Posted Saturday evening, September 9, 2017.
T.E. Lawrence and the young journalist who made him world-famous as “Lawrence of Arabia,” Lowell Thomas. Photo via the Hollywood Reporter.
Neither of my grandfathers talked.
I should amend that to the more truthful neither talked much. But Pop Mannion's dad, Grandpop Mannion, really didn't talk in company for hours at a stretch. He listened, intently, but whole visits to his and Grandmom Mannion's would pass with his saying nary a word. He'd sit in his favorite blue armchair chair and smile mildly, as conversation, chatter, and confusion raged throughout the house, taking everything in while creating a space of perfect calm and quiet close around him. I have no memory of his voice. I hear my three other grandparents' voices in my head whenever I think of them. But Grandpop Mannion appears smiling but silent.
My other grandfather, whom we called Big Pop, not because he himself was all that big, although he was close to six feet and probably weighed in at about 220, but because my grandmother was. She was five ten and 180 pounds in her fighting prime. She was big for a grandmother, especially compared to Grandmother Mannion, who was five foot even. Naturally we called the one Big Nanny and the other Little Nanny, and by extension their husbands were dubbed Big Pop and Little Pop---wasn't chatty but he wasn't silent. When I say he didn't talk, I mean he didn't reveal anything when he did. He wasn't evasive, you wouldn't call him forthcoming. He was another one who listened more than he spoke. He asked questions. He told jokes that we thought of as Big Pop jokes but are more commonly known these days as dad jokes. He passed along stories he read in the newspaper and he explained practical things that had his attention at the moment, like fixing a toaster or painting the trim on the porch. But he left it up to my grandmother to do the real work of carrying on conversations, and she was glad to oblige. She had a real Irish gift of gab and a born storyteller's love of an attentive audience.
The result of this was that I knew her in a way I never got to know him. She was happy to let us in on what she was thinking and feeling. He kept his feelings and thoughts to himself, confiding only to my grandmother in private and Mom Mannion, to whom he was devoted, as was she to him. So whatever I know about him that isn't based on observation and conjecture, is what my grandmother and Mom Mannion told me, and Big Nanny had a habit of embellishment and projection, while Mom Mannion has always been reluctant to talk about other people, making it a lifelong habit to treat their business as their business, even if whatever she might reveal isn't the least bit scandalous, unflattering, embarrassing, or shameful.
I'm taking the long way to tell you that Lowell Thomas was Big Pop's favorite journalist.
At least, I'm pretty sure he was. Mom Mannion told me he was one Christmas when I was in college and looking for a present for Big Pop. On her recommendation, I bought him a paperback edition of Thomas' autobiography. But I couldn't tell from his reaction when he opened it if he was pleased just because it was a gift from me or that he was pleased that that book was the gift. He said thank you sincerely but he didn't say anything along the lines of "Lowell Thomas! He's terrific!"
But I trust Mom Mannion to know her own father's tastes, and Thomas was just the sort of journalist Big Pop would have liked because Thomas was best known for his travelogues and Big Pop always dreamed of travelling and the only reason he didn't live a life on the road---and aboard ship and in the air and on the trail and, if he'd had the chance, on horseback, muleback, and camelback ---was that Big Nanny was a homebody and thought a trip up to their trailer at Saratoga Lake for a weekend was foreign travel.
The farthest he was ever from home was Key West where the Army Air Corps sent him for training---as a mechanic, not a pilot. He was supposed to deploy to Europe for D-Day but, returning late from leave, he fell from the platform at the train station running for a departing troop train and broke his neck. Fortunately, it didn't leave him paralyzed but it took him a year to recover and he served out the war in a hospital bed in Washington, D.C. After that, the farthest travelled from Albany was Syracuse, where his job in the New York State Tax Department took him several times a year, and once to Ohio to visit cousins in Columbus. According to Mom Mannion, he bought the trailer he and Big Nanny made their home on their weekends at the lake intending to haul it in extended vacations across the country, but, to his wistful disappointment, once it was settled in at the campground at the lake he only hauled it one more time, to another campground nearby.
That's what Mom Mannion told me. I never heard him express any longing for the open road himself or regret that the regular limits of his travels was pretty much thirty miles to the north.
I also never heard him mention Thomas.
Now...I'm working under the assumption that you know who Thomas was. That's not necessarily a tenable assumption. Depends on how old you are. According to Mitchell Stephens, the author of The Voice of America, a new biography of Thomas---the first and only biography of Thomas, Mitchell claims---"Most Americans under 65 do not recognize his name." I'm one of the few who do, I guess. And it's only because of Big Pop or, rather, Mom Mannion.
