Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson: New Women in Search of Love and Power

Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson: New Women in Search of Love and Power

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by Susan Hertog

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Born in the 1890s on opposite sides of the Atlantic, friends for more than forty years, Dorothy Thompson and Rebecca West lived strikingly parallel lives that placed them at the center of the social and historical upheavals of the twentieth century. In Dangerous Ambition, Susan Hertog chronicles the separate but intertwined journeys of these two remarkable


Born in the 1890s on opposite sides of the Atlantic, friends for more than forty years, Dorothy Thompson and Rebecca West lived strikingly parallel lives that placed them at the center of the social and historical upheavals of the twentieth century. In Dangerous Ambition, Susan Hertog chronicles the separate but intertwined journeys of these two remarkable women writers, who achieved unprecedented fame and influence at tremendous personal cost.
American Dorothy Thompson was the first female head of a European news bureau, a columnist and commentator with a tremendous following whom Time magazine once ranked alongside Eleanor Roosevelt as the most influential woman in America. Rebecca West, an Englishwoman at home wherever genius was spoken, blazed a trail for herself as a journalist, literary critic, novelist, and historian. In a prefeminist era when speaking truth to power could get anyone—of either gender—ostracized, blacklisted, or worse, these two smart, self-made women were among the first to warn the world about the dangers posed by fascism, communism, and appeasement.
But there was a price to be paid, Hertog shows, for any woman aspiring to such greatness. As much as they sought voice and power in the public forum of opinion and ideas, and the independence of mind and money that came with them, Thompson and West craved the comforts of marriage and home. Torn between convention and the opportunities of the new postwar global world, they were drawn to men who were as ambitious and hungry for love as themselves: Thompson to the brilliant, volatile, and alcoholic Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis; West to her longtime lover H. G. Wells, the lusty literary eminence whose sexual and emotional demands doomed any chance they may have had at love. Tragically, both arrangements produced troubled sons, whose anger and jealousy at their mothers’ iconic fame eroded their sense of personal success.
Brimming with fresh insights obtained from previously sealed archives, this penetrating dual biography is a story of twinned lives caught up in the crosscurrents of world events and affairs of the heart—and of the unique trans-Atlantic friendship forged by two of the most creative and complex women of their time.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hertog looks at two women writers born at the end of the Victorian era who tried boldly, if not always successfully, to negotiate the post-Victorian social upheavals. Although they lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson were confidantes with much in common. Pioneering feminists, their professional successes couldn’t compensate for massive personal unhappiness. Both had insecure childhoods: West, had a gambler father whose abandonment of his family determined West’s attitude toward men, human nature, parenthood, and women’s rights. Thompson was a child when her mother died of a self-induced abortion. Both women were also unhappy in love and parenthood: West had a famously abusive relationship with the married H.G. Wells that produced a son, Anthony, whom she resented and rejected. Thompson’s marriage to novelist Sinclair Lewis was disastrous, and their neglected son, a lackluster actor, gravely disappointed her. West became a formidable writer, and Thompson awakened America to the fascist threat in numerous articles, lectures, and radio shows. But in her later years, her anti-Zionism and self-righteousness diminished her popularity. Even though West’s career and personal dramas overshadow Thompson’s, Hertog (Anne Morrow Lindbergh) delivers a perceptive, engrossing warts-and-all biography of two brilliant women who were their own worst enemies. 30 b&w photos. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

Advance praise for Dangerous Ambition
“With grace and insight, Susan Hertog has written a masterly dual biography of two of the most formidable women of their age. This is a deeply researched, carefully wrought book, at once illuminating and entertaining, and it brings Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson back to vivid life. As readers, we owe Hertog a great debt.”—Jon Meacham, author of American Lion
“Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson were brave, driven, ferociously intelligent, and magnificently right about the thing that mattered more than anything else in their era: the Nazi threat. In this well-researched, fluent, and groundbreaking work, Susan Hertog successfully connects their personal and professional lives, drawing profound moral conclusions from the friendship between these two ambitious, high-achieving, and admirable women.”—Andrew Roberts, author of The Storm of War
“Susan Hertog brilliantly captures these two women as they lived, loved, and marshaled their power to fight for Western civilization in the hour of its greatest challenge. We know what Dorothy Thompson and Rebecca West did; Hertog shows us how they did it.”—Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man
“They were literary icons—among the most admired writers of their day. At a time when most women were made to choose between the two, Britain’s Rebecca West and America’s Dorothy Thompson never managed to reconcile professional success with personal fulfillment. It’s all unveiled here in Susan Hertog’s deft and perceptive portrait of their accomplished but messy lives—riveting tales of triumph and tragedy. This is an illuminating, sobering read.”—Ellen Chesler, author of Woman of Valor
“Meticulously researched, interpretively daring, and beautifully written, Dangerous Ambition interweaves the stories of two remarkably talented women writers (and their sons and lovers) as they stumble and dance their way through the terrible twentieth century, struggling with their conflicting roles as wives and mothers, witnesses and chroniclers of a world gone mad.”—David Nasaw, author of Andrew Carnegie
“I very much enjoyed this worthy look at two big lives, these fascinating women of the twentieth century: both intellectuals, both serious writers, both passionately engaged in the great issues of their day, and both functioning, in different ways, as true leaders. This is a great story, and Susan Hertog tells it with verve and spirit.”—Peggy Noonan, author of Patriotic Grace

Kirkus Reviews

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 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 herNew Yorkerreports 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.

