Columbus, Ohio USA
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written by Gazette Publisher Tom Thomson
Drunken Capers of Newsmen
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 for 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 whippersnapper 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.
Reprinted from the February 2003 issue.
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