Queen Christina, Who Ruled as a King

Europeana // Public Domain
Europeana // Public Domain

When is a queen not a queen? When she's technically a king.

Christina of Sweden was one of Europe's most unusual monarchs, an intellectual ruler and patron of the arts known for flouting convention at every turn. The decisions she made about her rule, her religion, and her relationships shocked 17th century Europe—and have yet to be forgotten today.

"SHE HAS MADE FOOLS OF US ALL!"

Princess Christina of Sweden caused a stir from day one. Not only was she born during a planetary conjunction in 1626, causing the court’s astrologers to predict that the baby would grow up to be one of Sweden’s greatest princes, she was also, as she later wrote, born “entirely covered with hair” and cried with a “deep, loud voice,” causing her to be mistaken for a boy. Although her mother was disappointed to realize that the newborn was in fact a girl, and Christina herself wrote that the confusion “filled the palace with false joy,” her father, King Gustav II, was delighted. “She’ll be clever! She has made fools of us all!” he proclaimed.

Things got more unorthodox from there. Gustav made Christina his heir before he left for Germany to fight in the Thirty Years’ War, although the official title she was set to inherit was King, not Queen, of Sweden (Swedish law only recognized kings; there was no official status for queens). Accordingly, her father decreed that she should receive the education of a prince. Christina threw herself into her studies, rising at dawn for her lessons in classical Greek and Latin, theology, politics, and philosophy. She also learned fencing, hunting, horse riding, and other sports and games traditionally reserved for boys, as well as German, Dutch, Danish, French, Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic. As an adult, she became one of the best-educated women in Europe.

King Gustav II died on the battlefield in 1632, when Christina was five, making her the Queen (technically King) of the Swedes, Goths, and Vandals. Because her mother was seen as mentally unstable, her father had decreed that in the event of his death Christina should be cared by her paternal aunt, Catherine of Sweden. Indeed, the Dowager Queen’s condition was so dire that she refused to bury Gustav’s body for 18 months, regularly visiting and petting the putrefying corpse. Sweden’s chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, finally stepped in, ordering the body buried in Riddarholm Church (the resting place of Swedish kings), exiling the widow to another castle, and sending Christina to live with her aunt until she reached the age of majority.

THE GIRL KING

Oxenstierna ruled in Christina’s stead until she was 18, although she began attending council meetings at 14. Despite receiving lessons in politics from him personally, Christina clashed often with Oxenstierna, particularly regarding the Thirty Years’ War. When Oxenstierna sent his son to the Peace Congress in Westphalia to seek a hard line on negotiations, for example, Christina sent her own delegate to oppose him, seeking peace at any cost.

It’s episodes like this that cause some to describe Christina as a brilliant ruler and others as a complete disaster. Sources do agree that she invested so much money into her vast art collection that it seriously impacted the country’s economy, and in general she displayed little financial skill—she was notorious for giving away land belonging to the crown and showering her favorites in lavish finery. But she’s also credited with preventing civil war in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War and its leftover rivalries, and her reign saw many progressive firsts, such as the establishment of the first newspaper in Sweden, in 1645.

But if Christina’s rule was controversial, her appearance and demeanor got even more attention. She wore a signature mop of unruly curls, which she rarely brushed, and regularly offended people with her blunt, unfiltered way of speaking. She was known across Europe for her blazing wit and keen intelligence—but just as well for her barroom manners and love of a dirty joke. Queen Christina, it has been said, “walked like a man, sat like a man, and could eat and swear like the roughest soldier.”

Also eyebrow-raising was Christina’s relationship with her lady-in-waiting Countess Ebba Sparre, with whom she spent most of her free time. The young queen waxed endlessly on Sparre’s brilliance and beauty, addressing her as “la belle comtesse” and referring to Sparre as her “bed-fellow.” Upon introducing the countess to an English ambassador, Christina candidly informed him that Sparre’s "insides were as beautiful as her outsides.”

