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A Portrait of the Journalist as a Young Cowboy
Victor, Colorado, the gold-rush town where Lowell Thomas was raised, was a rough-and-tumble place. It had its ambitions: Victor managed to build and sometimes fill an almost-grand, brick opera house, where a range of early twentieth-century acts, including even some operas, could be enjoyed. Nonetheless—together with its sister city, Cripple Creek—it had more saloons and gambling halls than stores. And while all those pugnacious miners made a lot of news, Victor harbored only one newspaper, the Victor Record. Since this was before the Internet, before television, before radio newscasts, even before newsmagazines, that meant this small city had but one regular news source besides local scuttlebutt.
The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has spoken of a “golden age of journalism” in the first decades of the twentieth century.1 She is impressed with the contingent of thoughtful correspondents who would discuss policy with Theodore Roosevelt before and during his presidency and who were disappointed that they did not have the opportunity to engage in such discussions with his successor, William Howard Taft. And Goodwin is rightly impressed, too, by the handful of progressive, “muckraking” magazines, led by McClure’s, that helped inspire Roosevelt’s reforms by exposing the situation of the poor, corruption in government and the evils of predatory business monopolies or “trusts.”
But those mostly progressive correspondents who participated in Teddy Roosevelt’s informal seminars worked for the most part for East Coast newspapers. Their writings were hard to find in Victor, Colorado. And those progressive magazines were relatively rare sights in Victor or similar towns. The exposé on municipal corruption that Lincoln Steffens—among the greatest of the muckrakers—published in McClure’s investigated no city south of St. Louis or west of Minneapolis.
In 1911, when Thomas was 19 and just returned from a sprint through a university, the Victor Record featured the occasional story about a development in Washington or overseas—undoubtedly from, but not credited to, a wire service. However, the newspaper’s pages were mostly occupied with local stories—“SIDEWALKS MUST BE FIXED, Iron Doors Declared Menace by Council”—and recountings of life’s tragedies: “BRIDE TWO WEEKS, ATTEMPTS SUICIDE” (her new husband had been arrested for embezzlement) or “KNOCKED OUT BY PIECE OF STEEL” (a mine accident). The headline “BAND TO GIVE EXCELLENT CONCERT” recurred every Friday. The stories arrayed on the pages of the Record, the point is, were diverting, often even useful, but facilitated no great debates on the economic system or on America’s place in the world; they fail somehow to call to mind a “golden age” of journalism.
This was the journalism with which young Lowell Thomas, and much of the rest of America, had to make do. You’d find it in bigger cities than Victor—Denver, San Francisco, Chicago. You’d find it often enough, if truth be told, in many New York newspapers. It was a journalism that too often was not only benighted and shrill—neither new embarrassments for journalism—but parochial. That was a problem, since, thanks in part to Theodore Roosevelt, political power was beginning to concentrate in Washington; since, led in part by Theodore Roosevelt, America was beginning to shoulder burdens overseas. Indeed, this was the journalism Lowell had begun practicing—because in 1911, at the age of 19, he was the editor of the Victor Record.
* * *
Once he left Victor, Lowell Thomas would, as much as anyone, travel the world. He would, as much as anyone, expand Americans’ view of the world. In other words, once he found himself as a journalist, Thomas played a major role—perhaps the major role—in creating a journalism more suited to America’s growing international power and responsibilities. He was, in some sense, the Teddy Roosevelt of journalism. But Thomas continued to see the world through a powerful set of American values—values that he owed mostly to his parents and to Victor.
Lowell’s ancestors on both sides were primarily Welsh, English or Dutch and had immigrated to America as far back as the seventeenth century. His paternal grandfather had fought in the Civil War. While Lowell’s mother, the former Harriet Wagner, was properly loving, supportive and devoted to education, she could, when disappointed, be a bit of a nag. His father, Harry George Thomas, had a depressive side and did not display much business sense. Yet in his obsession with learning and self-improvement, he recalls one of the most-distinguished American types: the Ben Franklin–like omnivore and tinkerer.
Lowell Jackson Thomas, their first child, was born on April 6, 1892. Jackson was his paternal grandmother’s maiden name, but there is no record of anyone in the family with the name Lowell. His parents were renting rooms in the spring of 1892 in a house in Woodington, Ohio, near where their families lived.
When their son was born, Harriet and Harry Thomas were both schoolteachers in the area. But Harry was ambitious, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that his wife—who seems the stronger figure—was ambitious for him. Harry’s dream had been to become a mining engineer, working out West and outdoors. But he convinced himself that there wasn’t much future for independent mining engineers. Harry’s next thought was law. Harriet, however, had another thought: medicine. “She realized,” Harry explains in a late-life attempt at a memoir, “that science suited me better.” Besides, he adds, “being a country girl, she had a suspicion of the legal mind.”2 So Harry took some medical courses, until he ran out of money for tuition.
Then the family moved to Kirkman, Iowa, population 350—a town so desperate for a doctor that the absence of a medical degree, not legally required to practice medicine in Iowa at the time, could be overlooked. Many locals, as Lowell explains in his memoir, “paid their medical bills in produce.”3 That was less touching than it may sound when you were trying not just to feed but to support a family. Harry reports that he also found Kirkman’s small-town small-mindedness unpleasant: “Its citizens seemed committed to an all-out defense against progress, original ideas, and especially against anything remotely resembling behavior to which they were not accustomed.”
Lowell’s early memories were of cornfields and the whistles of trains heading elsewhere. His father finished medical school at the University of Nebraska, mostly through correspondence courses, and then was in a hurry to ride one of those trains out of Kirkman.
Harry writes that his “first stop was Chicago, where I went to attend postgraduate courses … at the Rush Medical School and then at the Northwestern Medical School.” You could never have enough education, Dr. Harry Thomas always believed. Then he boarded a train in Chicago heading west—to check out a pair of gold-rush towns in Colorado, which Harry’s brother Carl had suggested were full of opportunity. Ever since Carl and he had spent a summer in Leadville 11 years earlier, Harry had felt the call of Colorado mining towns.4
Dr. Thomas, who was 30 years old, liked what he saw of Cripple Creek and, in particular, of its sister city, which sat atop the bulk of the gold mines, Victor, Colorado. Harry rented an office and an apartment in a brick building there and sent for his wife and son. Lowell was eight.
Victor squats on the southwestern flank of Pike’s Peak—in an uneven bowl surrounded by a half-dozen hills that look gentle until you consider that they begin, just below the tree line, at nearly 10,000 feet. When the Thomas family arrived, almost all the trees that had once eked out an existence on those hills had been chopped down—first primarily for the convenience of cattle, then primarily, before railroads brought coal in, as fuel for the prospectors. The town’s center had been fortified by a clump of brick buildings—one four stories tall and all of them brand-new when the Thomas family arrived. They had been built in response to a fire a year earlier that had burned down much of the town. A scattering of wooden houses surrounded the brick. And some of Victor’s streets were shaded by the headframes of mines.
About 500 people had lived in Cripple Creek and Victor. Then someone had found traces of gold, then lots more gold—a couple of extraordinarily rich lodes. Cripple Creek and neighboring Victor, Lowell would write in his never-understated memoir, were sitting “atop the greatest concentration of gold ever mined by man.” Not quite, but there was a tremendous amount of the magic metal—thanks to a buried and long-dormant volcano, which had lifted this relatively heavy metal up to within mining distance of the surface. The Thomases arrived in the first year of the new century, a year when $18 million worth of gold was extracted from the local mines. Victor dubbed itself the “city of gold mines.” Its streets and houses were undermined by the levels—the horizontal workings—of a half-dozen mines.
Soon there were 55,000 people in the Cripple Creek–Victor area—some to dig for the gold, some, like Dr. Thomas, to supply services to those who did. The high terrain was quickly penetrated by three different railroads, and two new trolley lines helped people make their way from town to town. To keep them content the area boasted 150 saloons. Dr. and Mrs. Thomas, however, were both teetotalers.
Quite a few doctors joined the migration into Cripple Creek and Victor. Most did well. Injuries and illnesses were always plentiful, and some patients were well-heeled: 30 local mine owners had become millionaires. But most of those doctors then left. Harry Thomas stayed.
