Perspective: New York Times on Lowell Thomas
“Lowell Thomas, A World Traveler and Broadcaster for 45 Years, Dead,” The New York Times, August 30, 1981, Section 1; Part 1; Page 40
Lowell Thomas, the radio and television broadcaster, author and world traveler, died of a heart attack yesterday morning in his sleep at his home in Pawling, N.Y. He was 89 years old.
For nearly 46 years, Mr. Thomas’s calm and reassuring voice had come over the radio every weekday with the same salute to the nation, “Good evening, everybody.” What followed was a nicely articulated, folksy, often bland digest of the day’s news events, ending with, “So long until tomorrow.” In 1976, the nightly program that made Mr. Thomas the longest continually operating newscaster in radio was discontinued, but he went on broadcasting and writing and skiing until his death. “When I started, I had the whole world to myself,” Mr. Thomas told an interviewer last year. “Cronkite was 9, Brinkley was 5 and Harry Reasoner was a 2-year-old. The rest of them weren’t even born.”
A Life Full of Hyperbole
Mr. Thomas, whose life was full of superlatives and hyperbole, remarked in an autobiographical note some years ago: “The voice of Lowell Thomas probably has been heard by more people than any other voice in history - including those of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Hitler and Mussolini. His total radio audience on the air has been estimated at 70 billions! Billions - not millions. “For 17 years he was the ‘voice of Movietone News,’” Mr. Thomas continued. “Which means that via the screen, he was heard by another 40 or 50 billion. His voice has also been heard on a few thousand single-reel pictures, shorts as well as feature-length films; and untold millions more made his acquaintance through Cinerama and via television.”
Although Mr. Thomas called himself a news commentator, he was not an analyst and he did not deliver either pronouncements or messages. From his first broadcast, on Sept. 29, 1930, he presented the news in the manner of a father telling his large family about the great world beyond.
“I am on the air when people are getting ready for dinner or are just having dinner, or are just finishing dinner,” he said in 1970, alluding to his 6:45-to-7 o’clock broadcasts. “I never felt it was my responsibility to destroy the digestive system of the American people.”
Broadcast to a Formula
His approach to the news was typified by his first broadcast, a formula that persevered to his last. His lead item in 1930 read: “A procession of German Fascists was attacked today by Communists in the town of Unterbermsgruen (Oonterbearmsgrooen). A hot fight followed in which 29 Fascists were injured, four critically. ...Adolf Hitler, the German Fascist leader, is snorting fire. There are now two Mussolinis in the world, which seems to promise a rousing time. Adolf is one. He has written a book called the German Fascist bible. In this, the belligerent gentleman states that a cardinal policy of his now-powerful German party is the conquest of Russia. That’s a tall assignment, Adolf. You just ask Napoleon.”
Mr. Thomas had broadcast for NBC the first televised news program in 1939. But as television flourished, his primary loyalty remained with radio, and his audience did not diminish significantly. “They want to hear the news, not see the person who is reading it,” he said. One of Mr. Thomas’s strengths was that he did not pretend to be a journalist. “You know, I’m not a journalist, but an entertainer, just as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby are entertainers,” he confided some years ago to Fred W. Friendly, then of CBS, the network that first carried Mr. Thomas.
Apart from reading the news - he edited most of his own broadcasts - Mr. Thomas had notable careers as a world traveler, war propagandist, lecturer and author. He was also an avid skier who played a leading role in developing resorts in Vermont, the Mont Tremblant area in Canada and in the Adirondacks.
One of his feats during World War I was the “discovery” of Col. T. E. Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia - and Mr. Thomas made use of the enigmatic Briton. He created the legend of Lawrence as “the Prince of Mecca,” a title Mr. Thomas conferred himself.
According to Mr. Thomas, he spotted Lawrence among a group of Arab sheiks in Jerusalem in December 1917. “Nor did it take him long to discover that he had stumbled on a story in some ways more astounding than the ‘Last Crusade’ and the ‘Conquest of Jerusalem,’ “Mr. Thomas wrote of himself in 1965, adding: “Lawrence, unknown to the world, was then at the peak of his unusual career. The young Oxford archeologist, who, when war broke out, had been working at the study and excavation of the ancient cities of the Near East, now had become a sheik of the desert. With his understanding of the ways of the desert peoples of the East, he had become first a British agent and then the fiery leader arousing the Bedouin to a general revolt against their old tyrant, the Turk. And now he was leading the tribesmen of the sands against the Turkish army, raids which demoralized communications, destroyed detachments and made the Turk tear his beard with rage.”
