Friday, May 8, 2015

Lavender with a Difference

James Thurber (1894–1961)
From James Thurber: Writings & Drawings

“Some nights she threw them all.” Thurber’s
drawing of Aunt Gracie Shoaf from “The Night
the Bed Fell,” one of the many characters inspired
by his mother. According to Thurber’s brother
Robert, when the children thought they heard
burglars in the house, Mrs. Thurber “would
throw shoes down the hall in the dark, or
down the stairs, just to add to the confusion.”
“Almost all my memories of the Champion Avenue house have as their focal point the lively figure of my mother,” writes James Thurber in “Lavender with a Difference,” recalling where he lived in Columbus, Ohio, when he was five years old. Mary Agnes (“Mame”) Fisher Thurber was locally famous—some might say notorious—for her extravagant storytelling, elaborate practical jokes, and deep interest in astrology, numerology, and various systems of self-help. As a teenager in the 1880s, encouraged by her teachers, Mame starred in school drama productions and flirted with the idea of running away and becoming an actress; her strict Methodist parents were apparently mortified and thwarted her plans. For the next seven decades she instead channeled her energies as a humorous and sometimes overbearing mischief-maker. Thurber’s biographer Harrison Kinney relates an incident in 1951, when the eighty-five-year-old matriarch ran into an old classmate, whose granddaughters pleaded, “Oh, Grandma, make her do something!”

The screenwriter Joel Sayre, who was raised in Columbus and who later joined Thurber for a spell at The New Yorker, described to Kinney a typical boyhood visit to the Thurber home. “There was a three-ring circus in progress all the time. The mother had them all competing to be the funniest. Years later, when Jim began to ring the bell with his New Yorker pieces about family life in Columbus, I’d think, Who couldn’t be a successful comic writer with that kind of mother and family?” Thurber often credited his mother’s influence for his own comic sensibility and fanciful imagination. In a 1953 speech, he claimed that a friend met Mame and subsequently told him, “Your humor is only a pale reflection of your mother’s, but if you keep at it you might be almost as good as she is someday.”

A family friend told Kinney that Thurber’s mother “didn’t object to embellishing the truth, but never at the expense of anyone but herself.” And so Mame often appears in her son’s outlandish stories, either as a slightly exaggerated version of her real self or as a thinly disguised fictional character. Burton Bernstein, a young New Yorker staff writer during the last half-decade of Thurber’s life, describes Mame as “the prototype, for millions of readers, of the Thurber Eccentric, Female Division.” Among the many pieces that feature Mrs. Thurber (or someone like her), “Lavender with a Difference” is Thurber’s most detailed and accurate portrait of his mother’s eccentricities, her tall tales, and—above all—her pranks.

Notes: Julia Marlowe (page 753) was an English actress noted for her Shakespearean roles. Evangeline Adams (p. 756-757) was a well-known astrologer in the early nineteenth century; Emile Coué was a psychologist who promoted a form of self-therapy based on auto-hypnosis.

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Belinda Woolf telephoned my mother at the Southern Hotel in Columbus one morning three years ago, and apologized, in a faintly familiar voice, for never having run in to call on her. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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