In my time at Jesus College, Oxford (1956-58), I must have passed Eric Kenningtons evocative bust of T.E. Lawrence scores of times. It stood in the college lodge, on Turl Street, and portrayed a famous alumnus who had led an early life as an archaeologist before he became a British officer and legendary leader of the World War I Arab revolt against Turkish rule.
What I knew only dimly was that a much-traveled American journalist named Lowell Thomaswho had briefly taught elocution at Princetonwas often credited with the creation of the Lawrence legend, a legend sensationally magnified a generation later by David Leans magnificent film. As viewers of that vivid movie know, Lawrence assumed the leadership of the Arabs under King Feisal. He affected Bedouin costume, becoming an accomplished desert fighter.
Lowell Thomas, for his part, appears in the movie under a pseudonym as a sassy, cynical reporter named Bentley who appears on the scene after General Sir Edmund Allenbys conquest of Damascus, and follows the Arab host on its primary errand: blowing up railroad tracks and slaughtering Turkish soldiers. Its final scenes show a Lawrence a bit crazed by the experience.
The case can be made, writes Mitchell Stephens here, that no individual before or since has dominated American journalism as did Lowell Thomas in the late 1930s and, in particular, the early 1940s. Thomas brought to his craft a resonant voice and a gift for clear exposition. His breakthrough in audio-visual presentation came after the wars end, in a dramatic magic lantern show that drew thousands in 1919 London, New York, and other cities. Though it originally headlined Allenbys exploits, the once obscure Lawrence was an enormous hit, and the program was retitled With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia.
Thomas and his era were well met. They developed together the first phase of radio news broadcasting, whose dominance was prolonged by the postponement of television manufacture by war priorities in World War II. Apart from voice and diction, it was Thomass lifelong wanderlust that was his trump card; and it is well capturedcaricatured may be the more precise termby the bumptious figure of Bentley in Lawrence of Arabia.
Thomass corporate sponsor on NBC radio was Sun Oil. He was paid directly by the sponsoring company, a journalistic practice that would now be deemed irregular and (according to this biography) exposed him to occasional commercial pressures. The author notes one instance when Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed his Four Freedoms and conservative critics such as Sen. Robert Taft and novelist Ayn Rand complained. In a letter of June 8, 1943, Thomas received a caution from his primary contact at Sun Oil, suggesting that he omit further mention of the Four Freedoms. That caution was reinforced by a friendly letter from J. Howard Pew, president of Sun Oil, congratulating Thomas on the popularity of his broadcasts but advising that Roosevelts Four Freedoms be recast in terms of free-enterprise doctrine.
Thomas also narrated the pioneering Movietone newsreels, a medium whose oratorical voice and noisy nationalism would today ring strange in the age of television, the ultimate cool medium.
But to return to the association that first won him fame, it is, perhaps, a question of who created whomwhether Lowell Thomas created Lawrence of Arabia or Lawrence created Lowell Thomas, the showman and broadcaster. The two chapters about Lawrence of Arabia, though they take up only 33 pages, are certainly the most vivid and interesting and the authors notes indicate that this isnt his first treatment of Lawrence.
Undoubtedly, however, Thomass desert rendezvous in November 1918 struck journalistic gold and established a professional trajectory that made him the voice of Americathe voice of and for the middle class and its developing thirst for a form of news more quickly satisfied than by newspapers and magazines. Stephenss claims for Lowell Thomas are reinforced by his globetrotting and his determination to penetrate exotic landseven Tibet, after the Communist takeover in China, to which he and his son trekked at the price (in Thomass case) of broken bones, to interview the isolated 14-year-old Dalai Lama.
Thomas left broadcasting too early to rival the mega-television successes of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, Edward R. Murrow, and others. But his memory is not without its nostalgia. One who grew up in the classic age of radiothe era of the University of Chicago Roundtable, Quiz Kids, Kraft Music Hall, and The Bell Telephone Hour, and not least Arturo Toscaninis NBC Symphony, not to mention popular stars such as Jack Bennycannot resist adding that Thomass era was of an excellence no longer heard on commercial radio or television.
But was Lowell Thomas the voice of America? I must admit a failure of auditory memory. The later voices of Cronkite, Brinkley, Murrow, Eric Sevareid, and others echo in the memory. Even H.V. Kaltenbornanother oil-company-sponsored newscaster-commentator (and my fathers bte noire)retains his staccato echo. But the voice of America is fading out like a dim radio signal, at least for me. Perhaps Thomass voice, midwestern in origins, was destined to become the standard timbre of all electronic communicationand is now lost among all the others.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.
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