The Potent Man
by ALEX CARNEVALE
They say it’s dead, but for me better the corpse of Vienna than any other place.
The sight of Sinclair Lewis sober was extremely rare. His wife, the writer Dorothy Thompson, had to rely on Vienna’s key strength to resurrect her husband from his hangovers: coffee. “Coffee in Vienna is more than a national drink,” she wrote. “It is a national cult. Palaces have been built for it: palaces where there are satin-brocaded walls, deep divans, onyx-topped tables, great windows curtained in gold-colored silk. These palaces are center of Vienna’s most perfected cultures.” Every cafe in town was an institution in itself, “sometimes a club, sometimes an office, sometimes just restaurant, but always full of life, atmosphere, and – smoke.”
Vienna’s black marketers gravitated towards the Cafe Atlantis, across from the Imperial Hotel. The Lewis’ apartment was not far from there. Christmas in Vienna in 1933 might have been a sedate affair had it not been for Dorothy’s parties. It was there she felt a final distance in her marriage and realized she was in love with one of her guests: a German artist and writer named Christa Winsloe.
It was Dorothy’s third lesbian infatuation. She wrote in her journal, “It has happened to me again, after all these years. It has only, really, happened to me once before.” There were aspects of women that she missed in her messier relationships with men, and probably ones she never wrote down. What she would say was that women had softer mouths, and that sex was like, “being made love to by an impotent man.”
Dorothy saw the relationship that Christa had with her ex-husband. As she saw, what they shared was as close to loving as a lesbian woman could have with a man. “For two divorced people,” Thompson would say later, “they are the most married couple I have ever seen.”
It was a fight between the two ex-marrieds that precipated Dorothy’s entrance into Christa’s life. Christa and her ex had fought on New Year’s Eve, driving her into Dorothy’s arms. They talked for hours. “We kissed each other and she called me ‘liebling’ and said ‘I will write to you and telephone, and you will not get rid of me.’ And I felt full of beatitude.” Dorothy checked her enthusiasm for the young relationship at the door, trying to convince herself she would be happy to have simple friendship with Christa.
Her own marriage was getting worse at the same time. Lewis’ drinking had worsened, and although his wife was pregnant, he did not treat her any more sensitively. She practiced ice skating in order to prevent weight gain from the pregnancy. One night she came home to find Lewis had wrecked the apartment in a drunken rage, destroying all the rented furniture. He hit her for the first time in their entire marriage when she objected.
For her, this was the last straw, although Lewis still tried to reunite with his wife, writing, “You seem to me in my mad life my one refuge and security. You see, I don’t care a damn – not anymore at least – for fame and all those amiable experiences, but only (and this is a not-too-easy contradiction) for you and Mickey on the one hand, and Freedom (whatever that empty thing may be) on the other.” A geographical separation made the two feel a deeper alienation, constituting a second violence. (Lewis had relocated to London while Dorothy wrapped up their affairs at their summer home in Vienna.) Just before leaving Vienna, she also lost her pregnancy.
She pretended to forgive Lewis, but instead of returning to London, she took the train to Berlin to report on the rise of Nazism. Fleeing that damned place, she moved to Portofino with Christa and a gay butler named Giovanni. She kept her husband apprised of her living situation, informing him that the Italian manservant “does everything but our hair.” She also told him how “terribly funny it is sharing a house with another woman.”
Much later he would call her to tell her the news: this tendentious alcoholic was the recipient of the Nobel Prize. “Oh have you!” Dorothy responded. “Well, I have the Order of the Garter!”
The initial attraction between Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson had always been a bit of a longshot. Lewis’ friends called him Red; he was losing that hair, and precancerous lesions from acne dotted his visage. According to her, he looked like he had “survived a battle with flamethrowers.” The day her divorce became final she invited him over for dinner.
As soon as they were married and things started to go sour, Thompson began looking outside of her marriage for what the man inside it could not provide. She entertained her guests at the Austrian villa where she and Lewis spent their weekends. She kept meticulous, anonymous notebooks on the activities of her and her lovers. One reads
I went for a walk with E. and in the woods he turned suddenly and put both hands on my cheeks and we clung together. His mouth tasted deliciously of love, like the smell of semen, and I could have lain down with him right there in the woods then and there as I could have done for five years, except that we agreed that we wouldn’t.
As she got older, the affairs turned into even more questioning events. Lewis would come home drunk and strike their son, only inspiring a new round of “What does it all mean?” Household staff could only watch in shock as the couple’s bitter arguments went from room to room.
Their son Michael’s nurse observed to Dorothy that “he worshipped the ground you walked on. When he heard you were coming home from a trip he would send for the barber to shave him, insist that all his clothes should be in apple-pie order, dress as though he were going to court. And then, often you’d hardly be in the house, when he’d start a quarrel, and then, as likely as not, he’d call the car and leave the next morning.”
Dorothy’s affair with Christa Winsloe ended when Christa fell in love with a man, an Italian basso named Ezio Pinza who she had seen perform in Salzburg. She tried to reassure Dorothy that this was only a passing infatuation, but Thompson realized Christa had become another person who no longer knew how to return her feelings. She wrote,
Like all love I wonder now if it was ever there. Oh, yes, it was there, but didn’t all the threads run from me to you, and none really run back? You will not answer me, not help me, perhaps only because you do not want to hurt me. I write with my eyes full of tears, and my heart full of tears, and I wish they flowed because of someone else, because then perhaps you would comfort me. Or would you? Why is it that one’s own love can sustain one for so long without any reciprocity, and then, suddenly, it can’t anymore?
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.