James Thurber: In Conversation With Alistair Cooke

“James Thurber, one of the world’s greatest humorists ,” writes ALISTAIR COOKE, “was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1894. In his early thirties, he joined the New Yorker magazine, and there formed a working partnership with E. B. White that became as memorable in our day as that of Addison and Steele was in the London of the Spectator. The writings and drawings of Thurber have gone around the world. And though Thurber surely didn’t invent The War Between Men and Women, he is its bravest war correspondent.”Mr. Cooke’s interview with Mr. Thurber was first presented on Omnibus, produced by TV-Radio Workshop of the Ford Foundation.

JAMES THURBER settles to his daily work at his colonial farmhouse in Cornwall,Connecticut, sitting at a card table jotting down the words he cannot see. I asked him how a blind writer goes about composing.

THURBER: I’ve done my writing with a pencil since 1941 when I got so I couldn’t see well enough to use a typewriter. I don’t know how the great blind writers like Milton and James Joyce managed it, but this is really not as hard as it might seem. Most writers try to make the work seem hard. There’s a certain amount of drudgery to not being able to see what you write. I get 20 words on a page, and about 100 words on one pencil, and I use yellow copy paper; 500 sheets accommodate only 10,000 words (125,000 words make a novel). After I get my stuff down, only about three women in the world — two secretaries I’ve had, and my wife — can read it. It takes about three months to learn it, as if it were a foreign language like Latin; but it doesn’t do anything for a secretary’s mind — just things to her nerves.

COOKE: When did you start to write, Jim? And for that matter, when did you start to draw?

THURBER: Well, actually I began both when I was about seven years old. I think the writing has improved somewhat; I like to think so. But the drawings are just about what they were in 1901.

COOKE: Did you always want to be a writer? What were your ambitions?

THURBER: Well, I think I wanted to be a poet, and unfortunately there’s some evidence of that in existence which my brother still occasionally holds over my head. It’s a poem entitled “My Aunt Margery Albright’s Garden at 185 South 5th Street, Columbus, Ohio,” and critics of poetry, professors, and others realize that I was not a born poet. Then I wrote a story about the West when I was eleven, called “The Intrepid Scout,” but my father wanted me to go into politics.

COOKE: That’s right; he was in Ohio politics, wasn’t he?

THURBER: Yes, the year I was born, 1894, he ran for clerk of the courts in Columbus, and after that he ran for office but he never was elected. But when William McKinley was governor of Ohio my father was in his office. I met governors and state senators and oven congressmen and United States senators when I was a little boy. Our house was always filled with politicians, and I said to my father, “Gee, I wish you knew baseball players or locomotive engineers or even an Indian, not necessarily a chief.” But all we had were politicians. By the way, my father once gave me a definition. When I was eight, I said in genuine confusion, “Poppa, what’s the difference between a statesman and a politician?” He thought a minute and said, “The statesman is a politician in a position to get us all in trouble, and if we’re lucky, out of it,” and I think that applied later than that period.

COOKE: What put you off going into politics? What did your father get out of it ?

THURBER: What did he get out of it ? Here’s what he got out of it. He ended up as state secretary for the Bull Moose Party in 1912, and when that party collapsed he got six typewriter ribbons, twenty-two dozen pencils, and I think several boxes of yellow copy paper. Those were his only souvenirs of the campaign of 1912.

COOKE: Having thrown politics out the window, when did you make the decision, if you ever did, to become a humorous writer?

THURBER: I don’t think I made the decision myself. I think my mother made it for me. She was a born comedienne, and her antics were pretty well known in Columbus in the eighty-nine years she lived. They’re too elaborate to go into here, but a great many of the things I’ve written were either inspired by her or deal with her.

Copyright 1956 by the Ford Foundation

COOKE: Can you remember any of the titles that you would have given to those stories?

THURBER: One story I did about her was called “Lavender with a Difference" because my mother thought, as she once told me when she was eightyfive, that lavender and black were for old ladies. She wore gay colors. As I said, she wore her old age like a rose, the same way she wore her youth.

COOKE: Did she have any effect on your drawing?

THURBER: Well no, not exactly. She never believed that I was an artist and she didn’t like to discuss that part of it.

COOKE: But you mention the writing taking so long for rewriting, and I seem to remember somewhere you said that the drawings just came out like that, just fast.

THURBER: Well yes; for instance, in a story I wrote called “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” which is only about 4000 words, it took me eight weeks working day and night. There were about fifteen rewrites all the way through; whereas one night when Mrs. Thurber and I were in a hotel in New York she was in the bedroom and I Was silent for about two hours and she said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’ve just finished a book.”She knew that I had just finished either reading a book or drawing one. I had drawn one. I later called it The Last Flower. Fifty drawings in two hours, done with a pencil. Of course later I had to ink the pencil lines in, but the book had actually been done in about two hours.

COOKE: Now, Jim, I have here a drawing book which I guess your mother must have seen. In fact, it was your first drawing book, and here’s a picture which I think any eight-year-old might be proud of. It looks, if I may say so, like a Thurber drawing and I suppose you were the family artist. It’s been preserved.

