Friday, March 21, 2003

[3/21/2001] Thurber Tonight: Part 2 of "Gentleman from Indiana" -- plus some of Thurber's obit for John McNulty (continued)


The Ohio State House in the 1930s. "The interior . . . is as darkly morose as its outside is heavily aggressive." (Thurber)


Thurber told the Whites he intended to "put in a paragraph for the book, just to please the family." Here's some of what he wrote them in that "Dear Thurbers" letter of July 2, 1951:
As you now know, "Gentleman from Indiana" has been widely hailed as a good piece about a good man and I will fix up the piece for the book. You also know that Mary Thurber will be highly appreciated by a million readers when "Lavender With a Difference" comes out.
Then he devotes a good deal of space to the impending Time piece on him written by his friend Joel Sayre, which --
will no doubt mention my family and I hope it does not upset you. . . . The TIME piece is the result of last year's research and was set up in proof a couple of months ago. I had no control over it. I anticipate that it will be a sound and friendly piece, but I cannot anticipate your reactions to it. Take it as calmly as you can, remembering that the piece on Mama [i.e., Thurber's "Lavender with a Difference" -- Ed.], to appear three weeks later, will be what is remembered.

it's interesting to read the first published version of "Gentleman from Indiana" (online, New Yorker subscribers can do it for free, others for a fee). It seems to me hard to read as anything but a portrait filled with affection and respect. Given the furor, I looked at both versions, and tried to represent differences, as I explained last night, by:
* italicizing added or amended text in the book version, and
* [bracketing and striking through text deleted] from the magazine version

For the record, this is an oddly hybrid text I'm offering here. The basic text, actually, is the magazine version, into which I then incorporated all the book-version changes I noticed, indicating the differences where they seem significant. Obviously, though, changes I didn't notice in my quick comparative read-through didn't get incorporated.

As I wrote last night, there are lots of reasons why Thurber could have altered the text from the magazine to the book version. For one thing, magazine publication was bound to shake loose additional information worth incorporating, and it's clear that Thurber indeed learned more specifics about the jobs his father held. Clearly too there may have been either changes in perspective or things he simply realized he hadn't included in the original version; there are aspects of Charles Thurber which originally got little or no attention. But clearly too there is evidence of the promised "fixing up," and not just "a paragraph."


Gentleman from Indiana
Part 2

The interior of the Ohio State House is as darkly morose as its outside is heavily aggressive. It is almost impossible to find the governor's office, or any other, unless you have been accustomed for years to the monumental maze of corridors and rooms. Even the largest rooms seem to have been tucked away in great, cool, unexpected corners by an architect with an elephantine sense of humor. Once, when I was ten, I was lost for an hour in the labyrinth, looking for my father. At the time, he was keeping things in order in the pressroom, as secretary for the correspondents who covered the State House -- Jim Faulkner, Ben Allen, Allen Beach, Ber Williamson, and a dozen more men of light reverence and sharp tongue, whom I held to be the highest development of the Ohio male I had yet encountered. In dull political weather, they had fun getting some of the more naïve legislators to introduce bills banning short skirts for women or requiring cows to wear red lanterns attached to their tails. They joined gallery spectators in the bobwhite whistle the year the servants of the people solemnly debated the right of the quail to be protected as a songbird. When the bill was finally passed, one newspaperman, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, wired his paper, "Out of the frying pan into the choir." I took to hanging around the pressroom as the years went on, and when, in the early nineteen-twenties, I briefly covered the State House for a Columbus paper, my highest ambition as a boy was realized; I became a member of the Ohio Legislative Correspondents Association. My father and I attended its annual banquet one year; he was an honorary member, and, I think, the only one. The meeting, held in the banquet room of a hotel, got off to a planned and orderly start, complete with toastmaster and a program of speeches. Discipline did not last long. It ended precisely at the moment when the toastmaster, introducing one of the speakers, got into but couldn't get out of "formerly president of the Ohio Legislative Correspondents Association and now secretary of the Ohio Manufacturers Association." The meeting, from then on beautifully informal, broke up at a late hour. At the door, as we filed out, a young reporter patted everybody's pockets, searching for his lost silver flask. My father, who never took a drink, submitted quietly to the frisking. Outside in the street, he discovered that one of his friends was missing. We found him standing all alone at the long and dishevelled banquet table, grimly finishing a tribute, begun in bedlam an hour before, to the memory of one of the members who had died during the year. My father was never a man to lecture the wayward. The next day, all he said to me was, "It was a daisy, wasn't it?" and let it go at that. [My youthful ambition to join the ranks of the great men in the State House pressroom has long since dwindled to rational proportions, but I still have my membership card, after more than a quarter of a century.]

