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Lowell Thomas

Brought Lawrence of Arabia to public notice

Lowell Jackson Thomas (April 6, 1892 - August 29, 1981) was an American writer, broadcaster, and traveler, best known as the man who made Lawrence of Arabia famous. So varied were Thomas's activities that when it came time for the Library of Congress to catalog his memoirs they were forced to put them in "CT" ("biographies of subjects who do not fit into any other category") in their classification.

Thomas and a cameraman, Harry Chase, first went to the Western Front, but the trenches had little to inspire the American public. They then went to Italy, where he heard of General Allenby's campaign against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine. With the permission of the British Foreign Office, as an accredited war correspondent, Thomas met T. E. Lawrence, a captain in the British Army in Jerusalem. Lawrence was spending L200,000 a month encouraging the inhabitants of Palestine to revolt against the Turks. Thomas and Chase spent several weeks with Lawrence in the desert, though Lawrence said "several days." Lawrence agreed to provide Thomas with material on the condition that Thomas also photograph and interview Arab leaders such as Emir Feisal.

Thomas shot dramatic footage of Lawrence and, after the war, toured the world, narrating his film, With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, making Lawrence-and himself-household names. The performances were highly dramatic. At the opening of Thomas's six-month London run, there were incense braziers, exotically dressed women danced before images of the Pyramids, and the band of the Welsh Guards played to provide the accompaniment. Lawrence saw the show several times, and though he later claimed to dislike it, it generated valuable publicity for his own book. However, to strengthen the emphasis on Lawrence in the show, Thomas needed more photographs of him than Chase had taken in 1918. Lawrence therefore agreed to a series of posed portraits in Arab dress in London, though he claimed to be shy of publicity. Thomas later said of Lawrence, "He had a genius for backing into the limelight." Thomas and Lawrence's initially friendly relations grew colder as Thomas's show grew in popularity, with Thomas ignoring several personal requests from Lawrence to stop the show.

The shows gave Lawrence a degree of publicity that he had never previously experienced. Newspapers became keen to print his attacks on Government policy, and politicians began to pay attention to his views. At the end of 1920, he was invited to join the British Colonial Office, under Winston Churchill, as an adviser on Arab affairs. However, Lawrence said that he never forgave Thomas for exploiting his image, and called him a "vulgar man." For his part, Thomas genuinely admired Lawrence and continued to defend him against attacks on his reputation. Lawrence's brother, Arnold, extended Thomas an olive branch and allowed him to contribute to T.E. Lawrence by his Friends (1937), a collection of essays and reminiscences published after Lawrence's death.

About four million people saw the show around the world, and it made Thomas $1.5 million. Thomas would also later write a book, With Lawrence in Arabia (1924), about his time in the desert and Lawrence's exploits during the war. It would be the first of fifty-six volumes.