MAN ABOUT TOWN: James Thurber Is Still Following Me

Falls Church Times Columnist

June 29, 2009

Poking around at the University Women’s book sale at the Community Center, I came across a copy of The Thurber Carnival. Of course I had to buy it — James Thurber has been following me all my life.

I met James Thurber in the 7th or 8th grade — he was dead by then but his humor was alive in the English literature anthology I was told to read, which included “The Night the Ghost Got In,” a story of his eccentric family while growing up in Columbus, Ohio. During the last 15 minutes of class we were supposed to “read silently” from the literature book. Thurber tells of hearing footsteps downstairs about quarter past one in the morning. Fearing burglars, his mother threw a shoe at the neighbors’ bedroom window, breaking it and successfully waking them. Police arrived quickly, smashing through “our big heavy front door with its thick beveled glass . . . A half-dozen policemen . . . pulled beds away from walls, tore clothes off hooks in the closets, pulled suitcases and boxes off shelves.”

Eventually they heard sounds from the attic, where Thurber’s grandfather slept. Grandfather, Thurber wrote, “was going through a phase in which he believed that General Meade’s men, under steady hammering by Stonewall Jackson, were beginning to retreat and even desert.” As the police bounded up the attic stairs, Grandfather “evidently jumped to the conclusion that the police were deserters from Meade’s army.”

“Back, ye cowardly dogs! roared grandfather,” as he knocked down an officer, grabbed his gun from its holster “and let fly,” wounding the officer in the shoulder. “He fired once or twice more in the darkness and then went back to bed.”

Reading that story in a quiet classroom was excruciating. First I giggled, and the teacher frowned. I kept reading — I had to know what happened next. Finally I burst out laughing. Imagine a time when you weren’t supposed to laugh but couldn’t help yourself. I knew someone who, listening to his boss’s sentimental retirement speech, had to bite his tongue so hard that his mouth filled with blood. In my case, ultimately I was saved by the bell.

Thurber had an older brother, William, who outlived him and somehow came to reside in my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, where my father met him. Learning that he was James Thurber’s brother, my dad, perhaps for sake of conversation, perhaps out of curiosity, mentioned to William that he had heard that Thurber’s eventual blindness was caused by getting shot in the eye by an arrow when he was a boy. Was that true, my dad asked?

“I shot the arrow,” replied William.


My next Thurber encounter was not until college, where I studied “The Secret Life of  Walter Mitty” and wrote an analysis of it. I had a large male German shepherd, Bismark, who went everywhere with me and fought any dog foolish enough to take him on. This was in the little college town of Clemson, South Carolina. Soon enough, Bismark met up with a large Weimaraner, and they tangled more than once. And so I met the Weimaraner’s owner, William Thurber, who had married a local woman in his old age. Again, Thurber was following me.

A year or so later William Thurber died, and by chance I read his obituary in the Greenville, SC, News. It was about an inch long, gave his age, birth and death dates, and named his surviving widow. That was it. I wrote a story about it in the college newspaper: “James Thurber’s Brother Died Last Week, and the Greenville News Didn’t Know.” I penned a few paragraphs of college wisdom on the Billy Carter-like perils of having a famous brother.

End of story? No, but more than a few years went by, until I moved to Falls Church. It wasn’t too long before I noticed the sign for the side street off Maple Avenue: “James Thurber Court.” Nice, I thought, somebody must have really liked James Thurber to name the street after him.

Some time later I got the story: From 1901-03 Thurber lived with his family in the District, where his father had a job with an Ohio congressman. To escape the smothering Washington heat, Mr. Thurber rented a house in the “country” for the month of August 1902. The address was 319 Maple Avenue, Falls Church. James was 7 years old. During that August month he played a game of William Tell with his brothers, as they took turns shooting a blunt, rubber-tipped arrow at each other’s back. When it came his turn, William was slow to aim and shoot, and James impatiently turned around only to catch the arrow in his left eye. A condition known as sympathetic blindness caused Thurber’s eyesight to worsen over the years until he became almost completely blind.  His visual impairment led to his unique drawing style, and his New Yorker cartoons rivaled his stories in popularity. (Seeing only a blur, Thurber drew huge figures with white chalk on a black-papered wall; the result was photographed and the reduced negative produced normal black on white.)

