The Journalist Who Made Lawrence Of Arabia Famous Got His Start In Colorado

Listen Now
Photo: Lowell Thomas and T.E. Lawrence
T.E. Lawrence and Lowell Thomas photographed by Harry Chase in Aqaba during the Arab Revolt.

Though he played fast and loose with facts early in his career, Colorado-born journalist Lowell Thomas become one of the most trusted voices in America around the middle of the 20th century.

Thomas grew up in Victor, Colorado. He got his start with newspapers in the state and went on to travel around the world, including reporting abroad about World War I. During that war, he traveled to the Middle East and met Col. T. E. Lawrence of the British army. Thomas is credited with making Lawrence a famous war hero through his embellished reporting.

Thomas was also a pioneering newsman of radio and television.

He is the subject a new biography, called "The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism" by Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University.

Thomas became known for his on-air bloopers, such as this one.

His final radio broadcast for CBS was May 14, 1976.

He died of a heart attack at 89 in August 1981.

Read an excerpt from the biography:

Victor, Colorado, the gold-rush town where Lowell Thomas was raised, was a rough-and- tumble place. It had its ambitions: Victor managed to build and sometimes fill an almost-grand, brick opera house, where a range of early twentieth-century acts, including even some operas, could be enjoyed. Nonetheless – together with its sister city, Cripple Creek – it had more saloons and gambling halls than stores. And while all those pugnacious miners made a lot of news, Victor harbored only one newspaper – the Victor Record. Since this was before the Internet, before television, before radio newscasts, even before newsmagazines, that meant this small city had but one regular news source besides local scuttlebutt.

The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has spoken of a “golden age of journalism” in the first decades of the twentieth century. She is impressed with the contingent of thoughtful correspondents who would discuss policy with Theodore Roosevelt before and during his presidency and who were disappointed that they did not have the opportunity to engage in such discussions with his successor, William Howard Taft. And Goodwin is rightly impressed, too, by the handful of progressive, “muckraking” magazines, led by McClure’s, that helped inspire Roosevelt’s reforms by exposing the situation of the poor, corruption in government and the evils of predatory business monopolies or “trusts.”

But those mostly progressive correspondents who participated in TR’s informal seminars worked for the most part for East Coast newspapers. Their writings were hard to find in Victor, Colorado. And those progressive magazines were relatively rare sights in Victor or similar towns. The exposé on municipal corruption that Lincoln Steffens – among the greatest of the muckrakers – published in McClure’s investigated no city south of St. Louis or west of Minneapolis.

In 1911, when Thomas was 19 and just returned from a sprint through a university, the Victor Record featured the occasional story about a development in Washington or overseas – undoubtedly from, but not credited to, a wire service. However, the newspaper’s pages were mostly occupied with local stories – “SIDEWALKS MUST BE FIXED, Iron Doors Declared Menace by Council” – and recountings of life’s tragedies – “BRIDE TWO WEEKS, ATTEMPTS SUICIDE” (her new husband had been arrested for embezzlement) or “KNOCKED OUT BY PIECE OF STEEL” (a mine accident); the headline “BAND TO GIVE EXCELLENT CONCERT” recurred every Friday. The stories arrayed on the pages of the Record, the point is, were diverting, often even useful, but they facilitated no great debates on the economic system or on America’s place in the world; they fail somehow to call to mind a “golden age” of journalism.

This was the journalism with which young Lowell Thomas, and much of the rest of America, had to make do. You’d find it in bigger cities than Victor – Denver, for example, where Lowell would later report for two newspapers while adding to his collection of degrees at Denver University. You’d find it often enough, if truth be told, in many New York newspapers. It was a journalism that too often was not only benighted and shrill – neither new embarrassments for journalism – but parochial. That was a problem since, thanks in part to Theodore Roosevelt, political power was beginning to concentrate in Washington; since, led in part by Theodore Roosevelt, America was beginning to shoulder burdens overseas. +Indeed, this was the journalism Lowell had begun practicing – because in 1911, at the age of 19, he was the editor of the Victor Record.

* * *

Once he left Victor, Colorado, Lowell Thomas would, as much as anyone, travel the world. He would, as much as anyone, expand Americans’ view of the world. In the 1930s and 1940s, as the host of both the first and long the most listened-to network radio newscast plus the country’s dominant newsreels, shown twice a week in movie theaters, Thomas would bring the news to a larger percentage of American than anyone before or since. And, once he found himself as a journalist, Thomas played a major role – perhaps the major role – in creating a journalism more suited to America’s growing international power and responsibilities. He was, in some sense, the Teddy Roosevelt of journalism. But Thomas continued to see the world through a powerful set of American values – values that he owed in large part to Victor, Colorado.

Lowell’s family had moved to Victor in 1900, when he was eight. His father became the town’s doctor. His parents had done what Americans often did: they had headed west. But the studious doctor and his deeply religious wife were not infused with much of the bet-your- bottom-dollar, stake-your- claim, always-ready- to-move- on American spirit that was so much on display in Victor and its sister city, Cripple Creek. Their son, on the other hand, soaked up quite a bit of it as, dressed in the requisite “boots, flannel shirt and broad-brimmed Stetson,” he would wander the honky-tonk streets and, with his buddies, explore the local mountains, caves and mines. During the summers he worked on a ranch and rotated through most of the jobs in the gold mines. Two of those summers he rode “assay.” That was a good job: nine hours a day on horseback filling his saddle bags with ore samples from new strikes so their gold content could be evaluated.

Americans were just then beginning to romanticize the cowboy. Lowell had more or less become one. Wild Bill Hickok was two generations older than he; Annie Oakley one. But Hickok was raised in Illinois, Oakley in Ohio, right near where Lowell was born. Teddy Roosevelt had grown up in Manhattan. Lowell Thomas had an authentic free-range, wild-West childhood.

For much of his life Lowell Thomas would bet on long shots, on the new and unproven – new technologies (radio, the airplane, television, Cinerama), new ways of telling the news. His pleasures mostly involved risk – navigating rapids, scaling or skiing down mountains, going somewhere exotic or trying his hand at something unfamiliar. And he was never afraid of spending big – even if the money he was spending had been borrowed.

Unlike his father but like many of the local prospectors and in line with the world’s image of Americans, Lowell Thomas had an outsize faith in himself. Life has a way of disabusing people – most prospectors, for example – of such a bullheaded self-confidence. Life never got around to doing that for Thomas – who, though mostly forgotten in the 21 st century, became one of the best-known Americans in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Thomas befriended many of the great men and women of his time. Babe Ruth played for his softball team, which regularly competed with a team managed by President Franklin Roosevelt. Lowell circled the earth numerous times, delighting in bulling his way into “forbidden” places: Arabia (where he discovered and made famous Lawrence of Arabia), Afghanistan, Tibet (which he entered by mule caravan just in time to meet the young Dalai Lama). In a prime-time CBS special after Thomas’ death in 1981, Walter Cronkite said of Lowell: “He crammed a couple of centuries worth of living into those four-score years and nine.”

But Lowell Thomas kept coming back to Victor, Colorado. He always sported a Stetson. And he continued to regale his huge audiences as well as individuals he met in his travels with tales of his childhood among the mountains and gold mines.

Adapted from The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism by Mitchell Stephens. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.

Related: Journalism Ethics: CPR And NPR Decision Makers Answer Your Questions