Ebba Sparre as painted by Sébastien Bourdon
Ebba Sparre as painted by the artist Sébastien Bourdon
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Most scandalous of all, though, was the issue of Christina’s flat-out refusal to marry. In her autobiography, she wrote of “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all the things that females talked about and did.” As she became a teen, she began expressing great curiosity about Elizabeth I of England—the so-called Virgin Queen—as well as Catholic vows of celibacy. She informed her council: "I do not intend to give you reasons, [I am] simply not suited to marriage.”

Christina knew that she was expected to provide an heir, though, and she did play along for a while. When she was 16, she became secretly engaged to her first cousin, Charles Gustav, who was in love with her, before he went off to war for several years. But by the time he returned, the deal was off, and Christina resisted all future attempts by her advisors to have her married. In 1649, at age 22, she named Charles Gustav as her heir.

Two years later, Christina began making noise about abdicating and leaving her cousin in charge. She claimed that Sweden needed a man to rule and especially to lead the army, and also cited her heavy workload, bad eyesight, neck pain, and other physical ailments as reasons to forfeit the throne. Oxenstierna objected to this plan, as did her council. But another of her reasons eventually emerged: The queen had decided to convert to Catholicism. That was a serious no-no in Lutheran Sweden, partly because the Holy Roman Empire had been the main belligerent party in the recent Thirty Years’ War.

"GOD CREATING THE FIRST MAN"

After waffling back and forth for a few years, the Riksdag, Sweden's representative assembly, ultimately gave in and allowed Christina to resign in June of 1654, after 10 years’ rule, and accepted Charles Gustav as her successor. She was 28 years old. Christina later wrote that succeeding in her plan to make Charles king made her feel “like God creating the first man.”

At Christina's abdication ceremony, her royal regalia was methodically removed by the great officers of the realm in turn. Although they obliged in taking her sword, key, orb, and sceptre, an officer named Per Brahe, who was tasked with removing the crown, refused—in the end, she had to remove it herself.

When the ritual was over, Christina wore only an unadorned white taffeta dress. She made an impassioned speech, thanking God and her subjects, and asked Charles to take a seat in the silver throne she’d just vacated. Charles made a show of declining, then escorted her to her apartments. Christina left Sweden within a couple days. Her ultimate destination: the Vatican.

A painting of Queen Christina by David Beck
A 1650 painting of Queen Christina by David Beck
National Museum of Sweden // Public Domain

After chopping off her hair and riding south through Denmark disguised as a man for safety, Christina was eventually taken in by the Habsburg archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria at his palace in Brussels, where she converted to Catholicism in a secret ceremony. She then continued to Innsbruck, where she was received by another Catholic Habsburg archduke, Ferdinand Charles. There, on November 3, 1655, she announced her conversion to Catholicism in the city’s Hofkirche (the court church). Ferdinand Charles, who was as notorious as Christina for his extravagant tastes and terrible money management skills, threw a multi-day party for her. By the time she left for Italy five days later, her visit had nearly financially ruined him.

Now that word of Christina’s newfound Catholicism was afoot, the Vatican transformed this last leg of her journey into an all-out PR tour, with festivities held for her in five cities along her route. Six months after she left Uppsala, she landed in Rome, where Pope Alexander VII welcomed his prize convert with an opulent reception featuring 6000 onlookers and a procession of camels and elephants.

Once in Rome, 29-year-old Christina wasted no time in inspiring local gossip. Almost immediately, she began socializing with men her age, striking up a particularly close relationship with the young Cardinal Decio Azzolino, a code-breaker and one of the leaders of the liberal Squadrone Volante (Flying Squad) movement, which aspired to combat nepotism in the papal conclaves.