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chapter 1

Becoming Rebecca

When winds and showers raged around, Faithful unto my side you stayed. Why, now in time of sunny dawn, Why should your faith so sudden fade.

—­Cicely Fairfield, age eight

London, 1901

In late October 1901, Charles Fairfield abandoned his wife, Isabella, and their three daughters in the dark of night. Cicely was eight years old; her eldest sister, Letitia, called Lettie, was sixteen; and Winifred, or Winnie, was thirteen. Isabella, forty-­eight years old and with nothing but memories of a thwarted music career, was left penniless. Charles had gambled away their money, absconded with hidden cash, and left them not only to dig themselves out of debt, but also to bear the shame of penury and social ostracism. Neither his wife nor his family would see Charles alive again.

Those were the facts. The myths came later, and as time passed they kept on changing, depending on Cicely’s turn of mind and emotional needs. She was too young to feel anything but sadness and confusion, but her instinct was that she had lost a kindred soul—­a piece of herself. Through the years, she would see her father as a person who meant everything and nothing—­a principled thinker and a skilled polemicist, an ideal man and a role model, and someone whose perfidy infected the sinews of her life with feverous distortions and unbearable pain. While she would search for him in her relationships with men, in her own way, she set out to become him.

As a woman in her seventies, still trying to make sense of an event that had occurred more than six decades earlier, Rebecca, née Cicely Fairfield, a skilled storyteller with a penchant for molding the contours of her past to her own ends, recounted the story of her father’s leaving with the romantic nostalgia of a nineteenth-­century child in her book The Fountain Overflows.

She tells of awakening with her sisters in their second-­story bedroom on a bright and cloudless Saturday morning on the cusp of fall to the sound of windblown trees. As the girls teased and chattered, preparing for a day that was certain to bring adventure after a humdrum week of homework and school, their mother barged into their room wild-­eyed and trembling, letter in hand. In a tragic tone using biblical prose, Rebecca relates her mother’s heartbreaking shock as she read aloud her father’s words declaring his sudden and hasty departure. She describes a family shattered by confusion and grief—­her mother on the brink of a breakdown and her older sisters trying to console her and soothe their baby sister’s fears.

But the reality of the Fairfield family could not have been more different. The marriage of Isabella and Charles had not been amicable for years. In fact, the conception of Cicely had been a failed attempt at reconciliation. They no longer slept in the same bed or shared the same room. Isabella, anticipating her husband’s eventual departure, had not informed him of the value of a piece of family art, in the hopes that its sale might cover their debt. But, in fact, Charles’s leaving forced her to sell their furniture and the one remnant of her youthful aspiration—­her beloved piano.

Within weeks, Isabella moved the family back to her native Edinburgh and her mother’s home.

The marriage of Isabella Campbell Mackenzie and Charles Fairfield in 1883 had begun well enough. Aboard a ship sailing from Britain to exotic, sun-­drenched Melbourne in Australia, they caught each other’s eye as Isabella played the piano one evening after dinner in the salon. Dark-­eyed, delicate, and wistful with auburn hair and porcelain skin, Isabella had long slender fingers that scaled the keyboard with the skill and nuance that attested to a deep spiritual appreciation of music. Thirty years old, on a family goodwill mission to help her ailing brother, Isabella was pleased to be striking out on her own, after too many years of disappointing lovers and the looming prospect of spinsterhood. The dark-­haired and handsome Charles Fairfield, a forty-­one-­year-­old Irishman, harnessed to the charitable task of taking an orphaned boy to his relatives abroad, feigned a love of music to charm the gifted pianist. He seemed a man without past, or at least with one sketchy enough to evoke an air of mystery.

Three months later they were engaged, and, despite the groom’s atheist inclination, they married in December 1883 in an Anglican church whose rose-­stoned spire punctuated the broad Australian sky. Later, Rebecca would describe it as a marriage of “loneliness to loneliness.”

Charles, a gifted cartoonist, had secured his first job in Australia drawing for a Melbourne newspaper called The Argus. But his freelance articles proved superior to his caricatures, and he was offered a post as a social, political, and economic commentator with a regular column. Isabella and Charles settled into a small home in St. Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne, near the soft blue sea they had come to love. For two years they lived an idyllic life, wrote Rebecca, touched by the magic of their storybook house and the brilliant Australian sun that streaked the sky indigo and red as evening drew near. Earning a reputation as a fine cook and housekeeper, Isabella spent her evenings with her husband’s colleagues and public officials whose views spanned the political spectrum, from socialists to Tory Conservatives to anarchists like Charles. While she didn’t relish the constant intrusion and relentless debate, Isabella knew it was her duty to keep her silence.

