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Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis Celebrate Christmas at the Villa Sauerbrunn in Semmering, 1932

By Dan Durning December 30, 2012

Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis Celebrate Christmas at the Villa Sauerbrunn in Semmering, 1932
By Dan Durning In 1932, journalist Dorothy Thompson and writer Sinclair "Red" Lewis celebrated Christmas by inviting 40 or so guests to join them for ten days in Semmering, a winter-sport resort in Lower Austria, less than 50 miles from Vienna. According to Vincent Sheean, a friend of the couple, their plan was to have "a really fabulous holiday party...full of English and Americans and snow and sleds and skis and music and dancing and beer and wine and conversation." [Sheean, p. 212] The extended party, Thompson biographer Peter Kurth(p. 176) wrote, was "one of the great parties of the 1930s, a fabulous, week-long bash that went on through New Years." Guest M. W. Fodor, a foreign correspondent based in Vienna, described the party as "a week of unadulterated pleasure enlivened by witty companions and his lovely [wife] Marta's gypsy songs performed nightly to her own guitar accompaniment." (Sanders, p. 179). Others had less positive memories of the party. Lilian Mowrer, a journalist who attended the party with her husband, said it "was accursed at the very outset, by the weather." According to her, because of a lack of snow and inclement weather, guests preferred to stay indoors "where there was approximately nothing to do and both the conversation and the nerves wore thin." (Sheean, p. 213)
Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Thompson, and their son Michael, 1935 (From Vincent Sheean, Dorothy and Red)

Though people who attended the party had different recollections about it, this extended celebration was certainly memorable. Sheean, who could not attend the party because of his work in Paris, wrote about it: "Everybody who was there remembers the party on the Semmering vividly; no two accounts agree, of course, but the result of the story, to me, has always been to make me glad I was not there." (Sheean, p. 213)


The Christmas Guests No one knows for sure exactly who attended the Semmering Christmas party bash. Sheean wrote about it (p. 212), "I have been hearing about this party ever since it happened...; but it strikes me that every time I hear about it the name of some new guest appears." [p. 212]. Accounts of the party in biographies of Thompson (Sanders 1973, Kurth 1990, Hertog 2011) and Sinclair Lewis (Grebstein 1962, Shorer 1961), plus a book about the two (Sheean 1963), contain the names of the following people who attended at least some of the party. The list includes a few family and close personal friends, journalists, writers and artists, and a diplomat. The family members and a close person friend were: Michael Lewis (1930-1975) Son of Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis, he was 2 1/2 years old at the time. Later, as an adult, he became an actor. Like his father, from whom he was estranged at an early age, he had an alcohol abuse problem. Margaret (Peggy) Wilson (1897 - 1970) and daughter Pamela Peggy was Dorothy's sister and the mother of young Pamela. Eugenie Schwarzwald (1878 - 1940), Eugenie Schwarzwald was a Viennese friend of Dorothy; she was famous as a pedagogue, social reformer, and women's rights activist. As a Jew, she had to leave Austria following the Anschluss. She received financial support from Dorothy Thompson while living in exile in Switzerland. She is the subject of a 2012 book, Langeweile ist Gift (Boredom is Poison): Der Leben der Eugenie Schwarzwald, Residenz Verlag. Eugenie Schwarzwald The journalists attending the party included a former colleague of Thompson in Germany and two of her former colleagues who were correspondents in Vienna: Edgar Ansel Mowrer (1892-1977) and Lilian Tomson Mowrer (1889-1990), plus daughter Diana Jane (1923 - ) Edgar Mowrer, an American, was at the time the Chicago Daily News correspondent in Berlin. In 1932, he had completed a book titled Germany Puts Back the Clock. In 1933, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Germany; also that year he was forced by Nazi threats to leave the country. Lilian Mowrer, born in Great Britain, was also a journalist; she wrote for magazines and published several books on international affairs.
Lilian Mowrer


