The lecture that would create a legend had an inauspicious beginning. On the Sunday afternoon of March 2, 1919, a young American journalist named Lowell Thomas began a two-week engagement at New York City’s Century Theater with an illustrated talk about World War I. His presentation, hastily prepared and unpolished, was hardly the kind of topic to appeal to a thoroughly war-weary public, and at first Thomas did not even recover his expenses. Attendance did pick up, however, after Thomas moved his show to Madison Square Garden, where spill-over crowds from wrestling matches helped fill empty seats. By the time the show had finished its five-week run at the Garden it was turning a profit.
The Barnum and Bailey Circus was in another part of the Garden, and it inadvertently helped Thomas set the scene for his account of the war in the Middle East. “The odors were obnoxious,” remembered Thomas’s wife, Frances, “but Tommy in a very clever way, at the beginning of his lecture said, ‘As you probably have discovered the circus is next door. When Barnum and Bailey discovered we were making a trip to Palestine on camels, they kindly consented to put the beasts under us so that we might have the Oriental atmosphere.’ This always went over great with a big roar.”
From such a humble beginning, Thomas helped turn a Briton named Thomas Edward Lawrence into a world-famous figure called Lawrence of Arabia, at the same time launching his own career as one of the most successful broadcasters in America. By stretching the limits of conventional journalism and public entertainment to offer cutting-edge, multimedia lecture-performances, Thomas took a fascinating story and turned it into a legend.
Lowell Thomas did not, of course, invent T.E. Lawrence and his extraordinary exploits in the Arabian desert. An Oxford University graduate, Lawrence began the war as a civilian cartographer, but British intelligence sent him to Cairo because he had worked as an archeologist in the Middle East and spoke passable Arabic. Sympathetic to the Arab desire to gain independence from the Ottoman Turks, Lawrence soon ingratiated himself with Arab nationalists who were revolting against Turkish rule. He became a confidant and military adviser to Prince Feisal, the third son of Hussein Ibn Ali, the Sherif of Mecca and a chief ally-of-convenience of the British. With substantial material support from Britain, Feisal and Lawrence reorganized Arab forces gathered to oppose Turkish garrisons in Medina and Mecca. For the next two years, Lawrence led guerrilla raids against the Turks, risking his life on many occasions. His raiders disrupted the Hejaz railway, the main transportation route for Turkish reinforcements, interfered with enemy lines of communications, and captured the Red Sea city of Aqaba. By 1917, the Turkish and German forces aligned against the British were offering huge bounties for Lawrence—dead or alive. Even before Thomas put Lawrence on the map a story in L’Echo de Paris noted, “The name of Colonel Lawrence will become historic in Great Britain.”
The man who would add the words “of Arabia” to Lawrence’s name had the makings of both a newsman and a showman. Born in 1882 in Ohio, Lowell Thomas moved with his parents to Cripple Creek, Colorado, when he was eight. There he witnessed the rough-and-tumble life of a turn-of-the-century boomtown, including the bloody strike of the Western Federation of Miners in 1903. As a boy he worked in the gold mines, sold newspapers, and listened to the colorful talk of itinerant prospectors, whose stories of the far corners of the world fired his imagination. Thomas’s father, a doctor, encouraged his son’s thirst for knowledge. “He roused in me an abiding curiosity about this planet we live on,” Thomas remembered, “and I have spent a lifetime trying to see as much of it as I could.”
Thomas worked as a reporter for the Chicago Evening Journal, then lectured part-time in the English department at Princeton University. He also produced a travelogue about Alaska for Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane’s “See America First” Western boosterism campaign. After the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Thomas enlisted Lane’s help to get approval from the Wilson administration to travel at his own expense to Europe as an “unofficial historian of the war.” He would generate allied war propaganda, but he also intended to gather material for a series of commercial war travelogues. In July 1917 he formed Thomas Travelogues, Inc., and raised, according to his own estimate, $100,000 to cover expenses. In addition, Thomas received credentials as a war correspondent from several newspapers in the United States and arranged to send dispatches from Europe in exchange for advertising space for his travelogues upon his return.