In photographs Dr. Thomas appears stern, with a long, thick mustache. In reality Harry seems to have been a bit dreamy, and he does not appear to have been there primarily for the money. Even his son, who tends to speak worshipfully of his father, calls him “inept” at “the business side of his practice.… He seemed constitutionally incapable of pressing anyone for payment of a bill,” Lowell recalls, “and had devised a calming strategy for dealing with delinquent accounts: he simply forgot about them.”5 Certainly, Harry could not match his son’s outsized drive and ambition.
However, Dr. Thomas was an unusually bright and studious man, with a yearning for all sorts of learning. His interests ranged “from music to mathematics,” is how Lowell would put it. As Ben Franklin had been and Lowell Thomas would be, Dr. Thomas was a Freemason—a member of a secret society with a cerebral as well as charitable bent. And as Franklin established the Junto Club, for mutual improvement, in Philadelphia, Dr. Thomas established the Century Club, a literary group, in the Cripple Creek area. This variety of American—and Harry Thomas’ son was also of the type—was always busy improving at one thing or another. It wasn’t necessarily what you might have thought they ought to be getting better at—say, in Harry’s case, running his medical practice—but it was noble.
Harry invested in a telescope, but otherwise spent, as the young Franklin had, just about all of his extra money on books. Their little house in Victor, Colorado, was eventually stuffed, Lowell reports, with 3,000 volumes. Lowell claims to have been reading by the age of three.
While his moral compass was strong, Dr. Thomas does not seem to have been formally religious; his son labels him an agnostic. His wife, Harriet, had no such doubts: she was a fundamentalist. Harriet found herself a seat on the sawdust floor of a tent whenever a big-time evangelist—Billy Sunday, Carry Nation—managed to make it all the way to Cripple Creek. And she was no less principled than her husband. Her letters to her son, along with pleas that he attend church, would contain injunctions against “a life of ease and luxury” and the pursuit of “money above everything else,” and she would express in those letters the hope that he might help others to a “higher and richer life.”
A gold-rush town seems an odd place for the respectable (back when that description carried great weight) Dr. and Mrs. Thomas. And it is difficult to imagine Harry, not to mention Harriet, patronizing the honky-tonks. But they carved out a comfortable place for themselves in the community. And what a study those get-rich-quick, here-today towns must have made for an inquisitive man like Harry! And what treasures the surrounding mountains held for someone fascinated with geology and biology!
Young Lowell tagged along on his father’s weekend specimen-gathering expeditions. And sometimes Lowell stood alone at one of the spots in Victor from which the view to the southwest was clear and stared at the gray and white ribbon of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range about 60 miles distant.6
* * *
In the summer of 1901, the newly elected vice president of the United States boarded the Short Line railroad in Colorado Springs. The owners of the gold mines in Cripple Creek and Victor had built this line, officially known as the Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek District Railroad. Its purpose: to break the monopoly held by the company that owned the other two railroads that carried (along with passengers) supplies and machinery for the mines up and gold ore down. Those lines followed roundabout but relatively gentle paths up to those two mining towns. The new Short Line took a steeper, shorter route. It zigged and zagged around the southern slope of Pike’s Peak—through dark tunnels, around red and gray rock formations that looked even more handsome as they rose above the tall green grasses. Some of the huge, rounded cliff formations were of national-park quality. The white peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range flickered in and out of view as the steam train, carrying the new vice president, neared Victor.7
“This is the ride that bankrupts the English language,” Theodore Roosevelt announced after he disembarked.
Teddy Roosevelt was one of those politicians who genuinely enjoyed the ritual that inevitably accompanied his appearance in an American city: He settled himself in the wood-paneled lobby of one of Victor’s brick buildings—the Gold Coin Club, right across the street from the Gold Coin Mine. And a line formed to meet him—a long line; for this was TR. The new president, William McKinley, was not popular in Victor: he had talked during the campaign about fixing the price of gold; miners wanted it free to rise. But Teddy Roosevelt—war hero, horseman, nature lover, outdoorsman—may have been the most charismatic vice president the country had ever elected and the one best suited to win over Coloradans. The vice president shook hand after hand. He exchanged banter—an activity at which he excelled. He made sure he had a lump of sugar as a special treat for each of the children.
The tough but affable, outdoorsy, global-minded, forward-looking TR seemed perfectly suited, too, to inspire one of those on line that day in Victor. Although he was still young enough to qualify for a lump of sugar, Lowell Thomas reports that he had read Roosevelt’s four-volume The Winning of the West—read it again and again. Nine-year-old Lowell waited on the long line, shook the vice president’s hand, benefited from a bit of banter and received his treat. Then—Thomas would always try to increase his proximity to the accomplished—he went back to the end of the line, waited and shook Teddy Roosevelt’s hand again.8
When old enough to vote, Thomas, with the rarest of exceptions, would cast his ballot for—and befriend—internationalist Republicans for the rest of his life.
* * *
Lowell’s mother gave birth to a girl—who soon died of pneumonia—then to another girl, his sister Pherbia, 12 years younger than Lowell. Her unusual name was borrowed from Lowell’s paternal grandmother. Just about every day Harry read serious literature to both son and, when she grew older, daughter. And “Papa,” as he was called in the house, was obsessed with another self-improvement strategy—one mostly forgotten today: mastering elocution. Lowell was constantly drilled on proper diction, enunciation (“Aspirate your h’s!”) and projection.
Elocution would serve him well. And Lowell combined it with a naturally deep, resonant, bold voice. His voice’s strength he may have inherited from his mother, who, he later recalled, had perfect pitch, and “when she sang in the choir you could hear her above all others.”9
In 1904, the year Lowell’s sister was born, to the excitements of a mining town were added the horrors of a miners’ strike, complete with beatings, shootings and a deadly bombing. This was part of an American and international conflict that would be fought again and again in the twentieth century: rapacious bosses versus militant workers, capitalism versus something more egalitarian and unproven, the status quo versus radical change, right versus left. The mines in Cripple Creek and Victor certainly were brutal and dangerous, the workers underpaid: most made three dollars a day. The union, the Western Federation of Miners, was led by Big Bill Haywood, who was something of a Marxist. (His ashes would one day be interred in the Kremlin Wall in Moscow.) Haywood demanded a lot for his members, pushed hard and made enemies beyond the mine owners.
One day, as Lowell tells the story, he and a cousin watched from a window in his father’s office as an anti-union crowd confronted the strikers. A fiery orator riled them up. Punches were thrown. Then shots, many shots, were fired. The window rattled. The militia moved in. Two men lay on the ground dead. If Lowell’s account in his much later memoir is to be believed, his father raced out to treat the wounded. Dr. Thomas found one bloody miner who had been shot in the stomach. Someone helped the doctor drag him by the armpits back to the office. After his father placed the man on the operating table, Lowell’s job was to remove his gun. Then he turned toward the wall as his father began trying to extract the bullet.
The strike was broken. Harry Thomas had been sympathetic with the miners, but—although one of the 3,000 books Dr. Thomas owned was Karl Marx’s Das Kapital10—he had no use for Haywood and the other union leaders. Lowell’s own unwavering anti-communism may have gotten a start here. His United States was a global defender of capitalism.
Lowell’s introduction to a couple of other American values did not come from his parents. Harry and Harriet had done what Americans often did: they had moved west. But this studious man and his deeply religious wife were not infused with much of the bet-your-bottom-dollar, stake-your-claim, always-ready-to-move-on American mentality that was so much on display in Cripple Creek and Victor. Their son, on the other hand, soaked up quite a bit of it as he wandered the honky-tonk streets and played the slot machines. For much of his life, Lowell would bet on long shots, on the new and unproven. His pleasures mostly involved risk—navigating rapids, scaling or skiing down mountains, going somewhere exotic or trying his hand at something unfamiliar. And he was never afraid of spending big—even if the money he was spending had been borrowed.
