MAN ABOUT TOWN: Details of Mrs. Acosta’s Love Affair

man-about-townSince the Man About Town is on vacation, this week’s column features a guest author: the late Elizabeth C. Acosta, who until her passing in 1994 lived at 218 James Thurber Court in Falls Church.

Back in June I wrote about James Thurber and how a street in Falls Church came to be named after him. That’s when I discovered that although during the height of his popularity Thurber was regarded as a modern-day Mark Twain, today few people under a certain age have heard of him — although they might possibly have heard of Walter Mitty, Thurber’s fictional character who has entered the literary genre as the archetypal henpecked husband who daydreams of performing heroic wonders.

Elizabeth Acosta was the mother of five children, including Falls Church musician Andrew Acosta (the 6-year-old mentioned below). In 1967 she wrote a story for the Saturday Evening Post. If you’ve never heard of James Thurber, you’ve probably also never heard of the Saturday Evening Post. Let’s just say it was the Saturday Night Live of its time. I searched everywhere, but despite its illustrious history, Saturday Evening Post archives are unavailable online.

After my story on Thurber, Falls Church patriarch Lou Olom commented that Elizabeth Acosta’s story was available in the library’s Virginia Room. And so it is, and so I am reproducing it, along with the original Thurber drawings that appeared with it. Now, through the Falls Church Times and Google, it will be permanently available online. So without further ado . . .

The Saturday Evening Post
May 20, 1967


In the Fall of 1958 I was living in Falls Church, Va., in an old house on an old street. The house had been built in 1929 as a summer home, and by 1958 it needed, among other things, a new roof, a new heating system, and several coats of paint. Its owners, my husband Frank and I, were older than the house and needed a great many things, too, most of them even more expensive.

It was November, bleak and cold. My five children, ranging from 12 down to 2, were comporting themselves as children do. The 12-year-old girl was learning to smoke; the 10-year-old boy was failing math; the 6-year-old boy was a problem to his teacher; the 4-year-old girl had an ear infection; and the baby had just given up his morning nap. My husband traveled a great deal, and who can blame him? I stayed home a great deal. In fact, a trip to the supermarket was quite an outing, one for which I fixed my hair and put on lipstick.

One morning, when the washing machine was in its spin cycle and the children were either in school or watching an old George Raft movie on television, I wrote a letter which altered my life. It was a fan letter to a man I had never met, the first one I had ever written. It went:

Mr. James Thurber
West Cornwall

Dear Mr. Thurber,

Because I feel that I know you so well — knowing through your work, the houses in which you lived, your brothers, your parents, your maids and dogs — I feel that I may make bold and tell you that I love you.

I am getting old and fat, my last permanent didn’t take, my five children have been throwing up for days, singly and in pairs, my husband is at a convention at some posh hotel, and I’M SORRY FOR MYSELF, SEE? It was in this mood that I went to bed last night, like Niobe, all tears. With my last ounce of strength I opened your latest collection, “Alarms and Diversions,” and I laughed! Did you hear what I said? I laughed! My children came in to see what caused this strange sound, and they laughed with me. They love you too.

Oh, Mr. Thurber, do you know how good you are? Have you ever written a bad or clumsy line? Have you ever failed to see the half-sad humor of any situation? I doubt it. This is the first fan letter I have ever written. (Do all your correspondents say this?) I know other writers I enjoy, many of them friends of yours. I’ve always been sorry I didn’t write John McNulty, God rest his soul; and certainly E.B. White is very fine. But it is you I truly love. And now I have told you so, and I’m glad.

I feel that I am in your debt, and if there is anything I can do for you, you have but to ask. (I frankly cannot imagine what this might be, but I live quite near Washington and perhaps I could do away with someone for you.)

Ever and only thine,


arror_0003After writing the letter, and addressing the envelope, I put it in the mail rack near the front door. I said earlier that writing this letter altered my life. What I should have said was that mailing this letter altered my life. I have no trouble writing letters. But the mailing of letters is more difficult. Postboxes are all on the wrong side of the street. I never have a stamp. There is no place to park at the post office. But three days after my burst of passion, a neighbor stopped in on her way to the post office, of all places. She travels on foot. She insisted on mailing it even though I protested that it was silly in the first place, and he would never get it in the second place. She took the letter. She even had a stamp. (She has no children, which may help explain her awesome efficiency.)

I quite forgot about it in the days that followed. Elizabeth’s ear infection was worse, the drier broke down, and it was raining. There being no hope or help, I was playing Crazy Eights with the children one day when the mail came. There, among the usual overdue notices from the library and the coupons good for two cans of tuna fish, was a long envelope bearing the return address: “James Thurber, West Cornwall, Connecticut.” I screamed a little, opened it and read:

Dearest Elizabeth,

I don’t think you know about all the houses I’ve lived in, because one of them was a house on Maple Avenue in Falls Church, Virginia. This was fifty-seven years ago, in the summer of 1901, when my father had a job in Washington. My mother couldn’t stand the heat of the city and so we rented this house on Maple Avenue, but I can’t remember the number now. It was there that, one Sunday, I was struck in the left eye by an arrow fired by my older brother. He was seven, and I was six, and Robert was four, and I’m sure we all threw up together, too. My father was on a fishing trip, of course, when I got hurt. It is too late for you to do away with Dr. Malone, who must have died years ago, and who did not have the eye removed soon enough. The operation was finally done by the great Dr. Swan Burnett, whose wife, a dozen years earlier, had written “Little Lord Fauntleroy.”