From the dust jacket of South of Hitler by M.W. Fodor

John Gunther (1901-1970) and Frances Fineman Gunther (18971964), plus son Johnny (1929-1947) In 1932, John Gunther was the Vienna-based correspondent for the Chicago Daily News. A few years later, he became famous for his "Inside" books, the first of which, Inside Europe, was published in 1936. Frances Gunther also worked periodically as a journalist in Vienna. Their son Johnny Gunther died as a teenager, and his story was told in Death Be Not Proud, written by John Gunther. M.W. Fodor (1890-1977) and Martha Roob Fodor (1900-1959), plus son Denis (1927- ) In 1932, M.W. Fodor was a Vienna-based reporter for the Manchester Guardian, plus some American papers. He had been a mentor to Dorothy Thompson when she arrived in Vienna in 1922. Both M.W. and Martha were born in Hungary. Denis became a journalist, writing for the United Press, then for Time-Life. He also worked several years as an editor at Reader's Digest and now lives in Munich. Another group of guests were engaged in literary or other art-related activities. They included: Baron Lajos von Hatvany (1880-1961) and Baronness Christa Hatvany Winsloe (1888-1944) Baron Hatvany, a wealthy Jewish Hungarian landowner, was a liberal, a writer and a literary scholar. He married German Christa Winsole in 1913; they separated in 1922 when she moved to Munich. The couple were divorced shortly after the 1932 party. She was a sculpturess and writer. In 1931, one of her books was the basis for a film, with a lesbian motif, entitled Mädchen in Uniform. She left Germany after 3

Hitler came to power, residing a few years in the United States, then returning to Europe, living in France where she was murdered in 1944. 2212&wwwflag=1&imagepos=3&screenwidth=1920 -regent-releases-baron-ludwig-hatvany ames/misc/deutsch2.html Adolphe Menjour (1890-1963) Adolphe Menjour was an American actor whose career began in the 1920s and lasted into the 1950s. (Though Menjour Baron Lajos von visited Lewis and Thompson at Villa Sauerbrunn, it is not Hatvany certain he was there for the Christmas party).

Adolphe Menjour

Robert Nichols (1893-1944) and Norah Nichols (??-??) Robert Nichols was an English poet, known as one of the poets of the Great War. Virgilia (Gilly) Peterson (1904-1966) and Prince Paul Sapieha (??-??) of Poland Virgilia Peterson, an American, had divorced writer Malcolm Ross in April 1932. Though she and Prince Sapieha were not married at the time of this party, he proposed to her on New Years' Eve of 1932 and they married on July 1, 1933. "Gilly" wrote several books including A Matter of Life and Death, published in 1962. In the late 1940s and 1950s, she was often on television and radio in the United States discussing books, and she wrote book reviews for the New York Times and other publications. She committed suicide on Christmas eve, 1966, when journalist William Shirer, with whom she was having an affair, did not show up to celebrate Christmas with her. This wrenching event is described in Shirer's final volume of his autobiography, A Native Returns, 1992, pp 399-407).

4 Alexander S. Frere Reeves (1892-1984) and Patricia Wallace (1908 - ????) A. S. Frere-Reeve, who after 1932 dropped "Reeves" from his name, worked for and later managed William Heinemann, Ltd, a British publisher. Patricia Marion Caldecott Wallace was daughter of author Edgar Wallace. Alexander and Patricia married a short time after the 1932 party. Russell Davenport (1899-1954) and Marcia Gluck Davenport (1903-1996) In 1932, Russell Davenport was on the editorial staff of Fortune Magazine. In 1937, he became its managing editor. After WWII, he was on the staff of Life and Time magazines. Marcia worked on the staff of the New Yorker from 1928 to 1931. Her biography of Mozart was published in 1932 and remained in print for more than 60 years. She was a successful novelist, with her first novel published in 1936. Her mother was a well-know soprano. Her step-father was Efrem Zimbalist, a famous violinist. Philip Goodman (1885-1940) and Lily Cartun Goodman (??-??) Philip Goodman was a successful Broadway producer who had started producing shows in the 1920s. In 1931, he had produced the show "Washington Square." One other guest was serving in a diplomatic post in 1932, but soon after started working full time as a journalist and writer: Nicholas Roosevelt (1893-1982) In 1932, Nicholas Roosevelt was the American minister in Hungary. He left diplomacy in 1933 and became a journalist, working for many years as an editorial writer for the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times. During his life, he published more than a dozen books: This list of people attending the party is incomplete. According to Hertog (p 198), "On most days, there would be as many as thirty or more people in residence in the hotel or their villa. In addition, there were others who were day guests."


