This is the 26th episode of “James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide,” a rambling consideration of Thurber’s works, examining his life and work in some detail. Generally, these appear every Friday. The links to the first part and the most recent part are given below. Part 26 continues discussion of Thurber’s five-part series on radio soap operas, “Soapland”.
In “Soapland,” Thurber chronicles with obvious though restrained fascination the lives of entrepreneurial writers who start out writing five scripts a day for nothing and continue that pace for years while their salaries mount to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. He describes in some detail how the oppressed writers of radio eventually organized, in approved thirties fashion, to obtain better working conditions, better pay, and more control over their own work. The unspoken subtext—which Thurber finally discussed a decade later in his The Years With Ross—is that this did not happen at the New Yorker. By the time Thurber was writing the “Soapland” pieces, it was clear that the New Yorker was 1) quite prosperous, and 2) that it had been that way ever since the early or mid-thirties, when Ross was telling its writers and cartoonists that he was sorry but he just couldn’t afford to pay them as much as he wanted to.
What frustrated Thurber, and most if not all of those who worked with Ross back in the day, is that Ross could get away with stiffing them because they wanted to publish in the New Yorker, wanted to write for the smart set in Manhattan rather than the old lady in Dubuque, and were willing to put up with Ross’s high-handed editing and miserly pay because he made them feel important in ways that other, more mainstream publications did not.1 The New Yorker had cachet, and Ross knew it, and he exploited it.
“Soapland” has some of the flavor of George Orwell’s essays on popular culture, but Thurber lacked both Orwell’s political awareness (which was not always valid) and Orwell’s sympathetic fascination with the topics he discussed. Thurber does note the amusing slow pace of the radio soaps—a haircut could last a week2—and the basic “small town good/big city bad” morality of most of the shows, but he doesn’t quite throw himself into the content with quite the vigor that one would like. But he definitely leaves you wishing for more, and regretting that he didn’t do similar studies in the fifties.3
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” finally made it to the screen in 1947, but Thurber found little pleasure in it. He had worked conscientiously to help make the film a success, dutifully supplying new fantasies for Mr. Mitty, none of which could provide what Hollywood, and Sam Goldwyn, really wanted: a happy ending. The film, as it finally emerged, turned Mr. Mitty from a pathetic little middle-aged man into Danny Kaye, a wide-eyed innocent trembling on the verge of manhood and requiring the strong arm of Virginia Mayo to pull him over the threshold after an elaborate series of real-life adventures. Thurber got into a public dispute over the film with Goldwyn, Goldwyn playing the Hollywood vulgarian, and Thurber the classy writer, to perfection.4
In his private life Thurber was not so classy. Illness and impending blindness, combined with old age, made him increasingly likely to take out his frustrations on those around him, particularly women. E.B. White stopped seeing him socially because of Thurber’s constant habit of baiting his wife Katherine. Thurber had a compulsive need for company, but also a compulsive need to offend. In the late forties, while having a conversation with Mark Van Doren, Thurber suddenly burst into tears, saying that he was a horrible person, that he was always tearing people down instead of being kind to them.
Unfortunately, insight never led to repentance. All of his life Thurber had a streak of frat boy malice in his soul. He loved playing the same phone joke on his friends, calling them up and pretending to be a black laundress who had previously worked for the friend and now had fallen on hard times. A great many black women supported themselves as laundresses in the twenties, thirties, and forties, and Thurber was a remarkably gifted mimic. He would ply his friends with hard-luck stories replete with racist clichés—crap games, straight razors, cheating boyfriends, etc.—and his friends, hamstrung by liberal guilt, would let him ramble on and on until he finally collapsed with laughter. His behavior at parties was similar—goading people with outrageous behavior, knowing that they would be reluctant to be “rude” and spoil things, and particularly reluctant to talk back to the great James Thurber.
Ross was unsurprisingly eccentric about money, both his and other people’s. He liked money, and had plenty of it, not to mention the extensive freebies that come to influential people in Manhattan, but he could have had a lot more if he had paid attention to it. He was casual about money, and expected other people to be too, even though most people didn’t have his resources. ↩
One of the most popular soaps was the entirely forgotten “Just Plain Bill,” about a lovable small-town barber. ↩
The soaps were perhaps best handled by radio satirists Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding, who transformed “Mary Noble, Backstage Wife” (Mary was the wife of a Broadway star Larry Noble) into “Mary Backstage, Noble Wife” and turned “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy” into “Jack Strongarm, All-Boy American.” ↩
Along with the happy ending, Thurber objected to the “git-gat-gittle” songs written for Danny by his wife Sylvia Fine. As in the case of The Male Animal, Thurber’s name did not appear on the movie posters for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. ↩