Flying For Thurber: Personal History

For a couple of reasons — fear and economics — but mostly fear,  I made it into my early 30s without ever getting on an airplane, without ever traveling anywhere outside of the New York Metro area (with one exception: a car ride to Montreal: pretty much a straight shot up and back on the New York Thruway).  But in December of 1986, a small article (In Parade perhaps?) caused me to get on an airplane for the very first time: James Thurber’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio was throwing him a 92nd birthday bash.

After the reading the article (shown above) I remember stepping away from my work desk and reading the clipping to my fiancee (and fellow New Yorker cartoonist) Liza Donnelly, who was working at her desk about twenty feet away. Her immediate response to the piece: “Let’s go!”   Mention Thurber in our household and life’s placed on pause; Thurber’s our cartoon god.  We made our way to the New Yorker and we made our way to each other through his work (our first date was to see a Thurber original up for auction — the drawing of the moose with loose antlers that appeared in The Pet Department).

  This birthday bash in Columbus, with 92 original Thurber drawings on display, was simply too good to pass up. Not only would we be able to see all of those originals, we’d visit the Thurber House, where he lived during his college years. The home, on 77 Jefferson Avenue, inspired some of his most famous short stories, including “The Night the Bed Fell”  — one of my very favorites. Other than Cornwall, Connecticut, where Thurber lived out his life, and The New Yorker itself, the Thurber house is basically Thurber Central.

We booked a room in The Great Southern Hotel in downtown Columbus — where Thurber’s drawings were displayed.  Bonus: it was also where Thurber’s mother and brother lived for some time.  We overcame the crimps in our dream trip:  my “problem” with flying, and Liza’s recently fractured sesamoid bone. She’d be on crutches in Ohio.  I like to think Thurber would’ve liked that we had dual issues to contend with.

I made the flying issue simple, willing myself to believe that getting to Thurberville was more important than the perceived risk (i.e., death).  And so we flew out west (Liza had flown many many times, so no biggie for her).  The trip was uneventful as I suspect most flights are. I do remember feeling woozy once we deplaned, as if my legs couldn’t support me.  I suppose I couldn’t believe we made it.  My first impression of Columbus was that it had the widest Main Street I’d ever seen in my life. I spent perhaps too much time wondering why it was so wide (and to this day I still wonder). Liza being on crutches was unfortunate as everything seemed like a long walk away.  We taxied everywhere. 

For us, staying in The Great Southern Hotel was like kids locked in a candy store.  Thurber’s drawings  weren’t isolated in a gallery — amazingly, they lined the hallway walls. The only Thurber original we’d seen previously (the one being auctioned on our first date) was small –no bigger than a sheet of typing paper. Here in Columbus, many were that size as well, but some were  enormous (Hunter, Princess, and Swain, according to the brochure, measures 89.1″ x  114.5″). Thurbers greeted us whenever we left our room, and whenever we returned. 

We soon made our way via taxi to The Thurber House, arriving before it opened for the day.  That allowed us time to take photos of each other on the steps. 

It was a strange feeling touring the home (visitors are allowed to roam freely). I’m guessing that thousands of visitors have tested the keys of Thurber’s typewriter, which (back then anyway) sat on a mantel. It’s irresistible (despite, if my memory is correct, the little sign requesting not to touch the typewriter).

Finally being someplace you’ve heard of and read about (even a fictionalized account) can be disappointing. Not here. Perhaps the Thurberness of our adult lives had prepared us for this immersion.

The flight was worth it.

Postscript: It’s worth noting that the second trip I ever took that involved flying was back to Columbus, seven years later to be part of an exhibition of cartoons at the Thurber House. Good Show! included Liza, Danny Shanahan, Roz Chast and myself.  We were all assigned rooms in Thurber’s House.  Liza and I got the attic.

 

— The Monday Tilley Watch will return next week. The latest issue of The New Yorker is a double issue.  Its contents were covered in last week’s Monday Tilley Watch.

 

 

 

   

 

 

Chast in Vermont; Interview of Interest: Carolita Johnson; Radio Interview of Interest: Liza Donnelly; Thurber’s 125th Birthday Fables; Price Slashed on New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons

Chast in Vermont

Roz Chast will speak at Vermont’s Brattleboro Museum & Art Center August 11th.  Details here. According to promotional material:

Chast will speak about her work, life, and career, in connection with BMAC’s exhibition of 139 original drawings from her graphic novel, on display at the museum until Sept. 24.

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Interview of Interest: Carolita Johnson

From The Middle Ages (on Tumblr), Ladies’ Night: Carolita Johnson — an interview from April of this year, posted July 24th.

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Radio Interview of Interest: Liza Donnelly

When Ms. Donnelly was in Ireland a few weeks back, she sat down for a radio interview with Sean Boyle (Seaniebee).  Listen here.

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Thurber’s Fables

Thurberites are familiar with the above books. The one on the left published in 1940, and the one on the right (a follow-up!) in 1956. Come February of next year, HarperCollins, celebrating the 125th anniversary of Thurber’s birth,  will release a collection of Thurber’s fables illustrated by some of our better known illustrators.  Further details about the book, and also another Thurber birthday title will appear here in time.

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Price Slashed!

Amazon currently lists the forthcoming New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons for three different prices: $800.00 (that’s the “deluxe” edition), $100.00, and and an eye-popping $55.23.

