Lowell Thomas; THESE ARE THE GOOD OLD DAYS
The man who rode camelback across the desert with Lawrence of Arabia comes motoring around the corner of his estate house in a battered golf cart. His face is set and deadpan, as it appears in thousands of photographs. He has the open-eyed, curious stare of someone long grown used to awesome surprises now mildly wondering when and where the next one will turn up. He is wearing old white golf shoes, gray slacks, a yellow turtleneck sweater, and a red peaked cap.
Beckoning his guest to board the golf cart, he turns the thing around in a wide arc in the driveway and heads toward the first tee.
Lowell Thomas's spacious nine-hole, 3,210-yard golf course in his backyard is a smaller theater of travel than he is used to. But it'll do. Although he has scoured most of this planet, had parts of it named after him, and still continues to circumnavigate the globe, Mr. Thomas negotiates his personal property with the same elan he might exhibit climbing the mountains of Nepal.
"So, you have never played golf?" he asks pleasantly, prodding the cart up a steep ravine with an insistent foot on the accelerator pedal.
When we rise to the crest of the ridge, an emerald green lake, nestled among trees and fairways, comes into view. Gentle countryside stretches far into the distance in every direction.Mr. Thomas chose well 55 years ago when he came to live in Dutchess County, N.Y. Here, he found a combination of forests and rocky hills and horse farms and sweeping vistas. The place also offers an essential ingredient for this restless, insatiable man: an endless panorama of scenes and horizons and changing tableaux.
"I spent my youth high up in the mountains," he says, recalling how his boyhood in the gold mining town of Cripple Creek, Colo., influenced his lifelong craving for travel. "There you could look across the valley for over 100 miles to the Sangre de Cristo range, one of the most dramatic ranges of mountains in the world. That couldn't help but have an effect on a young fellow.
"Plus the fact that I worked in the gold mines with fascinating men . . . a rather special race of people . . . men who had roamed the world. That, of course, must have had a tremendous effect on an impressionable young chap. Especially up there on top of a mountain. . . . They were men who were not working for wages, either. They received their wages, but they were getting their wages as a grubstake, so they could go on looking for their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."
Right now, we are not in search of a pot of gold, but Mr. Thomas's golfing party.
We catch up with them on the third hole, a dogleg par 5. His son, Lowell Thomas Jr., former lieutenant governor of Alaska, is there. The others are business associates, including the chairman and the president of Capital Cities Broadcasting, a media conglomerate owned by Mr. Thomas. They are polite men in soft sweaters, their faces suntanned and relaxed, their smiles friendly and unforced, their manners refined, fit for the board room.
They treat him with deference and respect, admiration and affection, calling him "Mr. Thomas" or "L. T." or simply "Mr. T."
Normally, "Mr. T." would be playing with them. But, as he explains, he made arrangements to just follow them around in the golf cart because a man in his 70 s was supposed to come along, and Lowell Thomas knew the fellow couldn't stand the exertion of a game of golf. "I was just going to squire him around in this cart" he explains.
Mr. Thomas himself passed his 88th birthday as effortlessly and unthinkingly as he glides past the trees on his golf course. And he remembers that he didn't always have such motorized conveyances as this golf cart to chug along in.
"It was only a short time ago that there were no automobiles in the world," he says, negotiating a tricky rising turn onto an old gravel road. "Everybody just went by horse and buggy. I go back to that period."
Wherever he was, he seemed to gravitate to the places and people who were making history.
When he managed a series of lectures in a Chicago law school, Clarence Darrow came to speak. "I can still see him standing there," he writes in the first volume of his autobiography, "the rumpled clothes, the shaggy, leonine head thrust forward in perpetual challenge, and his eyes shining with the fire of his beliefs. . . . There has only been one Clarence Darrow."
When Mr. Thomas became a newsman, his fellow reporters were the likes of Carl Sandburg, Charlie MacArthur, Ring Lardner, and Ben Hecht.His first assignment was to interview Booker T. Washington. He covered Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose convention.
His life was filled with incredible, Dickens-like coincidences, down to the smallest incident. Like the time during World War I when he was assigned by President Wilson to cover the action in Italy, and he ran into another American there.
"The only Americans in active combat in Italy," he writes in his autobiography, "were some scattered airmen under the command of a round little major from New York with a squeaky voice and a razor-sharp mind. He had left a seat in Congress to join the fighting. After talking to him for a little while, I made note of his name, Fiorello La Guardia, because I had an idea I might be hearing it again."
