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1lawrence of arabia and american culture the Making of a Transatlantic Legend

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I wonder if I ever told you how I messed up my own relations with Lawrence. [It revolves] around the way in which I apparently was amassing a fortune from the telling of the story--"just another Yankee piling up the dollars." Or so it seemed to some of my British friends. Lawrence could have had all or part of it for his favorite charities. But, he and I may have both bungled that. 15
Lawrence apparently did not envy Thomas his success or the money he made, and in fact Thomas did not earn all that much from the lectures. Moreover, if Lawrence had money problems after the war, it was because he chose poverty. He could have rescued himself from it at any time. As Lawrence biographers often note, several professional fields--archaeology, scholarship, the military, and government service--were open to him. Moreover, his stated reasons for joining the RAF included motives other than financial duress. In large part he wanted to escape the glare of politics and publicity. To Robert Graves he explained the descent from being Lawrence of Arabia to being Private Ross of the RAF as an opportunity to "find myself on common ground with men," from "an itch to make myself ordinary in a mob of likes." 16
Lawrence manipulated Thomas and then cast aspersions about him, but Thomas also exploited "my blood bedouin," as he once referred to Lawrence, in order to advance his own career. Although undoubtedly he was personally committed to Lawrence, Thomas the publicist was concerned about promoting his business interests. He could also be flippant about the consequences of his actions, which must have irritated Lawrence. In a letter to him in October 1920, Thomas referred to Lawrence's problems avoiding women who had begun to pursue him and make offers of marriage by mail: "I suspect you are still hiding from Italian countesses with ankle watches in your retreat at Oxford." 17
Later in life Thomas developed a sense of guilt about this period in his relationship with Lawrence. He felt he had let him down in time of need. He wrote in his autobiography:
Only afterwards did I wonder if I might have missed an opportunity to do something for him. At the time I had the money. Would he have accepted? Would it have changed the headlong course of his life downhill to disillusion and early death? Probably he would have refused, already irrevocably committed to his particular destiny. Even so, it is one of the moments of my life I wish I had back, to do differently. 18
Thomas's remorse seems to center around money, which by the time he recorded his feelings must have meant much less to him than in the early 1920s. How much he made from the Allenby-Lawrence lectures is difficult to ascertain. He grossed nearly $1 million from the London lectures alone but paid out most of it in expenses. He told Liddell Hart that he had used, without permission, film footage from the British Information Office. According to Thomas, "a Britisher, then connected with your Froeign [sic] Office and Information Service, managed to take nearly everything away from me, but my shirt. Lawrence never knew this. That was the Sir William Jury episode." Jury had been director of the film department for the British Information Service at the time and was one of the people originally responsible for inviting Thomas to London under the auspices of the English-Speaking Union. We know that Thomas paid the British War Office at least 4,500 pounds for additional Palestine film and rights. 19
Regardless of the fate of his London lecture profits, Thomas eventually recouped any losses from the Lawrence story, although he worked hard to do so and was apparently not able to pay off the original investors in Thomas Travelogues until 1926. For nearly five years, he performed in theatres around the world and continued to lecture occasionally on Lawrence until 1928. His biographies of Lawrence were best-sellers on both sides of the Atlantic. He followed these with an account of General Allenby, which devoted almost as much space to Lawrence as it did to the general, and several collections of sketches about famous people which featured pieces on Lawrence. 20
In the history of journalism, there are few persons who have made more of one story than Lowell Thomas. His meeting Lawrence led to nearly ten years of public lecturing and several publications. It also led to other forms of career advancement whose value cannot be calculated. For instance, his first radio broadcasting job was reportedly offered to him by a CBS official who heard him lecture in England at Covent Garden. In 1930, Thomas
replaced commentator Floyd Gibbons at CBS and had the longest continuous run in broadcasting history. 21