Arriving at Villa Sauerbrunn in Semmering The 1932 Christmas party came in the middle of a long stay in Austria planned by Dorothy Thompson. She had enjoyed living in Vienna, where she had first gained some renown as a journalist soon after arriving there in late 1921 with a job as a stringer (pay per article) for the Philadelphia Public Ledger. She had parlayed that foot in the door into a full-time job, and in 1925 she had been appointed to head the Berlin bureau of the paper (and its syndicate partner the New York Evening Post). For many reasons, including a desire to try to rebuilt a deteriorating relationship with her husband, she had convinced him to agree to rent a villa in Semmering and an apartment in Vienna (Wohllebengasse 9) for several months. The couple, with their young son Michael Lewis, departed on August 24, 1932 for Europe. When they arrived, Thompson went directly to Semmering to set up the household at the luxurious Villa Sauerbrunn. He immediately journeyed to Germany for a couple of weeks, joining her in Semmering in the second week in September. He convinced her to travel in Tyrol and Italy for three weeks. They were joined for part of that trip by Adolphe Menjour. After those travels, they returned to Semmering, but he departed again almost immediately for Italy, returning to Austria toward the end of November. After he returned, he spent most of his time at their small apartment in Vienna. Dorothy Thompson liked Villa Sauerbrunn. She described it in a letter to journalist and friend H. R. Knickerbocker as being "as thick with comfort as a coffee cake is with sugar." (quoted in Kurth 176). Lewis also liked it initially, though later it held little appeal for him. He described it, soon after his arrival, as "a cuckoo-clock house in aspect with Ritz comfort in beds and bathroom and kitchens and chairs and lights." The villa was set in a large garden. It looked down a deep valley and then to a pastoral upland and the slopes of the Rax and Schneeberg mountains. (Schorer, 576) The Ten Long Days of the 1932 Semmering Christmas Likely, Dorothy did most of the planning for the party. She told her invitees that the idea was to have fun. The plan was for skiing and tobogganing; tea-dances at the hotel; and most meals together (Kurth 177). Dorothy saw the party as "a kind of winter festival in which everybody would be out of doors all day long, all healthy and sportive and not needing lunch. She had planned breakfast and dinner only, with plenty of time for the servants to clean out both the villa and the dépendance that housed most of the guests. (Sheehan 213) Even in the midst of the Great Depression, the couple could easily afford this lavish event.


Accommodations A few guests stayed in Villa Sauerbrunn; for other guests, the hosts rented the entire annex (dépendance) of a neighboring hotel. According to Denis Fodor, who was at the party as a child, this hotel was the Grand Hotel Panhans, a modern, luxury hotel. The original Hotel Panhans opened in 1888; in 1913, a new 400-room Grand Hotel Panhans had first welcomed guests. After some bad times following World War I, the hotel was refurbished and revitalized beginning in 1930. One of its additions was a large indoor swimming pool with retractable glass walls. (For a history of the hotel, see

