No lady writers: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson
Over the decades, I have encountered more than my fair share of grandes dames, both the British and American varieties. The former I find formidable; the latter flatter me shamelessly and I flatter them back, also shamelessly. Grandes dames don't give a damn: they sail through life like liners, indifferent to icebergs and U-boats alike.
The grandest of them all was Rebecca West, one of the two subjects of Susan Hertog's biographical panorama. I met Miss West only once, in her last years when she was ailing, cantankerous and lonely. But she left an indelible impression of defiance. Having long outlived both her fame, her husband and her lovers, including H.G. Wells and Lord Beaverbrook, her heart broken by her estrangement from her only son Anthony, Rebecca West had nothing to look forward to but death. Yet she was undaunted, seeming to relish her unenviable fate. Larger than life in every sense, she chain-smoked and gossiped with gusto through lunch. Her zest for ideas and her detestation of cant never deserted her. Susan Hertog records the fact that on her deathbed this notorious freethinker and scourge of conventional morality summoned a Catholic priest. Evidently she looked forward to one final adventure. The pity is that she could not write an article about it.
Dorothy Thompson, the other subject of this book, was a friend of Rebecca West and the two women had enough in common to justify yoking them together. Susan Hertog's focus, as her title suggests, is on their ambition, both amorous and professional. Both women were among the first female journalists to become household names. Both were among the first to recognise the impending threat posed by Hitler and did what they could to rouse the British and Americans to resist the Nazi threat. Both defied the sexual morality of their day, but paid a heavy price in personal happiness. Both, finally, had the misfortune to outlive their own reputations, being unable or unwilling to adjust to the new realities of the postwar world. Despite (or because of) their pioneering achievements, both lives were touched by tragedy and inspire not only admiration but also pity.