King of Cornwall
›James Thurber may forever be associated with two places: the Columbus, Ohio, of his youth, which provided the setting for some of his most famous tales; and the Manhattan of the 1920s and ’30s, where he made his name as a writer and cartoonist with The New Yorker. What’s less well known is that Thurber actually spent a good half of his life in Connecticut, renting or owning a series of homes in Fairfield and Litchfield counties and doing much of his most memorable work here.
Thurber’s name is back on movie screens this December, with the release of a new version of his famous short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” This time Ben Stiller stars as Mitty, a mild-mannered everyman who fantasizes about a life of derring-do.
While the latest movie Mitty may take geographical liberties with Thurber’s original, much like its 1947 predecessor with Danny Kaye in the role, the writer himself set his story in Connecticut. In it, Mitty is accompanying his wife on a shopping trip to Waterbury, the mundane details of which are repeatedly interrupted by his imaginary adventures. He is, in rapid succession, a fearless pilot, a peerless surgeon, an expert marksman, and a fearless pilot again. That last fantasy ends when Captain Mitty, about to embark on a perilous bombing run, feels something strike his shoulder. It is his wife, demanding to know whether he remembered to buy dog biscuits.
“Connecticut was always one of his favorite places,” Charles S. Holmes wrote in his 1972 biography, The Clocks of Columbus. “He loved the physical beauty of the land and the picturesque charm of the villages, but most of all he loved the sense of being surrounded by history.”
Thurber arrived in the state in 1929, renting a home in Silvermine. Later moves would take him to Greens Farms, Sandy Hook, Colebrook, Litchfield, Woodbury, Sharon, and Cornwall.
In the preface to his 1944 collection, The Thurber Carnival, Thurber noted, “In the past ten years he has moved restlessly from one Connecticut town to another, hunting for the Great Good Place, which he conceives to be an old Colonial house, surrounded by elms and maples, equipped with all modern conveniences, and overlooking a valley.” The success of that book apparently allowed him and his wife to buy just such a place, in West Cornwall, which became their home until his death in 1961.
Biographer Burton Bernstein refers to the Thurber of those years as the “King of Cornwall,” and like a king, he could sometimes be a royal pain. Tim Prentice, a sculptor who grew up and still lives in West Cornwall, recalls that Thurber often came to dinner at his parents’ house. As a boy, he says, he would remove the heating grate from his bedroom floor and watch Thurber holding court in the family’s living room below. “He could be very entertaining or become sullen and mean-spirited,” Prentice recalls. “And he would never go home until four in the morning.”
Pilar Sureda, whose mother was also a Thurber friend, has a similar memory. “Thurber was a monologist,” she says. “He wasn’t really interested in a give-and-take conversation. He needed to have a listener next to him, someone who would fuel his ideas and keep their own under wraps.”
Aside from entertaining the neighbors, Thurber seems not to have been overly involved in civic life in Connecticut, perhaps because of his work or his failing eyesight, the result of a childhood accident. He did, however, strike up a correspondence with the popular Connecticut radio host Bob Steele. By then nearly blind, Thurber wrote in a huge, childlike scrawl, with only a handful of words to each page. Steele responded in large block letters, designed to make it easier for Thurber to read, according to Phil Steele, the radio host’s son and now an attorney in Hartford. The younger Steele included an example of the latter in Bob Steele’s Century a recently published multivolume collection of his father’s papers.
But difficult or dispirited as Thurber may have been at the time, the topic of their correspondence was classic Thurber, their mutual love of puns.