Thomas and his invaluable cameraman, Harry Chase, left for Europe in August 1917. By then, the conflict had bogged down into bloody trench warfare, and the Allies were finding it increasingly difficult to produce optimistic coverage of the battlefields. Thomas initially hoped “to find an appealing young doughboy and follow him into action,” but foul weather and the grimy realities of war soon disabused him of that notion.
When Thomas learned that the famous cavalry general Edmund Allenby had been given command of British forces in Palestine, he recognized a ready-made propaganda opportunity and applied to the War Office in London for permission to travel to the Holy Land to “spotlight the Middle East struggle.” He credited good luck for his success in gaining access to Allenby’s army, but in fact he underestimated Britain’s interest in having the dramatic campaign for the Holy Land publicized in the United States. British officials considered Thomas’s mission both timely and important and whenever possible expedited his travel arrangements.
Whether by luck or by the design of the British War Office, Thomas and Chase finally arrived in the Middle East in early 1918. For two weeks they remained in Egypt, staying at the posh Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, until Allenby agreed to allow the Americans to observe his army. A military transport plane then flew them to Palestine, and they arrived in time to cover the Allied capture of Jericho on February 21.
While in Jerusalem, Colonel Ronald Storrs, the British military governor, introduced Thomas to Lawrence, a man about whom the American had been hearing intriguing rumors. “I want you to meet Colonel Lawrence, the uncrowned King of Arabia,” Storrs said. In his Palestine diary, Thomas recorded his initial impression. “He is 5 feet 2 inches tall. Blonde, blue sparkling eyes, fair skin—too fair even to bronze after 7 years in the Arabian desert. Bare-footed. Costume of Meccan Sherif.”
Although Thomas often recounted this moment in his writings and public talks, the encounter apparently left little impression on Lawrence, who never mentioned Thomas in his wartime letters or in his famous account of the Arabian campaign, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He did, however, pose for Harry Chase, who took a classic picture of the robed warrior on the balcony of Fast’s Hotel in Jerusalem.
One of General Allenby’s staff officers told Thomas about Lawrence’s guerrilla activities along the Hejaz railway, and the American requested and received permission to follow Lawrence to Arabia. After a journey that took Thomas and Chase back to Cairo, up the River Nile to Khartoum, across the Nubian Desert to Port Sudan, and north on the Red Sea aboard a steamer, they finally reached Lawrence in Aqaba near the end of March.
“In the weeks that followed,” Thomas wrote, “I slowly came to learn the story of Lawrence’s astonishing desert campaign. Though we grew to be friends I got little enough of it from him; he…remained difficult to draw out about himself.” Instead, Thomas relied on the accounts of people around Lawrence to piece together the story about his increasingly significant and colorful military role as British liaison officer to the Arabs. “Col. Lawrence remarkable man,” Thomas noted in his diary. “Well versed on any subjects from Astronomy to Aerial gunnery, from Archeology to dietetics, from literature to handling and making high explosives. Natives are crazy about him. Goes alone always. Usually smiling.” Lawrence officially introduced the Americans to Prince Feisal, the revolt’s charismatic leader who would later become king of Iraq. Feisal arranged for them to take rare photographs and film footage of the Sherifian army. As a young journalist, Thomas had, in newspaper terms, acquired a “scoop” and one of the best stories of the war.
Thomas did not go with Lawrence on any missions, however, since none took place at the time the American was in Arabia. He did learn about Lawrence’s activities through the Arab Bulletin, the official action reports prepared by British intelligence in Cairo, and he later embellished his Arabian sojourn in numerous articles and books, including the best-selling With Lawrence in Arabia. For example, in an article Thomas wrote in 1919 for Asia magazine, he “recalled” accompanying Lawrence and some 200 Howeitat tribesmen on a night mission to attack a Turkish troop train. In the close combat that ensued, the “blonde bedouin” Lawrence was recognized by the Turks as “the mysterious Englishman for whom a reward of $500,000 has been offered.” A Turkish officer attempted to capture him. “Lawrence stood as coolly as though the Turks were his best friends,” Thomas wrote. “He allowed them to get within about twenty paces of him, and then with a speed that would have made an Arizona gunman green with envy he whipped out his long barreled Colt’s automatic from the folds of his gown and shot six of the Turks in their tracks….The Turks suddenly lost interest in the possible reward for Lawrence’s head and scurried back. Lawrence made a dash for the summit of the hill and succeeded in rejoining us.”
