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James Thurber, Bookcases and Naked Women

The Paris Review has put many of its grand old interviews online, including a wonderful 1955 interview with humorist James Thurber

A sample:

You say that your drawings often don’t come out the way you

Well, once I did a drawing for The New Yorker of a naked
woman on all fours up on top of a bookcase–a big bookcase. She’s up
there near the ceiling, and in the room are her husband and two other
women. The husband is saying to one of the women, obviously a guest,
“This is the present Mrs. Harris. That’s my first wife up there.”

when I did the cartoon originally I meant the naked woman to be at the
top of a flight of stairs, but I lost the sense of perspective and
instead of getting in the stairs when I drew my line down, there she was
stuck up there, naked, on a bookcase.

Incidentally, that cartoon really threw The New Yorker editor,
Harold Ross… He called me
on the phone and asked if the woman up on the bookcase was supposed to
be alive, stuffed, or dead. I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll let you know
in a couple of hours.”

After a while I called him back and told him I’d
just talked to my taxidermist, who said you can’t stuff a woman, that
my doctor had told me a dead woman couldn’t support herself on all
fours. “So, Ross,” I said, “she must be alive.” “Well then,” he said,
“what’s she doing up there naked in the home of her husband’s second
wife?” I told him he had me there.

(See the full interview in PDF format.)

The cartoon in question was published in 1935; the Cartoon Bank has a copy of it here.

Thurber didn’t remember the players quite right (it’s the husband, a man and a woman) and didn’t quote the caption quite correctly, either.  It was: “That’s my first wife up there, and this is the present Mrs. Harris.”

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