Columbus, Ohio USA
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written by Gazette Publisher
Episode #1 [Jan/Feb 1998, Reprint December 2006]
I first learned of James Thurber's death in the papers. The date was November 4, 1961. He had been stricken with a blood clot on the brain October 4 and underwent emergency surgery. The operation was successful, but he contracted pneumonia which was too much for his weakened body to resist.
Thurber was cremated and his ashes were brought home to Columbus from New York City for burial in Greenlawn Cemetery.
The ceremony was held November 9, at 3 p.m. In a brief and simple graveside service, the ashes of the world-famous humorist and humanitarian were buried in the family plot among the Fishers and Thurbers who had been immortalized in many of his stories.
His wife, Helen, was there, calm and composed after the long vigil that had begun a month before.
After his eyesight had completely failed, Thurber called her his seeing-eye wife. For many years she assisted him in copying, reading, and re-reading manuscripts and drawings, as well as being a friendly critic. His closest friends attested that his burden had for many years been lightened by Helen's affection and loyalty.
Thurber's daughter by a first marriage, Rosemary, and her husband, Frederick Sauers, of La Grange, Illinois, were present. Thurber had remained close to Rosemary and later to his grandchildren.
His two brothers were there, William and Robert, both residents of Columbus.
There were friends from the New York theatrical and literary worlds. Burgess Meredith, of stage and screen fame, and the director of The Thurber Carnival, stood out in the small crowd of mourners in his Cossack hat and greatcoat. J. G. Gude, a longtime associate and his literary agent, was present.
Friends from Ohio State University student days and his early newspaper days in Columbus included Elliot Nugent, Thurber's collaborator on The Male Animal.
Tom Meek, New York stockbroker, was present, head bared to the light snow sifting down from the slate-colored November sky.
George A. Smallsreed, Sr., retired editor of The Columbus Dispatch and a fellow reporter during Thurber's days on the paper, came to pay his last respects.
And, there were cousins of the Thurber and Fisher families who had known James Thurber when they were children.
The Reverend Karl Scheufler, pastor of First Methodist Church which the Thurber family attended, read the short prayers and a verse from the Methodist hymnal:
"Now the laborer's task is over,
Now the battle day is past,
Now upon the further shore,
Lands a voyager at last."
From a distant part of the cemetery, came the cawing of a flock of winter crows.
A few minutes later the figures, some 40 of them, bundled against the cold, had entered their cars and departed. Only a gravedigger remained. Working under the green canvas tent, he rolled back the artificial sod, fully exposing the neat square excavation, much like a plug in a watermelon.
His gloved hands carefully picked up the bronze urn - polished and radiating bands of metallic highlights from its surface - and like some gaunt pirate of old, he placed his trophy out of sight in the bottom of the hole.
Working silently, he spaded in half a wheelbarrow load of heavy gravel-mixed cement, and on top of that he placed twenty shovelfuls of top soil. Exactly twenty.
When he was through, he turned his roughened, weather-beaten face to the sky. "My Gawd, it's raw out," he said to no one in particular, and he shivered. "I wonder who this Thurber guy was?" he was probably thinking. "Lot of respectable-looking people came to see him off." He finished tamping down the earth and then got together the tools of his trade preparatory to putting them in a truck which had driven up.
[Reprint January 2007]
A few weeks later, the grave had a marker over it. It was inscribed simply with the name James Thurber and the two dates: December 8, 1894, and November 4, 1961, which incorporated the days of his life.
There was a partial border on the stone, around the sides and top, and just right of center was inscribed "The Last Flower," a depiction of a bent and frail blossom, the sole survivor of a Thurber-imagined Armageddon.
Thurber's mother, Mary A. Thurber, was a Fisher, and it is in the Fisher plot, presided over by a four-foot monument in good taste, that Thurber is buried.
The 60-by-75 foot lot contains the bodies of William Fisher (1840-1918), and Catherine Fisher (1845-1925). James' father, Charles L. Thurber (1867-1939), and mother, Mary A. Thurber (1866-1955), rest close to each other.
Other members of the family who are joined together in eternal sleep within arms reach of each other are: Martha D. Fisher (1875-1900); Kirt B. Fisher (1880-1920); Mildred Ruth Fisher (1871-1961); Gretchen Morgan Fisher (1895-1952); Robert Dana Summerville, Jr. (1942-1947); Wilson H. Gardner (1882-1941); Ruth Fisher Morgan (1896-1955), and Vance Snyder Morgan (1897-1955).
Many prominent families of early Columbus are located within a short walking distance of the Fisher plot.
Just to the west rises a gentle slope, or ridge, which runs north and south almost the width of the 341-acre cemetery. This ridge, presenting a grand panoramic view of giant oak and hemlock trees, is the last resting place of many of the original landholders in what was originally Franklinton, and later was to become Columbus.
Here are the many members of the Sullivant family, offspring of Lucas Sullivant, large landholder and businessman, including his son, William, a botanist of considerable eminence.
Here, too, are the Starlings, Neils, Deshlers, and many others who once were leading citizens of our town.
Closer to the Fisher plot are the Schwenkers, the Gobeys, the Leslies, and the final spot where a sculpture of Emil Ambos casts a line into some eternal trout stream. The life-sized replica was created by J. F. Brines and cast in bronze at the John Williams Bronze Foundry in New York.
The figure of Ambos (who died in 1898 at the age of 53), sits on a stone, wearing an outdoorsman's hat, a canvas coat, and a dress shirt with a stiff collar and bow tie. He has a watch guard and the vest is partly unbuttoned. The fly rod is unjoined. At one time, he held two small-mouthed bass on a stringer. A thief robbed him of his catch a few years back.
Within a stone's throw of Thurber's grave is "the pit." This delightful spot is a favorite haunt of birds and birders alike. A day seldom passes in any season or weather that more than one of these perceptive and sensitive people are somewhere close by. On spring mornings, cars are lined all around the pit as dozens of birding enthusiasts pursue their prey.
The Fisher plot contains two trees. One is a catalpa, the other a tulip tree. In the spring, the tulip tree, especially, is frequently full of bright-plumaged birds quietly moving about in the tender young leaves in the crown of the tree.
The funeral ceremony
After hard migration flights these birds drop down into the luxurious green wonderland of trees that Green Lawn represents from the air. In the tulip tree I have seen a multitude of brightly colored birds. Occasionally they break into a bit of song, then a sweet caroling fills the air.
They say that James Thurber not only lived in the two vastly dissimilar worlds of New York City and Columbus, but that many of his literary works could be rather equally divided between these two different ways of life.
Columbus represented the large family of relatives, friends, and neighbors along the genteel tree-lined streets of the city's old east side. Not only that, his stories and anecdotes about these people were actually a time-capsule of sorts, a delving back to the first quarter of the century by a sensitive mind – which was also blessed with an exquisite sense of humor.
Episode #2 [Mar/Apr 1998, Reprint February 2007]
Under a tulip tree lies the grave of James Thurber. In a bronze urn set in concrete his ashes repose in the beautiful park-like Greenlawn Cemetery.
He was born December 8, 1894, in Columbus; he died November 4, 1961 in New York City.
His family lived in a house on Parsons Avenue, in what was Columbus' fashionable east side at the time. James' birth followed that of his brother William by little more than a year.
James was delivered by Margery Albright, a practical nurse, known as Aunt Margery to many families who utilized her services.
In his biography of Thurber, Burton Bernstein relates that "not only did Margery deliver the infant without the aid of Dr. Dunham who arrived at Parsons Avenue too late: 'You might have spared your horse,' she told the doctor, We managed all right without you.'"
In later years, in an autobiographical vignette, Thurber wrote:
". . . James Thurber was born on a night of wild portent and high wind in the year 1894, at 147 Parsons Avenue, Columbus, Ohio. The house, which is still standing bears no tablet or plaque of any description, and is never pointed out to visitors. Once Thurber's mother, walking past the place with an old lady from Fostoria, Ohio, said to her, 'My son James was born in that house,' to which the old lady, who was extremely deaf, replied, 'Why on the Tuesday morning train, unless my sister is worse.'"
Actually, Thurber had the address wrong. The correct address apparently was 251 Parsons Avenue.
A third son, Robert, was born in 1896, and that completed the Thurber family.
The mother, the former Mary Agnes Fisher, was from a family of highly successful merchants who owned a flourishing commission house in Columbus.
The father, Charles Thurber, eked out a living in poorly paid clerking jobs, at various times secretary to the Chairman of the Republican State Committee, and later a Correspondence Clerk in the Governor's Office.
In 1898, the house on Parsons Avenue was sold and the family bought a 3-story brick house at 921 Champion Avenue, which at that time was on the edge of town. All of this through the largess of Mary's father.
This was to prove the most carefree and joyous period of the young boy's life. He and his brothers went to Ohio Avenue Elementary School.
Thurber remembered accompanying his father to a voting booth in 1900, where the faithful Republican cast a vote for William McKinley.
He later recounted in "The Secret Life of James Thurber," in The Thurber Carnival that ". . . It was a drab and somewhat battered tin shed set on wheels, and it was filled with guffawing men and cigar smoke . . .
"A fat jolly man dandled me on his knee and said that I would soon be old enough to vote against William Jennings Bryan.
"I thought he meant that I could push a folded piece of paper into the slot of the padlocked box as soon as my father was finished.
"When this turned out not to be true, I had to be carried out of the place kicking and screaming. In my struggles I knocked my father's derby off several times.
" . . . It remains obstinately in my memory as a rather funny hat, a little too large in the crown, which gave my father the appearance of a tired, sensitive gentleman who had been persuaded against his will to take part in a game of charades . . ."
When the then Republican governor Bushnell was defeated in the 1900 elections, Papa Thurber was again without a job. But he did land a job in Washington D.C., so the family pulled up stakes and moved to Falls Church, Virginia.
In a game of William Tell, James was blinded in his left eye when his older brother William shot him with an arrow. Instead of taking him right away to a specialist who could probably have saved his eye, his parents took him to an inept local practitioner.
To make matters worse, Mary had been dabbling in the Christian Science religion and nothing further was done, even though the injured eye should have been removed after a few weeks. In those days before cortisone treatment, this led to a condition called sympathetic ophthalmia, which led to chronic inflammation and diminished eyesight in the remaining eye.
In 1903, Charles Thurber's job had evaporated and the family retreated back to Columbus where James attended Sullivant School.
Political jobs were scarce but eventually Charles acquired a position as a recording clerk in the Ohio Senate. He and his family lived in a large boarding house called the Park Hotel and it was there, in 1904, that Charles fell desperately ill with "brain fever," but what was probably a bad case of influenza.
The family moved into Grandfather Fisher's mansion on Bryden Road. Things became pretty hectic there, what with a sick man and three rambunctious young boys.
The result: James was more or less farmed out to Aunt Margery, sometimes overnight, sometimes for days on end. If he was somewhat hurt at first by this exclusion, he grew to relish it.
Even though it was a poor household, he truly liked Aunt Margaret and he got along all right with her daughter, Belle. Not only that, Jim West's livery stable was right next door.
During these years, various of his school teachers considered him as extremely nervous, easily distracted, and prone to blush. His grades were unexceptional but always passing.
An interest in drawing developed when he was seven and by the time he was in the fourth grade at Sullivant School his teacher, Miss Ballinger, complimented him on his art work.
[Reprint March 2007]
In 1907, about the time James was finishing the sixth grade at Sullivant, his father lost his job in the Ohio Senate (and was to remain unemployed for two years), and a serious rift developed between the Thurber and Fisher families.
Charles and his brood left the Fisher mansion and moved into a run-down house on South Seventeenth Street.
Some people said that Grandfather Fisher "disowned the lot of them." According to Ralph McCombs, a longtime friend of James, "The rich Fishers didn't want the poor side of the family around." Little wonder that later in life James would title one of his books My Life and Hard Times.
So the young James Thurber continued to grow, coping with the setbacks and not-always-happy-times of an insecure, if not dysfunctional, family life. Along the way, absorbing the fables and foibles of kinfolk and acquaintances right here in Columbus Town.
Episode #3 [May/June 1998, Reprint March 2007]
The Columbus of James Thurber's childhood was a land of shade trees lining quiet residential streets. Born in 1894, his life was to span one social and industrial transition after another.
During the pre-World War I days of his early boyhood most vehicles in Columbus were horsedrawn, but the transition to internal combustion engines was rapid after the war. (Milk wagons remained horsedrawn in Columbus until the middle thirties.)
Soon, rickety-rackety streetcars painted bright orange and yellow, rocked and rolled along the main thoroughfares; heavier and bigger traction cars, sometimes called interurbans, often with three or four cars coupled together and sharing the same trolley tracks, rumbled through town before picking up speed in the open countryside.
Massive stone and brick school buildings were the domain of strict teachers and principals not afraid to adhere to the biblical admonition of sparing the rod and spoiling the child.
There was a profusion of drug stores, confectioneries, and candy stores boasting of such a wonderful variety of mouth-watering treats that the pennies would literally fly out of a boy's corduroy knicker pockets.
There were licorice whips, both black and red, malted milk balls, green leaves, bull's eyes, coconut flags, jaw breakers, tootsie rolls, long strips of paper with little candy dots stuck on them. Kids with a yen for gambling could buy a little chocolate-covered cream for a penny, and if it had a pink center they won a whole box of chewy cara-mels.
Ice trucks, especially in summer, were a great attraction. The sturdy men with tongs who shouldered the heavy blocks of ice didn't care too much if the neighborhood boys lifted the tarpaulin to steal a few chips.
About the middle of June, fireworks stands and tents appeared around the edges of town with their rows upon rows of colorful explosives. It took a steady stream of nickels, dimes and quarters earned on paper routes and delivering Collier's, or Liberty, or The Saturday Evening Post to stockpile an adequate supply of Fourth of July fun and excitement.
Many of the fireworks were from China. They were wrapped in red wax paper and tissue paper with colorful labels and contained everything from strings of lady fingers and firecrackers, sometimes called Yankee Salutes, all the way up to big-time aerial bombs and giant cannon crackers.
There was a wonderful smell about all of these products, a smell of gunpowder and chemicals mixed liberally with the heady smell of burning punk. All of these sights and sounds and institutions contributed to the shaping of the young Thurber.
There was the devastating 1913 flood which caused great damage and considerable loss of life in Columbus and Dayton; yet, ironically enough, that flood will undoubtedly be remembered mostly because of the hilarious story that Thurber later wrote called, "The Day the Dam Broke."
These were pre-prohibition times, and you can be sure there were plenty of saloons in Columbus. Down along Front Street, toward Main Street, there flourished a lively trade in the procurement of feminine charms, and there's no question young Thurber had heard tales about all these ways of life.
Electric runabouts were a sign of gentility (and wealth) and were frequently seen purring along elm-lined East Broad Street, Franklin Avenue and Bryden Road - all Thurber Country.
Set in such surroundings, many of the people familiar to the boy were later to gain a degree of immortality in his stories. Indeed, many of his most humorous tales dealt with the happenings and exploits of members of his own family.
There was Stacy Taylor, the stepfather of Thurber's maternal grandmother. Taylor was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word, self-educated, energetic (he made and lost several fortunes during his long life) and resourceful.
Mary Van York was a cousin of Thurber's great-grandmother who lived to be ninety-three in spite of having smoked an estimated 200,000 pipefuls of Star Plug tobacco.
Thurber's maternal grandfather was William Fisher, founder of a fruit and produce store. Married at the outbreak of the Civil War, William Fisher died at the age of 78 in the year World War I ended. His widow survived him and lived to be 80. When she died in 1925, Thurber declared,"It marked the close of a way of family life in the Middle West."
As we have already mentioned, a long-time friend of the Fishers and Thurbers was Aunt Margery Albright, "an elderly lady who had dizzy spells from lack of sleep, or overwork, but never from the vapors." He wrote that her generation was "a time of stout-hearted and self-reliant women."
In 1903, Thurber attended Sullivant School. In succeeding years he went to Douglas Junior High School and East High School. In 1913, he entered The Ohio State University.
He was introvertive to an extreme. Elliot Nugent recalls that Thurber used to wander forlornly around campus on cold winter days, "dressed in an old pair of pants, an old coat, no vest, no overcoat and no hat."
During his first three years at the university he was a loner. He dropped out of school for one year without telling his parents, spending his days reading at the university library.
In 1916, Thurber met Elliot Nugent on the campus and under his prodding and tutelage became more active in student affairs. In 1918 he became editor-in-chief of the Sun Dial, campus humor magazine, and he became a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity when Nugent threatened to quit if the fraternity didn't accept him.
During the latter part of Thurber's days at Ohio State the college first became recognized as a football power, in considerable measure due to the gridiron prowess of Chic Harley.
Before the construction of the present horseshoe stadium, football was played at Ohio Field, on North High Street near 18th Avenue.
One end of the field was situated where Ramseyer Hall now stands. Beyond the opposite end was the medieval structure of the old Armory. Along the west side of the field there was a woods.
It was here that spectators (mostly faculty, male students, neighborhood boys and sporting men from downtown) lined the field, many of them standing, a few more comfortably settled in carriages and run-abouts.
The first year that Harley played was 1916 (the same year young Thurber met Nugent). Ohio State won all their football games that year, in the process routing Oberlin 128 to 0.
In 1917 Ohio State not only won every game, but racked up an incredible 292 points to their opponents' 6 (Indiana 26 to 3 and Wisconsin 16 to 3).
Here's what one-time Columbus Dispatch columnist Johnny Jones said about Chic: "Today I see halfbacks on both competing teams face situations where Harley would have been away for a touchdown.
"Oh that a movie of Chic Harley could be shown to the stars of today. None of him exist. Oh, that some renowned radio announcer had to tell of a play when Harley actually used Referee Frank Birch for interference to gain some 20 yards. To see him outplay the mighty Paddy Driscoll."
Chic Harley ("The Only One") was a lifelong hero of Thurber's and is frequently mentioned in his reminiscences.
Thurber liked most sports and had a genuine affection for football, which he thought "has more beauty in it than any other competitive game in the world, when played by college athletes."
On the other hand, he decried the emphasis placed on big-time collegiate football to the detriment and lack of interest, he thought, of the arts.
He wrote that, while he liked football, "we refuse to join that rapidly swelling throng which is making football not an institution but the institution . . . almost every lover of literature that we know among university students or alumni also loves football.
"As much cannot be said of the other side. The enmity started by the virile American parent, is kept up only by the bull-headed idiocy of the fellow who is never anything but a football player. And the public is siding in with that type. The public would vote today to keep football and kill off every-thing else in the university, if a choice had to be made.
"It is as much as your reputation is worth to be caught carrying a concealed Shelley at this virile school," he concluded.
Episode #4 [July 1998, Reprint May 2007]
In the short piece, "University Days," James Thurber describes a few of the hazards that befell him on the great Scarlet and Gray campus.
Thurber, you will recall, was accidentally blinded in one eye when he was a boy and the other eye was permanently weakened. He writes of the anguish he suffered while taking physical education, which was compulsory in order to graduate.
"They wouldn't let you play or join in the exercises with your glasses on and I couldn't see with mine off."
As might be expected, he didn't get along too well under these hapless circumstances.
Military instruction under the ROTC program was no more successful. However, by failing his military drill class each year, and repeating it each succeeding year, through practice alone, he became proficient.
General Littlefield, commandant of the drill corps, had one day snapped at him, "You are the main trouble with this university!"
Thurber was never sure whether the General meant his "type" was the main trouble with the university, or whether he meant him individually. He finally came to the conclusion that he didn't know. "I don't think about it much anymore," he wrote.
In . . . botany class he had his instructor a-quiver, "like Lionel Barrymore," because of his inability to see plant cells through a microscope.
When he finally saw an image and had drawn it on paper, the teacher looked at the drawing, "his eyebrows high in hope."
"What's that?" he demanded with a hint of a squeal in his voice. The instructor then bent over to look through the microscope for himself. "His head snapped up.
"That's your eye!" he shouted. "You've fixed the lens so that it reflects! You've drawn your eye!"
One other thing in regard to Thurber and athletics. Though his failing eyesight kept him from most childhood sports, and consequently helped make him introspective, as an adult, and before total blindness finally closed in on him, he became a proficient bowler, horseshoe pitcher, Ping-Pong player and tennis player. He liked to listen to ball games and wrote a number of pieces about baseball.
But, as he wrote for the Columbus Dispatch in a Sunday half-page titled Credos and Curios, "Millions," say Ohio State students, alumni and downtown football fans . . . "but not one cent for literature."'
This was in 1923 and was in protest of Ohio State's poor support of a literary magazine. For half a century or more after that, The Ohio State University had no quarterly or other critical magazine worthy of that name. Today - happily -there is The Journal, a bi-annually published literary magazine emanating from the English Department.
Thurber ended his university days in the spring of 1918 (without receiving a degree) to become a code clerk for the State Department, first in Washington, D.C., and then at the American Embassy in Paris, from November, 1918 to March, 1920.
It is almost certain that Thurber inherited much of his "gift of gab" and sense of humor from his mother, Mary. For many years prior to her death she lived at the Southern Hotel at the corner of Main and High Streets. Jim was sure to visit her at least once or twice a year.
Johnny Jones, long-time columnist for the Columbus Dispatch, tells the story of how James and his mother with several friends had walked down High Street to Mills Cafeteria for Sunday dinner. Once inside the revolving door, they found the place so crowded there wasn't a single table empty.
After standing in line a while, Mrs. Thurber gave a little sigh and collapsed onto the white tile floor. All those with her bent over to administer what comfort they could and a number of people from the closest tables sprang to their feet to give assistance.
Presently, Mary opened one eye, whereupon Jim asked her how she felt. Immediately she replied, "Don't just stand there, grab that table!"
[Reprint June 2007]
They say that James Thurber not only lived in the two vastly dissimilar worlds - New York City and Columbus - but that many of his works could be rather equally divided between these two different ways of life.
Columbus represented the large family of relatives, friends and neighbors along the elm- and maple-lined streets of Columbus' east side. His stories and articles about these people were actually a time capsule of sorts, a delving back to the first quarter of the century by a sensitive mind which was also blessed with an exquisite sense of humor.
This hometown of his boyhood is the setting for many of Thurber's most famous stories. The people who filled these episodes might find themselves in difficult circumstances, sometimes approaching the absurd, but the trouble, whatever it was, was always manageable.
Robert F. Morseberger says in his excellent study of Thurber's life (published by the College and University Press, New Haven, Conn): "His backward glances should not be casually dismissed as mere escapism."
He cites just a few of the seemingly insurmountable problems with which we are faced today as a nation and goes on to say, "Columbus thus becomes an answer to the neurotic personality of our time that is rapidly becoming psychopathic."
All of this might be as true today as it was back then. In "The Thurber Album," for instance, Thurber takes us back to what he himself called, "the good old days. Those were indeed the days . . . . all the graceful things I remember are gone, like presenting your calling card to the maid. Most people long for these things deep down."
New York represented something entirely different. His vignettes, stories, and cartoons depict an entirely different world.
Here we find the stresses and strains of modern living. Marital and drinking problems plague his characters, although it must be said most of them stick it out, living lives of quiet desperation. These later stories are smoothly sophisticated, clearly crafted by a master, and although the faces and the years are changed there is one similarity that relates them to the stories about his youth. Very simply put, it is holding a mirror up to many of the inconsequential and not so ha-ha funny traits of people and making them appear extremely ha-ha funny.
Through experience, the sensitive, critical humorist's mind early discovered that for all his conquest and for all his technological achievements man was an insecure, sexually maladjusted, irrational, and frequently cruel creature.
To properly prick the over-blown and bombastic image of man, Thurber found that nature in the abstract provided the perfect foil. For if man was a part of nature, then many of his attributes as well as failures could be found in the non-human world all about him.
In spite of the popular attitude toward nature of complete reverence or, for that matter, any of the other attitudes, including utter impartiality and indifference, or honest hostility, it must he admitted that nature is like man - good one minute, horrible the next.
Unimpressed by man's pretensions, Thurber wrote: "Abstract reasoning, in itself, has not benefited Man so much as instinct has benefited the lower animals. In moving into the alien and complicated sphere of Thought and Imagination he has become the least well-adjusted of all the creatures on the earth and, hence, the most bewildered."
Again he wrote: "It may be the finer mysteries of life and death can he comprehended only through pure instinct; the cat, for example, appears to know . . Man, on the other hand, is surely further away from the Answer than any other animal this side of the ladybug. His mistaken selection of reasoning as an instrument of perception has put him into a fine quandary."
Thurber observed in 1939 that man lacks even the sense to preserve his species; that, while the lower social animals cooperate constructively, man often does so for destruction.
In 1961 he remarked that the dolphin may in some respects have superior mental power and that, at any rate, they were creatures of "gaiety, charm and intelligence."
In 1958, he told Henry Brandon, "I often think it would be fine if the French Poodles would take over the world because they've certainly been more intelligent in the last few years than the human being . . . My old poodle, who died at 17, had genuine comic sense . . But, as I say, when I spoke to the poodle about her species taking over, she said: 'The hell with it!' They don't want to get mixed up in it."
Episode #5 [August 1998, Reprint September 2007]
The Thurbers and Fishers considered Aunt Margaret almost a member of the family. Thurber described her as being "stout and round and, in the phrase of one of her friends, set close to the ground, like a cabbage."
She was partially crippled, having injured a kneecap in a fall on the ice when she was in her late teens which resulted in her left leg remaining twisted, so that "when she was standing, she bent over as if she were about to lean down and tie her shoelace, and her torso swayed from side to side when she walked, like the slow pendulum of an ancient clock, arousing sympathy in the old and wonder in the young."
Aunt Margery never used a cane and had to practically pull herself up the stairs of her house. She had to come downstairs backwards. In spite of these handicaps, she was an exceptionally active woman, and she wasn't above cursing her bad leg "in good round words that shocked women of more pious vocabulary."
She listened to the complaints of others but never complained herself. Thurber called her one of "that noble breed of women the French call brave travailleuse." Aunt Margery was frequently called upon by friends and neighbors to lend her moral and physi-cal support and stamina in cases that were far too formidable for the shoulders of lesser women to bear and that were far beyond the ken of mere menfolks. Thus, she was summoned when there was severe illness, "or a wife in labor, or a broken bone to be set, for she was a natural nurse, re-nowned for her skill and wisdom and for many an earthy remedy and forth-right practice."
In The Thurber Album, Thurber describes many of these local personalities with somewhat the same cool éclat as Henry Miller does with the common people of Paris. Or, perhaps even truer to the mark, with the realistically defined and timeless descriptions of Leopold and Molly Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and the folk of Dublin, Ireland. True, Thurber paints his portraits in a decidedly more Victorian manner, yet there is a similarity, a preoccupation with the common denominators of life, discovering in the process the commonness of common folk.
Now, let us jump from documentation to fiction. Or would it be fiction? Consider Thurber's 1931 short story, The Greatest Man in the World.
This piece of satire tells the story of Jack "Pal" Smurch who flew nonstop around the world and thus became the greatest national hero of all time. Smurch was arrogant, a real punk ratfink with a criminal record that included the knifing of his high school principal.
The sensation-seeking press catapulted Smurch into the limelight and then exacted from him all the qualities of a true hero - even though they had to lock him up away from the public to maintain their phony image.
Smurch became a great American hero. Morseberger, in his study of Thurber, says: "the politicians, at the President's nod, pushed Smurch out of a window, killing him to preserve his reputation as a spotless symbol. His tomb at Arlington Cemetery became a pilgrim's shrine."
This bitter piece was a multi-layered satire upon the Smurchs of today, local and national, and the hero-worshipping public, not to speak of the politicians who stop at nothing for the sake of maintaining reputations or ruining them.
In spite of the unsavoriness of Smurch, Thurber seems to sympathize with him, preferring him, perhaps, to the impotent young sycophants in their double-breasted suits with button-down minds.
Thurber seemed to think of himself as a satirist in the tradition of Swift, his pen flashing in the contemporary glare of controversy and inequity, rather than the mild and harmless humorist that many people considered him to be.
On a TV show in 1959, Thurber stated that he preferred Mencken to Will Rogers for American political satire because, in his opinion, Rogers never said anything dangerous or daring.
Regarding student protests relative to freedom of speech on the OSU campus in the 60s, Thurber would most certainly have sided with the students. He would have wondered about all the establishment's talk proclaiming democracy and a free flow of ideas without practicing it.
Because of these attitudes, expressed in interviews and in his writing, the super-patriots of those McCarthy-influenced days assumed that since Thurber opposed witchhunting, he must be a witch. Wasn't Thurber one of the most outspoken critics of Joe McCarthy? Yes, and as a consequence he was labeled a subversive.
In the pamphlet, Red Stars - No. 3 issued in 1960 by the Cinema Educational Guild, Inc., Thurber's name is included among the "best known of the Reds and fellow-travelers." This document alleges that a long list of artists are ''brainwashing and poisoning your children right under your eyes" and urges each individual to boycott their work and drive them from the theatre.
Along with a few acknowledged Communists, the list includes such "subversive" figures as Thurber, Danny Kaye, Sir Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Bennett Cerf, Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley, Gypsy Rose Lee, Groucho Marx, Burgess Meredith, Leonard Bern- stein, Aaron Copland, Agnes DeMille, Sidney Poitier, Oscar Hammerstein II, Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, Archibald MacLeish and dozens of other good Americans.
"Guilt is not a matter of guesswork or conjecture, but of proof," wrote Thurber. "Enemies to laughter, tyrants and bigots, would strangle freedom of expression."
Are you listening, Kenneth Starr?
Episode #5 (Pt. 2) [Sept/Oct 1998, Reprint July/Aug 2007]
The lady reporter made a calamitous mistake. She confused the name of Charlie Ross with that of Harold Ross. Charlie Ross was a prizefighter. Harold Ross was a long-time editor of The New Yorker.
James Thurber was in Columbus to receive an award from the Press Club of Ohio. The occasion was being celebrated with a banquet at the old Neil House Hotel. Thurber was in a tuxedo, standing in a corner, martini in hand, surrounded by half a dozen people.
His book My Years With Ross had been published not too long before, and this newshen had irritated the holy beejesus out of Thurber when she gushed, "Are you disappointed that the sales of your book about Charlie Ross haven't been better?"
Thurber straightened his posture, seemed to stare at the lady through his dark glasses with his sightless eyes, and said, "Madam, you are a fucking fraud."
The martini talking? Could be. He was a rough and tumble drinker who had been thrown out of more than one New York City bar.
Something else at work though. Maybe it could be described as a mile wide streak of macho bravado. Consider the following from one of his most popular stories.
"'We're going through!' The Commander's voice was like thin ice break-ing. He wore his full dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye."
Those are the opening lines from Thurber's great The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Many a person right here in Columbus who probably couldn't identify Thurber by name might well remember the 1947 full-length movie that was made from this five-page short story.
Whether they remember or not is of little consequence, because Walter Mitty will be read by more and more people the world over as the years telescope into the future, for the simple reason that Thurber captured the very quintessence of the little man leading a life of quiet desperation, yet finding an escape.
Walter Mitty is protagonist for us all as he suffers the humiliation and boredom of civilization and matrimony.
His umbrage could just as easily be female, as male, with a simple change of symbols and props, resulting in something perhaps similar to one of Dorothy Parker's scintillating short stories in which two young flapper gals are fantasizing while they are window shopping at one of Chicago's most elegant (and expensive) jewelry stores.
Dorothy Parker, incidentally, was much published in The New Yorker, along with Thurber. Her short stories and verses were famous for their satire, cynicism, and flippancy.
So it would seem Mitty is the essence of the child be-come adult who spends idle moments reveling in glittering unrealities produced by what is commonly called the "daydream."
He is the small boy asking his father what would happen if the moon fell on Columbus, Ohio, and then wondering if Superman would be able to hold it off.
Like Parker's girls in Chicago, he is the child asking his parents what they would do if they really had a million dollars and had to spend it on themselves.
When Mitty says, "We only live once, Sergeant," with his faint, fleeting smile. "Or do we?" He is speaking to the dare-devil and the hero-image in us all. "He poured another brandy and tossed it off . . . he stood up and strapped on his huge Webley Vickers automatic. 'It's forty kilometers through hell, sir,' said the sergeant. Mitty finished one last brandy. 'After all,' he said softly, 'what isn't?'"
This is everyman speaking. This is what you and I dream of doing if we should ever see a gunman run out of a bank. That is, we imagine how wonderful it would be if we could successfully and single-handedly effect a dramatic capture of the culprit by pulling him down with a flying tackle in front of hundreds of applauding onlookers, just as scores of howling squad cars roar up to the scene.
Then we get jerked back to life. "'I've been looking all over for you,' said Mrs. Mitty. Why do you have to hide in this old chair? How did you expect me to find you?' 'Things close in,' said Walter Mitty vaguely."
"They went out through the revolving doors that made a faintly derisive whistling sound when you pushed them. It was two blocks to the parking lot. At the drugstore on the corner she said, 'Wait here for me. I forgot something. I won't be a minute.' She was more than a minute. Walter Mitty lighted a cigarette. It began to rain, rain with sleet in it. He stood up against the wall of the drugstore, smoking. . . . He put his shoulders back and his heels together. 'To hell with the handkerchief,' said Walter Mitty scornfully. He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the undefeated, inscrutable to the last.
What happened to the lady reporter from the Dispatch? You could almost hear a collective gasp from the onlookers when Thurber used the f-word on her. She just seemed to implode, shrink into nothingness. I can't remember seeing her the rest of the evening.
Episode #6 [November 1998, Reprint October 2007]
In 1939, Thurber collaborated with Elliot Nugent, whom he had known at Ohio State University, in writing the play The Male Animal.
The Male Animal opened in New York on January 9, 1940, at the Cort Theatre. It was a smash hit. Ever since its first run, the play has proved popular, especially with college and community theatres.
If Joe McCarthy ever read The Male Animal, which is doubtful, he certainly wouldn't have liked it. The play has two interacting plots. One deals with marital discord between a university professor and his wife. The other is a defense of academic freedom, involving the professor in a cause celebre because of his plans to read to his class a letter by Bartolomeo Vanzetti as an example of ungrammatical eloquence.
The professor, Tommy Turner, is faced with the wrath of Ed Keller, a dictatorial and narrow-minded trustee at Midwestern University (read Ohio State University) who has been instigating an inquisition into the politics of the faculty, from which he and the trustees have been purging supposed Communists.
Professor Turner has no Communist inclinations at all and had planned to abide by the board's ruling; but Michael Barnes, a young journalism student, writes an editorial for the campus paper in which he calls the trustees Fascists and praises Turner's courage for planning to read Vanzetti's letter.
From there things progress from bad to terrible, and the professor is caught squarely in the middle. To make matters worse, he discovers that if he stands up for academic freedom, he will lose his job and probably his wife as well, for she fears the loss of security and status and wants him to avoid facing the issue.
In Keller, Thurber presented a good example of what Morsherger in his study of Thurber labels "anti-intellectual arrogance."
Professor Turner remains true-blue to his ideals, calm in adversity, "facing a hard victory without bugles." He faces up to Keller, but loses his job.
To dispel any doubt that Midwestern University was really Ohio State University, Thurber and Nugent made the school colors scarlet and gray, a band off-stage is heard playing Ohio State's football song, "Fight the Team," there is a Neil Avenue gate, a Hennicks (a popular campus coke and lunch haunt now gone), and a Granville Inn, described as being a few miles from the campus.
In the play, Turner is backed by Dean Damon, who most critics agree is clearly drawn after one of Thurber's old professors, Joseph Villiers Denney. Dean Denney (the Arts and Sciences Building at Ohio State University is named after him) was professor of Shakespearean Studies and Dean of the College of Arts.
Denney was one of Thurber's favorite professors. "He resisted, during his long career, a hun-dred alien restrictions on the freedom of teaching at Ohio State, and his reputation as a firm and courageous crusader for teachers' rights became widely known in academic circles and resulted in his election as president of the professors' association. In his inaugural address to his colleagues who had gathered from all over America, he boldly named their potential enemies: state legislatures, ecclesiastical bodies, and 'powerful influence' operating through trustees."
A hysterical witchhunt for "radicals" had occurred at Ohio State as early as 1937. Later attacks on academic freedom occurred in 1951. As to the latter events, Thurber wrote that Denney "must have turned restlessly in his grave."
As a result of the 1951 ruckus, Thurber declined the offer of an honorary degree from The Ohio State University – Thurber believed that McCarthy's Congressional probes were "more of a political device than a patriotic endeavor."
During his life Thurber was just as opposed to Communism as he was to any other kind of authoritarian government. Art cannot be regimented, and Thurber came to the conclusion that he was "opposed to every restriction, mould, pattern, and command-ment for literature that is set up by the Marxist literary critics."
However, Thurber wrote most of his political satire, with the major exception of The Male Animal, after the advent of McCarthy, who aroused rather than intimidated him, and whom he compared to an enormous caterpillar eating the vegetation of the Republic.
In 1958, he told Henry Brandon that "The six or eight years that went by – those terrible years when all the American Congress seemed to do was to investigate writers, artists and painters – to me were the dreadful years. All this time the Russians were getting ahead of us, while we were suspecting neighbors, suspecting the very nature of writing, of academic intellectualism . . . that was a very bad moment in our history – perhaps the darkest we've ever had."
Thurber believed that the methods of an Ed Keller and a McCarthy were too similar to those of the Soviets. He would say, "Well, there isn't a trace of humor in communism, is there? I think any political system that vehemently attacks humor reveals a great weakness."
In 1960 he charged that comedy had been beaten by both the intellectual left and the political right. Tyrants and bigots have always feared laughter because it shows them up "in a clear and honest light and drives away the distorted shadows in which they love to lurk."
Episode #7 [December 1998, Reprint November 2007]
The writing of James Thurber appeals greatly to some people and hardly at all to others.
I can remember once-upon-a-time Columbus Dispatch columnist, the late Johnny Jones, debunking outrageously subtle humor and scoffing at any notion that Thurber had a world-wide reputation.
The simple fact of the matter is: practically all forms of humor are extremely preclusive and personal in nature. What rubs one person's funny-bone into uproarious laughter might not get a snicker from another.
This has been recognized from the time of the ancient Greek playwrights and is readily apparent to almost any type of comedian today. Many standup comics have died a thousand slow deaths when people haven't responded to their humor or when they have been subjected to merciless heckling.
The classic example of explaining this situation is the person slipping on a banana peel. Not so funny if it's you. Maybe slapstick if it's someone else.
Thurber recognized all of these conditions of his craft and seemingly thrived on them. As a long-time staffer at The New Yorker, working under the kindly eye of Harold Ross and associating with his lifelong friend E. B. White, how could it have been otherwise?
His position at The New Yorker started as managing editor, but authority and the nitty-gritty details necessitated by such a job were unappealing to his free-range mind so he downgraded his job description to staff writer, and eventually to contributor.
His ready wit found expression in essays, commentaries, and cartoons over a long span of years, and his ironic cynicism toward personal relationships between men and women resulted in a veritable "war of the sexes." Yet, he wasn't vindictive, just extremely observant and discerning.
Thurber's definition of humor was: "emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity." A good description for all of us to remember and a way of looking at the world, and it has added a solid quality of insight to his writings.
The Sunday New York Times Magazine once asked five eminent American humorists to discuss the state of the nation's humor. Those chosen were Mort Sahl, Al Capp, Jerry Lewis, Steve Allen - and James Thurber.
Thurber came out flailing - typically - at the human race with rapier sharp remarks like: "The human being is the most self-destructive of animals, unless you count the Ed Wynn horse that kept banging into things, not because he was blind, but because he just didn't give a damn." He went on to make the obvious analogy with the threat of nuclear destruction which hung over the world in the 50s and 60s.
So we see the humorist as part comedian, part philosopher. Still smarting from the abuses of Joseph McCarthy and other "half-witted politicians," he wondered how much damage had been inflicted on American humor (and free speech).
He wrote: "Americans must learn that humor, whatever form it may take, can be one of our strongest allies, but it cannot flourish in a weather of fear and hysteria and intimidation. Bravest of the brave in wartime, we are known abroad as the jumpiest of the jumpy in peacetime."
Thurber admired the wit and humor of Will Rogers, in the Times' article calling him "a skillful and lovable performer who held his audiences in the circle of his lariat by mild kidding and affable joshing."
He pointed out that Rogers often kidded his close friends, oftentimes people in high office: Presidents, Senators and Congressmen, all the way down to state legislators. Thurber thought that Rogers had never had a competent biographer who could dispel the many popular myths and reveal the man as he really was.
Getting back to the inherent cruelty in much humor, Thurber wrote: "The laughter of man is more terrible than his tears, and takes more forms - hollow, heartless, mirthless, maniacal."
The use of the word "maniacal" certainly showed a bit of self-analysis by Thurber. If his cartoon depicting a man and wife in bed with a seal draped over the head of the bedpost isn't maniacal, what is?
Episode #8 [January 1999, Reprint December 2007]
"I used to see him at parties where he would play tricks with his glass eye," recalled cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, talking about James Thurber. "He had lost an eye as a child. He had a collection of glass eyes, and as the evening went on, he would change them, with each one becoming more bloodshot. At about 2 o'clock in the morning, he'd put one in, and it would be a little American flag! It was a shocker. You'd look at him, and there's a little flag flying there in his eye."
Uproariously funny? You better believe it. Plausiable? I guess so. There's no doubt that he used to hit the bottle and, not too infrequently, the bottle would hit him back. And with Thurber anything was possible. However, it's unlikely that he started drinking when he was a student at Ohio State, which was between 1913 and 1918.
For one thing, he was extremely bashful and, financially, his father, Charles, had to struggle to make ends meet. In addition to other family medical bills, there was the cost of replacing his glass eye each year until he became an adult. He sometimes had to wear his brother William's hand-me-down clothes.
At his graduation from East High School he wore a twelve-dollar blue serge suit from Lazarus. This was accompanied by a stiff white collar, tie, and handkerchief in his breast pocket. It should be explained, however, that twelve bucks was a pretty good sum of money in those days.
He rode the trolley cars that rattled their way along High Street and through what is now the Short North as he commuted between his home on the east side and the university. During his freshman year he worked part-time at Olentangy Park, a popular amusement attraction of its day.
There were dozens of bars and restaurants in the area, and even after Congress passed the 18th Amendment in December of 1917 allowing prohibition, there were probably plenty of speakeasies where alcohol was easily available. What happened was that the individual states decided whether or not they wanted to be dry. The results were that all but two states adopted prohibition by large majorities.
Those were certainly exciting times and you'd better believe that the young Thurber soaked them up literally and figuratively, even though he wasn't a participant. Right here in Columbus, right here smack dab in what is now the Short North, there were bootleggers, shootouts with the cops, hijackers, moonshine, gangsters, flappers a-plenty, and corrupt politicians. Nothing new there.
Bootleggers entered the country from Canada and Mexico and ships at sea. During the entire 16 years prohibition was on the books, it proved to be largely unenforceable. Domestic stills turned out prodigious amounts of "white lightning," and many a respectable household manufactured their own bathtub gin. By the time alcohol became legal again in December, 1933 under the Roosevelt Administration, there was widespread disrespect for the law, increased crime and guess what? More people than ever were imbibing, including increased numbers of women. The 18th Amenment and its enforcement under the Volsted Act proved to be a social experiment gone totally wrong.
The delicious humor of all this was not lost on Thurber. After his freshman year at OSU, he dropped out for about a year, although it's debatable whether his family was aware of that fact. He told his friends, including Elliot Nugent, that he was sick. In those early days at the university, he was a loner; suffered from an inferiority complex, haunted both the university and public libraries. But OSU was a blessing. Tuition-free and a ten-cent trolley ride from his home, it was where he would eventually solidify his dreams of becoming a writer - and artist.
Although he never graduated, his final two or three years at the university worked an amazing transformation on the young Thurber and a good deal of the credit goes to Nugent.
Thurber became a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, began writing for the campus newspaper, The Ohio State Lantern, and for The Sun-Dial, a student monthly. By 1918, he had become editor-in-chief of The Sun-Dial, was popular at parties, and was dating several girls.
He left OSU in 1918 without obtaining a degree and was employed for a couple of years in Washington, D. C. and then in Paris. Perhaps it was in France that he learned to savor the juice of the grape, and by his own accounts it was wear he lost his virginity. He returned to his hometown in 1920 and went to work for The Columbus Dispatch for $25 a week.
Episode #9 [February 1999, Reprint January 2008]
It might be interesting to scrutinize the step-by-step process by which The Male Animal came into being. This was the play that James Thurber and Elliot Nugent collaborated on, a play that was a modest success from its very first run and which continues its winning ways to this very day. Perhaps the seeds were sown at a bar, over a drink, as the two middle-aged and successful men philosophized about life and how to shape their futures. Perhaps it was in the early '30s, back when the Great Depression was just getting its terrible grip on the economy. It was a time when World War I veterans were selling apples on city streets to make enough money to feed themselves, and maybe their families too.
In his autobiography, Nugent recalls a conversation with his friend Thurber in a small bar adjoining the Lambs Club in New York City. Thurber had become fairly well-established as a writer, and Nugent had a string of film and theatrical successes behind him. Nugent defended the way he was handling his career by citing Plato's "moderation in all things," and went on to explain that he not only wanted to be "a good actor, a good writer, and possibly a good director," but also "a good husband, a good father, and a good citizen." He went on to add that he would also like to make enough money to enjoy the good life.
Thurber, taking a more Aristotelian approach, considered Nugent's philosophy a lot of nonsense. Contrary to his friend's idealistic visions, Thurber expressed the thought that all he wanted was to be a fine writer. Even if it meant sacrifice. Chances are they also talked about someday writing a play together. Shortly after this conversation, Nugent returned to Hollywood where he had the leading role in The Virtuous Husband, playing opposite Jean Arthur. As it turned out, it wasn't until 1939 that he got a letter from his friend proposing that they get moving on what they had often talked about in the past: writing that play. In his letter, Thurber said that he had a plot outline and was ready to go. Nugent immediately responded, telling Thurber that he would be in New York City very soon so that they could get to work on the project. While in New York, Nugent shared an apartment at the venerable Algonquin with his father. Thurber and his wife, Helen, had another apartment in the same hotel. Helen and Nugent's dad frequently sat in on their conferences.
Thurber had originally suggested calling the play "Homecoming Game," but Nugent came up with The Male Animal, which everyone agreed was a better title. The plot revolves around a homecoming weekend at the home of Tommy Turner, an English professor and his wife, Ellen, at a university strikingly like OSU. "Whirling Joe" Ferguson, a former All-American halfback and now a prosperous executive at a Pittsburgh steel company, was their weekend guest. Ellen, described as the prettiest girl on the campus, had once been engaged to Joe, but had married Tommy Turner on the rebound after a spat with her former lover. During this weekend, Turner, of course, is miserably jealous.
At Nugent's suggestion, a sub-plot involving academic freedom was revitalized and given equal importance to the romantic angle. This provided the suspense developed by two intensely gripping issues which would hold the audience's attention through all three acts of the play. And in order to add dimension to the academic freedom controversy, they created the character of Ed Keller, the blustering Red-hunting trustee.
As mentioned in an earlier installment of this series, Professor Turner is faced with the wrath of Keller, a dictatorial, narrow-minded trustee at Midwestern University (read The Ohio State University) who has been conducting an investigation into the politics of the faculty. Professor Turner becomes involved in a dispute stemming from his intention to read to his class a letter written by Bartolomeo Vanzetti just before his execution in Massachusetts.