Everybody's father is a great, good man, someone has said, and mine was no exception. There was never, I truly believe, a purely selfish day in his life. He was sorrowfully aware, from twilight to twilight, that most men, and all children, are continuously caught in one predicament or another, and his shoulder was always ready to help lift a man's cross, or a child's, when it became too heavy to be carried alone. He tried to keep his own plights and griefs to himself, for he hated to bother anybody with his troubles, but everybody wanted him to be happy and everybody did his best to help. When he was secretary to the mayor of Columbus (he often served as unofficial acting mayor) one of his colleagues, in the midst of a political speech, suddenly digressed to talk about my father. "Charley Thurber," he said, remembering some old thoughtfulness, "is the most beloved man in the City Hall." This was conceivably the first time that adjective had ever been publicly used by a municipal employee in any American town.


My father never held a tennis racket or a golf club, and he couldn't kick a football or catch a swift pitch, but he bowled whenever he got a chance -- tenpins, duckpins, candlepins, cocked hat, and quintet, a difficult game, the rules for which I was told he had helped to make up. His highest score in tenpins, 269, is the mark of a superior bowler, but he bowled for relaxation and exercise, and not from addiction. He was addicted to contests, contests of any kind. Although he couldn't draw very well, I remember his drawing the Pears' Soap baby, fifty years, ago, in a contest for the best pen-and-ink reproduction of the infant in the famous advertisement. He would estimate the number of beans in an enormous jar, write essays, make up slogans, find the hidden figures in trick drawings, write the last line of an unfinished jingle or limerick, praise a product in twenty-five words or fewer, get thousands of words out of a trade name, such as, for recent example, Planters Peanuts. But it was on proverb contests and book- and play-title contests, run by newspapers, that he worked hardest. Over a period of fifty years, he won a trip to the St. Louis World's Fair, a diamond ring, a victrola, two hundred dollars' worth of records, and many cash prizes, the largest, fifteen hundred dollars, as first prize in a proverb contest.

Charles L. Thurber was a man of careful method and infinite patience. Once, when the titles of books and plays were printed so close together in a contest catalogue as to be confusing, he cut them out and pasted them on separate strips of cardboard -- two thousand separate strips of cardboard. In this way he could compare them, one at a time, with each of the contest drawings, of which there were fifty or more, making at least a hundred thousand permutations in all. He liked to find the less obvious answers: "The Coming of the Tide" for a picture of two youths racing head on and shoulder to shoulder; "Richard the Third" for a drawing of three men on a bench, identified in balloons, from left to right, as Tom, Harry, and Dick. The idiotic answer that paid off on the three men was "Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow." Unfair and ridiculous answers are usually picked in every title or proverb contest for five or six key drawings. This is done to prevent experts like Charles L. Thurber from winning all the major prizes in every contest. My father never seemed to get on to this strategy of deceit. He approached every contest with the same light in his eye, confident that the cleverest and subtlest answers would win. His severest disappointment came in 1905, in a proverb contest conducted by the Pittsburgh Gazette. I was only ten, but I still remember his anguish over the answer to a drawing showing the figures of a man and a woman in a balloon: "As well out of the world as out of fashion." The figures were tiny and murky, and he had examined them a hundred times under a hand microscope without detecting that they were dressed any differently from other men and women of the period. [He missed nine or ten other answers and failed to get even one of the five- or ten-dollar consolation prizes. He had labored over the contest nights and Sundays for several months, and at the same time, in addition to his regular work, he had managed to type voluminous pages of stuff from ponderous ledgers on behalf of the private records and vanity of some Ohio senator. I think it was the late Charles Dick, a politician once bitterly depicted by a Cleveland cartoonist as a midget of a man holding a sack of peanuts and lost in the seat of an enormous swivel chair that represented the stature and eminence of his predecessor in the office, the late Mark Hanna. As the result of this overwork, my father was stricken with what the doctors called brain fever, and almost died. He was scarcely up and around again before he tackled, as he always put it, another contest.] In his sixties he gave up his strenuous hobby, reluctantly, but soon decided to invent some contests of his own, to occupy his evening hours. He promptly sold some of them to large newspapers in the Middle West, [Many of the answers were difficult, but they were always fair.] but when one contest manager suggested that they set up a phony winner and divide the first prize money three ways, he stalked out of the man's office, and his work on contests ended that day. He was easily the most honest man I have ever known.