Rumors quickly emerged that Christina and Cardinal Azzolino were having a lusty affair. Almost as quickly, Alexander VII noticed the talk and asked them to limit the time they spent together. When that didn’t squelch the chatter, Azzolino was shipped off to Romania as punishment. Christina wrote him dozens of ardent letters, some in French, others in a code that the two had devised. Distance couldn’t keep them apart, though, and they remained lifelong friends, to meet again many years later.

THE WOULD-BE QUEEN OF NAPLES

In the summer of 1656, Christina traveled to France to meet King Louis XIV with the goal of becoming Queen of Naples. French-Italian politician Jules Mazarin was aiming to free Naples from Spanish control and transform it into a semi-independent, pro-French monarchy, and Christina, who sought financial independence from the pope, was an attractive candidate as a leader. Christina was not welcomed as warmly in Paris as she had hoped, though—Parisians were shocked by her open, unscrupulous demeanor and androgynous style, and she was criticized for the way she sat with her legs crossed, put her feet on theatre seats, and laughed at inappropriate times. It was whispered that she made advances toward more than one French noblewoman, too.

An engraving of Jules Mazarin around 1650
Jules Mazarin
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Christina still managed to charm the Sun King enough that she felt she had his approval to rule the Neapolitans (the extent of his true approval is somewhat debated). But on her way to Naples, her entourage received news that the city had been ravaged by the bubonic plague, and so she was forced to abandon the plan and head back to France. She was granted apartments by the royal court at the Palace of Fontainebleau, just outside of Paris.

Fontainebleau was the scene of another great scandal, one that seemed only slightly less shocking to Europe than her abdication. For months, Christina had suspected her master of the horse, the marchese Gian Rinaldo Monaldeschi, of sharing her plan to become Queen of Naples with the Holy See. As such, she’d been seizing his letters, in which she claimed to have found concrete proof of his betrayal. She ordered him to appear before her at the palace to answer for himself. Monaldeschi denied the charges, but Christina remained unmoved and sentenced Monaldeschi to death.

One of the palace’s priests, Father le Bel, was appointed to receive Monaldeschi’s pre-execution confession. Afterwards, the horrified priest begged Christina on his knees not to have the death sentence carried out. But his pleas were fruitless, and members of Christina’s entourage began chasing Monaldeschi around Christina's apartments at the palace. Eventually, Monaldeschi was stabbed in the stomach by one Ludovico Santinelli, but his pursuers quickly discovered he was wearing chain-mail. They then stabbed Monaldeschi in the face, before killing him with blows to the neck.

Christina paid a monastery to say masses for Monaldeschi at his burial and washed her hands of the matter, expressing no regret. She later said she was only “sorry that she had been forced to undertake this execution,” and added that “justice had been carried out for his crime and betrayal.” Rather than asking for forgiveness herself, she asked God to forgive Monaldeschi.

This was not a good look for Christina. The marchese hailed from a powerful family that was close with the papacy, and her unapologetic attitude added insult to injury. The Romans were infuriated, viewing the incident as nothing but a straight-up murder, and French public opinion was little better.

Mazarin advised her to just blame the whole thing on Santinelli, the man who'd done the stabbing, but Christina refused, asserting full responsibility for Monaldeschi’s death. She argued that it was a perfectly legal thing to do, as she had judicial rights over all members of her court as the queen regnant of Sweden, which she continued to call herself despite her abdication.

There were consequences, however. By then Anne of Austria, Louis XIV’s mother, was eager for France to be rid of the ex-queen and her freshly stained reputation, so Christina had to leave town. Although she’d planned to visit England next, her trip was discouraged by Oliver Cromwell, thanks to the Monaldeschi murder scandal and general anti-Catholic sentiment. In May of 1658, she reluctantly went back to Rome, where she knew an unhappy audience awaited.

