April 2020
The lively letters of Dimitri Tiomkin and Lowell Thomas, Part 2

by Warren M. Sherk

…continued from Part 1

The worlds of Dimitri Tiomkin and Lowell Thomas converged through the making of the 1957 Cinerama documentary, Search for Paradise, produced by Thomas and scored by Tiomkin. After the film’s release, a lively procession of letters, telegrams, and cards ensued, often filled with news, plans, and projects shared between the film composer and world explorer.

As 1964 dawns, Lowell Thomas’s executive secretary, Mary Davis, thanks Mr. and Mrs. Dimitri Tiomkin for the holiday gift.

Several weeks later, Lowell Thomas opens a lengthy dictated letter with adventures in Spain: snow skiing, a visit to the Prado [one of the world’s great art museums, the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid], a night with Flamenco dancers, and even a trip to the ancient walled city of Toledo, once home to El Greco. On the road to Puerto de la Navacerrada sat the immense set for Samuel Bronston’s epic film, The Fall of the Roman Empire, looking “as though Cecil DeMille had been there.” Filming was completed at the site the previous year and the film’s premiere featuring a dramatic music score by Dimitri Tiomkin was only a month away.

Look closely at the letters of Lowell Thomas in Part 1 and below and you’ll notice he always signed his name with a green pen and even his stationery was printed with green ink. In the letter above, Mary Davis takes the liberty of signing Lowell’s name—with a green pen!—as she explains in the cover letter below. It’s a good imitation; however, Lowell’s true signature tended to run uphill from left to right, whereas in Mary’s hand the signature appears flat. Mary Davis also signs her own letters with a green pen.

Leaving for Madrid from London, Tiomkin jokes about writing an opera titled “Flying Lowell Thomas” concerning his friend’s “interminable, strained and extraordinary adventures” that “have captivated me for so many years.”

Several years had passed since the death of Prosper Buranelli, who spent his career writing for Lowell Thomas and in one of his last acts, co-wrote Tiomkin’s autobiography. Tiomkin writes, “Too bad that Prosper is not with us now…” The composer goes on to mention the resentment Buranelli felt for Otto Lang. The quartet all worked together on Search for Paradise, Lang directed, Buranelli and Thomas wrote the scenario and narration, and Tiomkin composed the music score.

Tiomkin continues, “Sometimes when I have a peculiar lack of interest in my activity or boredom and indifference I always flash in my thought to my meeting with you and your indefatiguable [sic] belief in what you are doing and your optimism…” 

After Thomas receives and listens to The Fall of the Roman Empire soundtrack from Tiomkin he writes, “Also, I’m still kicking myself for not taking a look at your big Fall of Rome set just outside Madrid. Cordially, Lowell.”

Actor and singer Donald Stewart, understudy to Robert Goulet in the Broadway production of Camelot, and Kathleen Knight, Miss Colorado 1964, are the subjects of this short note to “Dimi,” the diminutive form of Dimitri’s name preferred by his close friends.

As 1965 dawns, Mary Davis, on Lowell Thomas stationery, thanks Tiomkin for “12 lovely bottles of wine”­­­—she had a fondness for Aromat white—and brings Tiomkin up-to-date on the situation in New York. While Thomas and his wife were on an African safari, Davis was tasked with the relocation of his longtime office in the Rockefeller Center to the headquarters of Capital Cities Broadcasting in the Villard Houses at 24 East 51st Street.

Attempts to have Tiomkin’s recently published autobiography, Please Don’t Hate Me, condensed or excerpted in Readers Digest apparently never bore fruit.

The Readers Digest senior editor is James Monahan. He asks Tiomkin to address the Dutch Treat Club, a social group for writers in New York; however, Tiomkin declines due to his work load.

A Lowell Thomas testimonial dinner scheduled for November 22, 1965, with proceeds to benefit the Explorers Club World Center for Exploration Program, results in an invitational letter from CBS Evening News anchorman Walter Cronkite.

“I will be more than delighted and proud to be connected in any capacity and to be of help for the testimonial dinner honoring my great friend Lowell Thomas, with whom I have had the honor to work with on Cinerama and whom I love and respect as one of the greatest citizens of our country,” replies Tiomkin.

The sponsoring members read like a Who’s Who of American journalism, business, and politics: Art Buchwald, Bennett Cerf, New York governor Thomas Dewey, Arthur Godfrey, Conrad Hilton, Art Linkletter, Richard M. Nixon, Jack Paar, William Paley, David Rockefeller, David Sarnoff, Spyros Skouras, and John Hay Whitney, among others.

The Salute to Lowell Thomas gatefold program.

After the testimonial dinner, Thomas floats a project on New Guinea.