Films of Lawrence - one showing him barefoot in the sand - were taken by Harry Chase, Mr. Thomas’s photographer. With them, Mr. Thomas put together ‘The Last Crusade,” a highly romantic account of Lawrence that packed the Century Theater and Madison Square Garden in New York and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Albert Hall in London in 1919. Lawrence, according to Flora Armitage, a biographer, went to Albert Hall “and was made hot and embarrassed by the spectacle.”
Later, Mr. Thomas wrote “With Lawrence of Arabia,” a book version of his theatrical presentation. There seems no doubt, according to Lawrence specialists, that Lawrence, with a sense of the sardonic, had fed Mr. Thomas outlandish stories and had willingly posed for pictures, and that Mr. Thomas had swallowed them whole.
Lawrence later repudiated his amanuensis and complained to Robert Graves, the poet, about the “butter of the Lowell Thomas sort that does not keep very well; and its quotation at tenth hand is painful.” Mr. Thomas was loath to concede that he might have been gulled and that he, in turn, had misconstrued history for others.
Handsome, tall and slim, Mr. Thomas looked the romantic role in which he so often cast himself. He had thick brown curly hair, blue eyes and a pencil mustache. When dressed in riding breeches, he was especially dashing.
And he was all the more a figure larger than life because of his worldwide network of prominent friends, with whom he was on a firstname basis. These included kings, queens, premiers, generals, Presidents of the United States, explorers and the Dalai Lama of Tibet.
“If I have to have a reincarnation, I would prefer it to be Lowell Thomas above all others,” former President Herbert C. Hoover wrote him in 1959, adding: “It would be an eternal life of adventure, of courage and of public service.”
Boyhood in Colorado
Although Mr. Thomas was rated a conservative, he was on amicable terms with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For several years he was manager of “the Nine Old Men,” a softball team that played an annual game with a political team managed by the President.
Mr. Thomas’s life was on the grand scale, full of improbabilities and fulfilled ambitions. Born April, 6, 1892, in Woodington, Ohio, he was the son of Harry and Harriet Wagner Thomas. Soon after his son was born, Harry Thomas received his medical degree and established a practice in Cripple Creek, Colo., a gold camp on the slope of Pikes Peak.
As a boy Lowell peddled newspapers in the town saloon, went to Sunday school under the tutelage of Texas Guinan and read in his father’s library. Dr. Thomas, who had a desire to collect knowledge, impressed on his son the importance of learning. He also demanded that the boy acquire an ability to speak clearly and distinctly.
When Lowell was 15, the family moved back to Ohio. The youth excelled in high school elocution and attended what is now Valparaiso University, where he obtained a B.S. degree in two years. He returned to Cripple Creek, working briefly in the mines and then as a newspaper reporter and editor.
He went on to the University of Denver for a year, receiving B.A. and M.A. degrees. Moving to Chicago, he attended law school at night and reported for The Journal by day. But the urge to travel was strong, and he persuaded a railroad to send him to San Francisco in 1914 in exchange for glowing reports of rail travel and the potential marvels of the forthcoming international exposition in that city. There he bought a movie camera and headed for the Klondike region and Alaska, where he took movies of life in that wild country.
Mr. Thomas’s life as a showman started when he entered Princeton in 1914 as a student and part-time instructor of public speaking. In his spare time he showed his movies of Alaska and lectured about his experiences there. This proved more exhilarating than scholarship, so the following summer he took another filmic trip to Alaska. His material became so popular with audiences that word of it got to Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, who wanted Mr. Thomas to promote a “See America” campaign.
The entry of the United States into World War I gave Mr. Thomas the greatest opportunity of his life. He was commissioned unofficially by the Government to go to Europe and then to “tell the American people what we’re up against.” Having raised funds for the trip from a group of Chicago meatpackers, he and Mr. Chase, his photographer, visited the Western front and then joined Gen. Sir Edmund H. H. Allenby in Egypt. It was while he was in the Middle East that he met Lawrence.
After returning to Europe, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Chase managed to get into Germany, where they observed and photographed the postwar turmoil, a report of which they gave to the American delegation to the peace conference.
Back in the United States, Mr. Thomas found that audiences gobbled up his shows - he never called them lectures - on the fighting in the Middle East and on Lawrence. After repeating his success in Britain, Mr. Thomas set off on a tour of the world with his show.
