Rose Wilder Lane, Smedley Butler, Lowell Thomas, and Rachel Maddow

I think I’ll file this under “six degrees of separation.” See what you think.

I’ve been a fan of Rachel Maddow since 2008. I’ve read her books (Drift, Blowout, Bag Man) and listened to her first two podcasts (Bag Man and Ultra) more than once. The first episode of her latest podcast—Deja News—was released last week, and I listened with interest and then read the transcript. I especially appreciate Rachel’s habit of pulling parallel events from history and using them as a template for thinking about our current challenges. I always find important and intriguing historical intersections in her work. But this first episode of Deja News, “Riot at the Gates (Again),” held a special interest for me.

Rachel and her producer Isaac Davey Aronson begin this episode with the Business Plot, a little-known failed coup attempt by a cabal of wealthy, powerful businessmen against President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early 1930s. The attempt was foiled by Smedley Darlington Butler, a retired US Marine Corps brigadier general and much-decorated military hero whom the cabal tried to recruit to lead the coup, unseat FDR, and become the titular dictator.

Smedley Darlington Butler, about 1928

But General Butler took his story to Congress and the coup failed. In The Plot to Seize the White House, Jules Archer remarks: “If we remember Major General Smedley Darlington Butler for nothing else, we owe him an eternal debt of gratitude for spurning the chance to become dictator of the United States—and for making damned sure no one else did either.”

Jonathan Katz, one of the contributors to the podcast, has written an interesting and timely biography of Butler, a complex, complicated, and often contradictory man. His blunt, take-no-prisoners style made him a hit as a speaker, and he attracted a growing audience everywhere he went. He used the lecture circuit to air his growing concerns about fascism and the situation in what was now Hitler’s Europe. In 1935, he published a highly critical book called War Is a Racket in which he argued that America’s foreign policy and its wars—wars in which he had served—were driven by imperialist  and profit motives. The message was all the more powerful because it was delivered by a soldier who knew what he was talking about. It was popular, too: Reader’s Digest published a widely read condensed edition of it.

Lowell Thomas, about 1919. Doesn’t he look like Charlie Chaplin?

One of Butler’s early promoters was a radio broadcaster named Lowell Thomas, who made Lawrence of Arabia famous. Thomas had made a name for himself by capitalizing on his association with the heroic Lawrence, giving talks on radio and on the lecture circuit, illustrated by the newsreel-style films he brought back from the war. And using ghostwriters, he produced more than a dozen adventure books about other male action figures.

In 1930, Thomas—by that time a kind of impresario—developed a radio show featuring  the real-life stories of adventure heroes. One of his heroic subjects was Smedley Darlington Butler, whose story appeared in Thomas’s highly popular book, Old Gimlet Eye: The Adventures of Smedley D. Butler. The book was published in the autumn of 1933, at the very same time that General Butler was blowing the whistle on the Business Plot. Old Gimlet Eye was a first-person account of Butler’s life, as told by its author to Lowell Thomas. Except that it wasn’t.

For that’s where Rose Wilder Lane comes into our story. Old Gimlet Eye wasn’t “told to” Lowell Thomas, it was “told to” Rose, the accomplished ghostwriter Thomas hired to do the job.

Rose Wilder Lane, about 1927

If you’ve read my biographical novel, A Wilder Rose, you will remember that Rose Wilder Lane was the unnamed co-author (as well as agent and manager) of her mother’s eight autobiographical Little House books, published (1932-1943) under the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Before she undertook her mother’s project, Rose had already gained a national reputation as a newspaper reporter, a freelance magazine writer, a novelist, and a journalist. Her work, published in such magazines as Country Gentleman, The Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s  and Good Housekeeping, earned top dollar. She had recently (1928) returned to Laura and Alamzo’s Missouri farm to look after her elderly parents, built a house for them, and settled in to write and enjoy the writing life. And then came the Crash (October 1929) that upended the lives of every American. Rose lost every nickel she had invested in the market for herself and her parents. So she went looking for work.

