The Thurber Effect

We’ve looked at a number of artists and writers who were instrumental in giving the New Yorker its unique look and voice, but few were more influential than James Thurber, who contributed some of the New Yorker’s most memorable writings (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) as well as some of its most enduring cartoons and illustrations.

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September 17, 1927 cover by Julian de Miskey.

In fact, Thurber’s art is so ingrained in the New Yorker’s culture that the magazine goes to great lengths to preserve some of his office wall drawings, which move along with the magazine each time it relocates. On his website Ink Spill, New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin writes “When you move, it’s always reassuring unboxing something you love from the old place and setting it down in the new place.”

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ICONS…Thurber’s wall drawings installed in the New Yorker offices at One World Trade Center (Ink Spill)

In 1991, when the New Yorker prepared to leave its longtime home at 25 West 43rd Street (where Thurber originally doodled on a plaster wall), conservators carved several drawings from the wall and mounted them in protective glass. The drawings were eventually installed at the magazine’s new offices across the street at 20 West 43rd St. They were moved again when the New Yorker relocated to 4 Times Square in 1999 and then once more in 2015 to their current location at One World Trade Center.

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NEW YORKER GIANTS…E.B. White and James Thurber in 1929. The two would share an office and become good friends. In 1929 they would collaborate on a best-selling book spoof, Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do. (xroads.virginia.edu)

Thurber joined the New Yorker staff in 1927, sharing an office “the size of a hall bedroom” with E. B. White, who had joined the magazine about a year earlier. According to Jon Michaud (in a June 2, 2010 New Yorker article), Thurber arrived at The New Yorker from Columbus, Ohio, via Paris, France, and a brief stint at the New York Evening Post. “Six months after he was hired, Thurber was transferred to the ‘Talk of the Town,’ where he found his feet as a reporter and did for that department what White did for ‘Notes and Comment’—he gave it an identity and a tone, which can still be heard in the magazine today.” This included introducing the convention of using the first person plural in “Talk” items.

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James Thurber in undated photo. (thefamouspeople.com)

His contribution to the Sept. 17, 1927 issue was not anonymous, however, as Thurber prominently signed his entire name–James Grover Thurber–at the end of a humorous essay, “Polo In The Home.” An excerpt:

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People in Glass Houses

Writing in her “About the House” column, Muriel Draper examined new uses for glass in modern design and concluded that houses built of glass rather than stone belonged to a distant future.

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Well, Muriel was almost right. Philip Johnson built his famous Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1949. Muriel Draper died in 1952. I assume she visited the house or at least knew of it, since she and Johnson were in New York social orbits that often aligned, especially around the Harvard modernists.

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PASS THE WINDEX…Architect Philip Johnson’s famed Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. (connecticutmag.com)

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So Much For Golf

The Sept 17 issue also featured a profile of golfer Glenna Collett. Writer Niven Busch began by describing how Collett’s physical appearance compared with other women golfers and athletes. Yes, it was 1927. Title IX was still 45 years away. Here are the first two paragraphs, and an illustration for the profile by Johan Bull:

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I CAN GOLF, TOO…Golfer Glenna Collett in the late 1920s. (alchetron)

On the topic of physical appearance, it is interesting compare the above photograph of Collett with a rendering used in this 1925 Elgin watch ad (from another magazine). It looks nothing like Collett, not to mention the golf club she is holding would barely reach her knees let alone the ground.

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LOOK FAMILIAR?…The illustration for this advertisement is by James Montgomery Flagg, who in 1917 created the iconic “I Want You” Uncle Sam illustration for the U.S. Army. (Period Paper)

Finally, another look at the changing cityscape in this cartoon by H.O. Hoffman:

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Next Time: Flapper Fitness…

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Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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