AMERICAN CASSANDRA

The Life of Dorothy Thompson

By Peter Kurth

Little, Brown. 587 pp. $24.95

IF YOU'RE old enough to remember Dorothy Thompson, you know she was an Inescapable Fact -- even as far away as Missouri. A graying friend remembers to this day the hush that fell on a World War II luncheon in Kansas City, when one of the ladies present announced: "Dorothy Thompson says the waiter should only bring butter if you ask for it."

If Dorothy Thompson talked butter, you could be sure it was part of something bigger -- like guns. She was a top pundit in the golden age of pundits, and global mega-topics were her turf.

Beginning in 1936, her newspaper column, On the Record, ran three times a week without interruption for 22 years, was syndicated all over and read by some 8 million to 10 million people a day. If you somehow missed the column, there was always her monthly essay in the Ladies' Home Journal, or one of the dozens of pieces she published elsewhere. Failing that, you could catch her live on one of her ceaseless lecture tours all over the country. In one week in 1937 she turned down 700 speaking engagements. If you were a president or prime minister and failed to heed her advice, you could expect to hear from her direct, by cable, phone and letter, as Roosevelt and Churchill did. She also wrote love letters by the crate and kept the carbons, as biographer Peter Kurth discovered when he first waded into her archives at Syracuse University.

But why write a book about her now? Her heyday is long gone. She was already half forgotten when she died alone in a Lisbon hotel room, reaching for the bedside phone to call for help. A previous biography, by Marion K. Sanders, gathers dust in the remainder bins.

A mere reader of her harangues would never guess that behind the polemics lurked a seething volcano of a woman whose unceasing involvements with men, women and intractable issues, foreign and domestic, would have left most mortals without the strength to type.

Kurth himself backed into this project while researching something else, and one ventures warily into his long text with its more than 80 pages of footnotes. But one is soon in the grip of the sheer intellectual and physical energy that is revealed -- the uncanny awareness of cause and effect in the sweep of world events, with a matching obtuseness about the feelings of others. She wrote countless dispatches, mailed and unmailed, analyzing her own feelings, transmitting voluminously, but not receiving. Her personal and emotional life, richly documented in triplicate, is as bizarre and intriguing as the Nixon tapes, with no blanks or deleted expletives to mar the flow.

Her output was like some vast and relentless torrent with a dozen tributaries feeding into the main stream and back out again. Kurth beats a path through all this without fear or pause. He somehow imposes a sense of order on things, despite the odds, and guides us through the tumultuous complexities of the time -- the rise of Nazism in Germany; isolationism in America; the Second World War; the establishment of Israel and other issues that Thompson took over as her personal battleground. His daunting task is to show us a mind at work, and he pulls it off.

She had a matchless tenacity, an ability to churn through masses of detail to reach the core of events and to distill from that a vision of where they would lead -- usually straight to Armageddon. What she lacked in literary grace, she achieved in passion, a sort of verbal keening that led Alice Roosevelt Longworth to say that she was "the only woman in history who has had her menopause in public and made it pay."

If she was wrong on an issue, she changed course and shouted louder without a blush. One of the few journalists to interview Hitler, she dismissed him as "inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man." Soon after she was shouting from the rooftops about his danger to the world. She dismissed the Arabs with a shrug on her first swing through the Middle East, then became one of the few writers to object to imposing a Jewish state on the area, protesting that it would lead to war. Her stand against Israel got her fired from the New York Post.

The volume of her output was awesome. She became a sort of industry, maintained by researchers and secretaries, three of whom for many years had the same first name -- in various spellings -- an added convenience since remembering the names of the lowly was not among her skills. She stationed typewriters all over the house in case a thought should strike. THERE WAS NO room for banter in this scene. It was an abiding complaint of Sinclair Lewis, husband number two, in the longest, noisiest and most disastrous of her marriages, that she was forever discussing what he called "the Situation," thinking through ponderous issues, and picking the brains of guests until the last dazed survivor had tottered home to bed and Lewis had slid under the table, dead drunk.

She may have been the first woman to scale the heights of punditry, but she did it for Dorothy, not the rest of womankind. She scorned what she called the "specious feminism of the women's magazines, which persist in finding cause for jubilation every time a woman becomes, for first time, an iceman, a road surveyor, or a senator . . . The see-what-the-little-darling-has-done-now attitude ought to be outlawed." She regretted more her lack of "a vivid and accurate historical sense, a clear idea of economics, or fluency in any foreign language." Wives fumed at her dinner parties, where they were mostly consigned to Siberia while Thompson expounded on the latest current event, with their husbands kneeling at her feet.

Her implacable logic failed her when it came to love. Two of her three marriages were painful mistakes. The third, to Maxim Kopf, a refugee Czech artist, turned out to be the best. Ideally suited to endure her endless monologues, he was, as she said, "inarticulate in four languages." There was the slight inconvenience, after Thompson had proposed in the back of a taxi, that there was already a Mrs. Kopf -- Lotte -- alive and well, living in New York, and not about to let her husband go. But this raised scarcely a blip in Thompson's headlong pursuit. Louis Nizer, Thompson's attorney, arranged "satisfactory terms" -- said to be $30,000 -- a sum that not only bought Maxim's freedom, but got back the ill-considered letter Thompson had dispatched, outlining her intention to marry him, and upbraiding Lotte for "holding on to a loveless relationship." If the letter got out, Nizer feared, it would wreck his client's career.

Well, you can see how Peter Kurth got hooked on all this, and we can all be grateful he had the stamina to share his discoveries in such an orderly and illuminating way.

Anne Chamberlin is a Washington writer.