Thomas always acknowledged how important Lawrence had been to his career. In one of his many collections about people whom he had met, Pageant of Adventure, he described meeting Lawrence as "the break of my life" and the Allenby-Lawrence lecture tour as his "first real success." He was both grateful and extremely loyal to Lawrence. For instance, he concealed until after Lawrence's death in 1935 the fact that Lawrence had collaborated with him in the early 1920s. Not until the posthumous publication of T. E. Lawrence by His Friends did Thomas feel he could finally defend himself against charges his books were exaggerated and inaccurate. He wrote that he had "frequently asked [ Lawrence] if certain anecdotes . . . were true." Lawrence, Thomas remembered, "would laugh with glee and reply: 'History isn't made up of truth anyhow, so why worry?'" Lawrence's cavalier response, if accurately reported, would not have been out of character, but neither it did not perturb Thomas in his role as biographer. He wrote: "Frankly, I have always been proud to be in such company as Lawrence's, if only as a target for venom." 22

That Thomas concealed Lawrence's collaboration for so long, when he was disparaged by other Lawrence biographers for exaggeration and falsification, is one indication of his loyalty to Lawrence. Thomas consistently defended him from attack, even when it was not to his advantage to do so. After Lawrence's death, biographers and scholars began to reevaluate the Lawrence story with more objectivity and sometimes with thinly disguised hostility. Thomas immediately came to his defense, especially in response to Richard Aldington's vitriolic attack on Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry ( 1955), and later with the release of David Lean and Sam Spiegel's skewed film version of Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. With his attempt to debunk the Lawrence of Arabia legend, Aldington was the first Lawrence biographer to systematically pursue inconsistencies in the Lawrence story and one of the first to discuss his illegitimacy at length. His biography became big publishing news in New York in 1954-1955 and brought Lawrence, who had been dead for nearly twenty years, back into the newspapers. It also dragged Thomas into a growing debate about Lawrence. Among other things, Aldington used Thomas's apocryphal stories about Lawrence in an attempt to get at his subject.
Some of Aldington's revelations about Lawrence were shocking and, like the biographer, could not be ignored. Aldington was an accomplished poet, translator, editor, and novelist who knew many of England's important literati. He had served on the western front during the First World War and
later won literary recognition for his best-selling antiwar novel Death of a Hero. Aldington's critique could not easily be brushed aside, but reviewers also recognized that, like many of his generation, his wartime experiences had left him embittered. Regardless of Aldington's personal reasons for debunking Lawrence, he raised important questions about him and the way his story had been constructed and propagated. Aldington pointed out the collusion by Lawrence biographers to cover up darker aspects of his personality, and he was correct when he wrote that "the part played by Mr. Lowell Thomas in the creation of the Lawrence of Arabia legend has been almost entirely overlooked by [ Lawrence] biographers." Partisan biographers, Robert Graves, Liddell Hart, and others, belonging to what Aldington derisively called the "Lawrence Bureau," had ignored Thomas's role in Lawrence's fame. Aldington noted that they "pass over the four years' world publicity of the Chase-Thomas film-lecture with a few condescending lines" and that "Liddell Hart does not even mention the Americans' names." 23
Although Thomas privately appreciated Aldington's sympathetic appraisal of how he had been slighted, he nevertheless vigorously defended Lawrence in news broadcasts, public statements, and letters. If he had been abused by the Lawrence Bureau, Thomas did not let it deter him from acting like one of its members, corresponding with Lawrence's younger brother A. W. Lawrence and others. He exchanged letters with Liddell Hart on the subject of Aldington in early 1954 and made a statement to Newsweek in mid-February which amounted to a retort to Aldington. In a letter to Liddell Hart, Thomas promised to help in any way he could with the Aldington controversy. On 4 March 1954, after a press release about Aldington's book but before he had seen it, Thomas gave a radio broadcast that cast aspersions on Aldington and quoted the British press baron, Lord Beaverbrook, as saying Aldington's book would only add to Lawrence's fame. Thomas questioned Aldington's ability to judge Lawrence and reiterated his own estimation of Lawrence's greatness. Referring to Arabia and his acquaintance with Lawrence, he said: " Aldington was not there. I was." In a review for Middle East Journal he suggested Aldington's bias against Lawrence was due to having lived many years in France. 24
Belatedly, Liddell Hart came to appreciate Lowell Thomas and to understand how much Lawrence had been responsible for some of the inaccuracies in his accounts. He intimated to Thomas in 1952 that he felt Lawrence had been unjust and ungrateful in what he said about Thomas's biography. 25
Thomas took up Lawrence's defense again when Columbia Pictures released the David Lean and Sam Spiegel epic Lawrence of Arabia in 1962.