In April 1918, Thomas and Chase left Arabia. They remained in Cairo for a month and then followed a circuitous route back to Europe via Italy to cover the last month of the war in France. Meanwhile, Allied-Sherifian forces with Lawrence at the forefront went on to capture Damascus, and Turkey capitulated the following October, concluding the war in that theater. Less than two weeks later, the war in Europe also ended. Thomas moved on to Austria and Germany, where he chronicled the revolution that overthrew Kaiser Wilhelm II, and finally returned to the United States in February 1919. He had been overseas for 18 months.
The Armistice had nullified the value of Thomas’s initial propaganda mission, and he soon discovered that the American public was no longer greatly interested in war. Thomas still hoped to find a way to profit from his experiences. Unwilling to ask for more backing from shareholders of Thomas Travelogues, he had to find a new source of financing. Chase advised him to approach Fred Taintor, managing editor of the New York Globe, a newspaper that had sponsored travelogues in the past. Taintor agreed to back the travelogues and provide advertising in exchange for 40 percent of the profits.
So in March Thomas started his lecture series at the Century Theater. Initially he presented a revolving program of six separate talks, but only two of them—those about Allenby’s Palestine campaign and about Lawrence in Arabia—attracted much of an audience. Thomas combined them under the single title of “With Allenby in Palestine and the Conquest of Holy Arabia,” but he found so much public interest about the “mystery man of Arabia” that he later put Lawrence’s name alongside Allenby’s. The lecture’s final title became “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia.”
By all accounts Thomas was an engaging narrator-host, but he was much more than a good lecturer. His travelogue was the ultimate entertainment for its time and a pioneering multi-media presentation. “When the theater lights dimmed, a swell of exotic Levantine music, chosen by Fran, filled the darkness,” Thomas wrote about a typical New York performance. “Then I stepped into a spotlight and said: ‘Come with me to lands of history, mystery, and romance. What you are about to see is an untold story, part of it as old as time, and part history in the making.’ ”
Thomas then stepped away from the spotlight, as a backdrop of scenes from the Armistice celebration in Paris was replaced by dramatic film images of the war in the Middle East. Thomas’s irreplaceable cameraman, Chase, juggled three separate projection machines to show films and colored slides and to add special lighting effects. Audiences were dazzled by the result.
One impressed patron was Percy Burton, a British impresario who managed Sarah Bernhardt and other celebrated entertainers. After seeing Thomas lecture in New York, Burton arranged to bring him to London, where he opened in August 1919 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Burton hired the Band of the Welsh Guards to provide music and had the orchestra pit filled with palms and the set decorated as a Nile scene with an artificial moon faintly illuminating distant pyramids painted onto the backdrop. At the start of the performance, a woman glided onstage in a brief oriental dance of the seven veils. The fragrance of incense pervaded the hall and added to the exoticism.
The London shows were similar to New York’s, but Thomas added even more slides and photographs, some from the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., and others borrowed from the War Department in London. The two-hour performance included 240 lantern slides and 30 film segments and was so lively that people often came back to see a second performance. Audiences were seeing for the first time aerial photographs and film footage of archeological sites in the Middle East, such as the pyramids in Egypt, and parts of Arabia previously forbidden to non-Moslems. Thomas did augment his lecture with the National Geographic slides, and some of Chase’s pictures of Lawrence were posed still-life shots taken in London, but most of the photographs and film footage were shot on location in the Middle East. He did not stage them in photography studios, a common practice for World War I newsreels.