THURBER: Oh no. Actually, my brothers - I have two — kept this little book, but my oldest brother was supposed to be the family artist and nobody in the family paid any attention to what they called my scrawls. My brother William would copy very carefully with pen and ink the pen-andink drawings of Charles Dana Gibson. I think my mother and father thought at first that these were originals that they saw around the house. At any rate, they would say, “Don’t bother William with your scrawls, Jamie; let him get his work done, he’s going to be the artist.”

COOKE: But when you get to college, at Ohio State, I see here that you have some drawings that are pretty elaborate. You start shading and stippling and it looks as if you were getting good, huh?

THURBER: Yes. Actually I started out trying to cross-hatch and shade and everything, and it wasn’t until later, when I had to fill a magazine fast because all the other artists had gone to war, that I became an artist myself, and I would get these drawings done very fast and didn’t have time to shade them. Years later after I had sold a few to the New Yorker magazine, Andy White, my colleague there, found me carefully shading in something and he said, “ Hey, stop that, don’t do that — if you ever became good you’d be mediocre.”

COOKE: So you simplified back to the famous Thurber scrawl.

THURBER: Yes, which is the only thing I can do badly enough to make it good.

COOKE: I can remember the shock of first seeing what you call your scrawls in print. How did you ever get them published? No offense meant.

THURBER: And none taken. Well, Alistair, that’s quite a long story. I’ll try to make it as short as I can. Let me take you back to Columbus, Ohio, in the early 1920s. I was out of school then and working as a reporter, and one of my friends was a high-powered real-estate man of that vintage and he had two or three telephones on his desk, and every time I dropped in to see him he also had three or four memo pads and the phones were all ringing. “ Pardon me, Jim,”he’d say. “ Yes Harry, yeh, I’ll get that down,” and he’d write it down. “And another thing, Harry, about that Johnson deal—just a second.” The other phone rings. “Johnson, that’s fine. I was just talking to Harry but he’s on the other phone.” “Just a second, Harry, Johnson’s on the phone now — hold on, will you? Yes. What was that? 2234 Midberry Avenue. All right, Harry, just a minute. I’ll be right there.” “So long, Johnson.”And then another phone would ring, still a third one. “Yes. Oh, sorry dear; no, I won’t forget that. O.K.” (This time he had nothing to write because it was his wife.) So in that way you had no satisfactory conversation with the man at all. Once he said, “Excuse me a minute,”and went out of his office and was gone about three minutes, and during that time I drew a dog on each page of each of the memorandum pads. When he came back again he said, “Sorry, Jim,”and sat down and the phones began their old routine and he said, “Hey, Bill. Yes, yes I’m sorry. What was that—eighty-three, five? Just a minute, just a minute. Bill,”and he began tearing off dogs. “ Hold it, will you?” And there was a dog on each page. Finally he had brains enough to write the number down on the dog. That’s how the dog began.

COOKE: Who is the first man who was bold enough to submit these scrawls for publication? Did you submit one?

THURBER: NO, don’t look at me. That was E. B. White — Andy White—perhaps the most important person the New Yorker has ever had. He and I shared an office together back in 1927 to 1929, and I used to scrawl or doodle. I don’t like the word doodle, but anyway I’d scrawl with a black pencil on yellow paper while I was thinking of something else.

COOKE: What did you doodle — draw?

THURBER: Dogs and seals and people, supposed to be people. Somebody once asked Marc Connelly how you could tell a Thurber man from a Thurber woman. He said, “The Thurber women have what appears to be hair on their heads.”One day Andy picked up one of my scrawls which showed a seal on a rock looking off in the distance, and the caption was “Mmm, explorers.”

COOKE: Who were the explorers?

THURBER: Well, just two dots. Even then it wasn’t very funny, but While thought it was funny, at least different, and he sent it in to the New Yorker’s art meeting, which takes place every Tuesday afternoon. It came promptly back, and on my original drawing a professional artist — that is one not only who gets paid but who has learned how — had drawn the head of a seal and written right on my drawing beside his seal, “This is the way a seal’s whiskers go.”White promptly sent ii back with another message: “This is the way a Thurber seal’s whiskers go.”Nevertheless it was rejected, and some fifteen other drawings of mine were rejected and it looked as if I never would get a drawing into the New Yorker.

COOKE: Well, what did the editor think about Thurber’s drawing?

THURBER: He was bewildered and to the end of his days he believed it was a fad mainly built up in England where my books of drawings were fairly well known. I said, “Well it’s a fad which lasted quite a while.” He said, “Don’t be impatient, give it time.”

COOKE: Jim, you’ve baffled a lot of people with these drawings but there are still a lot in print. Now how did they get there?

THURBER: I think I’ve been avoiding that question to protect the innocent publisher. You see, in 1929 Andy White and I wrote a book called Is Sex Necessary? and White insisted it be illustrated by me; so I did about thirty or forty illustrations in one night. The next morning we took them down to the publishers, and when we got there, we put them down on the floor. Three bewildered and frightened publishers looked at them, and one man, the head publisher, said, “These I suppose are rough sketches for the guidance of some professional artist who is going to do the illustration?” and Andy said. “Those are the actual drawings that go in the book.” And the book did come out in November, 1929, but very quietly. I think the original edition was 3500. For some reason it began to sell. The publisher didn’t have any copies, because who would want to risk more than 3500 copies of a book containing my first drawings? Not me!

