Thorne Smith: Satire and the Supernatural from the 20s

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Thorne Smith was one of America's best loved novelists and writer of satire. He wrote towards the end of Prohibition until the opening years of the Great Depression and left behind one of the most delightful mirrors of contemporary American Life of the era. Thorne was a junior member of the Algonquin Circle and a friend (also lover) of Dorothy Parker, but his books were considered outright scandalous despite their hilarity and popularity. Because of the outrageous nature of his stories, Thorne managed the distinction of being a best selling author that no one would admit to reading. Stephen Dare explores the legacy of Thorne Smith after the jump!

James Thorne Smith Jr. (March 27, 1892–June 21, 1934), was an American writer of humorous supernaturnal fantasy fiction.

Best known today for his creation of Topper, Smith's comic fantasy fiction (most of it involving sex, lots of drinking, and supernatural transformations, and aided by racy illustrations) sold millions of copies in the early 1930s. Smith drank as steadily as his characters; his appearance in James Thurber's The Years With Ross involves an unexplained week-long disappearance. Smith was born in Annapolis, Maryland the son of a Navy commodore, attended Dartmouth College, and after hungry years in Greenwich Village working part-time as an advertising agent, Smith achieved meteoric success with the publication of Topper in 1926. He died of a heart attack in 1934 while vacationing in Florida.


A Young and Stylish Thorne

Despite the fact that if you bring up Thorne Smith in social or literary circles you will mostly be greeted with blank stares, his contribution to popular culture has been immense.

Even here in Jacksonville, where he got his first big break into writing:  Advertising copy for a Jacksonville bank that showed Santa chilling out on a beach.  Not exactly the most auspicious start for a literary career, but one which convinced him you could make a living in writing.

And lucky for us.

Thorne’s ideas have been borrowed (and sometimes stolen) extensively by radio, television, motion pictures, and literature. The genre wherein his influence has been felt most is Science Fiction and Fantasy. Many of today’s older authors, writers and entertainers site Smith as a source of inspiration, in fact, while recently talking with Neil Gaiman he chanced to wander over to my fairly huge collection of Thorne Smith work.  We ended up talking about Thorne for about a half hour, and Gaiman cited him as a huge influence on his work.

“Topper,” was his biggest commercial success--so successful that he wrote a sequel. (Topper Takes a Trip) and a few movies were made out of the story. It was released in 1926, and is still in print today.

But most of his work is out of print and only available through rare bookstores or auction sites. Locally, Chamblin's Book Mine is always good for a copy or two, as is Gene's Books.  But there are true enthusiasts.  Rarities such as “Lazy Bear Lane,” “Dream’s End,” and signed first editions cost thousands of dollars.

Movie Poster for Turnabout, the Thorne Smith novel which switches the bodies of a Man and his Wife in 1920s Suburbia

Several of his books have been turned into movies. “Turnabout,” “Topper,” “Topper Takes a Trip,” “The Night Life of the Gods” and “I Married a Witch” were made in the late 30’s and early 40’s. Only the “Topper” series of films could be deemed as successful, spawning two sequels and several television series.

The Passionate Witch”, was the original inspiration for “Bewitched”, and his ideas are still widely used in film today, (there are still currently film options on his books.)

Thorne's writing style is a blend of smart talk, witty dialogue and screamingly funny observations mixed with an offhand and casual criticism of the Babbitry of the era.

A fairly typical storyline follows characters who are overwhelmed with the stifling mediocrity of their lives as they go through a complete transformation of their morals and character.  Usually through the office of a supernatural interference that is always of a comedic nature.

In the absence of the supernatural, a nudist colony or two substitutes nicely.

Topper, his most famous work follows the former formula.  A middle aged banker, modelled perfectly on Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt finds himself visited by the restless (and loosely moraled) dead n the form of the ghosts of George and Marion Kirby.

The Glorious Pool
(1934) Perhaps the best example of Thorne Smith's acutely sharp social humor played out against a backdrop of the Volstead Act (Prohibition). Two unrepentant old reprobates are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the seduction which made the stylish old man named Rex Pebble into an adulterer and his companion, Spray Summers into his hard boiled mistress. While their exasperating and highly alcoholic Japanese houseboy, Nokashima, plays ju jitsu with the English language, the two slip into a swimming pool whose waters have been changed into a fountain of youth.

Abandoning their clothes and modesty with their advanced years, the newfound youthfulness of their bodies puts into motion an evening of hijinks that only a seasoned and well practiced old couple of sinners could manage to imagine.
The main character, Rex Pebble is a jaded man of 60 who is the head of an advertising firm that has provided him enough money to maintain both a wife (Sue Pebble) and a hellish mistress named Spray Summers.