Whether or not Big Pop did live his life dreaming of faraway places with strange sounding names, Thomas did live much of his on the road, on the sea, in the air, on the trail, and on camelback or at least he covered the exploits of someone who made his reputation for waging guerrilla war sometimes on camelback. Thomas became famous making T.E. Lawrence world-famous.
If you don't know of Thomas directly, chances are you know him roundaboutly, a fictionalized version of him, at any rate, from Lawrence of Arabia. The photojournalist played by Arthur Kennedy is based on Thomas. Kennedy was forty eight when he made the movie, though. Thomas was about half that age when he met Lawrence.
At twenty-five, Thomas was definitely a young man on the make. In 1918, he came to Europe and then to the Middle East with a varied resume as a newspaperman, college professor, and law student, having assigned himself the job of covering the war as a filmmaker. In Jerusalem, he met Lawrence, recognized a good story, and arranged to follow him into battle in the desert. The rest, as they say, is history:
In the 63 years he lived after first meeting Lawrence, Lowell Thomas' contributions to twentieth-century American journalism--on radio, in newsreels, on television---would be as significant as anyone's. Much of the distance between a wild "Hey, sweetheart, get me rewrite" Chicago-style journalism and the sober, Olympian "And that's the way it is" journalism of Walter Cronkite was covered by Lowell Thomas. Thomas became one of the handful of individuals who might claim to have been the most creative and most successful American journalist of the twentieth century. For a decade or two of that century, he was the best-known American journalist---his voice as familiar as anyone's through his nightly radio newscast, his face, with is neatly trimmed mustache, easily recognizable as that of the on-screen host and narrator of the most popular twice-weekly newsreels.
And Thomas never stopped racing hither and yon: to Europe and the Middle East; to India, Afghanistan, New Guinea and, among countless other places, Tibet---then closed to outsiders---where he met with the young Dalai Lama right before the Communists marched in..
His memoir sometimes reads like the Perils of Pauline: an airplane in which Thomas his riding makes a crash landing; a large, angry crowd is about to go after him and his fellow foreigners; bullets whiz by or penetrate his hat. Mention these incidents to those who knew him and they smile. "He liked a good story," they'll say softly. But Thomas was in all those early, rickety airplanes---when air travel was still brand new---and did visit an extraordinary number of out-of-the-way, even dangerous places...
...as much as anyone, Thomas helped acquaint Americans in the "American Century" with the world in which they were coming to play such a large role.
Here’s an interesting side note. Although Thomas made a documentary about Lawrence and wrote a best-selling book as a follow-up, he made Lawrence and himself famous on the stage where it looks like Thomas invented the format for newspaper and magazine websites. Without the auto-launches and pop-us:
But there can be no argument as to how Lawrence actually did come to the attention of the world--- including most of his compatriots. The vehicle was a show combining narration and music with slides and documentary film footage. The show was conceived, reported, written, narrated and produced by Lowell Thomas---more than a year after he met Lawrence. Thomas thought of it it as "a wholly new and spectacular form of entertainment." The genre? Part travelogue, part theater, part newsreel, part proto-documentary. It was also, by some definitions, the first multimedia work of journalism. And the star of Thomas' production---seen in slides and film shot in Jerusalem, Arabia, and, secretly, London---was "Lawrence, the Uncrowned King of Arabia."
Thomas, says Mitchell, “functioned, often enough, as America's eyes and ears." I wonder how much he saw and heard on Big Pop's behalf.
I don’t know how Big Pop became a fan or, for that matter, how much of a fan he really was, or what about Thomas he was actually a fan of. He and Big Nanny were not moviegoers when I knew them. Thomas wrote fifty-one books, but Big Pop was not a book reader. In fact, I’m pretty sure he never read the book I gave him. Thomas was a ubiquitous presence on the radio, but I don’t remember there being a working radio at their house when I was growing up. They had one at the lake so maybe he listened to Thomas there.
But Big Pop was born in 1910. He’d have been a kid and a teenager when Thomas was becoming famous for his documentaries in the 1920s and a young man in the 1930s when Thomas was making all those newsreels and building his radio career.
So I like to imagine him, sitting in a movie theater or rapt before the console radio, and saying silently to himself, “Some day. Some day…”
The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism by Mitchell Stephens is available in hardcover and for kindle at Amazon.