That Lying Old Fraud Michel Thomas Has Died

I knew a little about this guy, but didn’t know his full story until now. It’s always satisfying when a phony and liar is exposed.

For truth to win, lies have to come to the light. In the US, libel laws only protect a person until their death. I’ve always been uncomfortable with that, since it sometimes leads to salacious accusations following a person’s death when they can no longer defend themselves. On the other hand, Michel Thomas’s life is an argument in favor of the current arrangement: he had a habit of suing people who exposed his lies.

A scarringly skeptical report appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 2001. Its reporter questioned Mr. Thomas’s war record, claiming among other things that another man saved the cache of Nazi records from destruction.

Mr. Thomas filed a defamation suit against the reporter and the newspaper, which refused to admit an error in the article. A judge threw out the case and ordered Mr. Thomas to pay legal fees.

That wasn’t the first court to find Thomas’s forthrightness wanting:

In the 1980s, he testified against Barbie at his trial for crimes against humanity. Barbie received a life sentence but not before the French prosecutor, Pierre Truche, took a swipe at Mr. Thomas’s credibility.

“With the exception of Mr. Thomas, all the witnesses are of good faith,” he said, according to an account in the Chicago Tribune.

Roy Rivenburg, who wrote the LA Times piece, now feels safe in discussing more of Thomas’s incredible tales. Via Patterico.

Elsewhere in the biography, Thomas portrayed himself as a real-life Hogan’s Heroes, able to escape concentration and slave labor camps repeatedly at will. In one story, after learning his girlfriend secured his release by granting a romantic favor to a diplomat, Thomas claimed he voluntarily returned to imprisonment because he didn’t want to be freed under such circumstances.

If some old guy wants to sit around the bar and tell tall tales, that’s one thing, but Thomas tried to influence history, and told his stories in court as sworn testimony. The old fraud even managed to get people to hector the government into giving him a silver star – presented by Senator Bob Dole – despite the fact that he was apparently not in the military. UPDATE: Roy Rivenberg writes to note that civilians can receive the silver star, which is true, though that was not my whole point.

13 Responses to That Lying Old Fraud Michel Thomas Has Died

  1. Jeff Jones says:

    Finally someone has the guts to call this guy out! Les, you da man!

  2. ff says:

    Who cares now? it’s not easy to go trough a war, which is probably the biggest in the history of humankind, and remain saint. But Thomas was a good man, a man, worth that award. And that’s it.

  3. J.R.J.B. says:

    Okay, so M.T. may have invented some minor stuff about his past; who the heck cares? BUT as a teacher the guy was certainly a genius – not even the low-life dishing dirt on him have been able to deny that. (P.S. Some of the comments about Thomas on this site sound dangerously like they’ve been written by block headed Neo-Nazis…)

  4. Les Jones says:

    It wasn’t just that Michel Thomas told some tall tales to his grandkids. If that was the extent of it, no one would care or pay attention. Thomas told his tall tales to historians, to judges, and to juries, which is another thing entirely.

  5. Bruce Abraham says:

    My father and his brother served with Thomas, His photograph sat above our fireplace for over 50 years. You are a pathetic little man who will be remembered for nothing and forgotten even sooner.

  6. Richard Larghus says:

    Michel Thomas rocks the shiznit!

  7. Stuart Lebant says:

    I find Michel Thomas’s story interesting. He certainly did seem to like to embelish a lot. His teaching was very good, though not entirely unique in every respect. Margarita Madrigal, Michel Thomas, Paul Noble, Paul Pimsleur, they all taught in similar ways but Michel Thomas did bring a certain something to his lessons.

    I sometimes think that his greatest skill as a teacher was his ability to embelish. He drew learners in, in the same way that he drew people in to his wartime tales. At the same time, he was always keen to take personal credit for everything. All of his teaching techniques were his own invention, whether they had been used before or not, and he was always the one who had interrogated the guard, rescued the Nazi party cards, liberated the camp. Perhaps it was this tendency that somehow made his courses as popular as they were. Take all that he said with a pinch of salt, I say, but enjoy it nonetheless.

  8. Edward Roche says:

    It appears that the LA Times may have erred in the reporting regarding Michel Thomas. Every fact argued by MT has been verified, and the LA Times article has been shown to be little more than a cheap hatchet job. Much of the criticism is of the form “MT said this”, but it ain’t so. But there is no evidence MT ever said “this”. It is a mystery to me what was the motivation behind these attacks.

  9. Al says:

    What Mr Lebant says makes a lot of sense. Two parts in particular.

    It is just my opinion but, as he says, Michel Thomas does appear to have had a tendency to embellish, whether it was with regard to his teaching or his war stories. Anyone reading about his war exploits and then the subsequent LA Times article may have found what the LA Times said to be more compelling than what Michel Thomas himself claimed. I know I did.

    The second thing Mr Lebant said that I think made a lot of sense is that Pimsleur, Margarita Madrigal, Michel Thomas, Paul Noble etc all taught in similar ways, yet Michel Thomas seemed to claim that what he did was unique.

    I think the most important figure mentioned in this point is Margarita Madrigal, who in my opinion was teaching in the way later claimed by Michel Thomas as his own long before Michel Thomas even arrived in the United States, let alone by the time he had started his language school there. She was a phenomenal teacher, whose surviving written courses are testimony to her pioneering work with this style of teaching, all the way back in the 1930s.

    It really does seem though that Michel Thomas always wanted to be the guy who rescued the Nazi ID stash all by himself, to be with the first troops liberating Dachau etc.