Unlike his father, but like many of the local prospectors, and in line with the world’s image of Americans, Lowell Thomas had an outsized faith in himself. Life has a way of disabusing people—most prospectors, for example—of such a bullheaded self-confidence. Life never got around to doing that for Thomas. He always managed to repay (if only with the help of another loan) and to earn and spend more. He was not entirely lacking in insecurities and displayed a self-effacing sense of humor, but at heart Thomas was always brash.
When the doctor’s son stopped growing, he was about five feet eight. His face was square, his nose and eyebrows a bit thick and his head a bit large for his shoulders. He was then, and remained for most of his life, comely, attractive without being excessively handsome. Heads inevitably turned, however, as soon as he unleashed that magnificent, resonant, dynamic, carefully controlled voice. Ben Hecht, the journalist and dramatist, described Thomas’ voice as “juicy.”11 He may have picked the wrong liquid. The extensive audio archives reveal a voice that is rich and bracing, even a bit tart. Coffee seems the better simile. And his voice would prove—like Franklin Roosevelt’s, like Frank Sinatra’s—not only captivating for Americans but habit-forming.
Lowell does not seem to have been particularly aggressive romantically—no “threat to the local Lotharios,” as he put it. Nonetheless, once he began noticing the girls around him, Lowell pined; he played “post office,” a kissing game. He collected his share of invigorating, if often awkward, experiences in haylofts or, for a time, in the living room of a young lady named Gertrude Oliver. Lowell’s stays in the latter setting often extended late into the evening—until her father, by Lowell’s account, would lower an alarm clock over a second-floor railing. After some months of this, that father, in the traditional fashion, followed the young man home one evening and asked the traditional question: “My boy, do you think you can support my daughter?”12 But this was a boy whose ambitions extended well beyond supporting a wife in Victor, Colorado. His amorous adventures continued, but his visits to Gertrude Oliver’s living room ceased.
* * *
Victor, with its brick buildings, was more developed than most of the cowboy towns (or Hollywood sets) that later appeared in movies and on television. But the range was never more than a few blocks away. And the gambling halls were right in the center of things, as were the dance halls. The town had its red-light district—just a few blocks from where the upright doctor and his family lived. In sixth grade Lowell began waking up very early to deliver newspapers, so he could buy a burro to better explore the mountains and the range, and he found himself chatting with the friendly young women who, also for business reasons, had stayed up very late.
Unlike most of his friends, young Lowell didn’t drink. His father, as Lowell tells the story, only had to get him out of jail once—after a well-aimed snowball collided with a local businessman. And only once did his father have to pull Lowell away from a loose woman—and undertake a lecture about venereal disease (an important component of Dr. Thomas’ practice).
But still Lowell lived the life. Dressed in the requisite “boots, flannel shirt and broad-brimmed Stetson,” he wandered the mountains and, with his buddies, explored caves and mines. One summer he found a job on a cattle ranch but ran off when he found himself “clearing a boulder-strewn field” rather than roping steers.
Other summers, he rotated through most of the jobs in the gold mines. Two of those summers he rode “assay.” That was a good job: nine hours a day on horseback filling his saddlebags with ore samples from new strikes so their gold content could be evaluated. He sported that round, flat hat and wore denim bib-overalls, rolled up at the cuff. Sometimes Lowell would doze off in the saddle on the treeless slopes. Sometimes he’d head up to a lookout and gaze across the Rockies.13
Americans were beginning to romanticize the cowboy. Lowell had more or less become one. Wild Bill Hickok was two generations older than he; Annie Oakley one. But Hickok was raised in Illinois, Oakley in Ohio, right near where Lowell was born. Teddy Roosevelt, that cowboy president, had grown up in Manhattan. Lowell Thomas had an authentic free-range, wild-West childhood.
That childhood, combined with the adventurous spirit with which Lowell seems to have been born, conferred on him the impulse to conquer the world’s deserts and jungles as well as its mountains—which he would do, often taking his audiences along on his journeys, often implying that a possibility-grabbing, resourceful, cowboy America might be able to do something to help out “over there.”
* * *
When Lowell left Victor for college at Valparaiso University, in Northern Indiana, he made sure not to surrender his identity as a man from the West: he continued to wear his Stetson.
Lowell had not started out as an impressive student. His elementary school teachers scribbled remarks like “poor work,” “conduct poor” or “average” next to his name. But he had begun to apply himself more at Victor High School. He had always been young for his class; still, although never a particularly gifted athlete, he played end and quarterback on the football team. And one of his teachers, Mabel Barbee Lee, writes that even as a sophomore Lowell stood out in the classroom by posing a “continuous challenge” to her “meager knowledge of modern history”: “He was quiet mannered and fine-looking,” she writes, “with dark wavy hair and serious eyes that seemed to see through my thin pretensions. Before long I was immersed in cramming my head with world history, fortifying myself against his unexpected questions.”14
Lee is another unreliable memoirist, and hers is hardly an unbiased account: Lowell Thomas wrote the foreword to her memoir of living in Cripple Creek and Victor; her book is dedicated to him. But Lowell had begun to shine in class. And, of course, he had that great voice. There must not have been much doubt about who would deliver the commencement address when he graduated from Victor High School.
Valparaiso University was a no-frills institution—no intercollegiate sports teams, not even a gym. It kept its focus on learning and catered to older students and less well-off students. “The institution was organized,” an advertisement for the university at the time explains, “with the idea of giving to every person, whether rich or poor, a chance to obtain a thorough, practical education at an expense within his reach.” Tuition was $15 per quarter, room and board between $1.70 and $2.25 per week—less than a third of what an Ivy League college cost. The emphasis on studies—as well as the low fees—must have appealed to Dr. Thomas.
Lowell was 17 when he started college, hardly exceptionally young. But what happened when he registered for classes at Valparaiso University was indeed out of the ordinary. The young man looked over the schedule of freshman courses that first semester and decided they didn’t look all that difficult. So Harry’s son signed up for some sophomore courses as well.
He sat in these classes, behind wood and wrought-iron desks, with other young, or not so young, men and a scattering of women. The men wore dark suits and ties or bow ties and often had their hair parted in the middle. The women were in plain dresses, with their hair pulled back in buns. Outside the classroom some of the students—the men at least—looked jaunty. Inside, their faces, if the surviving photos are a reliable guide, were sober.
The fact that Lowell was sitting in an excessive number of these classes, including some for which he was not qualified, went unnoticed until half the semester had passed. Then the university’s vice president called the young man in to put a stop to this foolishness. But when that administrator examined Lowell’s grades, he realized that Lowell seemed to be having no difficulty handling the more advanced courses and the extra course load. Indeed, his grades at Valparaiso ranged from the low 80s to the high 90s, plus one rare 100, in a course called “Letter Writing.”
The vice president was reduced to pointing out, in Thomas’ recollection, that “at this rate you’ll have your bachelor’s degree in little more than a year.” But Thomas’ account of what happened next, in his memoir and elsewhere, seems wrong. Thomas reports having replied, “Then I’ll stay two and take a master’s.” And he reports having fulfilled that boast.15 But there is no evidence that Lowell Thomas ever obtained anything beyond a bachelor’s degree at Valparaiso. He did, however, obtain that degree in much less than the usual time, graduating in two years.
In Valparaiso Lowell also demonstrated his knack for cozying up to celebrities. He had three advantages in this endeavor: First, of course, he was the opposite of shy. William Jennings Bryan had been the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in three of the last four elections and—of additional interest to this eloquent young student—was considered perhaps the best orator in the United States. When Bryan came to Valparaiso to deliver a speech, Lowell raced to the front of the room the moment that speech ended, and soon this small-boned college student was having a chat with that imposing, square-jawed, broad-chested man—among the best-known individuals in the nation.
Lowell was also exceedingly personable—well-mannered, good-humored, interested in others and always prepared to hold up his end of a conversation. Bryan, as Thomas tells the story, invited the young student to ride with him in the carriage to the railroad station.
The third secret of Lowell’s success with celebrities was his skill at spotting and allying himself with other young people of talent. While at Valparaiso, Lowell befriended Eddie Rickenbacker, who later became America’s most renowned World War I flying ace and a lifelong buddy of Thomas’. This ability to charm larval celebrities supported another of Lowell’s proclivities: he was, throughout his life, an inveterate name-dropper.
