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James Thurber Doodler Extraordinary

July 2024
1min read

The late James Thurber was an inveterate doodler. Until he could no longer see well enough to draw, he scrawled his familiar dogs, rabbits, and people on practically any surface that was flat and would show pencil marks. In fact, he continued to outline dog heads from memory even after he was blind. Like most doodles, a great many of his landed in the wastepaper basket. But some were preserved by alert friends, and therein lies a small, and distinctly domestic, tale.

The tablecloth photographed on these two pages is an example of evening-long doodling. It happened in 1937 when the Thurbers and some friends went to Tim Costello’s restaurant in New York, a murky, pleasant place where the walls are adorned with Thurber drawings. The occasion was the birthday of J. P. Glide, a friend of Thurber’s who later became his agent. The evening was a long one, Mr. Glide now recalls, with large steaks and lots of drinks and everyone leaving the booth periodically and milling about the restaurant.

“Jim must have drawn something wherever he happened to sit clown at the table,” Glide says, “and none of us paid much attention at the time.” Not until nearly everyone else had gone home and Tim Costello was stacking the last chairs on tables did Gucle notice that the tablecloth, underneath the gravy stains and ashes, was a veritable gallery of Thurber creatures. He asked the proprietor if lie could have the cloth, and Costello obligingly rolled it up and stuck it under Glide’s arm.

He didn’t look at it again uni il the following morning, and then he was revolted by its spattered stale. “Frankly,” he says, “it was one of the filthiest tablecloths J ever saw.” Yet if it were sent to the laundry, the pencil lines of the drawings would obviously wash out along with the beer and the steak juice. A friend who had also been at the party—Mrs. Elizabeth McGhee, “Buddy” for short—suggested a solution, and somewhat dubiously the Glides gave her the cloth.

When they got it back it was spotless, and all the drawings had been preserved in neat blue embroidery. Jn one corner had been added the tidy credit line of the embroiderer, “Buddy fecit.”

For years the Glides kein the tablecloth at their summer house on Martha’s Vineyard, using it occasionally to decorate a table at a cocktail party. Recently the humorist’s widow, Mrs. Helen Thurber, gave AMERICAN HERITAGE permission to photograph it. Its assorted doodles are among the few unpublished Thurber drawings; certainly they are the only ones ever to be immortalized in embroidery.

Barbara Klaw

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