Thomas sprinkled his talk with oriental and Biblical place names and allusions. The addition of “The Last Crusade” to the title played up the powerful theme of the recapture of the Holy Land. Thomas made Allenby of Palestine and Lawrence of Arabia into heroic figures to be measured alongside crusaders like Godfrey of Bouillon and Richard the Lion-Heart. Reviews of the London lecture were equally hyperbolic. Lloyd’s Weekly wrote: “During the lifetime of the present generation there has been nothing in London so completely engrossing as this American’s account of the Palestine and Arabian campaigns.” More than a million people flocked to see it, including Queen Mary. Lawrence himself was in the audience on several occasions. After watching one performance, Lawrence sent a note to Thomas: “I saw your show last night and thank god the lights were out.” Although attracted to the attention, at the same time Lawrence was starting to become uncomfortable about being the talk of London.
Lawrence, a man with an ability to “back into the limelight,” as Thomas described it, was both fascinated and embarrassed by the American’s accounts. “I resent him: but am disarmed by his good intentions,” he wrote to British novelist E.M. Forster in 1925 after Thomas published With Lawrence in Arabia. “He is vulgar as they make them: believes he is doing me a great turn by bringing my virtue into the public air.” Thomas’s claims were “red-hot lying,” Lawrence told Forster, yet he didn’t mention that during the autumn of 1919 he had met regularly with Thomas in London and contributed to his articles, and even posed in Arab costume for Harry Chase. Part of Lawrence’s motivation was to use Thomas to support his efforts to secure self-determination for Arab nations. Thomas’s striking visual images presented the Arab revolt as Lawrence wanted it to be viewed, as a struggle against oppression and for national independence. Presumably, Lawrence could have easily asked Thomas to tone down his more fantastic descriptions.
In the winter of 1920, Thomas took his Allenby-Lawrence lecture on the road throughout Great Britain and later toured Australia and New Zealand. While Thomas was having a successful run on the opposite side of the world, Dale Carnagey, who had accompanied Thomas to London as a speaking coach and assistant, had responsibility for hiring speakers to take Thomas’s place on stage in England. (“Carnegie,” after a spelling change, later became a household name in America for his self-improvement book How to Win Friends and Influence People.) The road company did not fare well under Carnagey’s management. He tried to narrate the program himself with mixed results and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. Apparently, the Allenby-Lawrence lecture was “so thoroughly identified with the personality of Lowell Thomas that it could not draw crowds without him.” Thomas continued occasionally to present the lecture until 1928.
Lawrence wrote his own account of the Arab revolt in his classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom, first published privately in 1926. A complex, enigmatic man, Lawrence remained a puzzle even to those closest to him. While he continued to correspond with Thomas for several years, he often expressed frustration with the fame the American had thrust upon him. In 1922 Lawrence attempted to escape the spotlight by enlisting in the Royal Air Force under an assumed name, but his secret was soon discovered and he was discharged. Later he joined the Tank Corps as an enlisted man, again under a pseudonym. His retreat from publicity was due directly to his discomfort at his fame as Lawrence of Arabia. He also suffered from the psychological aftereffects of a reputed rape and vicious beating he endured when briefly captured by the enemy in 1917, and from the cumulative stress of serving two incompatible masters—Arab nationalism and British imperialism. He died near his home in 1935 after a motorcycle accident.
Lowell Thomas had no difficulties dealing with public acclaim. Propelled by the success of his Lawrence lecture, he went on to become a world-famous author and broadcaster, known for the catch phrase with which he ended his radio shows: “So long until tomorrow.” He died in 1981. To the end of his life Thomas remained fascinated by the man to whom he owed so much of his success, even if he had to admit that “the essential core of him, his innermost force, still remains an enigma to me.” Perhaps, he reasoned, that was what Lawrence wanted. “Once I asked him to verify an anecdote I’d heard from someone who had known him in Cairo,” Thomas wrote. “He laughed and said, ‘use it if it suits your needs. What difference does it make if it’s true—history is seldom true.’ ” It was a poignant remark, coming as it did from a man who had been trained as a historian and archeologist but who had become embittered by his personal experiences of making history.
Joel Hodson is the author of Lawrence of Arabia and American Culture (Greenwood, 1995). He dedicates this article to the memory of Fred Crawford who before his death in January 1999 was writing a scholarly biography of Lowell Thomas.
This article originally appeared in the October 2000 issue of American History.