Lowell met Rickenbacker, then one of the early race-car drivers, at a track near Valparaiso. Automobiles were a relatively new invention at the time. And Thomas, like a twenty-first-century venture capitalist, was unusually alert to what were not then called “new technologies”—particularly those that could take people places farther and faster than burros or horses: automobiles, airplanes, film, radio, television. These machines, which shaped the twentieth century, were not all invented in the United States, but they became, all of them, associated with the United States.
Most students then, as now, worked to help support themselves while going to college. Even as he was marching double-time through Valparaiso, Lowell Thomas held down a variety of jobs: While he boarded in Stiles Hall—an unremarkable brick dormitory with small, arched windows—he also served as one of the building’s janitors. He was paid to milk someone’s cow. He worked as a waiter and then as a short-order cook. In his memoir he doesn’t report that he was suffering from overwork, but we have a letter from his mother making clear that this was indeed a problem.
None of those jobs led in the direction of any future he was contemplating. So after Lowell graduated and returned home to Victor, he did what he had done before he raced through his college education—he got a job in a gold mine, for three dollars a day.
Harry Thomas thought his son ought to consider a medical career. That plan, Lowell reports, was abandoned when father brought son into an operating room. He recalls “white shrouded figures,” “a shaven and shining skull,” something that “looked like a hacksaw,” a “bloody mass of brain.” “And that’s all I remember,” Thomas explains, in what has the hallmarks of one of his too-good stories, “because at that point I interrupted the operation by keeling over.”
But shortly after Lowell’s return to Victor, he received a phone call that opened a new possibility: he was asked—out of the blue, he insists—to be a reporter on the Victor Record. Given the fact that the newspaper—circulation about 3,000—did not employ any other reporters or editors (a sister publication, the Cripple Creek Times, had its own small staff), that essentially meant that this 19-year-old would be putting out a daily newspaper himself, at a salary barely higher than he was earning in the mines.16
* * *
Lowell Thomas has credited to William Randolph Hearst the discovery of the audience-grabbing capabilities of newspaper stories reveling in crime or sex or, better, both—the sort of stories emphasized at the Victor Record and the Cripple Creek Times: “… BLOOD STAINED CLOTHES ARE FOUND…,” “MAN FALLS IN FIT ON STREET, WOMEN SCARED.” Hearst actually had rediscovered this formula—first at the San Francisco Examiner, then at the New York Journal. Joseph Pulitzer, whom Hearst openly imitated, had rediscovered it some years earlier at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, then at the New York World. This brand of sensationalism became known as yellow journalism in the late 1890s in New York—after Hearst and Pulitzer began one-upping each other in coverage of murders and incitements to war with Spain over Cuba (and after they began a tug-of-war over rights to a cartoon character known as the Yellow Kid). But it was not their invention.
To one English visitor to America in 1842, it seemed a very American invention. Charles Dickens was unsparing in his critique of many of the journalists he found on this side of the Atlantic. Among the deprecations he hurled at the American press: “foul,” “licentious,” “abject,” “vicious,” “a disgrace,” a spreader of “moral poison,” a “frightful engine” and a “monster of depravity.”17 In other words, there was little to which Hearst, Pulitzer or even their wildest imitators stooped to which some of their predecessors on American newspapers had not previously stooped.
Indeed, James Gordon Bennett Sr., probably the most creative nineteenth-century American journalist, had rediscovered the power of sex and crime in 1836, when his investigation of the ax murder of a well-known and attractive prostitute tripled the circulation of his New York Herald. And Bennett, raised in Scotland, had learned some of these tricks from early nineteenth-century British newspapers, which could be pretty “foul” and “licentious” themselves. One hundred and five years before Bennett’s investigation, Ben Franklin had also rediscovered this formula: his Pennsylvania Gazette, for example, indulged in the tale of a man who, having found his wife “napping” with a stonecutter, then attempted to decapitate said stonecutter.
This formula, the point is, is as old as news itself.18 Nonetheless, it is true that with the success of Pulitzer and Hearst, this formula was being employed with renewed vigor in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. Cripple Creek and Victor, while somewhat removed from the wellsprings of journalistic innovation, were amply supplied with the raw materials for this brand of journalism. A single front page of the Cripple Creek Times during these months includes stories on three separate local mine accidents (two of them fatal), a murder trial in Denver and the sudden death of a young local man. And this does not appear to have been an unusually bloody day. “In any given ten-day period,” Lowell recalls in his memoir, “you could count on a shooting spree in a gambling hall or one of the red-light districts, a holdup, a fire, a mine accident and an indignant reader proposing to horsewhip the editor”—this last, of course, not necessarily being fodder for Lowell’s newspaper but a hazard of the career into which Lowell had dipped his toe.
Clearly he had a talent for it. Industry and curiosity helped. Courage helped. Brashness and salesmanship helped—although Lowell’s weakness for hyperbole diminished somewhat the journalistic merit of his publication: a fire in three structures became, in type three inches high, “BLAZE SWEEPS LOCAL BUILDINGS.” After about six months on the Record, Lowell was wooed away by the publisher of the Victor Daily News—a new newspaper, the town’s second—for about twice what he had earned in the mines and with something vaguely resembling a staff. Here his most notable headline was “MAYOR’S NEPHEW SHOT IN LOVE NEST.” The mayor, while he shared a name with that amorous shooting victim, turned out not to be related to him. As Thomas tells the story, he came after Lowell with a gun. In the journalism business as practiced in a gold-rush town in 1912, a talent for being able to talk yourself out of trouble also came in handy.
* * *
H. L. Mencken, 12 years Lowell’s senior, had first stumbled into a position on a newspaper in Baltimore at the age of 18. He later rhapsodized about “the gaudy life that young newspaper reporters led in the major American cities at the turn of the century.… I was at large in a wicked seaport of a half a million people,” Mencken recalled, “with a front seat at every public show, as free of the night as of the day, and getting earfuls and eyefuls of instruction in a hundred giddy arcana, none of them taught in schools.” Mencken, eschewing his characteristic crustiness, concluded that it was “the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth.… The days chased one another like kittens chasing their tails.”19
Lowell, at about the same age, was “at large” in a smaller, landlocked but no less “wicked” town. He had similar fun.
The United States—born with the considerable assistance of a crusading, hotheaded press—had long been a newspaper country: in 1870, by one estimate, one-third of all the newspapers in the world were published here. And the number of newspapers in the United States peaked just about when Lowell was getting his introduction to journalism. If sheer numbers are the measure, then this may actually qualify as something of a “golden age” for newspapers. Each day more or less everyone who could read read one—or two or three. In 1910 the average home in New York State received more than three newspapers a day.20
After all, unless you had a ticket to the opera house or were drawn to the dance halls, there weren’t many other public forms of entertainment. And when it came to satisfying the ingrained human thirst for news, there wasn’t much competition. Busybodies certainly couldn’t keep up with the early twentieth-century daily newspaper—fortified by webs of telegraph lines, by cables under all the oceans, by news-wholesaling wire services, by accelerating presses, by labor-saving linotype machines, by cheap newsprint and by tireless young Henry Menckens and Lowell Thomases.
The also ridiculously young Guglielmo Marconi had gotten radio working in Italy three years after Lowell was born. But in 1912 it was just morphing from “wireless telegraphy,” which communicated only through dots and dashes, to “wireless telephony”—carrying music, carrying voices. Few if any at that time imagined that radio could become a wireless newsmonger.
So if you wanted to know what was going on, you paid a penny or two for a newspaper. And if you wanted to talk about what was going on, you talked about what was in that newspaper.
Nonetheless, receiving and providing “instruction in” those “hundred giddy arcana” was not the most reputable way to earn a living in the early twentieth century, especially since so many of those arcana—in accordance with the old formula—involved sex and crime. Mencken’s father had insisted that he take over the family cigar factory. But his father died, and Mencken was left to newspapering. Journalism also does not seem to have met Lowell’s father’s standards. No evidence survives of ultimatums or even harsh words, but it is clear from letters on other topics that Dr. Thomas gave advice to his son freely and expressed concern to him frequently. And it is clear that Lowell was consistently respectful and well understood his father’s value system. After a year of this mad, glad, damned existence, Harry Thomas’ son went off to accumulate more degrees.
