The professional successes and personal failures of two of the 20th century’s most prominent and influential journalists.
Although Dorothy Thompson (1893–1961) and Rebecca West (1892–1983) knew each for more than 40 years, Hertog (Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1999) has more on her mind than their friendship. She’s not even all that interested in their careers, which would have been considered extraordinary under any circumstances but were particularly remarkable for women born duringthe Edwardian era. Thompson, the first female head of a news bureau, was one of the earliest journalists to sound the warning against Hitler’s megalomaniacal plans and remained a respected and influential figure through the end of World War II. West was a feared book critic and essayist who set new standards for long-form journalism with her New Yorker reports on the Nuremberg trials and a lynching case in Greenville, S.C., as well as her esteemed book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. These achievements get almost as much attention as West’s tortured affair with H.G. Wells, which produced an embittered-for-life son, Anthony West, and Thompson’s tortured marriage to Sinclair Lewis, which produced an embittered-for-life son, Michael Lewis. In Hertog’s view, “neither Rebecca nor Dorothy knew how to be a woman,” and though she is careful to preface this judgment with the qualifier, “within their contemporary gender stereotypes,” a queasy mix of feminist jargon and women’s-magazine psychologizing can’t disguise the author’s punitive attitude toward these admittedly less-than-perfect wives and dreadful mothers. Their impact on the political and cultural discourse of their times is far more important than their inadequacies as human beings, but Hertog fails to provide a balanced perspective.
Pretentious and poorly written, this irritating joint biography squanders a great subject.