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Perspective: Jeremy Wilson on The Show

Excerpts from Jeremy Wilson’s Lawrence of Arabia, 1989, pages 624-626, and The Strand Magazine, January 1920

“More than a million people, including royalty and leading politicians, went to the Lowell Thomas travelogue in London. To make way for other bookings it had to move from the Royal Opera House to the Albert Hall, then to the Philharmonic Hall and finally to the Queen’s Hall. At first Thomas called it “With Allenby in Palestine, Including the Capture of Jerusalem and the Liberation of the Holy Arabia.” However, as the figure of Lawrence caught the popular imagination, the title became “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia.” The phenomenal success must be attributed in part to the skill of Thomas’s delivery and the excellence of the slides and motion pictures. But there was also a romance about the war in Palestine and Arabia which provided audiences with a welcome relief from the horrors of the Western Front. The Palestine campaigns had been dubbed “The Last Crusade” and it was in this almost religious context that Lawrence now found himself cast as a national hero. Thomas had expected that his visit to London would only last a week or two, but he was to lecture there for more than four months, and afterwards he toured the provinces and the British Empire. During the years that followed more than 4 million people would hear him deliver his epic account of Lawrence’s Arabian adventures.

One consequence of this sudden fame was that Lawrence began to receive large numbers of unsolicited letters. Some were from admirers, some from women who wanted to marry him, some from people who hoped that he that he would help them find work, and some from the demented. He was invited by fashionable hostesses to attend their social functions, and by British and overseas universities to give lectures.

Understandably, he wanted none of this, and he replied to a few of the letters. Almost every invitation was refused. He would much rather not have had the publicity in the first place, and he now studiously avoided the press. Percy Burton, the impresario who had brought Thomas to England, was offered a large sum by Lord Northcliffe if he would secure a personal interview with Lawrence for the Times. Lawrence declined, writing, “I am afraid I can’t do this. I never care what people say of me or about me, but I try not to help them do it, and I will not do it myself. It is unpleasant to see one’s name in print - and in spite of the very nice way Lowell Thomas does it, I much wish he had left me out of his Palestine show. I’m very sorry for appearing so sluggish.”

Paradoxically, a reputation for personal reticence was now fueling his popularity.

As Lawrence’s fame grew, even the politicians who had failed him were keen to associate themselves with his legend. The Strand Magazine articles were prefaced by a comment from Lloyd George: ‘Everything that Mr. Thomas says about Colonel Lawrence is true. In my opinion Colonel Lawrence is one of the most remarkable and romantic figures of modern times.’”