Lowell Jackson Thomas (April 6, 1892 – August 29, 1981) was an American writer, broadcaster, and traveller 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.
In 1910, Thomas graduated from Victor High School, where one of his teachers was Mabel Barbee Lee. The following year, he graduated from Valparaiso University with bachelor's degrees in education and science. The next year he received both a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Denver and began work for the Chicago Journal, writing for it until 1914. While in Chicago, he was a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, teaching oratory. He then went to New Jersey, where he studied for a master's at Princeton University (he received the degree in 1916) and again taught oratory at the university.
A relentless self-promoter, Thomas persuaded railroads to give him free passage in exchange for articles extolling rail travel. When he visited Alaska, he hit upon the novel idea of the travelogue, movies about faraway places. When the United States entered World War I, he was part of an official party sent by President Wilson, former president of Princeton, to "compile a history of the conflict." In reality the mission was not academic. The war was not popular in the United States, and Thomas was sent to find material that would encourage the American people to support it. Thomas did not want to merely write about the war, he wanted to film it. He estimated that $75,000 would be needed for filming, which the U.S. government thought too expensive, and so he turned to a group of 18 Chicago meat packers. (He had done them a favor by exposing someone who was blackmailing them, without the damaging material becoming public.)
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 defended him against attacks on his reputation, even 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.
Thomas never lost his fascination with the movies. He narrated Twentieth Century Fox's Movietone newsreels until 1952. That year he went into business with Mike Todd and Louis B. Mayer to exploit Cinerama, a movie format that used three projectors and an enormous curved screen. Because of both the cost and technical issues in synchronizing the projectors, Cinerama never caught on, but a quarter-century later, Thomas was still raving about it in his memoirs and wondering why someone wasn't trying to revive it. Thomas is also known for his television series of the 1950s entitled High Adventure and television's Lowell Thomas Remembers in the 1970s.
"The world's foremost globetrotter" took his radio show on his travels, broadcasting from the four corners of the globe. Once on the Spanish Steps in Rome he was asked by a fellow American, "Lowell Thomas, don't you ever go home?" He was a fanatical skier, helping develop the Mont Tremblant Resort in Quebec and skiing near Tucson, Arizona.
Thomas's most amusing on-air gaffe occurred during one of his daily CBS news broadcasts in the early 1960s. He was reading a story "cold" which had the phrase "She suffered a fatal heart attack" in it. The line came out of Thomas's mouth as "She suffered a fatal fart attack". Realizing instantly what he had said, he collapsed into gales of roaring laughter, which continued into-and beyond-his announcer's chuckling sign-off for the day. In another famous "blooper," Thomas' long time friend and ghostwriter, Prosper Buranelli, compiled the nightly newscasts prior to Thomas' final editing. One evening, Buranelli had as the final item a story about an actress going into a Los Angeles hotel with a great dane. The dog's tail got caught in the revolving door and she sued the hotel for $10,000. The story was intended to give Thomas a laugh before going on air, but Thomas arrived late for the broadcast and did not read the story or edit the news. He related the story as written together with Buranelli's comment, "Who ever thought a piece of tail was worth 10 grand." Some of his famous "bloopers" were included in the numerous LPs released in the 1950s through 1970s by Kermit Schaefer.
Thomas was a successful businessman. In 1954, he and his long-time business manager/partner Frank Smith brought a small Albany New York-based broadcasting company and turned it into Capital Cities Communications, which in 1986 took over the American Broadcasting Company, and developed the Quaker Hill community in Dutchess County, New York, near Pawling, where Thomas resided when not on the road. Among his neighbors there was Thomas E. Dewey, one of a huge circle of friends that included everyone from the Dalai Lama to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded Thomas the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1989.
In May 1955, the board of directors of the Lancaster and Chester Railway Company of South Carolina appointed him Press Agent, in N.Y.C.
His wife of 58 years, Fran Ryan, who often travelled with him, died in February 1975. He was married a second time in 1977 to Marianna Munn. True to form, he embarked with her on a 50,000-mile honeymoon trip that took him to many of his favourite old destinations.
Thomas died at his home in Pawling, New York in 1981. He buried in Christ Church Cemetery.
His son, Lowell Thomas, Jr., was a film and television producer who collaborated with his father on several projects before becoming a State Senator, and later the Lieutenant Governor of Alaska, in the 1970s. Today, Lowell Thomas Jr. remains an active bush pilot and environmental activist in Alaska.
Lowell Thomas has the communications building at Marist College (in Poughkeepsie, New York) named in his honor after receiving an honorary degree from the college in 1981. The Lowell Thomas Archives are housed as part of the college library.
Thomas was fictionalized in David Lean's 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia as American journalist Jackson Bentley, played by Arthur Kennedy (who was some twenty-five years older than Thomas was at the time). When he heard this film was being produced, Thomas offered to give producer Sam Spiegel a large amount of documentation about Lawrence to use for the film, but was rejected. Thomas enjoyed the film but was critical of its historical inaccuracies.
In the unofficial sequel to Lawrence, A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia (1990), he was more accurately portrayed by actor Adam Henderson, who gave a recreated version of Thomas's slide lectures on Lawrence.
The Lawrence-themed play Ross by Terrence Rattigan featured another Thomas-like character named Franks, who hectors General Allenby and Lawrence for photographs and interviews after the fall of Jerusalem.
Thomas also appeared in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. The episode takes place in Morocco in 1917. Fresh from his adventures with Lawrence in Arabia, Thomas (played by Evan Richards) meets up with young Indy (Sean Patrick Flanery) and the novelist Edith Wharton (Clare Higgins).
He was also fictionalized in two Warner Brothers cartoons, She Was an Acrobat's Daughter (as Dole Promise) and The Film Fan (as Cold Promise). Both Dole Promise and Cold Promise were billed as newsreel "prevaricators."
In Greg Bear's Dinosaur Summer a trainer and animal capturer, Vince Shelabarger, breifly references that in the story's alternate history, Lowell Thomas made attempts to capture a huge species of terror bird, Aepyornis titan and was killed in the process.