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Perspective: Henry Allen on Lowell Thomas

“Bringing It Back Alive: Lowell Thomas, Legend, Raconteur and Survivor” by Henry Allen, The Washington Post, September 15, 1978.

Lowell Thomas, who is 86 now, has been blessed by the three-breasted goddess at Madura, filmed the legendary Leopard Men of Africa, and smashed his thighbone in the 17,000-foot fastnesses of the Tibetan Himalayas.

Yesterday, he ordered an omelet at the Palm Restaurant. The globe-girdling radio legend stopped eating it when he was asked about his hero. Lawrence of Arabia, and the latter-day attacks on him, such as Malcolm Muggeridge calling Lawrence a “mendacious little sodomite.”

The reply, like a lot of Thomas replies, required a bit of unfolding. “I never got into politics, but I would like to get in now,” he began in that winning-friend-and-influencing-people baritone that resonated for 53 straight years on radio (“Good evening, everybody . . .”), crackled out of the Fox Movietone news, and nowadays underscores TV’s “Lowell Thomas Remembers.”

“I would like to help some man become president. When he got to be president, he would name me ambassador (dramatic pause) to the Court of St. James’s. For one year. Long enough that I could address the major gatherings, at the Pilgrim’s Club at the Guild Hall, for instance.

“I would tell the British how stupid they’ve been. Lawrence played a key role in ending World War I and then the bastards try to tear him apart. I would like to be ambassador someplace where I could tactfully tell them . . . the Pilgrims Club . . .”

Thomas was in town to answer questions at a National Town Meeting, broadcast on radio from the Kennedy Center.

There, too, of course, one question was about T. E. Lawrence. Thomas made a million dollars in 1919 showing his films of Lawrence, shouting the narration over orchestral accompaniment for two hours to crowds in Madison Square Garden, the Royal Albert Hall, crowds all over the English-speaking world.

That was just the beginning of Thomas’ metamorphosis from Colorado newspaperman and Princeton professor into a international celebrity.

He’s written 55 to 56 books - he isn’t sure which. He’s traveled to every place he could get good film footage and anecdotes. He’s gotten himself desert robes, arctic parkas, pith helmets; with President Hoover, Nehur, New Guinea cannibals, the Dali Lama, Eddie Rickenbacker, Gene Tunney.

And now he’s the last of all that, the last man in America to wear a hairline moustache, a survivor of the era when merely flying in an airplane made you somebody. Darkest Africa was still dark then; we still believed in islands that time forgot; and Lowell Thomas brought it all back alive.

After he talked at the Kennedy Center, the gray-haired crowd pressed to the stage, thronged the stage door, ambushed him out on the sidewalk and began all their sentences with “I remember . . .”“Good,” Thomas would say, with an old-age curtness that could have been grace, cynicism, wisdom or arrogance.

“I’ve had too much exposure,” he said, during the taxi ride to the Palm. It is pointed out that, in fact, he was once the second-highest paid man in radio, behind Arthur Godfrey. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Not that he’s untalkative. “After 80,” he likes to say, “everything reminds you of something.” At the restaurant, for instance, he ran into Cornelius Roosevelt, grandson of Teddy. “Teddy used to hunt on the north rim of the Grand Canyon,” he said over his omelet. “He had a guide who used to climb trees and capture mountain lions by sticking his hand down their throats. I had him on my radio show. People were frightened of radio, back then. He wet his pants. This mountain lion stranger got up and the chair was wet.”

Thomas, of course, is one of the last of yet another breed: the raconteur. He is the American man of action and experience, at home with all classes. He even dresses the part in his tan cowboy-cut jacket - scalloped pockets and belted back - and his Stetson.

And how the names spill off his lips. “Lloyd George invited me up to his box. A king or a prime minister doesn’t visit you in you dressing room, you visit him. And Lloyd George had with him, that night, a young man. And he introduced him to me. He said: ‘I’d like you to meet Winston Churchill.’” (At this, the Kennedy Center offers up a reverent ‘ahhh.’)

Just in passing a few minutes, he can mention Norman Vincent Peale, Mickey Rooney, Gerald Ford, polar explorer Scott and Amundsen, Clarence Darrow, Jimmy Doolittle, Dale Carnegie. One of his regrets in life, he says, was that “when I was doing the Lawrence shows, every night my manager would tell me: ‘Shaw’s in the audience! Kipling! Hardy!’ And I never had time to meet them.”

Thomas lost the million he made on those first Lawrence lecturers when he tried to spin off subsidiary lectures managed by self-help tycoon Dale Carnegie. “He couldn’t handle it. Had a physical breakdown while I was in Australia. It seemed that the people had to have me giving the talks.”

But he quickly made the money back churning out books, talking, touring, filming, and then doing his nightly 15-minute radio new show.

Except: “I never handled the news just as news. It was always the day-to-day adventures of the human race.”

“I’ve lost these all over the world,” he said. And of course there’s an anecdote, about the air force colonel who found one Thomas had left on a barstool in Saigon. “Six months later, I got a letter. It said: ‘I found a hat with your name in it, and you’re not about to get it back.’”

All of which goes to show that Lowell Thomas is a man who drank with the best people all over the world, and always wore a fine hat. Lesser epigraphs have been written.