 

 

Chatfield Pencilled; From Dick Buchanan’s Files: Work by Gardner Rea; Splat! New Yorker Reveals Its Next Cover; Even More Cartoons; New Yorker Union Certified

Chatfield Pencilled

Jason Chatfield is up next on A Case For Pencils, Jane Mattimoe’s wonderful blog wherein New Yorker cartoonists show us their tools of the trade.  Read it here!

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 From Dick Buchanan’s files via Mike Lynch: Gardner Rea

Mike Lynch has posted another bevy of cartoons from Dick Buchanan’s Files.  This time it’s work from the underappreciated Gardner Rea.  See it all here

Here’s Mr. Rea’s entry on the Spill‘s A-Z:

Gardner Rea (self portrait above from Collier’s Collects Its Wits. Photo from Rea’s NYTs obit, 1966.) Born, Ironton, Ohio 1892. Died, 1966. Collections: The Gentleman Says It’s Pixies / Collier’s Cartoons by Gardner Rea (Robert McBride & Co. 1944), Gardner Rea’s Sideshow (Robert McBride & Co, 1945). New Yorker work: 1st issue (February 21, 1925) – 1965.

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Splat! New Yorker Reveals Its Next Cover

Barry Blitt talks to Francoise Mouly about his cover (above) for next week’s issue. And here’s a Washington Post piece about it.

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Even More Cartoons

 12 more pages, showing 18 more cartoons have been released by the publisher of the upcoming (October) New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons. See them here on the book’s Amazon listing.

With 3000 images promised, we’ve been shown a total of 25.  Only 2975 to go!

Note to tote bag afficionadoes: If you preorder either the $800.00 deluxe edition or the not-deluxe $100.00 edition, you’ll receive a tote bag.

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New Yorker Union Certified

The News Guild of New York posted this photo on Twitter congratulating the New Yorker Union’s certification. Keen-eyed observers will note a portion of James Thurber’s wall drawings on the extreme right. The drawings have moved with the magazine since it left its second home at 25 West 43rd Street in 1991.

This is what the drawings look like without company :

 

 

 

 

 

Firsts: Thurber’s First New Yorker Drawings

When you think of James Thurber’s drawings you probably think of one or two or three of his classics.  But before any of his cartoons appeared in the magazine (his first cartoon appeared in the issue of January 31, 1931), he illustrated and wrote something he called Our Pet Department.  It was, from the very first, intended to be a series; the first installment (shown above) appeared in the magazine’s fifth anniversary issue, February 22, 1930.  What’s fascinating (to me) is that the piece contains two elements that would go on to be forever associated with Thurber’s art: a dog, and a seal. 

It’s unclear when the two camps formed over whether Thurber’s art was or wasn’t art. Was it when the illustrations began appearing, or was it nearly a year later when the cartoons started turning up. Thurber’s simple line certainly wasn’t a shock. A trio of single line artists were already established at the magazine by the time Thurber’s first drawings appeared: Gardner Rea, Otto Soglow, and Gluyas Williams.  But it appeared that no little effort went into their finished pieces.

Thurber’s drawings seemed as casual as the effort he claimed to have put into them; their initial appearances in the New Yorker seemed to have dropped like graphic boulders in a placid pond. Thurber’s New Yorker colleague Wolcott Gibbs wrote (this from the Book-of-the-Month Club News, February, 1945):

“…for a good many years [Thurber’s drawings] were regarded by the rest of the staff, with the exception of E.B. White, as a hell of a way to waste good copy paper, since his usual output at a sitting was twenty or more, not to mention those he drew on the walls.”   

 New Yorker history books tell us that White was instrumental in bringing Thurber’s art to the world’s attention.  In 1962, a year after Thurber’s death, White told Thurber biographer, Harrison Kinney that “I think his art surpasses his writing” and “his drawing has a touch of genius.”

 

 

 

 

  

Well-Thumbed: Thurber. A Biography by Burton Bernstein

There are three New Yorker-related books that have stood the test of interest for me since the mid 1970s when the New Yorker became the place I wanted and had to be: The Thurber Carnival, Brendan Gill’s Here At The New Yorker, and Burton Bernstein’s Thurber.  A box-ful of New Yorker-related books have been published since (and a smaller box-ful were published before), but these three forever fascinate and educate. The Thurber Carnival came first — it was my entry point for his drawings and writing. Luckily for me, both Gill’s book and Bernstein’s were published soon after I first devoured Carnival — both, in fact,  came out in 1975 — coincidentally(?) the year the New Yorker celebrated its 50th anniversary) and not-so-coincidentally, exactly at the time I was ready for them to take over my world. Bernstein’s book, read while I was still in college, helped push me forward to living in the big city and going all out to break into the New Yorker.  I had already decided I needed to be part of what Thurber was part of — reading his biography only made it more imperative (as there was no plan “b”).

Luckily, I had a chance to meet Mr. Bernstein just a few years ago and tell him how important his book was/is to me. I explained how tattered my copy has become, and how, like Gill’s book and my first copy of Thurber Carnival, it is never far from where I work. True then, true today. 

I’m happy to say Thurber’s influence runs through me daily.  There are days I’m aware I’m trying to do something in the spirit of what he has done. A drawing recently published was an homage to Thurber’s Seal in the Bedroom. Even more recently I sold a drawing (not yet published) to the New Yorker that was heavily influenced by my all-time favorite Thurber drawing, “What have you done with Dr. Millmoss.”  I’ll note it here on the Spill when it is published. Now in my 41st year of contributing to the magazine, my debt to Thurber is never paid.  The same can be said about the other two authors who assisted in bringing me here.