When I was a code clerk in the State Department in 1918 I went back to the house on Maple Avenue, and it seemed pretty much the same. We had a big backyard and an apple orchard and there were some Seckel pear trees. Our best apples were big yellow ones called Sheeps Nose. A quarter of a mile from our house was a big estate with a winding driveway, called The Evergreens, and a family named McSween lived there. My brother, Robert, now 62 — William was 65 in October — still has some photos of the Maple Avenue house, I think, and if he has, I’ll send them to you. A lot of good things as well as bad happened in that house. Falls Church was a quiet little village then, and I often wonder what it has become.

My wife Helen and I both loved your letter, one of the best and funniest I have ever got, and we have shown it to all our friends. I love your loving me, and I love you, too.

When my daughter, Rosemary, called Rosie, was four, her nurse told her about a little boy who, she said, spelling it out, t-h-r-o-w-s-u-p. “Vomits,” said Rosie promptly. Now 27, “with more gray hairs than any other woman I know,” she has a four-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy, and I’m sure, the tradition of throwing up goes right on.

Thanks again for your lovely letter, and I hope I hear from you again. And my love to your husband and children, as well as you.

Cordially yours,


And there, two inches high, was the famous signature. I read it three or four times and finally called in a neighbor to have her read it to see if what I had read was true. I had lived in northern Virginia for 10 years and had never heard that James Thurber had lived in Falls Church. I was dumbfounded and delighted. To be a part of this wild coincidence was, and remains, quite the nicest thing that ever happened to me. I was more than excited, and slightly drunk with his praise of my letter. I called everyone I knew and told them the whole story and read the letter and screamed some more. As I recall, there was very little by way of dinner that night.

The next week or two were given over to telling the story and trying to find out, for sure where on Maple Avenue the great man had lived. Maple Avenue was only one block long. It contained 12 houses, about half of which dated back to 1900 or before. I talked to the street’s oldest resident, Mrs. Harkins, who had moved there as a bride in 1910. She was thrilled at my news, but only because she thought I had heard from Edna Ferber. She had never heard of James Thurber. I spoke to the Misses Simpson, maiden ladies of advanced years who lived down at the corner of Maple and Great Falls. I knew they had lived in Falls Church most of their lives, were librarians, and thus doubtless would know who James Thurber was, and would care. But the Simpson girls, Emily and Lucy May, proved only slightly interested. In the first place, they informed me that they were not allowed to associate with “summer people” and therefore could not possibly have known the Thurbers. In the second place, they went to California during the summer of 1901. Getting to California in 1901 must have been quite a feat, and it is quite possible that they were not here at all that year. After two chilly interviews with them, I began to hope so, for the Thurbers’ sake.

women_0004The reference to The Evergreens and the McSween family struck a chord with no one. Quite clearly I needed to see the pictures of the house which Mr. Thurber’s brother had, and, even more importantly, I had to write Mr. Thurber again.

It took me some time to compose another letter. I managed to work into several conversations the fact that I owed James Thurber a letter. This remark invariably elicited an incredulous, “Who?” which in turn allowed me to retell the entire story. My husband, after the 65th telling, went to a convention in Chicago.

I wrote Mr. Thurber again, telling him about the stir the correspondence had made, and asked if we might see any photos of the house. He wrote me at once, and said that his brother, Robert, would not part with the family pictures, but had identified the house as “The Loving Cottage.” Robert Thurber also said the photograph was dated 1902 and described the house as having shuttered windows and a porch on three sides. I went back to the oldest inhabitants with these new facts. The Simpson girls were of no greater assistance than before. They spent the summer of 1902 with their grandparents in Bucyrus, Ohio. (The Simpson girls were obviously the Jet-Set of the 1900s.) Mrs. Harkins insisted that “The Loving Cottage” was on Park Avenue. Another old-timer, Ben Elliott, who lived in a house with a porch on two sides, was quite sure his was the house. The Simpson girls said flatly that the original occupants of Ben Elliott’s house did not rent to “summer people,” to which Ben Elliott said, “Faugh!” Mr. Elliott’s mother and the Simpson girls’ mother had had a serious falling-out over a well which had been sealed over in 1913, and the breach had never healed. I was really no closer to the truth.