Rose and Lowell Thomas likely met for the first time in New York on Nov. 6, 1931, through Rose’s friend Elsie Weil at Asia magazine, for whom Thomas had written some fifteen articles on T.E. Lawrence. At the time (November 1931) Rose was staying at the Westport, Connecticut, home of Sinclair Lewis and his wife Dorothy Thompson, a journalist and Rose’s longtime friend. Lewis had won the 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature; Dorothy wanted to go to Sweden with him and asked Rose to mind the household, which included the Sinclairs’ six-month-old baby. There, she worked for a month on   Old Gimlet Eye: The Adventures of Smedley D. Butler, which was published in 1933.

According to her unpublished journal, Rose ghostwrote five more adventure-hero books for Thomas over the next 18 months. He was glad to get a writer he could count on to do the work well and do it fast. And she did, producing each book in four-six weeks and earning $1,000 a book—about $20,000 in today’s money. He usually paid on time, although in at least one instance, she had to accept a post-dated check.  She admired bold adventurers. She likely admired Thomas. And she would have admired the General, who had the right stuff.

Rose disliked ghostwriting, but it was paying work that she did when she had to. Her first ghostwriting project had been White Shadows in the South Seas, which she co-authored with Frederick O’Brien in 1918-19. The book became an Academy Award–winning movie and earned O’Brien a small fortune. But he stiffed her and she had to sue for her share of the royalties. In the end, hard up for cash, she was forced to settle out of court for a fraction of what she was owed. She was astonishingly prolific throughout her nearly 60-year career. I’ve posted a bibliography of her work, as complete as I could make it at the time I was writing A Wilder Rose (2011-2012) It’s exhausting just to look at but even so, I’m sure it’s not exhaustive.

Rose’s politics were fairly far right and she was an outspoken advocate for her causes. Like many other farm families, she and her mother and father were fervid anti-New-Deal Republicans who opposed FDR on almost every policy issue—including Social Security, which both she and her mother considered a “Ponzi scheme” and refused to register for. She claimed to keep her earnings low in order to avoid paying taxes. She spoke out against the country’s foreign involvement , and, with Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand, she is thought of as one of the three “mothers of Libertarianism.” Her book, The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority (1943) is the strongest of her anti-fascist writings. In 1976, Rose’s “adopted grandson,” Roger Lea MacBride, became the Libertarian candidate for the presidency.

We have come quite a distance from Rachel’s podcast, which uses Smedley Butler to make the important connection between the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and a similar event in Paris on February 6, 1934. But I enjoyed thinking about the connections between General Butler, his promoter Lowell Thomas, and the ghostwriter whom Thomas hired to craft Butler’s war stories.

I’m looking forward to the next Deja News episode and the bridges it will build between the past and our present. And a few more “six degrees of separation.”

Reading Note: I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we’re so close.― John Guare

Your civil comments are welcome, as always. (Please, no trolling or trash talk.) And I’m happy to answer questions.

48 comments on “Rose Wilder Lane, Smedley Butler, Lowell Thomas, and Rachel Maddow

  1. LH/Big Woods was the first book in my childhood “personal” library. It had a special place in my heart–as did Rose, when I learned about her and her unceasing efforts to support her mother’s writing work. I’m deeply complimented to be on the same reading list with Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of my favorite historians!

  2. The Litte House on the Prairie books were one of the first “series” books I remember reading when I first started devouring chapter books in the 3rd grade. Needless to say, I enjoyed your book about Rose and her mother and have ready all of your “series” books and love them. I’m going to have to check out that podcast. I love history and also completely enjoyed your book on Eleanor. She is my favorite historical subject that I’ve read many books about. Another of my favorite writers besides you is Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thats as far as I go with politics. Never have liked politics because of how it brings out the worst in people for the most part. I like the 1st ladies stories much more than the actual politicians. Have to say I can’t wait for the next China Bayles book next spring.

  3. You are an exceptional writer and your opinion is yours to voice. I agree that we need to learn from our past.

  4. I’ve never been much of a groupie, but I would love to follow that woman around on a Monday, to see how she uses her team to put that show together. I miss her, but I realize that she has to try different things and find new ways to use her voice.

  5. Rachel should have you on as a guest!! If she has already, I’m sorry to have missed it!! Now I have to go look & see! Meantime, I’m going to get your book! I’m a longtime fan of Rachel & her show!😉🙋‍♀️🏳️‍🌈

  6. I went back to and some other online articles and I quickly saw that I had remembered the pictures wrong! It was Eve Le Gallienne who was the very pretty one. One picture of the young Helen Dore Boylston shows her looking like lively good-natured fun. The later pictures of an older Helen show her looking dauntingly severe.