But Mr. Thomas doesn't like to talk much about the "good old days," when he associated with these people.
He changes the subject when you ask him what America was like when Lillian Russell and Anna Ford came swishing through his hometown, or when Teddy Roosevelt was almost lynched there for promoting the gold standard, or when Carry Nation smashed whiskey bottles and paintings of naked ladies in the local saloons with her legendary hatchet.
He doesn't like to talk about the past because he's got his eye on the ever-beckoning future.
"I have lots of work to do. Films that I want to make, television series that I still have to do, several books to write," he says firmly.
Although he retired several years ago from his longest-running-ever network radio show, Mr. Thomas hardly came to rest. Since then, he has made dozens of lengthy trips, written books, made television shows, and put out over 500 episodes of a new radio series, "The Best Years," a daily program, fittingly, about people who have achieved great things in their later years. "I look forward to doing another 500 for them," he says.
As far as he is concerned, thesem are the good old days.
But as we bump along from one green to another and he shouts encouragement to his golfing party, he recalls some of the mammoth figures from his prodigious past, men he refers to as "genuine colossuses," people who are more legend than human, unless seen through the eyes of someone who knew them.
People like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance.
FDR was never Lowell Thomas's favorite politician and hardly his favorite person, but the two men were neighbors and managers of rival amateur softball teams. (Mr. Thomas's team was called "the nine old men" to razz the President about the controversy he was then engaged in over his efforts to pack the Supreme Court. With equal irony, FDR named his team "the Packers.")
The country club Mr. Thomas built here on Quaker Hill, a short, tree-lined drive from his old estate, is filled with pictures from this softball rivalry. FDR in his perennial touring car, chin jutting out, determined, magnetic; and Lowell Thomas standing on the running board, equally determined, if not all that magnetic.The players are there too. People like Gene Tunney and Prosper Burnelli, Mr. Thomas's longtime assistant, who introduced the crossword puzzle to this country from England. The game room is filled with these pictures, echoes of the men and women who jostled and joked with Franklin Roosevelt.
"I never voted for him," Mr. Thomas says flatly. Then he recalls the time FDR was giving a speech someplace and leaned over the podium, pointed at Thomas, and said with mock anger, "There is the enemy."
"FDR was a phenomenon," he acknowledges grudgingly, "an extraordinary politician. He was a complicated man, great in many ways. But he fooled a lot of people. He also did more damage than any other person in history. He gave half the world away to Stalin, because he was too old, too sick, and not wise."
FDR did something almost equally unforgivable in Lowell Thomas's eyes: "He sent hatchet men out to destroy Mr. Hoover's reputation. It was a villainous thing to do. Herbert Hoover was our greatest President. He stands head and shoulders above the others. He was a wise man, not just a politician.
"I spent most of my life looking for a truly wise man. The nearest I came was Herbert Hoover. He was a man of vast wisdom, compassion, and patience."
Another neighbor and political favorite was Thomas Dewey. "Dewey frightened people," he recalls of the man he "discovered" as a young district attorney and helped to cultivate as a political force. "His eyes would burn right through you. He had that rare genius to go straight to the heart of the matter. He was a genuine colossus."
Mr. Thomas, who has known every President since Teddy Roosevelt, thinks Dewey would have been one of the greatest. He is lavish in his admiration of him.
Such tributes don't come easily.He is careful with his praise, very much in character from the man who thinks he himself has received "far too much attention" from admiring figures. Books and articles about Mr. Thomas are nearly embarrassing in their effusive admiration of his exploits. Over the years, newspaper articles have lauded his daring, his journalistic aplomb, and his capitalistic endeavor.
Damon Runyon called him "the beau ideal of the radio fraternity" in a 1940 newspaper column, adding that "you never hear a knock for Lowell Thomas among his associates."
One of his associates, a former secretary named Faye Dean, sizes him up this way: "He's fabulous. He's tops. He's remarkable. He has lived life to the fullest and had everything this world has to offer. He is very kind and very considerate. Anytime I would ask him anything about the job or personal things, he would sit down and help. I have nothing but praise for Mr. Thomas. It was a privilege to work for him."
