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.