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Thurber Connection
written by Gazette Publisher Tom Thomson
May/June 2017

An Overnight Success

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Is Sex Necessary? co-authored by James Thurber and E. B. White and published by Harpers became an overnight success. It was on the best-seller lists and received favorable reviews in newspapers across the country. Thurber and his pal Andy White were elated. The two New Yorker writers basked in the limelight. Columbus newspapers were full of pictures and articles about the two hometown celebrities.

When Thurber made a trip to Columbus in February 1930 for the 50th anniversary of his fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, word of his newly won fame preceded his appearance.

Amidst all the good ol’ boy back-slapping, he was the center of attention. He was also invited to be the speaker at a Sigma Delta Chi luncheon and gave a talk to an OSU journalism class. Oddly enough, a number of people noticed that he seemed ill-at-ease. A reporter for the Ohio State Lantern, the student newspaper, wrote: “He looked sad and answered questions with either ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘No.’”

No one ever figured out what was on his mind. Maybe Althea. Maybe he missed her poodle. Whatever. He was a complicated human being. All of this was happening within months of the horrendous stock market collapse of October 29, 1929, that preceded the Great Depression. Meanwhile, back at the New Yorker, Harold Ross was bewildered and befuddled by this turn of events. Two of his star writers were getting all this attention for something that had never been printed in the pages of his beloved magazine. The New Yorker was his entire world, so you can imagine the thunderous thoughts that rumbled through his head.

To make matters worse, those crazy drawings that Thurber dashed off for the book were also receiving critical acclaim.

“How I pity me!? he would moan to whoever would listen. But, then, something must have clicked in Ross’ mind. From an attitude of indifference and outright derision of Thurber’s peculiar little drawing, he suddenly changed.

Funny thing about human nature, isn’t it? We see it every day. In the workplace, amongst friends, at home. In politics? Oh, yes! On the national and international scene. All the time. There are plenty of clichés and platitudes to explain such changes of heart. Among them would be: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” and it’s also called “jumping on the bandwagon.”

So, the following little exchange took place not long after Thurber got back to New York.

One day at the office, Ross asked Thurber where “the goddamn seal drawing was.” Thurber looked up from his desk, probably frowned, and reminded him that it had been rejected and that he’d thrown it away. Ross asked him to draw it again and Thurber assured him that he would. As you may recall, that was the drawing of the seal with the weird-looking whiskers that was sitting on a rock.

Well, oddly enough, the subject seems to have slipped both of their busy minds for awhile because it wasn’t until over a year later that Thurber got around to the task of redrawing the cartoon.

And, of course, as we would surely expect by now (knowing Thurber as we do) the results were not as predicted. Seems that when he started drawing the rock, his pen went astray as if it had a mind of its own and the rock ended up looking more like the headboard of a bed. And, of course, there was the seal draped across the headboard.

So, naturally, like any good artist, Thurber went with the flow. He added a little bit of bed. Then he put a befuddled looking virago into the bed with her baffled-looking mate beside her.

The next step was to add a new caption. Easily done – for Thurber, that is. The inspired new caption read: “All right, have it your way – you heard a seal bark!”

This cartoon ran in the January 30, 1932, issue of the New Yorker.

It made history.

To be continued

Reprinted from the March 2005 issue.

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