BOOK REVIEW: ‘Dangerous Ambition’

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DANGEROUS AMBITION: REBECCA WEST AND DOROTHY THOMPSON, NEW WOMEN IN SEARCH OF LOVE AND POWER
By Susan Hertog
Ballantine, $30 493 pages, illustrated

Dual biographies are a tough proposition, as Susan Hertog says with a winning candor and “great humility” at the outset: “I have had the utter gall to think I can understand and link TWO lives - women who were boundby friendship, a consonant social and political vision, and the commonality of fame, marriage and motherhood.”

There certainly are parallels between these two women, born a year apart, who became great journalists and succeeded in influencing the way people viewed the great issues of their time and indeed of all time. Each was involved with and bore a son to world-famous writers; relationships between them and with their offspring were fraught with difficulty and with pain. Each was a pioneer at a time when it was undeniably more difficult for women than for men, both professionally and personally. They knew and respected one another, and were fond of each other although they spent little time together.

For a parallel study like this even to get off the ground, its author must be alive to the differences as well as the similarities between the two subjects and this, to her credit, Ms. Hertog consistently is. The trouble is that because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the complex natures of West and Thompson, the book’s portraits of them are flawed. They are not helped, in addition, by a somewhat crude and reductionist feminism that both women would have doubtless scoffed at.

It is certainly true that H.G. Wells and Sinclair Lewis were difficult propositions for these two women, but facile parallels between them - and these two complicated relationships - are misleading. Whatever else, Wells was a charmer, something you could never accuse Lewis of being, as you can tell from the numerous examples of his boorishness and downright nastiness Ms. Hertog quotes.

But it is on the subject of West’s nearly 40-year-long marriage to Henry Andrews that the book goes seriously astray. As I know from my own conversations with West, she had two distinct versions of this union, just as she had conflicting ones about Wells. Ms. Hertog’s account of the marriage concentrates on its reputedly infernal aspects, emphasizing West’s most negative views of it. Are these necessarily more valid? No, but they suit the book’s underlying themes.

By the time that Ms. Hertog, after more than 400 pages, sums up her two subjects - “Rebecca sought salvation through her art, but Dorothy, while grateful for earthly pleasures, found true salvation through her faith in God” - the Bed of Procrustes which she has subjected these pour souls to throughout is quite apparent. To portray Thompson as some poor pilgrim, whose particular Slough of Despond, by the way, seems to have been located at the bottom of innumerable bottles of alcoholic beverages, is enough to astonish anyone who knew the secular life she led.

After so much Sturm and Drang, West’s life here seems little more than a caricature, as if she had spent it channeling recitations of Puccini’s dramatic aria “Vissi d’arte, vissi, d’amore.” But she was not some diva canting about how she had lived her life for art and for love, but a brilliant woman blessed not just with a formidable intellect but with a devastating sense of humor that she turned on herself lest she become too self-pitying or self-important.

At the risk of sounding too much like the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, I knew Rebecca West, Rebecca West was a friend of mine, the Rebecca West in “Dangerous Ambition” is not the person I knew. It is amusing for me think of how she would have reacted to it, starting with the distinctive snort expressive of so much and going on to a breathless but stunningly articulate summation of all its errors and misconceptions.

I did not know Thompson, but feel that I did, thanks to her fellow foreign correspondent and close friend Vincent Sheehan’s marvelous memoir of her and Lewis, “Dorothy and Red.” I did not come away from “Dangerous Ambition” with such a feeling. Both of the subjects of this book are engaging and perennially fascinating to read about, but for a real understanding of these multifaceted women, readers should go elsewhere.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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