* * *
This time—the year was 1912—Lowell stayed closer to home: Denver University. And this time Lowell did have a specific career in mind: government service. But while his family was comfortable, all those unsent medical bills meant that there was no excess money for room and board. Lowell would still need to support himself. At night he worked as a clerk in a hotel—long a job favored by students because of the opportunity to study and sleep. And, having finally gained some experience at something besides horseback riding and mining, and never being one to sit on his hands, Lowell also found a job as a part-time reporter for both the Denver Times and the Rocky Mountain News.
Now he was reporting in a “major” American city. Now this ace acquaintance-maker was covering stories alongside other up-and-coming members of the journalistic fraternity—many of whom he would befriend and some of whom he would encounter again in Chicago or New York. Denver, unlike Victor, was an express stop on the journalistic circuit. Picking out the stories Lowell himself wrote is not possible. Bylines in these newspapers were rare. But it seems safe to assume that his appearances in these two Denver papers contributed substantially to Lowell’s development as a journalist. Because, for the first time, this newspaperman—now all of 20—was working under editors.
One of the more helpful was William L. Chenery, then city editor of the Rocky Mountain News (later publisher of Collier’s magazine), who was wont to dispense, city editor–like, advice such as: “The teller of the tale is not always the best judge of its interest or significance.” Lowell still had plenty of mistakes to make, but he was learning. And with veteran journalists now examining his copy, fewer of those mistakes would now appear on the front page.
Nonetheless, this remained local-first journalism: Of the 23 stories that appeared on the front page of the September 24, 1912, edition of the Denver Times—about the time Lowell would have begun doing some reporting for the paper—all but one featured local, state or national news. The exception was a small piece mentioning the German kaiser—but only because he had honored a Denver banker. And the paper practiced a version of the if-it-bleeds-it-leads journalism Lowell was introduced to in Victor. The most prominent headline in the Denver Times that day was “LEAPS TO DEATH UNDER AN ENGINE.” And the train engine in question, of course, had been “speeding into Denver.”
The Rocky Mountain News was a somewhat more substantial paper. Two of the 12 stories on its front page that day, despite the lack of a Denver angle, mentioned Europe. But five of those stories mentioned crime, tragedy or sex. National and local politics were covered in these Denver newspapers, but there was little evidence in them either of the progressive muckraking or the thoughtful journalist-politician seminars on public policy that Doris Kearns Goodwin found in Washington and New York newspapers in these years.
Back at the university Lowell’s course of study followed a familiar pattern. He was there for a master’s degree, but after the university’s chancellor suggested that he might want to supplement his rather hurried BA with some additional undergraduate courses, Lowell soon was working toward a second BA, as well as that master’s.
Both degrees were achieved in a year—although, due to university regulations, Lowell did not formally receive the master’s until June 1914. However, the takeaway from his year at Denver University that would have the greatest effect upon his life was the memory of a freshman there who had become his friend: Frances Ryan. Despite his rapidly growing number of degrees, Lowell was only a couple of years older than most freshmen himself. He and Frances Ryan had never actually dated. Yet, as he later tried to explain it, Miss Ryan seemed to have “a kind of heightened sensitivity to life’s promises”—which, with a stronger adjective, could also have been a description of himself.
* * *
Lowell’s first stop after Denver was the mountains—not around Victor, but farther west. His father—no businessman—had purchased a cattle ranch at 7,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. His father’s younger brother Ira and his family, escapees from Chicago, were trying to make a go of that ranch. Lowell went out to help: “This meant I spent most of the summer in the saddle,” he later recalls, “helping with brandings and roundups, sleeping on my saddle blanket under the stars.”21
By the time summer ended, Lowell’s career aspirations had shifted once again, this time toward the law, which would require a fourth degree. So Lowell decided to move in the opposite direction of that uncle, to Chicago and law school. But the young man, as always, would need to support himself. Perhaps it was for this reason, or perhaps it was because he had never quite quelled a craving for “the gaudy life” of the journalist, but Lowell’s first stop after arriving in Chicago was not a law school but a newspaper office—at a time when that city was experiencing some of the most exuberant journalism the country has seen.
Two Scoops in Chicago
When your desk at the Chicago Daily Journal is next to that of Ben Hecht, who would co-author The Front Page, you know you are in for some hijinks and low adventures.
This was at a time when ethical standards in journalism were still in the process of solidifying. In 1912, almost a year before Lowell Thomas arrived in Chicago, a group of editors heard Casper S. Yost, editorial director of the St. Louis Globe Democrat, argue for “creation of an ethical organization of American newspaper editors.” It finally happened—a decade later: Yost founded the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which approved a “Code of Ethics or Canons of Journalism.”
The first canon declared that “a journalist who uses his power for any selfish or otherwise unworthy purpose is faithless to a high trust.” The fourth canon proclaimed the importance for newspapers of “SINCERITY, TRUTHFULNESS, ACCURACY.” The sixth insisted that “a newspaper should not invade private rights or feeling without sure warrant of public right as distinguished from public curiosity.”1
Of course, there were reasons the need was felt to canonize these standards at this time. Hecht wrote The Front Page with Charles MacArthur, who had also prowled Chicago as a young man, and in its various theatrical and cinematic incarnations over the decades, their play delighted in a no-holds-barred Chicago journalism in which such standards were, at best, smirked at in the process of being ignored: the play’s main character is occupied with concealing a convicted murderer to preserve his (or, in one film version, her) exclusive.
To understand the journalism in which Lowell Thomas was marinating in Chicago, it is worth examining some of Hecht’s own escapades. Hecht had gotten his start in Chicago as a teenaged “picture chaser”—photographs then being a relatively new and highly valued addition to the entertainments newspapers were providing. And this fledgling journalist had chased notoriously hard, most notably while hustling to obtain a photo of a young woman who had died in a suicide pact with a married clergyman. When her grieving family wouldn’t provide a photo, and after his competitors had left, Hecht, the story goes, climbed to the roof of the family’s home and blocked the chimney. Smoke then caused the family to rush out, after which Hecht snuck in and made off with an acceptable photo. So much for not invading “private rights and feelings” for mere “public curiosity.” This shockingly insensitive behavior led Walter Howey, the respected editor of a rival newspaper, to contact Hecht … to offer him a job.2
In a memoir Hecht also admits to having, in print, reported as true a raven-haired gold digger’s fib that the jewelry a gentleman friend had given her had then been stolen from her—this in return for the invitation to crawl into her bed.3 So much for “SINCERITY, TRUTHFULNESS, ACCURACY.” And printing such a lie in return for sex would certainly seem to qualify as “selfish or otherwise unworthy.”
Of course it was not just Hecht, who at least could write with as much energy, wit and style as anyone. Nor was it just Chicago. Nor was it just these years. But journalism in Chicago when Lowell Thomas arrived was particularly unrestrained—in part because it was intensely competitive.
Competition is one way to encourage some enterprising journalism. Walter Howey, the editor who had tried to hire Ben Hecht after Hecht had snatched that suicide’s photo, once sent a healthy undercover reporter into doctors’ offices with a bankbook in his back pocket. The point was to demonstrate how often that reporter was diagnosed with a nonexistent venereal disease that just happened to cost as much to treat as he had in his bank account.4 That sort of journalism sold papers as well as exposed abuses.
But competition among newspapers in Chicago in the early twentieth century sometimes got ugly. Trucks distributing other newspapers were occasionally hijacked. Circulation men and newsboys trying to sell other newspapers were occasionally beaten, kidnapped or even shot.5 But the competition mostly expressed itself not through violence but through coverage of violence. William Randolph Hearst, master of yellow journalism, had started a sensational and successful newspaper in Chicago at the turn of the century, the American. That seemed to open the floodgates on crime reporting in a city, truth be told, that produced more than its share of crimes.