    I found some more online material on Helen, including her thanks to a 20-year-old woman for help with “understanding how the young people [of the Sue Barton books] would sound” in talking, and that is consistent with what the young collaborator’s son said about his mother’s role in writing that series of books.

    Mostly, it seems to me that Helen Dore Boylston is someone other women enjoyed being around, to the point of extensive hospitality and collaborating on writing projects. I can see how that would be!

  7. I remember having the feeling that the Carol series grew out of Helen’s relationship (no idea whether they were lovers) with Le Gallienne, who was her neighbor on Long Island. I also had the feeling that Rose had a hand in getting that Nurse series published, but that’s only a suspicion. In The Ghost in the Little House, Bill Holtz picks up Rose’s view of Helen as scatterbrained, but I think that may not be fair. (Rose was hypercritical of everybody.) If anybody out there is doing research on Helen, I wish they would share!

  8. Thank you for the reply! I loved “Sister: The Diary of a War Nurse”, too – and now I know that the next book I’m going to read is “A Wilder Rose”.

    ( I bought one of the books in Boylston’s series featuring Carol, the New York stage actress, and then never actually read it.)

    I didn’t keep the links to what I found about Rose and Helen, and now I wish I had. You’re right, I wish we could know more. <3

  9. I understand why readers want to voice their objections, Patricia. I’m fine with that, as long as everyone is civil. And you’re exactly right: “politics” is invisible when we agree. (Like fish, we’re swimming in the same water.) When we disagree, the political becomes visible and some are surprised. Offended, even–sometimes they feel betrayed. It’s as if they discovered that their favorite aunt is a kleptomaniac in her spare time. They want to make a point about it. And then of course there are the trolls . . .

  10. Helen (Troub, short for Trouble) appears in my novel, A Wilder Rose. After she left Rose (about 1932) in Missouri, she relocated to Long Island, where she was involved with a community of artists around Eva Le Gallienne. I enjoyed the Nurse series, but my favorite book of hers is Sister: The Diary of a War Nurse , which she wrote at Rose’s urging and with her help. I wish we knew more about her!

  11. When I was a teenager, I enjoyed the “Sue Barton” series of books by Helen Dore Boylston, chronicling the progress of a young woman from nursing student to superintendent of nurses. What interested me was not the nursing aspect, but the idealism of the young Sue Barton. By the third book of the series, Sue Barton was working with the Henry Street Nurses of New York City, a real neighborhood nursing service that had grown out from the settlement house efforts of the Progressive Era.

    Helen Dore Boylston and Rose Wilder Lane were lifelong friends, and probably lovers, and lived together for a few years on the Wilder farm. I would have thought the progressive, idealistic Boylston and the libertarian Lane were an unlikely pair, but they had both come of age at the time of World War I and met in postwar Europe. They bought a Model T Ford that they name Zenobia and drove all the way to Albania, where they occupied a house and lived a madcap sort of social life for a few years. (“Travels with Zenobia”, by Lane and Boylston et al).

    I was fascinated and did more online searching, enough to find some writings from Rose Wilder Lane complaining how easy Boylston’s life path had been, thanks to the generosity of her many friends. I was left with a strong sense of not-surprise, because I’m pretty sure I would prefer the company of a progressive with the ideals of a settlement house over the company of a grouchy, resentful libertarian myself. (I’ve seen a picture of Boylston when she was young, and she was very pretty, too – something that shouldn’t matter, but often does.)

    And of course none of what I learned stops me from admiring Lane’s talent and strong work ethic!

  12. History has no political purpose other than the lessons it provides so that the mistakes of the past are never repeated. It is up to the current generation to be vigilant. Thanks, Susan for the post.

  13. Write on Susan! I don’t think you’re political (probably because I agree with you). If someone doesn’t want to read your work or continue to follow your blog, why can’t they just leave quietly? Why do they want to use your blog to announce their views? And they are using your blog because you have a following.