Fast forward half a century. Living next door to the one-time Thurber summer house, but unaware of it, was Elizabeth Acosta, who in appreciation of Thurber’s humor wrote him a “love letter” in 1958. According to columnist and best friend Mary McGrory, the letter said,  “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?”

Harrison Kinney’s biography of Thurber quotes Acosta providing a slightly different account: “It was November, bleak and cold. My 12-year-old girl was learning to smoke; the 10-year-old boy was failing math; the six-year-old boy was a problem to his teacher; the four-year-old girl had an ear infection, and the baby had just given up his morning nap.”

But we get the picture. What matters is that Thurber read the letter, noticed the return address, and wrote back, noting that he once lived next door. Thrilled, Acosta maintained a correspondence with Thurber which was later printed in the Saturday Evening Post.

Thurber died in 1961, around the time that a developer knocked down 319 Maple Avenue, ran a cul-de-sac through the property, and lined it with townhouses. Acosta successfully petitioned the City Council to name the cul-de-sac James Thurber Court.

Wonder where I’ll find the old man next?

(MAN ABOUT TOWN is an occasional feature of The Falls Church Times.)



Mary McGrory’s tribute to her best friend, Elizabeth Acosta, in The Washington Post
John McKelway’s remembrance of Elizabeth Acosta in The Washington Times
Richard Thompson’s blog entry about Thurber on Maple Avenue
The Man Who Was Walter Mitty, by Thomas Finsch

June 29, 2009 


14 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: James Thurber Is Still Following Me”

  1. Louis Olom on June 30th, 2009 9:18 am

    James Thurber Court on Maple Avenue was named after him. Betty Acosta knew that one time Thurber lived there. She entered into a correspondence with him whether it would be OK if the name Thurber Court where the Acostas lived would be OK and he said OK. The correspondence between them is somewhere in the library’s Virginia Room.

  2. Amy Acosta Johnson on June 30th, 2009 11:14 pm

    Wonderful article. I enjoyed reading it. It brought back a lot of memories of my childhood in Falls Church.

  3. George Southern on July 1st, 2009 1:11 pm

    Thanks for writing, Amy. Are you one of the kids mentioned on that bleak November day? And I also see that this Thursday the Concert in the Park will be performed by Andrew Acosta and the New Old Time String Band. Might he be the 6-year-old who was a problem to his teacher?

  4. Jody Acosta on July 1st, 2009 5:00 pm

    Dear George,

    What is it about Falls Church and James Thurber?? I, too, enjoyed reading your article. It was fun to read about another Falls Church citizen whose path had crossed with the Thurber family. What a great coincidence.

    Andrew Acosta is my brother-in-law, and yes, he is the 6 year old boy who is the problem to his teacher, in his mom’s (Betty/Liz Acosta) letter to Mr. Thurber. ? My husband, Philip, is the baby who had just given up his morning nap. I have a copy of the article Betty wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, if you ever want to read it in its entirety. It’s very interesting, and quite funny.

    My late in-laws, Betty and Frank, lived on James Thurber Court until their deaths in 1994 and 1996 respectively. I’ve heard that new owners buying on James Thurber Court over the last several years, have been given a copy of the Saturday Evening Post article when they move in – so they will know how their street came to be called James Thurber Court.

    (Amy Acosta, who replied above, is one of Frank & Betty’s nieces. She graduated from George Mason High School in 1975, along with her cousin, my husband, Philip.)

    Thanks again for your article!

  5. Gordon Theisz on July 1st, 2009 10:26 pm

    And this, ladies in gentlemen, is why we choose to live in Falls Church!

    My congratulations.

    Now we need Andrew to sing a song about James Thurber. I will let him know about this article tomorrow at the Concert in the Park. 7PM. Be there or get shot in the eye by an errant arrow!