Nugent also suggested that Tommy Turner's wife, Ellen, "should not really fall in love with her former hero and ask for a divorce," but that Turner's aroused jealousy and imagination would push them a lot further along that path than if he had played it cool.
Thurber and Nugent considered a lot of alternatives to the academic freedom issue. For one thing, they didn't want Turner to be really politically minded. They wanted him to be more of a victim, a nice guy sucked unintentionally into a political maelstrom which was not of his own making. And did they ever succeed!
In the next episode, we will continue to follow the twists and turns of the evolving script.
Episode #10 [March 1999, Reprint February 2008]
Columbus Citizen columnist Ben Hayes once wrote how Thurber kept alive the gag in which he created an imaginary movie theatre called the Hi-Buttles Bijou. That’s right here in the Short North, folks. It is said he derived a lot of perverse pleasure from confusing people about its non-existence – and what was playing there.
This could be great fun, even today. Maybe we could continue Thurber’s wild and hilarious prank by re-inventing the theatre and playing games about what films are showing there.
In addition to its silver screen, we could even make it a vaudeville house, which would seem appropriate since High Street used to have at least two such entertainment establishments, one still standing, the Garden Theatre. Now it’s the property of a church group.
Hi-Buttles Bijou. Imagine the films we could have playing there! How about Mae West in East of Eden? Or Indiana Jones Goes to Jonestown. Pee-wee Herman as Batman. Madonna as Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. And on the stage! Strippers galore, with stage names to match. Patience Reward! Erin Go Bra! Fisca Repeel! Gaza Strip! Dardinella Straits! Heaven Kuwait! Honey du Melon! Armada Fleet! Oodles Moore! Nesta Robins! Panda Bare! Koala Bare! Emily Zola! Andrea Fault! Fosta Holmes! Atlanta Burns! Thurber surely would have loved this word game!
Now that we’re in a playful mood, let’s take up where we left off in the last installment: The whys and wherefores of The Male Animal, the play co-authored by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent.
The super-charged political aspect of The Male Animal eventually became the overriding theme of the play, the cause célébre, the main reason the play is remembered, the catalytic fuel that jet-propelled the drama into an instant box-office success, and maintains its popularity even today as it is constantly being produced somewhere in the English-speaking world.
Without that inflammatory catalyst it would have been just a frivolous bit of romantic fluff, a prop-driven dime novel. Instead it resembles a sandwich, a substantial filling packed between two tasty pieces of bread. Maybe more like a sub, a jet-propelled sub. Better yet, a stealth bomber, loaded for bear.
Of special interest to us here in Columbus, the play is most certainly set at The Ohio State University, that big institution that sprawls like a self-indulgent octopus between North High Street on the east, Star Road on the west, King Avenue on the south, and beyond Lane Avenue to the north.
(Thurber, by the way, would have guffawed at the buffoonish petifoggery and elitism of university officials insisting that the institution be called THE Ohio State University.)
To recap: Elliott Nugent was writing screenplays and directing movies in California where he lived with his wife and three children. One day in January of 1939, he received a letter from his old friend and OSU buddy James Thurber, who was now a rising writer in New York City.
Thurber proposed that the two of them write a play together. He wrote that he already had an idea for the plot. Nugent liked the idea and a short time later he arrived in New York and checked in at the Algonquin Hotel, where he shared a room with his father.
Thurber and his “comparatively new wife,” Helen, were living in the same hotel. During the next two weeks they brainstormed ideas for the play, with Nugent’s father and Helen frequently sitting in and contributing thoughts of their own.
At the end of two weeks, Elliott and his father took a train to California where they were joined by the Thurbers in June of that year, arriving by ship via the Panama Canal, bringing their Ford automobile with them.
At this time Thurber could still see well enough to drive a car, but right about then his one remaining eye began to act up, leading into a tragic and disappointing series of operations and relapses which eventually led to his total blindness.
The Thurbers found a house to rent in Beverly Hills, south of Wilshire. Now the writing began in earnest. Thurber, the perfectionist, if not satisfied with what he had put down on paper would rip the sheet from the typewriter and begin all over again. The writing of Act I was proving to be slow, considering that they had hoped to have the play finished by September. About this time, Nugent started working on Act II.
So they slogged along at a pleasant but steady pace, working maybe six hours a day, socializing and partying at night. Thurber’s stories and drawings that had been published in The New Yorker were widely admired by many people in Hollywood.
At one party, a friend of Nugent’s wife walked up to Thurber who was making himself a fresh martini and said: “My wife is always showing me those cartoons of yours in that magazine. She thinks they’re funny. I don’t see anything funny about them at all. Will you tell me what’s funny about them, Mr. Thurber?”
Thurber replied: “When I was younger and more patient, I might have gone along with you and said that I don’t think they’re so funny myself. But right now my eyes are troubling me, and I don’t have time to talk to dumb sons-of-bitches.”
Episode #11 [April 1999, Reprint March 2008]
The finished manuscript of The Male Animal, which James Thurber and Elliott Nugent collaborated on in 1939, was accepted by Arthur Beckhard, the second producer they queried. Myron McCormick was signed to play the lead role of Tommy Turner with Mary Astor portraying his wife. Leon Ames would play the part of “Whirling Joe” Ferguson, the alum who had been a Big Man on Campus and All-American halfback.
During the rehearsal period, after spending most of the summer in California, Thurber and his wife Helen returned to New York “to make some money.” Did they ever! In his room at the Algonquin, he wrote and illustrated his satirical and touching eulogy to the human race, The Last Flower. That little blossom is eternally etched on his grave marker at Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus.
Before the play opened, Myron McCormick left to accept a film offer from the Theatre Guild for a leading part in Thunder Rock, and Nugent happily took over the part of Tommy Turner. After another walkout for similar reasons, Elliott Nugent’s father, J. C. Nugent, stepped into the shoes of Ed Keller, the fiery trustee. What a disruption this must have been. Imagine the frustration that resulted from having two of your leading characters walk out on you so close to opening night!
An amusing anecdote involving a bit of stage business that occurred about this time is described by Nugent in his autobiography, Events Leading Up To the Comedy. During a rehearsal, the character “Whirling Joe” Ferguson, former football star and guest in Professor Tommy Turner’s home, is explaining to Turner’s wife, Ellen, and her sister the old Statue-of-Liberty play. Teacups, plates, and silverware are scattered about on the floor, representing the formations of two opposing football teams. Leon Ames, who is playing the role, is standing, teacup in hand, describing how another member of the backfield would take the ball out of his upraised hand and execute an end run.
Nugent, as Tommy Turner, was supposed to appear in the background exactly at that moment, shrug in disgust, then exit. Instead, he playfully lifted the cup from Ames’ hand and disappeared. The puzzled expression on Ames’ face was so funny that “the whole cast roared with laughter.” Producer Arthur Beckhard was laughing as hard as anyone. “Leave it in!” he shouted. “That’s great!” So it became a standard laugh-provoker, one that was to entertain many an audience.
Thurber and Helen returned from the east coast just in time for the San Diego opening. With some revisions, it then played Long Beach, and following that – after more tinkering – opened for a week in Santa Barbara, where it was highly successful.
Much was going on in Thurber’s life. His father died that year, and Thurber’s eyesight was going from bad to worse. But on the upside, The New Yorker published his zany, psychological confection The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, describing the fantasies of a mild and retiring man who imagines himself a hero, which was later made into a movie starring Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo and Boris Karloff, influencing scores of later films and TV shows.
After The Male Animal’s sucess in Santa Barbara, the principals in the play were enjoying a late supper at the home of Robert Montgomery and got into what Nugent described as a “spirited and alcoholic discussion” regarding further changes the play might need. This event was later immortalized by Thurber in a sketch enitled Second Act Trouble and, in all truth, was a forewarning of more complications to come.
The Male Animal played in downtown Los Angeles and received good reviews from the local press. Spirits were high, and backstage a party-like atmosphere prevailed. Confidence was building, and many felt assured that the play would be a success when it got to New York. Yet, even at this late date, Nugent, Thurber, and Helen had intuitive feelings that they still had much re-writing to do.
A major complication arose during the week of the Los Angeles performances. Producer/director Arthur Beckhard’s option expired because he had not been able to come up with a substantial amount of the financing he had promised. Ten thousand dollars, to be exact. In addition, Thurber and Nugent had come to the conclusion that Beckhard was not their man. In Thurber’s mind, he did not “give the play enough vigor or pace.”
With some financial assistance from Robert Montgomery, Beckhard was promised a small share of any future profits so that he could recoup out-of-pocket expenses he had made already.
Elliott Nugent offered to assume directorship of the play, but Thurber feared that all the additional responsibility would overload him with work. And, even though they were the best of friends, there’s no doubt that Thurber figured this would give Nugent too much authority. After all, the play had been his own idea.
The two men then called Marc Connelly and asked him to see the play. He did, liked it, and was interested in taking over direction. The three of them met in the Biltmore Grill, and as Elliott Nugent later recalled, “Connelly’s words were like bombshells; he felt the important thing in the The Male Animal was the problem of academic freedom.” His advice was to rewrite much of the script, emphasizing that theme and minimizing the domestic comedy aspect of the plot. If all of that was agreed to, he would consider directing the play.
Thurber and Nugent told Connelly they would consider his proposal. Returning to Nugent’s house, they discussed what had transpired. Thurber was visibly shaken, and Nugent didn’t agree with Connelly’s diagnosis at all. What to do, what to do? Thurber, especially, seemed to have lost a good deal of his self-confidence. The parts of the production that Connelly admired most had largely been the work of Nugent.
Episode #12 [May 1999, Reprint April 2008]
The summer of 1939 was a hectic one for James Thurber, Elliott Nugent, and all the other people involved with The Male Animal.
There were last-minute cast changes, openings in four Southern California cities, the firing of a director, a disquieting conversation with the famous producer/ director Marc Connelly, and increasingly frequent arguments between Thurber and Nugent as to the direction the play should take.
Common sense finally prevailed. They decided that the Thurbers should return to New York and the Nugents would follow as soon as possible. Once there, they would do some serious rewriting of the script, try to find a new producer and director and hope for a New York opening, maybe even that year.
After a few weeks in New York, they were prepared to tackle the manuscript without all the distractions of Southern California, which frequently included nightly performances. The work went smoothly and within a short time they were ready to approach Herman Shumlin, the director/producer Thurber had actually favored from the very beginning. Shumlin was introduced to the revised script, read the California reviews, was favorably impressed and, with one or two minor changes, agreed to do the show.
Financial arrangements were worked out: Nugent put up 40 percent of the capital, Schumlin and his backers 60 percent. Thurber was offered part of Nugent’s 40 percent, but he was broke and refused to accept a loan from the Nugents.
Leon Ames was retained for his role as “Whirling Joe” Ferguson from the Los Angeles cast. They also chose Dick Beckhard (former producer Arthur Beckhard’s nephew) to be stage manager and to play a small part as a male cheerleader. Ruth Matteson was chosen to play the part of Ellen, Tommy Turner’s wife. Bob Scott, another member of the Los Angeles cast, came to New York and was signed on as the student editor. Matt Briggs was given the part of the trustee and turned out to be a great success.
The new director discovered a young unknown actor, Don DeFore, to portray the young football player. And – get this – a beautiful young woman named Gene Tierney was engaged for the role of the ingenue, Ellen’s sister Patricia. But alas, and damn! Tierney was with the company only a few weeks before Darryl M. Zanuck whisked her off to Hollywood where she was to become a major movie star.
After three weeks of rehearsals, the much-rewritten play was looking good, but there were still problems with the final minute or two of the last act. Meanwhile, Thurber was exhausted and Nugent was suffering from an attack of hemorrhoids. Summer and autumn had passed, and winter seemed to descend like a final curtain. To calm his ragged nerves, Thurber and his wife took off for a day or two in the country. The fresh air must have been a tonic because the next day Nugent received a special delivery from Thurber with a new ending for Act III. Just in time. There was to be a Saturday dress rehearsal in Princeton just before opening for a week of performances in Baltimore.
On a raw cheerless night, in a mostly empty theatre, the cast went through their lines. Shumlin wasn’t too impressed until Thurber reassured him that the play always delivered a lot of laughs before a live audience. In fact, Thurber was worried about all the laughter making the play run too long. Maybe even 30 or 40 minutes too long. This news revived Shumlin’s spirits.
The group went back to Shumlin’s hotel room where they proceeded to drink up the supply of Scotch. And when that was finished, in spite of Nugent’s admonitions, Thurber finished off a bottle of gin. A master drinker, he was fit as the proverbial fiddle the next day and proved himself right about the laughter. The dress rehearsal was in Princeton, and Nugent described the evening as a “laugh riot.” The play ran at least 30 minutes too long, but the big news, the good news, was that the new ending was perfect!
But not so fast! The theatre business isn’t always so smooth, and playwrights don’t labor under some kind of special dispensation. The show still needed work. Initial impressions were that the script needed still more cutting. And this had to be done before the play opened for a week in Baltimore.
Worry, worry, worry. The big New York opening was looming ever closer, and here they were still tinkering around with the script. In a conversation that night, Shumlin expressed the thought that there wasn’t nearly enough time to iron out the wrinkles. Nugent was silent.
In Baltimore, before the opening, a revelation! They decided that the first 30 minutes had to be rewritten, tightened up, yet allowed to get the same thoughts and values across, but swiftly. On the first night in Baltimore, Thurber stayed up all night, his typewriter clattering away, writing a condensed first act. The next morning, he showed it to Nugent and Shumlin. It was good.
Episode #13 [June 1999, Reprint May 2008]
Cutting and polishing The Male Animal as if it were a rare gem (which it is) continued throughout the entire week that it played Baltimore. The finished product was only about ten minutes longer than the average comedy and, after all, this was a comedy with a message. But best of all, the heart-warming reward: newspaper notices and reviews were all good.
The spirits of everybody involved in the production were lifting. And the social twirl picked up speed. The Ogden Nashes invited the Nugents and Thurbers to a midnight supper, as did Ed Duffy, the cartoonist, who was an old buddy of Thurber's. H. L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, attended that affair, which made it noteworthy in itself.
By the end of the week, everybody packed up and headed for New York City – the Big Apple, Gotham, the City of Make or Break (If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.). The biggest day of all was not much more than a curtain call away.
Opening night! New York! The bright lights! The Cort Theater on West Forty-eighth Street. The long wait and the suspense were over. The three acts slid by like a baserunner sliding safely into home. How could it have been otherwise? The initial idea. The inspiration. The perspiration. The talented people involved. Again and again, the hard work. Maybe, after all the applause, when the final curtain went down that night, there might even have been a feeling of anticlimax. The play was old stuff by now, but that's when professionalism takes over. That's what you strive for – old stuff.
Loyal friends from Ohio State had rounded up a bunch of alumni living in New York, and they celebrated backstage. Then they went out and celebrated. First to the Waldorf to attend a party the Montgomerys and the Arthur Cushmans threw for them. When that wound down, Thurber suggested they go to Bleeck's Saloon, a friendly bar frequented by newspapermen. In the wee wee hours, they finished up the evening, uh uh, the morning, at the apartment of the noted Tribune critic, Howard Barnes.
In their early editions, all the major dailies hailed the play as a success. In a day or two the Thurbers took off for a well-earned vacation in Bermuda. Nugent was stuck in New York because of his role as Professor Tommy but what the heck! There are worse fates in life than having the leading role in a successful Broadway show. By this time his case of hemorrhoids had improved, so everything was coming up roses.
In the meantime, back in the real world, the events of that year were going from bad to worse. Like the blooming of a poisonous nightshade, the tragedy of World War II was coming to full flower. On May 10th of 1940, Nazi Germany invaded the low countries, on June 5 they invaded France, and on June 14 Parisians awoke to the sound of Nazi boots marching down the Champs Élysées. By autumn, German U-Boats were enjoying the peak of their successes against allied shipping, with many merchant ships and tankers torpedoed off our own east coast. This was more than a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would bring the United States into the war.
Perhaps because of the public's overwhelming preoccupation with inter-national developments, attendance that summer dropped drastically at the Cort Theater. Producer Herman Shumlin decided to close the New York run early and open in Chicago. Ruth Matteson declined going on the road, so her role as Ellen was filled by Elizabeth Love, who brought a lot of Southern charm to the part.
The political climate of the times permeated the atmosphere of Chicago. There was a lot of sentiment against helping England, hard-headed prejudices against getting involved in the war. There was plenty of pro-German feeling, the America Firsters were very vocal, and there was no shortage of Roosevelt haters. And don't forget, The Male Animal was not just a romantic farce about a professor trying to keep his marriage together, it was also a political play, a drama of ideas and ideals forcibly colliding. In his autobiography, Nugent recalls that lines getting applause from the balcony and gallery "were greeted with chilly silence" by those in the expensive orchestra seats.
Newspaper reviews were every bit as good as those in New York City, but attendance slumped. Bigger and portentous events were happening outside the theatre. The play ran eleven weeks to a modest profit, then took to the road. A few months later, Elliott Nugent left The Male Animal company, and not too long after was negotiating with Warner Brothers' Hal Wallis about doing a movie version of the play. The picture rights had already been purchased by Warner Brothers.
When asked by Wallis who he would like to see in Professor Tommy Turner's role, Nugent suggested Henry Fonda. And he added that Olivia de Havilland would be a good choice for the professor's wife. Elliott Nugent was to direct the film.
Episode #14 [July 1999, Reprint July 2008]
The Male Animal didn't win the Pulitzer Prize for the 1939 - 1940 theatre season, but it was selected by theatre critic Burns Mantle as one of the ten best and the play was generally considered one of the top three comedy hits of the season. The other two comedy hits were Life with Father and The Man Who Came to Dinner.
The picture rights to The Male Animal had been sold to Warner Bros. Elliott Nugent did most of the negotiating and in conversations with studio producers Hal Wallis and Wolfgang Reinhardt, Henry Fonda was selected to play the lead of Tommy Turner and Olivia de Havilland the part of Tommy's wife, Ellen.
One of the best Hollywood writing teams, the Epstein brothers, were chosen to adapt the play to the screen. Everyone was very happy with the improvising they did, especially where they expanded the action from what was essentially a one-set play into several additional scenes for the movie version.
A major change switched the reading of the Vanzetti letter from Tommy Turner's living room to the college auditorium with all the resulting action and reaction of the mixed audience. Family members, the professor's English class, trustees, the entire football squad, glowering Ed Keller, the trustee, and assorted other interested parties.
To placate the studio, Nugent wrote in a few lines that hadn't been in the original script making it clear that the good professor was definitely anti-Communist. Warner Bros. had already had a few run-ins with Congress over this inflammatory issue and they didn't want any repeat performances.
Henry Fonda proved to be a good choice for the lead, and Olivia de Havilland was convincing as the wife of a professor at a midwestern university, which we all know was The Ohio State University. Jack Carson was perfect as Joe Ferguson, the one-time campus football hero. The movie still plays now and then on late night TV and is available as video. Everything about it is horribly dated but, perhaps, that is part of its charm. One thing for sure - in my opinion - it comes nowhere close to being as good as the stage play. Proof of the pudding: a number of years ago the OSU Theatre Department produced a smashingly good version of the play which was staged at the Drake Student Union.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Thurber continued to produce first-class work in the aftermath of World War II. Nineteen forty-five saw the publication of The White Deer and The Thurber Carnival. Exhibitions of his drawings around the country were becoming a regular event. In 1947, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was filmed with Danny Kaye in the leading role, and proved to be a success.
In 1948, The Beast in Me and Other Animals was published, and two years later The 13 Clocks was in bookstores all over the country. In 1952, The Thurber Album was published.
During these years, and for more to come, Elliott Nugent was wrestling with the awful adversary of manic depression, mood dips and highs, periods of feverish over-activity, alcoholism, aggressive behavior, brushes with the law, and more and more frequent visits to this psychchologist or that, to one sanitarium or another. All of this, of course, in the days when a patient could expect no more than endless sessions on a couch or, worse, the traumatic experience of electro-shock therapy. He endured all of this and in spite of these handicaps, he was engaged in a staggering professional round of activity that would have floored a more normal person.
Nugent helped write the screenplay and direct Mr. Belvedere Goes to College, starred in The Voice of the Turtle, worked on the film version of The Great Gatsby, directed the stage plays Dear Ruth and The Big Two, wrote and directed The Fundamental George, and co-produced and directed The Seven Year Itch, starring Tom Ewell, Vanessa Brown, Neva Patterson, and Robert Emhardt.
On top of all this, in 1952 the stage version of The Male Animal was revived, playing for a week in Washington, D. C. followed by a two-week engagement at the City Center in New York. Nugent played the part of Tommy Turner, Martha Scott, his wife, Elliott's daughter, Nancy, for the ingenue role, and Bob Preston for the part of "Whirling Joe" Ferguson.
Nugent was working on The Itch at the same time he was taking to the boards for The Male Animal. Talk about moonlighting! All this from Thurber's best friend – and an alumnus of good ol' OSU!
Episode #15 [August 1999, Reprint August 2008]
As The Day the Dam Broke opens, Thurber recalls prankishly that his grandfather "rose to magnificent heights," even though in the old man's case he had a misconception as to the danger at hand, thinking that the stream of fleeing people was the result of a raid by Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry. Rather belated, of course, seeing as how the Civil War had been over for almost fifty years. Instead of fleeing, the old man wanted to take a stand there and then, and he "brandished" his old army sabre and barked, "Let the sons – – come! "Meanwhile, Thurber writes, "hundreds of people were streaming by our house in wild panic, screaming 'Go east! Go east!'"
The great flood of 1913 provided James Thurber with the material for this story, one of his most humorous parodies of the life and times of Columbus inhabitants, including his own relatives. The natural disaster which prompted all this not only inundated the bottoms of the near-west side with disastrous results, it also sparked a real-life panic, which was the catalyst that prompted the writing of The Day the Dam Broke. Like a lot of humor and fantasy, there was enough truth in this story to make it believable, or at least to string the gullible reader along for a frolicsome and delightful joyride.
The facts of the actual flood are these: It wasn't of Biblical proportions, but it did rain a lot, there's no doubt about that. It started raining on Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, and continued through the following Tuesday, with one torrential storm following on the soggy heels of another. All told, six to ten inches of rain fell during that brief period. By March 25 flooding was widespread along rivers and streams throughout much of Ohio. Here in Columbus the swollen Olentangy and Scioto Rivers merged at their confluence into one swirling maelstrom of water which breached levees and dikes that were protecting the low-lying region of the city known as the Bottoms.
Torrents of rushing water crested over the railroad tracks at McKinley Avenue and rushed down Central Avenue and Yale Avenue, creating a murderous eddy that hindered rescue efforts. In places the water was twenty feet deep.
Flooding in that part of the city is nothing new and dates back at least to 1798, with a dozen or more after that. In more recent times, there was flooding of major proportions in 1959. However, none of these events approached the severity of the 1913 flood which took 93 lives and did incalculable property damage.
Dozens of houses were swept off their foundations with many of them floating southward, smashed and splintered beyond recognition. Floating furniture, lumber, and broken tree limbs banged unceasingly against still-standing houses, many of them harboring forlorn and frightened refugees. It wasn't unusual to see a dog floating by, or for that matter, a person, perched precariously on whatever might have been at hand. One woman, stranded on the second floor of a neighbor's house, had her jet black hair turn white overnight.
People who scrambled to upper floors of dwellings only to have them toppled off their foundations were often thrown into the water and drowned. Some sought refuge by climbing trees, couldn't be reached by rescue boats, and suffering from hunger and cold perished when they dropped into the unfriendly waters. According to Hooper's History of Columbus, thousands of people were imprisoned in their homes for three or four days and others fled, leaving all their possessions behind only to find later that they were swept away by the rampaging waters.
When all of this happened, James Thurber was 21 years old. He had just entered Ohio State University and lived with his family on the east side. The devastation and human misery wrought by the flood "over in the bottoms" obviously made a deep impression on the young man. And with that frightful, unpleasant memory permanently lodged in his mind, Thurber, the artist, transformed the experience into the playful parody that it is. He created a wealth of metaphorical prose: "Black streams of people flowed eastward down all the streets . . . these streams, whose headwaters were in the dry goods stores, office buildings, harness shops, movie theatres, were fed by trickles of housewives, children, cripples, servants, dogs, and cats, slipping out of the houses past which the main streams flowed, shouting and screaming."
The Day the Dam Broke, is one of nine pieces that comprise the book My Life and Hard Times, first published in 1933. All of the stories were previously published in the New Yorker. These vignettes are considered by most critics as Thurber's session on the couch of self-analysis, and all of them deal with his youthful days in Columbus.
The stories are Thurber at his best and not only established his reputation as a fine humorist, but led some critics to liken him to Mark Twain.
Episode #16 [September 1999, Reprint September 2008]
My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber’s amusing collection of stories about his youth, was published in 1933. The author was 40 years old and apprehensively wrote in the preface that “A writer verging into the middle years lives in dread of losing his way to the publishing house and wandering down to the Bowery or the Battery, there to disappear like Ambrose Bierce.”
In “The Night the Bed Fell,” one of the nine stories in the book, Thurber reminisces that the incident he is about to describe was the “highwater” mark of his youth in Columbus, which is rather surprising because he surely should have reserved that remark for “The Day the Dam Broke”! Perhaps that was what he originally intended, because these two tales are almost back-to-back in the book. I can also attest to the fact that words have a way of sticking in our minds, sometimes replicating themselves, then dropping like an airborne division of saboteurs onto a page of manuscript to litter it with repetitive landmines.
The story, typically Thurberish (and not too dissimilar from a Marx Brothers’ farce) relates how his father, against the advice of his apprehensive wife, decides one night to sleep in an old bed in the attic. At a quarter past ten, closing the attic door behind him, he climbs the steps to his lofty retreat. At this point in the story, Thurber lists some of the foibles and bizarre sleeping habits of other family members, and mighty funny they are too, including the aunt who nightly heaves shoes down the hallway at imaginary burglars, and Briggs Beall, described as a nervous first cousin who believes he's likely to cease breathing when he falls asleep. As a precautionary measure, he keeps spirits of camphor – a powerful reviver – on his bedside table.
By midnight, after hearing nothing more than “ominous creakings” from the room above, the family retires, and all goes well until about 2 am when there is suddenly a great commotion, an unidentifiable racket, probably not an earthquake, but something close to that in magnitude. As a matter of fact, the young Thurber awoke to find himself beneath the old army cot he had been sleeping on. The noise was loud enough to awaken his mother who thought she knew what had happened and screams, “Let’s go to your poor father!”
Other family members respond to the commotion in their various and sundry insane ways, shaking cobwebs from their sleepy minds, shouting questions as they wobble to their feet, the bull terrier, Rex, adding to the nighttime confusion with his harsh barking.
Thurber’s mother desperately tries to open the attic door but, of course, it’s stuck. The father, peacefully sleeping in the attic is awakened by all this hubbub and decides the house is on fire. “I’m coming, I’m coming!” he wails, words his wife, who is still tugging on the door, interprets as directed to his Maker. “He’s dying!” she shouts, and renews her efforts to open the stuck door.
Well, there’s not much more to say about all this, and I'm certainly not going to give away the ending, even though there really isn’t any to give away! Suffice it to say, the story ends abruptly and turns out to be mostly much ado about nothing. And after probably the umpteenth reading over a lifetime, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that this is not one of my favorite Thurber stories. An absolutely great title, even though it proves not to be true at all, but nevertheless clever.
“The Car We Had to Push,” one of the companion pieces to the above is vaguely humorous and is written in the same droll manner that to my mind rings of a barroom story, good-natured, grossly exaggerated and told with lots of hand and arm gestures.
Like most of the stories, this one rambles, frequently departs from the main subject entirely, and is visited by a lively cast of characters. I especially like the Get-Ready-Man, “a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice” who drives around town in his red car proclaiming that the world is coming to an end. “Get ready! Get Ready!” he bellows to one and all.
The car, an old Reo, comes to an inglorious end. Parked too far from the curb on a street with a streetcar line, it’s hit, dragged along, and demolished by a streetcar as it passes. But as Thurber tells it, with his wonderful way with words, the streetcar “picked up the tired old automobile as a terrier might seize a rabbit,” pushed it along as “tires booped and whooshed, the fenders quelled and graked, the steering wheel rose up like a spectre . . . with a melancholy whistling sound,” and “bolts and gadgets flew like sparks from a Catherine wheel.”
Episode #17 [October 1999, Reprint December 2008]
We’ll take a hiatus now from the literature of James Thurber and see if we can discover a little bit more about his personal life. In the next few episodes we’ll concentrate on his drinking habits, how he went about writing, and what he really thought about the opposite sex.
Thurber was a two-fisted drinker, there’s not much doubt about that, and his drinking escapades invariably interfered with his life. How could they not? More than once he got ushered out of Costello’s, his bar of choice in New York City. The incidents might have all been slightly different (I’m sure each one must have been interesting), but in essence they had to do with his belligerent and offensive behavior after he became inebriated. I was going to say after he had one too many, but any good drinker knows there’s no such thing as one too many. One too many might be the fifth drink, the fifteenth drink, or the twenty-fifth drink. It’s as meaningless and as ludicrous as saying “I’ll have one more.”
Thurber’s drink of choice was the martini. And, remember, during the times we’re talking about martinis were imbibed straight up. That is, they were not served on the rocks, which would have been considered sissy behavior, although a good martini, or the perfect martini, might have been splashed on the rocks in the making. He once observed that one martini wasn’t enough, two martinis were too many, and three or more martinis were just right.
From the accounts of friends, Thurber’s drinking career seems to have begun during the months he spent in France when he acquired a taste for Pommard wine. At the same time, he was developing his social prowess, transformed from an awkward loner from the midwest into a man of the world.
Being a high-strung, volatile person to begin with, alcohol would send Thurber into outer space. He was a ham even when sober. There was nothing he liked better than creating a scene, a dramatic incident, anything that would shatter the boredom of everyday life outside his own fertile mind. Such incidents undoubtedly gave him lots of laughs when he would relate them to friends and, who knows, fresh ideas for cartoons and stories.
Back in New York while working at the New Yorker, even though it was during Prohibition, there were plenty of opportunities to drink. The gin available at a speakeasy named the Green Door helped him forget his problems with Althea, his estranged wife. In the early ‘30s, Thurber was living alone at 65 West Eleventh St. Sometimes he never made it home, ending up asleep on the floor of an apartment where he had attended a party. One acquaintance noticed that a party of people too large for Thurber to dominate seemed to drive him to excessive drinking.
During the course of one party at Robert Benchley’s suite at the Barberton, Thurber took off his shoes and fell asleep, awakened during the night, put on Benchley’s shoes, which were way too small, and wore them home. Wondering why his feet were so swollen, the question was answered the next day when he received a wire from Benchley asking him to return his shoes.
Friends and acquaintances do not describe Thurber as an alcoholic, just a poor drinker. Wolcott Gibbs often explained that Thurber could be the kindest and gentlest of friends until after 5 p.m. when he often started drinking. His practical jokes sometimes got out of hand. His friends worried about him. He could be reckless. Or astonishing as when he would tap a cocktail glass against his glass eye.
If you’ve been following this series, you’ll recall the ugly incident that occurred in Columbus when Thurber was in town to receive a Press Club of Ohio Award. Martini in hand, Thurber was veing questioned before dinner by a group of reporters in the mezzanine ballroom at the old Neil House Hotel. A poor lady reporter from the Columbus Dispatch made the fatal mistake of confusing Charlie Ross, the prizefighter, with Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker, and Thurber’s longtime friend and boss. The words were hardly out of the woman’s mouth when Thurber called her a fraud, using the f-word in the process.
Perhaps complicating Thurber’s behavior was the fact that during the latter half of his life, he suffered from a toxic thyroid condition which produced neuritis headaches. Combined with drinking, this was a sure receipt for frequent uncontrolled behavior.
In the 1950s, Thurber told a reporter that he and his colleagues had never considered themselves part of a “lost generation.” He answered, “Ours was the generation that stayed up all night.”
Episode #18 [November 1999, Reprint January 2009]
We are poor little lambs/ Who have lost their way,/ Bah! Bah! Bah! - from “The Whiffenpoof Song”
A complicated man was James Thurber, and this was never more apparent than back in the 1920s, a crazy, convoluted era that crammed together hard drinking (even though it was Prohibition), along with rum-runners, gangsters, flappers – all in all, a generation determined to have fun at any cost.
To recap: In 1920, Thurber returned to Columbus from France where he had been working as a code clerk for the State Department and the American Embassy in Paris. He worked as a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, and through 1921 he wrote and directed musical comedies for the Scarlet Mask at Ohio State University. In 1922, he married Althea Adams of Columbus. By 1923, he was writing “Credos and Curios,” a halfpage in the Sunday Dispatch.
In 1924, he resigned from the newspaper to try his hand at freelance writing. He was the Central Ohio correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, and he contributed political tidbits to The Wheeling Intelligencer.
In May of 1925, he went to France again, obstensibly to write a novel which never happened, worked for the Paris edition of The Chicago Tribune, and returned to the U.S. in the spring of 1926 when he began work as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. Then a year later, in 1927, fate smiled broadly on the struggling young writer from Columbus. He met E. B. White and Harold Ross and was hired as a staff member of The New Yorker. The magazine was barely two years old and was to prove the launching pad for Thurber’s talent.
Thirty-four years later, after the death of Thurber in 1961, E. B. White wrote: “I am one of the lucky ones; I knew him before blindness hit him, before fame hit him, and I tend always to think of him as a young artist in a small office in a big city, with all the world still ahead. It was a fine thing to be young and at work in New York for a new magazine when Thurber was young and at work, and I will always be glad this happened to me.”
Thurber came along just a little too late to be a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, the meeting and drinking place of so many nationally known humorists and literati. In its waning days, however, he and White did sit in on one of the legendary luncheons “and were so embarrassed by the trained system of insults that they used on each other, we never got used to it,” Thurber commented later.
Success for many of its members is probably what led to the dissolution of the roundtable more than anything. Some succumbed to lucrative offers from Hollywood, while others moved to Connecticut to escape the New York state income tax. A number found refuge in rural surroundings believing that the creative juices flow more freely when lubricated by the sound of crickets and the hooting of owls.
In the meantime, Thurber’s marriage to Althea was not going well, or to put it more bluntly, like some drinks, it was on the rocks. Being married to a struggling and temperamental writer was probably not Althea’s idea of a blissful married life. To make matters worse, so it is said, she lusted for a fuller sex life. Thurber, on the other hand, was undoubtedly expending his sexual drive on creative writing, drawing, and booze. But not entirely. He too was dissatisfied with the marriage and longed for a more harmonious and satisfying relationship. As it was turning out, in this ongoing war of the sexes (the theme of so many of his cartoons and stories), he was proving to be his own best subject.
He and Althea were living apart, but he would frequently visit her on weekends. The truth was that she was indulging in her own extra-marital flings, but she liked to have her husband around to keep up a facade of suburban well-being. Thurber, in the meantime, thought he was in love with Paula Trueman, an actress.
He would recite to Paula a litany of his discontent, a list that many a drinking married man would be familiar with: frigidity on the part of his wife, lack of understanding, loving the dogs more than him, and unhappiness with each other when together or apart.
By 1929, the stockmarket had crashed, the economy was in disarray, to say the least, but The New Yorker was staying afloat, a guy and a gal could still get a drink in a speakeasy, and Thurber was churning out more and more creative copy that would continue to entertain a growing circle of readers and critics.
Episode #19 [December 1999, Reprint February 2009]
Pub crawling was a popular pastime for much of The New Yorker staff during the late twenties, and even though it was Prohibition, nightclub and speakeasy nights out seemed to be realistic substitutes for the psychiatrist’s couch, not as expensive, and a lot more fun. James Thurber fit into this scene as if he had been cast for the role. He got to know Humphrey Bogart before the actor moved on to Hollywood and ultimate fame. He brushed shoulders with author Philip Wylie, who was chasing Lois Long, an attractive young editor at Vanity Fair, hired by New Yorker editor Ross to write “Tables for Two,” the magazine’s nightclub column. Lois Long eventually married cartoonist Peter Arno, which sent Wylie into a long period of depression not unlike Thurber’s own marathon marital misery. Interestingly enough, when Thurber turned to cartooning, Arno came to dislike him and belittled his drawings. That’s jealousy for you!
Later in life, Long wrote that “everybody made scenes, terrible scenes, or else were moody, which was almost worse.” She also mentioned that these alcoholic encounters were frequently good therapy because as often as not you wound up helping someone who was in worse emotional shape than you were. She went on to mention that there was a “reckless atmosphere” everyone responded to and that even though women had been emancipated, they weren’t sure what to do with themselves, “so we were going to hell laughing and singing.”
One night she took Ross on a tour of her nighttime haunts, and what he saw shocked him out of a year’s growth. In her memoirs, she mentioned that you were never sure what you were drinking or who you’d wake up with, that young women wore wishbone diaphragms that weren’t always reliable, and “there was a woman doctor who handled abortions for our crowd. She would take a vacation at Christmastime to rest up for the rush after New Year’s Eve.” Ross, on the other hand, thought if you went to bed with a girl once, you were obliged to save her honor by marrying her.
Other signs of the times she mentions: You were considered to be a good drinker if you made it to the ladies room before throwing up, and “it was customary to give two dollars to the cab driver if you threw up in his cab.” Her group’s favorite cabby was Charlie Rosenberg, a one-time member of the Schultz gang trying to go straight, who idolized celebrities. After Thurber’s cartoons began to appear in The New Yorker, Charlie would pass up other fares in order to pick up Thurber after he emerged from a speakeasy. One night Thurber had been thrown out of Tony’s, and he was cursing and yelling threats as he pounded on the little metal grill that protected the door window. Charlie leaned out of his cab window and pleaded, “Please, Mr. Thuba, use ya left hand, don’t pound with ya drawin’ hand!”
Lois Long liked and respected Thurber, but she recalls that he couldn’t drink, especially the rot-gut that was being produced during Prohibition. She remembers that he would sometimes throw drinks in the faces of people more famous than he was. She says that he always moved unexpectedly and would take his victim by surprise, and that nobody would even know that he was upset or mad. He seldom behaved like that with people further down the social ladder.
Humorously enough, she believed that Ross liked his staff to go out on binges. “He had a theory that we would be so remorseful afterwards that we would write especially well the next day.” As anyone who has ever suffered from a morning-after hangover can attest, that was a mistaken notion if there ever was one.
Lois confessed she never felt the remorse from drinking that Ross, her boss, hoped she’d feel. And, speaking of confessions, she tells the story of how one time she was drinking beside a priest who gave her the blazing eye treatment and tried to convert her. She told him she would slash her wrists before she ever had the chance to die a natural death. When she told Thurber about the incident, he drew a cartoon about it. Such behavior seemed to be all the fashion during the “Roaring ‘20s.” One flapper gal wore a huge diamond bracelet over her scars. Dorothy Parker, it is said, wrapped her wrists with big red ribbons after she’d slashed herself over a man. Humorist Robert Benchley noticed her bedecked wrists at a party and told her “If you don't quit doing that, you’ll ruin your health.”
So it went. From the daft and amusing antics of Columbus folks that he wrote about to the madness of New York City, Thurber was finding out that people are pretty much the same no matter where they are. And, of course, he carried his own set of follies and idiosyncrasies right along with him.
Episode #20 [January 2000, Reprint April 2009]
Shortly after Harold Ross, The New Yorker editor, hired 32-year-old James Thurber in 1927, it is said he could not make up his mind whether it had been a smart move or the stupidest thing he had ever done. Fortunately, once a year had passed, he decided in the affirmative. For one thing, Thurber was a hard worker and his production was prodigious. In addition to frequently rewriting “The Talk of the Town,” the lead-off feature in the magazine, he filled in for E. B. White when he was on vacation, wrote an impressive number of articles, contributed a poem, and did a profile of Myron T. Herrick, an Ohioan who was Ambassador to France during World War I. Ross made him rewrite this piece 16 times, which so traumatized Thurber that he never wrote a personality piece for any publication until two decades later, when he reminisced about the Columbus characters who ramble through The Thurber Album.
“The Talk of the Town” feature (still running) was Ross’ favorite part of the magazine, and there were sometimes half a dozen or more writers contributing to it, including White, Ralph Ingersoll, James Kevin McGuinness, and Thorne Smith, famed for his Topper novels. Ross was hard to please and many of these contributors lasted about as long as it took to smoke up a carton of cigarettes.
Eventually, Thurber more or less took over the column, improving on it as he grew ever more confident, providing it with a sassy, saucy style that persists today.
The magazine’s offices were cramped, the walls have been described as dirty, but some of them were blessed with the scribbles and scrawls of Thurber’s humorous cartoon characters. And, amidst such surroundings, it was often commented on by those in his employ that Ross was a difficult man to work for. He created lots of tension by putting too much importance on unimportant things, yet there was a lighter side to him that sometimes emerged.
Once at a party, producer David O. Selznick was bragging about the financial success of Dinner at Eight. Ross took Thurber aside and told him to tell Selznick that he was The New Yorker’s treasurer and that the magazine had grossed ten million dollars that year. (The fact of the matter was, good financial fortune smiled on The New Yorker throughout the Great Depression. The magazine stayed in the black and built up a respectable circulation of over 100,000.) Anyway, Thurber did as he was bid, and what should have been good-natured banter soon turned ugly when Selznick threatened to punch him in the mouth. Ross, who couldn’t stand the sight of blood, hurriedly grabbed his hat and left the party. Fortunately, a fight was avoided, but Ross’ behavior was typical. At another brouhaha between staffers, he hid in the bathroom until the dispute was over.
Thurber once noted Ross’ “monumentally magnified trivialities” and called him “the Great Multiplier of Menace.” He went on to paint him as “a man who spent an unpardonable amount of time worrying about commas, sex, and other editorial nightmares.” And on top of all that, he “was afraid to fire people, hated to be seen in the elevator, and tried to sneak unobserved to the men’s room.”
When Thurber wrote The Years With Ross, his book about the tempestuous editor, he faced the monumental task of portraying Ross’ speech which was interwoven around a constant flow of profanity. To have edited it all out would have made Ross unrecognizable to those who had known him. So the book is sprinkled with salty language, goddams as adjectives and Geezus! is frequently used as an expletive. Thurber wrote in the foreword to the book: “I intensely believe that Ross was never actually conscious of his profanity, or of the nature of blasphemy itself. He was simply using sounds that made communication possible for him, and without which he would have been almost tongue-tied.”
Harold Ross founded the weekly magazine in 1925 as a typical city magazine, but it soon attracted a bevy of talented writers and grew into a unique publication defining its own perimeters. Poetry, fiction, feature articles and cutting criticism were soon added to the litany of entertainment offerings and found an appreciative readership across the country. Ross died in 1951.
Ross was undoubtedly a character of the first magnitude. Paranoid he certainly was, and also the possessor of an almost puritanical set of values. “I am, by God, going to keep sex out of this office – sex is an incident!” he once roared to the four walls of his office and whoever else was listening. What he would have thought about the present-day offerings of his beloved magazine is hard to imagine. Rolling over in his grave is the first thing that comes to mind.
Episode #21 [February 2000, Reprint May 2009]
Women were the source of much frustration to James Thurber – as they are to many men – and like a good many of his fellows, he was frequently at odds with the fairer sex. These conflicts and skirmishes were especially prevalent when he was single and during his first marriage to Althea. It’s also a sure bet that his drinking exacerbated these problems, and if the woman in question was also drinking, which was frequently the case, it’s easy to imagine what this could lead to. Throw in Thurber’s critical mind and high-pitched way of viewing the world, and it’s easy to come up with sexual Armageddon. Nevertheless, all of this mayhem led to some of his zaniest stories and drawings. So, in a way, the anguish he suffered was a blessing for the rest of us. “The war of the sexes” literally became a Thurber trademark, the material never ran out, and he milked it for all it was worth.
There were undoubtedly deeper reasons for all of these misunderstandings. It’s quite possible Thurber’s problems with members of the opposite sex originated with his mother, Mary Agnes Fisher, or Mame, as most of the family and friends called her. She was the oldest of William and Katherine Fisher’s six children. She was born in 1866 and lived to be 89 years old, passing away on December 20, 1955. From childhood to dotage, she was a chatterbox, constantly competing for attention. And on top of all that, she was a prankster and practical jokester of the first magnitude.
As a schoolgirl, Mame was highly imaginative and uninhibited. She constantly dreamed of becoming an actress, and on one occasion even attempted to run away when her ambitions were thwarted by strict Methodist parents. To compensate, she resorted to more easily obtainable play-acting and mimicry for the benefit of not only friends and family but whoever happened to be at hand. One such occasion was when she unloosed a basement full of dogs (18 of them) on an unsuspecting aunt who didn’t particularly like dogs.
Another time, when the family had distinguished company, she descended the staircase in a dressing gown, her hair disarrayed, her eyes staring straight ahead as if she was in a stupor. To the shocked guests she announced that she had escaped from the attic where she had been confined because of her “ardent and hapless love for Mr. Briscoe, the postman.”
Perhaps the most hilarious of Mame’s high jinks occurred when she borrowed a wheelchair at a faith-healing ceremony and launched herself down the aisle. When she reached the front of the mission, she suddenly stood up and triumphantly proclaimed that she could walk. The sound of joyful hallelujahs was still ringing in her ears when the owner of the wheelchair recognized his property and she fled out the door.
One time her sons arrived home from school and couldn’t find their mother. She had climbed up onto the roof and hidden behind the chimney.
When Mame was in her 60s, she took a train to Washington, D.C., to meet a friend she hadn’t seen for many years. “I’ll be wearing a red rose pinned to my coat,” she had written beforehand. Well, wouldn’t you know it, her train pulled into Union Station ahead of time. She got off the train, spied an elderly woman sleeping on a bench, pinned the rose on her, then hid while she watched her friend attempting to embrace and shake the stranger awake.
Little wonder then that much of James Thurber’s sense of humor has been attributed to his mother’s follies and foibles. Wolcott Gibbs, fellow writer for the New Yorker, once wrote that James Thurber’s “sure grasp of confusion” was certainly inherited from Mame. We have already related the story about the time Thurber, on a visit to Columbus with a friend – maybe Ted Gardiner – had taken his mother to Mills Cafeteria, which was located on High Street opposite the capitol.
Those were the days when lots of people enjoyed the downtown area on a daily basis. Mills was a popular dining place, and their visit was probably on a Sunday, so it was more crowded than ever. They took their place at the end of a long line that extended from the serving area almost to the front door.
Suddenly, with a little sigh, Mame keeled over and crumpled to the white tile floor. “Give her air,” someone shouted, as James, Ted, and a little group of concerned individuals hovered over the prostrate figure. Some people who were having dinner nearby had pushed their chairs back and were also on their feet. Whereupon Mame opened one eye and cried out to James and Ted, “Don’t just stand there. Grab that table!” A theatrical faint? Probably. The old girl was still capable of capturing attention with a dramatic flair.
What isn’t so widely recognized is the fact that Mame’s behavior could become extremely tiresome. This was especially true later in life when her antics became obvious attempts at becoming the center of attention. Not to speak of her continual chatter and marathon phone calls. She usually had the last word, and probably the first. James himself wearied of this eternal maternal mischief and on one trip to Columbus, presumably to visit with his family, he didn’t show up at his mother’s for three days.
Nevertheless, during his years growing up, it was the mother who held the family together. In spite of her flightiness and eccentricities, such as her profound belief in astrology, she dominated the roost. In the face of this imposing competition, the father remained a secondary figure, a quiet man by comparison, a man who never rose much higher than a political clerk, perhaps becoming a dreamer, a Walter Mitty-like figure, imagining what he might have been.