Before I could write Mr. Thurber again, asking for more clues, I received a package from him containing the photographs. The accompanying note explained that he had called Robert in Ohio and insisted he send the pictures. The proof was in my hands. The pictures didn’t look like any house on Maple Avenue, and my heart sank. Had there been another Maple Avenue? Was there another Falls Church? I took the pictures to Mrs. Harkins, who studied them under her cataract reader for a long time and finally said, “That’s the Ogg House.” Ogg? Ogg.

The Ogg House was known to me as the Nicholas House, and it was next door to me.

Close study revealed that the edifice of 1901 might, with determination, have been altered into the monstrosity of 1958. The three-sided porch had been enclosed, the roof raised, and windows boarded over. Then the whole had been covered with a sickly asbestos siding. But James Thurber had lived there. And it was right next door. I continued to celebrate my good fortune, people took to inviting us to dinner to hear it all, and Frank went to another convention, this one in Seattle. I wrote to Mr. Thurber, apprising him of developments. I also located a Bill Loving, in Arlington, whose father had lived on Maple Avenue at the turn of the century. The father was alive and able to clear up the Ogg business. Mr. Ogg had built the house for his bride in 1895, and shortly thereafter had died. The Lovings, who had lived on Park Avenue in the cottage Mrs. Harkins knew, eventually bought the Ogg house.

The mystery was solved, but I thought of ways to continue our correspondence. Some of our letters were published in the Washington Star in the spring of 1959. This resulted in letters from elderly ladies who had lived in Falls Church in 1901 and 1902, and who remembered “little Jamie Thurber.” Mr. Thurber received copies of the paper from friends all around the world. We were, we had to be friends for life.

Mr. Thurber and I exchanged letters and phone calls until his death in 1961, and Mrs. Thurber and I still write each other.

All of Maple Avenue was changing. The street had been widened, which required that all the old trees be cut down. It was cut through at each end, so that it was now three blocks long. One new block contained a high-rise apartment house and a skating rink. The other block featured a plumbing-supply house and a garage for moving vans. Let us say that its character was altered.

In time, we were approached by a team of architects with an idea for building town houses on our acre of land. Eventually that was done. Our house was demolished, as was the Ogg-Nicholas-Thurber House and one other. On this property now stands a dead-end street and 20 town houses. I live in the last town house on the right. My address? 218 James Thurber Court.


September 7, 2009 


9 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: Details of Mrs. Acosta’s Love Affair”

  1. TFC on September 7th, 2009 8:27 am

    Thanks so much for adding this piece…it was marvelous. “Summer cottages” out here in Falls Church….what a wonderful image is conjured in my mind.

  2. Gordon Theisz on September 7th, 2009 9:53 pm

    Amazing. Thanks for including this for all who search the internet. What a lady Mrs. Acosta must have been.

  3. NDH on September 8th, 2009 6:13 am

    Delightful reading on a “woe is me”, “is summer really over?”,”Tuesday after labor day”, “does the puppy really need to be let out again!” morning!

  4. MWJ on September 8th, 2009 11:11 am

    Thank you for a wonderful and fun story. I’ve walked by James Thurber Court often and wondered how it got its name.

  5. Jody Acosta on September 8th, 2009 5:33 pm

    Gordon and everyone else who commented – thank you. Indeed, my mother-in-law was quite a lady. She’d be happy to know she brought you a smile.

  6. Craig Bury on September 9th, 2009 12:12 pm

    Enchanting. Made my day. What a wonderful remembrance for the Acostas and Falls Church. Another question mark removed – in a very delightful way – when I go past James Thurber Place on Maple Avenue.

  7. Janice Nette on September 9th, 2009 8:23 pm

    This story is truly a gem. I remember James Thurber’s writing and sketches, and knew why the street was named after him, but not nearly in this much detail. Mrs. Acosta’s account of her day in the letter must have really appealed to Thurber and his offbeat brand of humor as much as it appealed to mine. Like many Falls Church mothers, I can envision EVERYTHING she described throughout the piece and it certainly brought me a good laugh!
    What a shame that the actual houses are gone, but nice to know that Mrs. Acosta was living on the street named after her friend.

  8. Annie Marie Acosta (Decatur, Georgia) on July 7th, 2013 4:03 am

    She was my aunt on my dad’s side of the family. I didn’t know her very well but she always seemed like a very witty and intelligent woman. I spent many a happy Saturday (or was it Sunday, after church?! My mind fails me…) over at my aunt and uncle’s house, chowing down on pancakes which my uncle Bud cooked for everyone. The upstairs was “way cool” as I remember it, with a spiral staircase. I can almost smell my uncle’s pipe tobacco as I sit here remembering.

  9. Paul Wackerbarth, Falls Church City on August 8th, 2016 9:31 pm

    My wife & I & a mutual friend had dinner w/ Rosie Acosta in South Haven Michigan on June 30. She had never heard of James Thurber Court or Falls Church VA. I am putting together a packet of items including the Saturday Evening Post Article & correspondence I gleaned from a visit to the Virginia room at the Library.

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