Spray maintains the ideal 20s lifestyle...a loose french maid, and a drunken Japanese houseboy named Nockashima.

A colorized illustration from "The Glorious Pool".  Fifi the French Maid has cocktails.

Also a lot of illegal alcohol, a constant element of all Thorne Smith's work.

Thorne Smith's books were often illustrated by Herb Roese, and allowed a saucy and scandalous series of works that caused many of his most avid fans keep the books on a back shelf out of view from visitors.  Although innocent and funny by today's standards, they were nearly pornographic by the publishing standards of the time.

Colorized Illustration from "The Glorious Pool", Baggage on a Pedestal.

Colorized Illustration from "The Glorious Pool", Spray Summers and The House Beautiful.

Colorized Illustration from "The Glorious Pool", Nockashima at the Crown Cosmopolitan Department Store.

Throughout The Glorious Pool, the characters are confronted with the absurdities of the Modern World and it is chock full of references to Prohibition, along with some heartfelt but hilarious criticisms of the Volstead Amendment that made alcohol illegal in the United States.

The Glorious Pool was published in 1934, a year after the repeal of prohibition, but it is set at the end of the 20s, with Rex Pebble's finances mirroring the first American High as they face crisis and destruction at the end of the tale.

A common device throughout his work involves stepping out of the narrative of his main characters and switching to the effect that their activities are having on the community around them.  Often this involves the reactions of the local police forces:  Here is a typical example of this device from The Glorious Pool.  The main characters, mostly undressed have stolen a Fire Engine (called a Hook and Ladder) and gone for a lark.  This is not unnoticed by the sleepy cops of their town.

Colorized Illustration from Thorne Smith's The Glorious Pool.  The Police were often the butt of his humor.

Slowly and with the utmost care the sergeant lowered the receiver on its hook. He was too consumed with brute passion, too straining with evil intent, to trust himself to express his emotions either in word or deed.

The next time the telephone rang he turned the call over to a sleepy-eyed rookie.

"Hey, Pat!" called the sergeant with hypocritical heartiness. "Snap out of that chair and I'll give you a chance to take a call. It's a good thing to get the hang of. There's a knack in it."

Feeling as highly favored as his sluggard wits would over allow to him, the heavy-footed young son of Erin lumbered over to the telephone and made his hands into fists virtually all over it.

"Fine, Chief," he said gratefully. "This will do me good." Thrusting his mouth into the transmitter he began to do himself good at the top of his lungs. "Hello! Hello!" said Pat excitedly. "This is Murphy of the police force talking. Who are you?" A sudden pause. "Oh," he began again. "It's a drunken hook and ladder, did you say?" Another pause while Pat more deeply entrenched his ear. Then, "Hold the line, mister." Turning to the sergeant, Pat tried to impart his information. "It seems, Chief," he said, "that this guy has been dodging either a drunken hook and ladder or a hook and ladder driven by drunkards or maniacs escaped from the asylum. What shall I tell him?"

"That hook and ladder is going to drive me into my grave!" groaned the sergeant.

"That's what it's nearly done to this man," said Pat. "He says he can't keep up dodging it much longer. He's fair exhausted from being pursued by the hook and ladder."

"Ask him where it is," commanded the sergeant.

"Where is this hook and ladder?" Pat asked over the wire, then waited to be told. "Hang on," he said, and again turned to his superior. "I thought this was going to do me good," he complained, "but damned if I believe it will. Do all people go crazy when they telephone to us?"

"This is no time for idle questions," said the sergeant tartly. "I don't care whether or not it does you any good. That damn telephone has almost ruined me already. Where did the guy say it was?"

"He said it was all over," Pat replied. "Sometimes here and sometimes there. It sort of appears from all directions, then goes bounding in pursuit of him, no less."

"That guy must be drunk himself," muttered the sergeant. "A hook and ladder can't appear from all directions. Ask him if he is."

"Are you drunk, mister?" asked Pat of the man at the other end of the wire, then quickly removed the receiver from his ear. Even the sergeant, standing several feet away, could hear the incoherent protests tumbling from the mouth of the telephone. "He says he isn't, Chief," said Pat at last. "He seems to be sure about it. He says he is a public-spirited citizen, and unless something is done about that hook and ladder he is going to report the entire force. Do you want to talk to him? I'm dead certain this isn't going to do me any good at all."

"Are you afraid to talk to the man?" demanded the sergeant. "You started the conversation, go on and finish it."

"What shall I say now?"