  14. You’re right, Mary Beth: Butler was a fascinating man. The shift in his position on the military remind me very much of Eisenhower’s warning on the military-industrial complex. I’m sorry to hear about your mother. Her 90+ years gave her a long, long view of our American experiment. I’m sure she had many stories to tell.

  15. I’m sorry you’re sorry, Lorraine. Writers have the same right–and responsibility–to voice their views as everyone else does. I voice mine in the books: they are political, in ways that some readers recognize. (You should see my mail on Queen Anne’s Lace.) And I’ll voice them here, when I have something to say. I always hope readers will read with open minds and hearts. But there’s no lack of places where they can find what they agree with. Our democracy gives us the freedom to choose–and isn’t that wonderful? Let’s keep it that way.

  16. I am officially unsubscribing.. very sorry you felt politics were more important than your readers.

  17. I am very sorry to see you being so political. I am sure many of your readers do not agree with you. I have almost every one of your books. Love them. I have recommended you to many people.

  18. I adore General Butler, and love imagining that we might be related way back in England somewhere (but haven’t been able to prove it so far) 🙂 Thanks for this. And thanks, again, for the Dahlias (on audio) which books are getting me through this season of my mom’s death and funeral. She was born in 1931 in Tallahassee, so the Darling, Alabama of the depression rang very true to her.

  19. Rounding up the pieces and making them all fit together is what you also have a remarkable ability to do. You may call it ‘work – that we all do’, but I know there is a good bit more craftsmanship or might I say art in what you do to complete your work. To me it is only too obvious that your work is what you love to do. That is not to say there were not times that you did it to pay the bills. Just saying, for many, if not most people, work is simply what is done for years on end to pay the bills and hopefully have enough to retire from. Sad, but true. In today’s world having enough to retire on has become almost more challenging than it was in Rose and Laura Wilder’s day of world wars and The Dust Bowl and The Great Depression. At least in that time there was still some support to be found in extended families, communities and the church. Today, we have young and old living on the street of our cities, and ‘we’ seem clueless as to why this is happening, much less really care to figure it out. I wonder what Rose would make of our political and civic situation today? If she would still see social security as a shifty fascist Ponzi scheme? Rachel says history rhymes. Perhaps there is a story to be told on this aspect of our times.

  20. Archer (The Plot to Seize the White House) goes into detail about the coalition of “discontented captains of industry and finance” that united (as the American Liberty League) in opposition to the New Deal. They understood the extent of the threat that FDR’s policies presented and they were going to do all they could to fight it. The list of the League’s members reads like a 1930s Who’s Who of the rich and powerful in America. (And yes! it is ALL interconnected!)

  21. Mary Jo, see my reply to Sarah, above (for more on Thomas). Yes: another China. I’m close to finishing Forget Me Never. You’ll probably have it in March or April 2024.

  22. Sarah, for those of us old enough to remember Lowell Thomas’ voice fondly, here’s a nostalgic reminder: It’s Thomas, announcing the potential surrender of Japan, Aug 10, 1945. (Click on “Play a sample”) Like you, I grew up in a time when our news of the world was far more limited than it is now. Lowell Thomas was one of my bridges to the world beyond our little farm. I was a loyal listener. If you listen to the sample, you’ll hear the kind of detail Thomas included in every broadcast. His stories enchanted me. Edward R. Murrow was another broadcast journalist who brought the world into our living rooms.

  23. Thanks again, Susan. It’s odd how things in life are interconnected. I’m reading the Century Trilogy by Ken Follett which I heartily recommend. In the first book there was little more than a paragraph about the Business Plot against FDR and it intrigued me because it seems to me that big business today is doing all they can to destroy Biden’s presidency what with shortages and inflation, etc. Now to read Rachel’s interpretation of historic events….it all fits.

  24. Susan, this is wonderful! Thank you for fleshing out Rachel’s story into people I feel like I have known. Grew up listening to the evening news on WJR, Detroit, with Lowell Thomas, and of, course beling a lover of the Wilder books from a very young age, I wish Rose could speak from the grave! Your post is timely. Thanks for reminding me that today is Monday – Rachel night!

  25. I remember Lowell Thomas on the radio back when I was a kid. I miss all the “old guys” ,, dead or alive (mostly dead). For me, “Those were the days”.
    Are you going to have more China Bayles , mysteries?