The pope wanted nothing to do with her. Once her greatest champion and benefactor, Alexander VII hung back at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, and made it clear that visits from Christina were not welcome. He later described her as “a woman born of a barbarian, barbarously brought up and living with barbarous thoughts [...] with a ferocious and almost intolerable pride.” Her popularity among the Romans had vanished as well. She’d gone from one of the Holy See’s most touted treasures to a tarnished embarrassment in just three and a half years.

Since the pope had cut her off, the politician Mazarin let Christina stay at his place in Rome for a while. The following summer, Cardinal Azzolino saved the day, arranging for her to move into Palazzo Riario, safely across town from the Vatican, where she once again held salons with Europe’s most esteemed artists and intellectuals. Azzolino also set her up with new servants, including a replacement for Santinelli, Monaldeschi’s disgraced executioner.

PROTECTRESS OF THE JEWS

After the scandal, Christina drifted around Europe for a few years, moving between Rome, Antwerp, and Hamburg, until Pope Alexander VII died in 1667. The new pope, Clement IX, had been installed by Azzolino’s nepotism-fighting Squadrone Volante. He was an ally of Christina’s, having been a guest at her home many times. Christina was in Hamburg when she heard the news, and was so thrilled that she tactlessly hung banners of celebration in the town. She also held a giant party at her rented mansion, replete with wine-flowing fountains—to the outrage of the Protestant population of Hamburg, who did not tolerate Catholics well. Furious locals stormed the house in an attempt to capture her, and the party ended with a riot, eight deaths, and Christina escaping out the back door in disguise.

Back in Rome, Christina occasionally locked horns with Pope Clement IX, demanding that he outlaw the chasing of Jews in the streets as part of Rome’s Carnival customs—a festival fixture since the 1400s. In August of 1686, she wrote to Pope Innocent XI to appoint herself the Protectress of the Jews of Rome, signing her declaration as la Regina (the Queen). She also established her own theatre, Tor di Nona. However, after Clement IX died, the next two popes, Clement X and his successor Innocent XI, were not friends of the theatre, with the latter forbidding women from acting, singing, or wearing low-cut gowns. Christina cheerfully ignored his laws, continuing to hire actresses in her playhouse.

Christina's tumultuous life came to an end on April 19, 1689, when she was 62. Scholars think she may have died from a combination of diabetes mellitus, a streptococcus bacterial infection, and pneumonia. Cardinal Azzolino was at her bedside at the end, and she named him her heir. Although she’d requested a simple burial in Rome’s Pantheon, the pope embalmed and displayed her—wearing a silver mask and covered in jewels and furs—in the Palazzo Riario for four days. She was buried in the Vatican’s Grotto, one of only three women who have held the honor.

Since her death, Christina has been portrayed on the stage and the screen in dozens of productions, most notably by Swedish actress Greta Garbo in the not-very-accurate Queen Christina (1933). The Girl King, released in 2015, comes slightly closer to the truth, but still hypes her alleged relationships with women over her work as a regent and activist of religious tolerance. Accuracy aside, it’s a testament to Christina’s bold individuality that people today are still discussing and debating the life of this crossdressing, troublemaking, opinionated Renaissance queen. That is, king.

Reconstructing History: Anna Coleman Ladd, the Mask Artist of World War I

National Archives (165-WW-266B-7)
National Archives (165-WW-266B-7)

Just before World War I, an artist and sculptor named Anna Coleman Ladd decided to focus her skills on another method of creative expression: She wrote a novel. The Candid Adventurer, published in 1913, tells the story of a portrait painter named Jerome Leigh who is obsessed with external beauty and unable to see beyond the superficial. The other main character in the book, Mary Osborne, struggles with a sense that she’s out of touch with the problems of the less fortunate. Her privileged social status keeps her “from the touch of life, from humanity in its grossness, its evil, its suffering,” even as her daughter, Muriel, tries to draw her out of her emotional isolation.