Born in Edinburgh in 1853, when married women could neither vote nor own property, Isabella assumed a mask of submission. Careful never to publicly contradict her husband, she was bound to his will by law. But she could no longer hold her tongue as Charles’s career as a journalist went sour. Now a practiced orator as well as a columnist, he espoused radical views that alienated his readers and compelled his editor to let him go. With Charles out of work and Isabella no longer silent, the magic of their early years was gone. Grown sick with worry, and pregnant with their third child, Isabella implored Charles to take her home.

Perhaps it was amid the wrenching chaos of their move back to Britain that Isabella learned the true story of Charles’s past, which she later told in whispers to her eldest daughter, Letitia. Until then, Charles had perpetuated a labyrinthine legend worthy of the storyteller he had become. According to him, he had joined the Royal Artillery as an ensign and traveled the world from Canada to Austria, dutifully serving his country until deciding to emigrate to America to fight in the Civil War. Once the war ended, or so he said, he had married a woman in Virginia and fathered a son, then left them to travel west to the woodlands of Colorado. There he had earned his living in a sawmill, biding his time until circumstances provided release in the form of an orphaned boy in need of an escort to Australia. This was history pure fiction, a convoluted attempt of a convicted thief to cover his tracks.

The real story, uncovered recently by a British scholar, revealed that Charles had indeed served in the Royal Rifle Brigade. But the details depict a man deeply flawed and deceptive. Between the ages of seventeen and twenty-­four, he was posted in Malta and Ontario, and was known to gamble and act in burlesque theater. Lonely and aimless, he went back to his mother’s home in London, where he joined the Royal United Service Institute, a think tank that provided companionship and intellectual colloquia, and functioned as a military library and repository of coins and medals.

In the summer of 1868, having just returned from a disappointing jaunt to America, Charles must have become desperate. The discrepancy between his instinctive sense of intellectual superiority and his lack of social stature and career success prompted him to pursue a plan that would both taint and taunt him for the rest of his life. Dressed for an evening in the West End of London, Charles entered the RUSI and obtained the librarian’s key. Beginning in late July and ending seven weeks later on September 22, Charles stole four hundred coins and medals, as well as original copies of Samuel Coleridge’s letters, from its cabinets and drawers, each time stashing them in a hatbox that he blithely carried out through the front door. Seemingly without thought to the repercussions or moral implications of his acts, he proceeded to sell the purloined goods to pawnbrokers and goldsmiths throughout the city, leaving a paper trail of receipts and checks.

Once the administrators discovered that the items were missing, the police easily traced the crime back to him. One evening, when Charles returned to the institution, sporting on his watch chain the finest of the stolen gold coins, he was arrested. In court, his solicitor’s plea that Charles had a “disordered mind” was rejected. Medical officers of the court believed that Charles understood the moral implications of his theft, and he was sentenced to five years of hard labor in a penal institution.

In prison, Charles’s health quickly deteriorated. He had been diagnosed and treated for syphilis while he was in the army, and in the course of physical and psychological testing, prison physicians also discerned a strain of hereditary insanity. Sometime between 1871 and 1872, increasingly weak and malnourished, he was transferred to the Woking Invalid Prison, which functioned both as a hospital and a penitentiary. Charles served his prison term for four years, and then returned to his mother’s home in London on a year’s probation.

Charles was now a gaunt thirty-­six-­year-­old, but as handsome as ever. The five years between the end of his prison term and his voyage to Melbourne remain undocumented. It is possible, since Isabella confirmed that he arrived at the dock in Melbourne with a young boy for whom he was responsible, that during these years Charles had returned to America and married, or went directly west to Colorado, where the opportunity to go to Australia was fatefully thrust upon him. It is also possible that the young boy he escorted to relatives was his own son. At this point in time, his whereabouts during these years remain a mystery. But both his marriage to Isabella and their return to En­gland in 1892 are undisputed.

By the time Cicely was born on December 21, 1892, the Fairfields lived in a shabby Victorian house in Richmond upon Thames, at the outer edges of southwest London. Once neoclassical palaces situated on the hill, the homes were now carved-­up tenements inhabited by the nouveaux riches, mostly upwardly mobile industrialists with a taste for the aristocratic charm of a genteel past. Yet, without efficient trams and trains, Richmond upon Thames had failed to attract more than a handful of residents willing to commute the ten miles into London proper.

But to those such as the Fairfields, who could not afford to live close to town, the two-­story homes that dipped below the hill were more than adequate. Their squalor was assuaged by access to three thousand acres of unspoiled public parkland. The family took pleasure in ascending the terrace overlooking the valley above the Thames, which flowed westward toward Windsor.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Susan Hertog was born in New York City and graduated from Hunter College. After earning her M.F.A. from Columbia University, she became a freelance journalist and photographer. She is the author of one previous book, Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Her Life. She lives in Manhattan with her family.

From the Hardcover edition.

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