Episode #22 [March 2000, Reprint June 2009]
James Thurber was always quick to say that his sense of humor was derived from his mother, Mame. Actually, it was a lot more than just a sense of humor. Think of it instead as a merry medley of perplexity and turmoil punctuated with perpetual astonishment. Consider the absurdity of a seal barking on the headboard of a bed, an ex-wife perched on a bookcase, and the mayhem portrayed in the drawing “The Fight in the Grocery Store” in which a crowd of shoppers are pelting each other with every bottle, box, and tin can in sight.
Was it genes or beans? Heredity or environment? Probably all of the above. But my own intuition says it came mostly from observing his mother in action, close-up, not only during his formative years, but on and on over the course of their lives. All of this environmental process, you might say, splashed on a receptive genetic canvas. But, one way or the other, the comedy started long before he was born.
One big clue: Thurber once described his grandfather, William Fisher, as “the greatest ham actor in the family,” so perhaps that’s where Mame picked up her droll and amusing ways. Whatever, she was a piece of work, as we are inclined to say nowadays.
As a young girl at family get-togethers, she would dress up in her mother’s clothes, dramatically throw a shawl over her shoulders, and deliver monologues to the amusement of the gathered clan. “It was the closest I ever got to being an actress,” she would write later in life, “and I wrote those skits myself.”
Elaborate jokes were her forte, and she seldom missed an opportunity to lampoon or mimic people caught with their guards down. Such antics were the centerpieces, the big productions, the installations, if you will, of her prankish mind. There was the daily foolishness, the non-stop telephone conversations, the bold eagerness to intrude into situations where others were afraid to tread. All of this behavior aided and abetted not only by an active mind, but a memory that was close to total recall.
When a club acquaintance married after many years of spinsterhood only to throw her hapless husband out of the house a few weeks later, nobody dared ask what had gone wrong. Except Mame. She reported to the other ladies of the club that the irate bride had confided, “Why, he said things to me my own brother wouldn’t say!”
Way back in 1910, the Thurber family opened an account at the F & R Lazarus store in downtown Columbus. Mame, with James in tow, would pretend they were shoplifters, but fortunately before getting into any real trouble, they came to be recognized as harmless pranksters. This is not to say the floorwalkers weren’t bowled over by their odd behavior.
Although these kinds of actions might be shrugged off by those charitably inclined as childish diversions, sterner judgment could just as easily label them as real serious, oddball eccentricity, half a step away from candidacy for the funny-farm. Some say she was reacting to the stern Fisher household that probably inhibited her freedom and natural gaiety. Others suggest that she was trying to draw attention away from her sister Katherine, who has been described as one of the most beautiful girls in Columbus.
Whatever motivated her zaniness, it was a lifelong thing. In New York City in the ‘30s, James once took her to a party at the Algonquin Hotel. Even though she didn’t drink or smoke, she pretended to be tipsy and asked one of the guests for a cigarette and a light. Because she kept blowing through the cigarette, the bewildered man was still trying to light her up two or three minutes later.
Always happy and obliging to shock the conservative members of the several women’s clubs she belonged to, Mame took a cardboard egg container to a meeting and announced she’d always had the urge to break a dozen eggs all at the same time. When she hurled the empty container at a nearby wall, the women shrieked and dived for cover.
Anything for a laugh was her motto. Perhaps it was some inner need that required constant replenishing. She would spin outlandish stories, total fabrications, to her own boys, spinning these yarns with such a straight face that they believed every word was the gospel truth.
When she was 85, she ran into old friend Mollie Harmon at Lazarus. When Mollie introduced Mame to her two granddaughters, they clapped their hands and cried out, “Oh, Grandma, make her do something!”
“She was a gay and happy and witty person,” recalled Millicent Easter who lived at the Southern Hotel during the years that Mame was a resident there. Millicent, a flamboyant character in her own right, was a social chairperson at the hotel who coordinated and promoted art exhibits on the hotel’s mezzanine floor. That same year, Millicent arranged for noted artist Emerson Burkhart to paint Mame’s portrait. No longer bursting with energy and mischief, she sat demurely for the picture. It’s hard to imagine what might have happened if this meeting had occurred in earlier years. Two great individualists, meeting like that, neither at a loss for words. It’s hard to tell.
Episode #23 [April 2000, Reprint July 2009]
The year 2000 marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of The New Yorker magazine, a longevity not experienced by many publications, even in this era of extended life expectancy.
The magazine has had five editors, the most famous, the irascible and enigmatic Harold Ross, the one who conceived the notion of such a periodical in the first place. He had another distinction. Among the numerous distinguished and talented writers that he attracted to the magazine was James Thurber, then a young man, untried and mostly unlettered.
The first of the four offices occupied by the magazine has been commonly described as a speakeasy with typewriters, or maybe a reasonable facsimile of Animal House and its inhabitants. It was in that first home, the one mid-wifed by Ross on 45th Street, that high-jinx and practical jokes were seemingly as much a part of the daily routine as writing and editing the copy and rushing it to the printer on time. All of this transpiring in New York City in the ‘30s, with Our Man Thurber smack dab in the middle of the craziness, trading wickedly witty remarks with the neat and the elite, his talent for whimsy and nonsensical behavior earning him admiration that would have made his mother beam. And, not to be forgotten, during these early years at The New Yorker, he was agonizing over a marriage that wasn't working out, and drinking twice too much bootlegged booze.
If he didn’t originate or participate in a particular prank perpetrated by some of the New Yorker crew, he was always somewhere nearby where he could relish the shenanigans underway and, as often as not, retell them in drawings and stories.
Once when workmen were hammering and sawing away, making it impossible to concentrate, he gathered up all the metal wastebaskets he could find and rolled them down a hallway. When Ross had a phone booth installed in the hall for those of the staff wishing to make private calls, Thurber tipped it over one day, powdered his face a cadaverish white, crawled inside, pulled the doors shut, crossed his arms and ghoulishly counted those who came to peer at him through his almost-but-not-quite closed eyes.
More than once, he and one or another of his drinking pals returned to the offices after getting blotto, raised merry hell and passed out cold.
One evening when managing editor Ralph Ingersoll stopped by the office after regular working hours, he was dismayed to find the magazine’s star cartoonist, Peter Arno, lying naked on a sofa with “Tables for Two” columnist, Lois Long.
Years later Long said, “Arno and I may have been married to one another by then, I can’t remember.” On second thought, she added, “Maybe we began drinking and forgot that we were married and had an apartment to go to.”
Anecdotes of those early days at The New Yorker are plentiful. Thurber had a talent for endless monologues which he would sometimes deliberately rob of all meaning by prattling away in a form of nonsensical double talk. The thought occurs that he must have been really amusing for anyone to have tolerated that much of his flat-as-a-plank midwestern voice that we hear in old recordings and TV tapes.
Another of his pranks was to drop into an absent colleague’s office and fill the memo and telephone pads with doodles: a woman chasing a woman, a seal, a loppy-eared dog, a disgruntled-looking man, one sheet after another, sometimes all of them. Wouldn’t the progeny of those guys and gals love to have those scribblings now!
At any rate, the magazine and James Thurber proved to be the perfect match. The New Yorker’s waggish individualism and stoical eye for the truth (and all the little truths) was the ideal habitat for his grumpy, befuddled, and bewildered wit. As Anthony Lane mentioned in the Anniversary issue, “The New Yorker tone is really a New Yorker chord, combining respect for human enterprise, and for the particulars of the case, with a deep delight in human
He then provides us with this droll Thurber quote: “Two overcoats which he left in the New Yorker office last spring were stolen, or else he left them some-place else.” He then mentions Donald Barthelme’s directions on how to cook dinner for sixty, which appeared in “The Talk of the Town”: “About twenty pounds of sliced onions would be a good addition, although they probably should have gone in earlier.”
Thurber was not the only office clown. E. B. White, Ralph Ingersoll, and others periodically added to the prevailing mirth. Harrison Kinney, in his monumental Thurber biography notes that “a volatile person like Thurber operates at a manic high others have to drink to reach.” Then he adds, “Alcohol sent Thurber into outer space.”
Wolcott Gibbs, a roundtable companion and contributor to the magazine, recollected that “the stories about Thurber’s office behavior are manifold, peculiar, and perhaps as much as fifty-percent true.” But, as Kinney notes, time passed, the staff members aged, settled things with themselves, moved on, wearied, or died.
Thurber himself, at 50, wrote in a preface to Mary Petty’s book of cartoons that it was a “plain, workaday office” with “shy and even timorous persons, given to flatulence, tremors, and mild melancholia, and absorbed by family worries and commonplace problems.”
Episode # 24 [May 2000, Reprint August 2009]
The years 1934 and 1935, smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression, were hectic for James Thurber, as well as the staff of The New Yorker and the entire nation. People who speak fondly of the “good ol’ days” most of the time are talking through their collective hats and simply mooning over the days of their lost youth. The blatant truth is the ‘30s sucked.
The weather was abominable. Freezing winters followed on the heels of broiling drought-ridden summers. The dust bowl was blowing away the topsoil of the western prairies, factories were closed down, unemployment was rampant, and the good news was that here in Columbus, Ohio, tuition at OSU was around 90 bucks a quarter. The bad news: the prevailing wage was around thirty cents an hour – if you could find a job. And, of course, Democrats and Republicans were engaged, as always, in their tiresome quibbling and niggling at each other. All of these problems, and the world, and eventually the U.S., were slowly but surely sliding toward the horrors of World War II.
So it seems that Thurber’s personal life was in tune with the times, or should we say contrapuntal to the prevailing events and insanities on the national and world stage. In other words, perhaps the times were partly responsible for producing the man. His marriage to Althea was on the rocks, he was drinking too much, yet he turned out a prodigious amount of copy for The New Yorker, large numbers of drawings, and still found time to write a couple of books. My Life and Hard Times had already been published in 1933, and The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze saw print in 1935.
Craziness was in the wind. One day Maxwell Bodenheim, the Bohemian poet of Greenwich Village, stopped by The New Yorker offices with a batch of poems he hoped to sell. He settled for a fifty cent loan. At a Christmas party at a nearby restaurant, editor Harold Ross, carrying a Christmas tree, got stuck in the revolving doors and had to be rescued. At another party, Ross caught a woman’s dress on fire when he flipped a lighted cigarette in her direction.
Not only was Thurber suffering from the fallout of a failed marriage, he was profoundly frustrated by the rebuffs of Ann Honeycutt, a longtime romantic interest that he had nurtured for years. In a curious autobiographical piece that was published in the March 2, 1935, issue of The New Yorker titled “One is a Wanderer,” he remarked that “marriage does not make two people one, it makes two people two . . .” A few lines later, feeling tremendously sorry for himself and obviously directing his thoughts to Honeycutt, he wrote: “She doesn’t know how I start my days, she only knows how I end them. She doesn't even know how I started my life. She only knows me when night gets me.” He was beginning to hit bottom.
A few days after the essay appeared, he confided to Honey: “What a symptomatic, tight, egocentric, constipated piece that was!” He went on to wonder why he had ever submitted it for publication rather than running it by a shrink. At this point, although he didn’t know it, he was being prophetic. Shortly afterward, at Honey’s urging, he admitted himself to Dr. Fritz Foord’s sanitarium at Kerhonkson in the Catskill Mountains. Thurber had found out about the institution after hearing that famous short story writer William Sidney Porter had used it as a drying out place. Interestingly enough, about this same time Esquire published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack Up,” a first-hand account of that author’s emotional and alcoholic problems.
In fairly short order, Thurber dried out and was rarin’ to go. In a letter to Honey, he mentioned that he had gained two pounds and emphasized the fact that he didn’t accept that “lank, sick, nervous man who for years wandered from the N. Yorker to the Algonquin to Tony’s.”
Ann Honeycutt, by the way, was a great one for leading her men on. Admittedly, she preferred the company of men to women. For years she used to play Saturday poker games with John Lardner and a circle of men card players, and once wrote “I knew I could never survive on the company of just one man.” Yet, at one time or another, she led the following notables around by the nose, each one assuming he was her choice in marriage: Wolcott Gibbs, Tribune journalist Willie Coleman, and Thurber, to mention a few. The kindest interpretation of her intentions might be to say she didn’t want to disappoint any of the men in her life or, maybe closer to the truth, she just didn’t know how to end a relationship.
After returning to New York City, nothing was resolved, and Thurber soon resumed his pub-crawling ways. In spite of (or maybe because of) his mental anguish, he produced a monumental amount of work, including some of his best pieces of prose, and the equivalent of a cartoon-a-week for The New Yorker. It was almost like walking innocently but victoriously through a minefield, escaping with his skin, in spite of throbbing hangovers and empty bottles of booze on every hand. One of his best-ever drawings was produced during this time, a classic, the lady crouched atop the bookcase, with the Thurber Man proclaiming to a guest “That’s my first wife up there, and this is the present Mrs. Harris.”
One night he took his friend and co-worker Robert Coates to a party at Honeycutt’s apartment. He had just become aware of Althea's divorce terms, and it suddenly dawned on him that he was at a deadend with Honey. Then he did what we would expect. He went berserk, denounced all his friends, and started throwing everything around in the apartment that wasn’t nailed down. The next day, he wrote her a letter of apology. (The dilemma of the compulsive letter writer: Just one more!) He signed it: “With love and curses, Jamie.” But then, of course, he wrote her again, and again.
By now, his letters were becoming increasingly bitter and it was obvious the end was in sight. A few weeks later, on June 25, 1935, at the age of 40, he married Helen Wismer.
Episode # 25 [June 2000, Reprint September 2009]
In 1935, James Thurber was drinking too much booze, spending too much money, mentally recuperating from his divorce from Althea, and suffering from the sting of Ann Honeycutt's refusals of marriage. He was also getting involved in frequent fights, which he invariably lost, sometimes with grievous damage to his face – and losing what little eyesight he had left. Not a pretty picture.
When he learned that Honeycutt was going to marry one of her many suitors, a bloke named St. Clair McKelway, Thurber's primitive macho instincts immediately came into play. He had to get married first! Not unlike the old gag in which a man tells his friends, "I've decided to get married, I just don't know who."
In Thurber's case, he actually knew who. Her name was Helen Wismer, a witty little woman who appreciated his writing, was a good listener, and a good companion who could bend her elbow drink for drink with almost any man. She had frequently been seen in the company of Babe Benson, a World War I flier, and something of a hero, who just happened to be married. Not to worry though. Thurber's sexual interest in women often seemed to be enhanced by jealousy.
And where do you suppose Thurber proposed to Helen? In the lobby of the good old Algonquin Hotel, naturally! Over cocktails. After he asked for her hand in marriage, Helen was so surprised she went to the ladies' room to compose herself, then returned to the lobby with her answer. "Of course," she said, and they sealed the deal with another drink.
Not unlike the column of the same name in The New Yorker, news of the impending wedding was the talk of the town.
Helen turned out to be a good marriage choice for Thurber. Not as pretty as Honeycutt, she nevertheless was cute, brown-eyed, slender, with a certain pertness about her. The engagement was the subject of considerable discussion among all those who knew the couple, especially at the drinking holes frequented by the writing crowd, such places as Costello's, Tony's, "21," Bleek's, and the Algonquin. His divorce from Althea had turned out to be messy, with some of the sordid details finding their way into the press. All of this, along with his various romantic affairs, his drinking, frequent fisticuffs, and now an engagement. Thurber was becoming a fountainhead of savory gossip.
Most of their friends believed that Helen was a good marriage choice. They agreed that she was going to be a great helpmate for a man who surely needed one. Her father was a depression-era minister, she knew the true meaning of the word poor, but more importantly, she was a good editor, so she would be of immense benefit to her husband-to-be. In New York, she had worked on a number of pulp magazines, periodicals with titles like War Aces and I Confess, and she was good at what she did. She loved and admired Thurber, but better than that, she had a tremendous amount of patience and intestinal fortitude. She would be able to put up with his moodiness, his wandering eye, and all the rest of the baggage that she would acquire along with the marriage license.
Their assorted friends and acquaintances looked on the upcoming event with mixed emotions that ranged from amusement to trepidation. Oddly enough, Honeycutt began to work up a little jealousy of her own, perhaps because of Thurber's growing fame. She would refer to his wife Helen as knock-kneed and implied that her thin body was "put together like the insides of a tool kit."
Once burned, twice careful, or as Mark Twain so eloquently put it: "When a cat has sat on a hot stove lid, it will think twice before it sits on a cold one." As the wedding day approached, Thurber acquired a real case of jitters and at one point, just a few weeks before the planned ceremony, he bolted for his good ol' home town of Columbus, Ohio, and whatever comfort and advice he could obtain from his mother, Mame dearest.
When Helen finally discovered his whereabouts, she shouted over the telephone, "Where are you, someplace in the gutter?" Thurber was taken aback by the vehemence of her remarks and in a quandary confided to his mother about the conversation. Mame, a firm believer in astrology, told him that Helen's birthdate boded well for the marriage, and the harsh words were soon forgotten.
New Yorker editor Harold Ross insisted that writers were at their creative best when they were unhappy and emotionally unhinged. He was worried that the upcoming marriage might make Thurber excessively happy thereby spoiling his entertaining way with words. He even went so far as to ask Robert Benchley to talk Thurber out of such a serious commitment. Benchley, even though married, was quite a playboy, a Manhattan boulevardier, and he agreed with Ross that in Thurber's case, the bonds of marriage might run counter to his creativity. He had a man-to-man talk with Thurber on the subject, but shortly thereafter he met Helen and changed his mind completely.
On June 25, 1935, Helen and James were united in holy matrimony. Helen's father, the Reverend Ernest Wismer officiated.
Episode # 26 [July 2000, Reprint October 2009]
James Thurber and Helen Wismer were united in holy matrimony on June 25, 1935, by the bride's father, the Reverend Ernest Wismer at his summer cottage in Colebrook, Connecticut. The bride and groom had started drinking martinis the previous day at New York's "21" Club, then continued their prenuptial celebration into the wee hours of the night at the country home of Thurber's best man, Bob Coates. Before the ceremony the next day, totally hung over, James and Helen tried to revive themselves with a few Manhattans.
With such a precarious beginning, it wouldn't have been surprising what calamity might have occurred but, wonder of wonders, the ceremony came off without a hitch. As a matter of fact, when Helen's father pronounced them man and wife, tough guy cynic Thurber burst into tears.
Afterwards her father asked her, "What kind of man is this?" She didn't know what to answer.
So began one of the most remarkable marriages in the history of American literature. Helen was not only a wife in the accepted sense, she was also his editor, business manager, listener, reader, critic, drinking buddy, companion hell-raiser, protector, nurse, and sympathetic shoulder-to-lean-on. For 26 years of their marriage, she shepherded him through the ever-gathering darkness of his failing eye- sight. As fellow New Yorker contributor Peter De Vries remarked, she was definitely not a "Thurber Woman."
It's a sure bet that life wasn't easy for Helen as she reacted to Thurber's tantrums and foibles, stayed up with him into the wee hours of morning when he refused to leave a bar or party, backed him up in his opinions, and virtually became a mirror image of her husband. This symbiotic behavior became so pronounced, she would get sick when he got sick, put on weight when he put on weight, and her own eyes gradually failed to the extent her eyeglasses were almost as thick as James's.
As Thurber's works multiplied and became ever more marketable, Helen assumed increased responsibility in dealing with his agent, the media, producers, and publishers. Out of chaos, she created order, set up filing systems, kept records, preserved copies of letters received and made copies of letters sent. On top of all that, she was a good negotiator because she had Scotch blood flowing through her veins. She was frugal. Where he had been granting numerous reprint permissions for little or no money because he might have felt the recipients were not financially flush, Helen put her foot down, set a standard rate for all to pay.
Most friends and colleagues saw the marriage as a blessing, an unusual match, perhaps, but one that was mutually beneficial. Others viewed Helen as extremely clever, but nevertheless a Thurber Woman, an aggressive female, totally conquering the subdued and helpless male without his even realizing it. Perhaps the truth was somewhere in between.
Helen knew exactly what she had gotten into and she knew how to handle it. A few days after their marriage, for instance, they attended a party thrown in their honor by - of all people - Ann Honeycutt, the woman Thurber had long been carrying a torch for. So what does he do? He gets drunk, makes a scene with the man Ann was currently dating, accused him of stealing the only girl he'd ever been in love with. All of this with Helen nearby. How did she react? She remained as cool as the drink in her hand.
Her secret? She took her new husband's theatrics with a grain of salt, a smile, and a knowing wink. And that was to be the way she behaved all the way through their marriage. Acceptance might be one explanation. Resolute would be another way to sum up her doggedly loyal behavior and, oddly enough, for that very reason she was one of the few women Thurber trusted.
The two honeymooners spent some time on Martha's Vineyard, bought a '33 Ford V-8 that needed oil every hundred miles, and bounced a check for the car and their stay at a cottage because of insufficient funds. He dashed off a piece for the New Yorker in return for some funds, then they spent the rest of the summer at her family's place in Colebrook where James, exuberant over being behind the steering wheel of a car again, wrote a satirical piece called "Smash Up." It's about a husband who overcomes his fear of driving. As the summer progressed, both James and Helen had tapered off their drinking habit to little or nothing.
They visited the E. B. Whites in Maine. James customarily gave them a number of unique drawings in return for their hospitality. (Their entire collection of Thurbermania, some of it bawdy and wild beyond belief, was donated to the Cornell University Library in 1963.)
Returning to New York at the end of the summer, James and Helen rented a furnished apartment at the corner of Eighth and Fifth, on the southwest corner, and established a routine of sorts. James worked more often at home, sometimes staying up all night to finish something he had started, but he still spent a few hours, usually in the afternoon, at The New Yorker offices. After five, he would have a drink or two with friends and colleagues at the Algonquin, then take a bus home. Many evenings, he and Helen entertained at their place, other nights the two of them ventured forth together, checked out one or another of their favorite watering holes, sometimes closing it up.
Frequently, if they were enjoying their conversation with someone with ready wit, they would invite them home - sometimes regretting it later. On one occasion it was novelist Thomas Wolfe, thirtyish, drunker than a lord - all burly six-foot-seven of him - who proceeded to tear into the New Yorker and its staff, including Thurber. The events of that evening, which will be described next month, led to a lasting animosity between the two men.
Episode # 27 [August 2000, Reprint November 2009]
A few months after their marriage, James and Helen rented a third-floor furnished apartment at Eight 5th Avenue, a part of New York City they were both acquainted with. At the time, Thurber wrote a friend that he and Helen had to climb up three flights of stairs, “since the Rhinelanders, who own the house, lost their elevator in the market crash.” Settling into more of a routine, James did a lot of his writing at home, sometimes working into the wee hours of the morning. It was hard to break old habits, however, so he frequently found time to put in an afternoon appearance at The New Yorker offices. Sometimes he would meet the old gang at the Algonquin for cocktails, then catch a bus home in time to have dinner with Helen at seven.
Like many newlyweds, they entertained a lot. They also went carousing around town together, getting into all kinds of trouble, like the night they invited author Thomas Wolfe home. Wolfe’s collection of short stories From Death to Morning had just been published, and he was probably out celebrating, but then, this crowd was out celebrating whether they had anything to cheer about or not.
It was long after the witching hour and all the participants were not just well lubricated, they were trashed. But even so, it’s hard to imagine James and Helen being foolish enough to invite a drunken Thomas Wolfe home with them. This was like taking home a rogue elephant for a pet. It should be explained that Wolfe was a huge hulk of a man, six-foot-seven-inches tall, weighing in at something like 290 pounds.
Once home, Wolfe began belittling the New Yorker and all the people who wrote for the magazine, including Thurber. Confronted with a more normal-sized man, James might have put up his dukes and bopped him one, or at least tossed a drink in the man’s face. But this big palooka? It would be like pissing into the wind. Worse, he could get killed. No way! This would have been too big a job even for Walter Mitty to handle. So our hero chose discretion over valor, warned Wolfe not to damage the furniture “because this place belongs to the Rhinelanders” and went to bed.
After James left the room, the inebriated Wolfe, who always became amorous when he was in such a state, tried to corner Helen who proved to be as nimble and fleet-footed as one of her husband’s cartoon characters. She fled around the couch with Wolfe lurching drunkenly after her, knocking over a few chairs in the process which, of course, woke James. Reappearing in the living room, he demanded that Wolfe get out of his house.
“It isn’t your house, it’s the Rhinelanders’ house,” Wolfe panted. Then he asked where the phone was because he wanted to call a friend in California. “I cut the telephone cord,” Thurber told a friend later. “I wasn’t going to let my phone be used for a call to California by any writer who needs three pages to describe a pot of coffee percolating.”
Finally, after Thomas Wolfe was persuaded to leave, Helen and James got a little shut-eye, but the incident was far from forgotten. Within days, Thurber had added to the Thurbermania murals on the wall of Tim Costello’s Third Avenue saloon a small Thurber Man standing on a chair looking up at an intimidating male character and saying, “This is my house, Mr. Wolfe, and if you don’t get out I’ll throw you out!” A few weeks later a Thurber cartoon in the New Yorker depicted a Wolfe look-alike at a party with one guest saying to another “He looks a little like Thomas Wolfe, and he certainly makes the most of it.” A couple of weeks later, another appeared, this one showed a seductive female seated on a man’s lap, and he’s saying to a docile Thurber Man, “You can’t make me go home!” With its widening implications, we’ll never know what Helen thought of that one.
Thomas Wolfe died unexpectedly from pneumonia and tuberculosis of the brain in 1938. He was only 38 years old. His body was so large, great difficulty was had in obtaining a coffin large enough to fit his frame for the final train ride back to his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina.
Could Thurber carry a grudge two years after Thomas Wolfe died? He most certainly could! In 1940, a full two years after the novelist’s demise, he wrote a scathing satire that was published in Ralph Ingersoll’s short-lived PM tabloid newspaper. “Reviewing You Can’t Go Home Again,” which had been posthumously published, Thurber wrote: “I am simply not strong enough to battle my way through Wolfe’s thunderous tides and swim out to the (here he quotes a passage from the book) ‘confused but intuitive sense of the apparent meaning and patterns of life . . .’"
In 1953, James Thurber was asked to submit a paper to a faculty member at the Washington Square College of Arts and Sciences who was writing a book about Wolfe. Proving once more that he had a long memory and didn’t know the meaning of the word “closure,” here’s what he submitted:
"I met Thomas Wolfe only once . . . when he came to cocktails one day and stayed till nine the next morning. For an hour he was very amusing and then he became a drunken writer and exactly as disagreeable as all drunken writers. Knowing him for sixteen hours (Helen says nine) was one of the great strains of my life . . . I have never been able to do much with Wolfe’s writing, for which I have the same feeling that Fitzgerald had when he wrote Wolfe, “You are a putter in and I am a taker out.” Wolfe did not seem to regard anybody as a writer unless his books were so heavy they were hard to lift. At four in the morning he said to my wife, the three of us being alone, “Oh, neither of you know what it is to be a writer!” to which my wife, a Scotch drinker, replied, “My husband is a writer,” and Wolfe said in genuine surprise, “Is he? All I ever see is the New Yorker.” It seems that God, knowing my strength, only lets me meet great writers once: Wolfe, Lewis, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway."
The professor wrote back and said that Thurber had been lucky that his ordeal had only been an overnight one. He went on to say that Sherwood Anderson had once told him that Wolfe had moved in with him uninvited, stayed a week, and depleted his larder.
Episode # 28 [September 2000, Reprint December 2009]
Returning from a vacation to Bermuda in June 1936, James and Helen got their old Ford out of storage, loaded it up, and took off for her family’s cottage in Colebrook, Conn. They didn’t get far before big problems arose.
In a letter James wrote to E.B. White, he went into whimsical detail about how the radiator began to steam by the time they got to 164th Street. He suspected water was getting into the oil, so he kept filling the radiator and changing the oil. Bear in mind the high adventure such a trip must have been even without car trouble. Behind the wheel was a man with only one eye and slowly losing the sight in the remaining one, high-strung, his mind skittering from one subject to another and, undoubtedly, composing humorous prose in his head from one minute to the next.
In the letter to White – he wrote it by the time they got to Greenwich – he could smell the bearings frying, so he put in the 16th quart of oil and the 20th gallon of water and started down the road again. Creeping along at speeds seldom exceeding 20 miles an hour, they made it to a garage where they were told the block was cracked. Selling the car for junk, they purchased a used 1935 V-8 Ford Tudor sedan for $350. Well, actually, they put $80 down and signed the installment papers for the balance. James wasn’t quite flush with fluid assets at the time because of the divorce costs and paying Althea’s past bills which the court had heaped upon his hapless head.
But now, with a reliable car, James and Helen decided to enjoy a real old-fashioned tour of New England, and away they sped in their almost new car. They went to Saratoga Springs where they visited Frank Sullivan, a contributor to the New Yorker. Then they drove through the Adirondacks, crossed Lake Champlain into Vermont, visited with Helen’s sister and brother-in-law, wheeled their way through New Hampshire, parts of Quebec and Maine. They spent three days in Martha’s Vineyard, then went to Boston where James covered a tennis tournament for the New Yorker.
What a happy time it was! On vacation, an extended honeymoon. Thurber in a straw hat, enraptured with the pure pleasure of cruising along the open road. Helen happier than she’d ever been in her whole life.
Returning to New York briefly, they gave up their apartment, moved to Colebrook, then a short time later found a house in Litchfield, Conn. They rented the house from a lady in her 80s who had never heard of the New Yorker and demanded additional references. Thurber mentioned Harper’s Magazine, which had published some of his work. This seemed to satisfy her, although if she had only known, it was a publication with far less advertising revenue than the New Yorker.
It was Thurber’s plan to “put down roots” in this picturesque and scenic little town of Litchfield. It was also a place steeped in history. Nearby was the house in which progressive clergyman Henry Ward Beecher and Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe were born, and down the street was the birthplace of Ethan Allen, the famed leader of the Green Mountain Boys. Maybe the saga of Ethan Allen provided the initial inspiration for Thurber’s monumental Walter Mitty story which was finally published in 1947.
The Thurbers’ quest for peace and quiet ‘midst a pastoral setting such as Litchfield was intended mostly to kick the harum-scarum night life and heavy drinking habits that had become second nature to them in New York City. Oh, they planned to visit the Big Apple maybe once a month to drop in at the New Yorker offices, see a play, maybe visit with friends. Their intentions were certainly good and honorable ones, but these resolutions were going to be a lot easier said than done. And, make no mistake, they had no intention of giving up booze.
They were both in their early 40s and seemed to have weathered the alcoholic tempests of New York in good order. So they were just changing the venue of consumption. More entertaining. Guests over for the evening. Little parties. But the liquor was much in evidence, the array of pretty bottles, the sparkling glassware, the ingredients for the Tom Collins, Whiskey Sours, and Singapore Slings (for the ladies), and the straight, hard stuff for the men – and, of course, the gin and vermouth for the ever-popular martinis.
There was always lots of animated conversation and when that slacked up there were party games of one kind or another to amuse the gathering. Charades and various word games were frequently played, including those in which the guests used whatever drawing talents they had. Of course, such whimsical entertainment was perfect for James with his great artistic skill. But there were others usually present who also had creative talent to spare,
including Peter Blume and New Yorker associate Bob Coates.
There were lots of singalongs, too, and plenty of good songs coming out of Tin Pan Alley all the time. And, according to Malcolm Cowley, a frequent guest along with his wife, Thurber knew the words to hundreds of songs.
Episode # 29 [October 2000, Reprint February 2010]
When Thurber's eyesight finally diminished to the point where he was unable to distinguish faces, Jane's lovely image accompanied him into the dark. "You always had lighted candles in your eyes," he would tell her years later, "so I'm still able to see you."
The mid-1930s were turning out to be a momentous time for James Thurber. Divorce, marriage, and travel followed each other in rapid succession. And, oh so important, his marriage to Helen was evolving into something enjoyable and enduring. His productivity remained high, and his spirits were higher yet from the favorable receptions his published books were receiving. All of this and, as an added bonus, he and Helen were getting to know some famous personages.
In the spring of 1935, James and Helen met the celebrated novelist Sinclair Lewis while on vacation in Bermuda. Ronald Williams, publisher of The Bermudian, a lively magazine of island doings and social events, was the intermediary. As editor and publisher of that monthly magazine, Williams became something of a clearinghouse for celebrities visiting the island, especially literary luminaries. His wife, Jane, a charming 31-year-old beauty, although happily married to Ronald nevertheless immediately replaced all the old girl friends in Thurber's wildly romantic fantasy world. Married less than one year, Thurber was exhibiting a trait common to most men: habitually comparing one woman to another, and fantasizing about the unobtainable – especially if it was a younger woman like Jane, fourteen years his junior.
Jane has been described as beautiful, "ever gracious but proper, and funloving" a joy to be around. She was also one of the few people who could deal with Thurber during his hyperthyroid periods. A sad afternote: When Thurber's eyesight finally diminished to the point where he was unable to distinguish faces, her lovely image accompanied him into the dark. "You always had lighted candles in your eyes," he would tell her years later, "so I'm still able to see you." Among all the women in the entire collection of Thurber women, she was the only one who absolutely failed to conform to his pantheon of "Woman as Predator," or his mythical museum of femmes fatales dedicated to "The War of the Sexes." The one other possible exception, of course, was Helen, his present wife, who apparently was smart enough to avoid the obvious pitfalls that occur in so many relationships. She was also savvy enough not to reprimand her husband for his innocent infatuation with Jane.
Over the years, Ronald Williams remained a great friend of the Thurbers and, make no doubt about it, he was well aware of the crush James had on his wife. He good-naturedly went along with the whole thing and why not? Why would he be jealous or feel threatened by a half-blind old guy who had boyishly placed his wife on a pedestal?
The dinner meeting Williams arranged between Sinclair Lewis and the Thurbers was memorable for a couple of reasons. It was remarkable just from the standpoint that these two particular literary figures had created between them a couple of classic American male stereotypes: Walter Mitty, the dreamer, and George Babbitt, the starry-eyed joiner and booster. Also, it turned out that Lewis was a big fan of James Thurber, and over the dinner table he talked animately about Thurber's story "The Owl in the Attic," an imaginative tale about a man in a country home frightened by inexplicable noises coming from the cellar. Not only did Lewis know the story, he entertained everybody by reciting a great deal of the dialogue verbatim. He was exceptionally good at this, mimicking the characters to perfection, changing his voice with each character change. Thurber was flabber-gasted and, of course, highly pleased.
It might also be noted that when Lewis was working on a novel, he abstained from alcohol. On this occasion, he had just finished a book and was hitting the bottle hard. His wife, famed political columnist Dorothy Thompson, was conveniently away in Moscow working on a book of her own. At first, Lewis seemed to be modestly drunk, but when he almost choked on an oyster, he hurriedly excused himself, muttering that he was going to take a nap, and headed for his hotel room.
After dinner, the Thurbers and the Williamses went back to Sinclair Lewis' room, where they found him fit as the proverbial fiddle and raring to go. Somehow, he had miraculously sobered up. In this upbeat mood, they made themselves at home and proceeded to sing old songs like Sweet Adeline, Let Me Call You Sweetheart, Peg O' My Heart, and By the Light of the Silvery Moon. Of course, Lewis was playing the part of the perfect host by keeping everybody's glass full, including his own. The party broke up when he started bawling like a baby as they were singing I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now. The last the Thurbers saw of him, tears were streaming down his cheeks. Thurber later wondered if a drink at 7:00 am would be Lewis's first of the day, or the last of the night.
Episode # 30 [November 2000, Reprint March 2010]
In November 1936, James and Helen drove their '35 V-8 Ford Tudor sedan to Columbus where they intended to spend the Thanksgiving holidays with the Thurber family. James was not only anxious to show Helen his hometown, but he was also looking forward to spending some time with a few of his long-time friends, especially the Millers and the Gardiners. Even when friction within his own family sometimes iced his trips to Columbus, there were always the good old Millers, Dorothy and Walter, and the good old Gardiners, Ted and Julia. And, on this particular trip, there were a couple of events that promised to make the visit especially memorable.
It was homecoming week at OSU! And Thurber had done the art for the front cover of the program for OSU's homecoming football game with the University of Michigan. The blurb inside the cover crediting him with the artwork must have also been the work of his fertile imagination. Get this: Part of it read, "Many American artists have been critical of Thurber's work, but British artists consider him to be a successor to Matisse and Picasso." Funny, huh?
Bear in mind too that a few years later, in 1940 to be exact, Thurber and Eliott Nugent would write The Male Animal, a highly successful play that defended freedom of speech, and in the process took a few healthy swipes at The Ohio State University. Oh, the delicious irony of it all. What a savory oyster on the halfshell the world truly is!
And, as if all that were not enough, another surprise was in store for James and Helen, in this case, a chance meeting with none other than Carl Sandburg. The famous poet and biographer of Abraham Lincoln was in town to participate in a lecture series at Capital University. Although Thurber and Sandburg had never met, each was highly aware of the other's works.
Earlier that same year, Sandburg had submitted three poems to Thurber which he hoped would find their way into The New Yorker. Thurber and Helen were in Bermuda at the time, so the poems ended up in the hands of Katherine White. She and some of the other people in the editorial office didn't like them. One person advanced the theory that Sandburg was "cooked" when he wrote them.
After arriving in Columbus and getting settled in at the Deshler-Wallich Hotel at Broad and High, the Thurbers discovered that they were invited to a dinner at which Sandburg would be present. The banquet was a great success. Those attending hung onto every witty, homespun word of the famous bard from Galesburg, Illinois. This man was from the heartland of America, he had done things and been places. After he dropped out of school at the age of thirteen, he rode the rails, drove a milk truck, was a porter in a barbershop, and scene shifter in a theatre. He worked in a brick kiln, became a carpenter's apprentice, washed dishes in a hash house, painted houses, and served for eight months in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War.
After the war, he became a student at Lombard College, then moved on as a labor organizer and, finally, into news-paper work, first in Milwaukee, then Chicago. In June 1908, he married Paula Steichen, sister of Edward Steichen, the great photographer. In 1914, his first poems appeared in Harriet Monroe's Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. A few years later, Chicago Poems and Cornhuskers appeared and established him as a major poet. The first two volumes of his classic, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, were published in 1926. Two years after his visit to Columbus, Sandburg would receive a Pulitzer Prize for the four volumes of Abraham Lincoln: The War Years.
So here he was in good old Columbus town, big-hearted but tough, eyes sparkling, a compassionate champion of people without the means or education to speak for themselves. The intellectual bond with Thurber was immediate. Herman Miller gleefully remarked that it was the first time he had seen two famous men trying to sit at one another's feet. What a beautiful coming together it was! What a blessing that they liked each other when it would have been so easy to be aloof, or patronizing, or jealous of the other's work. Instead, after most of the guests had left, they had their own little version of a hoe-down, matching drink for drink, singing old songs into the wee hours of the morning.
. . . singing old songs into the wee hours of the morning.
Sandburg had his faithful old guitar with him, and once he had unlimbered it, they were up and away. Thurber's voice could be described as a bit grating, a Midwestern twanginess to it. Sandburg's was more lyrical, deep and mellow. Together, they were great. Like an old-fashioned vaudeville team. It was apparent to the few who had remained that these two men were brothers under the skin, great American storytellers, milking life to the fullest
"Life is a river on which we drift down through an unexplored country," Sandburg once wrote to his wife Paula in the days of their courtship. She, in turn, recognized this vision, this spirit. "You are yourself the Achievement," she wrote back to him. "We shall do our best to do something – to leave some thing that we have produced here on earth as a bequest." But then as a playful after-thought, she added, "But we'll remember that the life we live is more important than the works we leave."
Thurber and Sandburg: Mirror images of one another. Each in his own way delineating the time that they shared on this earth.
Although Sandburg was alive and well in 1951, Margaret Ligon of Asheville's Pack Library wrote to well-known people across the country asking them for letters of tribute to Sandburg. George Jean Nathan called him "a great and noble soul." Eric Sevareid wrote that he was "the strongest and most enduring force in American letters today." Edward R. Murrow was profuse in his praise of the great poet. James Thurber was one of those invited to participate. Along with his letter, he enclosed a drawing titled "After Dinner Music: Thurber and Sandburg." In the cartoon, there was a small Thurber playing a banjo facing a huge figure of Sandburg strumming a guitar. In the letter, he said: "He may seem as easy to describe as a face carved on a mountain, but there are vast and complex reaches between the cat feet of the Fog and Remembrance Rock ... He was up here not too long ago, playing his guitar and singing, sometimes with me, late into the night, although it seemed early ... He is an American institution."
Episode # 31 [December 2000, Reprint April 2010]
Not unlike the rumors that a previously unknown O. Henry manuscript lies hidden somewhere in Columbus (in someone's attic, in an old trunk, or hidden in a secret niche covered over by wallpaper), whisperings of long-forgotten Thurber drawings continue to be bandied about. And, sometimes, the dream materializes. Not necessarily in Columbus, but more often in the eastern part of the country. Sometimes the drawings surface with someone's death, as part of an estate, funny little cartoons that Thurber had given to this person or that, as thanks for a memorable visit or in celebrate of some unique event.
Although he occasionally sold drawings to New York advertising agencies for ad campaigns, The New Yorker was his prime customer, paying twenty-five dollars per cartoon – good money back during those hard luck depression days. Then, cagily, after the magazine had run them, he would pick up another five or ten dollars by selling the original drawings to a resourceful art dealer who would then resell them to a wealthy client.
One night at Tony's, one of Thurber's favorite bars, he was having some drinks and began telling Robert Benchley and movie actor Roland Young about these shrewd dealings. There was another man with them, a friend of Benchley's who Thurber had never met, and he suddenly announced he was the person buying the cartoons. It turned out he was Jock Whitney, a multimillionaire. He said he gave the drawings to friends as Christmas gifts. Nice gifts, huh?
Thurber was such a prolific artist/doodler that he probably underestimated the potential value of his works. This, in spite of the fact that he had numerous showings and exhibits throughout his lifetime. In a letter to his friend, Herman Miller, he once pondered the question: "Just what I feel about my Art, I can't say." He then proceeded to trivialize the whole subject. "I have refused to allow it to be used on sofa cushions or as ornaments for automobile radiator caps. On the other hand, I have drawn a dozen pictures for the Vacuum Oil Co's advertising campaign for Bug-a-Boo . . . in the Saturday Evening Post." Tongue in cheek, he continues: "I have yet to meet anybody I have ever known, even casually, who hasn't got at least one of my drawings. It seems that at times I have drawn as many as thirty pictures for drunken ladies at drunken parties, drunken ladies whom I had never seen before but who now pop up here and there and remind me of our old intimacy."
Occasionally, a previously unknown cartoon or, sometimes a whole bunch of them, will be submitted to the Thurber Collection at OSU. Sometimes they're on hotel stationery or sketched hastily on notepaper or the backs of menus.
The agility and deftness of Thurber's drawing ability has always been something to marvel at. According to co-workers and friends, he seldom made a mistake or drew an uncertain line. As a matter of fact, he frequently did his cartoon in pen and ink, from beginning to end, with no revisions. The ideas flowed as freely as the ink, many drawn from everyday experiences, but chiefly from the inexplicable pain and frustration he suffered most of his lifetime, a subterranean conflagration that crackled away like a never-ending coal mine fire fueled by his quarrel with the female of the species.
Marriage is always viewed with disdain and females with apprehension and distrust. Thurber women always know where everything is – except they're always losing one glove, they never have the right change, and they're eternally scolding their men.
In one cartoon, a tall, dominating woman says to her spouse, a short. pudgy man puffing nervously on a cigar,"When I realize that I once actually loved you, I go cold all over." In another, a wild-haired woman with a gun asks her startled neighbors if they have any .38 cartridges. In still another, a henpecked man says to his wife, "With you I've known peace, Lida, and now you tell me you're going crazy." Invariably, the men in his cartoons are meek, small, balding, and blobby looking. The woman are bigger blobs, but larger, self-confident, and assertive to the point of ferocity.
At times, Thurber cartoons attracted the attention of psychoanalysts, and little wonder considering the wealth of ego-trampled, id-smashed, psyche-damaged male figures staggering around in one episode after another. Puzzled by the mayhem and open warfare between the sexes as portrayed by Thurber, they would invite him to come in for a consultation. Talk about ambulance-chasing!
He was quick to pick up on this too. In My Memories of D. H. Lawrence, he kiddingly says that he wrote the famous author of Lady Chatterley's Lover because he had some ideas on sex that might be of interest to him. Then, in an aside, he continues: "Lawrence never received the letter . . . because I had . . . put it in the wrong envelope. He got instead a rather sharp note which I had written . . . to a psychoanalyst . . . who had offered to analyze me at half his usual price. The analyst had come across some sketches I had made . . . I had told him that if he wanted to analyze somebody he had better begin with himself, since it was my opinion there was something the matter with him. As for me, I said, there was nothing the matter with me . . . I never heard from Lawrence . . . and I kept hearing from the analyst."
Is that funny, or what? We're dealing here with an incorrigible wit, a man from old Columbus town who died way too young, back in 1961.
Episode # 32 January 2001, [Reprint June 2010]
In the spring of 1937, the Thurbers sailed on the Île de France for a vacation in Europe. James’ cherished 1935 Ford V-8 was safely stowed in the hold of the ship. The car would not only to be their primary mode of transportation, it was Thurber’s symbol of male esprit de corps and masculine competence, the good old world of cars (then more than now), a dependable and robust province of the male ego.
He also lugged along three recently published books he hoped would guide them through France. The books included John Gunther’s Inside Europe, Alexander Werth’s Which Way France, and a volume by French socialist Léon Blum. Thurber had a hard time grasping the innuendoes and political implications of this book, so he gave it to a steward. And wouldn’t you know – like an episode out of a farcical play – the steward was a French Royalist who found the book so offensive and repulsive he refused to wait on the Thurbers for the rest of the voyage.
The big luxury liner pulled into Le Havre, France on the 25th of May. They disembarked with their luggage and the car, then promptly set out on a 10 day tour of Normandy. Thurber had been to the region previously, with Althea, but this was an entirely new experience for Helen. Next, they spent three weeks in Paris, having a ball, more often than not guided around by Janet Flanner, a correspondent for The New Yorker. Inevitably, they met up with Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker, Americans both. The Lillian Hellman of far-out political causes, the Dorothy Parker of Algonquin Roundtable fame and wit. After listening to the pair’s fears and lamentations about the Spanish Civil War which was then in progress, Thurber shared some rich private feelings in a letter to his great friend E. B. White.
“It came to me today . . . that the world exists only in my own consciousness (whether as a reality or as an illusion the evening papers do not say, but my guess is reality). The only possible way the world could be destroyed, it came to me, was through the destruction of my consciousness. This proves the superiority of the individual to any and all forms of collectivism.”
After this choice bit of philosophical exposition, he continued in a wry fashion: “I could enlarge on all of this, but I have what the French call ‘rheumatism of the brain,’ the common cold.”
He elaborated further in another letter to White about how futile it was to wring one’s heart and hands in commiserating over the sorry plight of the world and many of its inhabitants. White replied: “I, too, know that the individual plight is the thing . . . If you have the poetic temperament you go on groping toward something which will express all this in a burst of choir music,” and with a wink and a warning, he concluded, “and your own inarticulateness only hastens the final heart attack.”
So much for these beautifully shared thoughts and observations. Such musings have surely pulled and tugged at the minds and hearts of writers since the beginnings of the written word, and Thurber and White were no exception. Especially for Thurber, being in Paris as he was, with pro-Loyalist sentiment swirling about him, the inner conflict was doubled.