Although he has an uncanny knack for being in front of a camera lens just as the shutter clicks, there is in his person an unmistakable self-diminishing quality. He loves to show off the memorabilia he has accumulated on his journeys, but somehow he seems anxious in conversation to dissociate himself from the whole thing.
"Thomas rarely says 'I,'" Mr. Runyon noted. "No man alive is less conscious of his own importance. He is always being impressed by the stature of the celebrity next to him."
The celebrity next to him in the deserts of Arabia was actually no celebrity at all until Thomas met him. T. E. Lawrence was a passionately shy, intensely gifted young Englishman who had won the adoration of Arab sheikhs by leading them in a guerrilla war against their despised oppressors, the Turks.
Mr. Thomas, then an obscure war correspondent for the United States government, recognized Lawrence's obvious box-office potential and, after the war, told his story in words and pictures to audiences in New York and London, making $1 million (which he subsequently lost by trying to launch road shows on Lawrence) in the process.
Lawrence was not pleased. "He wasn't very enthusiastic about what I did to him," Mr. Thomas recalls. "He used to say I had upset his life. In fact, he came up to me one night and asked me if I would stop. He was only half serious, though. I was obviously in the middle of a great success. No one could seriously ask a man to give up something like that."
Still, he looks back wistfully on his association with the little-understood Lawrence. "I always wished I could do something for him. But he wouldn't let me give him anything." And he is infuriated by the movie version of Lawrence's life, calling it "a complete travesty. There were only two things authentic in that movie: the sand and the horses. You might as well have gone to see Elizabeth Taylor in 'Cleopatra.'"
While his guests play the back nine, which are part of the country club he built and donated to this community, he takes me over to the new house he has just built to replace the old estate, which he has given to his alma mater, the University of Denver.
When the new Thomas residence was being built, he told his friends it was a modest little A-frame, something cozy for his later years with his second wife, whom he married after his much-beloved first wife of 50 years passed on. This "modest A-frame" is actually a lavish 26-room Georgian mansion complete with offices, servant quarters, and acres of carpeting that Lowell Thomas tramps endlessly as he wanders from room to room, never seeming to come to rest.
"I've been in motion all my life," he explains as he promises for the third time to sit down and finish the interview. Abruptly he gets up again to move the conversation through massive mahogany doors from a sultan's palace in Zanzibar, past walls festooned with Oriental prints, photos of Mr. Thomas in the company of presidents and kings, and untold treasures gathered from the world's hidden pockets, into one of his four offices, where he finally sits down long enough to sign some correspondence pressed upon him by his secretary. Then it's lunch with the golf party.
Finally, he sits still, looking a bit impatient and nervously tapping his foot while reminding the interviewer that he has some shows to record this afternoon. He is behind a massive, dark wood desk in a vast room filled with more oddments accumulated in his life of wandering among the greats.
Of all these greats we have discussed in this interview-journey, however, he seems most ready to talk about this much-adored father, about whom he has written:
"My father [Harry George Lowell] was the most persistent scholar I ever knew and remained so all his life. When most of the people in our town had an extra dollar they bought a drink; when my father had an extra dollar he took a course or bought a book. His mind was engaged by the whole broad range of human knowledge, from music to mathematics. . . . He never quit trying to learn more."
Sitting behind his desk, he adds, "I've never met anyone quite comparable to him. He was a student of just about everything, enthusiastic about everything, curious about everything. I always wished that more of it had rubbed off on me, because he was far more of a scholar than I am. When he was in his 80s, he went to Oxford to do some special work.
"I have always planned on going to Oxford to spend some time and study. Maybe I'll do it this coming year, my 90th year, just to follow in the same pattern as my extraordinary father."
What of the other extraordinary men he has known, the other colossuses? Is there anything that binds them together as a group, any common denominator?
"Well, those I think of as being of great stature, the genuine colossuses, quite obviously are men who accomplished the unusual. I would assume, though I have never given it much thought, that men who really reach the heights are men who refuse to be stopped. They refuse to be discouraged. They just go on and on."
Finally, looking relieved, he leads me through the rooms of his mansion to the front door, glad to be moving again. As I pull out of the driveway, he stands framed in the doorway, a gracious host waiting to see his guest off.
He gives me an energetic wave and a laughing smile. Then he turns around and heads back to his office. Eager, no doubt, to get back to work. Because he just . . .
Well, he just goes on and on.