ABOUT JAMES THURBER

The author of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and the creator of numerous New Yorker magazine cover cartoons, was born in Columbus, Ohio on December 8, 1894. One of the foremost American humorists of the 20th century, his inimitable wit and pithy prose spanned a breadth of genres, including short stories, modern commentary, fiction, children's fantasy and letters.

Thurber's father was a civil clerk, and his mother, Mame, was an eccentric woman who would influence many of her son's stories. Thurber had two brothers, William and Robert. One day while playing "William Tell" with them as youngsters, Thurber lost the sight in one eye when an arrow pierced it. Ultimately, he would go blind in both eyes, but that never stopped him from writing or drawing.

From 1913-1917, Thurber attended the Ohio State University where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. It was at this time that the Thurbers rented the house at 77 Jefferson Avenue, which became Thurber House in 1984. Due to his eye injury, Thurber was not able to complete a compulsory ROTC course so OSU would not let him graduate, although they did give him an honorary degree later.

After college Thurber went to Paris, France to work for the American Embassy. He returned to Columbus in 1920 and started working at The Columbus Dispatch as a reporter. Thurber spent his evenings working on skits for the Strollers and Scarlet Mask theatre groups at Ohio State - where he met his first wife, Althea Adams.  The young couple moved to Paris in 1925 and Thurber started work on the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune.

After stretching their francs as far as they could, the Thurbers moved to New York in 1926 and Thurber began his career as a freelance writer while working for the New York Evening Post. At a party Thurber’s friend, E.B. White (Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web) introduced him to Harold Ross, editor at the New Yorker, who hired Thurber soon after the party.

White and Thurber shared an office at the New Yorker, where they collaborated on their first book, Is Sex Necessary?, featuring a number of Thurber cartoons. After the book’s publication, Thurber’s cartoons were featured regularly in the New Yorker, and made the cover art six times. Thurber left the staff position at the New Yorker in 1935, but continued to submit cartoons and stories.  

Thurber’s daughter Rosemary was born in 1931. After several years of marital conflict, Thurber and Althea divorced in 1935. Thurber married Helen Wismer later that year. She convinced Thurber to leave New York and move to Connecticut after they married. Helen was Thurber’s editor and business manager, as well as his wife and caretaker, until his death.

Thurber had a great love of dogs, of all shapes and sizes. He even dedicated Is Sex Necessary? to two of his favorite terriers! Thurber included dogs in many of his drawings, saying that dogs represent balance, serenity, and are a "sound creature in a crazy world."

After talking for years about writing a play together, Thurber and fellow Phi Kappa Psi brother, Elliot Nugent, finally did. In 1940 they wrote the Broadway hit "The Male Animal." The play was such a success that it was turned into a movie in 1942 staring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Haviland.

Thurber spent much time in and about the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Though never a formal member of the Algonquin Round Table, he was a favorite among many of its members including Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Helen and James would stay in the Algonquin Hotel when visiting New York after they moved to Connecticut.

Thurber wrote nearly 40 books, and won a Tony Award for the Broadway play, "A Thurber Carnival," in which he often starred as himself.

One of his books, My World and Welcome To It, was turned into an NBC television series in 1969 - 1970 starring William Windom. "My World and Welcome To It" won best Comedy Series and Windom won Best Actor in a Comedy Series at the 1970 Emmys.

Thurber died on November 2, 1961. He is buried in Columbus' Greenlawn Cemetery.

“Some people thought my drawings were done under water; others that they were done by moonlight. But mothers thought that I was a little child or that my drawings were done by my granddaughter. So they sent in their own children’s drawings to The New Yorker, and I was told to write these ladies, and I would write them all the same letter: ‘Your son can certainly draw as well as I can. The only trouble is he hasn’t been through as much.”
— Thurber on his drawings
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LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES THURBER


1894: Thurber is born on December 8 on a self-described "night of wild portent" in Columbus, Ohio, to Mary Fisher Thurber and Charles L. Thurber, the second of the family's three sons.

1901: In Washington DC, where the family was living temporarily, Thurber is shot in the eye while playing a bow-and-arrow game with his brothers. This causes blindness in one eye; sight in his other eye continued to fail throughout his adult life.

1903-07: Thurber attends Sullivant Elementary School in Columbus.

1908-09: Thurber attends Douglas Junior High School, where he writes his Class Prophecy, featuring himself as an unlikely hero in an active world (hinting perhaps at a Walter Mitty character?)

1909-13: Thurber attends East High School, is elected class president in his senior year, and graduates with honors.

1913-15: Thurber starts studies at The Ohio State University, commuting by trolley from the family home at 77 Jefferson Avenue. He struggles with the required ROTC and gym courses, as well as in science labs, partly because of his poor eyesight.