Switched to Writing
Later, Mr. Thomas returned to India, “the greatest human show on earth,” and toured the subcontinent, Burma, Malaya and Afghanistan with Francis Yeats-Brown, later the author of “Lives of a Bengal Lancer.” Mr. Thomas fashioned two shows from his travels, which he took to Paris and London and then to the United States. When the tour concluded, Mr. Thomas decided that he had had enough of such shows and that he would rather write about his experiences.
As a result, he bought a 500-acre farm on Quaker Hill in Pawling, N.Y. It was the nucleus of what was to become a 3,000-acre estate, reduced to about 1,000 in later years.
His first big literary success was “With Lawrence of Arabia.” It was followed by “Beyond Khyber Pass,” about Afghanistan. These made him a millionaire, a standard of wealth below which he never thereafter fell. Another of his popular books was “The First World Flight,” a collection of narratives of the participants in the Army’s world flight in 1924. He went on to write “Count Luckner, the Sea Devil,” “Raiders of the Deep,” “The Hero of Vincennes” and “India: Land of the Black Pagoda.” His lifetime total exceeded 50.
Much of his writing was done in collaboration with Prosper Buranelli, once a feature writer for the old New York World. Mr. Buranelli remained on to help with Mr. Thomas’s radio scripts.
Mr. Thomas’s radio career started as a matter of luck in 1930. The Literary Digest was about to drop its sponsorship of Floyd Gibbons as its newscaster. Someone at the Columbia Broadcasting System remembered having heard Mr. Thomas give one of his shows, and mentioned his stentorian, yet sonorous, voice.
He was called to New York, auditioned by William S. Paley, the network’s chief, and then by the sponsors. He was hired on the spot, remaining with CBS until 1932, switching to the National Broadcasting Company until 1947, then returning to Columbia. In 1935 he also became the voice of Movietone News.
Mr. Thomas made a fortune from his radio work. In 1948, for example, he earned $420,300, and he seldom received less than $375,000 a year. His income from other sources was also large.
Mr. Thomas did not let his broadcasts interfere with travels. He was the first to broadcast from an airplane, a helicopter, a ship. He broadcast from London, Paris, Rome, Cairo, the Philippines, India, Iwo Jima, Chongqing. He once said that it had cost him $1 million of his own money for such remote hookups. At home he broadcast from a special studio on his Quaker Hill estate.
In 1936, he expanded his holdings there by purchasing 3,000 acres from the Fred French estate, then parceled it out among some of his friends, among them former Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, the Rev. Dr. Vincent Norman Peale, Dr. Howard Rusk and Elliott Bell, a former Business Week editor.
He built a community house, a golf course and a ski slope. He installed a clergyman of his choice in the nondemoninational church, which he attended when he was in residence. “Lowell was king of the hill,” a Quaker Hill resident once recalled. “He was not feudal or baronial, but rather the Scoutmaster of the place.”
Mr. Thomas’s enthusiasm for adventure led him into Cinerama, the three-dimensional film process, in 1952. A laboratory experiment for 54 years, it stunned Mr. Thomas when he first saw it. “I knew exactly what to do with it,” he said, “because I had the travel history behind me.”
“This Is Cinerama” was his first production, giving him the sobriquet of “the grandfather of Cinerama.” Shortly after Mr. Thomas’s nightly radio news program had been taken off the air by CBS on May 14, 1976, he began a 39-week television series for the Public Broadcasting Service called “Lowell Thomas Remembers.”
In 1977, the first volume of Mr. Thomas’s two-part autobiography, “Good Evening, Everybody,” appeared, followed by, “So Long Until Tomorrow,” the next year.
Two years ago, Mr. Thomas began a daily syndicated radio series, “The Best Years,” about the accomplishments of famous people in their later years. Electra Nicks, Mr. Thomas’s personal secretary for 47 years, said yesterday that he had recorded 15 of the five minute programs only four days ago.
Mr. Thomas was also a founder and member of the board of Capital Cities Communications, which owns several broadcasting stations and newspapers, and a director of Golden Nugget Inc., a gold mining company in Cripple Creek.
Mr. Thomas’s first wife, the former Frances Ryan, died in 1975 after 58 years of marriage. In 1977 he married a widow, Marianna Munn, who was then 49 years old. She survives him.
Shortly after his wedding to Mrs. Munn on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Mr. Thomas flew to Washington to receive the Medal of Freedom Award from President Ford. Then he returned to Hawaii to begin a honeymoon that continued around the rest of the world.
Mr. Thomas is also survived by his son, Lowell Thomas Jr., a former Lieutenant Governor of Alaska and author; two grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.