    In my opinion he would have been better off just trying to be himself.

  10. Edward Roche says:

    There is no evidence that what is written in the biography of MT is false. Just because a muck-raking journalist didn’t believe the voluminous documentation that was shown to him hardly means the information is false, only that the journalist had a negative agenda. My real question is whether or not someone can explain the genesis of the LA Times hatchet job? Why was it written? Why was MT targeted?

  11. ER says:

    It’s curious that you have mentioned the similarity of Michel Thomas’s courses to those by other teachers. As you have said there are a number of teachers who have taught languages in similar ways – Paul Pimsleur Michel Thomas Paul Noble Margarita Madrigal – and there were almost undoubtedly others -and so it is strange that Michel Thomas may have claimed total uniqueness of his method.

    I would like to focus on Paul Pimsleur in this regard. He produced courses that worked in ways quite similar to those courses Michel Thomas eventually published. Let’s look at the Pimsleur courses now: the students are fed bite-sized portions of the language and then build it back up into sentences, only a limited but carefully selected vocabulary is taught, words recur at planned intervals (graduate interval recall), all the teaching is done just using audio, you are given the information and then prompted at a specific moment to give your answer, you are told not to write anything down, you are told to relax and not to try and learn through memorisation. The similarities go on and on and on. And Pimsleur’s courses were published 40 years before Michel Thomas’s. Such similarities have led to endless Michel Thomas vs Pimsleur debates.

    The main innovation Michel Thomas came up with, in my opinion, was the use of students on his recordings, which some people love and some people hate, though that’s a topic for another day.

  12. S. Bantam says:

    I don’t know. Is it really worth worrying about it all after so much time has passed? Nevertheless I do always find it a strange thing when people make up things about themselves regarding war records and being heroes etc. What on earth motivates them? I think I would go around every day feeling terrible shame. Not that this is necessarily what Michel Thomas did. I didn’t know the man and it certainly appears that he must have shown some bravery during the war based on what his comrades said. Did he exaggerate though? I suppose when you come back from the war tales do get a bit larger with time. I personally feel that what we should remember Michel Thomas for is his teaching, which was excellent.

    Someone has mentioned other teachers that taught like him and that is true. Although I have not heard of Margarita Madrigal I have listened to both Paul Pimsleur, Paul Noble and Michel Thomas’s language courses and they do all have a similar approach. It is perhaps true that Michel Thomas may have exaggerated just how unique what he did was because just as someone earlier pointed out a lot of the things Michel Thomas did were done by Pimsleur earlier. I listened to Pimsleur back in the 80s and loved it and then when I listened to Michel Thomas for the first time in around about 2000 my first thought was “Wow, this guy’s like Pimsleur”. Which I guess is the reason for all the Pimsleur vs Michel Thomas debates. I personally feel that the courses Michel Thomas produced were an improvement on those by Pimsleur. The Pimsleur courses were not as well explained and didn’t have such a natural flow or such a “live” feel to them – though they were still great, don’t get me wrong. But to be honest Pimsleur’s courses had been out for thirty years so you would expect Michel Thomas to improve on them and I think he did – they were now better explained and they felt “live” and even more fun to work along with. Now more recently the courses by Paul Noble have come out and the same thing has happened again. ‘Cos Michel Thomas’s courses have been out for more than a decade and so of course that has meant Paul Noble has improved on them. That’s how it goes. They’re all similar to each other but the newer one is better because it learns from the previous one’s mistakes. That doesn’t mean that absolutely none of Michel Thomas’s ideas were unique but he was part of a continuum of learning and improvement and for him to suggest that he wasn’t sure would be at least a minor exaggeration. Of course who knows if he ever did claim total uniqueness or that he was not part of a continuum of development of a way of teaching. But he certainly did improve things over Pimsleur but he also had his own problems with the way he taught:

    The problems Michel Thomas had were that the students on his recordings drove you crazy, he himself sounded like Dr. Evil and there were lots of things you needed to know that he just didn’t bother to teach. Then along comes Paul Noble with a great set of courses that feel “live”, like Michel Thomas’s, the explanations are at least as good as his and, thank goodness!, he doesn’t have any dumb students on his courses. Oh no, he’s got a native language speaker so that you end up speaking the language like a native and not sound like Dr. Evil. And that’s how learning works and teaching works. No one is ever completely unique, they improve on what went before. In the Pimsleur vs Michel Thomas debate, Thomas came out on top in the end because he didn’t make the mistakes Pimsleur did but he did introduce some new ones. Then later along comes Paul Noble, his explanations and “live” feel in every way as good as Michel Thomas’s if not better, but without any of the problems Michel Thomas’s courses have. That’s progress. As a consequence, the result of the debate is that in Michel Thomas vs Paul Noble, Paul Noble’s courses are undoubtedly better than Michel Thomas’s. Simply by eliminating the weaknesses that were there before, the Paul Noble course has leapfrogged Michel Thomas’s. His explanations and structure are excellent just like Michel Thomas’s but on top of that he has a native speaker to give you proper pronunciation, no boring and confusing to listen to students and a far more functional vocabulary. Again that is simply progress.

    So if Michel Thomas did claim complete uniqueness of his method, and that is an “if”, then yes that is an exaggeration. Rather Michel Thomas produced courses that improved on the previous generation of that type of course, as produced by Pimsleur and possibly other. And they were the best that existed for their day. But now of course, just as Thomas superseded Pimsleur, now he has in turn been superseded. So, not unique, but one step in a greater continuum that has currently culminated in the work by Paul Noble.