1916-18: Thurber begins his sophomore year again at age 21. He meets Elliot Nugent, who introduces him to fraternity and social life. Along with Nugent, Thurber writes for the college paper, the Lantern, and becomes editor-in-chief of the Sundial humor and literary magazine. Thurber leaves Ohio State in 1918 without completing his degree.

1918-20: Thurber works for the State Department, first in Washington DC, and then at the American Embassy in Paris.

1920-21: Thurber returns to Columbus and begins working at The Columbus Dispatch. He also writes and directs musical comedies for the Scarlet Mask Club at Ohio State.

1922: Thurber marries Althea Adams, an Ohio State beauty with a dominant personality who may have influenced the character of the "Thurber woman."

1924: Thurber resigns from the Dispatch to try freelance writing.

1925-26: Thurber returns to Paris and is a reporter for The Chicago Tribune. He is later transferred to the Riviera edition in Nice.

1926: Thurber and Althea return to America in June and move to New York City, where Thurber begins working as a reporter and feature writer for the New York Evening Post.

1927: At a party, Thurber meets E.B. White, who introduces him to Harold Ross. Ross immediately hires Thurber as editor-writer for The New Yorker.

1929: Thurber's first book, Is Sex Necessary?, is published in collaboration with New Yorker officemate E. B. White.

1930: With the encouragement of White, Thurber's first cartoons appear in The New Yorker.

1929: Thurber's first book, Is Sex Necessary?, is published in collaboration with New Yorker officemate E. B. White.

1930: With the encouragement of White, Thurber's first cartoons appear in The New Yorker.

1931: Thurber's only child, Rosemary, is born on October 7.

1935: After several years of difficulty and separations, James and Althea divorce in May; James marries Helen Wismer, an editor, in June.

1936: James and Helen move to Connecticut. Thurber leaves The New Yorker staff officially in order to freelance, but keeps a contractual agreement for his writing with the magazine.

1937-38: Helen and James travel abroad in France and England. Thurber has a one-man show of his drawings at the Storran Gallery in London.

1939-40: Thurber collaborates with college buddy Elliot Nugent on "The Male Animal," a play about Ohio State, which was an enormous success on Broadway with 243 performances in the 1939-40 season.

1942: By now, Thurber has serious eye problems and uses a Zeiss loupe in order to continue drawing. The Thurbers briefly move back to New York.

1944: Thurber's overall health begins to decline. He is critically ill with pneumonia and appendicitis this year.

1945: James and Helen move into "The Great Good Place," a 14-room Colonial-style home in West Cornwall, Connecticut.

1950: Thurber receives his first honorary doctorate, a Doctor of Letters Degree from Kenyon College in Ohio. A second honorary doctorate is bestowed upon Thurber from Williams College in Massachusetts.

1951: Thurber declines an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from his alma mater, Ohio State, in protest over its suppression of academic freedom during the reign of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

1953: Thurber is awarded a third honorary Doctor of Letters from Yale University. He also receives the Ohioana Sesquicentennial Medal. Thurber's health continues to fail as a thyroid condition causes erratic behavior.

1958: Thurber returns to England to become the first American since Mark Twain to be called "to the table" at Punch.

1960: Thurber appears in 88 performances as himself in "A Thurber Carnival," a revue based on his writings and drawings and produced at the ANTA Theatre in New York.

1961: Thurber is stricken with a blood clot in his brain in early October in New York. He dies a month later on November 2. His ashes are interred at Greenlawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio, plot 50.

THURBER POSTHUMOUSLY

1972: Thurber Theatre is dedicated at Ohio State's Drake Union.

1984: Thurber House, located in what was James' home during his college years, opens as a literary arts center and museum of Thurber materials.

1994: Thurber becomes the first Columbus native to be featured on a US Postal Service commemorative stamp (three months from the 100th anniversary of his birth.)

1995: Thurber receives the first ever posthumous Doctor of Humane Letters degree from his alma mater, The Ohio State University. His daughter Rosemary accepts.

The Thurber House Collection

The Thurber House Collection and Archives contain unique manuscript material, family letters, scrapbooks, travel mementos, and personal photographs that once belonged to James Thurber and his family.

Among other materials, the collection includes: 
– Thurber's work for the Ohio State University's Scarlet Mask Club. 
– Contributions to the New Yorker
– Oral transcripts and audiotapes that provide accounts of Thurber's life in Columbus, his personality, and other details and observations. 
– Thurber's extensive collection of period sheet music. 
– Photographs and scrapbooks from family vacations

The majority of this collection was donated to Thurber House by Thurber's younger brother, Robert, and Thurber's daughter, Rosemary. Volunteers and friends also made many contributions.

Contact Thurber House at 614-464-1032 or by e-mail at thurberhouse@thurberhouse.org to schedule an appointment to view items from this non-circulating collection. Please allow two weeks for a response to inquiries about the collection.

For additional materials about James Thurber, visit these websites: 
– Ohioana Library
– Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection of the Ohio State University Libraries