Chicago, like any other city, has always been many things, but when Ben Hecht and Lowell Thomas were there, this city was very definitely one thing: wild. Crime statistics are notoriously unreliable, but there is evidence that the number of arrests for felonies jumped in Chicago in the years Thomas was in residence (1913 to 1915), as Chicago was becoming, by some measures, “the most violent major urban center in the nation.” The fact that police officers were being encouraged to “shoot first” and “shoot to kill” contributed to the violence, as did the reluctance of local juries to find defendants in murder cases guilty if the fights had been “fair” or the killings seemed in some way “justified.” Lowell, for instance, covered the story of an alderman shot by a young woman claiming to be his “neglected wife” and noted in a journal he had begun keeping that “public sentiment is with the woman.”6
Most Chicago newspapers at the time did not evince excessive interest in public policy, political theories or foreign affairs. Hecht himself confesses to “a total unawareness of any political problems or ideologies that did not involve Chicago’s thieving aldermen, mayor or other officials.”7 Freed of the distraction of such extraneous events and notions, Hecht and Thomas could examine each day the wildest occurrences this vigorous city had to offer.
The newspaper for which these two crown princes of journalism performed such examinations was the Chicago Daily Journal—one of the town’s ten or so English-language dailies. (Chicago also was enlivened by a dozen foreign-language dailies.) The Journal was neither the best nor the most successful of the lot but was a contender on most local slayings, scandals, scams, suicides and baseball games. Its 16 or so pages were hawked on the streets for a penny. Lowell stumbled into the paper’s newsroom right upon arriving in Chicago at the beginning of September 1913. Perhaps, he suggests, selecting this newspaper, rather than the others also headquartered on Market Street, because he liked the building’s “broad stairs and massive double doors.”8 (That building is long gone, as is Market Street—now replaced by the western extension of Wacker Drive.)
The man who brought Lowell on board was Richard J. Finnegan, soon promoted to city editor of the Journal.9 Finnegan apparently made his hire on first sight, maybe because fellows sporting Stetson hats, fresh from a summer on a ranch, were rather exotic back in the Midwest. Or maybe the paper was simply in need of another aggressive, very young man willing to work for peanuts and able both to stitch together a coherent account of a crime and stay reasonably sober. Above the water cooler in the Journal’s city room, reports Hecht, hung the following notification over the signature of the paper’s publisher: “ANY REPORTER WHO IS WORTH MORE THAN $35 A WEEK DOES NOT BELONG IN MY NEWSPAPER.”10
Lowell had just turned 21. Ben was two years younger, less educated but more familiar with the intricacies of big-city reporting, more prone to theorizing and more likely to wax poetic. Here, in one fine simile, is Hecht’s cynical take on the journalism of his era (and many others): “Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading the newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.”11
Ben succeeded in placing a short story in the tiny Chicago literary magazine that first published James Joyce’s Ulysses.12 He aspired to art. While feasting on Chicago’s smorgasbord of sensations by day, Ben was concocting sentences and ruminations by night that might elevate him into contention with the heavyweights. Lowell was becoming adept at picking up the scent of and sinking his teeth into news, and he could devise pleasing, often clever wordings of his own. But Lowell’s aspirations, though mighty, were not literary or theoretical. He was never much given to undue polishing or excessive mulling over. That is why I am borrowing some aperçus from Hecht as I follow the trail of Thomas.
“We,” Hecht writes, using a “we” easily broad enough to include Lowell, “interviewed thieves, swindlers, murderers, lunatics, fire bugs, bigamists, gangsters and innumerable sobbing ladies who had taken successful potshots at their married lovers.”13 (Actually Thomas, also not averse to leaning on Hecht, himself quotes this list in his memoir.) Lowell jotted down in his journal that he, for example, “handled actress suicide story involving charges against wealthy … clubman, threats of Mann Act prosecution and white slavery.”
Given this pageant of colorful miscreants—of whom Chicago had an inexhaustible supply—it was hard, whatever one’s ambitions, not to be enchanted by the swirl of the second hand. Hecht and Thomas would both retain a taste for larger-than-life characters—and each, in his way, eventually make considerable progress toward becoming one.
Hecht’s halcyon days as a Chicago newspaper reporter—quite a few more years than Thomas managed—were not just exhilarating but formative. He would plunder them for characters, dialects and even plots as he took his poetic talent to movies, theater and novels. For Thomas, however, the Chicago Daily Journal was just another adventure in a life that would overflow with adventures.
The Journal was an afternoon paper, which meant the reporters who fed it worked more or less from six in the morning to three in the afternoon. This proved convenient for Hecht, whose evening routine not only included taking a whack at fiction but also, by his own account, entertaining a young prostitute he had installed in his apartment and was trying to reform. This early schedule proved convenient, too, for Thomas, who, after all, had come to Chicago with an additional purpose. Indeed, the prospect of having his evenings free may have been the real reason he walked into the Journal building. After all, another September would be arriving soon—and Dr. Thomas’ son was hearing the call of another degree.
Reporters of the Chicago variety were “scorekeepers of the dead, injured and abused,” to borrow another Hechtian formulation. Lawyers, like doctors, might have a bit more to offer such unfortunates. The lucky hall of learning was the Chicago-Kent School of Law, then on Michigan Avenue, a short walk from the Journal newsroom. Its students liked to refer to their school as “the largest night law school in the world.”14 Lowell was directed there by the Journal’s Dick Finnegan, who himself had squeezed a legal education into his evenings.
Lowell met with the appropriate academic officials and, being Lowell Thomas, was quickly accepted into Chicago-Kent. Then, a few days later, the consequences of what it meant to be Lowell Thomas—personable, poised, extraordinarily well spoken—became even clearer. The law school’s dean, Edmund W. Burke, summoned him and announced that a vacancy had opened on the school’s forensic oratory faculty.15 Would the first-year student be interested in teaching a course on public speaking? Remaining undaunted was also a large part of what it meant, even at age 21, to be Lowell Thomas—so was answering “yes.”
So first-year law student Lowell Jackson Thomas would lay claim to the title, which appeared now and again on his stationery or in local newspapers, “Professor of public speaking at the Kent School of Law” or, less grandly in school materials, “instructor of the public speaking class.” This studying-plus-teaching load might just work for a person with a 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. reporting schedule—if that person was unnaturally energetic and heedless of sleep. “I’ve been busier than ever before in my life, and that is going some,” Lowell writes to a friend from Denver University, Frances Ryan.16
Prodigious vitality was not uncommon in these young Chicago scribes: for a time, Ben Hecht claims, he secured, in an excess of ingenuity, that prostitute he was reforming a job as a reporter at the Journal; he also claims, equally dubiously, that he introduced her as a niece of Edith Wharton.17 As Hecht tells it, that meant that, until she chose to revert to her old ways on a couch at the newspaper, his responsibilities each day included reporting her stories as well as his own.
The law-school course Lowell ran—in front of anywhere from 200 to 600 of his fellow students—went well. The course was built around a series of prominent guest speakers Lowell had persuaded to come by, including the man who was becoming the city’s and probably the country’s most revered defense attorney, Clarence Darrow. This eased somewhat the drain upon the instructor’s vast but much-called-upon energies.
The courses Lowell took pleased him less, though he did well in them. “I couldn’t get excited about torts and wills,” he explains in his memoir. “But,” he adds, “I guess my heart sang every morning when I reported to the city room.”18
* * *
What made Lowell’s heart sing was a city room devoted to informing the people of Chicago of such matters as—to confine myself to some of the headlines on the front page of the Chicago Daily Journal on July 6, 1914:
• HELEN MORTON HELD PRISONER IN HOME: HEIRESS, HELD INSANE, IS KEPT FROM FRIENDS
• SUSPECT ARRESTED AFTER FOUR ARE KILLED WITH AX: BABE AND KIN MURDERED AT BLUE ISLAND
• HOLD FIANCE OF DROWNED GIRL AS SLAYER
• PETRAS TAKES STAND IN TRIAL FOR HIS LIFE
This was, of course, a selection similar to that found in the Victor Record or the Denver Times when Lowell worked there, though, since the city was larger, the selection of crimes and tragedies was choicer. Foreign news was, as in those other papers, often absent from the Journal’s front page, even with Europe and eventually much of the world busy stumbling into war. That page that day did, however, include a reference to Sweden: a fellow from Chicago had just been named ambassador to that country.
