An Unwilling Victim?
There has been an ongoing controversy alleging that the portrayal in the Show was more P.T. Barnum than factual. But in reading the field journals and reconstructing the time that Lawrence and Thomas spent together in London, it is reasonable to believe that Thomas felt he had confirmed the information he presented. And Thomas, a great self-promoter and wonderful orator, ran with the story.
Thomas’ storytelling was — unabashedly — a form of entertainment. So his work also raises important questions about the always uncomfortable relationship between journalism and entertainment — a relationship that grew more intense in the 20th century as entertainment media such as film, radio and television were put to the service of journalism, frequently with Thomas in the lead.
While Lawrence had been helping and encouraging Thomas, he also renounced Thomas in private correspondence and flatly denied any role in Thomas’ productions.
“Lawrence frequently repudiated Thomas’s show, presenting himself as Thomas’ unwilling victim and even claiming that the publicity generated by Thomas’s showmanship had ruined his life. In private correspondence he complained about Thomas’s distortions and inaccuracies denying that he himself had had anything to do with the creation of the Lawrence of Arabia legend. In Lawrence’s version, he was the unwilling victim of a callow showman.”
— Prof. F.D. Crawford, “How Well Did Lowell Thomas Know Lawrence of Arabia,” 1996, Page 299, English Literature in Transition, Vol. 39, Issue 3
Although he must have been aware of the disavowal, Thomas never considered publicly contradicting Lawrence while he was alive. But he never really understood the extent of Lawrence’s duplicity. In a 1922 letter to E.M. Forester, Lawrence complained: “I resent him: but am disarmed by his good intentions He is as vulgar as they make them: believes he is doing me a great turn by bringing my virtue into the public air.” He went on to characterize Thomas’ writing as “red-hot lying.”
Also in that year Lawrence, in a letter written in to his friend, Ralph Isham, declared how “deliberately inaccurate” Thomas’ accounts were. He deplored the Show and declared that after the war he had only seen Lowell Thomas “once or twice” in London. It is now evident that Lawrence was doing the red-hot lying about his relationship with Thomas as he was a frequent visitor at the Thomas’ home while the Show was being performed in London. Far from deploring the Show, Lawrence had posed in Arab dress for photographs at the Thomas’ London flat to augment his presentation in the Show.
Yet beginning with Robert Grave’s Lawrence and the Arabs in 1927 right through to John Mack’s Prince of Our Disorder in 1976, most Lawrence biographers accepted Lawrence’s disavowal of Thomas and his presentations. One of the few who wrote about Lawrence and did not take a swipe at Lowell Thomas was Liddell Hart. Recognizing that some of Lawrence’s “help” had not been entirely reliable, Thomas reflected in a 1952 letter to him: “Alas, I guess I was young, rather naive, and took him too literally. At any rate, the yarns that were told were far from true, I did make several mistakes which have bothered me much down through the years.” To which Liddell Hart responded that he had “long felt, and said that T.E. was very unjust, and also ungrateful in what he said to me and others about your book. That, regrettably, was rather a habit of his, what Robert Graves bitingly describes as his Irishness.”
Letters show that it was typical of Thomas’ generous spirit to take a charitable view of Lawrence’s backbiting comments.