Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Night the Bed Fell

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

“He came to the conclusion that he was suffocating.”
© 1933 James Thurber. Image reproduced by arrangement with Rosemary A. Thurber c/o The Barbara Hogenson Agency.
Just as the effects of the Great Depression were intensifying in the American Midwest, Charles Thurber was dismissed from his longtime position as assistant to Columbus mayor James Thomas, who, like many Republican officials in the early 1930s, lost his reelection bid. For the next few years Charles did piecemeal work for politicians and campaigns and took on other temporary jobs. At the end of 1933 he and his oldest son Robert decided to drive to upstate New York to sell ideas for promotional contests and puzzles to newspaper editors.

James, the middle Thurber son, had just published My Life and Hard Times, a fictionalized memoir of growing up in a family home where “there was a three-ring circus in progress all the time,” as one visitor described it. The episodes first appeared in The New Yorker in eight installments during the summer of 1933 and then as a book in November. Without notifying James in advance, his father and brother drove to Manhattan, showed up at the offices of the magazine, wandered uninvited through the halls of the editorial department, and ended up outside the door of fiction editor Katharine White. James had not yet arrived for work, and White was perplexed as to what to do with two men she knew only from Thurber’s stories. “We felt as if we’d been caught robbing the place,” Robert later told biographer Harrison Kinney. “It occurred to me later maybe she thought we’d sneaked in to blow up the place for revenge.”

Long before he set down on paper the installments of My Life and Hard Times, Thurber had been telling them—or, more accurately, performing them—in the homes of friends and in Manhattan bars and social clubs. “I first heard Thurber tell me these stories at Martin & Mino’s speakeasy,” Elinor Gibbs, wife of New Yorker editor Wolcott Gibbs, recalled to Kinney. St. Clair McKelway, a writer at the magazine, described a typical Thurber performance: “One after another, and sometimes more or less simultaneously, he would play the parts of his mother, his father, his grandfather (offstage), his brothers . . . and a dog . . . in addition to playing himself.”
Cover of July 9, 1951, issue of Time,
with Thurber's self-portrait, the last
drawing he created for publication.

Most of the chapters in My Life and Hard Times had a kernel of truth in them, a bit of family history or a funny incident that would inspire Thurber to conjure an over-the-top farce. For example, certain details of the book’s opening chapter, “The Night the Bed Fell,” were later confirmed by various family members. “My father frequently slept in the attic,” Robert told Kinney, “to get away from any possible uproar or undue noise.” Yet, to enhance the comedy, Thurber would switch around the roles of the characters, invent additional outlandish incidents, and exaggerate or revise what really did happen. As Kinney explains, it was not James but rather his older brother, William (Herman, in the story), who fell out of a cot and launched the night’s non-catastrophe. It was a boarder, not one of his aunts, who—thinking a thief was in the house—hurled a shoe through a transom window, shattering the glass. (His mother, too, was known for throwing shoes in the night at imagined burglars.) As for much of the rest: “Jamie always did exaggerate. You mustn’t believe a thing he says,” his mother, Mame, told a Time reporter for a July 9, 1951, cover story.

“When it comes to his past, however—to his family, his childhood, his life in Columbus—he’s never nasty,” Robert Gottlieb pointed out in a 2003 appraisal of Thurber. “This is the material that seems closest to his heart, and he returns to it lovingly again and again.” Yet his parents and two brothers had mixed feelings about being the involuntary performers in Thurber’s carnival. Another biographer, Burton Bernstein, relates an anecdote told years later by someone who ran into Charles Thurber and congratulated him on the book’s success. His irritated response “scared the squirrels over in the State House yard.” Eventually, however, Charles seems to have come around; when a reporter for the Columbus Citizen asked about his portrayal in the book (and particularly in “The Night the Bed Fell”), he “grinned” and responded, “Jamie is a great hand to enlarge on those little things that used to happen when he was a kid.”

Thurber’s mother, too, was initially appalled by some of the incidents attributed to her; some of the funniest parts, Thurber later admitted, would have been expunged “if Mama had got her hands” on the proofs. But Mame, too, learned to enjoy the resulting celebrity, and she unhesitatingly—and frequently, it seems—boasted of being his mother to complete strangers. Once, when she was returning home from New York, she requested a ticket to Columbus and the clerk commented, “James Thurber’s hometown,” to which she insisted proudly, “I’m his mother.” Family lore has it that the clerk alerted the conductor to the delusional woman boarding his train and advised him to keep an eye on her.

Thurber’s stories about his quirky family have fascinated readers young and old for generations. In 1940 (or thenabouts) a ten-year-old girl read My Life and Hard Times for the first time and more than sixty years later she remembered the experience:
I knew they were funny, that grown-ups laughed aloud reading them, but they didn’t make me laugh. Thurber’s stories were wonderful, mysterious tales of human behavior, like all the folktales and stories in which people did the amazing, terrifying, inexplicable things that grown-ups do. The various night wanderings of the Thurber family in “The Night the Bed Fell” were no more and no less strange to me than the behavior of the Reed family in the first chapter of Jane Eyre. . . .

When I did laugh at Thurber was when he played with words. . . . The story is the way the story is told.
The young girl was Ursula Kroeber, whom our readers will know as Ursula K. Le Guin.

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Most of the above biographical details and the quotes from Thurber’s friends and family members are from Harrison Kinney’s biography, James Thurber: His Life and Times.

Note: Crotchets, as Thurber uses it in the story, is an archaic word for “whims.”

Video: In 2010, in honor of his recently deceased father, Keith Olbermann concluded his Friday night broadcasts of the news program Countdown with readings of Thurber’s stories. Now, a decade later, he has resumed his readings for audiences stuck at home during the pandemic—this time nightly on Twitter. The second episode features Olbermann reading “The Night The Bed Fell” and “The Moth And The Star”; the video is available here. (Note: You do not need a Twitter account to view the video. Past and future episodes can be viewed on Olbermann’s Twitter feed @KeithOlbermann.)

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I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father. . . . 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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