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Thorne Smith Profile

Modern audiences may not be familiar with the name Thorne Smith, but in the 1920s and early 1930s his highly successful comedic novels, often with a supernatural theme, reflected the time known as The Jazz Age. His best known work, Topper, was made into a celebrated motion picture starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as the boozing socialites-turned-ghosts in 1937. Sadly, Smith didn't live to see his screen triumph.

James Thorne Smith, Jr. was born on March 27, 1892 at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; and named after his father, a Navy Commodore who was later the Port of New York Supervisor during World War I. His mother, Florence Rundle was the grand-daughter of coffee grower Don Jose Maxwell, founder of Maxwell House Coffee. Florence Smith died in 1896 leaving four year old Jimmy and his older brother Skyring without a mother. While Commodore Smith served on the U.S. Yosemite during the Spanish-American War, the boys were shuttled between relatives and boarding schools in Virginia and Pennsylvania. An eight year age difference between Skyring and Jimmy did not create a close relationship between the two boys. Smith seems to have been a creative child who spent much of his time alone, pretending to have imaginary friends. While living with relatives in North Carolina he began to invent stories for the amusement of his young cousin.

Smith enrolled at Dartmouth College and joined both the Psi Upsilon and the track team. The latter appears to have further damaged his heart which had been left weak from recurrent bouts of pneumonia as a child. After two years he left to go into advertising with his first assignment to write ad copy for Dr. Lyon's Tooth Powder, which he did under the name T. Horn Smith. In 1917 he enlisted in the Navy, a milieu he was familiar with from frequent trips to sea with his father, which he loved. During his enlistment he became editor of the Naval Reserve Journal called The Broadside which gave him his first taste at success. His serialized adventures of Biltmore Oswald (a World War I version of "Sad Sack") were highly popular with servicemen and later published in book form, selling over 70,000 copies.

After his discharge in 1919 he went back to advertising, a profession he loathed, but one that paid. That year he moved to Greenwich Village, the artistic community in New York, where he became friends (and some say lovers) with writer Dorothy Parker. Parker remembered those days in an interview: "I lived in a boarding house at 103rd and Broadway, paying eight dollars a week for my room and two meals, breakfast and dinner. Thorne Smith was there, and another man. We used to sit around in the evening and talk. There was no money but Jesus we had fun."

In the fall of 1919 he married Celia Sullivan and settled down to earning money with the firm Edward Bird Wilson Inc., writing ad copy for banking clients. According to author Joseph Leo Blotner, Smith continued to work on his own stories and poems "on the kitchen table of their small Greenwich Village apartment. A colleague [at Edward Bird Wilson] sketched a description of him: "Thorne was a small pixie-like man, blond and blue-eyed, pink cheeked and very innocent looking, dressed to the teeth (derby, cane, fitted navy-blue overcoat, white muffler, and I think spats) and was the enfant terrible of the organization. He had a habit of leaving a sober piece of financial advertising copy in the middle of a sentence and disappearing for weeks. The executives all seemed to have proper respect for his ability because he was never fired, but was always received with open arms when he returned."

His hatred of the advertising business was expounded on in a 1922 essay for the anthology Civilization in the United States. Smith described advertising as "America's cruelest and most ruthless sport, religion, or profession, or whatever you choose to call it...It coddles and toys with all that is base and gross in our physical and spiritual compositions." This hatred also led him to drink heavily, to the dismay of his wife.

In 1920, Smith's father died leaving him a sizable inheritance, which he and Celia happily spent on a vacation to the South of France and a summer home in Free Acres, New Jersey. By 1924 they had not only run out of money, they had two small daughters, Marion and June. Smith returned to the ad business but only lasted seven months before he quit. Unemployed, he and a friend drove to Quebec where he began his first serious novel, to be called Dream's End. Unable to find a publisher, he once again went back to advertising. It became a vicious cycle. But success would come within the year.

It began as a short story that Smith conceived while watching a dog play in tall grass at Free Acres. Hidden by the grass so that only the ghostly tail could be seen, Smith used that image to create the novel for which he is best known: Topper. Cosmo Topper, mild-mannered banker, has his life changed for the better by the ghosts of George and Marion Kerby, his former clients who died in a drunk-driving accident. The free-spirited Kerbys may have been modeled on a famous couple Smith knew in Greenwich Village. Katharine Weber wrote about Smith's relationship with George Gershwin and his married lover, the composer Kay Swift, "Kay and George were a glamorous couple when they were together at parties or the theater. They wafted through those years, flouting convention, having a good time, breaking all the rules. [...] For years I have wondered if Kay and George were an inspiration for Thorne Smith – a frequent house guest in Greenwich in those years – when he conjured up George and Marion, the ghostly mad-cap couple in his novel Topper who blithely cause trouble but never have to pay the consequences." Smith had his doubts about the book, confessing to fellow Free Acres resident, the artist Will Crawford "that he was sure his forthcoming novel Topper would be a flop." Hearing this, Crawford made a wood-carving that showed Smith , as Virginia Troeger wrote, "heading for a flop from the winged horse, Pegasus, with the pages of his new book flying over his head." The wood carving as well as the house at Free Acres are still in the possession of the Smith family.

Rather than a flop, Topper was an immediate hit and ended Smith's advertising days for good. Other novels followed, all in the same fantasy vein, The Stray Lamb; the sequel to Topper, Topper Takes a Trip, which took Topper and the Kerbys to the French Riviera where Smith himself loved to spend time. Several other novels followed and Smith's future seemed very bright, filled with offers from Hollywood, when he died suddenly of a heart attack while on vacation with his family in Sarasota, Florida on June 21, 1934.

After his death, both Topper and Topper Takes a Trip were made into films in 1937 and 1938, respectively. The Topper franchise continued with one last film not based on a Smith novel, Topper Returns (1941) and a short-lived television series, Topper starring Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling which ran from 1953-55. Only two other Smith novels The Passionate Witch (filmed as I Married a Witch in 1942) and Turnabout (1940, Smith's fantasy story of a bickering couple who are switched bodies by a god) have been brought to the big and small screens to date. The New York Times called Thorne Smith "one of America's most significant humor writers" in 1997, crediting him with influencing the films Ghost (1990), Beetlejuice (1988), and the films and television series Bewitched and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir among many others.

by Lorraine LoBianco

Sources:
Flights of Fancy: The Great Fantasy Films by Kenneth Von Guden
Thorne Smith: A Biography by Michael D. Walker
Fine and Dandy: The Life and Work of Kay Swift by Vicki Ohl.
Berkeley Heights Revisited by Virginia B. Troeger
The Internet Movie Database
Wikipedia.org
Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall by Richard Barrios
The Years with Ross by James Thurber
Assembling Art: The Machine and the American Avant-Garde by Barbara Beth Zabel.
The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker by Rhonda S. Pettit.
An Unexpected Life by Joseph Leo Blotner