Thomas thanks Tiomkin for sponsoring the Night of Exploration Dinner.

To this day, The Explorers Club honors the legacy of Thomas through the Lowell Thomas Awards for Exploration, notably in areas such as the Arctic, deepwater oceans, open spaces, and outer space.

On the last day of 1965, Lowell Thomas sat before a radio microphone to broadcast “Lowell Thomas and the News,” his daily routine for the past 26 years that would continue for another 20 years. News of an award given to Dimitri Tiomkin in 1958 made the program during time the Cinerama film, Search for Paradise, was in production.

Listen: After clicking on this link, select Lowell Thomas and the News, Box 1747, Item 11 and scroll to 10:54 to hear “Lowell Thomas and the News,” circa August 28, 1958. Lowell Thomas announces Dimitri Tiomkin as the recipient of the International Press Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (timings: 10:54 through 12:10)

The news this day; however, was personal to Thomas as it included an obituary for Mary Davis.

“Mary’s demise has left an irreplaceable void in my organization. She was a true star,” writes Thomas in mid-January 1966.

As executive secretary to Lowell Thomas, Mary Davis was at the center of his daily office operations, first at his empire headquartered at Rockefeller Center and, beginning in 1965, at Capital Cities Broadcasting, where Thomas leased the entire third floor and installed equipment to enable his daily radio show broadcast.

Lowell Thomas, furthest to the left, and Mary Davis, furthest to the right, circa 1930s. Screen capture from the Lowell Thomas Papers, Marist College Archives and Special Collections, Poughkeepsie, New York, accessed April 4, 2020.

Since Thomas travelled widely and was known to work from “home” at his Hammersley Hill estate ninety minutes due north in Pawling, her role had considerable power. She was also tasked with taking his dictation over long distance phone lines crisscrossing the nation and the world.

Mary Richmond Davis was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on January 11, 1901, to Samuel Davis and Ida Aiken.

Portrait of Mary Davis
Screen capture from the Lowell Thomas Papers, Marist College Archives and Special Collections, Poughkeepsie, New York, accessed April 2, 2020.

Samuel, born in Philadelphia, worked as a sales agent for a local advertising company. Ida, Mary, and her younger sister by four years, Catherine, could be found living in Braintree in 1910, with Ida’s parents, her father was trained as a pastry chef and worked for a confectionary.

By the time she was 19, Mary found work as a stenographer at an advertising company in town. Around this time she enrolls in classes at the Burdett College of Business and Shorthand in Boston.

After the second World War, she’s listed among the notable graduates of the school. Diploma in hand, Mary makes her way to New York during the Roaring 20s, with her sister tagging along, possibly accompanied by their mother who dies in 1928 in New York.

Mary Davis, and her sister, Catherine. Screen capture from the Lowell Thomas Papers, Marist College Archives and Special Collections, Poughkeepsie, New York, accessed April 4, 2020.

Home is now midway between midtown and lower Manhattan, where Mary finds work as a newspaper secretary and Catherine as a department store model. The sisters move a few blocks away to a four-story brownstone at 20 West 10th Street, a straight shot up Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center, where by 1940 Mary is already working for Lowell Thomas. Catherine, at this time, serves as a hostess for a railroad company.

In 1941, Mary was with Lowell Thomas for a radio broadcast and Movietone newsreel for the Dionne quintuplets seventh birthday celebration in Callander, Ontario, Canada.

Lowell Thomas, left, with the Dionne quintuplets. Behind the quintuplets, left to right, are Nurse Chaput, press agent F. Darius Benham, and Mary Davis, May 1941. Screen capture from the Lowell Thomas Papers, Marist College Archives and Special Collections, Poughkeepsie, New York, accessed April 4, 2020.

Movietone footage with Lowell Thomas and the Dionne quintuplets in Callander, Ontario, for their seventh birthday in May 1941. Mary Davis, wearing the same blouse as in the photograph above, makes two appearances, she is on the left at the opening and in the background around 1:23.

Mary would live on West Tenth Street for the next 25 years. The adjacent townhouse was once home to American poet Emma Lazarus (1849-1887). Lazarus wrote the sonnet that includes “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” inscribed in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty. A few doors away sits the former residence of author Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

In New York, over the course of 1965, spread across 442 pages, three columns per page, are the names of 99,352 individual deaths reported to the city. There are thirteen Mary Davis’s, our Mary Davis being one among a baker’s dozen. She died on December 29, 1965, less than two weeks shy of her sixty-fourth birthday. (Her mother, Ida Rhoda Aiken Davis, died at age 56.)