After three weeks, he and Helen left the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and the Left Bank of Paris behind, motored to the coast, crossed the Channel and drove to London where Thurber was promptly thrown into a state of bewilderment by the big city’s traffic. You can imagine: it was bad enough driving on the wrong side of the road and constantly reminding oneself that it really was the right side of the road. All of that with one good eye, a delicate constitution and, most likely, a nonstop hangover. Helen must have had nerves of steel and an unflagging sense of humor to match!
One reason for the trip to London was to visit the Storran Gallery where a collection of Thurber’s drawings was on exhibit. He believed then, as well as in later years, that the English appreciated his drawings more than his own countrymen. And he was probably right, because his drawings sold for considerably more in London than in New York City. Sales at the Storran Gallery proved to be brisk and the drawings were selling at handsome prices.
Thurber put a humorous spin on the subject. According to him, they were greeted at their hotel by one of the gallery’s directors before going to the show. “Because he had heard of my propensity for blurting out whatever came to my mind, he whispered in my ear: ‘When you go to the show, please do not whistle or exclaim at the prices people are paying.’ I promised to take it all very nonchalantly.”
The Storran exhibit included some drawings that were not for sale including Robert Benchley’s Seal in the Bedroom cartoon and Tallulah Bankhead’s Well, I’m Disenchanted, Too. We’re All Disenchanted. In the catalog for the show, Thurber had written:
“So many awful things happened to him the day he was born, he was unable to keep anything on his stomach until he was seven years old, though he grew to be six feet, one-and-a-half inches tall and weighs 154 pounds when fully dressed for winter.”
The commentary ended with the following remark: “Quick to arouse, he is very hard to quiet, and people often just go away.
Episode # 33 February 2001, [Reprint August 2010]
His beloved 1935 Ford V-8 continued to be the primary mode of transportation for Thurber and Helen on the Continent as well as in Britain. Like many men, he was seduced by the maintenance and mechanics of automobiles, and as far as he was concerned, this was strictly male domain. This rationale even extended to the driving of a car. All real men knew that women were lousy drivers. Helen recognized that her husband was afflicted with this male fantasy, so from the very beginning, when they first bought the car, she had made up her mind to let James do all the driving.
For one thing, Helen didn’t want her new husband to categorize her as one of those “Thurber women” that his drawings and writing so frequently disparaged. It was also an easy decision because she hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car for a few years. The thought of being out in traffic and wrestling with that infernal gear shift was almost enough to paralyze her with fear, especially in another country, and with all that idiotic driving on the opposite side of the road to contend with. So she wisely let James do the driving.
Helen was quite aware of the Walter Mitty syndrome her husband had created and the hallucinations he undoubtedly shared with that character, i.e., cap on backwards, driving at breakneck speed, a Barney Oldfield grin plastered on his face. So, Helen’s decision might be construed as sacrificial. You know, letting her man have his way.
In a letter back home to the Millers, Thurber praised his wife for being “patient, gentle, and kind” throughout these road trips as they sometimes inched along in the Ford, a long line of cars trailing behind, honking and waving. In his hilarious letter to the Millers, he continued: “. . . just returned from dinner at the Elm Tree Inn in Farmington, some twenty miles from our little cot. It was such a trip as few have survived. I lost eight pounds. You see I can’t see at night and this upset all the motorists in the state tonight, for I am blinded by headlights in addition to not being able to see, anyway. It took us two hours to come back, weaving and stumbling, stopping now and then, stopping always for every car that approached, stopping other times just to rest and bow my head on my arms and ask God to witness that this should not be.”
In Harrison Kinney’s monumental biography of Thurber, the letter is reprinted in its entirety, but a few more lines will illustrate the ordeal Helen must have contended with: “A further peril of the night road is that flecks of dust and streaks of bug blood on the windshield often look to me like old admirals in uniform, or crippled apple women, or the front end of barges and I whirl out of their way, thus going into ditches and fields and up on front lawns, endangering the life of authentic admirals and apple women who may be out on the roads for a breath of fresh air before retiring . . .”
If we were to throw in a few martini-induced morning-after hangovers, it’s a wonder he didn’t see more than that.
In the meantime, the show at the Storran Gallery in London had been a smashing success, “greater than all the U.S. shows put together.” They sold 30 of his drawings, most of them at handsome prices. The praise of the art critics in the daily press had been equally rewarding. Some of them then, and over the next few years, had a field day speculating about the surrealistic qualities of the cartoons. Others delved into the underlying psychological aspects of each drawing, squeezing out all the possible meanings and innuendoes. And what a picnic they must have had, poring over drawings of befuddled, forlorn little males and swaggering dominant female figures that looked like they could bite off the heads of nails. But, no! Just when they thought they had all that figured out, they would come upon a drawing of an astonished woman swinging from the clapper of a bell high above the little houses shown far below. Or a little menagerie of rabbits, bears, seals, birds, and even a wolf in bed with his tongue lolling out of his drooling mouth as he is confronted by an obviously unhappy little girl.
But how, then, could they explain an entire series of male portrayals, usually alone, dejected, their heads in their hands, looking like they are ready to end it all? One shows a man who has obviously had all he can take. It’s titled, “He Was Beginning to Quiver All Over Like Lionel Barrymore.”
The critics were also high in praise of his writing, each new book being greeted with enthusiastic reviews. Well, that’s the Brits for you! Way back then, they were miles ahead of the average Joe Blow in the good ol’ USA as far as literature and art appreciation were concerned. This experience was true with many American writers and artists who were first recognized on the continent or in Britain. Their numbers are legend and extend all the way back to John Audubon, the famous bird artist, who first savored the sweet taste of fame in England.
During their visit, the British edition of Thurber’s Let Your Mind Alone! was published – with the usual acclaim.
Episode # 34 March 2001, [Reprint September 2010]
James Thurber's era was once labeled "The Lost Generation," but when a reporter once asked him about this, he replied, "We knew where we were." Then he considered the question for a moment more and added, "Ours was the generation that stayed up all night."
And, of course, that usually meant drinking. Interestingly enough, Thurber's drinking career didn't start when he was a college student at OSU. Oh, he might have had a few beers, but there's no evidence that he was a binge drinker, or that alcohol influenced his life one way or the other.
It seems he first developed a real taste for alcohol in 1918 while he was working as a code clerk in Paris. Not a dependency, mind you, just a flirtation. The temptress? Pommard wine. Maybe it even helped him from coming down with influenza, which was sweeping the world, including back home in Columbus, Ohio.
Thurber's drinking career seems to have gone through several stages, which more or less coincided with his personal and professional life. Well, how could it not? This happens to darn near everybody! First, there is the period of discovery. Every imbiber passes through this period. It consists of investigating all the choices that are available, before settling in on one or two that seem to fit.
The dating and courtship years produce interesting drinking patterns for young men, sometimes greasing the skids to matrimony, at other times helping to mend broken hearts. Thurber went through all of this, and with each affair his drinking increased. It reached a plateau with Ann Honeycutt's rejection of his marriage proposals and continued on for another six or seven tortuous years during his mis-matched marriage to Althea Adams.
Ironically, it was during these tipsy years, from 1922 to 1935, that he ascended from a relatively unknown columnist for the Columbus Dispatch to an internationally known writer and artist. In New York City, working at the New Yorker, Thurber found plenty of drinking compatriots, and more than a few bars to hang out in. As he once confided to newspaper friends in Columbus, "Every man should have more than one bar. If things go wrong in one, then you have a few others as back-ups." Then he smiled, and added, "Half a dozen might do the trick." It was about this time that he came up with his famous advice to martini drinkers: "One martini isn't enough. Two martinis are too many. Three or more martinis are just right."
When Thurber first went to work for the New Yorker, prohibition was in full swing, and he and his cronies spent a lot of time at Bleeck's speakeasy, which was also referred to as the Artist and Writers' Club. Located behind a Greek diner on West 40th Street, the popular spot dispensed illegal booze and filling German food dished out by Jack Bleeck, a reactionary political conservative who was liberal enough to make a lot of money operating his illegal business behind the back of the law.
Bleeck's not only attracted New Yorker writers but many of the men from the Herald Tribune. (Women weren't allowed at Bleeck's until after the repeal of prohibition in 1933.) Tribune reporters who haunted the bar included such noteworthy reporters as Joseph Mitchell, John O'Hara, and Alva Johnston. Patrons recall that these guys would bring in big rolls of paper, scissors, marking pencils, and galley proofs. While they were eating and drinking the hours away, they would lay out entire pages of the next day's paper on a couple of commandeered tables. Then they would drop their layouts off at the pressroom for the printers to work on.
Enlightened journalism? I guess so! One other thing. Bleeck's was the kind of bar where everyone yelled at one another, the conversation usually revolving around sports or scandals. Thurber reveled in this kind of raucous atmosphere, the yelling, the posturing, the good-natured insults. Oh, yes, one more thing. Bleeck's was famous for bar games, during the course of which the contestants would gamble everything from their wits to the number of match sticks hidden in their hands. You got it! Thurber also loved this kind of tomfoolery.
In 1935, the New Yorker offices were moved from 25 West 45th Street to more spacious quarters at 25 West 43rd Street, practically in the shadow of the famous Algonquin Hotel, where it remained for over 50 years. Included in the cast-off furniture was an old couch that had offered refuge to a befuddled Thurber on many a drunken night when he couldn't quite navigate his way home.
Episode # 35 April 2001, [Reprint October 2010]
By the mid-thirties, Thurber’s drawings were not only being recognized as wonderfully original, humorous and, sometimes, devastatingly accurate in their social satire, in some quarters they were regarded as valuable art. In 1936, there was a one-man show of his work in New York City at the Valentine Gallery, followed soon after by a showing at the Howard Futzel Gallery. And, get this! Some of his cartoons were included in a Dada-Surrealism show at the Museum of Modern Art. This must have dumbfounded Thurber, who still didn’t take his drawings too seriously. He was a writer, damn it! He considered his scribbly, satirical cartoons a form of doodling, or at most another weapon of attacking the enemies at the gate.
But of all the places where his drawings were exhibited, the ones he most cherished were on the walls of the saloons and speakeasies which he and Helen frequented. Heady stuff. Not many of us can enjoy that kind of instant fame. These were longer lasting shows, which he could visit and share his way of looking at the world with friends. Most often, the drawings were actually inscribed on the walls themselves.
By far the most famous of these taverns was Costello’s, on Third Avenue at Forty-fourth Street. Thurber was originally drawn to Costello’s because of a former Columbus Dispatch colleague, John McNulty, who worked at the nearby New York Mirror, in addition to submitting pieces to the New Yorker. Many of McNulty’s amusing anecdotes and yarns were set in the Third Avenue pubs that he frequented. But of them all, Costello’s rambling interior with its dark hardwood floors was his favorite. Many of McNulty’s stories were later anthologized in his book, Third Avenue. As a result, a growing number of New Yorker staffers frequently trekked over to Costello’s. Thurber was prominent among them and quickly established a firm and lasting friendship with the proprietor, Tim Costello.
Costello’s soon became Thurber’s favorite hangout, with Helen frequently on his arm, or the other way around, as his eyesight continued to diminish. Costello had informed all of his employees in no uncertain terms that the bar was to remain open as long as the Thurbers were present. This sometimes caused despair among the weary staff, especially when James and Helen came through the door long after midnight, prepared to sing and quip their way through the remaining hours of the night.
Tim Costello, by the way, had emigrated to this country from Ireland as a young man. Although he had only the rudiments of a formal education, he had a great gift for the English language and soon acquired an extensive knowledge of literature, as well as a critical eye toward works of art. Thurber trusted his judgment to such an extent that he sometimes read him excerpts from material he had not yet submitted to Harold Ross or any of the other editors at the New Yorker. Not only was Costello well informed, friends described him as a man who dressed in fine style, and could hold his own in most any conversation. Not only that, his establishment served up good food at a reasonable price in an atmosphere that pleased the most discerning of the talented writers and artists who came through the doors.
It wasn’t long before large, oversized Thurber cartoons appeared on the beaverboard walls at Costello’s. According to some of those present, they were executed in one evening, in a matter of 90 minutes or so. Tim Costello was so appreciative of this wonderful display of original art that he had the drawings inked in and covered with a preservative varnish. When he was forced to move the establishment next door, he had the panels taken down and carefully remounted in their new home. Cigarette smoke had so discolored the drawings, a group of artists from Yank magazine volunteered to restore them.
Some random notes: An elevated railway ran along Third Avenue, but was torn down in the mid-50s. John McNulty figured that the world was going to hell in a handcart because the great steel pillars that had supported the tracks went the way of all the rest of the superstructure. McNulty considered the pillars of great assistance in getting across Third Avenue when he was blotto.
Tim Costello died in 1962, a year after Thurber. He once had the distinction of refusing to serve a drink to Marilyn Monroe. Why? Because he didn’t like her looks! She wanted vodka and orange juice and he claimed he had no fruit juices on the premises.
Costello’s is just the whisp of a memory in the minds of a dwindling few who were fortunate enough to have passed through its doors. Tim’s son could not compete with the onslaught of new skyscrapers that sprang up on Third Avenue, so the famous landmark is long gone. The drawings? They exist only in old photographs. The ghosts of those free-form characters, however, still romp in the minds of the lucky folks who once enjoyed them. The faint-hearted dog is still being pursued by the three rabbits, and the picture on one panel that showed a small, cowering Thurber Man in the clutches of an Amazonian woman might still invoke a knowing smile in someone’s memory. The man was saying, “I’m leaving you, Myra – you might as well get used to the idea.” In another panel he was fearfully hiding in the top of a tree while the relentless female looked for him from below. Gone, but not forgotten. What more is there to say?
Episode # 36 May 2001, [Reprint November 2010]
In 1937, when the Thurbers were in London for an exhibit of James' drawings, he met Alistair Cooke. Both men had photographic memories (Thurber inherited his from his mother) and had a great time challenging one another on everything from important dates in history to the birthdays of famous people.
Cooke was the younger of the two men, just 28 at the time, and a great admirer of Thurber's writing. When they were first introduced, Cooke was relieved to find that Thurber was a gentle and kind man. Evidently, he had heard startling stories to the contrary.
"My impression of the physical Thurber," he wrote, "was that of a grasshopper finally come to earth. He had a spidery stance, enormous feet that may have been only the type of shoe he wore, and he had glasses as thick as binoculars. When I first met Harry Truman, his glasses reminded me of Thurber's. They gave both men a Martian quality, and I used to think, when I saw Truman as president, that he could well be the president of Mars and Thurber the poet laureate."
Thurber's book Let Your Mind Alone, dedicated to Helen, was published that same year with a first printing of 5,000. Before 1937 was over, five additional printings followed in rapid succession. The book was a collection of satiric and sardonic jabs at the epidemic of self-improvement books that had flooded the publishing world, plus a peppery selection of drawings. Without exception, reviews were favorable. New York Sun reviewer, Richard Lockridge concluded "Thurber's method was to be extremely reasonable in an unreasonable world. The drawings," he said "showed things as they were, the prose showed what Thurber thought of things being that way."
A reviewer from the Herald Tribune was even more lavish in his praise: "He understands clearly that life is pretty tough going and that very little can be done about it; he proves his case with charm and conviction. What a lawyer the man would have made if circumstances had not turned his high talents to writing and drawing. He is one of our great American institutions, and the sooner more people realize it, the better off they will be."
Tribune columnist Lisa Bell maintained that Thurber was "as blithe as Benchley, and as savage as Swift," then observed playfully that he was "kind to dogs, waiters, and taxi drivers, but mistrustful and destructive toward other manifestations of life."
Charles Poore, a reviewer for the Times cautioned that "Mr. Thurber's manias are loose again," then he went on to suggest that Thurber, "a James Joyce in falseface," allows his fictitious characters to flaunt their subconscious frustrations in public.
The ten or more years Thurber piloted the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" had proved a valuable proving ground for his writing skills, as well as giving him a ticket for a rollercoaster ride through the often crazy ups and downs of life in New York City. During that period, he was extremely versatile and wrote about everything from the discovery of seventeenth-century cemeteries in lower Manhattan to a study of the favorite bars of William Sidney Porter (O. Henry) and Stephen Crane. Radio broadcasts by New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker and arctic explorer Admiral Byrd came under his scrutiny, and well before the tragic Hindenburg disaster, he wrote about a zeppelin landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey.
With bated breath and barely suppressed laughter, he created a lively account of women pushing and shoving their way through the revolving doors of a department store on bargain day. And quiet as a mouse, he spent ten minutes behind a screen scrutinizing championship player Eli Culbertson during a big-time bridge game. Nor did his investigative talents stop there! Thurber interviewed Louisiana Governor Huey Long, and listened to a whip-poor-will provide a nice obbligato at an outdoor concert in Connecticut.
So we see that Thurber had an endless supply of material for his column, and enough copy left over to file away for future books. The man and the job were made for each other! Thurber's talents might be compared to a championship boxer with a deft and dazzling one-two punch and, wisely, he never neglected one at the expense of the other. Writing and drawing. Drawing and writing. They went together as naturally as "Love and Marriage." That's the way he worked.
The writing, admittedly, took the most time, both in the mental incubation period and during the actual process of getting it down on paper. (Back then, with a typewriter.) The cartoons were more spontaneous, most of the time taking just minutes to complete.
Episode # 37 June 2001, [Reprint December 2010]
According to his close friends, there were times when James Thurber was like a night-flying moth fluttering from one bar to the next, sometimes dropping in on a few parties in between.
As a lot of drinkers can tell you, the craving is not so much for alcohol as it is for sociability. To show and tell. To unwind. To gossip about friends and acquaintances. To talk about the day's news. To share a funny joke, or maybe hear a new one. All of these and more. But for Thurber, there was something else. He was not just a writer and artist, as most people are aware. He was an entertainer, a showman, a standup comedian, if you will. The only difference is that his audiences were small, usually quite select, and almost always in a bar or at a party. That's when he was in his glory.
There's no doubt that Thurber inherited these gregarious traits from his mother, Mame, a very amusing lady, a prankster and comedienne in her own right. Recall her antics at the revival meeting when she was a young girl. She swiped a wheelchair, went scooting down the aisle, then leapt to her feet shouting that she was cured! How can you top a mother like that? Well, the truth is, Thurber spent most of his life attempting that very thing. And drinking made it a lot easier.
He was an animated talker and would often recount experiences from his youthful days in Columbus. He was adept at performing all the roles and switching characters in midstream. Many of his stories, of course, were grossly exaggerated in the telling and extremely amusing. There's also little doubt that these monologues were frequently his way of formulating what would later become a story, maybe an entire book of stories.
Holding center stage as Thurber so often did could be a precarious affair, especially when everybody is boozing it up. There might have been individuals present who didn't particularly care for Thurber. Or some who resented his constant bid to be the center of attention. Other times politics might have crept into the conversation, and as any experienced drinker will tell you, that subject should be left at the barroom door. Thurber often ignored this injunction and sometimes there was hell to pay for his indiscretion.
For instance, there was the time he flipped a drink in the face of Lillian Hellman, the famous playwright, author of The Little Foxes, Toys in the Attic, and The Children's Hour, in which a malicious girl tries to ruin the lives of two female school teachers by spreading rumors that they are lesbians. Hellman also wrote a dozen or more screenplays, so we're dealing with a substantive force here. She was also a humanist. Apprently, something she said, probably in response to something Thurber said, caused him to toss the glassful of whiskey in her face.
The squabble occurred at Tony's Speakeasy in New York City. Big-time literary lights were frequently present. Such famous names as Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker. So you see, we're talking major literary cannons firing at each other. War of the Books. And Mouths.
Lillian's longtime boyfriend Dashiell Hammett, author of The Thin Man was with her when she got the unexpected drink in her kisser. Not exactly the way to buy a lady a drink, eh? And, Hammett, by the way, had once been a Pinkerton detective. Not unexpected then that he rose to his girlfriend's defense and shoved the Grasshopper-willowy Thurber into a wall. In retaliation, Thurber grabbed another drink and threw it at Hammett. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it missed him but hit a waiter, who happened to be the cousin of the owner. Tony himself. Whoa!
Tony decided that he had to show these people who was boss, so he called the police, which could be considered a desperate act for the proprietor of a speak-easy. The upshot was that even though darned near everybody was sympathetic to Tony's action, nobody ratted on Thurber when the cops entered the bar and wanted to know what was going on. The police finally left, the patrons caught up on their drinking and the incident was never mentioned again.
Let it be said that James Thurber was not considered an alcoholic or a drunkard by a majority of his friends. It is true that in the heat of some conversation or disagreement he simply went over the edge, his inhibitions lowered by the drinks he had consumed. Biographer Burton Bernstein says that Thurber worked out an theory about drinking, which is pretty well expressed in this letter he once wrote to literary guru Malcolm Cowley:
"I also give my own definitions of rummy, souse, drunk, sot, and the others. The drunk, for instance, is the stranger who annoys your party on the sidewalk as you are leaving '21'; the rummy has several suits, but always wears the brown one; and the sot doesn't know where he is, or who you are, and doesn't care; and so on . . . "
So there you are. Take you're choice.
Episode # 38 July 2001, [Reprint January 2011]
Like many of us, James Thurber worried about getting old. “I am almost middle-aged,” he wrote when he was only twenty-eight, “and what I say and believe may be senile but it is not sophomoric.” Maybe some of these frights and apprehensions were due to his constantly dredging through his memory for story material. Digging in the past is what I mean.
In 1938, James Thurber was forty-three and still worrying about growing old. In letters to friends, he wrote that he was going through “a mental menopause” and that his mind and intellect were “at their lowest.” At various times, he expressed his exasperation with the relentless passage of time and his satirical mind jousted with the way in which we mortals number everything.
“If only there were fifteen months in every year,” he would jokingly tell his friends, “I would be one heck of a lot younger.” He keenly reckoned that women deserved more than twelve years between the ages of twenty-eight and forty. And when he was especially depressed, he would figure the remaining number of years until he turned eighty.
The Last Flower was published in 1939, the year his father died. He was also collaborating with Elliott Nugent on The Male Animal, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was published in The New Yorker. He had already left the New Yorker as a regular staffer but continued to contribute articles and drawings on a regular basis and one book followed another. Fables for Our Times and Famous Poems Illustrated were published in 1940. My World - and Welcome to It came along two years later.
In a letter to his great friend, E.B. White, Thurber confided that his days at the New Yorker now seemed far away and that even when he dropped in to the editorial offices, he sensed that he was now an outsider. “This is perhaps because I am an older man with my youth definitely behind me and fifty around the corner.”
“Except for dear and wonderful Miss Terry, I feel that I am looked upon as an outsider, possibly a has been,” he wrote. “The aging humorist I suppose is bound to be a sad figure. They go in for the fleeting smile down there and the neatly pressed pants and I have the notion that they shake their heads politely over what I think is funny. Of course, I withdrew from the actual halls but I never considered myself as withdrawing from the magazine. If only one person had asked me what I thought of one idea in the down times I was around the place, I would have felt less like a waiter in the Beta house.”
When Thurber was in his early fifties he was still attractive to some women. A lot of this aura, of course, was due to his talent as a writer and to his growing fame. On one occasion, he had a short-lived affair with a book publisher’s wife. Thurber chose Joel Sayre, a longtime friend of the Thurber family in Columbus who had also gone on to become a writer at the New Yorker, to be his chauffeur, mail-drop, and collaborator. Sayre later recalled some hilarious moments during the course of this summer romance. “It was messy,” he reminisced. “Not only did the woman have a husband, but Thurber’s wife, Helen, was on to the whole thing.” He went on to explain how Helen knew the almost impossible logistics and strategies required to get a blind, romantic, often drunk Thurber through such an assignation and safely home, usually in the wee hours of the morning.
Is this going the extra mile to keep a marriage together, or what! Can you imagine the questions that must have raced through Helen’s mind? We all know that the world of marriage is a madcap institution, and this is just one example to prove the point. What we actually had here was a man’s wife becoming his manager.
The truth was that Helen stewed and fretted more over her husband’s well-being than the possibility of losing him to another woman. What a wife, huh! Sayre recalled one wild evening when he was driving Thurber and his lady-love around town. The love-struck pair were in the backseat and Thurber was lustily singing “These precious days I’ll spend with you” from “September Song.” Meanwhile, Helen was sitting in the front seat with Sayre to make sure her husband got home in one piece. Did Thurber know Helen was there? Who knows? Don’t forget, he was blind. At any rate, after this episode, Sayre told Thurber to count him out on any such hi-jinks in the future!
So there you are: A classic example of snow on the roof, but a fire still in the furnace.
Episode # 39 August 2001, [Reprint February 2011]
In January of 1946, James and Helen came to Columbus for a delayed celebration of his mother, Mame’s, 80th birthday. Even though Mame lived at the Southern Hotel, the couple checked into the old Deshler-Wallich Hotel that dominated the Broad-High corner for many years and was only a block away from the Columbus Dispatch where Thurber had once worked as a cub reporter and columnist. The hotel was also midway between Mills Cafeteria and Mills Buffet, two of their favorite dining places. And, the bars in the hotel assured James and Helen that they wouldn’t run out of refreshments and pick-me-ups. The Grey’s Drug Store and the cigar counter in the lobby provided them with a steady supply of smokes.
The Thurbers always arrived in Columbus at Union Station, rumbling into town ensconced in a Pullman sleeper compartment aboard a speedy Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train, sometimes 20 or more cars long, including luxurious dining cars.
Downtown Columbus was jumpin’ and jivin’ with activity in those days. The sidewalks were crowded with shoppers headed for the F & R Lazarus Co., Madison’s, the Union, Morehouse-Martens, Dunn-Tafts, J.C. Penny’s, Moby’s, the Boston Store, men and women’s specialty clothing stores, a dozen or more five-and-ten-cent stores, a Planter’s Peanut shop, jewelers, bookstores, drugstores, and novelty stores.
Besides the Deshler and Southern, hotels included the Neil House, the Fort Hayes, the Chittenden, the Virginia, the Seneca, the Seneca Plaza, and the Broad-Lincoln. The major banks were City National Bank and Trust Company, Ohio National Bank, and Huntington National Bank.
James frequently met old hometown cronies in downtown bars. And he and Helen sometimes made a night of it by visiting some of Columbus’s famous restaurants and nightclubs. The Thurbers had a wide choice to choose from. Among them were the Maramor, Marzetti’s, the Ringside, Doersam’s, the Clock, Thompson’s Cafeteria, the Jai Lai, the Purple Cow at the Chittenden, the Saphire, Spanish, and Ionian Rooms in the Deshler-Wallich where they were staying, the Columbus Room at the Seneca, the Victory Room (later the Town & Country Room) at the Neil House, the Crystal Room at the Fort Hayes, Hoover’s at 31 West Long Street, and just a short cabride away, the Grandview Inn, the Dell, Presutti’s, Frank Kondas’ Tremont, the Riviera and Gloria nightclubs. And, speaking of cabs, the Thurbers could hail one in half a minute flat and be driven anywhere in Columbus for what would be considered small change today. Cab companies included Hills, Green, Yellow, and Radio.
In 1946, downtown Columbus had movie theatres all over the place. Remember, this was before television hit town. The latest movies were big news. Folks were lining up to see the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall in The Big Sleep, Fredric March and Myrna Loy in The Best Year of Our Lives, and Tyron Power and Anne Baxter in The Razor’s Edge.
Downtown moviehouses included Loew’s Broad at 39 West Broad St., Loew’s Ohio, still there, thank goodness, the Majestic at 61 South High, the RKO Grand at 55 East State St., the RKO Palace, still very much in business, the Southern, recently remodeled and opened, and the Uptown at 217 North High, just north of the Chittenden Hotel. That’s not counting the Hartman, a legitimate theatre that was torn down a few years later along with the Hartman Building, to make way for what Thurber would undoubtedly call “backward progress.” In fact, the world premier of his Thurber Carnival was performed before a full house the evening of January 7, 1960, in the Hartman Theatre. I also forgot to mention, the Gaity, a burlesque theatre, on High Street between Rich and Main streets.
What else was going on in Columbus that January when the Thurbers rolled into town? Well, Izler Solomon was conducting the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in a concert at Memorial Hall. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Paul Robeson were also appearing that month at Memorial Hall. The Voice of the Turtle was on stage at the Hartman Theatre. Sally Rand was performing on stage at the Palace Theatre, along with Herb Shriner and other acts.
So shut your eyes and imagine Columbus of yesteryear. This was the hometown the Thurbers returned to that January in 1946 to help Mame celebrate her 80th birthday.
Episode # 40 September 2001, [Reprint March 2011]
When Thurber’s mother Mame was told to jot down a list of guests for her eightieth birthday party, she came up with a list of nearly a hundred and fifty names. Her family members protested, and with the help of James’ brother Robert they pared the list down to fifty-five close friends and relatives.
“Mame was equal to the hundred and fifty, but we weren’t,” James confided to a local reporter. He went on to describe the time he and Helen took Mame to a nightclub in New York City and didn’t leave until 4:30 a.m. After settling down for the night, two hours later they saw a light in her room. When they went to investigate, they found her sitting up in bed reading a detective magazine. That was Mame for you. Never a party pooper, her mind always on the alert, no matter the time of day or night.
In his fabulous book, James Thurber, His Life and Times, Harrison Kinney describes the evening of her birthday celebration. Mame wore a powder blue dress with an orchid, cut the cake, and opened the gifts, which included a pair of hard-to-get nylon stockings, whereupon she looked at the younger women who were present and exclaimed: “See? You have to be eighty to get nylons nowadays.”
Later that evening when Mame found out James had paid $60,000 in taxes in 1945, she was so indignant that she tried to call President Truman. She planned tell him that her son was not very strong and couldn’t see and was getting old and couldn’t pay all that much money. Ha ha! Well, they talked her out of calling the White House. But what mother, or wife, hasn’t felt like that on occasion!
While they were in town, James showed Helen a few of the sights, including the Columbus Dispatch office where he had once worked, and they had lunch or dinner and probably tossed off a couple of cocktails with Ted Gardiner, a close friend of James from way back. Mame also liked to tootle around town revisiting places that brought back old memories. She would often hail a taxicab for this purpose, which there were plenty of and dirt cheap to boot.
Mame was the oldest daughter of the Fisher family, and her parent’s home was out on Bryden Road. And quite a house it was – more like a mansion – which reflected the success of the family’s wholesale produce business. In the fading years of her life, Mame lived at the Southern Hotel, and this lifestyle suited her fine. It was in the center of things, had a dining room noted for its good food, and there were always plenty of people to talk to. This was especially important because Mame was a gabber, a motormouth of world-class proportions – and she always had been.
It didn’t matter much who the listener was, just so they had ears, a sense of humor, and paid attention. Around the hotel there were always plenty of potential victims: visitors and guests sitting in the lobby, managers, bellboys, desk clerks, waitresses, Millicent Easter the hotel concierge, even Dispatch columnist Johnny Jones who sometimes wandered by, as well as my own grandmother who lived at the Southern for a good many years.
Before James and Helen entrained for their trip back to New York, they took Mame to Lazarus (The F. & R. Lazarus Company, in those days). How Mame loved that place! And she wasn’t above acting the fool even in a big department store like that. Mame was always center stage, the curtain always up.
I mentioned earlier the time she commandeered an idle wheelchair at a revivalist meeting, sped down the center aisle to the front of the crowded room, then leapt to her feet, her hands waving heavenward shouting, “I can walk!” Nobody knows for sure why Mame was such a clown and exhibitionist all of her life. It might have been because of her repressed desire to be an actress. Or it might have been a reaction to the “forbidding and disciplined” Fisher household. Or it might have been a competitive streak fanned by the greater beauty of her sister Katherine.
She belonged to several social clubs and often delighted in shocking the conservative women members with her antics. Once she brought a closed egg carton to a meeting and announced in a loud voice that she had always wanted to break a dozen eggs at one time. When she flung the cardboard carton at a nearby wall, the women scampered in all directions so they wouldn’t get splattered. The carton bounced harmlessly off the wall. It was empty, of course.
Episode # 41 October 2001, [Reprint April 2011]
Getting old was not one of the things James Thurber adjusted to easily. He hated it. He fought it tooth and nail at every turn in the road. Which reminds me, here’s what he once wrote about night driving: “A peril of the night road is that flecks of dust and streaks of bug blood on the windshield look to me like old admirals in uniform, or crippled apple women, or the front edge of barges, and I whirl out of their way, thus going into ditches and fields and up on front lawns, endangering the life of authentic admirals and apple women who may be out on the roads for a breath of fresh air before retiring.”
And don’t forget, these imaginary (or maybe not so imaginary) hallucinations were incurred not only by the passing of years but also by his rapidly failing eyesight.
Thurber mused that “Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that can happen to a man.” He should have added, of course, that it’s better than the alternative. He not only dreaded growing old, he actually felt old when he was relatively young. Thurber had these misgivings when he was in his late twenties, all the way through his thirties and into his forties, long before he was anywhere near really being old. But, then again, this is a common phenomenon with many men, and certainly a lot of women. It’s all relative. Sure, you can feel as old as Methuselah when you’re in your mid-twenties if you are comparing yourself to someone who is eighteen – or if you’re in the fast lane and actually beginning to show signs of wear and tear.
In his mid-thirties, Thurber was portraying himself as a man ready for a nursing home. He once drew a picture on the wall of his office of his own tombstone with a lonely little flower at its base. Beneath the drawing was the following caption:
He loved but once, and then too late.
Q – How late?
The drawing dated around 1938, three years after he had married Helen. That same year, he shared the following frazzled feelings in a letter to E.B. White’s wife, Katherine: “I wish I hadn’t passed my prime for writing New Yorker stuff. I feel one’s thirties are the best for it and that we’ll all have to give up at 45. I think I am going through a mental menopause, with my mind and intellect at its lowest ... Let’s all try to hold on a little longer. I got to see what Ross is doing about Arno and Fleishmann and all the little payment problems when he is 65. I got to see that. Please God let me see that.”
Clocks were sometimes an obsession with Thurber and they appear in a number of his drawings. Easy to figure. Clocks denote the passage of time, and Thurber was dead sure that the clocks were intent on ticking off the seconds and minutes and days and years of his life. Once he sent a large drawing to his friend Dick Connell on the occasion of his fortieth birthday. Depicted are a setting sun, a dying flower, an overturned glass, and candles that are guttering out. A man sits before a typewriter unable to lift his hand. Thurber signed the picture, “For Dick, October 17, 1938, with cheery wishes.” Of course, it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to readily see that the picture is a mental self-portrait.
On one occasion he told an interviewer that when he was in his twenties he would get depressed thinking about the day he would turn thirty. “I felt I’d lived my life and had nothing to show for it. Women are even more like that.” he said. ‘My first wife cried all night on her thirtieth birthday.”
In 1942, while in Columbus with Helen for the world premier of the movie version of his play The Male Animal, Thurber was asked to do an interview with himself for the Columbus Dispatch. He readily agreed and came up with the following dissertation, which included a liberal dollop of his usual anxiety about growing old: JUMPY CO-AUTHOR OF MALE ANIMAL REMINISCES, by Jim Thurber, former Dispatch Reporter.
“Good to be back in good old Columbus Town,” said the tall, aging, jumpy co-author of The Male Animal, as he arrived here yesterday morning, supported on one side by Miss Average Girl and on the other by Mrs. Bewildered Wife.
Mr. Average co-author instantly began a long, rambling, inaccurate and disconnected series of reminisces about his life in Columbus some years ago, to which nobody listens as they are busy with the pretty ladies who accompany the old gentleman on his trip home.
“I shook hands with Admiral Dewey or Farragut, I can’t remember names anymore,” quavered Mr. Co-Author. “It was right here where we’re standing right now, or was it out at the Columbus Riding Park? In those days, if memory serves, Tubby Essington [drum major for the O.S.U. marching band in Thurber’s day] stood at the corner of Broad and High, but he was later torn down to make room for the State House. A great many people considered this a mistake.
“Yesiree,” continued the aged co-author (to whom now only a lone colored porter and a small boy were listening), “those were the golden days. It was just a few years after this that the Western Conference was torn down to make room for Chic Harley.” The co-author looked about him and saw that now only the colored porter was listening.
“What do you want?” asked the co-author querulously.
“What I want to know,” said the porter, “is what they make room for when they tore you down.” The old gentleman didn’t answer. He started off in a dazed sort of way, still talking to himself, in the general direction of Hoster’s Brewery.
Episode # 42 November 2001, [Reprint May 2011]
"The clocks that strike in my dreams are often the clocks of Columbus." That lovely line was penned by James Thurber in 1953. The Orton Hall bell tower on The Ohio State University campus may have been on his mind, but mostly he was thinking of the church across the street from where Margery Dangler Albright lived with her daughter, Belle.
Aunt Margery, as she was known, lived in that house at 185 South Fifth for about thirty years, from the late 1870s to 1918. Thurber described the clock this way:
"On the opposite side of the street, the deep-toned clock in the steeple of the Holy Cross Church marked, in quarter hours, the passing of the four decades she lived there. It was a quiet part of town in those days, and the two-story frame house was one of the serene, substantial structures of my infancy and youth, for all its flimsy shabbiness."
Aunt Margery was a practical nurse and a midwife, if you will. She brought James Thurber into the world, naked and screaming, on December 8, 1894, which he later characterized as "a night of wild portent and high wind."
As a youngster, from the age of eight to fourteen, James was farmed out to Aunt Margery by his parents. That's how he became familiar with Holy Cross and its bell tower. He lived with her, so she, in effect, became his foster mother. Why would otherwise loving and caring parents do this to one of their own children, especially during those impressionable years?
Well, the reason seems to be that his parents and siblings were living with in-laws, the Fishers, and old man Fisher could be a holy terror, especially when there was a lot of squabbling, yelling, and fighting going on when he was at home. One of the rules of the house was that when Grandfather Fisher entered a room, everyone present was to fall silent until he spoke to them. You can guess how many times that rule was broken. Why James and not one of the other children? Apparently he was the ugly duckling, gangly, not particularly good-looking, maybe a little lippy, and he only had one eye, having lost the other when his brother William accidentally shot it out with a bow and arrow.
Fortunately, the young James truly loved old Aunt Margery, and he enjoyed the years he lived with her. In The Thurber Carnival he wrote how she had delivered the babies of neighborhood women since before the Civil War – not to speak of all three of the Thurber children. He recalled how his very first piece of writing, a bit of poetry, had the long, unwieldy title of "My Aunt Mrs. John T. Savage's Garden at 185 South Fifth Street, Columbus, Ohio." It should be noted that this was one of many names he made up for Margery.
Overweight, somewhat bent and lame much of the time from severe attacks of arthritis, Aunt Margery gave the appearance of a character out of a Dicken's novel. She dressed the part: long black skirt, percale blouse, velvet ribbons on an antique bonnet. And to top it off, she and her daughter were dirt poor. The two women took in sewing and washing and ironing, and usually had an upstairs roomer. Even so, it was hard for them to scrape together the ten dollars monthly rent for their landlord, Mr. Lisle, another character out of Dickens who collected his rent in person and on foot.
Aunt Margery died June 6, 1918, shortly before Thurber left Columbus for a job as a code clerk in Washington, D.C. She was buried in a Green Lawn plot she had paid for on an installment plan over the years with her own hard-earned dollars. Thurber, then 23 years old, attended the funeral. And following the service he went out on the east side and stopped by the old house where he had spent much of his youth. Touchingly, he wrote that when he stood there in the dim parlor of the old frame house, he felt that something as important as rain had gone out of the land.
All of these memories and many more flooded Thurber's mind in 1945 when his publishers decided to put together an anthology of stories about his early days in Columbus. It was to be called The Thurber Carnival. Actually, the book turned out to be a hodgepodge of short stories, drawings, and essays, including diversions as far out as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. But, thankfully, it was heavily larded with tales of his youth, hilarious and imaginative. Included are such classics as The Day the Dam Broke, and The Day Bateman Returned. Nevertheless, the publication of The Thurber Carnival proved to be a real breakthrough in the writing career of James Thurber. Reviews of the book were, without exception, flattering and high in praise. For the first time, perhaps, his stature as a major writer, humorist, and artist were fully recognized. Sweet music to the ears of this boy from old Columbus town, as sweet as the clocks striking in his dreams.
Episode # 43 December 2001 [Reprint September 2011]
James Thurber never seemed able to make up his mind whether he liked Ohio State football or hated it. One minute he had the Buckeyes on a pedestal, and before you could turn around, he was lambasting them and the entire university. It was truly a love-hate relationship, and little wonder. During his lifetime, OSU football went from the dregs in the bottom of a broken cup to the intoxicating effervescence in a glass of champagne.
Picture the following scenario – most of which happened during Thurber's lifetime. In 1892, a couple of years before he was born, Oberlin College swamped Ohio State 50 to 0. The Michigan-OSU rivalry started in 1897 when the "team up north" beat our guys 34 to 0. In 1902, when Thurber was about eight years old, bad ol' Michigan stomped the good ol' Buckeyes 86 to 0. It wasn't until 1904 that Ohio State was able to score a touchdown against the maize and blue.
There were other such humiliating defeats, and it is rumored that a lot of the old records were deliberately destroyed – burned, shredded, or whatever. Too humiliating to live with, I suppose. Ted Gardiner, a lifetime friend of Thurber, once confided to me that Thurber fully believed the story – and relished it! Furthermore, James Pollard, OSU historian and long-time journalism professor also believed the story was true.
The tide began to turn in 1910 when OSU tied Michigan. And, as a result, students and local citizenry celebrated into the night. But the overall record against Michigan was disheartening: Over 21 years, Ohio State scored three touchdowns and one field goal while Michigan piled up 369 points!
OSU's football fortunes finally got turned around when a young man from Columbus' East High School went out for the team. His name was Chic Harley. He entered OSU two years after Thurber. The football teams that he played on at East High won every game except for the very last one which they lost to North High School. Chic was also shortstop on the East High baseball team that Thurber's brother Robert captained.
With Harley playing halfback, OSU had an undefeated season in 1916, won its first Big Ten championship, and repeated this achievement the following year. In the process, OSU avenged itself against Oberlin, taking them apart 128 to 0. Harley played on the varsity for three years. Because the University of Michigan was temporarily out of the Big Ten, the challenge of playing them again would have to wait.
Thurber had been going to Ohio State off and on since 1913 and eventually began to participate in campus activities. Along with everybody, he was a Buckeye booster and a great admirer of Chic Harley. So you see, those were the years that Buckeye Fever got started in a big way.
A few years later, to accommodate this newfound joy of rooting for a winning football team, the university, the alumni, the state, and the city started raising money for a stadium, a really big one, bigger than the Yale Bowl, so big it was hoped it would put Columbus permanently on the map. (The city of Columbus alone scraped together nearly $600,000 toward the project, a lot of money back then.)
In September 1922, Thurber wrote to his college friend Elliott Nugent who now lived in New York City: "Too bad you can't be here to whiff the football air and to see the stadium dedicated. It is nearly completed now, a wonderful structure, set down in the pastoral back eighty of the OSU like a modernized Greek temple or a Roman coliseum born of mirage. Michigan plays here Oct. 21, dedication day."
He revealed his great admiration for Chic Harley when he submitted the following verse to the Columbus Dispatch:
The years of football playing reach back a long, long way,
And the heroes are a hundred who have worn the red and gray;
You can name the brilliant players from the year the game began,
You can rave how this one punted and praise how that one ran;
You can say that someone's plunging was the best you ever saw -
You can claim the boys now playing stage a game without a flaw -
But admit there was no splendor in all the bright array
Like the glory of the going when Chic Harley got away . . .
That same year, Thurber was writing and directing five musical comedies for the Scarlet Mask Club of OSU. He began writing for the Columbus Dispatch and somehow found time to marry Althea Adams of Columbus.
Episode # 44 January 2002 [Reprint October 2011]
"Am I in love, or am I merely inflamed by passion?"
That is just one of many questions posed in a little book titled Is Sex Necessary, co-authored by James Thurber and E.B. White. The subtitle, by the way, is Why You Feel the Way You Do. It was Thurber's first book.
There are more questions than answers in this foot-loose, fancy-free little satire aimed at American sex life, published by Harper & Brothers way back in 1929.
As you might guess, the authors (mostly Thurber, I would say) throw a lot of obstacles in the way of romance; and, of course, this fits in with Thurber's unending source of humor and derision derived from the conflicts between men and women.
Consider the chapter headings and you'll get an idea of what these fellows were up to:
"The Nature of the American Male: A Study of Pedestalism"
"How to Tell Love From Passion"
"A Discussion of Feminine Types"
"The Sexual Revolution: Being a Rather Complete Survey of the Entire Sexual Scene"
"The Lilies and Bluebird Delusion"
"What Should Children Tell Parents?"
"Claustrophobia, or What Every Young Wife Should Know"
"Fridgity in Men"
"Answers to Hard Questions"
So what kind of sexual track record did these two young men have when they undertook to answer these weighty questions?
Thurber had married Althea Adams in 1922 when he was 28 years old, and seven years before the publication of the book. E. B. White married Katherine Angell a week after the publication of ISN, so you figure that one out. Flushed with the success of being published, no doubt, he evidently felt that he had achieved enough understanding of women that it was now safe to marry one!
If we go all the way back to when Thurber was attending OSU and was a member of Phi Psi fraternity, we find a very sexually innocent young man. He went out on the occasional date, but the action never progressed beyond necking sessions. Anything beyond that was left for the future. Thurber and most of his friends were determined to save themselves for the girl they would marry. Any deviation from that course was referred to as "stepping aside."
But there were changes a-blowin' in the wind. World War I had just ended and the effects of that cataclysmic event had been profound, effecting the habits and mores of many Americans, especially the young.
In the backwash of the war, physically disabled by his lost eye and unable to serve in the military – disconcerted and discontented – Thurber dropped out of the university without getting a degree and took a job as a code clerk for the State Department, first in Washington, D.C., and then at the American Embassy in Paris. And guess what happened in Gay Paree?
It wasn't until he returned to Columbus in 1920 – and learned from his frat brothers that Elliott Nugent had "stepped aside" in Chicago while in the Navy – that he divulged his secret. In a letter to Nugent, of course. Here's what he had to say:
"I hadn't been here long til I heard from several sources that one E.J. Nugent stepped out quite colorfully in Chicago. Whether you did or didn't makes no damn difference. I just bring it in to pave the way to telling you that such things have a trick of getting around from which I was spared with my one or two affaires d'amour in Paris. I lasted a little over 12 long months in the gayest city in the world. I now have a picture of Ninette, the most wonderful dancer in the world, and memories of my first step aside, the pretty Remonde of Provins. The whirl when once it whirled went whirling so fast that I saw it as a reason for whirling home. Ninette told me once in the privacy of her cute Montmartre apartment, "Jeemy, at zee step which you step, you must last about two weeks." "Ah. non, ma cherie," I returned, lighting a Pall Mall from a huge red box of them which I had given her, and offering my glass for some more of her fine Porto, "Ah, non, vous vous trompez, you are very wrong, at this pace I will last all of ten days. Voilà."
Bragging to his bestfriend? Guilty and remorseful? Ashamed that he had sullied himself for the heroine of his dreams, of whom there had been several – and more to come during the next few years? Probably, all of the above.
But he had, finally, "stepped aside."
Episode # 45 February 2002, [Reprint July 2011]
In 1917, James Thurber was writing for Ohio State University's student newspaper, The Lantern, and their monthly magazine, The Sun-Dial. This was a time when the United States was embroiled in World War I, and the number of young men enrolled at the university was dwindling in reverse ratio to those in uniform undergoing training of one kind or another. A tough time for a young guy like Thurber who was disqualified for military service because of the loss of one eye and the unreliability of the other.