"Ask him where he is—if he won't tell us where that hook and ladder is," replied the chief. "String him along somehow. Maybe he'll forget about it or the thing will go away."

"A bounding hook and ladder filled with maniacs would be a hard thing to forget," commented Pat, looking with distaste at the telephone. "All right, Chief. I'll take another chance." Once more he hid as much of his mouth as possible in the telephone and shouted what he hoped would be soothing words to the infuriated citizen at the other end. "Don't be like that, mister," said Pat. "We didn't mean it. The chief was just having some fun." Pause. "Oh, you're glad to know the chief is enjoying himself." Here Pat turned to the sergeant. "The guy says he's glad you're having a good time," he told his superior. "Says he wishes you were down there where he is."

"I heard! I heard!" cried the sergeant irritably. "Leave my name out of it. Ask him where he is."

After Pat had complied with this request he listened for a long time to the voice at the other end of the wire, an expression of profound astonishment on his face.

"What!" the sergeant heard him exclaim. "There's a woman on the hook and ladder? Yeah? Oh, half fireman and half woman, you say. Now, mister, how can that be? Hold on! I'm not calling you a liar. Sure, I know. Certainly. You can tell half of a woman when you see one. I never saw one that way. Of course, you're no baby. You could tell even less of a woman than that. Wait a minute. The chief ought to hear this." With wide blue eyes Pat stared his incredulity at the sergeant. "Golly," he said, "something's funny somewhere. I'm almost afraid to tell you what that guy told me. Shall I?"

"Go on!" cried the sergeant.

"Well," said Pat in a hushed voice, "he says there's a thing scrambling around that hook and ladder that's half fireman and half lady, and he claims the men are maniacs.

The Bishop's Jaegers, published in 1932 is set during the actual onset of the Great Depression, in New York and involves no acts of the Supernatural and is widely regarded one of his best works.  It is in this work that we see the best examples of Thorne Smith's uniquely hardboiled women.

Although it follows the exploits of the depressed and indifferent heir of a vast coffee import fortune, Peter Van Dyke.  It is the women in his life that provide the magnificent color of the tale, and challenge our contemporary ideas of female stereotypes of the era.

They are not only empowered, but they are in fact, in control.

Peter's life and high society engagement turn upside down when his secretary, Josephine Duval determines that she will rescue him from his horrible fate by ruining him morally.

After an amusing scandal involving a nude Peter Van Dyke, Miss Duval and an ill starred burglar named "Little Arthur" in a coat closet, he finds himself cast adrift in a fog with a motley crew that includes a Bishop Waller of the Episcopal Church and a former nude model named Aspirin Liz. The enterprising party lands unceremoniously on the shores of one of New York's sauciest nudist colonies, and thus is the liberation of the coffee importer set in motion.

The Bishops Jaeger's was also illustrated by the work of Herb Roese.

Colorized Illustration from "The Bishop's Jaegers", Peter and Josephine on the Subway.

Colorized Illustration from "The Bishop's Jaegers", Little Arthur abandons the attempt to steal some drawers

Colorized Illustration from "The Bishop's Jaegers", Aunt Sophie Demands an Explanation.

Colorized Illustration from "The Bishop's Jaegers", The fog lifted to reveal Nude Bootleggers

Colorized Illustration from "The Bishop's Jaegers", Peter and Josephine attempting to escape the nudist colony.

Josephine Duval is one of the most delightful characters in the pantheon of Thorne Smith characters.  He opens the novel with the following description:

The drawers of Josephine Duval were a different matter entirely. Accurately speaking, they were hardly drawers at all. They were more like a passing thought or an idle moment. Compared with the splendid new jaegers of the Bishop's—if one's chances of salvation will not be eternally damned by such a sacrilege—Jo's drawers were as nothing. Not even a flash in the pan.

One is occasionally perplexed by the great quantity of different-looking dogs one meets in the course of a day or a week. One is given pause by the fact that such totally unrelated objects in appearance should be even loosely classified under the covering name of dog. Yet in spite of this, one seldom or rarely ever stops to consider how many different-looking drawers there are in the world either gracing or disgracing the limbs of humanity. Perhaps this is due to the fact that one gets more opportunity to look at dogs than at drawers, which is, no doubt, just as well for everybody concerned. However, the fact still remains that drawers can be so bewilderingly different and yet come under the general classification or family name of drawers.

Between the Bishop's drawers and Jo's drawers lay all the difference in the world—different aims and aspirations, a different philosophy of life—a gulf, in fact, which could never be bridged except under the most incredible circumstances with which there is no occasion here to deal. No good end can be served by further prolonging this rather questionable comparison.

