© 2019 Anna Van Lenten

Chasing Lawrence in Arabia / Lowell Thomas

July 2013

Exhibit opening, screening, & talk
Tuesday July 30, 2013, 7:30 PM
Moderated by Scott Anderson, author of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, and historian / archivist Greg Wiedeman 

When T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) saw these photographs—and hundreds more—in Lowell Thomas's 1919 "travelogue" about him and the Arab Revolt, he sent Thomas a note: "I saw your show last night and thank god the lights were out." The two-hour event used three projectors to screen Thomas's photos and film segments. There was live music, palm trees, women doing the Dance of the Seven Veils.

 

Only a year earlier, Lawrence had been known solely in the British military sphere, as hero / soldier / spy / diplomat—and for good reason. He had organized disparate Arab tribes into effective guerrilla raiders against the Turks, and by dint of ceaseless diplomacy, fashioned himself as a crucial point person for the coordinated British-Arab fight against the Central Powers in WWI. His audacity and skill would have sufficed on its own as news. And Thomas, having found in Lawrence the scoop of his career, recognized its worth. But he couldn’t help fictionalizing both his on-the-ground involvement with Lawrence, and Lawrence's stature and deeds in commanding the Arabs.

 

In the end, over one million Britons saw Thomas’s extravaganza, including the King and Queen, Churchill, & G.B. Shaw. It was virtually the Star Wars of its day. The most dramatic twist was that just at the very moment the travelogue was making Lawrence into a matinee idol with the public, the British government was doing the opposite: making him persona non grata at the Paris Peace Conference in order to carve up the Middle East without his dissent. So while Lawrence was experiencing bizarre fame and agonizing guilt, Thomas was sparking a dynamic career. He became a famous author and broadcaster, known for ending his radio shows, "So long until tomorrow." Today, there are two journalism awards named after Thomas—and a modern myth of a daring war hero with almost inhuman strength, the sensibilities of a poet, and the mind of a military genius. The truth lies here and there, still looking for its teller.

 

~ Anna Van Lenten

 

All photos © Lowell Thomas.