There he was twenty-three years old with most of his friends goings off to war, himself left behind, rejected and dejected. Even so, if we are to believe the following excerpt from his satirical "Draft Board Nights," the establishment was nipping at his heels.
"I was called almost every week, even though I had been exempted from service the first time I went before the medical examiners. Either they were never convinced that it was me or else there was some clerical error in the records which was never cleared up. Anyway, there was usually a letter for me on Monday ordering me to report for examination on the second floor of Memorial Hall the following Wednesday at 9 pm. The second time I went up, I tried to explain to one of the doctors that I had already been exempted. 'You're just a blur to me,' I said, taking off my glasses. 'You're absolutely nothing to me,' he snapped, sharply."
"It was a ghastly time for Jim," his friend Minnette Fritts said. "He was in despair. He tried to enlist and they wouldn't take him. He lied about his eyesight. I remember him as a very distraught young man at the time." Another friend, Ben Williamson, remembers that Thurber tried to volunteer for ambulance duty, which would have put him in uniform behind the wheel of a vehicle – but with his erratic driving, it might have wrecked the war effort. In the meantime, he continues to be summoned by the draft board in these satirical memoirs.
"I had to take off all my clothes each time and jog around the hall with a lot of porters and bank presidents' sons and clerks and poets. Our hearts and lungs would be examined, and then our feet; and finally our eyes. That always came last. When the eye specialist got around to me, he would always say, 'Why you couldn't get into the service with sight like that!' 'I know,' I would say. Then a week or two later I would be summoned again and go through the same rigmarole."
Thurber told Williamson that every time he volunteered for some kind of non-combatant, war-related job, he was turned down, but every such attempt had to be reported to his local draft board. Then he would be summoned again for an interview and physical. And it wasn't just his poor eyesight that was causing all this trouble. It was also his flat feet, a common cause for rejection during World War I. In "Draft Board Nights," he continues his parody of these bureaucratic bumbles. He tells how, on one visit to Memorial Hall, when no one was looking, he picked up a stethoscope and joined the examiners:
"I passed most of the men that came to me, but now and then I would exempt one just to be on the safe side. I began by making each of them hold his breath and then say 'mi, mi, mi, mi," until I noticed Ridgeway looking at me curiously. He, I discovered, simply made them say 'ah,' and sometimes he didn't make them say anything."
Years later, in 1940, when the United States was faced with another world crisis and passed a new draft law, Thurber wrote yet another version of his own draft board nights: "Among the cripples who were constantly being called up in Columbus was me. Because I couldn't see anything at all out of my left eye, the draft board gave me exemption papers, which proved to be absolutely worthless. Every Wednesday I would be ordered to some camp or other, and every Friday night I had to appear before the board and explain why I hadn't gone . . . I would get a new stamp on my exemption papers. I always met the same draftees, men with only one leg or long white beards, and a very nice young woman whose first name was Sidney. Columbus doctors had never heard of a girl named Sidney, so she was ordered to camp every Wednesday, too, and came up for examination every Friday. The doctors finally got the idea that Sidney claimed to be blind and that I thought I was a girl. 'It's absurd of you, Mr. Sidney,' one of the more nervous doctors said to me one night, 'to pretend you are a woman" . . . It was a period of magnificent confusion.
"I finally went to Washington as a code clerk, but summonses and threats followed me. The records showed, I was told, that I had never appeared before the draft board. In October, 1918, I was ordered to proceed to Syracuse, N.Y., and help guard a bridge. Across the face of this communi-cation I wrote the single word 'deceased' and sent it back. I was never bothered again. The War Department records on me now read, 'Sidney, James (or Jane). Draft evader. Died while guarding a bridge in Rochester, N. Y. Sight normal.' [As for] Miss Sidney, I imagine that by now she is listed in the War Department records as the father of four."
In real life, in January, 1918, a twenty-four year old Thurber put in an application for a clerical job with the State Department. He was following the example of good ol' Ben Williamson, who had been hired as a code clerk there, but it wasn't until mid-June that he departed Columbus with his father for a totally different and exciting life in Washington, D.C., a move that would eventually take him to Paris. In the meantime, his family had moved to Gay Street, where they would remain for twenty years, Aunt Margery Albright had passed away that spring, and old grandfather Fisher wouldn't last out the year. And, the nearest James Thurber had come to "stepping aside" was a necking session with Minnette Fritts.
Episode # 46 March 2002, [Reprint August 2011]
James Thurber, with his father in tow, arrived in the nation’s capital on June 21, 1918. They stayed at the New Ebbill Hotel.
Having been rejected by the draft board because of his poor vision, the young Thurber was in Washington, D. C., to seek a job in the State Department as a code clerk. He had with him an assortment of recommendations from journalism professors at Ohio State University, his editors at the Columbus Dispatch, and a letter from no less a personage than the OSU president, William Oxley Thompson.
Back home, he left behind two young ladies that he was particularly fond of: beautiful Minnette Fritts and talented Eva Prout. Not that he had an open field with either one of them, but that was no reason a young man with his vivid imagination couldn’t dream about a future with the one or the other. He was 24 years, full of vim and vigor, but his romantic relationships with any woman had never progressed beyond smooching and necking.
His affair with Minnette was a little precarious because she was wearing Maurice Mullay’s fraternity pin. (Mullay was in the service at the time. When he came home, he founded one of Columbus’ most successful advertising agencies.)
Thurber had met Minnette in a journalism course taught by Joseph (Chief) Myers, a one-time newspaper man from Pittsburgh. She was a sophomore and her hometown was Mt. Sterling, Ohio. Although she was an education major, she was taking a minor in journalism. As with many of his girlfriends, Thurber remained sentimentally attached to her for many years. Minnette later married a doctor and settled down in Seattle and raised a family.
And then there was Eva Prout who was usually out of town half the time performing on a vaudeville circuit, singing the popular songs of the day to admiring audiences.
Ahh! sweet and innocent Eva. She was a girl he had known and had a crush on since they were schoolmates in the fourth grade at Douglas Elementary School. Her widowed mother kept food on the table from 1902 to 1908 by running a boarding house on West State Street.
Then, through a lucky chain of events, Eva was catapulted into show biz. She started out as a member of the choir at the downtown Trinity Church. Not long afterwards she started singing with orchestras in downtown hotels. Then she did a one week’s gig at the Keith, a local vaudeville theatre. During one of her performances, she was heard by a booking agent who was so impressed with her rich contralto voice and sweet manner, he scheduled her for a vaudeville tour throughout the Midwest.
Because of her demanding schedule and the fact that she was on the road so much, Eva’s mother took her out of school when she was in the eighth grade. A few years later, she was in Hollywood making silent movies with such stars as Francis X. Bushman. Before she had turned twenty-one, she co-starred in a musical comedy at the famous Winter Garden in New York City.
Eva was the kind of gal who always had a gaggle of admiring boyfriends at her beck and call. This was very disconcerting to the young Thurber with his serious and honorable intentions that verged on megalomania.
A few years later, he would thank his friend Elliott Nugent for opening his eyes to the humor of his situation. Especially the way he latched on to the objects of his desire, women like Eva and Minnette. “Your summary of my crazy insanity about both girls is so true it is refreshing,” he wrote to Nugent, “And it makes me giggle at myself which widens all breaches and lessens much interest.”
That was pretty much the state of James Thurber’s mind when he arrived in Washington with his father. The state of the world was equally frenetic and much more destructive. On June 25, four days after his arrival in Washington, the Marine Brigade of the U. S. 2nd Division captured Bouresche and Belleau Wood in an offensive that lasted almost two weeks. The marines suffered 9500 casualties, almost 55 percent of their total number.
Thurber was hired by the State Department that summer, started his training as a cryptographer, moved into a boarding house, and found a compatible bar and restaurant called the Post Café at Thirteenth and ‘E’ streets. It was a friendly spot haunted by newspapermen and presided over by a Mrs. Rabbit, a name that intrigued Thurber all his remaining days.
Before his father, Charles, returned to Columbus, they did some sightseeing, including a visit to the famous Ford Theatre where Lincoln was shot. Then, they rambled around the old neighborhood where they had lived in 1901 and 1903. They even stopped by the house where they had lived when James’ eight-year-old brother William accidentally shot out his left eye with a blunt-nosed arrow. That sorrowful incident would blight James Thurber most of his life.
After a week of gadding around Washington and getting his son settled, Charles returned to Columbus.
About this time, James received word from his close friend, Elliott Nugent, that he was getting married to Katherine Garver, a coed at the University of Akron, and a childhood sweetheart of Nugent’s. After a number of years of not seeing each other, the two had met the preceding summer and had been “going steady” ever since.
Remember, this was wartime, and as frequently happens under such circumstances with men leaving for the service, or being shipped overseas, there is an epidemic of marriages and engagements.
Whatever. Harrison Kinney, in his study of James Thurber, says the news had “the effect of a hand grenade exploding under the theatrical-minded Thurber. Nugent had not only been an important role-model, he had steered a young and inexperienced Thurber into all kinds of creative channels when he was attending OSU. More than that, he had been largely responsible for getting Thurber into his fraternity, the Phi Kappa Psi's.
Episode # 47 April 2002, [Reprint November 2011 ]
In November 1918, James Thurber, with his friend and co-worker Ed Corcoran, set sail on the Orizaba for Europe. Even though World War I was winding down, the ship took twelve days zigzagging its way across the cold dark waters of the Atlantic just in case there was a renegade German U-boat lurking about. The Orizaba, by the way, was a passenger ship that had been converted into a troop transport.
Thurber was a code clerk with the U.S. State Department, and he was being transferred to the Paris Embassy, in large part due to the flu epidemic that was raging throughout much of the world. Back home in Columbus, over 300 people died from the malady in October alone.
On November 11, during the crossing, an armistice had been signed and World War I was officially over. When this news was received on the ship's wireless, there was a great deal rejoicing amongst the crew and military personnel aboard - but not by Thurber. He had spent practically the entire voyage in his bunk.
No Walter Mitty hero was he. Pale and wan, Thurber was hopelessly seasick all the way across the Atlantic. If he day-dreamed about Minnette and Eva, those fantasies no doubt turned into nightmarish caricatures as he became green behind the gills and couldn't keep the least bit of food down. Desperately, he clung to the bunk's thin mattress as the ship pitched and rolled, convinced he would never make it to land alive.
He and his pal, Ed Corcoran, who shared the same stateroom, were the only two civilians aboard. Corcoran, immune to the seasickness that had struck down Thurber, was hobnobbing all over the ship, having a wonderful time. Even some of the sailors were upchucking over the sides when the ship took ponderous rolls in a heavy sea. But not good ol' Ed who, by the way, had left Harvard Law School to do his bit for the cause. He joined in the happy celebration over the war's end, singing, telling jokes, and smoking up most of the box of San Felice cigars that Thurber had purchased before sailing.
When their ship docked at St. Nazaire, Thurber wrote that he could feel in his bones "the doom and gloom of the old port city after four years of war É The first living things we saw," he wrote, "were desolate men, a detachment of German prisoners being march along a street, in mechanical step, without expression in their eyes, like men coming from no past and moving toward no future."
Thurber and Corcoran wandered around the picturesque old town and had their first taste of cognac before boarding the train that was to take them to Paris. They shared a sleeping compartment with a strange little Frenchman who said he was writing a history of the world. He was so sure that his captive audience were intrigued by his project that he woke them up in the middle of the night to inform them that Hannibal's elephants were just figments of Roman imagination.
When the train pulled into the busy Paris railroad station, they found that the armistice celebration was far from over. Thurber wrote:
"Paris' heart was warm and gay, all right, but there was hysteria in its beat ... Girls snatched overseas caps and tunic buttons from American soldiers, paying for them in hugs and kisses, and even warmer coin ... The Folies-Bergére and the Casino de Paris, we found a few nights later, were headquarters of the New Elation, filled with generous ladies of joy, some offering their charms free to drinking, laughing and brawling Americans in what was left of their uniforms ... Only the American MPs were grim, as they moved among the crowds, looking for men who were AWOL ... Doughboy French ... bloomed every-where. The Americans have never been so loved in France, or anywhere else abroad, as they were in these weeks of merriment and abandon."
There were a few problems. Thurber's trunk didn't catch up with him for weeks, and one day a pretty French girl grabbed his hat right off his head and ran down the street with it laughing.
His salary as a code clerk was forty American dollars a week, but with infla-tion raging in post-war France, that didn't go far. Plus, he didn't have any decent clothes to wear! When he went to a tailor shop to get a new suit, he didn't have any better luck. The tailor was inept and kept coming up with pants that were two sizes too big. So most of the time he stayed in his room writing newsy letters home to his family and his pal, Elliott Nugent, and romantic, fanciful letters to Minnette and Eva. When he wasn't working at the embassy, he also did a lot of sightseeing and took voluminous notes on the places he visited, the people he observed, and the events that were leading up to the Treaty of Versailles.
Episode # 48 May 2002, [Reprint December 2011 ]
Oh Mademoiselle from Armentieres,
Mademoiselle from Armentieres,
You didn’t have to know her long,
To know the reason men go wrong!
– Popular WWI-era song
Once he had settled in Paris, James Thurber proved to be the consummate tourist. He was working as a code clerk for the U.S. State Department and World War I had just ended.
He loved Paris. He loved France. And when he wasn’t working, he spent much of his time seeking out the famous landmarks of the City of Light. He visited the famous museums, galleries, cathedrals – and the flea market. When the sun went down, he was frequently seen hobnobbing his way from one sidewalk café to another and, when finances permitted, gourmandizing in some of the city’s most famous restaurants.
For a young man who had hardly been out of Franklin County except for a brief foray to Washington, D. C., when he was a youngster, Thurber was having a ball. And what an exciting place to experience and enjoy. Paris! Not only that, it was smack-dab in the middle of a momentous period – immediately following World War I. Thurber was soaking it all up. He also followed the news each day of the confusing events that led to the Versailles Treaty. Friends who were with him at the time say he was taking mental notes, many of which would crop up in future stories.
One evening, he and his friend Ben Williamson went to the Ritz for dinner, ordering filet mignon, potatoes soufflé, and a vegetable. Along with their meal they enjoyed a bottle of Pommard wine, a drink that the young Thurber had increasingly come to enjoy.
During their meal they discussed many of their Columbus friends, OSU fraternity brothers, and girlfriends. Among many others they dwelled on were Elliott Nugent, Duke Damon, the president of the Phi Psis, Jack Pierce, a fraternity brother and an editor of the student newspaper, The Lantern; Journalism professor Joseph Myers and, of course, Minnette Fritts and Eva Prout.
After their lengthy and enjoyable gab-fest, they paid their check, got up from their table, and OOOPS! Thurber tripped over a cord and sent a large lamp with a huge silk shade crashing to the floor. The effect was like the felling of a giant tree in a forest, causing birds and beasts alike to react in alarm. Waiters froze in their footsteps, cooks came rushing out of the kitchen, and every diner in the stately dining room spun around to see what had caused the catastrophic noise.
Standing there, with every eye glued on him, was James Thurber. (His mother would have loved it!) Did he blush, or stammer an apology, or go running out the door? No, our man from Columbus stood his ground, and as the maitre d’ came running up, Thurber said in a loud voice, “Oh, what the hell!” Then he was out the door, where Ben joined him in a few moments, and they laughed and laughed at the humor of the situation. Come to think of it, maybe that was the incident that created the fictional character Walter Mitty. Who knows? Especially when considered in connection with what would happen a few days later – another tripping over a wire incident, this one more serious.
He visited Reims, Soissons, and the battlefields at Verdon. Ever the inquisitive one, he waded through the mucky maize of trenches, ruined a pair of shoes, and tore a pair of trousers in the process. Then, waiting for him like a snake in the grass was another wire. This one was connected to a hand grenade that, fortunately, was about fifty feet away. Whooomp it went, and Thurber, wondering if the war had started all over again, hit the ground. He was unscathed except for a scratch or two, but badly shaken. That was the end of his battlefield tours.
Back in Paris, he played the safer game of visiting historic landmarks and flirting with the beautiful young girls who seemed to be everywhere. He was still a virgin, but all that was soon to change.
Episode # 49 June 2002, [Reprint Jan/Feb 2012]
Thurber’s love affair with France continued. He was working in Paris as a code clerk at the U.S. Embassy shortly after World War I ended. In 1919, he visited Rouen and was captivated by the entire province of Normandy. “The chimes are always chiming in Normandy,” he wrote in a letter to his good friend Elliott Nugent. Thurber soaked up the glorious autumn landscape and reveled in the “mossy manses, gray-stoned old castles, crumbling abbeys and fourteenth-century gabled houses.” On one occasion, he entered the dark and gloomy confines of the Church of St. Ouen. Gingerly he felt his way up a dark and narrow circular staircase lit only by candles.
When he arrived at the top, he peered downward through the gargoyle-bedecked parapet to the street. He confided in a letter to Nugent that he was so immersed in the historical atmosphere of the place that he could easily imagine he was back in the Middle Ages. He went on to elaborate: “I stared with some surprise at the people passing below in modern mufti, whereas I half expected to see feathered, drooping cavalier hats on swaggering blades, and the cleft mitres of gloomy bishops stalking in the gardens of the church below.”
Already, we can see Thurber’s mind fabricating material for literary creations to come. Here are the early seeds that might have sprouted into such works as Fables for our Time, The Owl in the Attic, and Lanterns & Lances. And, not to be forgotten is the invaluable role that his friend Elliott Nugent played in all of this. Looking back on those days, it is easy to see that Nugent was his sounding board, a fraternity pal who had connections not only to the New York theatre but to much of the writing and publishing community. So, in effect, when he was opening his heart up to Elliott and describing his experiences in great detail, he was not only practicing the craft of writing, he was apparently subconsciously participating in a form of peer review.
Thurber visited the Church of St. Gervais where he recorded that his footsteps “sounded like sabots in a silent street.” While in the cavernous old church (and in the same literary vein) he observed, “Candle tips of light flitted and danced gracefully in dark recesses as if balanced and juggled by some invisible sprite.”
Harrison Kinney, in his voluminous biography of Thurber, picks up on this when he writes: “His kaleidoscopic similes at times seemed as much the by-product of his unreliable eyes as of the sense of imagery that may have been influenced at the time by his fondness for the writing of Joseph Hergesheimer, a popular American novelist of the period.”
When he wasn’t seeing the sights in Paris and gadding about the French countryside, Thurber was doing a lot of letter writing. Much of it was to Elliott Nugent, but also to his family, especially to his brother Robert who frequently wrote back with the latest news of what was going on in Columbus, along with amusing antidotes about their mother and other family members.
Around this time, Thurber wrote to Eva Prout in Zanesville and sent her his Phi Psi fraternity pin. He begged her to wear it “as a symbol of betrothal.” What on earth was he thinking of? He hadn’t seen her for ten years! She responded that she didn’t think this was such a good idea. With a level head and a sense of practicality, she suggested they wait until they could talk it over in person. She also mentioned that she didn’t want to isolate herself socially. What she undoubtedly meant was she didn’t want to curtail her dating by wearing a guy’s frat pin.
As sooner or later happens to most young men, James Thurber lost his virginity – in his case in the fall of 1919 in Paris. Or, as he and Nugent referred to the act, he “stepped aside.” He was nearly 25 years old. It is noteworthy that he escaped such an experience during the several years he attended Ohio State University. There were probably opportunities, but his love affairs while in school never extended beyond “necking” and “petting.” Up to now, both he and Nugent had been guided by high ideals in their relationships with the women in their lives, a Jamesian influence in which they placed the women they dated on Platonic pedestals and “saved themselves” for marriage. In the process, many biographers have concluded that Thurber indulged himself in ridiculous fantasies of self-importance.
And, as it turned out, these lofty ideals led to a future swamped with antagonistic attitudes toward women – and became a source for some of his most brilliant humor.
Episode # 50 July 2002, [Reprint Mar/Apr 2012]
Having worked in Paris as a code clerk at the U.S. Embassy since his arrival in France in November 1918, James Thurber sailed for the good ol' USA 16 months later in February of 1920. By and large, he had enjoyed his stay in France immensely. He had done a lot of sightseeing, not only in Paris but throughout the countryside. Especially rewarding had been his trips through the province of Normandy. He relished the French food wherever he went and took to the French wine like a newborn baby takes to the breast.
But oddly enough, in addition to the good times he experienced and the broadening of his education, something else occurred, an incident or a string of events that biographers have never satisfactorily understood. The James Thurber that came home aboard that ship was greatly changed, and not just because he was leaving France and heading home to an undetermined future. He was suffering from a mysterious inner conflict, one that rendered him totally disconsolate, depressed, and close to a nervous breakdown. Was there a woman involved?
The truth is, there were probably at least two young women involved (that much we know from his letters), but there has never been a clue as to why he became so morose, almost neurotic, in the aftermath of these affairs. To our modern minds, it seems not only unlikely, but ludicrous, that some kind of sexual guilt might have had this effect on a healthy young man who was a veteran of almost three years at OSU, belonged to a fraternity, and had dated any number of young women.
But those were different times. Furthermore, Thurber and his pal Elliott Nugent lived in an idealistic world, on a loftier plane than many of their contempo-raries. They chose to embrace the high moral standards put forth by Henry James in his novels. They put their women on a pedestal and there these idols remained until inevitably they came tumbling back down to earth.
Were there other complicating factors that might explain Thurber's depression that he never divulged? There might have been. Perhaps one of the young women became pregnant, involving him in an abortion. Maybe he contracted a venereal disease. Who knows? That would have been quite possible in Paris in the aftermath of World War I.
Another downer. When Thurber arrived in Columbus, prohibition was the law of the land. That in itself must have been a sobering experience, and might easily have added to his discontent since he had acquired a taste for wine during his year and a half in Paris.
Years later, while in Paris, he tried unsuccessfully to locate one of the girls he had been involved with. Then, like many other creative geniuses, not too long before he died, he resurrected some of these old experiences into a thinly disguised short story, "The Other Room." It was published posthumously in Harpers in 1962. Many years had elapsed, but the events of that earlier era were still vividly fresh in his mind.
In the story, a veteran of World War I has returned to Paris in 1959. He is in a hotel bar relating his experiences to a group of friends. His story went like this:
"There was this ... French girl. She wasn't any older than I was. She spoke English though, and was I glad for that! Well, we sat out in front of the Cafe de la Paix. We drove there in a taxi. She said she thought I should have something to drink and so we had a couple of drinks. Then she told me about herself. She came from someplace in Southern France, and her father was a drunkard, and used to beat up the family on Saturday nights, so she ran away to Paris, and got some work in a garment factory, but all they gave her was a few francs a week, and she saw all these other girls in fur coats and things, and so she took to - well, making the boys feel better, she called it . . .
"The other day I took a taxi up to the street where [she] used to have an apartment. I remembered the street, and even the number ... I didn't get out of the cab ... I just looked at the building, the windows on the second floor ... She would be sixty now ... twenty then ... There were pictures of guys [in uniform] all over her living room, [including] a young Canadian soldier ... and he couldn't have been more than twenty himself. He gets into my dreams, too, kinda banged up, with his uniform all bloody ... He had been killed in action. This friend of his brought her this note he had written her ... She showed it to me ... the first and only time I ever went there ... I remember what it said, all right, every word of it ...
"She had a bottle of port wine at her place, and we sat there drinking, too much ... I guess. After a while, she went out of the room ... and left me sitting there ... This good-looking boy on the piano kept staring at me, and looking sad, and awful young ... I thought of a girl back home ... Then I heard this French girl calling to me."
All of this happened in 1920, a long time ago.
Episode # 51 August 2002, [Reprint May/June 2012]
In the early spring of 1920, James Thurber arrived back in Columbus from his stint as a code clerk at the American Embassy in Paris. Within a few weeks, he had shaken off most of his unexplained despondency and returned to some semblance of his old self.
Romance was always near the top of his list, and it didn't take him long to get back onto that old roller coaster. Alas, Minnette Fritts had married when Thurber was in France. Her husband was an intern at a Chicago hospital, but she remained in Columbus attending Ohio State University, and obligingly maintained a platonic friendship with Thurber, her one-time suitor. Of course, this was nothing new for him. All his female hometown relationships had been platonic.At any rate, Minnette provided him with a sympathetic ear for his non-stop prattling about romantic fantasies of love and marriage. She probably found him immensely amusing – and certainly different from most of the men she had known. The truth was, she and Thurber were great friends, which prompted her to remark one day, "Jim, you'll be coming to talk with me when we're sixty." It was a prediction that almost came true.
With Minnette as a sounding board, Thurber set out to pursue his other true-blue love, Eva Prout. Good ol' Eva, she had been his classmate at Sullivant and Douglas schools from the third through the eighth grades. Not only that, they were usually seated together in the first row because of Thurber's poor eyesight and Eva's small stature.
What she lacked in size, however, Eva made up for in beauty and talent. Her widowed mother pulled her out of school after the eighth grade to pursue a singing career. From the vaudeville circuit, she graduated to the magic la la land of movies, working for the Essanay Studios, playing children's roles in such films as Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Little Red Ridinghood. After a few years, she landed adult roles in such silent movies as The Perils of Pauline. Thurber, a constant moviegoer, often saw his childhood sweetheart up there on the silver screen bigger than life. He sometimes wrote her a letter when he knew where she was working.
At the peak of her relatively short career (when she was only 20 years old), she appeared in a Shubert revue in New York's Winter Garden. It was 1916, and with the advent of the United States' entry into World War I, many theatres closed their doors. Eva's mother, who had traveled with her daughter all this time, decided to call it quits and return to Zanesville where Eva's sister lived.
A short time after returning to Columbus, Thurber contacted Eva and was invited over to Zanesville for dinner. He later reciprocated and invited Eva and her mother to be his guest in Columbus to see a performance of a local musical show. The young girl and her mother remained overnight at the Thurber residence on Gay Street – and poor James had hardly two minutes alone with his girlfriend.
As he wrote to his pal Elliott Nugent: " ... not enough to make any progress towards knowing each other ... I have found ... that Eva never in her life bumped up against or associated with a personality just like mine or with a man of my interests and enthusiasms and my change of gait. I know that she is a bit puzzled, vastly interested, in a way fascinated and most of all half-eager and half-afraid about her own ability to find my plane ... for she never went to college, has no idea then of that life, and about all we have at the start in common is I believe a mutual interest [and] an affection for the stage."
So, it seems Thurber was having some second thoughts about his childhood sweetheart. He was also acutely aware that Eva was high-strung, had a delicate constitution (her mother didn't want her to ever have children), and wasn't his equal scholastically. To make matters worse, she wasn't as pretty as he had remembered. Even her voice, which had been her ticket to the entertainment world, wasn't as magically melodious as he recalled. And, he confessed to Nugent that he was still attracted to other women.
Well, life can be deliciously ironic. About this time, Thurber found out that another chap, from Zanesville, was not only interested in Eva, but was also dating her. Ernest Geiger was interested in the theatre, played the piano, and was an accomplished dancer.
When Thurber became aware of the competition for Eva's hand, he pulled out all the stops – as if Eva was the most beautiful and desirable woman in the world. He dashed off love letters on a daily basis, sometimes more than one in a single day. Many of his missives were written at a desk in the lobby of the Neil House, using hotel stationery.
Eva, ever the little fox, was weighing the potentialities, so she played the waiting game, dating both men, but Sundays were definitely reserved for Ernest. How this must have bent Thurber's sensitive nature out of shape! But, in all fairness to Eva, the intensity of Thurber's avowed love and courtship must have been frightening.
During this period of several months, he remained unemployed, which was becoming a major concern of his father. Furthermore, it appeared that his health was suffering, and his run-down condition was a worry to Mame, his mother.
By the time the merry month of May had rolled around, he had been pursuing Eva for close to three months – and he had yet to kiss her!
Episode # 52 September 2002, [Reprint July/Aug 2012]
The year 1920 started out as a tough one for James Thurber. He experienced a gut-wrenching period of depression in the first few months after returning from France. Then, after seemingly shaking this malaise off for a month or two, he tried to pick up the romantic remnants of his largely fanciful love life. When things didn't work out too well in this department, his despondency returned, maybe not so severe, but disconcerting, nonetheless.
For the biggest part of six months he remained unemployed, mooching room and board from his parents, seemingly unable to get his head (or heart) on straight. His mother agonized over his health because he appeared listless and rundown, and his father was unhappy because his son was unemployed. Period.
Then one day, when he was revisiting his old haunts around the OSU campus, he discovered that some of the students, with faculty encouragement, had formed a musical organization called the Scarlet Mask Club. It was not unlike other groups at a number of Ivy League colleges. The fledgling group's first show was called "Tain't So," and was produced in large part through the Herculean efforts of a young student instructor named Charles McCombs.
Thurber, who had long had theatrical aspirations (kindled in large part by his friendship with Elliott Nugent), was immediately attracted to the group. And, in the process, he seemed to snap out of the lethargy he had been in since his return to the states.
As a talented alumnus of sorts (he had dropped out of OSU without getting a degree), he was heartily welcomed into the ranks of the club and became its principle playwright for the next two or three years.
He expressed his enthusiasm for this venture in letters to Nugent, detailing ideas for future productions. In addition to all this, he had several temporary and part-time jobs. One of them was as a gatekeeper at the Ohio State Fair; another was as a clerk at the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Now, only one thing remained. He needed full-time employment, so he applied for a job as a reporter at the Columbus Dispatch in August of that year. As luck would have it, a college acquaintance, Karl Finn, worked for the paper and gave Thurber an unqualified recommendation to his boss, managing editor, Charles Reiker. Finn called Thurber a creative genius, a little bit off-beat and eccentric (but what newspaper writers aren't) and certainly worth giving a try. Thurber got the job.
There were three daily newspapers in Columbus at that time: the Ohio State Journal, a morning paper, the Columbus Citizen, an afternoon paper that was part of the Scripps Howard chain, and the Columbus Dispatch, the evening paper. The Journal cost three cents a copy, the Dispatch and Citizen were two cents each. A few years later, during the Great Depression, the Dispatch would lower its price to a penny. For a number of years back then, the Dispatch Printing Company also put out a weekly tabloid called the Columbus Star. The Dispatch and the Journal were owned by the Wolfe brothers, Robert and Harry.
The job description was city reporter. The salary was a measly 25 dollars a week. Of course, that was a lot more money than it is now. Probably the toughest part of the job was pleasing his boss, Norman Kuehner, who was most often called "Gus" around the office.
Kuehner was the Dispatch's city editor, and he was strictly of the old school. He considered young reporters just out of "joinalism" school as necessary pests to be endured and barely put up with. In The Thurber Album, a collection of short essays about Columbus characters of the time, Thurber has a lot to say about him, relating how Kuehner was the son of German cigar makers and became infatuated with newspapers from the time he could spell out the words "robbery" and "murder" in a headline.
When he was still in short pants, Kuehner got a Dispatch route. He dropped out of school when he was fifteen and got a full-time job as office boy at "Ohio's Greatest Home Daily." He worked hard, put up a tough front, and thereby picked up the nickname "Gus," from Happy Hooligan's morose brother, Gloomy Gus.
While still an office boy, he was fascinated by stories of bizarre crimes, fires, and violent deaths. He got to hanging around the police station on Saturday nights, dogging the heels of the Dispatch "cop house" reporter. When he was only 20 years old, he achieved his dream of becoming the paper's police reporter, a job he held until he became city editor a few years later.
"You get to be a newspaper man by being a newspaperman," was the philosophy he passed on to all the young reporters who worked under him. Many of his admonitions and alarms became legend at the Dispatch, like the time he took a young reporter named George Smallsreed to the emergency room of Mount Carmel Hospital where a man had been taken after being shot in the head.
The victim had expired and after viewing the body and talking with police and hospital personnel, they walked out to the parking lot. Kuehner looked at the somewhat green-around-the-gills Smallsreed and casually said: "Let's go get a hamburger."
More about Thurber's newspaper experiences next time.
Episode # 53 October 2002, [Reprint September/October 2012]
James Thurber's first year as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch went smoothly enough once he learned to walk lightly around the desk of city editor Norman "Gus" Kuehner (pronounced "Keener"). And a large part of this cautionary behavior included watching what was said in his presence. And never, never mention what you learned in college.
Gus was a big man in many ways – big of stature, big hands, big feet, broad muscular shoulders, and a pair of brown eyes that could impale one of his hapless hirelings like a butterfly on a pin.
When within earshot of Gus Kuehner, Thurber learned early on not to speak of his college education, especially the time he had spent working on the Ohio State Lantern, the OSU student newspaper.
If there was anything in the world that Gus relished, it was unmercifully tearing into a quaking journalism school graduate, and if the victim had been an honor student, all the better! Gus was a self-made newspaper man, and in his mind that was the only kind that amounted to a tinker's damn.
In The Thurber Album, Thurber provides us with the chilling details of his initial encounter with Kuehner on his very first day at work – and how he quickly discovered the city editor's aversions.
"When he spotted me, that first day, sitting at a desk in a corner, his eyes darkened, and he sauntered slowly over to me with the gait of a traffic cop approaching an incompetent and unattractive woman driver.
"He stood behind my chair for several moments, not saying anything. I said, 'Good morning,' and he still didn't say anything. I had been rewriting some brief item from the Lantern . . . and when he saw what they were, he swept them onto the floor with one swipe of his big hand, growled, 'This isn't a college paper,' and strolled away, with the grace of a wagon. He let me sit at my desk the rest of the day doing nothing."
Not long after that, Thurber really made points with his irascible boss when the Columbus City Hall caught fire one night while he was there covering a city council meeting.
Where was Kuehner when this happened? He was home in bed! Maybe with a hangover, who knows? At any rate, when called on the phone, he refused to come down to the office. So Thurber wrote the news story, and with the help of a skeleton crew managed to get an extra out on the streets.
Back in those days, it should be explained, newspapers put out "extras" when a big story occurred, and men and boys hawked the papers all over town, in this case yelling "Extra! Extra! Extra! City Hall Fire!"
Thurber's next big break came after the morning paper, the Ohio State Journal, ran a series of stories with pictures about a "ghostly wreath" that appeared on a windowpane in the bedroom of a woman who had just died. The house was on Oregon Avenue just south of Fourth Avenue.
Follow-up stories in the Journal told how crowds of awe-struck people gathered in the front yard of the residence and thousands of cars slowly drove past each day.
All of this was too much for Gus Kuehner. He didn't like being scooped by another paper (even though it was owned by the Wolfe family), he was a pragmatic and skeptical man, and there's nothing he would have loved more than exposing this so-called miracle as a hoax. So he sent young James Thurber out to Oregon Avenue to see what it was all about.
He was more precise than that. "Get up there and crack that miracle and bring me back the pieces!" is what he actually said – and a resourceful Thurber took him to heart. He stopped by a branch of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, talked to a representative, explained his assignment, and the two of them proceeded to the house with the miracle window.
When they knocked on the door, it was early in the morning and there were no curious people standing around. The husband of the departed woman answered the door and led them upstairs to the bedroom. It was obvious that much of his grief had been alleviated by the publicity surrounding the image on the window.
The glass expert found that the "ghostly wreath" had been caused by an accidental smear of iridescent oil commonly used in glassmaking. The widower insisted that it was a sign of "divine manifestation," even after the probable cause had been explained to him. Exasperated and distraught, he accompanied them down the stairs and to the door. Looking back, they saw him in the doorway, his right arm raised high, one finger pointing to heaven.
Thurber's story explained the probable cause of the so-called miracle and made page one of the Dispatch. As might be expected, Gus Kuehner was delighted with the outcome.
Episode # 54 November 2002, [Reprint November/December 2012]
From 1920 to 1924, James Thurber worked as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch and, along with the rest of the staff, suffered humiliating rebuffs and stinging criticisms from “Gus” Kuehner, the irascible city editor. Yet, ironically, the sometimes super-sensitive Thurber weathered this browbeating better than many of his colleagues.
In March of 1921, he was sent to Springfield, Ohio, to cover a series of race riots that had ripped that community apart. Some background: A scarcity of jobs and an influx of southern blacks looking for work had sparked off the riots. The country was in the grips of a severe depression and times were tough.
Since the boom years of World War I, the economy had been on the skids. Big business met the crisis by cutting wages instead of hours. Workers often were on the job for 12 hours or more. Sometimes they were called upon to work 24 hours straight. Women and children employees fared no better.
In January of 1921, Warren G. Harding was inaugurated president of the United States, a term of office that was to end two years later with his death – amidst scandal and charges of corruption.
Approximately 800,000 immigrants were arriving in this country every year, which led Congress to pass an emergency Quota Act, a bill restricting the annual entry of any nationality or ethnic group to 3 percent of their population already settled here. In Springfield, and several other cities around the North, all of this led to violence and a number of deaths. The National Guard was called out, and the tense situation was big news.
Once he got to Springfield, Thurber interviewed the Mayor, the Chief of Police, and National Guard Commander in a lengthy article that the Dispatch ran in two front-page installments. Our conscientious reporter covered the story for three days, and on one occasion went 44 hours without sleep. Sounds like a scenario out of Walter Mitty, Thurber’s hilarious story about a hen-pecked wannabe who imagined himself in all kinds of frightening and dangerous situations.
It’s funny looking back on this episode of Thurber’s life. Difficult to imagine him as a hard-scrabbled reporter and, seemingly, a successful one at that. If the twists and turns of life had worked out a little differently, we would have lost one of the best humorists ever. But the sense of humor (and sense of the ridiculous) that he had inherited from his mother, Mame, was not to be contained. Even before he left the Dispatch, he was planning and plotting ways to escape the everyday humdrum of life.
By the time the riots were over and he had returned to the newsroom of the Dispatch, Thurber was finally getting a bit of respect from his editor, although it was never overt. No, Gus wasn’t going to be hornswoggled by some inexperienced young cub not long out of college. So any acknowledgement of a job well done was grudging. Tight-lipped. Close to the chest. Veiled by those steely eyes and tough-guy persona.
Even so, and without any accolades from his boss, Thurber was acquiring some pretty impressive credentials: the City Hall fire, the Oregon Avenue window caper, the Springfield race riots. Our intrepid hero was developing into a seasoned reporter.
Meanwhile, he was turning out librettos and scripts for the Scarlet Mask, the dramatic society at OSU. One show, Oh My, Omar!, achieved considerable success and toured half a dozen or so Ohio cities. But Thurber was evolving, gradually leaving the old campus haunts and moving downtown, where he loved hobnobbing with the reporters and editors, columnists and feature writers from all three daily papers.
These types, people with ink in their blood, would congregate for coffee, cigarettes, and late-night chatter at downtown rendezvous, places like Marzetti’s. As a matter of fact, Thurber’s storytelling prowess and his finesse at putting a humorous twist on the most humdrum event was soon making him the center of attention at these midnight soirees.
In letters to his pal Elliott Nugent, he confided that he hoped to remain at the Dispatch for at least two more years and, in the process, experience every angle of newspaper writing.
About this time, H.E. (Cherry) Cherrington, the Dispatch’s drama critic, invited Thurber to contribute some of his writing to the “Observations” column, a regular feature of the editorial page. The two men had become friends because of a mutual interest in literature. Thurber snapped up Cherrington’s offer and was soon turning in humorous verse, gossipy items, and funny one-liners. Although he received no extra pay for these efforts, the reward was in the doing.
So, we see a man with a plan. No doubt about that! His fertile mind was looking to the future, calculating all the possibilities that might be out there – for a person who looked at the world just a little bit differently than anyone else.
Episode # 55 December 2002, [Reprint January/February 2013]
In 1921, James Thurber continued to plug away at his job as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. His contributions to “Cherry” Cherrington’s “Observations” column began that spring and created a welcome relief from the daily grind of local news reporting.
The feature ran opposite the editorial page and was rather whimsical and light-hearted. This was a taste of things to surface later in his career, especially after he went to work for the New Yorker – but all of that was to come later, after he went to New York City.
One of his poems that was published lamented the passing of the old silent movies, those first flickering films of a bygone – “with houses that tumble and ladders that fall.” He also tore into filmmakers for buying the rights to good books and plays, then giving them sensational and sexy titles.
After the disastrous city hall fire, Thurber covered that beat in the temporary offices that were set up at the public library, and the library’s nearby reading room became like a magnet to him.
It was a quiet place to escape the “madding crowd.” More than that, it was a treasure trove of out-of-town newspapers and national magazines to peruse – and to daydream about writing for them. It also proved to be a peaceful place to work on his newspaper stories.
As with any job, sometimes things did not go according to plan. A reporting assignment would fizzle out or, as in the following two cases, become complete disasters.
On one occasion, World War I ace Eddy Rickenbacker was planning to return here for a visit, and City Editor Kuehner instructed Thurber to interview him at the airport. More than that, he was to ask the hometown hero what he thought about a specific political issue.
When Rickenbacker got off the plane, Thurber approached him, introduced himself as a reporter from the Dispatch, and asked him the question. “I don't think so,” Rickenbacker spit out, and stalked away, leaving the intrepid reporter wondering if it was a curt answer to the question, or a rude refusal to get involved.
Another failed interview (this one by phone) occurred when he put a call through to the infamous Harry M. Daugherty, attorney general to President Harding, who was later to be a central figure in the Teapot Dome scandal. Thurber asked him one question, and in reply got a snarled, “Go to hell!” So much for crooked politicians.
In his short piece, “Memoirs of a Drudge,” Thurber talks a lot about that old city hall beat and how he picked up a lot of useful information on the side, i.e., how to play the tuba and the locations of some of the wildest nightclubs in town. Back in those days Columbus had its share of hot spots. Some of them were on the fringes of the old Central Market district. Others were out on East Main Street, and still others sprinkled along North High in the area that was later to be called the Short North.
He also recalls a few of the many colorful that frequented the corridors and chambers of that not-so-august institution. For instance, there was the wild-eyed man who claimed he was receiving the programming of a local radio station through his dental bridgework. Thurber doesn’t elaborate on whether or not it was one of the man’s favorite stations. If it wasn’t – well, that could have been a terrible toothache.
Then, there was a skinny, excitable woman who was “warned of approaching earthquakes by a sharp twinge in her left side.” Another quirky woman who haunted the environs of the relocated city hall claimed that it had been revealed to her in a vision that the newly constructed O’Shaughnessy dam was made of Cream of Wheat, not concrete.
Some of these oddballs would occasionally turn up at the Dispatch and, according to Thurber, Gus Kuehner would hide in the men’s room until they were gone.
A lot of times, Thurber would relate these experiences and encounters when the news people gathered for their late-night soirees at Marzetti’s and other downtown spots. He would literally have them “rollin’ in the aisles” because he not only had a wonderful gift for telling these humorous stories, he would impersonate the different characters.
We can only imagine how hilarious this must have been when he was breathlessly telling his audience that the dam was made of Cream of Wheat. Sometimes he wasn’t above changing the dialogue a bit to obtain more laughs. For instance, in the case of the zany little woman who got twinges in her side, he would change her symptoms to “gripping pains in her intestines.”
About this time, Thurber struck up a close friendship with John McNulty, a reporter for the Ohio State Journal, another Wolfe-owned paper. McNulty was an undisciplined Irishman from Lawrence, Massachusetts, who shared Thurber’s madcap sense of humor.
Wounded by shrapnel in World War I, McNulty walked with a slight limp. After he got out of the army, he worked for several newspapers in New York City. His forte was cultivating the trust of interesting characters at the bottom of life’s ladder and writing human-interest stories about them. Like Thurber, he had a repertoire of amusing and colorful stories that he would trot out on the slightest pretext. Especially when he was downing shots.
After being fired from numerous papers and magazines in New York, some newspaper friends with connections in Columbus arranged for the Journal to give him a try, bought him a ticket, and put him aboard a train.
“In McNulty’s first year in Columbus,” Thurber wrote, he knew more people in the city than I did, although I had been born and brought up here. They included everybody from taxi drivers, cops, prizefighters and bellboys to the mayor ... and the governor.”
So, this was the young Thurber, almost a century ago, working for the Columbus Dispatch, hobnobbing around Columbus, enjoying his friendship with McNulty, having the time of his life, borrowing the everyday events of life and converting them into a series of vaudeville skits.
Episode # 56 January 2003, [Reprint March/April 2013]
In a tribute to John McNulty, James Thurber once wrote: "The angel that writes names in a book of gold must long ago have put McNulty down as one who delighted in his fellow man."
Before arriving here, twenty-five-year-old McNulty had worked for just about every daily newspaper in New York City, but because of his drinking habits, he was never able to keep a job.
To explain this more fully, it means not just having a drink or two at lunch or showing up loudmouthed around the office. Not just telling a fellow worker where he could go and what he could do with it. Not even just telling the boss off. No, no, no! McNulty's talents were larger than that – in an entirely different league. World class.
McNulty was a drunk's drunk. He would hit all the bars on his beloved Third Avenue, having the time of his life in the process, entertaining the other patrons to such a degree of sheer delight that their great grandchildren are probably still repeating stories of his shenanigans.
McNulty was a superb storyteller. He could take an everyday humdrum situation and transform it into a hilarious happening that would have his listeners falling all over themselves with laughter. He was a genius, not only in the way he told a story, but in the way he brought the story to life.
The secret to this talent was his love of people. More often than not they would be the working folks, the ones who kept the big city humming. Their ranks would include trades people carpenters, plumbers, and steel workers. Add to those: taxi drivers, doormen, the horseplayer, guys at a ballgame, cops and firemen, the ambulance driver, the postal employee, the bartender, the patron at the bar, and the waitress.
But McNulty had plenty of friends in high places, big shots, from the governor to the mayor, lawyers, judges, and business owners. He would take a deep and sincere interest in all their lives, problems, and their successes.
During his career in New York, one of his favorite hangouts was Tim and Joe Costello's Bar and Restaurant on Third Avenue. Here he would eat, drink, and dream up the next day's newspaper story, that is when he wasn't entertaining friends and strangers with his wondrous tales of the big city. And, he would tell anyone who would bend an ear that two-thirds of Irish blood is grease paint, which surely accounted for his love of hamming it up and putting a string of lively words to paper.
Eventually, McNulty's love of drinking caught up with him. He had been fired from so many newspapers in New York there were none left to hire him. For a while he was down and out, and who knows what might have happened to him if it hadn't been for some friends who had connections with a newspaper in Columbus. The paper? The Ohio State Journal, a morning daily owned by the Wolfe family who also owned the Columbus Dispatch.
Based on his clever way with words and the urging of his friends to give him a chance, he was hired, and his friends poured him aboard a train bound for Columbus, Ohio.
The year was 1921, and McNulty took to his new job with enthusiasm. It wasn't long before he met James Thurber and they became fast friends. Both men enjoyed dramatic and amusing episodes which they concocted for barroom presentations. They were both extremely literate and knew how to sit down at a typewriter and knock out strings of colorful words that captured and held the interest of their readers.
Thurber and McNulty had another trait in common. They both had hot tempers that flared, especially when drinking. But to their credit, they seldom kept a grudge and they were both quick to calm troubled waters – but not always, especially in Thurber's case.
McNulty did general assignments for the morning Journal, while Thurber covered city hall for the Dispatch, an afternoon paper. Thurber recalls that McNulty lived life to its fullest and that he was almost always excited about something. And, like a lot of Irishmen, he was also a sentimentalist of the first order.