The Candid Adventurer offered a degree of foreshadowing for Ladd's own life. In just a few years, she would voluntarily remove herself from a comfortable existence as a celebrated artist in Boston and relocate to Paris, where a queue of soldiers severely injured in battle waited for her help in alleviating their suffering. Using all of the skills she’d acquired as an artist, Ladd crafted custom masks that restored their damaged eyes, missing noses, and shattered jaws. She invited them into her studio, made them feel at home, and allowed them to walk out with a facsimile of what the war had taken from them. What plastic surgery would one day do with a scalpel, Ladd did with little more than copper, plaster, and paint. She did so not only to please the Jerome Leighs of the world, who recoiled at damaged faces, but for the soldiers themselves, who feared they might never again be accepted into society.

 

Ladd was born Anna Coleman Watts in Pennsylvania in 1878. Thanks to her two wealthy parents, John and Mary Watts, she enjoyed an education rich in literature and the arts, both in America and abroad. She learned sculpting at the side of masters in Rome in 1900. When she returned to the States, women of prominence commissioned private works from her.

Watts’s social position, already gilded, was elevated further when she married physician Maynard Ladd in 1905. Since Maynard was from Boston, the now-Anna Coleman Ladd relocated to his hometown and attended the Boston Museum School for three years. There, she became a local celebrity for her paintings and busts.

Ladd stayed busy with her artwork and novel writing. In 1917, an art critic named C. Lewis Hind drew her attention to an article written by a man named Francis Derwent Wood. An artist by trade, Wood had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in his early forties. After seeing the brutally disfigured men who had been brought back from the trenches to be treated by his colleague, the London-based surgeon Harold Gillies, Wood opened the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department in the Third London General Hospital, which soon became known informally as the "Tin Noses Shop." Wood’s intent was to pick up where the surgeon left off, creating cosmetic improvements using fabricated facial appliances that filled in the empty space destroyed by war.

Ladd was convinced her skill set could achieve similar—perhaps even better—results. Through her physician husband's connections, she was able to get an audience with the American Red Cross, which agreed to help her open a studio on the Left Bank of Paris. She arrived in France in December of 1917 and had her space ready for patients by the spring of 1918. She named it the Studio for Portrait Masks.

A soldier before and after being fitted for a facial mask by Anna Coleman Ladd
A soldier is seen with part of his chin missing (L) and after being fitted with an appliance by Anna Coleman Ladd (R).
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To understand why Ladd and Wood’s expertise was needed, it helps to contextualize the state of both warfare and medicine in the early 20th century. Combatants in World War I were firing and receiving heavy artillery from automatic weapons; grenades sent shrapnel flying in all directions. Because so many men were embedded in trenches, sticking their heads out often meant receiving direct or ancillary fire. Helmets may have guarded against lethal injuries to the brain, but helmets could also be shattered, sending pieces flying into their face. Of the 6 million men from Britain and Ireland who fought in World War I, an estimated 60,500 suffered injuries to the head or to their eyes.

With parts of their faces now missing or severely damaged, these men would be carted off the field and directed toward medical stations and major hospitals. Their potentially lethal wounds would be treated, but surgical restoration of cosmetic damage was still in a relatively primitive state. Sometimes, a patient who would require several surgeries to achieve an improved appearance could only be afforded one due to a lack of time or a shortage of staff. Gillies was a smart and insightful surgeon who pioneered some of the techniques seen in modern plastic surgery, treating thousands of men at Queen's Hospital, but it was impossible to perform revolutionary procedures for every wounded patient coming through the doors.

After being treated and released, the men often found great difficulty returning to their normal lives. They were self-conscious about their appearance and sometimes spoke of what they called the Medusa effect: Walking down the street, a passerby would catch sight of their collapsed cheekbones or hollow eye socket and faint. In Sidcup, England, where Gillies practiced, blue park benches near the hospital were reserved for men with disfigured faces; the color also served as a signal that the occupant of the bench might have an alarming appearance. The French referred to these men as mutilés, for mutilated, or Gueules cassées, for broken faces. Some were so despondent over their appearance they committed suicide.