Mary is buried in an unmarked grave next to her maternal grandparents, mother, and uncle, in the Aiken family plot in the Glenwood Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts, just north of downtown Boston.

Mary Davis burial, after December 29, 1965, Everett, Massachusetts. Screen capture from the Lowell Thomas Papers, Marist College Archives and Special Collections, Poughkeepsie, New York, accessed April 3, 2020.
Created by: Suzy & Rob
Added: 11 Nov 2019
Find a Grave Memorial 204623390

“Mr. Tiomkin,” a “most generous man,” was a dear friend to Miss Mary Richmond Davis of 20 West Tenth Street, New York 11, New York. “I hear some of your beautiful SEARCH FOR PARADISE music over the radio occasionally, and enjoy it so much that I turn it up loud, to get the full volume.”

Eight months after Mary’s death, Thomas writes, “let us do anything we can to help you, just as in the days when our wonderful gal Mary was still here.” By a matter of days, Thomas misses crossing paths with Tiomkin in London, as related by both the doorman and maître d’ at the swank Savoy Hotel. 

By the close of 1974, Lowell’s wife “has almost faded away.” Frances would pass in the following year.

Upon his return from San Diego, Thomas mentions his autobiography, “Good Evening Everybody: From Cripple Creek to Samarkand,” and encloses a photocopy of the Los Angeles Times book review.

Before he leaves with his second wife for Alaska to show her the world, from the South Pacific to China-occupied Tibet, Thomas writes Dimitri and Olivia Tiomkin wishing them “the best years of all.”

Olivia met Lowell Thomas and Marianna Munn when they visited the Tiomkin’s in Paris. “Lowell was a most interesting person and I think that he must have introduced Dimitri to Prosper Buranelli, who worked a lot with Lowell.”

Conductor Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra record music from Search for Paradise in 1975 for an RCA recording, The Classic Film Scores of Dimitri Tiomkin and Tiomkin offers to send a copy of the recording to Thomas in the coming year. “I am very grateful to fate to have the opportunity to know you and to have been associated with you.”

[ Read: Charles Gerhardt pictorial tribute available on Kindle ]

“It would be great to catch a glimpse of you and Olivia again.” Typed with a green typewriter ribbon and signed in blue ink!

The final letter to “Olivia and Dimi” from Thomas in March 1979, sent eight months prior to Tiomkin’s death.

Thomas concedes,” My only real claim to the reader’s attention may be as a traveler. Once, standing near the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome, I was approached by three elderly ladies, clearly American tourists. One of them recognized me and immediately exclaimed, ‘Lowell Thomas, don’t you ever go home?’”


“Veterans’ Private-School Training, Exhibit B—Selected List of Graduates, Burdett College in Veterans’ Education and Training Programs” in Private Schools, Hearing, Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, House of Representatives, January 23, 1948, Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1948.

[Dimitri Tiomkin International Press Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press], Los Angeles Examiner, August 28, 1958 [in Dimitri Tiomkin scrapbook, 1958, Dimitri Tiomkin Collection, University of Southern California, Cinematic Arts Library, accessed December 16, 2004]

“Tiomkin’s Autobiog,” Variety, December 2, 1959

“Please Love Dmitri [sic] Tiomkin,” Variety, January 13, 1960, on Doubleday book

“Music as Written” [column], Billboard, January 25, 1960, on Rhapsody of Steel party

[Dorothy Manner syndicated column], Cedar Rapids Gazette, November 16, 1960, on Benjamin Franklin project [Manners served as a longtime assistant to Louella Parsons]

“Lowell Thomas Enters Hospital,” Idaho State Journal, November 7, 1963

“Lowell Thomas and the News.” Mary Davis Obituary and news for December 31 1965. Lowell Thomas Papers, Marist College Archives and Special Collections, Poughkeepsie, New York [see Box 1749, first entry, 1749.01]

“The Book Report: Lowell Thomas: Time Traveler,” by Robert Kirsch, Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1976

“Lowell Thomas remembers old Aspen,” by Bill Rollins, Aspin Times, January 11, 1979

“Lowell Thomas: Some Biographical Notes,” undated, 7 pages

“New Era of Exploration,” The Explorers Club, New York, undated booklet

Quotation regarding Lowell Thomas from Olivia Tiomkin, email communication, March 31, 2020.

Mary Richmond Davis genealogy and biographical details gleaned from documents and records accessed at ancestry.com on March 30 through April 1, 2020, courtesy of Wilson Sherk.

Thanks to John F. Ansley, Director, Archives and Special Collections, Marist College Archives and Special Collections, Poughkeepsie, New York. The Lowell Thomas Papers digitization project was funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

Correspondence courtesy of Olivia Tiomkin.

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