Denis Fodor recalls that the Fodors stayed during this time at their "accustomed hostelry," the Hotel Prinz Johann. (E-mail dated December 24, 2012) Other people attending the party traveled for the day from Vienna. The hosts set up a private bar in the hotel annex and employed a "little orchestra" for dancing. There was an enormous Christmas tree, swimming in the hotel pool, sleigh rides to mountain inns for lunch, singing, and snow. (Shorer 579) Denis Fodor remembers a "a large Christmas tree, very silvery, and boxes." (e-mail, dated December 29, 2012). According to Hertog (p 198), the Lewises "hired a caterer, a butler, and a full-piece orchestra. Denis Fodor recalls that for skiers there was one slope that had a ropeline, a novelty at the time, and another slope that had none. He used the slope without the rope-life. (E-mail dated December 24, 2012)


Lilian Mowrer, who was at the party with her husband) remembered the occasion as a housekeeping nightmare. Sanders (p. 198) quoted her as recollecting that Dorothy, "who had acquired a Ford that she drove with abandon, spent hours commuting to Vienna to replenish the food and liquor supply. On December 24 she was determined to serve carp, a traditional Viennese Christmas Eve delicacy and a few days earlier had brought a huge live fish from Vienna, planning to store it in the pond which had unfortunately frozen over." Lack of Snow Although both a Thompson and Lewis biographer (Sanders 179 and Schorer 579) wrote that snow was plentiful during the party, other biographers and one participant maintain that a lack of snow disrupted the party plans and contributed to a "tense" situation. As mentioned earlier, Lilian Mowrer told Vincent Sheean (p. 213) that the party "was accursed at the very outset, by the weather." Elsewhere she said there was "not one flake" falling on Semmering that Christmas. (Kurth 177) According to Hertog (p. 198), because of rain, the party participants were stuck indoors for the ten days of the party. He wrote, "What was to be a winter festival with skiing, sleight riding, and fresh, crisp mountain air became of Dionysian brawl." Sheean observed that the weather "thwarted Dorothy's plans for extensive outdoor activities." Because of the conditions, including a lack of snow and very cold weather, guests preferred to stay indoors. They had little to do there and [according to Lilian Mowrer] grew tired of each other. Sheehan 213 Sanders (p. 179), in contrast to the other biographers, asserted that there was plenty of snow during this Christmas party. And Shorer made no reference to a lack snow during the celebration. Nevertheless, a newspaper article in Vienna's Neue Freie Press (p. 5) on December 27th reported that Semmering had had little or no snow during the preceding days. The article noted snow had fallen above the 1,700 meter level on the surrounding mountains, but the resort was located at the 1,000 meter level. According to the article, lots of people had traveled to Semmering from Vienna for Christmas, but most had to settle for hiking rather than cross country skiing.


Neue Freie Zeitung, Dec. 27, 1933, p. 5

Surplus of Time and Alcohol Although it apparently did not snow (or snowed very little) during the Semmering Christmas party, snow was not completely absent. Pictures were taken at the party of guests on a toboggan. In the picture below, Sinclar Lewis is standing in the foreground on left (his hand is in his pocket). To the right of him, partially obscured, is M. W. Fodor. To the right of Fodor is Virgilia Peterson, then Christa Winsloe (in a slouch hat). Dorothy Thompson is second on the sled. Behind her is Lilian Mowrer. The man in the beret, near the front of the sled, is Edgar Mowrer. This picture is from American Cassandra by Kurth; a similar picture is in Sheean's Dorothy and Red.


Tobogganing on a Mountain in Semmering.