My father wouldn't learn to drive a car, and he was always uneasy in one. Nobody could outwalk him. He would even go on foot to Ohio Stadium for football games, a distance of several miles from our house. When he was visiting me in New York one time, he asked me how long it would take to walk from New York to Litchfield, Connecticut. I told him I didn't know about him -- he was in his sixties -- but it would take me a month and a half. He looked a little wistful, but he gave up the preposterous idea and settled for a jaunt with me up Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to 110th Street, pointing out on the way a hundred things I would not have noticed myself, including a small bronze tablet bearing the Gettysburg Address, which you will still see, if you look sharp, on the façade of a building in the Twenties. If there was a dog on a roof, a potted plant on a window sill high above the street, a misspelled word in a sign, a dime on the sidewalk, his practiced eye took it in. He gave the same scrupulous attention to anyone who had something to say or something to argue. He listened intently to conversation for the unusual statement or the remarkable fact. He was never guilty of that glibbest of human faults, the habit of quick and automatic refutation. He could remember a speech or lecture almost as accurately as if he had taken it down in shorthand. If he had a hard day ahead, or an imposing task to face, he would get up early and bathe, singing, off key, "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," or an old song, in the Riley dialect, called "Just One Girl." Frustration, indignation, or deep annoyance would send him to his bureau, where I used to watch him vigorously brushing his hair for at least five minutes with a pair of military brushes. When the world pressed in too strongly upon him, he would take a train to Indianapolis and walk along Lockerbie Street. My mother still has a letter he wrote her from there when he was twenty-one, in which he said, "I feel as sure that you and I will be married as I do that we will some time end our existence here." In this letter, in which he told her that he would be in Columbus the following Sunday, he wrote, "I would be delighted beyond expression to take you to church." The church he took her to was the Methodist Church near my grandfather's house, and soon afterward he and Mary Agnes Fisher were married there. [As it turned out, he lived] He ended his existence in Columbus nearly fifty years later, at the age of seventy-two. Among the hundreds of letters my mother received was one from John McNulty. "Charley Thurber," he wrote at the end, "was a good-minded man."*

The day my daughter was born, October 7, 1931, my telegram from New York was handed to my father while he was presiding as a toastmaster at a Riley Day banquet in Columbus. God and Nature had neatly conspired that the birthday of his idol (October 7, 1849) and of his only grandchild should be happily conjoined. For this small and whimsical favor, I am deeply indebted to Them both.

*In 1956, following McNulty's sudden death, The New Yorker's (unsigned) obituary was written by Thurber, who had first known this through-and-through New Yorker when they were both working on newspapers in Columbus. In the obit, he described the pieces his old friend began writing for the magazine in 1937 ("after he came back to New York . . . from a long sojourn in the Middle West") as "the reports of a true and eager eye and ear that found high excitement in both the unusual and the common phrases and postures of men, and turned them into the sparkle of his unique idiom."

The obituary, in the issue of August 4, 1956, continued: "The days didn't go by for John McNulty; they happened to him. He was up and out every morning, wandering the beloved streets and 'avenyas' of his city, stopping to talk and listen to everybody. His week was a seven-day circus that never lost its savor. He was not merely an amusing companion; he was one of the funniest of men. When he told a tale of people or places, it had a color and vitality that faded in the retelling by anyone else. The name McNulty, for us, meant 'Inimitable,' and at the same time something in lower case, familiar and cherished -- a kind of synonym for laughter. We grieve that such a man cannot be replaced, in our hearts or on our pages, but we are happy that we have published more than threescore of the pieces he wrote."


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