Lean, and the scriptwriter Robert Bolt, had undoubtedly been influenced by Aldington's appraisal of Lawrence. In interviews about the film, Thomas remarked that, while it was great entertainment, as a portrayal of Lawrence, General Allenby, himself and others, it was a travesty. Thomas was personally offended because he had been portrayed in the film as an obnoxious, camera-toting journalist named Bentley. His statements about the film, however, were addressed more to the misrepresentation of Lawrence and Allenby than to the negative portrayal of himself. 26
Thomas's defense of Lawrence was undoubtedly due in part to his admiration for him. He stated on many occasions that he had never met anyone comparable. But Thomas was also protecting his investment in the Lawrence of Arabia legend. He rose to fame on Lawrence's reputation and helped to keep his legend alive in articles, biographies, and radio broadcasts over a sixty-year career. An attack on the legend of Lawrence of Arabia was an attack on a creation Thomas had contributed to more than anyone else.
Thomas's motives in promoting and defending the Lawrence mystique were selfserving. Similarly, even though his lecture programs advertised him as "official historian of the Allied forces in the Near East," he was foremost, in relation to Lawrence, a propagandist who, somewhat ironically, published fictions about Lawrence, many of which he thought were facts. In whatever way his part in the Lawrence of Arabia story is evaluated, we must nevertheless acknowledge that Lowell Thomas, in British literary critic David Garnett's words, "put Lawrence on the map." He composed, popularized, propagandized, and propagated the legend of Lawrence of Arabia, thus making it from the beginning as much an American creation as a British one. 27

Chapter 4

Diffusion of the Legend, 1920-1940: The Cases of Colonels Lawrence and Lindbergh
Never say anything you wouldn't want shouted from the housetops, and never write anything you would mind seeing on the front page of a newspaper. 1
Charles Lindbergh to his fiancee, Anne Morrow, 1928
During the 1920s, T. E. Lawrence became a transatlantic cult figure comparable perhaps only to Charles Lindbergh, whose solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 literally transformed him into a world-class hero overnight. Throughout the interwar period, Lawrence received continual media coverage in the United States as well as in England. For instance, including book reviews, at least 500 articles were written about him in American newspapers and magazines. 2 No American hero of World War I was the subject of comparable news coverage in England, nor probably in the United States. The most celebrated American heroes, Sergeant Alvin York and flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, did not receive the sustained coverage that Lawrence did even in their own country. Why should a British military hero generate so much interest in the United States, a country often at odds with England and long on heroes, real and folkloric, of its own? And beyond the efforts of Lowell Thomas to propagate the Lawrence of Arabia legend, what accounts for its continual growth in this country during the 1920s and 1930s?