It was these men Ladd sympathized with and was desperate to assist.

 

Ladd corresponded with Wood to gather information on how such facial injuries could be addressed through facial appliances. Though masks had been worn for centuries by people with deformities, no one had ever tried making them on such a scale before. It's been estimated that 3000 French soldiers were in need of such attention. To visit Ladd, they required a letter of recommendation from the Red Cross.

Ladd eventually settled on a process that involved making a plaster cast of the patient. First, she would invite them into the studio, which she insisted be a warm and welcoming environment. Ladd and her four assistants made the soldiers feel as comfortable as possible; she trained her staff to make jokes and not fixate on the visitors' appearances. Next, Ladd applied plaster over their faces and allowed it to dry, creating a hardened cast from which she could make a copy of the face and craft an appliance in gutta-percha, a rubber-like substance, which was then electroplated in copper. Depending on the work required, Ladd would also sometimes use a silver mesh plate covered in plaster. The missing or disfigured features were designed using reference photographs of her subject from before the war. The copper was just 1/32 of an inch thick and weighed between four and nine ounces. The mask might encompass anything from a missing nose to an entirely destroyed portion of the face, depending on the extent of damage.

Next came the step requiring Ladd’s skills as a painter. She used an oil-based enamel resistant to water and attempted to match her recipient’s skin tone somewhere between how it would look under clouds or dim light and how it might look on a sunny day. (Leaning toward either extreme would only lessen the illusion.) If a mustache was required, she crafted one out of foil. Human hairs were used for eyebrows and eyelashes. The mask was typically attached to a pair of spectacles hooked over the ears to hold it in place, or a strip hooked behind the ear.

The Red Cross produced a film (above) illustrating the process. In 1918, Ladd explained her intentions to a very curious press: “Our work begins when the surgeon has finished,” she said. “We do not profess to heal. After the wounded man has been discharged from the hospital we begin our treatment. Of course, the chief difficulty in making these masks is to accurately match both sides of the face and restore the features so that there will be nothing of the grotesque in the appearance of the covering. A mask that did not look like the individual as he was known to his relatives would be almost as bad as the disfigurement.”

The process took roughly a month before Ladd was satisfied with the result. Though her patients were primarily French soldiers, she made a handful for Americans, who—per the wishes of the American Red Cross—got expedited treatment.

 

All told, Ladd spent 11 months in Paris. Some estimates put her studio’s production at over 200 masks, but the figure was likely closer to 97. Considering how much time each one took Ladd and her four-person staff, it was a staggering amount of productivity, with roughly nine masks churned out every month. When the war concluded, she returned to Boston to pick up her commercial sculpting career. She was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for her war service in 1932. She died in 1939 in California at the age of 60, just three years after retiring.

In the years following the war, Ladd gave lectures and spoke freely about her experiences fabricating these faces. She received letters from men thanking her for making them more comfortable with their appearance. No extensive study of these soldiers was ever pursued, however, and it’s difficult to say how the masks were incorporated into their day-to-day lives.

The items themselves were also not impervious to wear and wouldn't last more than a few years. Even if they did, the patient would eventually undergo a puzzling metamorphosis: They would age, but the mask would not. Eventually, the contrast between a flawless copper plate and wrinkled or pale skin would become too noticeable.

Some of Ladd’s subjects may have spent years in relative comfort. Others may have only had fleeting moments of normalcy, where favorable light and the company of close friends made them less self-conscious about what the war had taken from them. But in some measure, Anna Coleman Ladd had used her artistic ability to give them a respite from the misfortune that accompanied their bravery. Of those who were photographed wearing her masks, many were smiling.