In a preface to The World of John McNulty, a book of his collected works published in 1957 shortly after his death, Thurber reminisces about his friend. He recalls how excited McNulty was to see the twinkling cabin lights of the dirigible Shenandoah passing over Columbus one night. Or maybe it was his enthusiasm on another occasion over a girl with a beautiful voice who sang "Roses are Shining in Picardy" at the James Theatre.
One time, standing near Broad and High, McNulty was telling Thurber about a great new song titled "Last Night on the Back Porch." Suddenly, McNulty grabbed Thurber by the arm and pulled him into a nearby music store where – to the surprise of the clerks – he began banging out the song on one of their pianos.
"It's McNulty," Thurber explained to them in a whisper, "and they all nodded and breathed his name in unison," not that they really knew him for who he was. Rather, they might have thought he was an internationally acclaimed pianist come to Columbus to play at Memorial Hall.
Episode # 57 February 2003, [Reprint May/June 2013]
The shillelagh shenanigans of Irishman John McNulty continued to keep James Thurber in stitches throughout 1921. The younger and less experienced Thurber was an eager and willing apprentice to the older newspaperman. Both men worked for Wolfe-owned dailies in Columbus. Thurber was a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, McNulty a reporter for the Ohio State Journal.
McNulty had a reputation as being a heavy drinker with an inspired sense of humor and a peppery temper. He made friends easily, and within a short time of his arrival from New York City, he knew his way around town like a native-born Columbusite.
The more experienced McNulty taught Thurber how to handle the often-miserable prohibition-era booze, which included such staples as white lightning, moonshine, bathtub gin, and many kinds of rotgut whiskey, lots of it smuggled into this country from Canada. He also helped Thurber get over the overly romanticized and puritanical views of women that had crimped his style since becoming an adult. The result: he had several affairs, and, in the process, was able to better cope with the reality of the newly emancipated women of the 20s. In return, Thurber introduced McNulty to Donia Williamson, who eventually would become the first Mrs. McNulty. She was the sister of Ben Williamson, one of Thurber's Phi Psi fraternity brothers at OSU.
As an example of how deplorable the quality of alcoholic beverages was in 1921, former Columbus Citizen reporter Robert Kanode recalls an occasion when the city fathers invited a group of reporters to a possum dinner. Kanode recalls that moonshine, white lightning, and "near beer" were served.
After the dinner, Thurber was scheduled to direct a Scarlet Mask production of "Oh My, Omar" at the Ohio Penitentiary. When his theatrical friends showed up to take him to the pen, they found an inebriated Thurber standing on a table delivering an incoherent speech to the councilmen. Fortunately, the politicians were also so pie-eyed, they had no idea what this young whipper-snapper was talking about.
Kanode went on to relate how he and his friends helped the college kids transport Thurber over to the penitentiary. When they finally got him over there, they walked him back and forth outside the walls along Spring Street before they went in. All in vain. Thurber was blotto.
When his friends explained the situation to the warden, he suggested that they go on with the show and that somebody take Thurber home. "He was afraid the prisoners would riot if we didn't put on the show," Kanode explained.
"So that's what happened. Another reporter, a fellow named McCoy, and I stuffed Thurber in a car and took him home.
"We explained to Mame, his mother, that we had been to a possum dinner at City Hall and James had gotten sick." At this point in his story, Kanode would laugh uproariously.
For years after that, Mame attributed the poor quality of local government to "those awful possum dinners" the councilmen were always eating.
Under McNulty's tutelage, Thurber improved his drinking skills, if not his propensity for raising hell. In that department, the two reporters were more like a zany comedy team. For instance, at an office party at the Dispatch, Thurber was mimicking city editor Kuehner and, in the process, tossed a woman's fur coat out a second story window. The outraged woman yelled at him to go get her coat, and Thurber humbly obeyed her.
Another McNulty caper, as unlikely as it might sound, has been verified by more than one person. When the Ohio State Journal reporter was fired for drunkenness, "he went back the next day, sober and cleaned up, and said to the city editor, 'I understand there is a vacancy on the staff.'"
As incredible as it might sound, he was promptly rehired. There are probably at least two explanations. The city editor had a heart. And, second, McNulty had a great writing talent that was not likely to be matched by the average person walking in the newsroom door looking for a job.
Before his sojourn in Columbus ended, McNulty went to work for the Columbus Citizen. Friendly fellow reporters helped him hang onto that job by creating elaborate alibis to cover his drunken capers. For instance, on out-of-town assignments, he would frequently end up in the wrong town! One time he was supposed to go to Mt. Vernon, Ohio, which is 48 miles northeast of Columbus. Several days later, he called one of the editors at the Citizen and asked him why he was in Athens, Ohio.
The poor editor was stumped. He looked around and shouted to everyone in the room: "Why is McNulty in Athens, Ohio?"
His friends would earnestly explain to the paper's managing editors that like most writing geniuses, McNulty was extremely absent-minded.
That he certainly was.
Episode # 58 March 2003, [Reprint July/August 2013]
In the early days of 1921, at the age of 26, James Thurber was still waiting to find the girl of his dreams. In a letter that sounded more than a little worried, he wrote the following sentiments to his friend and confident, Elliott Nugent:
“I have little or no desire to traipse back to France, much as I love her, without the Girl. Just who she will be depends on Fate and the nice Gods and everything. I see few prospects right now. But I crave a Sweetheart, and must, in fine (sic), have one before long. . . . As I have told you . . . I lost the Only One after all, to Chicago . . . I have already written [Minnette] asking her to suggest someone. She would know . . . She will be here in May for a visit.”
As he intimated in the letter to his friend Nugent, he was still corresponding with Minnette, the girl who had dumped him, gotten married to a doctor and moved to Chicago. How that must have hurt! However, in a recent letter, she promised Thurber that she would introduce him to a very special person when she got back to Columbus for a reunion of her sorority. Just the year before, by the way, Minnette had been elected president of the sorority, which was Kappa Kappa Gamma.
So it came to pass that our intrepid hero was introduced to Althea Adams, a sorority sister of Minnette Fritts.
Althea was a 1918 graduate of North High School, which would have been where Everett Middle School is now located, and later she attended Western College for Women, in Oxford, Ohio. In 1919, she transferred to Ohio State University. She was a tall girl, quite attractive, with dark brown hair, and during her collegiate career she had received recognition for her intellectual prowess as well as her outstanding beauty.
Thurber was employed days at the Columbus Dispatch, then worked evenings in a Stroller’s production and on a skit for Scarlet Mask, both OSU dramatic societies. Althea was also dabbling in things dramatic and had one of the leading roles in the Stroller’s production of The Girl with the Green Eyes, in addition to a part in The Importance of Being Ernest.
There’s no question that Thurber was smitten by the charms and charisma of Althea, but evidently he wasn’t quite ready to admit it. In a July 10 letter to Nugent, Thurber barely breathed a word about Althea. Instead, in a philosophical mood, he wrote:
“I, as I grow older, seem to enter deeper and deeper into the spirit of this ‘age of discretion’ thing. Discretion, my boy, is the practice of reasoning coolly (sic) while being hotly kissed. Woe unto the young man, Solomon might have said, who allows his breath to be taken away by a woman’s words, who loses his head because of his heart, or has his feet swept from under him because of her legs. I may say, however, that I might well have heeded that maxim six weeks ago.”
Well, there is a hint, a straw in the wind, if you please, that things might be changing, that he was girding himself for romantic events that might be looming in the future.
Not to be forgotten was the fact that there had always been more than a little competition between the two men. No need to call it jealousy when we can more accurately say it was just a case of keeping up with the Nugents.
At the time, Elliott Nugent’s life was going as smoothly as a touch of Drambue after a satisfying meal. Pursuing his theatrical career down east, he was playing the part of the young boy in Dulcy, the very first George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly collaboration. He had also sold a short story to The Smart Set, a popular and widely read magazine of the time.
Then, less than four months after Dulcey opened, Elliott fell head over heels in love with Norma Lee, a pretty young woman who was also in the cast. Before the summer of 1921 was over, they were engaged. The wedding was scheduled for October 15 in the picturesque Chapel Notre Dame in Morningside Heights, New York.
Thurber was asked to be best man at the ceremony, and he dutifully boarded a train down at the old Union Station on North High Street. The architecturally handsome station was located between where the Hyatt-Regency Hotel and the Convention Center now stand. It was a busy and exciting place in those days, with as many as three or four long luxurious trains hissing steam and idling on the tracks at one time. Redcaps would have been scurrying about with luggage, and white-coated porters and uniformed visor-capped conductors would have been in evidence, impatiently waiting for their train to start rolling.
After he boarded his train, and on that long train ride down east, we can just imagine the thoughts that were percolating through Thurber’s impressionable mind and love-starved psyche.
His very best friend was moving ahead of him in every department and had won the loyal love of a lovely young woman who was soon to become his wife. Not only that, his friend had broken into the big-time publishing world and was on his way to fame and fortune. And, of course, his friend lived in New York, America’s largest city, the center of the universe and everything
Color our conquering hero green.
Episode # 59 April 2003, [Reprint September/October 2013]
James Thurber was best man at Elliott Nugent's wedding in New York City. He spent several days in the Big Apple but didn't see much of Nugent who remained occupied with his theatre commitments and the demands of his newly acquired bride.
Then, wouldn't you know it, the newlyweds were off for a one-week honeymoon. In spite of this seeming lack of hospitality, Thurber had been mighty impressed at the wedding ceremony by the throng of Nugent's theatrical friends who packed the chapel.
So Thurber finally boarded a train for the long lonely ride back to Columbus, Ohio, which gave him plenty of time to ponder which direction his life was going in, if any. His recent introduction to Althea Adams, a statuesque brunette with plenty of brains, must have provided him with a bright shining star on the horizon. Althea seemed to have everything a man could desire.
Hadn't he made a feeble attempt to describe her in a letter to Nugent not more than a couple of weeks ago?
"At a banquet given by members of the three Columbus newspapers, Althea was accounted . . . the most strikingly beautiful lady of the 60 or more present . . . Not only beautiful is she but ravishingly intelligent with characteristics so much like mine in many directions you would of course find her fetch-ing. But this night she was more beautiful than new snow with the light of stars upon it, or than cool flowers in the soft of dawning ..."
So he had written, in the process, sounding a lot like a love-smitten high school boy in love with the class queen.
It would be a safe bet to assume that by the time the train chugged around the long horseshoe curve at Altoona, Pennsylvania, he had decided on a course of action. Althea Adams was the answer. The answer to any young man's dreams. Especially if the young man was as complicated, determined, and full of contradictions as James Thurber.
Thurber was a romantic Victorian at heart, an old-fashioned young man who placed women on a pedestal, yet he had acquired a taste of life in the fast lane during the months he lived in Paris. Meanwhile, he had been dividing himself between his full-time reporter's job at the Columbus Dispatch and participating in all kinds of theatrical activities on the OSU campus. Talk about being torn apart – or leading two lives. Not to mention his age. Going on twenty-seven, he was well aware he wasn't getting any younger and that after a few more years the matrimonial chase would be all uphill.
These considerations must have been tumbling through his head as the long train with its many coaches, Pullman cars, and dining cars clickity-clacked its way to Union Station in Columbus. But one thought would surely have been paramount: He must press his case with Althea.
Back home again and in a workaday routine at the Dispatch, Thurber tried to get on with his life - and get it on with Althea. And, she must have been oddly fascinated with this peculiar man who frequently spoke of marriage and who pursued her so relentlessly.
He and his dream girl saw more and more of each other as the year unwound. The majority of his drinking buddies figured his talk of marrying this beautiful girl was just a case of wishful thinking, a heartbreak about to happen.
Many of Althea's friends evidently thought the same thing. They couldn't figure out what she saw in Thurber. She was gorgeous, very popular, outgoing. By contrast, he was quirky and more than a little unsure of himself, especially around strangers. Part of Althea's apparent attraction to Thurber, and his talk of wedding bells, might well have been because she was still living at home with her mother.
It's quite possible that the poor girl was in a quandary pondering how to escape parental control over her life. In her mind, marrying this funny man with one eye might have been considered a giant step toward freedom. Or, at least, the chance to play a more adult role in life, instead of being coddled and protected by her mother.
Carson Blair, a friend of Thurber and an editor of the Sun-Dial, OSU's humor magazine, speculated that his attraction to Althea was based on more than her good looks. He suggested that it was Althea's self-confidence and stability that appealed to Thurber, who looked for those things in a woman to offset what he used to refer to as 'the Thurber nervousness."
Blair believed that women found Thurber attractive for a number of reasons, including his depth of thought, his ready wit, his willingness to listen to their opinions and, maybe most of all, the fact that here was a man making it in the world who was half blind. We could call that the sympathy factor.
Episode # 60 May 2003, [Reprint November/December 2013]
James Thurber and Althea Adams were joined in holy wedlock on Saturday, May 20, 1922. The Episcopal ceremony was performed at the fashionable Trinity Church in downtown Columbus. Althea's mother chose the church. Thurber was twenty-seven years old, Althea was twenty-one.
Thurber's brother, Robert, didn't even bother to show up for the wedding. The story is that he didn't like Althea. Closer to the truth was the fact that he thought she was a snob.
"Althea is the one who grabbed Jamie," he would tell his friends. "She was the domineering type, bossy and pushy, always wanting her own way. She hooked him, sure as anything. Why? I guess she saw something in him that was different from the others. She saw his possibilities. Her mother, the teacher was a nice woman, but her father was supposed to be a strict Army man. I think she got her disposition from him."
He would ramble on, never deviating from the same scenario. "Why Jamie married her, I'll never know. She was pretty, all right, but not in a feminine way, and she was intelligent, but no great brain.. I didn't care for her," he concluded.
Althea returned the favor. She didn't like Robert and, on top of that, she didn't really like the Thurber family.
On the surface, James' mother Mame seemed to be comfortable enough with the marriage. Years later, she would write: "I . . . liked Althea but never thought she was the one for Jamie . . . Althea was always wonderful to me; we never had a bad word." Those sentiments were probably more a case of selective memory than anything else. Robert, and others who were on the scene, say that Althea looked upon Mame with the same contempt she held for the entire Thurber tribe.
Many other friends were as confused as Robert. Old friend Ralph McCombs was astounded by the swift courtship and ensuing marriage. "She seemed to be the most unobtainable woman," he declared. "She was aloof, attractive, ambitious, worldly, and very social – all the things that Jim wasn't particularly. About all that I could see they had in common was a lack of money," he concluded.
Another friend, and collaborator in Scarlet Mask shows, Thomas Meek, recalled that "Jim had a project going to conquer Althea, which was quite a project since she was an Amazonian woman, both physically and mentally. I considered it remarkable that he finally captured her. A lot of us sat around thunderstruck, trying to figure out how he did it."
Thurber's old girlfriend Minette, a close friend of Althea, was also skeptical of the match. "I felt that Althea was not quite the person for Jim," she said. "Jim was temperamental. I thought Althea should marry an older man who could take care of her more adequately than Jim was able to."
Thurber's best friend, Elliott Nugent, was unable to attend the ceremony because of his Broadway commitments. The play, Kempy, that Elliott and his father had written in collaboration with Russel Crouse had proved to be a big hit. Elliott and his father had starring roles in the production along with Elliott's sister, Ruth.
In Elliott's absence, Thurber chose his old friend Ed Morris to be best man, and Althea's uncle, Professor Blake, gave the bride away. Of the six ushers who were selected, only one made it to the church in time to seat the assembled crowd. The others who had met at the Phi Psi house to get dressed for the occasion crowded into one car for the trip downtown – and wouldn't you know it? – they became involved in a minor traffic altercation. Maybe they had been passing a flask of whiskey around among themselves. You know, to get in a festive mood. At any rate, as the old song goes, they didn't get to the church on time, and the ceremony proceeded without them.
So the wedding took place and the marriage was consummated . Thurber was in seventh heaven, and why shouldn't he have been? Here he was, a half-blind, spindly-legged nobody and he had wooed and won one of the prettiest and most popular girls on the campus. She was certainly a trophy wife if there ever was one – tall, statuesque, and exquisitely beautiful.
The beaming bridegroom was fond of telling his buddies that going to bed with Althea was like sleeping with the Statue of Liberty.
After the wedding, the newlyweds drove to Washington, D.C., in a nifty little Ford coupe Althea's mother had given her. They stayed in the nation's capital a few days, sightseeing and revisiting some of the places her husband was familiar with from earlier times. It's worth remembering that it was while living in Washington as a boy that his older brother William accidentally shot out James' left eye with a toy arrow.
After getting their fill of Washington, the newlyweds drove to Compo Beach, Connecticut, where the Nugents had invited them to stay at a cottage they had rented for the season. This location proved convenient whenever they wanted to bop into New York – which was almost daily.
Believe it or not, the honeymoon was already paling. On the trip over, Althea didn't trust Thurber's driving, so she was behind the wheel most of the time. Their sex life was also creating problems with her sex drive greater than his. What else could go wrong? Well, plenty! Elliott Nugent and his wife didn't think Althea was the right woman for their friend, or for his career.
Episode # 61 June 2003, [Reprint January/February 2014]
After a week or so of honeymooning in Washington, DC, and New York, James and Althea pointed her nifty little Ford coupe toward Columbus and arrived home tired but happy. Well, fairly happy. Things had gotten a little tense between the two lovebirds because Althea didn't trust her new husband's driving. And who can blame her? In addition to being half-blind, he seems to have inherited a complete ineptitude for driving.
Imagine Thurber behind the wheel, if you will, and all your sympathies will go out to Althea.
We know for certain, even at this early stage, that he had a Walter Mitty complex a mile wide, although that funny story was still imbedded in his mind and wouldn't see the light of day for another seventeen years. And we can only imagine the multitude of other disruptive thoughts that were dancing through his mind as he drove erratically down the road. Not to speak of getting a little hot under the collar at Althea's distrust of his driving skills.
The fact of the matter is Althea was an accomplished driver. Not only that, the car belonged to Althea, and she had spent much more time driving this sporty little beauty than her talented, but blundering new husband.
Despite these marital abrasions, Thurber was still puffed up over his conquest of the stately and beautiful Althea and could hardly wait to get back to Columbus to show her off. She was truly his trophy bride.
One other small cloud might have begun to appear in their still sunny sky and that was a three-letter word: SEX.
According to her closest friends, Althea was a sexual Olympian. Hadn't James himself said that being in bed with her was like sleeping with the Statue of Liberty? And, I don't think he meant "sleeping."
She had a large well-proportioned body which meant, in the parlance of the time, that she was built like a brick you-know-what. He on the other hand was slender, spindly-legged, and shorter than she was.
By all accounts, she had a lusty sexual appetite.
Because he had put genteel women up on a pedestal for so long, he probably had twinges of guilt and remorse over sexually "violating" her.
She was dominant. He was passive. She was practical. He was a day-dreamer.
He was probably a better performer when he was out on the town with some of his drinking buddies, visiting establishments downtown around Main Street and, probably, along High Street, closer to the campus.
All of these things had surfaced on their honeymoon. Well, that's not surprising. If not then, when?
Once back in Columbus, the newlyweds set about finding a place to live. For the first couple of months they rented a small flat just southeast of downtown, close enough that Thurber could walk to his job at the Dispatch. Finally, they found an apartment more to their liking at the corner of King and Neil Avenues. Althea was especially pleased with the move to more spacious quarters. Not only that, right around the corner was a grocery store and a drug store.
She would tell her friends how spacious and sunny it was in their new apartment, even though she lamented the fact that "poor Jim" has to take the streetcar to work.
As a matter of fact, taking the trolley to work was just the beginning of his education and training in the realities of matrimony. In other words, Althea was already ruling the roost and her dominance had occurred so swiftly and relentlessly the love-struck James Thurber didn't know what was happening to him.
Every morning Althea would dole out a meager allowance to her newly betrothed, a few cents for carfare, and maybe twenty-five or thirty cents for lunch. Of course, everything was dirt cheap back in those days, at least compared to today's standards. With the money allotted him, he could purchase a satisfactory lunch, maybe even have enough left over for a couple cups of coffee.
However, he soon discovered that his allowance didn't include any imbibing money. In other words, no money for beer and booze. The fact that 1923 was right in the middle of the prohibition era didn't matter either. There were plenty of speakeasies around Columbus where he and his cronies used to meet with regularity. Those old friends, especially John McNulty and Herman Miller, would have to wait a while before their old buddy was in a position to rejoin them.
The abandonment of his old friends and the adjustment to his new way of life was made easier by the commitment he and Althea had made to the OSU theatrical group, Scarlet Mask.
She worked on all kinds of projects for the group – everything from costumes to scenery – while James turned out one script after another. He was the author of half a dozen or more of the shows, others he had a co-authored. Some were reasonably good, others best forgotten
Episode # 62 July 2003, [Reprint March/April 2014]
The world has moved apace, my dear,
The young folks now are wild, I hear, And maidens kick the chandelier.
Times ain't what they used to be!
But just between us two, my dear,
They're getting old, the ones who jeer,
Let us be young enough to cheer:
"Times ain't what they used to be!"
- J.G. T.
That nostalgic little ditty appeared in a 1922 Columbus Dispatch column by James Thurber titled "Pallette & Brush." At that time, he frequently used the initial for his middle name, Grover.
In an effort to make ends meet, Thurber was doing more and more writing. Even with Althea bringing in a few dollars from her OSU theatrical jobs, the newly married couple were having a tough time of it financially. His job as city hall reporter for the Dispatch paid forty dollar a week, which by the way was a pretty good salary in those days. His efforts in crafting Scarlet Mask productions at the university sometimes brought in an additional couple hundred bucks two or three times a year. And that was about it. He was trying his hand at freelance writing, but not meeting with much success.
The rule of the thumb in those days, supposedly espoused by Henry Ford, was to budget no more than one-quarter of one's income for housing. In the Thurbers' case that probably amounted to thirty or thirty-five a month for their apartment at King and Neil avenues. In addition, utilities had to be paid: electric, gas, and telephone. Not much different from today, huh?
Their apartment was bright and sunny, easy to heat, and convenient to a first-class grocery and drug store right around the corner. It was also close enough to the campus so that Althea could walk to her almost daily assignments in the theatre department.
Twenty dollars a week was set aside for groceries, and anything left over went for lunches, car fare, and necessary supplements to their wardrobe. In 1922, the idea of credit cards was about as far away as the moon.
Like most young married couples, they occasionally invited friends over for the evening, and, of course, on a bare bones budget, they couldn't afford anything extravagant. More often than not, it would be a matter of their guests bringing over a dish or two to share for supper. So they made do and had fun anyway.
Dorothy and Herman Miller were close friends with James and Althea, and Dorothy remembered those days for years afterward.
"Before I met Herman, sometimes he would go over to their place, and the evenings would be designated as 'onion sandwich nights,'" she said, "and a number of times they just took Roquefort cheese and crackers to munch on."
Miller, who was on the faculty of the OSU English Department, and Thurber would read their most recent writings to each other while Althea listened attentively. Dorothy remembers Herman telling her that James and Althea seemed very happy and contented at the time.
Early in 1923, Thurber and his good friend Harold Cherrington, who was the Dispatch literary critic, talked the paper's editors into a full-page feature titled "Credos and Curios" that appeared every Sunday.
The page could well have been called "Odds and Ends" because it contained everything from movie, book, and theatre reviews, to poetry, anecdotes, and a wide variety of commentary. The tone of the page was modeled a bit after several syndicated features of the day, including columns by Franklin P. Adams, Haywood Broun, and the Ohio State Journal's editor Robert Ryder.
Cherrington whose nickname, naturally, was "Cherry," was sympathetic to Thurber's literary aspirations, and the two of them had a lot of fun putting this page to bed every week. Ray Evans, a staff artist for the Dispatch, illustrated Thurber's contributions to the page with clever cartoon characters.
Thurber's literary skills showed marked improvement with the advent of "Credos," although there's still plenty of contrived writing that wanders all over the place and surely must have tested the patience of the poor readers – that is, if they had the fortitude to stick with it.
One Sunday, it is thought, Thurber might have done a drawing that appeared on the page. If so, it marked the first-known incident of his illustrating his own copy. The downside to all this extra work was that it didn't add one whit to his weekly take-home pay. His forty dollar weekly salary was evidently cast in concrete.
Some of Thurber's fanciful humor that appeared on the page were obvious forerunners of things to come. Take for example:
"A woman is a person who will advise you tragically, on any and all occasions, that she can't take her hat off because her hair is a wreck."
Or, how true this is:
"A woman will ask you a question from the next room just as you turn on the water in the bathtub and feel that you are beginning to neglect her when you ask her to repeat it."
And, how many millions of men can identify with this observation?
"No mere husband can ever quite comprehend why it is that a woman wants to keep the bathroom constantly looking as it it were a place where the foot of man had never trod."
Episode # 63 August 2003, [Reprint May/June 2014]
"I worked on the Columbus Dispatch, a fat and amiable newspaper, whose city editor seldom knew where I was and got so that he didn't care. He had a glimpse of me every dayat 9 a.m., arriving at the office and promptly at ten he saw me leave it, a sheaf of folded copy paper in my pocket and a look of enterprise in my eye. I was on my way to Marzetti's, a comfortable restaurant just down the street, where a group of us newspapermen met every morning. We would sit around for an hour, drinking coffee, telling stories, drawing pictures on the tablecloth, and giving imitations of the more imminent Ohio political figures of the day . . . James Thurber, "Memoirs of a Drudge"
The cancellation of "Credos and Curios" in the Columbus Dispatch after a 42 week run was a major disappointment to James Thurber. Although he had received no extra pay for his contribution to the Sunday feature, its demise played havoc with his ego.
More importantly, it had deprived him of an important artistic outlet, one that had been a proving ground for his yet largely undiscovered creative writing skills.
So it was back to "Go" for the newly married aspiring writer; back to the daily grind of reporting trivial news items from City Hall for 40 bucks a week.
All of this was happening in December 1923. He was only 29 but already fearful that he was fast approaching middle-age and growing old.
There was another important spin-off resulting from "Credos and Curios" getting axed. With the column gone, his discontent with Columbus grew in proportion to his disappointment.
Still another ingredient in the stew of his discontent was the fact he was reading more widely and had discovered the writings of such authors as H. L Mencken, who saw contemporary life driven by "hypocrisy, bigotry and stupidity."
About this same time, Sinclair Lewis came out with Main Street in which he attacked the provincialism of small-town America.
As if all this wasn't enough, he was about to read the autobiography of Ludwig Lewisohn, a one-time teacher at Ohio State University. In this book which was titled Upstream, the author made fun of both the university and Columbus. Thurber was so impressed, he dashed off the following letter to his friend Ellott Nugent:
"Ludwig Lewisohn, whom perhaps you know better than I, has issued a new book . . . in which he takes up Columbus, under a name not that, and the university and subjects the whole scene to a searching north light, reveling with deft satire, much bitter pinking with swords and not a little hurtful truth, the ways of people and things as he saw them here. It is a smashing indictment of what he pleases to call the mental and intellectual vacuity of the region. I have read only quotations in reviews and news stories so far, but suggest we both get the book and chuckle as we see his Menckian lunges leap past us at everybody else who ever went to school here."
Thurber was still hot under the collar because Candles, a little literary magazine on the campus, had folded. When "Credos" was still alive, he had written: "Candles had too much good stuff in it to last at the O.S.U. college for football players . . . Millions, say Ohio State students, alumni and downtown fans, for football programs, but not one cent for literature (and) not a dime for Candles!" It seems things haven't changed much in the last 70-some years, have they?
I wonder what Thurber would say about the football situation at the university today? And, bear in mind, he wasn't anti-football. The famous Chic Harley was one of his heroes. Hadn't he dedicated a poem to the immortal Chic? He had also attended the dedication of the new stadium and lamented the fact that the University of Michigan had won the football game that day.
Years later, when he was living in New York City, he would schedule visits to Columbus to coincide with big football games. As a matter of fact, he illustrated the front cover of the official program for the Ohio State - University of Michigan homecoming game in 1936.
'Nuff said about football.
After the shuffle in his writing assignments at the Dispatch, he cooled his heels by spending more time on a Scarlet and Gray production at OSU. He wrote the script for a show called "The Cat and the Riddle," which enjoyed a moderate success. After a three-day run in Columbus, it was put away never again to see the light of day.
During the spring of 1924, he and Althea accepted an invitation from a friend of Elliott Nugent to spend some time at a little farmhouse in the Adirondack Mountains in upper New York State. The place was called "Summer Bright." Rent free. How do you refuse such an offer?
He and his wife decided that he should quit his job at the Dispatch and embark on a career as a freelance writer.
Althea was thrilled. She later recalled: "We lived in a little farmhouse miles from anybody, except for our landlords who lived in the next cottage. The country was beautiful. We got there in April and planted my first vegetable garden. I remember it with a great deal of pleasure. It was my project, Jim wasn't as interested but was willing to help. It saved us a few bucks."
Episode # 64 September 2003, [Reprint July/August 2014]
James Thurber quit his reporter's job at the Columbus Dispatch early in 1924. He was 30 years old at the time. Shortly after that brave decision, he and his new wife Althea left for New York, figuring they would never return as permanent residents. How mistaken they were. Barely five months had passed when they were back, poorer but wiser. Here's how it came about.
With a lot of encouragement from Althea, Thurber had decided to pursue a career as a freelance writer. Of course, what was really going on here was that Althea was taking charge of the situation. Like most, or at least many, women she was exerting her expertise in directing her husband's life.
In her eyes, he was baffled and befuddled - and desperately in need of some direction. She undoubtedly considered Thurber the perfect example of the creative man, gifted but floundering. The guiding light, the compass to success, of course, was Althea.
Thurber was totally acquiescent to her ideas and suggestions at this stage. But, not too far down the road, he would rebel, and thus would be born the "War of the Sexes," the theme that became such a permanent fixture in his stories and drawings.
Although he was never knighted, no man ever more richly deserved that honor than James Grover Thurber. "Sir James Thurber" he would have been called, alias Walter Mitty - and the names of a thousand other thwarted male characters risen to the occasion of defending their manhood - even if it was only in fiction and daydreams.
One other interesting fact, Thurber's family, especially his brother Robert and mother Mame, were harboring doubts about Althea's influence. Well, that's only natural, isn't it? In the first place, Robert, the youngest of three sons, the baby of the family, was probably jealous that James had wooed and won such a beautiful and popular woman.
And Mame? Who can even imagine the thoughts that might have been darting through her dipsy doodle noggin. Jealousy that another woman was calling the shots for her talented second child? Maybe. Mostly, she kept her doubts to herself, but years later she did reveal her dislike of Althea.
My grandmother, by the way, knew Mame when the two of them were residents at the old Southern Hotel in downtown Columbus. They weren't close friends, but probably exchanged pleasantries when they ran into each other in an elevator, the lobby, or in the fine restaurant the hotel ran for many years.
Both women were in their retirement years, but those who knew her at the time say Mame still retained her zany sense of humor. My grandmother, on the other hand, was strictly the no-nonsense type, and if I remember correctly she once remarked that Mame was slightly tetched.
Well, most of Thurber and Althea's friends were of the opinion that she was the right person for him. Even though she wanted a ticket out of Columbus, as some say, she also saw the potential in her man. Or, as Thurber's second wife, Helen, remarked years later, "... Jamie needed somebody strong to steer him, and Althea was strong, like her father, the Army officer. Jamie ended up marrying Captain Converse in drag."
Invariably, the editors of the Columbus Dispatch, especially Gus Kuehner, tried to discourage young reporters - with their dreams of grandeur - from going to New York City, depicting it as the graveyard of inexperienced writers. They also emphasized that the paper would not rehire any of these mavericks when they returned hoping to get their old jobs back.
However that may be, the editors at the Dispatch did make things a little easier financially by agreeing to pay Thurber for reviewing a few Broadway shows in New York. Free passes, the satisfaction of good seats, and pay for an enjoyable evening - not a bad deal! There are more than a few perks in the newspaper biz.
Thurber also had gotten an assignment from OSU's Scarlet Mask to convert an old script into a musical comedy. If he were lucky, this might bring in three hundred dollars.
The way things turned out, the theatre reviewing would have to wait for the opening of the fall season, so the young couple headed for the Adirondack Mountains to a cozy little cottage named "Corner Bright" not far from Lake Placid. The house was rent-free, courtesy of a friend of Elliott Nugent. In addition to working on the Scarlet Mask assignment, Thurber planned to do a lot of freelance writing and hope for the best.
Oh, and did he ever try! He literally wore his fingers to nubs he did so much typing. Night and day. Peck, peck, peck. Short stories, articles, humorous sketches, comments, and opinions. Hundreds of them flowed from his fertile mind to his fingertips onto paper, into envelopes, through the mail, to magazines and newspapers, not only in New York City, but all over the place.
Mostly he got back the poison ivy of rejection slips. Hundreds of rejection slips. Many of them from The Saturday Evening Post and American Mercury. All colors and sizes. Some of them curt and to the point, some of them rude in their curtness. "We are sorry, but your recent submission is not what we are looking for."
The net result? He sold one story to the Kansas City Star Sunday Magazine, and he received a few bucks for a paragraph on fishing that ended up in a column by Heywood Broun in the New York World.
No surprise then that he and Althea ended up back in Columbus, broke and despondent.
Episode # 65 October 2003, [Reprint October 2014]
Back in Columbus, after returning from their ill-conceived trek to the east coast, James and Althea set about getting their lives in order. Temporarily, they moved into a single room on the east side of town.
With a bit of financial assistance from her mother, Althea reentered school at Ohio State, but had hardly gotten started when she was forced to drop out due to an emergency thyroid operation. As for James, some of his old friends and newspaper buddies helped him along, locating a number of part-time jobs. An old friend, Johnny Jones, manager of a downtown movie theatre, the Majestic, hired Thurber as a press agent.
Incidentally, in later years, Johnny Jones went on to become a long-time columnist for the Columbus Dispatch.
He lived in a quaint little house up Olentangy River Road, and in his columns he advocated taking vinegar and honey as a cure-all for every ailment known to man.
I vividly recall having a conversation with him one evening in the Press Club when it was located on Lynn Street in back of the old Ohio State Journal building on East Broad Street. A bunch of us were having a few "attitude adjusters" in the cocktail lounge when the conversation turned to James Thurber.
If my memory serves me correctly, it was in 1959 when Thurber was in Columbus to receive the Distinguished Service Award offered by the Press Club. I was dumbfounded when Jones started running down Thurber's writing ability, inferring that he was a second-rate talent and that his reputation was way overblown.
I tried to argue with him, but he was adamant. The other guys in our group hadn't read enough of Thurber's works to make a judgment, so they didn't have any opinion on the subject. Was this a case of professional jealousy? Coming from a guy who never made it beyond Columbus, Ohio, I guess so.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Thurber and Althea were piecing together a living and doing very well, thank you. In addition to his job as a press agent for the movie theater, James was involved in publicity work for Olentangy Park, a big amusement center where Olentangy Village is now located. There were roller coasters, Ferris wheels and everything.
Althea also pitched in to make ends meet. After a speedy recovery from her operation, she set to work selling tickets to a series of concerts and produced a pageant that featured 300 schoolchildren. "Anything that came to hand," she would tell friends.
In the fall of 1924, James collaborated with a colleague, Ralph McCombs on a musical, Tell Me Not, that eventually played the Hartman Theatre downtown at State and Third streets the second week of January 1925. Thurber received three hundred dollars for his efforts - back then that was probably equivalent to a couple thousand dollars.
Things were definitely looking up, so they moved to an apartment at 76 East Lexington Avenue after a few months. The construction of I-70 in the '50s removed that part of the old picturesque street. Also razed were an up-scale grocery store and the Broad-Lincoln Hotel over on East Broad Street. Just a block and a half away was Douglas Elementary School where Thurber was enrolled as a youngster. The building featured a fire escape tunnel fabricated out of sheet metal attached to an outside wall, within which was a spiral slide!
Apparently his dream of someday returning to France resurfaced during this period. Thurber had often written to his friend Elliott Nugent about the possibility.
Between the two world wars, France attracted hundreds of American artists and writers and, as you may recall, Thurber was working in Paris toward the end of World War I. In fact, that was where he discovered the bright and whirling merry-go-round of love. He had often dreamed about returning, especially to Paris. But, as you may suspect, it was Althea who got the ball rolling.
And we know by now that Althea was a gal who got things done. After all, she was the daughter of an army officer!
With the amount of money they had on hand, the dream of faraway France became a reality. They were both still relatively young. No time like the present. Go for it! So they packed their duds and persuaded family members to store their meager belongings. Not much, mostly lamps, books, and probably a few art objects. And after saying goodbye to family and friends, they boarded a train down at Union Station and chug-chug-chugged to the Big Apple.
So it came about that James and Althea sailed on the Leviathan from New York City on May 7, 1925.
They took advantage of economical student-tourist tickets and even purchased their return tickets while they were at it. After all of that, they had one hundred and twenty dollars in cash - quite a stash of money in those days.
Thurber had an agreement that he would do the 1925 - 1926 Scarlet Mask show, and the couple informed everybody in Columbus that they would be returning to the states that fall.
How wrong they were!
Episode # 66 November 2003, [Reprint November/December 2014]
The voyage from the USA to France was uneventful except for a few bouts of seasickness. Oh yes, and a bit of queasiness at the onset, brought on by imbibing too much bootleg whiskey at a going-away party some friends had thrown for them.
There's an old adage that goes something like this: "To really get to know a person, take a trip with them." It's almost a law of human nature, and it was proving to be true on this trip. It wasn't the first time they had traveled together, but they had never really been thrown this close together before.
James was getting to know Althea, and Althea was getting to know James, more intimately than ever before, and the relentless monotony of one another's company and the stress of traveling continued to do its dirty work.
One long day followed another long day of pitching and rolling on the endless ocean waves. The perfect setting for getting on one another's nerves. And, don't forget, Althea's campaign of remaking her newly acquired husband was already well underway.
Thurber himself understood all these forces that were playing themselves out. In a humorous piece titled "My Trip Abroad," he playfully mentions some of the pitfalls and perils that might await the unwary sea traveler, especially if they have just attended a bon voyage party.
For starters, he lets us in on what it's like to bungle into the wrong stateroom – one occupied by a hysterical woman passenger. And, how about this? Althea gets their stateroom changed without telling him, and he ends up sleeping in the wrong bed until she tracks him down.
Packing and repacking, living out of a suitcase, waking up in unfamiliar surroundings - definitely circumstances that would totally unnerve a stickler like Thurber.
Where's my shirt? Somebody stole my pajamas! The whole business of obtaining passports, reservations, tickets and all the other nerve-racking minutiae of travel would have left him in a state of helpless confusion - like a squirrel with too many nuts and acorns to deal with.
So, Althea, the Lone Ranger, would inevitably come riding up to the rescue. Yet, like most self-respecting males, he dreaded her interference, no matter how well-intentioned. There were a number of arguments, misunderstandings, emotional injuries. Sounds like most marriages, doesn't it?
After disembarking in France, the couple took a train to Paris, and for three weeks did the obligatory sightseeing. After that, they traveled around southern France by train, visiting Villefranche, near Nice, where they splashed around on the sunny beaches and had a good ol' time. He wrote to Ben Williams, his friend in Columbus, that they got so sunburned "they pealed like church bells."
He wrote to other friends that he almost drowned until a "trawler man with a wooden leg" pulled him out, where-upon he told the man to save the women and children. Especially the women, he intimated, "Most of the women need saving . . ."
The cathedral at Milan was next on their itinerary, and then Berne before returning to Paris. He wrote to Ted Gardiner and his wife that they "visited Napoleon's tomb, the Folies-Bergere, the grave of Washington Irving, and a hotel where Pershing spent the night."
After all this traveling around, the couple decided they would settle down for a while in his favorite province, Normandy. Here he would work on his novel and maybe turn out a number of freelance articles for various publications back in the States.
How on earth they did all this on their meager budget, Lord only knows. Remember, after they purchased their steamship tickets, they only had a hundred and twenty dollars left over.
In Normandy, they found the perfect retreat, a room in a little farmhouse way out in the boonies, near the village of Carolles.
"We took an upstairs room and did our cooking on a little one-burner plate and tried to avoid spending any money," Althea recalled. "The farmer and his wife tried to tempt us into buying food from them, and I remember how hard we had to try to avoid spending one cent (wastefully). We had to pay some rent, though it was almost nothing. The French couple wanted to sell us a rabbit to roast but I saw them hanging one - which is how they killed rabbits &endash; and we didn't want one after that."
She mentioned how they had to contend with fleas in bed, but then went on to describe more pleasant experiences, such as the time they rented bikes and rode to the sea three miles down the road.
In other memoirs, Thurber describes the farmer's wife, a large woman with a mercurial temperament to match, who wasn't happy unless she was complaining about something. And, she took it for granted that her American guests were fabulously wealthy.
Her persona was so overwhelming that she actually scared Thurber. He had nightmares about her entering their room with a knife. It might very well be that years later, he reincarnated her in several of his drawings of a huge intimidating frowzy-looking woman.
A nice way of exacting revenge, wouldn't you say?
Episode # 67 December 2003, [Reprint January/February 2015]
James Thurber’s first and only attempt at writing a novel occurred during the summer he and Althea spent in Normandy.
For two entire months, July and August of 1925, he pounded away at the project, obviously thinking this was the direct doorway to literary fame and fortune.
Thurber made the hero of his novel a debonair lady killer, the strong and silent type. The setting, of course, was Ohio State University and its environs. Where else would he situate the tale? The OSU campus, fraternity row, and good ol’ Columbus town had been the focal point of his young adulthood.
The problem was he hadn’t really mastered the writing craft yet. His style was sophomoric and stilted. To make matters worse, he was unduly influenced by a handful of Victorian era authors, notably Henry James and Joseph Hergesheimer.
In a letter that summer, written to James Pollard, head of the School of Journalism at OSU, Thurber wrote:
“As Thornton Wilder has said, we are all influenced by other writers to begin with, but must throw off that influence as we mature. I had to throw off the influence of Henry James and Joseph Hergesheimer, and the tendency to write such a Jamesian sentence as this: ‘First of all, it occurred to me, there was one thing, to begin with, to do,’ and such a Hergesheimerism as this: ‘He remembered a girl in a boat, on a river, when it was summer, and afternoon.’”
Fortunately, Thurber was not one to kid himself. He knew that his writing was bad, nothing more than a warmed-over stew of leftovers. Trivial and trite. Not only that, at the end of five thousand words, the narrative was so shoddy he could hardly bear to think about it. That must have been depressing. Althea read the manuscript and agreed. She said it was “terrible.” When he heard that, he probably felt even worse.
It’s really odd when you stop and think about this early development in his career. A few years later this same guy would write the immensely successful Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Pure fiction, I would say. Well, maybe one big difference: not many characters to worry about. Another, it was pure fantasy. A clever, crazy idea projected into a wildly humorous short story. Later, in 1947, Mitty was made into a smash movie starring Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, and Boris Karloff.
If you have forgotten the plot, it deals with a meek and bored office worker who fantasizes his way out of mundane, everyday situations and turns them into thrilling exploits of bravado, bravery and daring.
Then there would be The Male Animal. More characters, but they were crafted for the theatre – and he had the benefit of his talented friend Elliott Nugent collaborating with him on this stage production.
As you can imagine, his writing failure was a real downer, so much so that he and Althea reluctantly decided to scrap their fairy-tale sojourn in France and return to the States. No big problem since they had already purchased their return fare.
After packing up their clothes and saying their goodbyes, they took a train back to Paris. While seated at an outdoor cafe having a final contemplative drink, several of their friends showed up and joined them. Their “one last drink” turned into a lot more. So many more that the couple decided to stay in France and give it another try.
They rented a little apartment on the Left Bank and Thurber got a job as a rewrite man at twelve dollars a week on the night shift of the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. He had first applied for work at the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune, but for some reason he didn’t get hired.
American newspapers in France?
Yes, the Tribune had been established in France in 1917 by the paper’s publisher, Colonel Robert McCormick, when the United States was involved in World War I. It was read by close to a million doughboys at one time. And now, seven or eight years after the war was over, it still flourished because so many Americans were still living in France.
Some interesting sidelights of the paper’s post-war history were provided by journalist William L. Shirer. He mentions that contrary to the Colonel’s conservative Midwestern values, the Paris edition of his paper was concerned mostly with the American expatriates living on the West Bank: artists and writers, the fiftiers and hedonists, the musicians, the drunks. Those were the days when some of the most famous expatriates in France included Henry Miller and Gertrude Stein.
There were reviews of their books and writing in literary magazines, articles about the latest in the art and theatre world, and even the latest café society gossip.
Shirer concluded that the good Colonel never read the overseas edition of his own paper. If he had, he says, “he would have suffered a stroke of apoplexy or killed the paper immediately – perhaps both.”
Episode # 68 January 2004, [Reprint March/April 2015]
The year is 1925 and James Thurber and his wife Althea have been in France since May – and loving every minute of it!
First, they were in Normandy, where Thurber's attempt at writing a novel was a complete disaster, and it leads one to wonder if Althea was beginning to wonder if her husband was as talented as she had thought he was when they got married. You know how women often are with the men in their lives – impatient!
At any rate, after that false start, they returned to Paris where he got a job with the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune as a rewrite man at the princely sum of twelve dollars a week. Don't laugh at the amount of his salary because back then twelve dollars a week was probably the equivalent of at least a hundred dollars a week today. Not much, but they were learning to get by.
Paris at the time was swarming with American expatriates, and many of them were writers and artists – cousins under the skin, many would say.
Ernest Hemingway was there, as was Gertrude Stein and her sidekick Alice B. Toklas. Sipping their drinks at sidewalk cafes were other notables such as Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Malcolm Cowley.
Let's also take a breather and have a second look at these famous names in literature.
Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and during World War I he was an ambulance driver. Just before his nineteenth birthday, he was wounded at Fossalta di Piave in Italy and decorated by the Italian government for heroism. He started writing while in Paris, sometimes under the guidance of Pound and Stein, and before long a collection of his short stories was published under the title of In Our Time. At the age of 26, The Sun Also Rises was published and his reputation as a major writer was established. Among the most famous of his books that followed included Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa, For Whom the Bells Toll, Across the River and Into The Trees, and The Old Man and the Sea.
Henry Miller, born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, became famous for his often controversial autobiographical stories which included Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Black Spring, The Colossus of Maroussi, and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. He spent the last years of his life in Big Sur, California.
Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. She studied psychology at Harvard under William James. She and her brother Leo went to Paris in 1904. They lived at 27 rue de Fleurus and enthusiastically collected the artworks of Matisse, Picasso, and Cezanne. After a falling out with her brother, in 1907 she met a Californian, Alice B. Toklas, who was to become her lover and lifelong companion. Stein's literary efforts included The Making of Americans, and Tender Buttons. She also wrote a biography of Alice. Most important of Stein's achievements was her influence on a host of American writers, including Katherine Ann Porter, Thornton Wilder, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and many others. Composer Virgil Thomson set some of her works to music.
Ezra Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho. A "poet's poet," he was instrumental in reshaping contemporary English poetry and was much-published in literary magazine when he and his wife moved to Paris. His major work was The Cantos.
So this was the Paris James and Althea were caught up in. "We lived the typical poor man's version of the literary life," Althea told friends.
Working on the Tribune back then was a lot of fun, according to all who had a hand in it. Duties included a considerable amount of translation from stories that originated in the French press, covering local events, interviewing newly arrived celebrities, editing and headlining copy, and working on the layout. Henry Miller was a proofreader. The printers were all Frenchmen, which might have made things even more interesting.