COOKE: It’s true that when you first get printed, get into print, a lot of people suddenly believe you have talent who had no use for you before, and I wonder if the magazine editor had a second thought about your drawings.

THURBER: Well yes, Alistair, people began to talk about them. I don’t know exactly why, but Ross heard the talk and he came to my office one day and said, “What became of that seal drawing you did for us?" I said, “Became of it? You sent it back and I threw it away.” And he said, “Well, I want to print it, so do it over again,”as if it were easy to do anything over again. I started to do it over again, and this time with a pen on white typewriter paper.

COOKE: This was the seal on the rock?

THURBER: This was the seal on the rock, and I got the seal on the rock but the rock looked like a bedstead. It looked as if he were on the head of a bed, so I drew a man and his wife in the bed; and the shrewish wife is saying to her husband, “All right, have it your way — you heard a seal bark!”

COOKE: Yes, and that was a famous one; I didn’t know until now that it was by accident.

THURBER: Quite a few of my drawings have been done by accident. There’s one known in the office as “The Lady on the Bookcase.” I tried to draw a woman on all fours at the top of a flight of stairs, but not being a draftsman I didn’t get the right perspective on the stairs and I brought the line straight down with cross lines, and suddenly to my amazement there was this woman on top of what was evidently a tall bookcase. So then I put three other people in the drawing, two men and a woman; one of the men is talking and the caption is “That’s my first wife up there, and this is the present Mrs. Harris.” Well, the day that was submitted there was real consternation in the office and the editor called me on the phone and said, “We don’t understand down here whether that woman on the bookcase is dead or stuffed”; and I said, “Well, I’ll call you back.” I hung up and thought it over, and a few minutes later I called him back and I said, “I just called my doctor and he says a dead woman could not support herself on all fours, and then I called my taxidermist and he said you can’t stuff a woman; so she must be alive.” And the editor said, “Well, what’s she doing on the top of the bookcase in the home of her husband’s second wife?” And I said, “You have me there, I don’t know.” Anyway, they printed it.

COOKE: I remember the shock of the first Thurber drawings and may I say that they might have encouraged a lot of parents to send in their children’s drawings.

THURBER: It actually did — not only parents but very strange people. 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.”

COOKE: YOU know, Jim, your saying what you’ve gone through reminds me of what an old Roman author, I think it was, said: “A man can’t be a great comedian unless he’s well acquainted with the sadness of things.” Now in your view is humor a thing in itself or a way of sloughing off trouble?

THURBER: It’s very hard to divorce humor from other things in life. Humor is the other side of tragedy. Humor is a serious thing. I like to think of it as one of our greatest national resources which must be preserved at all costs. One of the things that worry me is the diminishing of political satire. In the heyday of Henry Mencken and Will Rogers, Finley Peter Dunne, William Allen White, and Ed Howe, they were not afraid to make fun of public figures. I think we are a little bit now. A professor of mine once said if a thing cannot stand laughter it is not a good thing; and we must not lose in this country the uses of laughter. I don’t think we’re in any real danger of it, because this country is basically a country with a sense of humor.

COOKE: How do you apply your own humor to political satire? I understand that you have been writing some fables. What is there in that particular form that attracts you?

THURBER: Of course fables are the oldest form of literary expression. You know Aesop; nobody knows exactly when he lived, but Webster put it at 580 B.C. — that is to say, more than twenty-five centuries ago. After all those 2500 years two expressions of his are commonly used today. We don’t go a week without using one or the other: “the lion’s share” and “sour grapes.” And every writer, I think, is fascinated by the fable form; it’s short, concise, and can say a great deal about human life: the little flaws and foibles and vanities of a man and his wife, or the larger political scene, or anything else.

COOKE: Jim, because it’s been so long since you could see — by the way, how long has it been?

THURBER: My blindness has been a gradual process over about fifteen years until now it is almost complete. I can, for instance, not see a cigarette but I can see the flame and I can usually light it. This is what the doctors call accommodation.

COOKE: Because you’ve had to give up drawing and concentrate on your writing, don’t you find blindness a great handicap to your contact with life and your imagination as a writer?

THURBER: No, it isn’t; the imagination doesn’t go blind. Of course I can understand how blindness would be a tragedy say to a locomotive engineer or a juggler, but a writer can always write. Blindness has a great many compensations. For instance, a few years ago I went out to lunch with a friend of mine and he was strangely silent. Not being able to see, I didn’t know what he was up to. I said, “What’s the matter?" He said, “For the thousandth time in my life I’m reading everything it says on the Worcestershire bottle label; about two hundred words.” And I said, “You see, the trouble with you sighted people is that you are handicapped by vision,” and that’s very true. A blind writer does not have the distraction of the writer who can see. I can sit in a room and I don’t look out the window; I don’t become distracted by flying birds or the breeze in the trees or a pretty girl walking by. Of course I can still hear a pretty girl.