Dorothy Thompson, the Journalist Who Warned the World About Adolf Hitler

American writer, journalist, and feminist Dorothy Thompson in London in 1941
American writer, journalist, and feminist Dorothy Thompson in London in 1941
J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

As a crusading journalist, Dorothy Thompson made plenty of enemies—but her most formidable foe was Adolf Hitler. Thompson spent well over a decade agitating against the Nazis in print and on the radio, warning Americans of the threat of fascism years before the official U.S. entry into World War II. Her efforts made her one of the most famous women in the United States—and the first American correspondent Hitler expelled from Germany.

Stumping for Suffrage

Born on July 9, 1893, in Lancaster, New York, to British immigrants, Thompson grew up in a religious household. Her father was a Methodist minister, and he frequently took his eldest daughter on visits to parishioners across the suburbs of upstate New York. When Thompson was just 7 years old, her mother died of sepsis rumored to have been brought on by a botched abortion. Thompson's father, eager to provide his three children with a maternal figure, soon remarried. But Thompson did not get along with her stepmother, whom she claimed had "an allergy to children." A few years later, she went to live with her aunts in Chicago, where she attended a junior college called the Lewis Institute.

Thompson was a bright student who showed a passion for literature and discourse. She continued her education at Syracuse University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1914.

Upon graduation, Thompson devoted herself to feminist pursuits. Her first job out of college involved stuffing envelopes for the Woman Suffrage Party in Buffalo, though Thompson soon convinced her bosses to put her in the field. As Jack Alexander would later write in the Saturday Evening Post, “Stumping for suffrage consisted largely in starting arguments in public places, which was, of course, Dorothy's dish." She spent the next few years fighting for women's right to vote and other progressive pursuits, working in New York City and Cincinnati as well as upstate. But activism didn't pay well, so she also dabbled in advertising and publicity work to help support her younger siblings through college.

Yet Dorothy also nourished dreams of being a journalist. She already had the names and numbers of several editors, after penning op-eds on social justice for the major New York newspapers. She also had a suffragist friend, Barbara De Porte, who was itching to go to Europe in search of stories and adventure. Once they had saved up enough money, the pair boarded a ship to London in 1920, where they embarked upon careers as foreign correspondents.

Hitler: "A Man Whose Countenance Is a Caricature"

Thompson and De Porte both immediately sought freelance work at the International News Service, an American agency with bureaus all over Europe. The I.N.S. assignments suited Thompson, a workhorse who also had incredible luck. In one early success, she landed the last interview with Terence MacSwiney, a leader of the Sinn Fein movement who died in prison on a hunger strike, while visiting relatives in Ireland. She later snagged an exclusive with Karl I, the deposed former king of Hungary, by sneaking into a castle dressed as a Red Cross nurse. After this string of scoops, Thompson landed a job in Vienna as a foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

Through this post, she developed a deep understanding of central European politics—bolstered by her fluency in German and 1923 marriage to Hungarian writer Josef Bard—that catapulted her to bureau chief of both the Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post, which shared foreign services. She was, as her biographer Peter Kurth put it, “the first woman to head a foreign news bureau of any importance.”

But a period of change was ahead. Tired of her husband's many affairs, Thompson filed for divorce in 1927; that same year, she met Sinclair Lewis, the successful novelist of Elmer Gantry and Main Street. He was instantly smitten. In 1928, Thompson accepted one of Lewis's many proposals and resigned her post to marry him, leaving Germany to start a new life with him in Vermont.

Life in the country did not dull her interest in international affairs, however. Thompson continued to report on foreign politics as a freelancer, making several months-long trips back to Germany in the early 1930s to chronicle the crumbling Weimar Republic. She had been following Hitler's rise to power since at least 1923, when she attempted to interview the future dictator following the Beer Hall Putsch, a failed government takeover that put Hitler in prison. Her interview request was finally approved in 1931 under strict conditions: She could only ask him three questions, which were to be submitted a full day in advance.

Thompson came away from the interview less than impressed. "When I finally walked into Adolf Hitler's salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany," she wrote. "In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. … He is formless, almost faceless: a man whose countenance is a caricature; a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequential and voluble, ill-poised, insecure—the very prototype of the Little Man."