Despite the picture, apparently not much tobogganing was done at the party. Kurth (p. 177) wrote that with rain, fog, and unpleasant cold, the outdoor celebration planned by Dorothy was not possible and there was not much to do "except eat, sleep, and drink." At the hotel annex, every night the guests "repaired to dance and talk and booze until dawn." According to Sanders (p. 179), "By mid afternoon under gray skies, there was nothing to do but huddle indoors and begin serious drinking." In his account of the party Sheean (p 213) wrote that with guests spending most of their time indoors, "The drinking that went on was excessive." Hertog (p. 198) described the situation like this: The children went wild and the adults grew bored, drunk, and argumentative. According to Kurth (p. 177), "The children started to hit each other with shovels and snowshoes." Tension Grows The boredom, drinking, and arguing were bad enough, but the guests also got tired of "a couple of fierce Prussian servants [who] kept ordering the guests from one room to another." And some of the guests did not like each other. Lilian Mower viewed Gunther's wife France as ""B-I-T-C-H who was constantly late, holding everybody up." (Kurth p177) Another source of tension was Sinclair Lewis, who, according to most accounts (though not that of Sheean), was not drinking alcoholic beverages during the party. Typically Lewis was a heavy drinker, but, as Hertog (p. 198) reported, when Lewis returned to Semmering in late November, he had been "determined to dry out." To do so, he substituted milk and candy for spirits and "he became a stickler about alcohol, ridiculing visitors for the slightest indulgence." 10

Kurth (p. 177) described the situation thusly: The atmosphere was tense because, despite Lewis' history of drinking, he was "the only one at the Semmering party who abstained from alcohol. He went to bed at eleven o'clock each night and left his guests to get drunk by themselves....It actually made for tension in the house, because everybody present, knowing his record, had to wonder just when he would fall off the wagon. They were expecting Red to take a drink at any moment...."

Sinclair Lewis and Unknown Friend in Front of Villa Sauerbrunn. Picture from Sheean, Dorothy and Red.

None of the accounts of party suggests that Lewis was not a good host. In fact, Sanders (p. 179) maintained that he was "at his best playing host." However, it was not easy. According to Sheean (p. 213), "Red was for the greater part of the time in a mood of desperate depression." Hertog (p. 198) explained, that while Dorothy talked politics in German with her friends, Hal [as Sinclair was called by some friends], sick of what he called "the situation" and not knowing a word of German, withdrew into a deep depression." Part of the problem, Peggy -- Dorothy's sister -- explained to Sheean, was that "Red couldn't stand Dorothy's friends." (Sheean 213). Fortunately, Lewis made it to the last hours of the party before getting into a tiff with Dorothy. When she and the remaining group of guests took off to visit Budapest at the end of the party, Lewis left with Dorothy's sister to visit Italy. (Shorer p. 579) The Aftermath The 1932 Semmering Christmas, while memorable, exposed the growing rift between Thompson and Lewis. It likely added to the growing grievances felt by each. They saw each other less and less in the years that followed and officially separated in 1937, followed by a divorce in January 1942.


From left: Edgar Mowrer, Baron von Hatvany, Christa Winsloe, and Sinclair Lewis

Of course, it should also be mentioned that the most remarkable occurrence of the Christmas party was that Dorothy fell in love with Christa Winsloe, though the proclaimed that she did not love Lewis any less because of it. Thompson wrote in her diary (which became available to researchers a few years after her death) on December 28, 1932: "So it has happened to me again, after all these years....There is something weak in it and, even, ridiculous. To love a woman is somehow ridiculous. Mir auch passt es nicht. Ich bin doch heterosexuel. [Anyway it doesn't suit me. I am heterosexual]...Well, then, how to account for this which has happened again....? (Kurth 178) Thompson spent a few months in 1933 traveling in Europe with her new love, and the two spent much time together in the United States during the following couple of years. By 1935, they had drifted apart. Meanwhile, Thompson's fame as a journalist continued to grow until she was one of the most famous columnists and political commentators in the United State. ****************************************************** Sources: Grebstein, Sheldon. 1962. Sinclair Lewis. Twayne Publishers Hertog, Susan. 2011. Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson: New Women in Search of Love and Power. Ballantine (pp. 197-198) Kurth, Peter. 1990. American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. Little, Brown, and Co. (pp. 176-178)


Sanders, Marion. 1973. Dorothy Thompson: A Legend in Her Time. Houghton Mifflin Co (pp. 178-181) Sheean, Vincent. 1963. Dorothy and Red. Houghton Mifflin Co (pp. 212 - 213) Shorer, Mark. 1961. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. McGraw-Hill. (pp. 576-579)