  6. Bill Hopkins, Raleigh, NC on January 24th, 2011 8:25 am

    Mr. Southern…George,
    The near-instant linkages provided by the Internet lead me from Keith Olberman’s ‘goodbye’ reading of Mr. Thurber’s ‘Scottie-at-the-farm’ short, to Googling Thurber, to opening one of his unbaked cookie illustrations, and finally to your great recollection. Small-ish world. I attended Clemson in the sixties, then moved to Raleigh to finish at State, discovered Thurber shortly following his death…and again twenty years later…and again today…another twenty years later. I once, in my hometown of Salisbury, MD, launched a ten-inch dagger over my house only to have it land in the center of my across-street neighbor’s skull. He was nerdy and weird as we were growing up. Today I understand he is something of a savant. Maybe the knife was a catalyst, possibly like Wm.’s errant arrow? I still regret that act, as I’m sure Wm. did all of his life. Very glad I happened on to your wonderful article. Regards. Bill

    GEORGE REPLIES: Many thanks, Bill. As I observed recently on the occasion of my final MAN ABOUT TOWN column, the James Thurber piece was my very first column and continues to be the most widely read. I followed it up with a reprint of a Falls Church resident’s interaction with Thurber in “Mrs. Acosta’s Love Affair,” which you can read by clicking on the title. Best regards, George.

  7. Jefferson Boyer on February 19th, 2011 3:04 pm

    Excellent piece. I too, was bit by Thurber in the same way, on a rainy bleak March day in middle school in 1978. My teacher, Ms. Seabrook, pulled out a stack of books from the cupboard and said. “You need to know about the night the bed fell”. Read this, and be quiet until you are finished reading it.” We were puzzled, but obeyed.
    Of course, about a few moments into reading it, I was convulsed with laughter, I was literally laughing out loud from words written on a page by an author! I kept reading, and literally fell out on the floor laughing. It made my day to find out someone else had the same experience!
    Thanks again- I didn’t know Thurber lived in the DC area for a year either!
    Jefferson Boyer, art dept. Salisbury University

  8. John Nakielny Winnipeg on June 10th, 2011 7:36 pm

    Thank you for your wonderful story. Yesterday I visited my old grade 12 teacher from 1972. During our visit I told him that every fall I always read James Thurber’s University Days. We took that in class and like you I couldn’t help laughing. To this day I still love reading that story as it makes me think of my own university days.

    All the best

    John Nakielny, Winnipeg MB Canada.

  9. joel w. mayer williamston,n.c. on August 6th, 2011 3:16 pm

    james thurber continues to entertain me. i attended a william windom tribute to him
    in the falls church vicinity in 1975. he did very well.
    james thurber had a gentle sense of humor and is sorely missed,

  10. charlie anderson on August 6th, 2011 6:24 pm

    George, we miss your weekly column. Please come back.

  11. Lou Mauro on August 6th, 2011 7:46 pm

    George, Charlie and I agree on this 100%—- you have to respect such a cosmic phenomenon! Heck, I’ll settle for bi-monthly or monthly.

  12. George Southern on August 6th, 2011 10:14 pm

    Thanks, Charlie and Lou and others, for your kind words. I haven’t had anything to say since I signed off last December. Here’s why: The fickle Man About Town has left Falls Church for an even smaller town: Cape Charles, VA, population 1,100. Located at the southernmost part of the Chesapeake Bay, Cape Charles is a baby boomer’s paradise. We still have our townhouse in Falls Church, occupied by our grown daughters, but most of our time is spent in Cape Charles. I still read the Falls Church Times, and it looks like there have been some hot times in the old town. But I’m too far removed to make any intelligent comment. Meanwhile, the James Thurber column I wrote above continues to get hundreds of hits each month — far, far, more than any other column I ever wrote, or even any other story in the paper. And this was my first column! So, in a way, the Man About Town lives on. James Thurber is still following me — all the way to Cape Charles. My very best to all the faithful readers of The Falls Church Times!

  13. Barry Buschow on August 9th, 2011 9:22 am

    Falls Church is full of old stories like this one. I was hoping George would stick around long enough to brings others to light. Most people in the city now have no idea. George, how is the biking in Cape Charles? No hills I bet. We do miss you around here and always enjoyed your writing style……

  14. Jim Breiling, North Arlington on August 10th, 2011 3:49 pm

    George Southern — Perhaps you would write, “Man by the Bay”, and the FCT would publish the columns. Would be interesting to read your observations and recommendations (about whatever) from by the bay, and what you are doing in (presumably) retirement and life’s satisfactions and dissatisfactions. There could be a FCC angle — perspectives of parents on young adult daughters living on their own in “The Little City” (haven’t seen “The Little City” for a while; a fad name gone into history?).

    And I wonder, now that you have publicly disclosed your new principal residence, I wonder (as I recall my years in small cities and towns) if some in FCC will mutter, Southern was advocating changes that he wouldn’t be living with but that we would.

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