Looking logically at Jo's drawers—an attitude exceedingly difficult to maintain when they were inhabited as only Jo could inhabit them—one could see no proper reason for their being in existence at all. To say that they were the direct antitheses of the medieval ceinture de chasteté is to state the case mildly. Not that this brief consideration of the young lady's even briefer garments is to be regarded as a plea for the return of the chastity belt. On the contrary. There are too many locks already in this world. As a matter of record the efficacy of the chastity belt has never been clearly established. Love has ever had the last laugh on the locksmith. Furthermore, the belief is now held by several eminent students of the question that the employment of the chastity belt was directly responsible for the rapid rise of a class of gentlemen extremely annoying to absent husbands because of their nimble and industrious fingers. As time passed and experience was passed along with it, respectable husbands found that not only were their women no longer secure but also neither were their treasure boxes and safe deposit vaults. This situation was just too bad. During foreign wars and crusades the activities of these notoriously home-loving pick-locks became so wide-spread, in fact so much in demand, that medieval lock-smiths grew quite inured to the sound of ironical laughter.

But if conditions were loose in those days, they are running wild to day. The time when women selected their nether garments logically has long since passed into oblivion. It is the regrettable tendency of the times for women to regard this item of their apparel not in the light of logic but rather in that of allurement. And men are just low enough to regard this change with approval. Even the name itself has fallen into disrepute, as if it suggested some humorous connotation. Whereas men with the utmost indifference still struggle along quite cheerfully with the old-fashioned and time-honoured name of drawers—drawers plain and unvarnished—women have far out-stripped them. Theirs must be known now by such frivolous and leading appellations as panties, scanties, briefs, fleshies, woollies, step-ins, dansettes, speedies, and other similar evocative terms. Bloomers, which at one time were considered no end daring, are to-day rarely if ever encountered in actual circulation, and then only after the most patient and exhaustive research for which the majority of men are constitutionally disqualified unless very carefully watched.

However, although these new underthings give rise to all sorts of nonsense, it must be admitted they are nice.

Jo's were, at any rate.

This morning, at about the same time the excellent Bishop was contemplating his equally excellent jaegers, Miss Josephine Duval, whose paternal grandmother still sipped her wine in France, rolled a body of the most disconcerting loveliness out of its bed. It was Jo's own body, and she sat with it in lazy companionship on the bed's edge while she permitted several tremendous yawns to escape her recklessly red and rebellious lips. After this she stretched, and the effect was devastating. For a moment even the world must have paused in its revolutions. As the girl's small and not unbecoming feet sought with all their ten useless toes a pair of mules that were a sheer waste of time, her cool white arm automatically reached out and the hand on the end of it affixed itself to one of the garments under discussion. Whether they were briefs, scanties, or step-ins is an open question, but for the sake of this history they might just as well be called step-ins. Bending a dark red head of tousled hair over her trophy, she allowed her brown eyes to consider it none too favourably.

They were far from being the step-ins of her choice. However, many a girl would have thought herself fortunate to have been caught in a gale in such a pair. In a nutshell, which would nearly have accommodated them, they were good, middle-class business-like looking step-ins without a great deal of foolishness about them, yet sufficiently attractive to do justice to their subject. Josephine's French blood cried for fairer step-ins, while her French sense of thrift assured her that for a hard-working secretary who spent most of her time sitting they were altogether adequate.

'If I didn't have to work so darned hard and scrimp so much,' yawned Jo to herself, 'I'd buy me some bang-up underthings, wouldn't I just. Regular knockouts. Black and very, very bad.'

With a supple flexing of her body which should have been prohibited by an act of Congress, she shook off her nightgown and snapped on her step-ins. The movement combined the speed of a fireman with the deftness of a contortionist. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she regarded her step-ins critically.

'Good enough for day-in-and-day-out service,' she decided, 'but hardly suitable for occasions should they ever arise.'

To what occasions Jo was alluding, it would be better to leave to individual preference. Jo had her own clearly defined ideas about almost everything. For the most part they were uniformly unedifying. However, they enjoyed the advantage of having been dragged out into the open, where they operated in a state of healthy activity, to say the least.

'Pay day to-day,' she gloated as she continued with her dressing. 'A beggarly sum at that—a mere pittance. I'll spend it all on underthings as soon as the office closes, see if I don't. Even though a girl should be good, she doesn't have to feel that way. Funny thing, I always feel at my best when I'm feeling thoroughly depraved. There's no use of a girl trying to tell herself anything different, either. Women are born that way.'