It is not difficult to understand why the Lawrence of Arabia story took hold in England after the war. Lawrence's romanticized exploits in Arabia stood out in sharp relief against the drab backdrop of the war on the continent. For four years the armies of Europe fought over a few hundred yards of muddy wasteland in an indecisive and static trench war that cost more than 8 million lives. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell records that the British alone took 7000 casualties a day "as a matter of course," a daily loss the British staff referred to as "wastage." In The Age of Illusion, Ronald Blythe reminds us that on the first day of the Somme attack, the Allies lost 100,000 men. Of the killed and wounded, 60,000 were British. Commenting on the irony of the war's outcome, British poet and veteran Edmund Blunden concluded that neither side had won the war; rather, "The War had won." There had been nothing as devastating as the First World War in Britain's proud military history. As a consequence, the heady patriotism of the early war years was replaced by disaffection and disbelief. 3
For a nation sustaining such loss, Lawrence was a ready-made hero. His story fit into England's long tradition of oriental adventurers and, as Lowell Thomas publicized him, invoked the great deeds of empire. Although as the 1920s progressed he began to be cited by cynical veterans of the generation of 1914 as an iconoclast who renounced the suspect old military order, in the immediate postwar years Lawrence was held up as a glowing example of propatria heroism. The depth of his continued and varied appeal to the British public during the 1920s is partially explained by Ronald Blythe. The public, he writes, liked Lawrence's
indifference to fame at a time when war honours and peerages were being snatched up like bargains. They liked his looks, which were the real McCoy after the pinchbeck sheik stuff of Valentino and the burnoused Lotharios of Miss M. E. Clamp. They also liked his amateurism, his "modesty" and his make-your-ownkingdoms-kit. He reappeared on the scene when patriotism had become rather smudgy and before empire worship had been safely channelled off into royalty worship, which left quite a lot of emotion going begging. 4
Lawrence's appeal to some of Britain's tastemakers ran even deeper. It is captured best by a contemporary, John Buchan, a writer of biographies and popular adventure novels who had been director of information at the Foreign Office during the war. A conservative member of Parliament and governor-general of Canada, Buchan held views that represent English
bourgeois tastes and values. In Lawrence he found living proof of the heroic Victorian ideals that he glorified in his novels and about which the English middle class were nostalgic. He wrote in his autobiography that he "could have followed Lawrence over the edge of the world." For iconoclasts and perpetuators of the status quo alike, the story of Lawrence may have helped them forget the shabby realities of postwar Europe. 5
It is far less obvious why Lawrence would appeal to Americans. The United States had sent its own native sons off to a foreign war. Ostensibly, they spilled their blood in Europe 'to make the world safe for democracy," not, in the spirit of "The Great Game," to expand or defend the British Empire. Lawrence's aristocratic-sounding "Prince of Mecca" title would also not fit with the democratic traditions of a country which, as Mark Twain felicitously put it, was "fresh out of kings." Although Lawrence did embody qualities traditionally admired in the United States, such as leadership ability, self-reliance, and the capacity to suffer hardship, he was an intellectual and certainly did not fit the well-recognized mold of the American "tough guy." If anything, he came across as effeminate in dress and manner.
Moreover, the kind of story that Lawrence represented did not fit with the changing popular literary tastes of postwar America. In his history of best-sellers, James Hart shows that the flood of war books topping the lists in the United States after 1914 diminished with the Armistice. V. Blasco Ibanez's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was one of the last novels to treat the war as a romance and top the list. War novels after 1918, such as Erich Marie Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front, were disenchanted statements about such dated Victorian abstractions as glory and honor, precisely those qualities in Lawrence that Lowell Thomas promoted. Moreover, the generation of American novelists after the war were mostly chroniclers of changing morals. Writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald ( This Side of Paradise) and Percy Marks ( The Plastic Age) were either iconoclasts and satirists or social realists concerned with the effects on society of disillusion and dislocation. With this backdrop of literary realism, it is a wonder that the romantic story of Lawrence, set far away in Arabia, kept its currency in America as well as it did during the 1920s.
There are, however, several reasons why Lawrence's story could take hold in the popular imagination of postwar America. One is based on Winston Churchill's notion that the United States and Britain have "a special relationship," a natural affinity of "the English-speaking peoples." To perpetuate this affinity became a basic aim of the English-Speaking Union which originally brought Lowell Thomas and his lectures to England. Despite two previous wars with Britain and a continuing transatlantic
competition, it was easier for Americans in the 1920s to admire a British hero than to celebrate a Frenchman or Italian. Language, religion, and other cultural affinities make Britain a central member of the English-speaking family.
