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

by Susan Hertog

Ballantine Books | 2011 | 438 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Having It All

Author Susan Hertog examines the lives of two burgeoning “feminists” of the Victorian era, the English Rebecca West and American Dorothy Thompson, skipping from one to the other in alternating chapters, contrasting their beliefs, defeats and successes, romantic entanglements, family dysfunctions, and their lifelong friendship.

West famously said, "I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute" - a disingenuous comment from a much heralded writer and journalist who published over 25 books (novels, reportage, reviews) in her lifetime. She covered the Nuremberg trials for The New Yorker while enduring the considerable stigma of raising an illegitimate son whose father was the famed (and married) H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, War of the Worlds).

Dorothy, the lesser star of the two, was a much-respected political analyst and considered “The First Lady of American Journalism.” She was the first Western journalist to interview Hitler, initially underestimating him as a “little man,” but later gravely warning of his rise to power.  Voted Woman of the Year by Time Magazine in 1938, she was considered second only in fame to Eleanor Roosevelt.  During her long career she wrote volumes, appeared on radio and tirelessly toured the lecture circuit.  Her second marriage was to Nobel Prize winner, Sinclair Lewis (Main Street, Dodsworth, Babbitt).  Like Rebecca, she had a rafter of admirers and lovers and a somewhat damaged child whose needs were always secondary to her ambitions.

Though at times this book suffers from a bad case of pop psychology run amok – “(Sinclair Lewis). . .was honored for his brilliance yet emasculated by his domineering physician father and ridiculed by his peers.  All his young life. . .he had been riddled with self doubt that had brought him to the edge of impotence and plunged him into alcoholism” – mostly, what we get is an impressively researched dual biography of these two contemporaries and their professional and personal struggles towards self-actualization. 

For both, their literary careers were of the utmost importance, and they craved the attention and respect and honors their careers brought them in their lifetimes. They lived in interesting times – the rise of the Nazis, WWII, the Cold War, McCarthyism – and the reader relives these moments in time, aware of the ruling prejudices of the day even among the literati: “Jews” are not mentioned at all in West’s accounts of the Nuremberg trial (!); Thompson, too, seems to have been distrustful of Jews, and was an outspoken anti-Zionist and supporter of Senator McCarthy. 

Hertog is as concerned with the two women’s private lives and loves as with their careers. What rises from the page is their deep and at times overwhelming unhappiness with the men in their lives. Sinclair Lewis’s drunken rages, Rebecca’s husband Henry Andrews’ relentless philandering, their sons’ irresponsibility towards former wives and children, and various troubled family members who put enormous financial and emotional stress on both Dorothy and Rebecca.

It’s clear that they were not cut out to be mothers and neglected their sons by sending them off to boarding schools when they were very young. Rebecca compounded the damage to her son by pretending to be his “Auntie” and not revealing herself as his mother until he learned of the fact when he was almost an adolescent.  When she and HG Wells were finally forced to reveal his parentage, she actually had to legally adopt him.

The implicit question in this examination of the lives of these extraordinary women is this: Has it gotten easier for women to combine/balance work and family?  Certainly, there is more acceptance of the fact that a woman might likely have a career of her own. 

In fact, in 2010, 70.8% of women in the workforce were mothers, and women made up 46.7% of the workforce (Bureau of Labor Statistics).  And the question of legitimate birth is almost a moot one with 40% of out of wedlock births occurring last year and at least 50% of marriages ending in divorce. 

Still, to reach the pinnacle of your career and to experience the kind of fame and renown West and Thompson enjoyed in their lifetimes remains a daunting task requiring vast reserves of money, hired help and an understanding and supportive spouse. The professional woman/mother in 2011 is very much perched on the cusp of the question of whether you can “have it all” or not.

Something has to give, today as much as in the 20th century, but that doesn’t stop us women from trying! The lives of Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson are a testament to the difficulties and rewards of realizing one’s ambitions.

Susan Hertog lives in Manhattan and has previously published a biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

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