Accordingly her thoughts veered to Mr. Peter Duane Van Dyck, who at that moment was very busy doing things about his own drawers, as were thousands of other New Yorkers of high and low degree.

Peter Van Dyck was of high. He scarcely realized the fact, and whenever it was forced upon him by his relatives he showed a decided lack of appreciation. His respect for the traditions of his ancestors, those early Dutch settlers, had been interred with their bones. He was Josephine's employer—her boss. She was his secretary, and it would not have required much enterprise on his part to make her even more. As it was, he admired the young lady for her efficiency, but was alarmed by her bold eyes, which to his way of thinking had a suspiciously bad look about them. They were not good for the coffee business, whose destiny he guided along well-established lines.

'He's an old stick,' Jo decided as she tightened up her stockings so that they gleamed on her well-turned legs. 'Doesn't seem to know I have these. Not an eye in his stupid head. I'll make him know, doggone it.'

And Jo deftly curbed her abundance within the delicate web of a brazen brassiere.

Thorne's work is delightful and for any fan of 20s literature, a brilliant addition to a collection.

Most of the work is passing out of copywright, and can be found online in its entirety at

There is a wonderful wikipedia page about his work as well as a facebook group devoted to his work.

This brilliant author deserves a much wider audience.  His stories and observations about human nature as well as his social outlook are as contemporary as any presently writing author, with a good deal more humor.

Drop by Chamblin's a pick up a copy of his work.  He will open a world that most of us have forgotten existed.

All of his titles are amazing, but here are a few personal favorites:

The Glorious Pool.
The Bishop's Jaegers

The Stray Lamb (1929) Mild-mannered investment banker, cuckold, and dipsomaniac T. Lawrence Lamb gains perspective on the human condition during a series of mysterious transformations into various animal forms. Lamb, his daughter Hebe, her boyfriend Melville Long, and Hebe's friend Sandra Rush (a twentyish lingerie model who becomes Lamb's love interest) pursue many adventures, most of which fall well outside the perimeter of law and order. As in many Thorne Smith novels, a courtroom scene involving the protagonists and an exasperated judge provides a climax to the characteristically tipsy action.

Turnabout (1931) Thorne Smith pits two thoroughly modern married people in a classic battle of the sexes. After listening to the nearly endless bickering and childish jealousy of a young man and wife (Tim and Sally Willows), an ancient Egyptian idol decides to play a trick on the two by causing them to switch bodies. After the wife impregnates her husband, things take a decided turn for the worse as they separately try to deal with the object of the former wife's affections — a deplorably predictable square jawed philanderer by the name of Carl Bently. The scene in which Tim, trapped in his wife's body, exacts an icy revenge on the unfortunate interloper is one of the unforgettable moments of Thorne Smith's peculiar humor. Both a film (1940) and a short lived 1979 television series (cancelled after six episodes) were based on Turnabout.

Rain in the Doorway
(1933) Yet another cuckold husband, Hector Owen, inadvertently becomes a partner in a big-city department store. The bulk of the action involves the highly inebriated adventures of Owen, his three partners (Mr. Horace Larkin, a man called Dinner, and Major Barney Britt-Britt), and a salesgirl from the pornographic books department, Miss Honor "Satin" Knightly. Of the three novels included in The Thorne Smith 3-Decker (see The Stray Lamb and Turnabout above) this is the most openly erotic, with many direct suggestions of sexual encounters and cartoons of nude young women cavorting with the protagonists, drawn by artist Herbert Roese. The Thorne Smith signature courtroom scene provides a climax, but the novel's biggest surprise isn't sprung until the final pages.

Skin and Bones
(1933) A photographer's freak accident in the dark room produces a chemical concoction causing him (and his dog) to randomly switch back and forth between normal and X-ray (skeleton) versions of themselves. Predictably, much drinking and cavorting ensues, as he finds people able to see beyond his appearance and appreciate him for who he is, while inadvertently terrifying those who can not.

The Night Life of the Gods (1931). Quirky inventor Hunter Hawk strikes gold when he invents a device that will enable him to turn living matter into stone and to reverse the process at will. After a chaotic field test he meets stunning 900 year old Megaera who teaches him to turn stone into flesh. The two and a bunch of friends set their sights on New York City to bring the Greek gods of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to life.

The Passionate Witch (1941) (published posthumously and largely the work of Norman H. Matson), produced in 1942 as the movie I Married a Witch, one of the inspirations along with Bell, Book and Candle for the long-running TV series Bewitched. A sequel to the novel, Bats In The Belfry (1942), is entirely by Matson though sometimes attributed to Smith.

By Stephen Dare