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". . . these two passionate and brilliant women . . ."
Susan Hertog’s biographies of two powerful and successful women, Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson, Dangerous Ambition, brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s current book, Outliers: The Story of Success, in which he claims the fortunate succeed because of ability, opportunity and hard work.
West and Thompson, both born in the 1890s, became journalists at a crucial time when democracy, socialism, and nationalism were “assuming new and strange forms,” and they would do anything for a news story. Thompson, with $150 in her pocket, left the United States for Europe in 1920. Four years later she was assigned to cover Benito Mussolini’s coup. She then, garnered a private interview with Adolf Hitler, and also became the first female head of a news bureau stationed in Europe. A self-educated English woman, West set aside her fictional novels to report on Europe’s political landscape. She is best known for her book,Black Lamb and Gray Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, a comprehensive examination of the prewar Balkans. Both women early on warned of the looming threat from the Nazi and Italian Fascist movements.
Hertog’s book is not a testament to feminism, but rather an insight into the sometimes-tawdry lives of these two intellectual women who were determined to become financially independent in a genre that was gender-neutral after the suffragette movement and before World War II. West maintained writing was her alternative to being in military combat while Thompson said the only thing she wanted out life was “to understand all manner of things better.” Both women were confident they could “seek out the roots of impending disaster,” or as West asserted, pinpoint evil in the human psyche.
To this historical backdrop, with a tabloid-like perspective, Hertog exposes their personal lives based on diaries, letters and previously unavailable material. She details West’s volatile affair with H.G. Wells, her subsequent marriage to a banker who squandered his money on dance girls, and her dozens of trysts, from newspaper tycoons to a Spanish count. She catalogs Thompson’s lesbian relationships, and quotes her description of her marriage to Pulitzer Prize-winner Sinclair Lewis, “chained … like an indentured servant to a drunken madman.”
A flaw in this meticulously researched dual biography is Hertog’s subjective view that these two women failed in “love” because of their careers. They did not provide a “nurturing” environment for their sons and husbands. In reality, these two passionate and brilliant women chose powerful men who assisted them in their careers but were also demanding and abusive. That aside, Hertog’s neatly packages the women’s amazing writing achievements and their surprisingly significant influence in world politics.
Reviewer: Kate Padilla