Führer and Fury

When It Can't Happen Here Happened Here

By John Strausbaugh

In 1936, Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. He combined the homespun demagoguery of a Huey Long with the racism, anti-Communism and anti-Semitism of the many pro-Nazi and fascist groups that were active around the country in the mid-1930s. He fielded goon squads whose uniforms and tactics of violent intimidation were directly borrowed from Hitler's SS. Like Hitler, he crafted distinct messages to appeal to different classes, promising one thing to unemployed Depression victims and another to industrialists and bankers, one of whom was quoted saying it might not be so bad "to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini -- like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days -- and have 'em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again."

It worked, and Windrip was elected president. When he got into the White House, he revealed himself to be a full-on American Hitler. He made himself the supreme ruler of a totalitarian police state, disempowered Congress and the courts, established martial law and filled concentration camps. Many Americans went along with it all; those who opposed President Windrip fled to Canada or joined an underground resistance movement.

Thankfully, Windrip was a fictional character, the chief villain in Sinclair Lewis's 1935 dystopian novel It Can't Happen Here. In the actual 1936 election, the incumbent Franklin Roosevelt thoroughly trounced Republican Alf Landon. Neither of them was a fascist demagogue, though FDR had plenty of critics who saw him and his New Deal as fascism with a friendly face.

One of them was Dorothy Thompson, who in 1936 was on her way to being the most widely-read newspaper columnist in America after Walter Winchell, and the most influential woman in America after Eleanor Roosevelt. She also happened to be Mrs. Sinclair Lewis. In fact, it he weren't married to Dorothy, Lewis would probably never have written It Can't Happen Here.

She grew up in various small towns around Buffalo, daughter of a Methodist minister who went from one parsonage to another, and came to New York City as a young suffragette in the time of the Great War. For much of the 1920s she roamed Europe as a freelance journalist, writing for various papers back home. At a time when many Americans turned their backs on Europe, she experienced the political and social bedlam the Great War had left in its wake. In 1923, when Hitler went on the run after his failed beer hall putsch, he hid briefly with people she knew in Bavaria. She tried and failed to get an interview with him. It would have been quite a scoop: he was virtually unheard of in the US. By 1924 Thompson was living in Berlin, where her circle included Arnold Schönberg, Bertholt Brecht, Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill, and the playwright Ernst Toller. All would flee to America after Hitler took power in the 1930s; Toller, unable to adjust to life in New York City and depressed by news that a brother and sister back home had been sent to a concentration camp, would hang himself in his room at the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West in 1939.

In May 1927, just turning 34 and just divorced from her first husband, Thompson met Sinclair Lewis in Berlin. He was going through a divorce himself. Born and raised in rural Minnesota, he had gone to Yale in 1903 and from there to Greenwich Village to pursue a writing career. In 1927, at 42, he was among the best-selling American novelists of his time, the author of Main Street, Arrowsmith, Babbitt and the just-published Elmer Gantry. He was also a notorious drunk, prone to brooding, and fabulously homely. Nevertheless, Thompson fell for him in a single night. They came back to America and were married in 1928. He finished his novel Dodsworth that year, when they were living on West 10th Street in the Village.

In 1930 they went to Stockholm, where he was immensely proud to accept the Nobel Prize for literature, but also gloomily terrified that he couldn't live up to it. (His best years were in fact behind him.) The following year she got her interview with Hitler. It appeared in Cosmopolitan, followed in 1932 by a book with the cheeky title I Saw Hitler! "When I finally walked into Adolph Hitler's salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel" in Munich, "I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure I was not. It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog... He is the very prototype of the Little Man." She was far from the only outsider who saw Hitler pre-1933 and wondered what all the fuss was about, but she later took a terrific drubbing from fellow journalists for what one called her "comico-terrible gaffe."

As if to make up for it, when Hitler came to power she turned obsessive in her warnings about him, in print (now for the Saturday Evening Post) and in lectures and at parties. In the summer of 1934 she was the first American journalist expelled from Nazi Germany, on Hitler's direct order. It made the front page of the Times, which speculated that this was just the beginning of the Nazis' purging their country of all foreign press that dared to be critical. She returned to New York a star, and quickly set out on a 36-city lecture tour, drawing two or three thousand people a night to listen to her views on Hitler and Europe.

Two star writers under one roof was one too many for Thompson's husband. Lewis was jealous that her career was soaring while his seemed to have crested. He resented her universally acknowledged expertise on international affairs, which he complained made him feel like an ignorant bumpkin. He came to so hate hearing her speak about Nazism and fascism that he could only refer to the topic as "It," as in, "Is she talking about It again?"

So there was clearly some measure of competitiveness behind his novel about what might happen if "It" came to power in the U.S. Book reviewers gave it a cool reception, generally writing that it was overlong, disorganized and implausible, not up to his usual standards. MGM bought the film rights, but then backed out, fearing that not only Germany and Italy but other foreign markets would ban all MGM films. The controversy propelled the book onto the Times best-seller list.