While Thompson misjudged Hitler's appeal (he would be chancellor of Germany in just two years), her biting character assessment stayed with the Führer. He did not initially retaliate, even as the interview circulated among Cosmopolitan readers and the mass paperback market through Thompson's 1932 book I Saw Hitler!. But in the late summer of 1934, the Nazi government expelled Thompson from the country, informing her that they were "unable to extend to [her] a further right of hospitality." It served as one of the first significant warnings to foreign journalists in Germany: Criticism of Hitler would no longer be tolerated.

"My offense was to think that Hitler is just an ordinary man, after all," Thompson wrote shortly afterward in The New York Times. "That is a crime against the reigning cult in Germany, which says Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent by God to save the German people—an old Jewish idea. To question this mystic mission is so heinous that, if you are a German, you can be sent to jail. I, fortunately, am an American, so I merely was sent to Paris."

A Woman on a Mission

Dorothy Thompson chats to an ambulance driver on a London bench in 1941.
Dorothy Thompson chats to an ambulance driver on a London bench in 1941.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Back in the United States, Thompson mounted a one-woman crusade against the Nazis. She denounced the German government frequently and vigorously in her syndicated column, "On the Record," which ran in 170 newspapers and reached roughly 8 million readers. She also spread her message through regular radio broadcasts for NBC, and a monthly column in Ladies' Home Journal. In one of her most memorable (and dangerous) stands against Hitler's movement, she attended a 1939 rally for the German American Bund at Madison Square Garden. Seated among 20,000 Nazi supporters, she loudly ridiculed the speaker, even as uniformed men attempted to escort her out of the arena.

These actions brought Thompson incredible fame and adoration. In 1937, she was invited back to her alma mater to serve as Syracuse University's first female commencement speaker. She picked up honorary degrees from Columbia, Tufts, and Dartmouth, among others, and became a frequent honored guest at charity dinners and women's club gatherings. When moviegoers lined up to see the 1942 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, they instantly recognized Thompson in Hepburn's accomplished, internationally renowned journalist.

But even as Thompson's popularity continued into World War II, she had already attracted critics. In February 1941, Pacifist mothers paraded her effigy outside the gates of the White House, denouncing her role in "a million boys' lives in blood and pain." Other detractors dismissed Thompson's "perpetual emotion," a complaint that would pick up steam in her postwar career, as she shifted her focus to anti-Zionism and lost many followers in the process. (That included her editors at The New York Post, who dropped her column in 1947.) Her star had significantly faded by 1961, when she died of a heart attack in Lisbon at the age of 67.

The Grimmest Party Game

In the years that followed, Thompson's life was often overshadowed by or absorbed in stories of her more celebrated second husband. Her marriage to Lewis, which lasted from 1928 to 1942, coincided with some of Thompson's busiest and most successful years, and it also inspired one of Lewis's most enduring (and recently resurgent) novels, It Can't Happen Here, a dystopian fantasy about a fascist dictator who takes over the United States.

But unlike Lewis's work, Thompson’s books are now scattered and often difficult to find. As acclaimed as she once was, her name has largely faded in modern times, and frequently appears as a footnote in the wider anti-Nazi cause. One of Thompson's articles, however, has lasted long past her death, and even gained renewed attention in recent years.

The 1941 Harper's story "Who Goes Nazi?" found Thompson playing the grimmest party game: Which person in a room would, if it came down to it, support Hitler's brand of fascism? Drawing on her years of observation, Thompson argued with chilling specificity that the distinction had nothing to do with class, race, or profession. Nazism, she insisted, had to do with something more innate. "Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi," Thompson wrote. But those driven by fear, resentment, insecurity, or self-loathing? They would always fall for fascism. "It's an amusing game," she concluded. "Try it at the next big party you go to."

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