News unconnected with Chicago, even news occurring outside of America, occasionally managed to command more attention. That world war often would. And Chicago produced its own incarnation of the dashing foreign correspondent, Floyd Gibbons, who traveled with the Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa for four months in 1914, supplying the Chicago Tribune with intrepid and exclusive tales. Gibbons was widely praised for his boldness and fearlessness; Lowell would have noticed. But Gibbons, too, had started out covering the city’s own juicy crimes and scandals. (Indeed, he was said to have been among the models for Hildy Johnson, the main character in The Front Page.19) And the goal in Chicago and elsewhere in American journalism at the time remained filling page one with as many such local sensations as events would allow.
Young Lowell found himself, in other words, engaged in a valued service: providing, as Hecht puts it, “our town … with its chief entertainment—newspaper headlines … the drama of facts in printer’s ink.” Movies and radio had not yet discovered that drama.
Since the competition among Chicago’s plethora of dailies was intense, this required being quick. Getting a story before anyone else, getting an exclusive, meant your paper, plus the readers of your paper, could be the first to tell. And no one was going to do much business today hawking on the streets some bit of melodrama that the competition had hawked on the streets yesterday. Audiences and therefore publishers and therefore city editors and therefore reporters like Lowell Thomas wanted scoops.
Here’s one journal entry from Lowell’s days in Chicago:
Interviewed “Dollie” Matters, 32-year-old wife of Fred Matters, age 70, who died suddenly Tuesday night leaving $150,000 estate to her. Posed as a police official in order to see her and talked to her as she lay sobbing in her bed, and scooped other afternoon papers.
Such misrepresentations, though they might be cause for dismissal today, were par for the course in Chicago journalism then. Lowell was not without qualms: “This reporter’s life sure makes a sad bird of a fellow,” he later admits in that journal. “You have to have a heart of stone; you have to lie like a trooper.…”20 But he had gotten the interview, and it was an exclusive, albeit a minor one. In his two years in Chicago at the Journal, Lowell distinguished himself with two major exclusives. Only one of them was entirely made up.
Lowell’s violation of the “SINCERITY, TRUTHFULNESS, ACCURACY” requirement that would soon be enshrined in the Canons of Journalism—his fabrication, as we would now label it—involved the largest of those headlines in the Journal on July 6, 1914: the one involving that allegedly “insane” heiress, Helen Morton, who was “HELD PRISONER IN HOME.” Her father, the story explains, was “the millionaire salt magnate, Mark Morton.” (You may recognize the last name from those dark-blue cylindrical packages still found in American pantries.) And the evidence that Helen was “suffering from mental derangement” included reports that she smoked, drank cocktails, had recently eloped over her father’s vehement protests with a “Virginia gentleman,” had chased her new husband, who by then seemed to have allied himself with her father, around with a knife and had threatened suicide.
That front-page story was probably written by Lowell Thomas, who had joined the scrum of reporters gathered in Wheaton, near the Morton family estates, to wait for tidbits on the travails of young Mrs. Bayly, Helen’s new married name. The July 6 story was not an exclusive. And it was, within the epistemological limitations of such scandal mongering, true.
The Journal, like most early twentieth-century newspapers, made do without bylines, but Thomas has acknowledged his authorship of the report on the Morton scandal the paper published the next day. It appeared under the large front-page headline, “I WED FOR LOVE—HELEN MORTON.” The subhead read, “‘CRAZY? NOT I,’ SAYS BRIDE OF ROGER BAYLY.” Note the first person: Helen Morton—the hidden-away heiress—talking for herself! A scoop, indeed.
The story began: “Helen Morton Bayly was interviewed today by a Journal reporter for the first time since she was adjudged insane.” Getting the thoughts of the “held prisoner” principal in one of the bigger scandals of the moment was a real coup for our youthful Journal reporter. And quotes from Mrs. Bayly were in good supply: She tells the reporter that if she is insane, “everybody in the world is also insane.” She declares that her marriage to Roger Bayly was not unhappy. “It was a love match,” she says.
The story explained that “to obtain the interview the Journal reporter outwitted the small army of burly guards” around the estate where Mrs. Bayly was being held. It explained that the reporter had approached the estate from the river behind it and then rowed down in an old dinghy, “climbed up the bank and stood before the house,” where he came upon Mrs. Bayly. “My how you startled me,” she was reported to have said before beginning to answer questions.
Such derring-do was hardly unknown in Chicago journalism. But the interview and the skullduggery behind it were entirely fictitious. Thomas had made the whole thing up. He had a partner in crime, Webb Miller of the Chicago Evening American, who ran his own apparently fictitious exclusive that day: a report on a party a reporter was said to have observed, which Helen Morton Bayly and Roger Bayly were said to have attended.21
Now, to be fair, fabrication was hardly the career-killer then that it is—or should be—in American journalism today. The notion that fiddling with the truth was a capital crime for journalists had yet to sink in. Indeed, there was a long history of clever and often even respected hoaxes, beginning with the New York Sun’s rather scholarly sounding account of the discovery of life on the moon in 1835.22
And Hecht, together with a photographer, Gene Cour, had turned hoaxes into something of an art form at the Journal: the goal more humor than deception. Perhaps their ultimate effort was the Great Chicago Earthquake, photographic evidence for which consisted of a trench in Lincoln Park the two men had dug, along with a shot of Hecht’s landlady surrounded by some broken dishes. This elicited refutations but not much in the way of recriminations.23 It added to the Hecht legend.
But Thomas wasn’t bragging about having made up his interview with the heiress. He claims to have admitted his fabrication only to two chums at the paper: Dan C. Batchelor and Paul Crissey. The Morton family sued the Journal for libel, and indeed some potentially defamatory statements did appear in the story about this interview: allegations that one prominent member of her family had assaulted a photographer for the Journal, that Helen Morton had given her “affections” to others and that a family member had been Morton’s “jailer,” with what were mockingly referred to as “slaves” guarding her. The fact that the interview had never taken place might have created significant problems for the defense in that libel action.
Lowell was asked by the paper’s managing editor, Martin J. Hutchens, if he had really interviewed Helen Morton. He said he had.24
* * *
After he arrived in Chicago, Lowell was allowed, for a small sum, to occupy a room in the home of the Chicago Daily Journal’s respected political editor, Joseph D. Salkeld. Also present were Salkeld’s wife and their attractive and marriageable daughter, Elizabeth. She was 20.
With both characteristic cleverness and characteristic inaccuracy, Ben Hecht mentions engaging in a competition with Lowell for “the smiles” of one Betty Saltgelt, claiming to have “lost out to Lowell’s superior diction.” That would be Elizabeth Salkeld. Lowell called her Betty Jean or B.J. But Lowell denies in his memoir that Hecht was even pursuing “Miss Saltgelt.” (He too gets her name wrong.25) In fact, after some months of dating, Lowell himself seemed mostly to be running from her too-ardent “smiles.”
Being comely, confident and capable of commanding a room—in addition to possessing that remarkable “diction”—Lowell Thomas won the affections of a number of young women. But in romantic matters young Lowell, though normally so eager and accommodating, was not inclined to answer “yes.” His relations with these young women often, consequently, followed this pattern: he’d flirt and engage enthusiastically in what he labels “some normal boy-girl fooling around,” only to realize that the “girl” in question was taking it more seriously than the “boy.” That is what transpired in the Salkeld home and on their evenings out and about in Chicago. It did not end well.
Betty began using the word “love.” Her mother found some of the notes Lowell and her daughter exchanged and concluded—wrongly, Lowell insisted—that the “fooling around” had gone too far. “Mamma” demanded a marriage proposal and called Lowell (these wordings are from a later journal of his) a “trifler” and “a bum.” Twenty-year-old Betty announced that “she felt so blue she wanted to jump in the lake.”26
Lowell escaped from the Salkeld household to a cheap hotel room in the back of Michigan Avenue’s Auditorium Building, which had its own drawback: continual opportunities to experience all the sights and sounds of one of the Loop’s elevated train lines.27 Letters from Betty, not one to take “no” for an answer, continued.