It also gave Hallie Flanagan, director of the New Deal Federal Theatre Project, an idea. In August 1936, a front page Times article announced that the FTP would mount a multi-city, multi-lingual stage production. To condense the sprawling novel for theater, Flanagan put Lewis and a co-writer, a relatively untried Hollywood screenwriter named Jack Moffitt, in the Essex House on Central Park West. They feuded, forcing Flanagan to ferry pages back and forth from Lewis' room on the 22nd floor to Moffitt's on the 38th. Moffitt eventually fled, and Vincent Sherman, who would direct the New York production, helped Lewis finish the play at the eleventh hour.

On October 27 1936, twenty-one simultaneous productions of It Can't Happen Here hit the boards around the country. There were separate English and Yiddish productions in New York, a Spanish production for Cuban audiences in Florida, a "Negro" production with white actors playing all the bad guys in Seattle. Critical response was again lukewarm, but audiences loved it; it was the signal triumph of the FTP, running into the war years and seen by more than 300,000 people.

Unfortunately for their marriage, in 1936 Dorothy Thompson scored a great victory of her own: She got a column in the New York Herald Tribune, the national platform for East Coast Republicanism. Helen Reid, wife of publisher Ogden Reid, made the offer. She and Thompson had been suffragettes together. The Reids started out a team, but through the 1930s he spent more and more time at the bar of the Artist & Writers Restaurant, next-door to the Tribune's offices on West 40th Street and a watering hole for Trib staffers for many years. It was colloquially known as Bleeck's ("pronounced to rhyme with shakes," Life helpfully pointed out) for its proprietor, the German-American Jack Bleeck. As Mr. Reid sank into uselessness, his wife took the reins. She hired women writers and allowed columnists like Thompson and Walter Lippman the freedom of their opinions, loosening up what had been a very starched-collar conservative paper.

Thompson's column, "On the Record," ran three times a week for the next 22 years, and was soon syndicated in some 150 papers nationwide, reaching up to ten million readers. Tribune publicity defined her politics as "liberal conservatism." As her biographer Peter Kurth pointed out, it might be more precise to say that she attacked fascism wherever she thought she spied it, whether at home or abroad. Domestically she was very suspicious of Roosevelt and the New Deal. On the international scene she devoted many columns to railing against the Nazis, warning of the grave danger they represented, and pillorying American isolationists. (She often said Lindbergh was a Nazi, though she was wise enough never to put that in print.) She denounced Hitler's "terrible barbarities," declared that "the civilized world has had its face slapped and turned the other cheek so often that it's become rotary," and proclaimed "the necessity of either taking a last stand against heavy odds, or going under for generations." She repeated the message in a weekly NBC radio show heard in an estimated 5.5 million homes.

She was also one of the earliest, clearest voices in America speaking out for European Jewish refugees, at a time when the U.S., like most nations, severely limited their entry, and even American Jewish leaders hesitated to say anything for fear of rousing the country's many anti-Semites. She proposed a clever though diplomatically doomed plan to use the frozen foreign assets of Germany and other offending nations to fund the resettlement of their exiles. In 1938 her high-profile lobbying goaded the government into holding an international conference on the refugee question. Sadly, it was just a public relations feint that led to no action.

In 1939, as if to confirm Thompson and Sinclair's warnings, the German-American Bund, the leading pro-Nazi organization in the country, drew 22,000 people to a massive rally at Madison Square Garden, with another 100,000 gawkers and protestors out on the street. The hall was draped with American flags, Bund banners, and a giant portrait of George Washington. Bundists in SS-style uniforms patrolled the aisles as speakers denounced the Jewish Communist conspiracy to turn America into "a bolshevik paradise."

There were only two disruptions of note. As Bund "Führer" Fritz Kuhn spoke, a 26-year-old plumber's helper from Brooklyn, Isadore Greenbaum, rushed the stage, shouting "Down with Hitler!" With newspaper and newsreel cameras whirring, Bundists tackled and beat him before the police hauled him away.

The other disruption came from the press gallery. Sitting in the first row, Dorothy Thompson interrupted speakers by "laughing in a superior and exasperating manner," as the New Yorker put it. Bundists surrounded her, and cops hustled her out of the building. Newsweek complained that she had violated journalistic decorum; the New Yorker, on the other hand, crowed that her "performance... was more damaging to the composure of Herr Kuhn and his mob than all the angry clamor on the streets," adding that "we would like to hear more such public merriment around the town... We live in merry times, Dorothy. Take care of your larynx." Life directly referenced her husband when it titled its two-page photo-spread of the Greenbaum scuffle "It Can Happen Here."

Thompson and Lewis, however, were no longer together. In 1937, blaming the reflected glare of her career for his struggles to maintain his own, he had moved out. Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn's troubled relationship in the 1942 movie Woman of the Year was a thinly veiled portrait of the Lewis-Thompson marriage. The divorce was finalized that year.

Thompson continued to rail, hoot and denounce through the war years. Her critics called her a Valkyrie, a Fury and a Cassandra, while many others read and cheered.

Published March 26th, 2016

John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.