naive in the light of the genocides that took place during and after the Second World War, not to mention that which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. Her post-war works, The Meaning of Treason (about William Joyce and John Amery) and A Train of Powder (which tried to link the Nuremberg trials and the lynch-mobs in the southern states of America), were based on New Yorker articles and vitiated by what Susan Hertog rightly calls “moral cowardice”. 

Neither Thompson nor West ever came to terms with the world after 1945. True, they continued to have outrageous adventures: while reporting on the trials of Nazi war criminals, West was secretly enjoying a passionate affair with one of the American judges, Francis Biddle. The two women had a high old time, too, at the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1948, though Cold War politics left them both cold.

Nothing is so revealing, though, as their attitudes to the Jews. In her writings on Nuremberg, Rebecca West never mentioned the extermination of the Jews, whom she privately disparaged, while Dorothy Thompson turned against the Zionist cause, accusing Israel of “rabid nationalism” and “World Jewry” of dominating US foreign policy. The truth was that both women were uncomfortable with Jews as anything but passive victims. They had been right about the Nazis at a time when most others were wrong.

Their tragedy was to outlive their time: two femmes fatales who were mainly fatal to themselves (Thompson died in 1961, West in 1983). This splendid double portrait by Susan Hertog is a fitting tribute to their astounding accomplishments.