The paper was lively and interesting, even if short on hard news. The material they received by cable from New York and London was often incomplete, if not incoherent. As a result, Thurber was frequently called on to flesh it out, which as you can imagine, opened the floodgates of his imagination.
In his book, 20th Century Journey, noted journalist William L. Shirer who worked on the paper, remembers that the night editor "would toss Thurber eight or ten words off the cable and say, 'Give me a column on that, Jim.'"
"And Thurber, his owlish face puckering up, would say, 'Yes, suh,' and he would glance at the cable and go merrily to work.
"That fall and winter he seemed to specialize on President Coolidge, whose inanities gave him so much pleasure that they seemed to tide him over all the dreary, cold, rainy days that season.
"Early in October the President addressed the American Legion convention in Omaha and a cable duly arrived giving us these bare facts: 'Coolidge to Legionnaires Omaha opposed militarism urged tolerance American life..' That was all Thurber needed, and he set to work a column and a half of the finest clichés that had ever resounded from Washington . . . and most of which , I have little doubt, Coolidge actually used.'"
Episode # 69 February 2004, [Reprint May/June 2015]
In December 1925, Harper's Monthly accepted one of Thurber's humorous essays for publication. They paid just under a hundred dollars for it, which was equal to about six weeks' salary.
The piece was slightly over two printed pages in length and was titled "A Sock on the Jaw - French Style."
It seems Thurber had witnessed an altercation between a couple of Parisian taxi drivers. He was amused at the torrents of invective they showered on each other without ever coming to blows.
In another episode, he describes how a merchant's horse falls down in the middle of the street while he watches in fascination as the exasperated driver curses the poor stricken animal. The rapidly growing and noisy crowd begin to take sides, some cheering the fallen horse's owner on, others castigating the man for his indifference to the animal's predicament.
Thurber came to the conclusion that Frenchmen don't sock each other on the jaw because they like their verbal calisthenics a lot more than physical violence.
And, as you may have guessed, in this early bit of satire, his writing includes a pushy, overbearing, dominating woman - a fixture that would identify his work for years to come.
"He knocked the horse down; I saw him!" the female bystander cries out, even though she had just arrived on the scene.
At the time the story was published, by the way, Harper's was even more influential and widely read than it is today, so this breakthrough represented a wonderful start for Thurber's freelancing. This particular story was just one of many the aspiring writer was sending out to a wide variety of American publications.
Because he worked nights at the Paris edition of the Tribune, he did most of his freelance writing during the afternoons before he reported in at the newspaper office.
The Thurbers were the beneficiaries of a lucky break about this time. The Tribune assigned James to work on the Riviera edition of the paper in Nice because so many Americans were spending the winter in that pleasant vacationland.
Working on the newspaper (a six-pager) was a snap, involving just a few hours each evening, usually from shortly after dinner to sometime before midnight. What a dream job! Thurber was named the assistant editor, and Althea was made society editor.
"It was our custom to sit around for half an hour making up items for Althea's column," Thurber wrote. "She was too pretty, we thought, to waste the soft southern days tracking down the arrival of prominent persons on the Azure Coast."
He went on to explain that all she had to do was stop at a couple of the biggest hotels each day and pick up a list of guests who had registered. She would bring this into the office, and the rest of the crew would take over from there.
They would invent enough other items to fill at least half her column. The results were fanciful and carefree, such as this frivolous little gem: "Lieutenant General and Mrs. Pendleton Gray Winslow have arrived at the villa, Heart's Desire, on Cap d'Antibes, bringing with them their prize Burmese monkey, Thibault." On and on the accounts ran, glittering and glitzy.
Thurber's duties included interviewing celebrities who were passing through town. Among those he met were the famous dancer Isadora Duncan, the romantic screen star Rudolph Valentino, and wealthy oilman Harry Sinclair who was involved in the Teapot Dome scandal that rocked the Republican administration of Warren G. Harding.
The printers and typesetters for the paper were French, and for the most part they got along very well with their American co-workers. As might be expected, there were difficulties from time to time in understanding one another, especially when it came to translating the meanings of precise technical terms.
For instance, the French guys in the shop went on strike about once a week because the Americans wouldn't subscribe to their custom of "using whatever size type was handiest and whatever space it would fit into most easily."
Inevitably, when they closed up shop, the differences of opinion were carried to a neighboring tavern and ended up with the entire gang singing French and American songs.
When they weren't working, the couple took advantage of their daytime freedom to explore the beautiful countryside of southern France. Their adventures included everything from hiking along back-country roads to riding chairlifts up some of the surrounding mountains, then maybe relaxing on a restaurant patio that overlooked the Bay of Angels.
After a couple of false starts, it was proving to be a wonderful winter for James and Althea. Perhaps the happiest time of their marriage.
Episode # 70 March 2004, [Reprint July/August 2015]
All good things must come to an end, the old adage goes. So it was with James' and Althea's brief few months in the sunny south of France.
They had enjoyed every minute of their sojourn in that vacationland and their wonderful excursions around the countryside, not to speak of the many friends they had made with fellow staffers. Then all of a sudden, the bubble burst. The powers that be decided that the local edition of the Tribune was unprofitable, and with no advance warning, they shut it down.
And so, reluctantly and with very little money, the pair went back to Paris. Thurber's old job on the Paris edition of the Tribune, poor paying as it was, had been filled, so he would have to look elsewhere for employment. All of these events were terribly demoralizing to Althea and were gradually breaking her spirit.
On the other hand, Thurber himself was a graduate of the school of hard knocks. He already knew what living on a shoestring budget was all about. Hadn't he been living that kind of life for years, kicking around the OSU campus, going to school one quarter, dropping out the next for lack of funds? Not to speak of the drinking binges with his college chums, and even later, all-night toots with his newspaper friends in downtown Columbus.
As you might have guessed, their marriage was suffering as a result of this unexpected turn of events. Beginning to fall apart would be more like it. It had never been an ideal relationship in the first place. Althea was a control-freak, strong-willed and with a tendency to dominate her husband, and James, like a cornered mouse, was constantly scurrying this way and that to avoid her sharp claws.
Imagine the conflicts raging in his inner consciousness. Wooing and winning this beautiful and popular woman in the first place. Putting her up on a pedestal and practically worshipping her. Trying to earn a decent living and not being too successful at it.
Things were coming to a head, so they decided to sit down and talk about it. Read: Althea decided they should talk about it. And in a matter-of-fact way, they (she) decided that Thurber should return to New York ahead of her.
Althea also suggested that for the immediate future they should spend more time apart, in other words, embark on the unknown seas of a trial separation. Humbled and heartbroken, he had little choice but to comply with his wife's demands.
So it was that Thurber sailed aboard the Leviathan for the States with just a little over ten dollars in his pocket, leaving Althea behind in France. She would join him several months later.
Biographers of Thurber have long suspected that he might have been under-sexed and Althea over-sexed. How do you figure those kinds of things when even the participants might not know themselves?
Rumor also has it that Althea was romantically attracted to one of the Trib's staff members. Whether or not she consummated this hankering nobody seems to know. But nothing could top the shocking revelation that Althea blurted out to Joel Sayre, one of their mutual friends. They were seated on a bench one beautiful spring day overlooking the Seine.
"I've been married four years and I'm still a virgin!"
Did she really mean what she said?
Evidently she did because she was sobbing, the tears were running down her cheeks, and Joel says she looked totally distraught.
Can you believe this?
What was going on with this guy?
Well, as we have already mentioned, he had a Victorian mind-set about women. More specifically, he was influenced by William James, a writer who cast his women characters as just slightly below heavenly angels.
But the question lingers, refuses to go away. Four years of celibate married life?
What an example of real life being stranger than fiction!
And, little wonder that the cartoons he would draw in the future, depicted most women as unfathomable to the untutored male mind.
Four years?! Were they sleeping together? What was he doing? Sleeping on the floor?
But, guess what?
James and Althea would tough it out for another eight years, And, in the process, they would have a child, Rosemary, who was born on October 7, 1931.
Miracle of miracles!
Episode # 71 April 2004, [Reprint September/October 2015]
When James Thurber walked down the Leviathan's gangplank in New York City, he had ten dollars in his pocket and a heavy heart. It was June 1926, and he was 32 years old.
The trip from France to the States must have been a nightmare for the aspiring writer. Before suggesting he return to the U.S. without her, Althea had hit him with the depressing news that that their marriage was a failure.
Well, I guess she had a point. Shortly after James embarked on the long voyage home, she divulged to a mutual friend that their marriage was unconsummated. After four years, she was still a virgin!
And that wasn't the whole story. She had a long laundry list of complaints. For starters, she was tired of the constant financial insecurity that dogged their heels. They were perpetually broke and in debt.
Althea was also undoubtedly distraught and discouraged by how slowly his career was taking off. Except for a few minor successes, it seemed like it was one rejection slip after another.
There were also rumors that she was straining at the restraints of matrimony because of her feelings for another man - a staff member with the Paris edition of the Tribune. In one way, she could hardly be blamed. Four years and still a virgin? Who knows what the truth was. The psychological twists and turns of relationships are enough to baffle even the experts.
However, we can only imagine the mental anguish that James was going through as the giant ocean liner plowed through the swells of the North Atlantic. Feelings of inadequacy, probably - on several counts. Sexual concerns, most likely. His failure as a breadwinner - almost certainly.
Yet, in many ways he was like his mother Mame. He shared with her an unbounded sense of comedy, an acute awareness of the absurdity that is present in our everyday lives. People with this perception might be doubly blessed, but (like Thurber) they often pay dearly for it.
As an illustration of his mindset during the voyage, consider the portion of a letter he wrote to his friend Sayre in which he evaluates the progress of his writing career:
"I write mostly soi-disant humor, since I haven't brains enough to write more solid articles and wouldn't if I could. I often worry about my future since I am no doctor and at best but a mean scrivener, but out of all the things one does, from pipe-fitting to testing seamless leather belting and from ceramics to statesmanship, I can only do one thing, even passably, and that is make words and space between punctuation points."
Once ashore in New York, he called on a young lady of means he and Althea had met in France. He explained his plight to her and she loaned him twenty bucks. Remember, back then twenty dollars was a lot of money.
Armed with those funds, he rented a little room for five dollars a week on West Thirteenth Street down in Greenwich Village. The rent included cooking privileges in a community kitchen, so he was able to save money by rustling up a few meals of his own.
To save carfare in this endeavor, he walked and walked. And, as anyone who has pounded the pavement in New York City knows, this can be an endless task comparable to ol' Sisyphus trying to roll a stone to the top of a hill.
Even though he was intent upon returning to France in the near future, he set about finding employment. Little did he know that fate had other things in store for him. He wouldn't return to Europe again for at least eleven years.
An unexpected and major problem arose when it became necessary for him to find a new literary agent. As a consequence, he called on Brandt & Brandt, a respected agency at the time, and even though they turned down the opportunity to represent him, one of their employees suggested to Thurber that he try submitting one of his pieces to the New Yorker, a struggling new humor magazine, barely a year old.
He had never heard of this new magazine, but he sent them an article - and it came back so fast it made his head swim.
"I began to believe the New Yorker must have a rejection machine," Thurber recalled. "It did have one, too. His name was John Chapin Mosher, a witty writer, a charming man and one of the most entertaining companions I have ever met, but an editor whose prejudices were a mile high and who had only a few enthusiasms."
"It was in the always slightly lunatic tradition of the New Yorker that Chapin had been made first reader of the manuscripts of unknown writers," he continued.
In the years that followed, the two men became fast friends, but Thurber fondly remembers: "I never had lunch with him that he didn't say, over his coffee, 'I must get back to the office and reject.'"
Episode # 72 May 2004, [Reprint November/December 2015]
Wifeless, nearly penniless, unpublished, and despondent, James Thurber was ready to kiss off New York City when he received a much-needed break.
A whimsical piece that he had submitted to a number of periodicals including the infant New Yorker, all to no avail, was picked up by Franklin P. Adams and run in his widely read New York World column, "The Conning Tower."
Ironically enough, Thurber received no pay for the humorous essay, but in this case the high honor was reward enough. To say that he was elated would be putting it mildly. Instead of heading for home, he decided to to stick it out a while longer. With his spirits thus buoyed, he looked around for some temporary newspaper work and found a job as a reporter with the New York Evening Post. His pay was forty dollars a week, the same as his salary had been at the Columbus Dispatch.
As you might guess, it wasn't long before he had established a reputation as the paper's foremost wit - and his shenanigans weren't always appreciated by the paper's editors.
One time he was sent to Brooklyn to cover a four-alarm fire. Did he even find the scene of the fire? Oh, no? In a series of events that would have done credit to Charlie Chaplin, he became hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of subways under the city and kept arriving back where he started from.
Finally, hours later, he hailed a taxi to take him to Brooklyn. Wouldn't you know it! As they were waiting for a traffic light to change, he saw the headlines and pictures of the fire on the latest edition of the Post glaring balefully at him from a sidewalk newsstand.
Resigned that he had been scooped by his own paper, he told the cabbie to take him home. And, oh, how he got chewed out by his editors the next day when he showed up for work. They ranted and raved the way only the way frustrated editors can do. One of them even jeered "A four-alarm fire and this fellow just can't find it!" It rivaled some of the scenes back at the Columbus Dispatch when ol' Gus Kuehner used to go on a rampage. Thurber bit his lip and survived the ribbing.
Shortly after this episode, the editors requested that the leads on news stories be tightened up. Thurber had been working on a crime story and, complying to the editor's wishes, he turned in the following:
That's what the man was that the police found in an areaway last night.
As you can imagine, the new directive didn't last long. Of course, in the process, Thurber was rapidly gaining a reputation as the paper's cutup.
The editors finally got around to figuring out that this maverick reporter would serve their needs better as a feature writer. Nothing could have suited him better.
Such assignments were much more compatible with his personality and his style of writing. He settled into the job with ease and confidence. Later, he wrote in Memoirs of a Drudge:
"I wrote only one story a day, usually consisting of fewer than a thousand words. Most of the reporters, when they went out on assignments, first had to get their foot in the door, but the portals of the fantastic and the unique are always left open. If an astonished botanist produced a black evening primrose, or thought he had produced one, I spent the morning prowling his gardens. When a lady on the West Seventies sent in word that she was getting messages from the late Walter Savage Landor in heaven , I was sent up to see what the importunate poet had on his mind. On the occasion of of the arrival in town of Major Monroe of Jacksonville, Florida, who claimed to be a hundred and seventeen years old, I walked up Broadway with him while he roundly cursed the Northern dogs who jostled him, bewailing the while the passing of Bob Lee and Tom Jackson and Joe Johnston. I studied gypsies in Canarsie and generals in the Waldorf, listened to a man talk backward and watched a blindfolded boy play pin-pong . . . "
Several of Thurber's feature stories, including an interview with Thomas Alva Edison on his seventy-ninth birthday, won him an increasing amount of critical acclaim.
Another coup was an interview of Harry Houdini's widow and a browse through the famous escape artist's library. Thurber ran into her at Sing Sing prison, of all places, where she was donating her late husband's books on crime and penology to Warden Lewis E. Lawes Thurber was there to interview the warden and nose around for any other story he might uncover.
After leaving the prison, he ran into Mrs Houdini on the train back to New York, and in his own words found her "a very sweet and charming lady and certainly interesting to talk with."
Episode # 73 June 2004
Through the winter of 1926 into the following year, James Thurber was fairly content writing human interest stories for the New York Evening Post.
Even so, he continued to spend his spare time pounding away at his typewriter and sending out humorous pieces to a variety of publcations, mostly the fledgling New Yorker.
The result of his labors? Twenty rejection slips! That's all he had to show for the countless hours spent composing, packaging, and mailing out his manuscripts.
He wrote a friend about this ordeal: "It was phenomenal that a thin, nervous type like me could stick it out tht long."
But persevere he did, and guess who reappeared on the scene in the midst of his struggles? No less than Althea, his estranged wife. Evidently tired of her European sojourn, she returned to the States, rejoined her husband, and immediately set about patching up their differences. Read: Althea was taking control again. But bless her hert, she still had faith in her husband's talent.
She suggested that he set his alarm clock for 45 minutes and see if he could write a short piece in that length of time. And he did it!
He wrote a funny little piece of pure satire titled "An American Romance." It was about a man going around and around in a revolving door. He goes around so many times non-stop that he sets a world's record and wins fame and fortune. The sotry was a spoof on the flagpole-sitting craze of the time.
And there was no doubt in Thurber's mind where to send it. The fledgling New Yorker, of course! The very place from which the majority of his rejection slips had originated, having created his own version of Rejection Slilp Hell. But he persevered because he believed that the new magazine was the perfect place for his humor.
And what do you know!? he hit the jackpot! By golly, the earth moved and they sent him a check and all that good stuff. He and Althea broke out the champagne. They even went out and bought a Scottie, the perfect baby for a childless couple.
About this time, Thurber met E.B. White at a party in Greenwich Village. The two had a lot in common: White had attended OSU for awhile and both were writers. More than that, White had recently joined the staff of the New Yorker.
The two men hit it off and became fast friends. During one of their conversations, Thurber let him know that he didn't want to spend the rest of his life working for newspapers. As a result, within a few weeks, White introduced his new friend to Harold Ross, the illustrious editor of the blossoming New Yorker.
White was aware that the struggling magazine was doing well, newsstand sales and subscriptions were increasing and, maybe more important, advertising revenue was on its way up. He also knew that the editor was looking for talented writers to round out his staff.
Ross hired Thurber on the spot. Thurber's new boss was more than a colorful character. Even back then, he was known as an icon and an enigma. A man of contradictions. Blundering and uncouth. Flawlessly well-read. Socially rough-and-tumble. Fearful of unpleasant scenes. Brave in his decision-making.
It also seems he had an intuitive ability for discovering great writers. Within a year or less, in addition to White and Thurber, Ross had hired Walcott Gibbs, Dorothy Parker, and Robert Benchley.
But wait a minute! Thurber thought he was being hired as a writer. Not so. Ross had other ideas. He wanted Thurber to be an editor. An eidtor's editor, it would seem. A super editor. A person who not only drudge over proof-reading and layouts, but who ran the shop as well.
A person who would take care of all the nit-picking details. He wanted a super efficiency expert – the "Jesus," as the job came to be known around the office. He wanted a person who would run his dearly beloved magazine as a business. Strictly business.
He offere Thurber seventy dollrs a week, more than he had ever made in his life. Then he upped the ante to a hundred dollars a week. How could the poverty-stricken writer turn down such an offer?
Reflecting on the experience, Thurber later remarked that his life as an editor was "holy hell." His recollections in The Years with Ross Sums it up:
Episode # 74 July 2004, [Reprint January/February 2016]
At long last James Thurber was on the payroll of the New Yorker, and he and Althea were in seventh heaven.
Thurber was taken on during the first part of 1927 as one of several assistant editors. His duties were not clearly defined, but around the office he was referred to as the Sunday editor, whatever that meant on a magazine that came out on Thursdays.
Thurber claims he lost ten pounds within the first few weeks on the job. He added that he was also losing his grip and possibly his mind. It's not hard to believe when you take into account the guy he worked for: Harold Ross, the irascible editor-in-chief of the magazine, a task-master of the first order, a man who placed the needs of the magazine above human life. There seemed to have been no favorites. Everybody on the staff suffered from the same mental abuse.
With regard to Ross, one of the staff once said, "It was a crusade, not a magazine, and everybody involved had to lay down his life for it, as the leader did."
The entire staff was crammed into a small cluster of rooms at 25 West Forty-fifth Street. Most of them shared office space with three or four other staffers. On one occasion, Ross asked Dorothy Parker why she hadn't been in the office all week and with her ready wit, she replied, "Somebody else was using the pencil."
In Thurber's case, there was a vague understanding that if he had any time left over at the end of the week, he could use it to write. Talk about the light at the end of the tunnel! He probably lived just for those few precious hours when he could exercise some of his pent-up creativity.
In an effort to relieve some of the pressure, and perhaps prevent a nervous breakdown, Thurber set about becoming the office clown. Among his most notable antics were rolling empty watercooler bottles down the hallway and into the offices, and overturning a telephone booth and hopping inside and stretching himself out as if he were in a casket.
Where was Ross? Evidently out to lunch.
Thurber also pursued a course of deliberately messing up some of his assignments. Evidently his strategy was to get demoted to a job more to his liking, such as a writing project, maybe something like writing and editing "Talk of the Town," one of the magazine's popular features. Desperation tactics, if you consider all the circumstances, not to mention the good money he was making.
Looking back on these events, one can see the fertile ground emerging even then for the eventual development of a Walter Mitty-like character in his writing.
As uniquely humorous and weird as some of these events at the office may seem, they were equally matched by what was going on in the poor guy's personal life, what there was of it.
We know that his relationship with his wife Althea had been on shaky ground for at least a year. We also know that this lithesome and leggy lass had been playing around while the two of them were in France, and for months afterwards when she suggested he return to the States without her.
Are you ready for this?
During this exciting period when Thurber's career seemed to be shaping up, Althea was openly dating other men. They would come to the apartment to pick her up while Thurber was there.
It's called "open marriage."
How on earth he was able to cope with her shenanigans with all the other pressures in his life is anyone's guess. Althea even made a big play for Joel Sayre, one of Thurber's best friends. Fortunately, Sayre rejected her romantic invitations.
Remember, this was in the twenties. A lot of people were kicking up their heels and breaking off from more conventional lifestyles: jazz, nightclubs, speakeasies, bathtub gin, dancing marathons, the advent of radio and movies. These were exciting times, and Althea was caught up in them like a lot of other folks.
Gertrude Ederle, an American from New York City, becomes the first woman to swim the English Channel.
On May 21, Charles Lindbergh flew his monoplane the Spirit of St. Louis non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris.
Times are good. The stock market is booming. There are jobs for everybody and more than enough money to go around.
More and more people own their own cars, and Henry Ford is churning them out in record fast time.
Back home in Columbus, Ohio, the AIU building is rearing its head to the sky, and at Ohio State University, the Battling Buckeyes managed to win seven out of eight games the previous fall.
Meanwhile, back at the magazine, Thurber is slaving away, consumed with work responsibilities, seemingly oblivious to his personal problems. Then, he gets a much-needed break, a ten-day vacation.
Packing their duds in a hurry, they take a train for dear old Columbus town: James, Althea, and Jeannie, their newly acquired Scottie.
The Conquering Hero was coming home.
Episode # 75 August 2004, [Reprint March/April 2016]
James Thurber, the conquering hero, his wife Althea in tow, had returned to Columbus for a short vacation. Ten days, to be exact - and that counted travel time. Oh, yes, they brought Jeannie, their new Scottie, with them.
A conquering hero because he had been a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch when he left for the East Coast, an extended stay in France, and back again to New York City, where he landed a job on the glitzy new magazine The New Yorker.
Oh, how beautiful that achievement was! And that accomplishment in the face of all the talk in the Dispatch newsroom that nobody made it in the big city.
Now, a la Walter Mitty, he had returned to Broad and High, a triumphant smile plastered on his face.
Once he and Althea stepped off the train at the old Union Station, it became apparent that they were going to be on a tight schedule.
He had to spend a considerable amount of time with his mother, Mame. That was a given. Along with one or another of his two brothers, he had to take her downtown at least a couple of times for breakfast or lunch at one of her favorite restaurants.
Another morning would be spent wandering around the old Central Market down by the Greyhound bus station, gawking at all the fresh produce, seafood, and meat. One of Mame's favorite bakeries was also located down there in the middle of the market district. At Mame's urging, she and James might have even hopped on a streetcar and gone up to the North Market. Who knows?
When not engaged in family get-togethers, Thurber had a lot of old newspaper pals to look up. There were tales to spin of life in the big city and, of course, his assignments and escapades at the New Yorker. Not to speak of the satirical characterizations and wild stories he must have told about his boss, Harold Ross.
Oh, how he must have gotten his revenge on that bellicose and complicated character.
With his talent for exaggeration, some of those yarns - told over a few rounds of drinks - must have been hilarious.
There were also other friends to see. So much to do, so little time! There were old high school chums and college friends to look up, people like Ted Gardiner, Ralph McCombs, and a whole raft of his fraternity brothers when he was going to OSU - the Phi Psis.
While he was doing all this socializing, Althea was just as busy doing the same thing: Spending time with her mother and other relatives, looking up old girlfriends, dropping in on the various university theatre groups she had participated in - most of the time, Jeannie trotting along at her heels.
In case you're wondering, did streetcars allowed pets aboard? Usually not. But there were literally hundreds of taxicabs running around Columbus in those days. There were probably a dozen or more companies, some of them operating many cabs. And they were dirt-cheap, not much more than riding the streetcars. Most of them allowed pets - if they were well behaved.
And, if you had a pet with you, I would think the driver could expect a little extra tip.
Another word about public transportation back then in good ol' Columbus town.
Most people did not yet own a car. They rode the streetcars and took cabs around town.
If they had to go to the far out suburbs and nearby towns, they took the interurban trains. These were high-speed trolley-like cars running on rails, sometimes two or three of them hooked up together. They went, for instance, to Worthington, or Delaware, or Marion.
If you had to go further, you took a train, and there were numerous lines that served Columbus, pulling in and out of Union Station at all hours of the night and day.
Back to James and Althea, having the times of their lives, the days spinning by all too rapidly. And here it must be remembered that Harold Ross had authorized a ten day leave of absence, and when he said ten days, he meant ten days.
Oh, my gosh! The day they had planned to leave for New York, Jeannie - their Scottie - wandered off and got herself lost. Wouldn't you know it! Probably wanted to make a few friends of her own.
They searched high and low, but no Jeannie.
Thurber even enlisted the aid of the police department, called some of the men down there he had known when he was the cop house reporter for the Dispatch.
Althea ransacked her mind: When was the last time she recalled their Scottie being with her?
After two days, Jeannie walked in the door, looked up at them with her big brown eyes, wagged her tail, and seemed to ask what the fuss was all about.
So, finally, they were off to New York, two days late, and when Thurber walked in the New Yorker office, Ross was furious!
Episode # 76 September 2004, [Reprint May/June 2016]
James and Althea arrived back in New York from their Columbus vacation two days late. The problem was that Jeannie, their Scotty, had gotten lost. Job or no job, they couldn't very well just up and leave her behind, now could they?
I don't think they ever found out where she had been and what she had been doing. Probably checking bases, getting acquainted with old friends, and a lot of other stuff that doggies do. You know, she was originally from Columbus. Who can blame her? She probably didn't realize she was going to make the whole gang AOL.
Anyhow, they finally found her and headed back to the big city and James' new job at the ritzy New Yorker, a new magazine that was beginning to make waves.
He had been hired on as an assistant editor, even though he wanted to be a writer. How well he remembered Harold Ross, his boss, snorting, "Hell, writers are a dime a dozen! What I need is a good editor!"
Be that as it may, he now found himself in a precarious position. Newly hired, Ross had granted him an unprecedented ten day leave of absence and here he was returning to his job two days late.
If that wasn't enough to make him apprehensive, he was well aware of the tempestuous and unpredictable nature of his boss. He had heard stories of what Ross was like when he was on the warpath and they were enough to make a brave man cringe.
Oddly enough, I can find no mention of whether James and Althea had taken a train or driven Althea's car. Whichever it was, with all these worries on his mind, you can bet your life it must have been a very long trip back to New York.
When they finally got to their little apartment, they were exhausted and Thurber might have been able to squeeze in a few hours sleep before going to the office. Whatever sleep he got, it must have been fitful – and full of nightmares.
The fateful hour finally arrived. He headed for work and got off the bus in the West Forties and made his way to the New Yorker offices. It was early evening because he was working what might be called a swing shift.
First, he went to his own small office, sat down at his desk and sorted through the stuff on it.
Then, Ross called him to his office. Yelled down the hall is what he probably did, and Thurber answered the call. As he walked down the dark and dingy hallway toward Ross' cubicle, he must have felt like a condemned man. As nervous and high-strung as Thurber was, he might well have said a silent prayer to himself before entering Ross' office. The, he opened the door and went in.
"Where the hell have you been? Ross roared when he saw Thurber standing in the doorway.
Disbelief lit his face as Thurber shifted from one foot to another and replied that their dog had been lost for two days.
According to Thurber the two of them were growling at each other like a couple of bulldogs. But, here, let Thurber describe the confrontation in his own words:
" . . . When I got back Ross called me into his office about 9 P.M. and snarled, 'You overstayed your vacation to look for a dog. I consider that the act of a sissy.' I saw red and many other colors , including some new ones. 'Get up out of that chair,' I told him. 'That's a word you've got to prove' . . . He hated physical violence and yelling. 'Why don't you get one of your friends to help you?' I asked him.' I don't think you're a match for me.' 'Who do you suggest,' he asked. Alexander Woolcott,' I said. Ross began to laugh and laugh for five minutes. Then we went out and had drinks at Tony's , our first extra-office-get-togethers. From then on he and I were great friends. He was one of the closest and most important persons in my life . . ."
That excerpt was from a letter Thurber wrote to Frank Gibney in October 1956.
Can you believe all of this?
The conversation in Ross' office was surely not something we would expect in our everyday world of real life. It was more like a scene out of a movie. A comedy. Name your own actors. Maybe John Candy and Robin Williams. Or, how about Jackie Gleason and Wally Cox?
Their friendship continued to grow and they became the best of friends. From Thurber's standpoint, it was almost a father-son relationship, with himself the son. He felt that way even though Ross was only two years older than he was.
Shortly after that memorable day, Ross said to Thurber: "I thought you were an editor, goddamn it, but I guess you're a writer, so write. Maybe you have something to say."
Of course, there's no question that Ross was also influenced by the opinions of many others on the New Yorker staff. Such people as Dorothy Parker and E. B. White, for instance.
As you can imagine, Thurber didn't need any more of an invitation than that. He started writing in overtime.
He still hadn't perfected his writing style, but he was lucky. He shared his cubbyhole of an office with E. B. White, a master craftsman when it came to writing. The two men were good friends and White's influence soon became apparent in Thurber's writing. How lucky can you get?
He was now 33 years old and on his way.
Episode # 77 October 2004, [Reprint July/August 2016]
". . . The precision and clarity of White's writing helped me a lot, slowed me down from the dogtrot of newspaper tempo and made me realize a writer turns on his mind, not a faucet . . .""
That was James Thurber talking about the influence of E, B. White, his friend and associate at the New Yorker.
Under the watchful and kindly eye of "Andy" White, he had literally wrenched his often stilted and self-conscious phraseology into a simpler, more functional prose style. In effect he had liberated all the wild and fanciful ideas that were flying around in his head like a cage full of birds. Now, they could fly free.
His boss, Harold Ross, soon became convinced he had made a sound decision when he relieved Thurber of his old editing duties and gave him writing assignments instead.
Nowadays, he would poke his head in the door, wink at Thurber, and give him some further encouragement. "Write the way you would talk to a dinner companion," he once said.
With mentors like White and Ross, how could Thurber have not developed into a first-rate writer?
What was really happening was that he had all the right stuff, he was simply shrugging off the influences of the 19th century writers her had read and grown up with.
Thus armed, Thurber was soon contributing an ever-increasing flow of material to the magazine's "Talk of the Town" and other features.
Early in 1928, Thurber and Althea packed their meager possessions and moved to a more spacious apartment at 65 West Eleventh Street, which is on the edge of Greenwich Village. Their Scottie - Jeannie - dutifully went with them.
Many of their friends lived and partied in the area so they felt right at home.
Nineteen twenty-eight was going to prove to be a tumultuous year in their personal lives, a veritable roller-coaster with lots of ups and downs.
Thurber's writing career at the New Yorker was off to a good start, so that was a big upper.
His relationship with Althea was another matter. It had been spluttering along for several years, now it was floundering and going from bad to worse.
She didn't like many of his friends and visa versa. Day in and day out she was complaining and nagging about one thing or another. This would either lead to long periods of sullenness and hardly talking to each other, or outright fights. The kind with lots of heated words and swearing and even throwing things on occasion.
When things were bad like that, they would take their battered feelings along with them when going to parties and visiting friends. And, like as not, they would get into it again. Road trips, you might say.
Words would fly and one or the other of them would walk out in a big snit.
Some people say that Althea had a ravenous sexual appetite and James just couldn't satisfy her. Other people say the opposite.
Maybe they were just incompatible.
Many of their mutual friends noticed, for instance, that Althea's sense of humor didn't match her husband's. At times, it seemed as if they were living in separate worlds.
Althea was more interested in property, people who were financially well off, expensive dogs, and exclusive art salons.
Things got so bad at one point that Althea booked passage to France and was gone for two months.
This unhappy life-style was burrowing into Thurber's psyche so deeply that he even wrote several New Yorker pieces about unhappily married couples. As fiction, of course.
As if all this wasn't bad enough, he had a bad case of hemorrhoids. In a letter to his brother Robert, he humorously remarked that if he were a Sioux Indian he would probably be called old Flame- in-the-Bowels.
Even worse, one night when he was working late at the office, he went temporarily blind in his one remaining eye.. The next morning he could see OK, but this was a chilling omen of problems to come.
On the up side, Jeannie had a litter of puppies, six in all. Five in Thurber's bedroom closet, one on a nearly street corner, which he tucked into a coat pocket until he got home.
As his home life worsened, according to close friends, Thurber seemed to become more and more indifferent to the marital predicament he was in.
On one occasioned when Althea was absent, Thurber and his pal Elliott Nugent made a quick trip back to Columbus tto visit friends and also to see the Ohio State-Iowa football game which OSU won 7 to 6.
That was a real upper!
Episode # 78 November 2004, [Reprint September/October 2016]
As the weeks and months of 1929 spun by, Thurber’s marriage to Althea continued to unravel.
Finally, since nothing else seemed to work, they opted for a trial separation. You know, one of the slippery stepping stones on the way to reconciliation or, more probably, divorce.
It was not the first time they had lived apart, but probably the first time they actually sat down and worked out a plan. This time it was more deliberate, more thought out.
They gave up their New York apartment, and Althea took most of their meager belongings and headed for the burbs – Silvermine, Connecticut, to be exact. Just a hop, skip, and a martini from Westport. This was decidedly more to her liking. The country club set, you know. Ritzy, titzy. Uppity, beyond words.
There, in that rarified atmosphere, she rented a cozy little cottage and settled in with Jeannie and her litter of puppies. Happy as a bug in a rug.
So, what about our hero?
Deserted. Left behind in the big city to fend for himself.
Not too awful a fate compared to what he had been enduring. And even more dividends. Lots of freedom. Another chance to spread his wings, relax with friends, maybe even become more aware of the eye-candy hanging out in some of his favorite haunts. Not such a bad deal when you really think about it. No need to feel sorry for Mr. Thurber.
And, he had more time to concentrate on his writing, without constantly being interrupted. More important, he had peace of mind. No more perpetual bickering and fighting.
Without a permanent address, he was bopping around town between a number of low-cost hotels, and, in those days, they were very affordable.
Where did he eat? Chances are he hadn’t been getting many home-cooked meals anyway, so probably not much of a change there. The answer? Same old hash-houses and favorite establishments like Costello’s where he had been dining all along.
So far, so good.
Meanwhile, Althea was loving the country-like atmosphere she found herself in. Her Scottie loved it, and the puppies were in seventh heaven.
In no time at all, Althea acquired two Siamese cats and a black French poodle and her eleven puppies.
You heard right.
Can you believe this? Within weeks of moving to Silvermine, Althea was the happy owner of what practically amounted to a petting zoo.
The poodle was a black standard named Medve, Hungarian for “bear.”
From all accounts, Medve was an extraordinary dog. A loving and doting mother, she was also a professional show dog. Knew all the ropes and had won a poodles’ caboodle of blue ribbons and trophies, including the “Best of Breed” in the Novice Class at the 1929 Westminster Show.
When the judges’ decision was announced, Althea burst into tears. And, can you believe this, Medve started howling too. Bawling, really. She had mistaken Althea’s crying as some kind of rejection.
On his visits, Thurber became completely captivated by Medve. As a matter of fact, she was to have a profound affect on his philosophy of life, his writing, and many of his future drawings. In other words, she was a catalyst. She opened up doors he didn’t even know existed.
Regrettably, Medve didn’t like going to dog shows because she invariably got car sick. Horribly car sick.
It got so they had to tie a rubber bib around her neck, and she sure didn’t like that. She also had to sit on a bunch of newspapers. She didn’t like that either.
As if all fuss and discomfort weren’t bad enough, sometimes she had to ride in the rumble seat and, when Thurber was in town, if it was raining, he had to sit back there and hold an umbrella over Medve’s head.
Can you picture it? What a comical sight that must have been!
In a piece titled “And So to Medve,” Thurber writes: “She threw up (on the newspaper) like a lady, leaning far down, looking as apologetic as she looked sick.”
Thurber’s visits to Connecticut grew fairly frequent because he discovered that he really liked the dog shows that Althea dragged him to.
Isn’t life strange?
He later wrote “ . . . At one of the last dog shows in which she was entered with two or three of her best male pups, she was reluctant to get up on the bench assigned to her and her family, and so I got up on it myself, on all fours, to entice her to follow. She was surprised and amused, but not interested, and this was also true of my wife, who kept walking by the bench, saying, out of the corner of her mouth, “Get off that bench, for the love of heaven! . . . “
[Editing in process here, go to bottom of page for next installment]
AUGUST 2006 Episode One Hundred
During my frequent trips to Green Lawn Cemetery to visit the gravesites of my mother and brother, or to go birding, I often stop by the last resting places of the Thurber clan.
Playfully, I talk to them. I do this a lot at Green Lawn – if no one is looking, that is. Strangers, I mean. When I’m with friends, I don’t care. They already know I’m crazy.
I say hello to my mother and brother, briefly because we were never an overly talkative family.
And there are a few other departed souls with whom I exchange pleasantries. Pretty one-sided conversations, huh?
Sometimes I’ll say hello to Captain Eddie Rickenbacker because he was such a hero. There aren’t many more. So you see, I’m very selective, considering the tens of thousands resting there.
Once in a while, I’ll wander over to Dr. Snook’s unmarked gravesite to make sure he’s behaving.
Or sometimes I’ll say hello to Olive Ann Gump who resides all alone in her beautiful sepulcher by the picturesque old bridge over the ravine. I like to think that I’m cheering her up.
That’s about it. But if you ever get a chance, visit Green Lawn Cemetery. It’s a beautiful place, and there’s a lot of history out there.
So, anyway, when I’m walking near James Thurber’s grave, I’ll say kiddingly, “Hi James, why don’t we go somewhere and have a drink?”
His grave marker is adorned with an etching of “The Last Flower” from a series of his drawings depicting the war-like nature of mankind.
Mame, his mother, has a grave marker just with her name and the years her life spanned: 1866 to 1955.
When I’m nearby and say something like “Hi ya kiddo, that was some wheelchair ride you took that time,” I can almost hear her giggle.
So, in this way, I like to think that she lives on. Maybe you could call it a form of immortality. Keeping memories of this person alive. Oh, by the way, her brothers, Robert and William, are buried nearby.
Now let’s travel back through time again, back to the old Southern Hotel where we left James Thurber’s mother, Mame.
She moved into the Southern in 1941 and remained there until her final year, 1955. She resided in Room 510.
Mame’s two brothers were also residents of the hotel during many of those years. Still standing at 310 S. High St., it’s now the Westin Great Southern Columbus.
Although the management probably frowned on it, some of the guests had their own little hot plates with which they could do a limited amount of cooking in the privacy of their own rooms.
Plus, in those halcyon days, the hotel was like an oasis smack dab in the middle of a busy downtown area – and I mean really busy. A lot busier than nowadays.
It’s worth telling you about, so we’re going to leave Mame again for now. Don’t worry about her. She’ll be back.
JULY 2006 Episode Ninety-Nine
We were talking about Mame, James Thurber’s mother – when she was a young girl, a teenager.
We were trying to imagine what it might have been like when she pulled off her great wheelchair caper.
Now, we’re going to fast-forward, but first let’s look at a few vital statistics.
Mame was born in 1866 and died at the ripe old age of 89 in 1955. James died just six years later in 1961. All that high living must have caught up with him! Cigarettes, whiskey, and late hours.
He and his brothers, along with their mother, are buried in the Fisher family plot at Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus. The grave site is located at the southwest corner of the pond near the sculpture of Emile Ambos, the fisherman.
Fishing in some eternal stream.
Now, hang on as we go zipping through time. Swooosh!
Suddenly it’s 1950. World War II is long over. North Korea and Vietnam loom on the horizon.
The man with no middle name is in the Oval Office. The economy is booming. Our cast of characters are alive and kicking.
James is living alone in midtown Manhattan and is probably at the zenith of his creative career. He is a star! One new book follows another. Once or twice a year he takes time away from his busy schedule to come out here to Columbus to see his mother.
Althea his wife is in Connecticut with her show dogs. Her marriage to James is obviously on the rocks.
Mame is in the sunset years of her life and has moved into the stately old Southern Hotel. She is 84 years old.
Like many hotels in those days, the Southern catered to permanent residents in addition to transients. There weren’t as many apartments back then as now, and there certainly weren’t a lot of retirement centers.
Thus it was that my maternal grandmother (my “Orbiting Grandmother” of many Legendary Tales) decided to roost at the Southern.
The two ladies, although of vastly different backgrounds, and temperaments, became friends. Maybe acquaintances would be a more accurate word.
My grandmother was a staid and no-nonsense kind of individual. A study in lavender and old lace. Mame, on the other hand, was as bright-eyed and chattery as a squirrel in a nut shop.
Another word or two about Southern Hotel living might be appropriate here: They enjoyed a comfortable room, adjoining bathroom, maid service. Not only all that, there was also a fine dining room and cocktail lounge right off the lobby. Not a bad life!
JUNE 2006 Episode Ninety-Eight
We were talking about Mame, James Thurber’s mother, and we got diverted by all the wonders of the old Central Market District.
We might as well continue on that track because there’s a lot more to tell – so we might as well get it over with.
The market and all its trappings was located between Third and Fifth streets and between State and Mound streets.
Traction cars, better known as interurbans, rocked and rolled through city streets headed for their terminal near the market house.
Even though they used the streetcar tracks, they looked more like train cars: a little bigger, a little heavier – the colors a bit more like train cars.
Interurban provided Columbus commuters with service to Newark, Springfield, Worthington, Delaware, Marion, and other nearby communities.
During the warm months the interurban companies frequently featured excursions to amusement parks like Buckeye Lake and Olentangy Park in Clintonville.
Within a few blocks of the market there were half a dozen hotels, an art museum, Grant Hospital, the city’s main library, downtown with all its attractions, and a lot more.
I will tell you more about that next month. But now, it’s time to retell the story about the day Mame and her brothers were wandering through the market district – enjoying the sights and sounds and aromas. They were young teenagers. It was a Saturday and they had a day off from school.
In front of a storefront church they hesitated. What had once been a large storeroom or warehouse had been converted and was now a holy place – a tabernacle – if you please.
The time of service must have been near because people were streaming through the doors into the spacious interior.
And wouldn’t you know it? Like chips caught in an eddy, the three children were swept inside.
Hundreds of folding chairs were filling up fast with starry-eyed believers, the hopeful, and the hopeless.
As the faithful continued to gather, the three teenagers wandered around the back of the old hall as if they owned the place.
It was about then that Mame saw a man being lifted out of his wheelchair and helped into the men’s restroom.
Without saying a word to her brothers, Mame darted over to the wheelchair, hopped in, spun it around and headed for the main aisle.
Then she aimed her vehicle for the makeshift altar at the front of the hall, summoned all her strength, and shoved off.
Once there, before the eyes of the astonished congregation, she jumped out of the wheelchair, raised both her hands and cried out “I can walk!”
MAY 2006 Episode Ninety-Seven
I haven’t spoken much lately of Mame, Thurber’s mother.
She was a great little lady, so we will take care of that right now.Born Mary Fisher, she was the daughter of a prominent Columbus family who were in the produce business – you know, fruits, nuts, grains, and vegetables. Those kinds of good things. Wholesale. Selling their goods all over Central Ohio.
And, as you might expect, Mame and her brothers led the good life.
The family lived in some of the loveliest homes in what is now Olde Towne East.
And you can bet your bottom dollar there was a lot of healthy food on their dinner table.Well, we can hope so.
Of course, you never can tell. Old man Fisher might have had a trade deal with one of the butcher shops over in the Central Market.
Fresh produce for rashers of bacon, T-bone steaks, spareribs, and all that good stuff. After all, back then, no one had heard of cholesterol.
How Mame met and married Charles W. Thurber is a story we have already told you about in an earlier episode of this chronicle.
However, there is one other incident we have already shared with you that is well worth repeating.
But first, to do the story justice, I’m going to fill you in with some background material.
For many years the Central Market District was one of Columbus’s major attractions. In addition to the merchants who had their stalls in the handsome market house, on market days many other venders had their stands along surrounding streets.
Not only that, there were all kinds of retail stores lining the avenues for blocks around.
Most of them were family enterprises offering a wide variety of goods and services. There were bakeries, delicatessens, restaurants and bars cheek-to-jowl with ice cream parlors, apparel shops and shoe stores.
One shoe store – Gilbert’s, with its bright orange exterior – was located on Town Street for many years.
The nearby bus station (still there) was another magnet pulling people into the busy area.
Okay! Okay! Okay!
You want to hear about Mame!
Well, you’ll have to come back next month!
APRIL 2006 Episode Ninety-Six
1934 was the best of years for James Thurber. A best-selling book under his belt – and more coming on. Something new, something old, something imagined. A wacky world of words; households full of befuddled and distraught human beings; a Noah’s arkload of never to be forgotten, innocent-looking animals.
At last he had found a style that suited him – and evidently suited the vast majority of the reading public, although not all. There were dissenters. And they could be vocal.
I recall (years later) being in the Press Club of Ohio in downtown Columbus one evening. At that time, the club was located in Lynn Alley behind the old Ohio State Journal building whose main entrance was on East Broad Street.
The Press Club moved around a lot, but this was one of its best locations. It occupied three floors in the newly renovated building.
The game room (pool and ping-pong) was in the basement. A fully-equipped kitchen and pleasantly appointed dining room was on the second floor. The reception area on the first floor included the manager’s office, a cocktail lounge with a piano bar and a stag bar in the rear.
One time I encountered Roger Maris, the baseball great, recognized him, and obtained his autograph. Still have it.
Anyway, it was cocktail hour, and I was looking forward to maybe running into a few old friends – guys like Ben Hayes, George Embry, Cliff Sapp, Bill Hoover, Cal Kalwary.
Press Club membership, by the way, consisted of business people and journalists.
When I walked up to the piano bar, I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard this long-time columnist for one of the local papers debunking Thurber as a writer. All of this in a loud, pontifical voice while waving his pipe around. One or two of the fellows present agreed with him.
Professional jealousy? Maybe.
Three or four others disagreed or kept their opinions to themselves.
Remember, Thurber had worked at the Columbus Dispatch. Yet, most of the guys were way too young to have known Thurber – to have been a contemporary of his.
But, wait a minute! What made the situation so hysterically funny was that it was pretty common knowledge among the local newspaper folk that the loud-mouth who started the whole thing was a rewrite man’s nightmare!
In other words, all the copy he turned in to his editors had to be extensively rewritten. For spelling. For grammar. For accuracy.
I didn’t enter into the discussion, but I was laughing on the inside.
And, let me say again, by this time Thurber had written the vast majority of his stories.
“So, not to worry, James Thurber, not to worry.”
MARCH 2006 Episode Ninety-Five
Interestingly enough, the difference between memoirs and fiction has been a hot news item lately. Where would this controversy position Thurber? Probably out on a limb.
