Dorothy Thompson was PEN America President from 1936 until 1939. Famous for her Suffragette activism and cutting-edge political journalism, as well as a radio broadcaster, she headed up the Berlin Bureau of the New York Post from the late 1920s, and was notoriously the first American journalist to be expelled from Germany when the Nazis took control.
Along with Eleanor Roosevelt, she was famously viewed as one of the two most influential American women of the 1930s. On her return to New York in the mid-1930s, she took up the reins at PEN America, and was thereby central to the organisation during a key period in its history.
During her time in Berlin, Thompson had befriended many writers and fellow PEN members, including Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig and Bertolt Brecht, all of whom were forced into exile from 1933, and would end up in the US. As the 1930s unfolded, she was responsible for using PEN networks, structures and funds to help with what was an escalating refugee problem.
Her other significant contribution was in using her journalistic connections, understanding and clout to publicise and promote PEN’s activities. She presided over the PEN World Congress of Writers that formed part of the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. Under the by-line ‘World Congress of Writers: Dedicated to the Basic Freedoms’, writers from all around the world attended the Congress, as well as a rosta of famous PEN writers in exile including Thomas Mann, Ernst Toller, Sholem Asch, Pedro Salinas, André Maurois, Jules Romains, Erich Maria Remarque and Lin Yutang.
With glamorous photographs of writers wining and dining at the Plaza Hotel, and a dedicated ‘Hospitality Committee’, the event received impressive press coverage in Time magazine, the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune and other publications. Thompson was quoted as pointing out the power of the ‘writer’s tool, the word, which seems so weak but is strong.’ She continued: ‘Time and again in history’, ‘words have opened doors, they have shamed the powerful, they have mobilised nations, they have held together the discouraged and oppressed, they have tamed and civilised’.
Time magazine aptly concluded of the PEN event and its discussions that ‘literary fashion’ has ‘changed…Clearly, the ivory tower had no place in the streamlined architecture of the 1939 World’s Fair: it had crashed into 55 pieces’.
Thompson’s canny understanding of how to use the press and new media to promote PEN’s activities was crucial at this key moment in the organisation’s history.
Read more about PEN’s work with refugees.