  26. There’s so much to be learned from the 1930s. The country was hugely divided. It took a war to pull us together. Let’s hope we can do better.

  27. You said it–smart. And knows how to tell a story in a way that captures and holds our attention. That’s a very special gift.

  28. There’s a lot more to be said about Lowell Thomas, who is a nexus to all the big stories of the 20s and 30s. He’s a fascinating character in his own right.

  29. Glad you enjoyed Poker. It was Rachel who introduced me (several years ago) to the Bonus Army, which appears in the background of that book, and to the banking failures that are the context for The Darling Dahlias and the Silver Dollar Bush. I admire the way she uses historical events to show us the opportunities and dangers in our present situation.

  30. Well, thanks… but there’s nothing superhuman about showing up for work every day. Which is what Rose did, what Rachel does, what I do, what most people do. What you see in our bibliographies is the product of our daily work. Nothing very extraordinary in that. What is extraordinary (seems to me) is the access to media that allows us to share our work. I’m sure that both Rose and Rachel would agree that access takes luck and persistence. And I agree with you: Rachel is out there fishing. Can’t wait to see her next catch!

  31. I wondered how you were going to top last week’s blog post. It was so juicy! And yet, this week’s post has given me so much food for thought, that I had to go do a little gardening just to think about it all.
    Can I put in a request for just a few more degrees of separation from a few of my fellow human beings? You can probably guess who I am thinking of. On the other hand, when I look at Rose Wilder’s bibliography and think of all of the writing that you have done, could you share your secret for making use of the 24 hours a day we all are given? I am at a loss to know how you have done anything else but write, write, write! You know, little things like eat, sleep, etc. Truly I bow to the superhuman ability to be so productive. And yes, you can throw Maddow in with that group, too! She speaks of occasionally going fishing. I suspect it may actually be fishing for the pieces for her next amazing story.
    Hats off all the way around! 🙂

  32. Rachel Maddow has filled my brain and kept me sane for forever. From 2016 through January 2021 she supplied hope and information that kept me in the know. With her perspective perhaps it’s why I so enjoyed The Dahlias and the Red Hot Poker. Thank you for all you have written and have yet to write.

  33. I find this post very enlightening. I wondered how you were going to connect all those people. I read Wilder Rose a while ago. I love Rachel..

  34. Thanks for including the link to the transcript, Susan. Have read it and am astonished as always by Rachel’s perception.

  35. My family knows that 9pm on Mondays is quiet time for them! I wait all week for Rachel’s recap of the news and her historical “tie-ins” help me survive. I love her podcasts, too. She is just so – smart!

  36. Have been remiss as I haven’t read Rachel Maddow–will put her on my list. Thank you for the Darling Dahlia series though. Learned a lot about the 1930’s and am looking into quire a bit of the time period. I always fancied myself in a yellow shirtwaist…also love the relationship of Violet and Myra. Back to China Bayles soon, though!

  37. Good word,”unsteady”–thank you, Fredericka. Unsteadier than we know–and so starkly and frighteningly parallel to our own.

  38. There’s always more under the surface, Rose–a gazillion connections to be made. I appreciate Maddow for her commitment to that never-ending process. Good journalists do it often. It’s the rare journalist who makes it her life’s work.

  39. You might enjoy Jon Katz’s biography, Trudie. There was a lot about Butler’s last decade-plus (he died in 1940) that the Marines would not have liked. And plenty of dots still to be connected.

  40. I also enjoy Rachel Maddow and hope to have the time to listen to the podcast soon. I found this article fascinating along with the connection to Wilder. Thanks for sharing.

  41. I was a Marine and the daughter of a Marine. I heard & read about General Butler all my life. NEVER heard of the possible coup. Sometime what we don’t know is as much as we do know. Thanks for connecting the dots!

  42. Enjoyed reading this very much, and share your enthusiasm for Rachel Maddow. Loved *A Wilder Rose,* too. What you did in this post reminds me of what Rachel often does in her pursuit of connections. Such a pleasure

  43. It does not surprise me to know that we share a great admiration of Rachel Maddow. I look forward to seeing/hearing her on Monday nights and hope to find the time to listen to Deja News this week. Thank you for providing this wonderful background to a very unsteady time in our history.

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