What’s the use?
It’s the first phrase that springs to mind whenever I consider writing about the life of T.E. Lawrence. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – ‘TE Shaw’ – ‘The Blonde Beduin’- ‘John Hume Ross’ -‘The Uncrowned King of Arabia’ – ‘The Untidiest Officer in the British Army’ – ‘The Mystery Man of Arabia’ – ‘The Wild Ass of the Desert’ – ‘The World’s Imp’. His epithets are outnumbered only by his biographies. An entire shelf at Midway Books in Saint Paul is dedicated to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, with stacks of books and pamphlets, too many to count.
Lawrence’s family name was as much a construction as any other– his mother, Sarah Junner, was mistress and governess to a married man named Thomas Chapman, who ran off with Junner and registered themselves under the new identities of’ Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence’. T. E. (Thomas Edward) was their second oldest, and seemingly never held value for any of his names, any of his shifting identities.
T. E. was virtually unknown during World War I. The British, in fact, carefully guarded his image—a caution which may have saved his life when he was kidnapped in Deraa. He went unrecognized, and was able to pass as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Circassian. While the Germans and Turkish forces knew that some British intelligence and money was behind the bombing attacks on railways, and that a man named Lawrence was in the desert, no one had seen his face.
That changed in 1918, when American propagandist Lowell Thomas was sent to the Middle East to film General Allenby’s historic march into Jerusalem. Thomas was on a mission to enlist American support for the War effort, and to deliver some good news in the midst of general chaos. He went looking for a hero.
He found one. Lingering back in Jerusalem was a 5’5” officer wearing a borrowed uniform and still recovering from the wounds—both physiological and psychological—of Deraa. Lawrence was introduced to Thomas by Colonel Ronald Storrs as “The Uncrowned King of Arabia”. Thomas’ initial impressions of the man were unremarkable. “He is 5 feet 2 inches tall,” Thomas wrote, exaggerating Lawrence’s diminutive stature. “Blonde, blue sparkling eyes, fair skin—too fair even to bronze after 7 years in the Arabian desert. Bare-footed. Costume of Meccan Sherif.”
Lawrence wore the costume with an ounce of humor—although it was instrumental, he later wrote, in attaining the trust of the Arabs, and highly practical in the desert climate, it was also always worn with a sort of wry humor. Even in his element, Lawrence was never fully settled in one identity.
Stories diverge even here. Lawrence claimed they met only twice in Jerusalem; Thomas claimed he spent entire weeks with Lawrence and accompanied him on missions (an impossibility, as there were no battles taking place at the time). Lawrence didn’t even think to mention their meeting in Jerusalem while writing his exhaustive account of the Arab conflict in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Thomas’ own diaries recall his attempts to draw Lawrence’s story out of him, which inevitably fell flat. Although he said they conversed on literature and archaeology, Thomas pieced together the story of the guerrilla warfare from others around Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Thomas’ admiration for Lawrence grew and he wrote of him fondly by the end of his trip: “Natives are crazy about him. Goes alone always. Usually smiling,” he wrote, of his new scoop.
With Armistice came an end to Thomas’ propaganda mission, but the images he’d captured of the handsome Lawrence in exotic dress became world famous. A great story had landed in his lap. Thomas’ travelogue’s—titled With Allenby in Palestine and then re-titled With Lawrence in Arabia—became performance pieces and lectures in short order, complete with incense and “Oriental” music.
Lawrence himself was, as always, of two minds about the publicity. “I am painfully aware of what Mr. Lowell Thomas is doing,” he wrote, as Thomas began his lecture circuit. Lawrence attended many of the performances in the backs of theaters, watching in anxiety as the public oohed and aahed over staged images of his adventures in the desert.
“I resent him,” Lawrence wrote of Thomas, “but am disarmed by his good intentions.” Lawrence was in the midst of peace talks, and was attempting to use his new-found celebrity as leverage for the Arab cause. He posed for images in Arab dress and collaborated with Thomas on travelogues, but in the back of his mind, he wrote, was always the final goal, which was to win self-governance for the Arabs who had fought alongside him. He had promised them freedom, after all, not just freedom from the Turkish.
“T.E. Lawrence was perhaps too complicated, too intelligent, too literary, too guilt-ridden, too troubled to wear the mantle of hero with anything but great discomfort,” reads a current Clio exhibit on the pair, written by contemporaries and scholars of Lowell Thomas. “At times he helped further his fame. But the historian in him remained critical of it and the ascetic in him was likely disgusted by it.”
The Arab cause did not get its land or its freedom. Although King Feisal, the other (some would argue more important) half of Lawrence’s coin, was put in charge of the newly minted country of Iraq, his family would be shortly and violently ousted. Instead of self-governance, the Arabic people fell under British and French rule. Aware he had participated in a massive betrayal, and crippled with the guilt of it, Lawrence attempted to find anonymity.
He enlisted as a low-ranking Royal Air Force officer, under the assumed name of John Hume Ross, but was shortly discovered and ejected for being too famous and attracting unwanted attention. The rejection devastated Lawrence, who wrote pages upon pages to the Air Force asking for reconsideration. After an unsuccessful campaign to rejoin, and still haunted by the broken promises of the war, Lawrence became suicidally depressed. “At present I’m sitting in my cottage and getting used to an empty life,” Lawrence (now legally “T.E. Shaw”) wrote in his last letter, dated May 15th, 1935. “When that spell is over and I begin to go about again, I shall see…” Lawrence was fatally wounded the following day in a motorcycle accident.
Lowell Thomas died forty-six years later, still pondering the puzzle-box that was ‘Lawrence of Arabia’– the identity he had created. “Once I asked him to verify an anecdote I’d heard from someone who had known him in Cairo,” Thomas wrote in his diary. “He laughed and said, ‘Use it if it suits your needs. What difference does it make if it’s true—history is seldom true.’”
Thomas may have been Lawrence’s first ‘biographer’ (and from the start, much of the story was manufactured), but he was far from the last. Still, to this day, biographers, scholars, playwrights, academics, novelists, historians, filmmakers, comedians, actors, poets, artists, and fanatics devote themselves to uncovering a new wrinkle to the Lawrence story. Every label has been lobbed at him: liar, hero, fraud, hypocrite, martyr, saint. In the forties, a very small and brief-lived British cult even sprung up around Lawrence, worshiping him as a sort of messianic figure. On the other end, virulent and nasty denouncements of Lawrence are still commonplace in lecture halls and YouTube videos today, as everyone tries to weigh fact and fiction.
So, what have I to add to the story? A new fact? A new image? A new perspective? Perhaps only passion and will. No one will ever have the story of Lawrence—Lowell Thomas himself fell far short even with Lawrence’s tentative input. But maybe, if we all continue to write, to speak, to imagine, to debate, and to dream, the collage (or is it a mirage?) will piece itself together; a single word, a shifting name, a new shelf.
To Lawrence, to Shaw, to the Uncrowned King, and to that slippery Lowell Thomas, I raise a glass, and make a toast.
Clio exhibit, online. “Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia: Making a Legend, Creating History”.
Garnett, David. The Essential T. E. Lawrence: A Biography of His Own Writing
Hodson, Joel. “Lowell Thomas, T. E. Lawrence, and the Creation of a Legend,” American History Magazine
Lawrence, T. E. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.