Like many talented writers of his day, his creations are not the easiest things in the world to categorize. But isn’t this true of literary genius wherever we find it? The literary greats of all nationalities. How about the great classical Russian writers? Is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina a memoir or fiction? War and Peace sounds mighty like a memoir to me – although a long one, I’ll admit.
What about Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov – truth or fiction? Let’s get real controversial. Was Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita a figment of his imagination or was it based on actual experience? We can’t leave the Irish out! How about Joyce’s Ulysses? Okay, I can hear some of you complaining that I’m comparing apples and oranges.
So, let’s compare Thurber to a few other famous humorists. Here’s one for you. Were Mark Twain’s memorable books about life on the Mississippi fact or fiction? Nancy Grace, pay attention! Larry King, take note! Oprah, where are you? Are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn Gospel truth or the meanderings of a fanciful dreamer? How about the works of Oscar Wilde?
Have you ever read The Catcher in the Rye? Sounds suspiciously like a collection of memoirs to me. All of those crazy adventures of Holden Caulfield. And all of that intense and convoluted introspection that runs through the book like a river. How about the movie One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest? That classic film harpooned mental hospitals, the medical profession, the whole shebang.
So, what’s the big controversy all about? In the case of sensitive subjects, the reputation of the publisher should be an important consideration. Authoritative testimonials on the dust jacket are helpful to the would-be reader, and an introduction and foreword can be even more useful. Finally, there are the reviews in the media which can cast a variety of opinions on the subject. The whole idea – at least in a free society – is to maintain a forum for the free exchange of ideas, anything less than that would amount to a dictatorship.
How does all this apply to James Thurber? Well, the truth is that he was well aware of many of these precepts. More than that, he was a champion of freedom. He tilted with at least one major university over the issue of freedom of speech. Of course, that was back in the McCarthy era. First of all, there is no denying that many of Thurber’s stories are based on fact. Take “The Day the Dam Broke.” This story is based on a deadly flood that ravaged parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio. It was part of the same weather system that caused the famous Johnstown flood. People in Columbus had been reading and hearing about it. And, it was raining cats and dogs here in Central Ohio. People were real nervous. Jittery. Then the day in question, the rumor started.
“The dam has broken!”
Men, women, children, cats, and dogs ran for their lives! Out East Broad Street! Racing for high ground!
All Thurber did was put his spin on it.
FEBRUARY 2006 Episode Ninety-Four
Whew! Seems like I’ve been working on these Thurber columns forever! Well, 94 episodes (or chapters) has taken a bit of doing. So, let’s take time out for a handful of biographical notes, which hopefully might add some perspective to the entire series.
It seems like I’ve been crisscrossing Thurber’s tracks for a good part of my life. How could it be otherwise? For awhile, when I was in the second and third grade, I went to Douglas Elementary, the same school he attended – long since torn down. The old brick building could be recognized from afar by the huge cylindrical fire escape attached to one of its exterior walls. For another short period of my life, I lived on Lexington Avenue – the heart of Thurber country, near the present-day Thurber House. For most of my teens, my family – my mother, my brother, and sometimes my orbiting grandmother – lived near the university. In rented houses, taking student roomers, moving frequently, living a nomadic life during the Great Depression. At one time, we lived on Neil Avenue not more than half a block from the apartment building at King and Neil where Thurber and his wife Althea lived briefly.
When we were moving around at such a frantic pace it became difficult for our grandmother to keep up with us. At such times she would stay at the Southern Hotel which catered to residents. And, guess who else lived there for quite a few years? Mame, Thurber’s mother. My grandmother knew her, and I believe I might have seen her walking around the lobby when I was visiting my grandmother. Back then they had a great many permanent residents, mostly older folks. All the amenities of a retirement center: a dining room, maid service, and all the rest.
During the ‘30s and ‘40s, Thurber frequently visited Columbus to spend some time with his mother, Mame. When she was living at the Southern Hotel, they would sometimes walk up High Street to Mill’s Cafeteria, which was one of Mame’s favorite dining spots.
And, of course, we shared the wide expanses of the Ohio State University campus, the sprawling Oval and its many buildings, not to speak of fraternity row and all the wonderful hangouts along High Street. Places like Hennick’s and the many friendly bars and taverns. All of this shared somehow with Thurber – separated by a handful of years, a brief generation gap – both as a kid and later when I returned from the service, married and finished my own education, crossing and recrossing his footsteps as I walked across the oval.
Then, there were a couple of times when I briefly rubbed shoulders with the great man. One occasion was in the ballroom of the old Neil House Hotel where the Press Club of Ohio presented him with an award. The other time was at the beautiful old Hartman Theatre which was located near the corner of State and Third Streets and was long ago torn down. He was in town for a hometown presentation of “A Thurber Carnival.”
One of my favorite bistros a few years back was the Dell Restaurant on Parsons Avenue. It was in the heart of Thurber territory, a neighborhood now called Olde Towne East. Thurber would have loved it, and he might well have been familiar with it in the early years.
Actually, I started working on some of these pieces right after James Thurber passed away in November of 1961.
His ashes were interred at Green Lawn Cemetery, one of my favorite places to go birding. Recently, I suggested to the management that the nearby pond, which is referred to as “the Pit,” be called Thurber Pond. The proposed name change is being considered, and we will let you know if it becomes an actuality.
JANUARY 2006 Episode Ninety-Three
Maybe it might be beneficial to step back for a moment and take another look at what our boy from Columbus is accomplishing in New York City.
It is 1933. We know a lot about his private life at that time – his carousing around, his womanizing – we’ll grant him all of that.
Though not divorced he might as well have been. His wife Althea had snuggled herself away into an exclusive Connecticut resort village with her show dogs to keep her company. No wonder Thurber was driven to excessive drinking. It’s not every day that a man has to face the fact that his wife chooses her dogs over him. Talk about being in the dog house!
So, what’s a guy going to do?
Have a few extra drinks, I guess is what occurred to him. And, to be fair about all this, we should examine the situation from Althea’s standpoint.
There’s no doubt that her husband was a difficult man to live with. A daffy bunk mare if ever there was one. Hung over half the time. Moody, puzzled, of course. Puzzled by women, puzzled by life, puzzled by Harold Ross, his boss at The New Yorker, puzzled by his family in Columbus.
And, again, puzzled by women.
His mind was divided into a multitude of images, like a prism, reflecting on a thousand possibilities and alternatives in life – past, present, and future. Call it the creative genius at work.
Then there was his poor vision.
Imagine what Althea must have gone through just on that one count.
Here’s a guy who goes around wearing mismatched socks half the time. Imagine what a slob he must have been in the bathroom. Especially around the wash basin. You know how women are about those things.
Pools of water all over the vanity top. The bar of soap on the floor. Towels askew.
Schreeek! Brrroooom! Those were the sounds of her patience wearing thin and her temper going through the roof.
Another Waterloo for the male gender.
I don’t mean to be making fun of him because of his poor eyesight. My eyes aren’t all that good here lately either. I’m just pointing out that living together is a two-way street, which means there’s always the possibility of a head-on collision.
Make that “probability.”
And, as most men are aware (even those with 20/20 vision), women can be fussy about the cleanliness of bathrooms. And, I’m not talking about public lavatories either.
Enough of this trashy talk and let’s get to the point of all this speculation. What I’m driving at is this: They were both undoubtedly better off living alone.
When he was ensconced in Manhattan and she in Connecticut, they were protected from each other.
The clincher was that when they were apart, the peace and quiet enabled Thurber to think back to his days in Columbus with an unemcumbered mind.
That’s the payoff.
And we, the reading public, reaped the rewards.
Now, let’s take another look at My Life and Hard Times. It is a slender little volume, a mere 115 pages. In addition to an introduction by John K. Hutchens, it contains a preface by the author, nine stories, and “A Note at the End,” also by the author.
The stories are Thurber at his best and set a high standard that he seldom exceeded. They are accompanied by seventeen drawings, plus a few decorative illustrations. But best of all, we are introduced to a cast of daffy characters – in good ol’ Columbus town – who are trying to cope with circumstances beyond their control or comprehension.
Not too unlike today, I guess.
(DECEMBER 2005) Episode Ninety-Two
For all his nighttime gallivanting around with glamorous people, during the daylight hours, on the job, James Thuber was turning out a lot of high-quality work.
And, guess what?
Many of the pieces he was writing were based on fanciful memories of his boyhood in good ol’ Columbus, Ohio.
And, a good many of them were popping up in the pages of The New Yorker.
Many among his circle of friends in New York, including his future wife, Helen Wismer, were wildly enthusiastic about these accounts of his boyhood.
He submitted some of them to a publisher, Harper & Row, and BINGO! They accepted it!
A slender volume of only 115 pages, it was titled My Life and Hard Times and appeared on bookstore shelves in November, 1933.
The blurb on the back cover proclaimed: My Life and Hard Times is one of the most deeply humorous books of our century. Not a “Memoir” that takes into account the crumbling of empires, rather it talks “largely about small matters and smally about great affairs. Mostly it’s about the wholly incredible things people do when they think they’re acting with common sense. Yet after the laughter is finished, Thurber has done more than tickle your risibilities. He has quietly and unobtrusively, but permanently, deflated your false pride in the essential sanity and prudence of the human race.”
Huh? The editor that wrote that must have been in a bar matching drinks with Thurber. What a hoot!
Yet, oddly, if you reread it, a glimmer of dash and sanity shines through.
I’ve got it! That was Thurber writing the jazzed up, jabberwockey blurb about his own book! All nonsense aside, the book contains some of the best stories he had ever written – or ever would. There are only nine selections, but the majority of them are classics. For instance, choose between “The Night the Bed Fell,” “The Night the Ghost Got In,” “The Dog That Bit People” and the unforgettable “The Day the Dam Broke.” In that last one, Thurber stirs up hilarious images drawn from the famed flood of 1913 when a good portion of Franklinton was underwater. Who can ever forget the frantic folk fleeing out East Broad Street when they heard that the Dam had broken? He tells us how they were encumbered by his grandfather, saber in hand, who thought all the confusion was caused by an invasion of Civil War calvarymen. At Parsons Avenue and East Town Street they had to stun the old gentleman or they would have been engulfed by the imaginary waters. There are three drawings that accompany the story, one show men, women, and dogs fleeing out East Broad Street. Another shows a woman atop the “These Are My Jewels” statue in front of the State Capitol.
All of the stories are autobiographical, if you bear in mind they are told with tongue in cheek. And, a wink of the eye. Looking back on it, we can see that he was walking a tightrope.
Psychoanalyzing himself. Playing the role of his own shrink – at bargain prices.
Consider: He was still married to Althea, but separated. He had a small daughter, Rosemary, who was living with her mother in Connecticut. He was running around with his arty friends in New York.
Writing these stories was his way of compensating. Keeping his life in balance.
By reliving – revisiting – those early days, and putting a humorous spin on them, he was treating us to some great writing.
And, leaving some hard-to-fill footprints in the sand.
If you haven’t read My Life and Hard Times, get yourself a copy. Your neighborhood library probably has a copy, or check one of the numerous used bookstores in Columbus. You’ll be glad you did!
(NOVEMBER 2005) Episode Ninety-One
1933 proved to be a good year for James Thurber.
He was surviving his separation from Althea and having a pretty good time in the process.
His job at The New Yorker was going well and he was turning out a steady stream of articles, as well as numerous drawings.
In his leisure time, he was seen about town with one or another of three or four very attractive women. And, when he was bored, or didn’t have a date, he would sometimes show up at Polly Adler’s famous establishment.
Oh, there’s no doubt that he was still overdrinking but, according to some of his close friends, he was getting more of a handle on it. Not falling-down drunk. Keeping everything under control the best he could with an eye out for getting safely home to bed – or at least into a girlfriend’s bed.
In April of that year he had a memorable encounter with the noted writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The big event happened one night when he was in Tony’s, a favorite hangout of the New York literary set. Thurber had walked over to Tony’s after leaving the New Yorker’s offices about 10 p.m., and he immediately picked up on the stir that famous writer’s presence was making.
Re-creating the scene, it probably went something like this:
After ordering a drink, Thurber elbowed his way to the end of the bar where Tony was taking orders and mixing drinks.
There were a lot of women in the bar and that meant lots of fancy mixed drinks. Pleasant and titillating concoctions with names like Tom Collins, Manhattan, Bloody Mary, Gin Rickey, and dozens of others.
According to those present, Thurber asked Tony to introduce him to Fitzgerald. I suppose that might be a little stiff and formal today. But, that’s what happened.
Tony obliged Thurber, led him over to the table where Fitzgerald was sitting alone and introduced the two men to each other. They shook hands and Fitzgerald asked Thurber to sit down.
Well, the two men got along like long-separated brothers. Fitzgerald was in a festive mood. Another novel, Tender Is the Night, was on the verge of being published, and he was also caught up in the excitement of an art exhibit featuring the works of his wife, Zelda. Fitzgerald explained that Zelda was not attending the opening because she was “in the midst of another breakdown.”
When they got tired of Tony’s, they moved on to another bar. And so it went, hour after hour, one bar after another. A lot of them evidently after-hours joints. Maybe holdovers from the prohibition era which had ended shortly before.
They apparently found out they had a lot in common, because they were still boozing and talking when the sun finally came up.
Can you believe it? Don’t forget they had gotten started around 10 o’clock the previous night.
Thurber later wrote about their meeting in an article titled “Scott in Thorns.”
He describes how they hit it off from the very beginning and what a rich mother lode of life experiences they shared.
Both were writers – each having monumental matrimonial problems with their wives and, as far as that was concerned, with all women.
So they commiserated with each other into the wee hours of the night – and beyond.
At one point Fitzgerald asked Thurber if he knew any “good girls” they could visit. In spite of the hour, Thurber obliged his new friend by calling several of his girlfriends and – surprisingly – Paula Trueman told them to give her a half hour and come on over.
They hopped into a cab and went to her place where they spent a couple of hours, with Fitzgerald doing most of the talking.
Thurber, evidently, was running out of steam, and who can blame him? But it had been an exciting and eye-opening experience:
He had discovered another writer with more problems than he had.
(OCTOBER 2005) Episode Ninety
As the hot summer of 1932 dragged into early fall, Thurber continues to write, and draw, and drink. He wasn’t alone in these endeavors. Some other big names in the literary world were playing the same strenuous game. Count among them Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Benchley, and John O’Hara.
High flyers, one and all, the alcohol firing up their talent.
And, remember, back then there were no computers or word processors. It was hunt and peck on some old beat-up typewriter. Or worse still, scratching out their copy in longhand and then trying to decipher it through bleary eyes the next morning. Also recall that the stock market had crashed in 1929, on what came to be known as Black Monday, and the deadly inertia of the Depression set in soon after.
There was plenty to talk about that fall of 1932, and you can bet James Thurber was in the thick of it. By the end of the year, there were over 13 million unemployed and the wages of those lucky enough to have a job were 60-some percent less than in 1929.
During the presidential campaign, Roosevelt accused Hoover of “reckless’ and “extravagant” spending. And, there were all kinds of countercharges like Roosevelt being inexperienced. Well, not exactly. He had been Secretary of the Navy and then Governor of New York State. In November, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt trounced Republican Herbert Hoover in a landslide victory in the national election. Of the popular vote, Roosevelt got 22,809,638 to Herbert Hoover’s 15,768,901. But it was in the electoral college that Roosevelt beat the tar out of Hoover – 472 to Hoover’s 59.
Even more exciting news was just around the corner. Prosperity? Not yet. That would take a while. What we’re talking here is the repeal of prohibition, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, that bug-a-boo action that had attempted to make the United States free of alcohol – but had actually resulted in just the opposite. It had endured for over twelve years, before it got the axe, the only Constitu-tional Amendment to meet such a fate. Interestingly enough, this lofty ruling had its roots right here in Central Ohio – over in Westerville, home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In James Thurber’s backyard, you might say. Before the amendment was repealed, there was increased alcoholism, a much higher death rate from drinking due to rot gut whiskey, and an increase in crime rate. Everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong.
Before the repeal, a bloody shootout between bootleggers and law enforcement officers occurred in Columbus. As a matter of fact, it happened right here in the Short North. There was a big old hotel located on the northwest corner of Goodale and High. On the Goodale side, in the basement, there was a little bar, a little speakeasy, caught in the middle trying to satisfy their customers. Breaking the law. One night, the cops had it out with the bootleggers who were supplying the spot and the blood ran in the street. Three policemen killed. I don’t know how many of the other guys got it.
In the meantime, the legislative process slowly grinds away and on December 5th the 21st Amendment repealing the 18th Amendment goes into effect when Utah becomes the 36th state to ratify it. What had been called the “noble experiment” is banished. You can bet the occasion was cause for a lot of celebrating by Thurber and his friends. Old habits had to be unlearned and new ones adopted. His crowd didn’t have to sneak around pushing buzzers and saying “Joe sent me” to the faces that appeared in the little trapdoors.
A new era had dawned.
(SEPTEMBER 2005) Episode Eighty-Nine
Ask any drinker and they will tell you that their favorite bars are like social clubs. So it was with James Thurber.
They were places where he connected, kept in touch with old friends and new acquaintances. But in Thurber’s case, there was more to it than that.
A lot more. It was as if this tortured and creative soul was reaching out, desperately trying to make some kind of sense out of the hectic world he found himself in. Trying to put it all together. Trying to make some sense out of all the blathering, the cheap talk, and easy solutions.
Drink in hand, he would just walk up to a guy, or a gal, or a couple, even if they were perfect strangers, and start talking about whatever was on his mind at the moment.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could slip the bonds of time and return briefly to those scenes? To have walked about, unseen, in the midst of all the chatter and clatter – looking for James Thurber. Soaking up the sultry voice of a torch singer emanating from one of the early juke boxes. And, don’t forget, this was still the era of the flapper, high-cut, tight dresses and rouged lips.
There he is! Thurber is a tall figure, six feet or more, and he’s wearing a gray tweed suit with a white shirt and a striped tie. He’s holding forth in front of a booth full of people, and there are half a dozen other folks around him. He’s got a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other – and he’s going at it a mile-a-minute! Every now and then, he will put his drink on the table or snub out his cigarette in an ashtray before lighting up a new one. Now he’s free to use his hands as he talks, and does he ever. And, he’s so into his subject he’s practically dancing a little jig!
It’s noisy in the barroom and hard to hear what he’s saying, but it’s obvious he has the attention of everyone around him. What a blast! No wonder he’s addicted to this way of life. He is like a one-man theatre.
Every once in a while, we can hear a few of his words. “If anyone ever wished they were in hell . . . it was during that perilous and frightful day in 1913 . . . when everyone in Columbus thought the dam broke.” What a joy to have studied his face as he earnestly pursued this topic or that. Sometimes about the economy. Sometimes politics. It’s obvious he’s developing material for future stories or drawings.
As we have already seen, we know that he frequently would talk about growing up in Columbus, go on and on with hilarious stories about his mother and other members of his family. So, these conversations were verbal and mental calisthenic. By telling the story, he was bringing it up into the foreground of his memory, polishing the details, shaping the episode for the day he would commit it to paper. So, there was great method to his madness. In the world of artists that is an under-statement. In Thurber’s case, we are dealing with multiple talents: the ability to sculpt the written word, then reduce it in its simplest terms to a humorous drawing often loaded with hidden meaning.
But, there were storm signals flyin’ in the wind. By the end of 1932, his friend and co-worker E. B. White at the New Yorker was genuinely concerned about Thurber’s behavior. He commented:
“Wolcott Gibbs, during that sad time, once remarked about Jim that he was the nicest guy in the world up to five o’clock in the afternoon. Gibbs was right. Jim was good until his third drink and then sometimes he became a madman, tempestuous and foul-mouthed. I spent a lot of evenings with him but I didn’t enjoy them. Jim had it in for women and he was obnoxious about it. He would lash out at the nearest woman and one night the nearest woman was my wife Katharine. I wanted to hit him, but I couldn’t hit a one-eyed man.”
(To be continued)
(AUGUST 2005) Episode Eighty-Eight
The year is 1932. Smack-dab in the middle of prohibition – but there were plenty of places to get a drink. Make no mistake about that!
The country is in the grips of the Great Depression, unemployment is widespread, and veterans are selling apples on street corners.
In a speech, the Governor of New York state, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, refers to “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” thus setting the stage for his presidential campaign. He will run against the GOP candidate, Herbert Hoover. Adolph Hitler is ready to assume public office in Germany at the invitation of President Paul von Hindenburg. The country is in economic and political turmoil.
And, how is our hometown boy faring in the big city during these hectic and troublesome times? He is 37 years old and already getting apprehensive about his age. He is drinking way too much, as we will see shortly, and his fertile mind continues to spew out weird drawings of quirky little animals, disconsolate men, and hatchet-faced women. With two books to his credit, a wife and daughter tucked away in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, his job at the New Yorker secure, and with his continued freedom in New York City, how could any man as footloose as Thurber ask for anything more?
Not only that, he was beginning to experience a degree of recognition now evident wherever he went. A nudge in the ribs, a whispered remark, a knowing look. It's not exactly clear if he was comfortable with this newfound fame, maybe yes, maybe not all that much, maybe it depended on the mood he was in or how many alcoholic drinks he had consumed. Anyway, there wasn't all that much adulation apparent in his daily rounds of his favorite haunts. People he knew well weren't likely to kowtow to him. And, for all his newfound fame, he really hadn't changed very much.
Still the same. Mildly pleasant. Talkative. Always seeking center stage. Stubborn. One-track mind. Unpredictable. Frequently obstreperous when he had had a few drinks, and these days he was having more than a few.
He was turning the days and nights around.
A typical routine would go something like this: He would work a few hours at the New Yorker office during the early afternoon, then head out the door. Nobody seemed to pay much attention to his comings and goings – or anyone else's. Ross had grown to trust him because he always got his work in on time. And, to be perfectly honest, the New Yorker office during those years was a pretty bizarre and disorganized place. A lot of coming and going with everybody looking out for themselves, a sort of “live and let live” philosophy prevailing. Once out of the office, he might have a late lunch, usually with a friend. Dozen of places to choose from, practically all of them within walking-distance.
But, a pattern was becoming discernible. He, or his lunch partner, would start things off with a round of drinks. This would grease the slides for the lively conversation that was apt to follow, and as we have already seen there was plenty to talk about. One drink would follow another and sometimes lunch was totally forgotten, or became just an afterthought, a sandwich or a snack. And, let me remind you again, all of this was happening during Prohibition. They were going to speakeasies or establishments that looked the other way when a patron wanted some alcohol. After a couple of hours, if his luncheon companion had other commitments, instead of returning to the office, Thurber would just change bars, head down the street to another of his favorite haunts. And, new worlds to conquer.
(JULY 2005) Episode Eighty-Seven
Baby Rosemary safely delivered in a New York hospital, Althea didn’t waste any time leaving her on-again-off-again husband in the big city and returning to Connecticut with her newborn. According to friends of the couple, she wasn’t exactly thrilled with her dual role of mother and father – but what’s a woman to do? And, it’s doubtful that anyone ever fully understood Althea’s intentions and motivations.
Thurber, like many a man before him – especially those stuck with a job in the big city – became a weekend father.
In a rather surprising critique, his friend E. B. White observed that “Thurber was too egotistical in the early 1930’s to be an ideal father.”
He went on to add, “He was the most self-centered man I’ve ever known, but he did love Rosie.” “It showed through,” he said.
After a year or two had passed, Thurber became more comfortable with his role of father, even though it was only on weekends and occasional holidays.
In a letter to his old drinking buddy John McNulty he wrote: “ . . . Rosemary used to glance in my direction with about the same interest she had in a window pane or a passing char woman. It wasn’t until she was two and realized she was stuck with me that she said, during a walk through autumn leaves, ‘I love you’ . . .”
How could he have not appreciated his role as father after such a heart-warming experience?
During the week, there were editorial features to write and cartoons to draw for the insatiable appetite of The New Yorker. And, that’s not to say he didn’t enjoy the continuation of his carefree bachelor life with all its perks.
In the meantime, Thurber’s literary and artistic star was rising. His wonderfully screwy drawing of the barking seal on the headboard above a disgruntled looking couple streaked across the literary skies like a dazzling meteor. Publishers were now knocking on his door. What a change a year can make! Harper & Brothers decided they wanted to publish a collection of his drawings titled, “The Seal in the Bedroom and Other Predicaments.”
Thurber worked night and day to complete enough new drawings to fill the book’s projected number of pages. And, he did it. Most of the new drawings were surprisingly good considering the speed with which they were produced. There were a total of eighty-five drawings in the book, only fifty-five which had previously appeared in The New Yorker.
Many of the drawings are autobiographical in that they represent events and episodes in his own life. That a lot of them depict an on-going “Battle of the Sexes” is not surprising.
Dorothy Parker wrote the introduction for the little book. We’re talking the Dorothy Parker, fellow member of the staff at The New Yorker. A brilliant humorist in her own right. A member of the famed Algonquin Round Table. That Dorothy Parker.
Here’s some of what she had to say:
“ . . . These are strange people that Mr. Thurber has turned loose upon us. They seem to fall into three classes – the playful, the defeated, and the ferocious. All of them have the outer semblance of unbaked cookies: the women are of a dowdiness so overwhelming that it becomes tremendous style . . . “There is about all these characters, even the angry ones, a touching quality. They expect so little of life: they remember the old discouragements and await the new. They are not shrewd people, nor even bright, and we must all be very patient with them. Lambs in a world of wolves, they are, and there is on them a protracted innocence . . . “Of the birds and animals so bewilderingly woven into the lives of the Thurber people it is best to say but little. Those tender puppies, those fair-haired hounds – I think they are hounds – that despondent penguin – one goes all weak with sentiment. No man could have drawn, much less thought of, those creatures unless he felt really right about animals.”
The book was a big hit and the rest is history.
(JUNE 2005) Episode Eighty-Six
Does art imitate life? Or is it the other way around? Life imitates art?
In James Thurber’s case there seems to have been a large amount of both going on. He portrayed many of the ironies of life in his drawings. That’s art imitating life. The hatchet-faced ferocious females intimidating the baffled and befuddled males.
When baby Rosemary Thurber rode into this world, it was on the winds of a hurricane. The muse of art had returned the favor – with a vengeance. Just hours before Rosemary saw the light of day, her father and mother had engaged in a shouting match of Wagnerian proportions. No. More than that. It was much like a street brawl. Nasty. No holds barred. All the dirty linen trotted out and used as ammunition.
What were they screaming and raving about? Who knows?
They were back in New York City then, having returned from Sandy Hook, Connecticut a short time before. During the summer, they had spent some vacation time there and in a moment of compassion – or weakness – he had bought an attractive little Colonial bungalow on 20 acres.
By all accounts they were actually sleeping together, and that hadn’t happened very much during the entire rocky course of their marriage. Thus, Althea’s pregnancy.
But there was a fly in the ointment. He wasn’t one hundred percent sure that he was the father of the expected child. Sound familiar?This was probably part of what the fight was about. Seems he had a fixation about some guy that Althea had met on the beach that summer, a “chinless wonder,” he called him.
So, on the night of the big brawl, Thurber stormed out into the night, left Althea, “big with child,” alone in their little flat. He hit some of his favorite bars, called his old flame Ann Honeycutt, went bar-hopping with her and got totally slushed.
Returning to the apartment, he went on another rampage that resulted in his knocking a vase of flowers off a piano and ramming his hand through a glass door. A little later he showed up “dazed and bloody” at the apartment of Jap Gude and his wife.
They managed to calm him down, bandage his hand, and put him up for the night on their couch. What had set off this terrible night of self-destructive behavior? We will never know for sure, but the scenario running through his head might well have been something like this:
If not the right baby but the wrong father, perhaps the right baby, but the wrong mother. More likely the latter. At any rate, the horrible night was over, disappearing on time’s horizon like a dissipated tropical storm. And, how did Althea spend the rest of the night?
She was experiencing labor pains so she checked into Doctor Hospital. where Dr. Virgil “Duke” Damon, an OSU grad and former fraternity brother of Thurber’s, delivered her baby without any complications. The next day, when a bedraggled and hungover Thurber heard the news, he made his way to the hospital where he viewed the new arrival and apologized to Althea for his behavior.
Years later, in a syndicated article, Althea was quoted as saying: “He looked dreadfully (sic), and as he walked around the bed I saw one of his hands was covered with blood, and then he said he had been in some sort of a – he had been out all night and had been in some kind of an altercation, and put his hand through a taxi window, and then the nurse came on duty and they took him out.
By the way, once they had a look at the baby, friends and acquaintances alike said that there was no doubt that the baby was Thurber’s.
(MAY 2005) Episode Eighty-Five
By the end of 1931, the United States was suffering the full effects of the Great Depression. Millions of people were unemployed and World War I veterans were selling apples on street corners.
People were working for 25 cents an hour, or less, if they were lucky enough to have a job. Hundreds of banks closed down. It was scary.
Everything was dirt cheap. You could buy a hamburger for a nickel, a quart of milk for 8 cents, and purchase a house for a couple of thousand, or less. The problem was hardly anybody had any money.
Herbert Hoover was president, prohibition was still the law of the land, Wiley Post and Harold Gatly flew around the world in eight days, fifteen hours, and fifty-one minutes.
And, James Thurber was sitting on top of the world.
He was working full time at the New Yorker, his quirky little drawings of domineering women, downtrodden men, and funky looking little animals now appearing in its pages regularly – and his second book, The Owl in the Attic, was published less than two years after the first.
And, surprise of surprises! Althea, his once estranged wife, had just presented him with a daughter.
How could he have not been happy? Hadn’t he just fulfilled at least three of the major components of immortality?
Which three are those? – you might ask. Well, if you don't know, I'll tell you.
One is creativity in art. Another is creativity in literature. And, the third is biological reproduction. Some would argue that this is the most important of the three, but that is debatable and best left for each to decide for himself, or herself.
Being a good person would be still another door to immortality, but Thurber might have been on shaky ground in that regard. In the final analysis it would depend on whom you talked to. He could be a real hell-raiser when he was drinking, and there are many eye-witness accounts of some of his shenanigans.
Let me be quick to point out that there are other pathways to what we perceive as immortality. Finding them depends on where you are coming from and what you perceive as the truth. All of this can be a touchy subject, and that’s enough said!
In Thurber's case, he deserved a lot of extra credit because of the huge handicap laid upon him by the loss of one eye and the unreliability of the remaining one.
One eye gone and the other one on the blink, you might say.
As anyone who has had eye problems can tell you, the quality of their vision can change from one day to the next.
What was worse, every now and then, seemingly for no reason at all, Thurber's remaining eye would just shut down, quit functioning, go blotto – leaving him totally unnerved. This happened one day at the office when he was talking to a co-worker and it scared him half to death.
So you see, even though he was sitting on top of the world, it was a wobbly world, much like the one portrayed in many of his drawings. Who would expect it to be otherwise?
Like in that old song, “raindrops keep falling on my head.” True for all of us, at various times.
Now, I suppose you want to know all about how this baby came to be born.
Most of Thurber's friends doped it out this way.
Althea, they figured, had gotten wind of Thurber running around on her. Especially with cute little Paula Trueman a winsome lass he had long had the hots for.
One day, on one of his visits to Connecticut, she probably looked at her husband with adoring eyes and whispered, “Let's give it another go. I'll move in with you.”
The chronology of events is a bit murky, as they often are in such cases, and you can almost imagine some of these scenes being portrayed in his own cartoons.
Like her informing him that she was pregnant.
“You're what?!” he might well have responded.
“I'm with child,” she undoubtedly said. “Your child.”
Whatever, hadn't she given up her dearly loved dog shows just so she could move in with her husband?!
Thus it was that when the allotted time expired, the couple were blessed with a bouncing baby girl: Enter Rosemary Thurber, born October 7, 1931.
A bright spot in the midst of gloomy times.
The only child he would ever have – that we know of.
To his dying day, Harold Ross denied that he had rejected Thurber's first seal drawing.
No matter. Actually it's a good thing he did, otherwise the later version that became famous might never have seen the light of day.
Shortly after the cartoon appeared in the January 30, 1932, issue of the New Yorker, Thurber received a telegram from famed humorist Robert Benchley congratulating him. High praise indeed. As a token of gratitude, Thurber sent him the original artwork.
A few of Thurber’s drawings had appeared in the magazine over the preceding year and a half. Mostly they were witty caricatures of animals placed under the heading “Our Pet Department.”
The most famous cartoon to emerge from this menagerie was a drawing of a horse with antlers tied to its head.
A horse with antlers tied to its head? Is that what I just said! What a weird and goofy idea.
Only Thurber could have come up with such a cockeyed concept. Especially back in those drab and dreary days of excessive moral repression.
Aside: I wonder where that word came from? I'm talking about “cockeyed.” Somebody please check it out and let us all know - before the local authorities have it banished from our dictionaries. Put the answer in letter form and we’ll publish it. I promise! This could be your big chance to rub shoulders with the famous and illustrious James Thurber himself, albeit at a considerable distance. So get a move on!
Meanwhile back to the storyline. Where was I? Oh, yes, the famous horse that has a pair of antlers tied onto his head. Like, real obvious.
And, there's a caption of sorts under the drawing that goes like this:
“Q. My husband paid a hundred and seventy-five dollars for this moose to a man in Dorset, Ontario, who said he had trapped it in the woods. Something is wrong with the antlers, for we have to keep twisting them back into place all the time. They're loose. – Mrs. Oliphant Beatty
A. You people are living in a fool's paradise. The animal is obviously a horse with a span of antlers strapped onto his head. If you really want a moose, dispose of the horse; if you want to keep the horse, take the antlers off. Their constant pressure on his ears isn't a good idea.”
Thurber's cartoons were now appearing regularly in the New Yorker.
And, he was dashing off drawings everywhere he went.
Every day, at work and at play and, seemingly, everyplace in between. The floodgates were open.
At cocktail parties he would scribble drunken likenesses of drunken women on cocktail napkins, menus, the backs of envelopes. Darn near anything.
He would give drawings to favorite bartenders and waitresses. Maybe, in return, he was getting a lot of his drinks on the house. That would be a pretty good deal for all parties concerned.
In a letter to his old friend Herman Miller he once wrote, “I have yet to meet anybody I have ever known, even casually, who hasn't got at least one of my drawings.”
Around the office, dozens of crumpled-up drawings would end up in the wastebasket. False starts. False farts. Some little tally-wag wrong. Assigned to the city dump. Or, hopefully, salvaged by some savvy janitor or maid.
Before the end of 1931, another collection of Thurber's cartoons and witty observations on life was published. This one was titled The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities. The book was dedicated to his wife Althea.
And, hold onto your hats!
On October 7, 1931, Althea presented him with a bouncing baby daughter, Rosemary.
Well, this was certainly a big surprise. They hadn't been living together since who knows when. Well, he had been visiting her once in a while, going to dog shows and all that kind of bow-wow stuff.
Well, whatever, our boy was on a creative roll of major proportions. New editions of all kinds popping up all over.
Is Sex Necessary? co-authored by James Thurber and E. B. White and published by Harpers became an overnight success. It was on the best-seller lists and received favorable reviews in newspapers across the country. Thurber and his pal Andy White were elated. The two New Yorker writers basked in the limelight. Columbus newspapers were full of pictures and articles about the two hometown celebrities.
When Thurber made a trip to Columbus in February 1930 for the 50th anniversary of his fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, word of his newly won fame preceded his appearance.
Amidst all the good ol’ boy back-slapping, he was the center of attention. He was also invited to be the speaker at a Sigma Delta Chi luncheon and gave a talk to an OSU journalism class. Oddly enough, a number of people noticed that he seemed ill-at-ease. A reporter for the Ohio State Lantern, the student newspaper, wrote: “He looked sad and answered questions with either ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘No.’”
No one ever figured out what was on his mind. Maybe Althea. Maybe he missed her poodle. Whatever. He was a complicated human being. All of this was happening within months of the horrendous stock market collapse of October 29, 1929, that preceded the Great Depression. Meanwhile, back at the New Yorker, Harold Ross was bewildered and befuddled by this turn of events. Two of his star writers were getting all this attention for something that had never been printed in the pages of his beloved magazine. The New Yorker was his entire world, so you can imagine the thunderous thoughts that rumbled through his head.
To make matters worse, those crazy drawings that Thurber dashed off for the book were also receiving critical acclaim.
“How I pity me!? he would moan to whoever would listen. But, then, something must have clicked in Ross’ mind. From an attitude of indifference and outright derision of Thurber’s peculiar little drawing, he suddenly changed.
Funny thing about human nature, isn’t it? We see it every day. In the workplace, amongst friends, at home. In politics? Oh, yes! On the national and international scene. All the time. There are plenty of clichés and platitudes to explain such changes of heart. Among them would be: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” and it’s also called “jumping on the bandwagon.”
So, the following little exchange took place not long after Thurber got back to New York.
One day at the office, Ross asked Thurber where “the goddamn seal drawing was.” Thurber looked up from his desk, probably frowned, and reminded him that it had been rejected and that he’d thrown it away. Ross asked him to draw it again and Thurber assured him that he would. As you may recall, that was the drawing of the seal with the weird-looking whiskers that was sitting on a rock.
Well, oddly enough, the subject seems to have slipped both of their busy minds for awhile because it wasn’t until over a year later that Thurber got around to the task of redrawing the cartoon.
And, of course, as we would surely expect by now (knowing Thurber as we do) the results were not as predicted. Seems that when he started drawing the rock, his pen went astray as if it had a mind of its own and the rock ended up looking more like the headboard of a bed. And, of course, there was the seal draped across the headboard.
So, naturally, like any good artist, Thurber went with the flow. He added a little bit of bed. Then he put a befuddled looking virago into the bed with her baffled-looking mate beside her.
The next step was to add a new caption. Easily done – for Thurber, that is. The inspired new caption read: “All right, have it your way – you heard a seal bark!”
This cartoon ran in the January 30, 1932, issue of the New Yorker.
It made history.
Nineteen twenty-nine was a good year for James Thurber. More and more of his articles were appearing in the New Yorker, and his funny little drawings were receiving some attention from the magazine's editors - thanks to E. B. White. Even more unexpected was the almost spontaneous idea for a book that he and White hatched up. The catchy little title they chose was Is Sex Necessary? Why You Feel the Way You Do.
And guess what? The spoofy satirical pieces in the collaborated collection of essays (eventually published) were illustrated with Thurber's drawings, over 50 of them! Like the inhabitants of a funny farm, these quirky and querulous characters were waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting public.
The two men put the manuscript and the drawings in a cardboard box and personally delivered it to the offices of Harper & Brothers. The publishing house had recently purchased a small book of poems by White. So, that was an advantage, not to speak of being able to hop in a cab, go a few blocks, and be at a publisher's doorstep.
After arriving at Harper's, they asked to see Eugene Saxton, one of the editors. When he appeared, they spread out the contents of the box on the floor, each of the eight chapters in its own little pile, the drawings in another.
Big surprise. Even though Saxton wasn't particularly thrilled with the idea, the powers-that-be at Harper's decided to give the book a whirl.
It appeared in bookstores on November 29, just a few weeks after “Black Friday,” the stock market crash that was the forerunner of the Great Depression. But, fortunately, the faltering economy didn't phase the unexpected and enthusiastic reception the book received.
In its first year, the book sold over 50,000 copies. Must have been the catchy title, huh? Or you might say, another victory for the power of sex?
The success of the book surprised everybody. Thurber and White were elated, of course. And to say that the publisher was happy would be an understatement. Today, the book is in its 25th printing and still chugging along.
As for the drawings, they were generally well received by critics and laymen alike. Who could not like them? Well, admittedly a few old farts and crusty curmudgeons probably fell out of their chairs when they eyed the daffy doodle-like drawings with their satirical captions. True, many of the drawings defy rational explanation, but therein lies a great deal of their charm.
Put another way, where one person might shrug them off as the simplistic scribbling of a child, or maybe the demented doodling of a madman, another would see them as a brilliant synthesis of the human condition.
E. B. White perhaps described this mysterious element best in the following excerpt from the “notes” that prefaced the book:
“. . . When one studies the drawings, it soon becomes apparent that a strong undercurrent of grief runs through them. In almost every instance the man in the picture is badly frightened, or even hurt. These 'Thurber men' have come to be a recognized type in the world of art; they are frustrated, fugitive beings; at times they seem vaguely trying to get out of something without being seen (a room, a situation, a state of mind), at other times they are merely perplexed and too humble, or weak, to move. The women, you will notice, are quite different: temperamentally they are much better adjusted to their surroundings than the men, and mentally they are much less capable of making themselves uncomfortable.”
(To be continued)
In good times and bad, the creative spirit in James Thurber burned bright. It didn't seem to make any difference whether he and Althea were at each other's throats, whether they were contemplating divorce, or living apart and dating whoever came along.
Before 1929 was over, this was becoming more and more apparent as he continued to churn out creative copy for the New Yorker. But a funny, unexpected thing was happening; a new beastie was being born. While he was ratcheting up his output of writing, another creative muse started kicking in more and more frequently.
Enter the cartooning muse. Oh, it had been around for a long time, actually, since he was knee high to a duck. All the way back to when he was five or six years old. This was a muse that had accompanied him through thick and thin, unacknowledged, but faithfully sticking with him. It was called doodling back then. At school, or doing homework, or almost anytime he found himself with pencil and paper in hand. He would scribble.
It's true that a few of his scribbles had seen the light of day when he contributed to the Sundial at Ohio State and, probably, a few more during the brief time he worked for the Columbus Dispatch. But nothing ever really came of them. And, the truth is that there was not much about those drawings that was distinguishing.
Enter E. B. White.
In 1929, at the New Yorker, Thurber was still sharing an office with this tremendously gifted writer. Neither one of them minded the cramped quarters and they had become fast friends. “Andy” White had long been aware of Thurber's doodling habit. How could he not? The doodles were everywhere. On scraps of paper on Thurber's desk, overflowing in the wastebasket, on memo pads, on the walls, in the hallway of the old building, in the elevator. Even in the telephone booth out in the hall. Especially in the telephone booth. Of course! That's where even the most neophyte doodler feels compelled to do his thing.
Many of the drawings were of dogs, sad-eyed, droopy-eared hound dogs. But White was probably the first person to notice any artistic merit in Thurber's constant and compulsive doodling. One day he spotted a crazy-looking seal that Thurber had scrawled on a piece of paper. The seal, with whiskers askew, seemed to be staring at a couple of far away dots. Under the drawing Thurber had written the following caption: “Hm, explorers.”
White thought the drawing and its caption immensely amusing and submitted it for consideration to the weekly art meeting. He was a member of this little group, as was Harold Ross and several other editors. The members of the group, including the art director, didn't know what to make of this strange bewildered-looking little animal. Rea Irvin, the art director handed the drawing back to White with a sigh - and a sketch of what a seal was supposed to look like.
Whomp! That was the sickening sound of rejection. But White was a persevering sort of person. He resubmitted the drawing with a note attached that said, “This is the way a Thurber seal's whiskers go.”
The drawing was rejected again.
Not one to give up easily, in the following weeks, White submitted other Thurber drawings. Sometimes he would ink them in to make them a little bit bolder, but all to no avail. The drawings kept coming back! To add insult to injury, one day his hard-headed boss, Harold Ross said to Thurber, “How the hell did you get the idea you could draw?” Thurber evidently kept his thoughts to himself because there is no record of any response.
The truth probably was that at this stage in his career he wasn't taking his drawing too seriously. For that matter, never in his lifetime did he truly consider himself an artist. His drawings were just a way to amuse himself - and maybe others if they were tuned in to his wavelength.
More likely, a way to siphon off frustration over his faltering relationships with women. It's all there in the drawings we have learned to cherish. So easy to perceive. Even for an amateur psychologist. The gimpy and frustrated sad-eyed men. The bossy looking carnivorous women. The sympathetic looking dogs and other animals.
Thank goodness E.B. White saw all this and recognized it as pure genius.
Thank goodness for friends!
When he wasn't visiting his wife Althea in her rustic Connecticut cottage and trotting around to one dog show after another, Thurber was adjusting to his on-again-off-again bachelor life.
“When the cat’s away, the mice will play” goes the old adage, and in Thurber's case, he was proving to be quite an active mouse.
Dalliance is the word.
There were a number of fair damsels he was seen with around town. Trysts and rendezvous became the name of the game. Many of his dates were cute and cuddly. Sometimes the pair would have cocktails and dinner. Sometimes just drinks.
A lot of times he and his date would sit in a booth. More privacy, you know, and certainly darker. All the better for whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ear.
One attractive female companion was Paula Trueman, an actress who was a dead ringer for his old flame Ann Honeycutt. Maybe prettier.
Paula was an actress who had a part in “Grand Street Follies,” a stage show playing on Broadway.
She had read several of Thurber's pieces in the New Yorker, and being a bright and ambitious young lady, she dropped him a note explaining that she had read and admired his articles and went on to ask him if he would be interested in writing some new material for her, maybe a new routine in the show she was appearing in.
Thurber took the bait, hook, line, and sinker.
They had lunch together, discussed her proposed project, met again, and again, and again . . .
Paula recalled later that Thurber never did get around to writing the skit for her. They talked about it a lot, but that's as far as it got.
“But we saw a lot of each other,” Paula reminisced.
The usual routine was for Thurber to pick her up after the show. Backstage, probably, and they would head for a bar. Maybe in a cab, more likely on foot. People who live in New York, believe it or not, do a lot of walking.
And, another thing to remember: In those prohibition days going to a bar meant going to a speakeasy, but there were plenty of those around.
Tony's was one of their favorite hangouts where they were sure to run into a lot of Thurber's friends and maybe even some of hers. People like Andy Whitem Wolcott Gibbs, and Bob Gates.
Once in a while Thurber's boss, Harold Ross, would show up. Paula thought he looked and acted like a taxi driver. That's good for a laugh, considering that Ross was the editor of the New Yorker! So much for going by appearances.
Paula wasn't a drinker, so she would just sip a soft drink, sit back and take it all in. The jokes, the witty remarks, comments on politics, the news and, of course, the latest gossip.
Whether Paula and Thurber had a sexual relationship is anyone's guess.
It appears that mostly she was just a good companion, an attractive woman to have on his arm and to be seen with. You know. To prove to other dudes that he had all the right stuff.
Paula was sensitive enough to realize that Thurber was suffering – in the marital department, that is. He might also have been uneasy about having only one good eye.
Shortly after they met, he explained how his brother William accidentally shot out one of his eyes with a handmade bow and arrow while they were reenacting the William Tell story. Paula recalled that Thurber wasn't too bitter about the accident and held no grudge against William.
She was not only a good listener, but Paula was also a shrewd student of human nature. Here are some more of her observations:
“I am an actress but it was Jim who was stage-struck. I think he really envied me my profession. He just plain loved to perform. He said it was so easy to succeed: You just had to be slightly better than the others who have no brains or talent. He had plenty of both. At one point he said he was going to leave Althea for good and he asked me to live with him. He even found an apartment, but later he said, 'Althea wants to come back to me,' and that was the end of a not very serious affair for a while.
“Another time, later, he was in my apartment, looking out the window, and he said, 'Let's get married.’ I looked out the window, too, and I said, 'No, I don't think so.'
“I never regretted it. But there was nobody else like Jim. “He was a complete individual, as a man and a writer.”
In the meantime, when he wasn't trying to be “the Playboy of the Western World,” Thurber was turning out some serious work for the New Yorker.
In 1929, he wrote twenty-nine published columns in addition to some miscellaneous articles.Return to beginning of article
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