It was also not difficult for Americans to sympathize with the Arab struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, a cause Lawrence, as a Lafayette figure, and Prince Feisal personified. Like American colonists fighting for their own self-determination a century and a half before, the Arabs had made great sacrifices to gain their independence. Biographer Lawrence James in The Golden Warrior lists several reasons why the story of Lawrence of Arabia might appeal to Americans. It can be seen as a modern crusade for the liberation of the Holy Land, an emancipation of its Arab, Jewish and Armenian communities, and as a human interest story. James also notes that U.S. interest in the Near East during Lawrence's time was tied to the extensive prewar missionary activity in the region and the flow of American pilgrims to the Holy Land. U.S. interest and influence, however, reached deeper than James credits, directly influencing the foundations of the Arab Revolt itself. Describing the nationalist movements that erupted throughout the Ottoman Empire prior to World War I, T. E. Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars that they were "fortified and made pointed by the new American ideas in education; ideas which, when released in the old high Oriental atmosphere, made an explosive mixture. The American schools, teaching by the method of inquiry, encouraged scientific detachment and free exchange of views. Quite without intention they taught revolution." 6
It is doubtful whether the public realized at the time, as Lawrence did, the degree of influence American ideas had on the Arab Revolt. But the war and its aftermath made clear to Americans that the Arab struggle for independence was in accordance with the traditional American belief in self-determination. Thomas played up this view by making Lawrence the "George Washington of Arabia," an analogy more easily appreciated in the United States than "the Prince of Mecca." A subsequent American biographer of Lawrence, Harry Irving Shumway, also drew on American republican imagery and the mythos of nation-building. In his biography for adolescents, Lawrence--The Arabian Knight, Shumway explained Lawrence to American youth as a man who tried to create a "United States of Arabia." Lawrence's American biographers utilized traditional symbols to portray Lawrence as a protector of democratic values and as an American-style crusader for Arab independence. In so doing, they helped to translate the story of a British military hero into American terms. 7
A negative reason can also be suggested for why Lawrence was well received as a hero in the United States in the immediate postwar years. World War I had produced for the country few outstanding heroes of its own. President Wilson and General John J. Pershing, by virtue of their respective offices as leader of a nation and commander of an army, were for a time the objects of national adulation. But circumstances were not kind to either man. Wilson became bogged down in postwar repayment deliberations and competing nationalisms, and the "Prince of Peace" failed to get the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. In The Hero in America, Dixon Wecter dismisses Wilson as a candidate for the supreme American hero of the war, citing his diplomatic errors and "a world unable to live up to a dream" as two causes. 8
Pershing is a similar case in point and provides an example of the fickleness of public acclaim. Equally bogged down with post-Armistice duties, Pershing did not get back to the United States until September 1919, nearly a year after the war was over. The general returned to a brief hero's welcome in Hoboken, New Jersey, but by this time the country was distracted by a long list of domestic woes--financial panic, labor disputes, race riots, an unprecedented crime wave, police strikes, and the Red Scare. Throughout the land, inflation and unemployment soured returning soldiers. The United States had already begun to turn away from international involvement as well. When Pershing arrived, Wilson was not in Washington to greet him; he was away on a national tour pleading unsuccessfully for American membership in the League of Nations. America's martial spirit had melted away, the nation had reverted to its traditional isolationism, and the heroes of 1917-1918 were soon forgotten. As one veteran characterized the atmosphere in late 1919: "Our fine fervor has vanished as the summer mist. The lonely, limping figure in khaki, still sometimes met on the street, we pass with careless glance." Pershing spent much of 1920 out of the public eye touring army camps to raise the sagging morale among career officers and the rank and file who stayed on in the army. In the post-war isolationist climate, neither Wilson nor Pershing enjoyed the circumstances to become a bona fide war hero of the type Americans could celebrate. 9
There were, of course, American heroes of the world war. They were of two main types, aviators and infantrymen, but in demonstrably short supply. The most prominent aviators to emerge from the war were Billy Mitchell and Eddie Rickenbacker, the "martyred" crusader for air power and the Army Air Force ace of aces, respectively. Only one infantryman, the conscientious objector-turned-hero of the Argonne, Sergeant Alvin York, really caught the public's imagination.
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