Lowell clearly had an eye for young women. He seemed particularly alert, by the evidence of one of his journals, to “pretty blondes.” And he was aware of a category of woman he calls “sports”28—presumably meaning fun-loving if not loose. But we don’t know whether Dr. and Mrs. Thomas’ son managed or was disposed to go beyond mere “fooling around” or whether he ever paid for the privilege, as Hecht and a significant percentage of the journalists in Chicago apparently did. (Chicago engaged in these years in a war against “vice,” with vice, perhaps, suffering some defeats. But a cease-fire was declared with the election of a new mayor in 1915.29) There is a hint in Thomas’ memoir that he was prone to behaving with a prostitute as he would with “any other lady,” which, while gentlemanly, presumably was not the point.30
Indeed, it is hard to read Lowell’s sparse recollections on the subject without concluding that among his chief romantic goals up until that point was, as it had been with Betty Salkeld, avoiding entanglements. This remained, to be sure, a common concern at the time for eligible young men in the presence of marriageable ladies. Those ladies were expected to set the price for a consummated sexual relationship at a wedding—paid in advance. But there were other men who played the game differently—“triflers,” Betty’s mother appears to have called them; “lotharios” or “playboys” were Lowell’s terms.
One such fellow—Paul Chamberlain, a roommate of Lowell’s from Denver University—happened to pass through Chicago in March 1915. Chamberlain was something of a partyer and was confined, on that visit, to a wheelchair, having recently stumbled out of one such soiree directly into an elevator shaft, breaking both legs and both hips. Since he himself may have been somewhat freer in his relationships with women, Chamberlain may have found Lowell’s fear of entanglements a bit excessive. Perhaps that explains why he posed what proved to be a portentous question: “Tommy”—long the name friends used for Thomas—“of all the girls we knew at DU which one did you like best?”
These are Lowell’s italics and his recollection, more than 60 years later, of the question. We might wonder whether Chamberlain’s query was really more along the lines of, “Tommy, was there anyone of all the girls we knew at DU whom you really liked?”
Whatever the emphasis and purport, Lowell seems to have surprised himself by answering without pause, “Fran Ryan.” Frances Ryan, who was not blond and does not appear to have been a “sport,” was the friend of a woman, Dorothy Allen, Lowell had dated. Fran, almost two years younger than he, had become his friend. Chamberlain suggested that Lowell might consider informing Miss Ryan of his feelings. In the letter he subsequently wrote to her, Lowell did not do that, but he did say he wanted to come to Denver for a “talk.”31
* * *
Lowell Thomas’ other big exclusive for the Chicago Daily Journal—five months after the Helen Morton “interview,” five months before he set off for Denver and points beyond—was based on reporting he had actually done. The subject was Carleton Hudson, a Chicago financial advisor known for his support of the evangelical Moody Church. Hudson tended to offer his services to pious and wealthy widows.
Thomas’ stories, like those of most great storytellers, improved in the telling. The reporting he did to expose Hudson in November and early December 1914 was quite enterprising, but by the time Thomas published the first volume of his memoir, in 1976, it sounded even more enterprising.
No, the Journal’s city editor, Dick Finnegan, hadn’t just handed Lowell a piece of paper with the name of an otherwise respectable man, Carleton Hudson, on it, and asked him to see what he could find. As the Journal reported in October 1914, Hudson was already being sued in Minneapolis by a widow for defrauding her of $120,000.32 No, Lowell wasn’t working on the story alone: other Journal reporters were helping get the goods on Hudson. And, no, Lowell hadn’t just decided, because Hudson had an “Eastern” accent, to write “to every college president in New England” asking if they knew a Carleton Hudson. Hudson had told people he attended a small Vermont college, so Lowell had written the presidents of that much smaller group of possible alma maters and found someone who recalled a Carleton Hudson Betts, who had gone to New York.
Lowell took the train east and did do some energetic digging on his own in New York. He eventually discovered that Betts had jumped bail there 20 years earlier, after being accused of forging a check as part of a scheme to defraud another rich widow.33 And Lowell did arrange to have Hudson arrested in Chicago on the same day, December 3, 1914, that the article detailing his nefarious past in New York as Betts appeared on the front page of the Journal.34
Hudson lost the case in Minneapolis, but the charges against him in New York, where Clarence Darrow represented him, were eventually dismissed because no witnesses could be found for that two-decade-old case.35 Nonetheless, Lowell Thomas, probably even better at self-promotion than he had proved at investigation, squeezed everything he could out of his exposé. A story detailing his scoop appeared not only in his hometown Cripple Creek Times, but—under the byline of his colleague and buddy, Paul Crissey—in The Quill, a respected national journalism publication: “It was the scoop of the year.… The story swept over the telegraph wires east, west, north and south.”36 This was a bit overstated, but Lowell had scored one large, honest triumph as a journalist in Chicago.
And he received one more reward for his efforts: a kind of IOU from one of the most powerful lawyers in Chicago, Silas Strawn, on behalf of some of the most powerful companies in Chicago, the meat packers. Hudson had been threatening to reveal illegal behavior he accused them of having committed if they didn’t provide some money he insisted they owed him.37 In helping expose Hudson, Lowell had, in other words, helped these companies escape a substantial blackmail threat. “If there is ever any way in which they can be helpful to you…,” Thomas quotes Strawn as telling him.38
* * *
Despite his lack of interest in the nuts and bolts of the law, Lowell had certainly made his mark at the Chicago-Kent School of Law. He was the first speaker at the banquet marking the end of the academic year there on May 1, 1915, the conclusion of his second year as a law student. Actually, he had organized the banquet himself, to much acclaim. Indeed, he had distinguished himself by inviting a Jewish judge to give a speech that night and a woman to deliver a toast.
In a new journal he began that day, Lowell noted two comments made about him right before he began to speak. The law school’s dean, Edmund Burke, in introducing him, described Lowell as the “liveliest man he ever had connected with [at] Kent.” And then Lowell overheard a blond woman sitting up front whisper, “Oh look, cutie’s going to make a speech.”39
However, as older men were wowed by his liveliness and young women succumbed to his diction or cuteness, a fair number of his contemporaries must have resented this golden boy, no matter how generous and self-mocking he tried to be. We know, thanks to an exchange of letters, of one of them: Lowell’s erstwhile friend Dan C. Batchelor.
“My mission on earth is to help every other fellow as much as I possibly can,” Lowell states in his letter, which came first. “If they make mistakes as I do, I intend to overlook them.” This burst of self-praise is not without validity. Being nice was prominent among the missions Harriet and Harry’s son had assigned himself. He did genuinely like people. He did tend to be obliging and forgiving. However, in this letter Lowell is quite critical of the behavior of Dan Batchelor, whom he accuses of a transgression he could not overlook: continually criticizing Lowell behind his back.
In his response Batchelor, in fact, agreed. “I wish to tell you that your letter has done me more good than anything that has happened to me since I arrived in Chicago,” he declares, “in that it has shown me what an unspeakable cad I have been in my relations toward you.” And Batchelor explains why he has behaved poorly: “I never before was jealous of anyone that I recall, but I confess that I have been jealous of you almost from your arrival in Chicago.”
Lowell, of course, was nowhere near finished with inspiring jealousy. The motto on an earlier journal of his was “I WILL succeed.”40 Indeed, his travels back East in connection with the Hudson affair opened his eyes to worlds even larger than Chicago in which he might shine. They may have reminded him, in particular, that all degrees are not created equal. In March he had applied for a fellowship to the graduate program at Princeton University. A friend from Denver University, Harold M. Vinacke, had enrolled there and encouraged Lowell to join him. With the help of Vinacke and of Silas Strawn, he set about accumulating letters of reference.41
For now, however, with the academic year finishing up at law school, Lowell took a leave from the Journal and escaped Chicago, beginning what would become, after journalism, the most important activity in his life: travel.
Copyright © 2017 by Mitchell Stephens.