Thorne Smith: A Biography

A Work in Process

Mention the name Thorne Smith in social circles and you’re likely to get blank looks. Unless your audience is over the age of 50, most will assume you’re speaking of a television actress, semi-popular in the 1990’s. Yet the contribution of American Humorist Thorne Smith to popular culture over the last 75 years has had such an immense impact, it’s a shame very few recall his name.
Thorne’s ideas and story lines have been borrowed and utilized in 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, and have incorporated his style into their work.
“Topper,” his most popular creation, was a hugely popular book that spawned a sequel and several movies. It has been through numerous printings since its release in 1926, and is still in print today.
Currently the majority of his work remains out of print and only available through rare bookstores or auction sites. Rarities such as “Lazy Bear Lane,” “Dream’s End,” and signed first editions command prices in the thousands of dollars. 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. Notable also is “The Passionate Witch,” the idea behind the popular television series “Bewitched.” His ideas are still widely used in film today, and there are currently film options on his books. The entertainment industry owes Thorne Smith a huge debt of gratitude. His ideas have made millions for publishers and film companies. Yet information about the man is scarce at best. While his story lines and characters have held over into the 21st century, Thorne’s name hasn’t. That truly is a shame. One of the primary reasons for the Haunts & By-Paths website is to keep readers aware of this great author and his works.


James Thorne Smith Jr. was born at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, May 27, 1892 to James and Florence (Rundle) Thorne Smith. His father, Commodore James Thorne Smith, U.S.N., was supervisor of the Port of New York during the First World War. His mother was the granddaughter of coffee grower Don Jose Maxwell, the namesake for Maxwell House Coffee.
Very little is known about Thorne’s early childhood. One story that has survived concerns a nanny, a bottle of booze, and a misplaced baby. The story goes that one of the nannies looking after the boy became so intoxicated that she left the infant at a Baltimore rail station for several hours until located by frantic friends and family. Thorne later attributed his inability to arrive anywhere on time to this little mishap. Florence Thorne Smith passed away in 1896. This unfortunate situation left little Jimmy and his older brother Skyring in the care of various aunts in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. During this phase of the boys’ lives the Commodore was serving aboard the U.S. Yosemite in the Spanish-American War.
Being that he was eight years younger than his brother, there was little in common between Thorne and Skyring during these early years. As a result, Thorne was a solitary child. To fill the void of loneliness, he created several imaginary friends,“brownies,” to keep him company. Thorne’s brother would tease him, telling him he had the power to kill off his brownies. Thorne would have to fork over quarters to prevent his brother from utilizing his “power”.
As a boy in North Carolina, Smith slept in a big bed with his smaller cousin Almerine. A big black dog who called himself Zeb would come and crawl under the covers, taking up most of the bed. Thorne and Almerine let him, realizing “as only children can, how much he had to contend with during the day.” During his time in North Carolina, Smith told his first stories and poems to his cousin and the dog. It was during this time that Thorne had his bouts with pneumonia, something that would plague him the remainder of his life.


Thorne attended boarding school at Locust Dale Academy in Virginia. He didn’t like it and transferred to St. Luke's School in Wayne, Pennsylvania. As it turns out, he apparently didn’t like St. Luke’s any better than Locust Dale Academy. By all reports, Thorne was an average student who enjoyed his English classes and little else. Reference is also made to an incident that almost got the boy expelled, but no details were given to any specifics other than one of the teachers who stuck up for him was dismissed over the situation. Regardless, he stuck it out, eventually graduating in June of 1910 at the age of 18. That fall he attended Dartmouth University. He maintained a fairly active social life, joining Psi Upsilon and qualifying for the cross country track team. It is suspected that Thorne’s running complicated the damage caused from recurrent bouts of pneumonia, contributing to the heart problems he experienced later in life. Academic life didn’t agree with Thorne and he dropped out of Dartmouth in June of 1912.
After leaving college, Thorne took a job in a New York advertising agency and wrote copy for Dr. Lyon’s Tooth Powder. When writing copy he would often use the name T. Horn Smith -- perhaps to distinguish himself from his somewhat famous father. Occasionally the Commodore would take Thorne to sea when duty called, something the young man looked forward to and something that drew father and son closer. During these trips Thorne would be in the company of the Commodore’s old Navy buddies and party with the best of them. These father and son trips meant the world to Thorne and established a life long love of the sea . Thorne dedicated Haunts & By-Paths, his one and only book of poetry, to his father: “To The Commodore, God Bless Him!”


In 1917, seeing an excuse to leave the advertising business and serve his country, Thorne enlisted in the US Navy. During his Navy period, he worked on THE BROADSIDE, a Naval Reservist Journal that grew from 4 to 50 pages over the years Smith worked on it. It was in THE BROADSIDE that Smith experienced his first success as a writer. Thorne enjoyed working on the journal and quickly assumed the position of Editor. During this time he began writing a serial story about a hapless Naval recruit by the name of Biltmore Oswald. The short stories proved a big hit among the servicemen; so popular that Frederick Stokes & Company would later reprint them in “Biltmore Oswald: The Diary of a Hapless Recruit” and “Out O’ Luck: Biltmore Oswald Very Much at Sea.” Bilmore Oswald’s adventures sold more than 70,000 copies. THE BROADSIDE also gave Thorne an editorial platform as well as a place to launch his poetry -- his real passion at the time.


Thorne was discharged from the Navy in 1919 and took a job as a copy writer at a local advertising firm. Advertising was the profession Thorne would fall back on to keep the money rolling in . He despised going to the office, but friends and co-workers all agreed that he was a very talented writer and would have succeeded had he decided to stick with advertising as a profession. And while writing copy paid the current month’s bills, his true love was creative writing.
During the spring of 1919, an influenza epidemic was sweeping through the United States, taking a tragic toll on the population. Thorne was hit with the flu and took months to recover. Once he was back on his feet he relocated to the Greenwich Village Inn, at that time the home of many literary personalities: Harold Stearns, Sinclair Lewis, and John Reed to name a few.
Thorne’s creative output during this period at the Inn was mainly poetry. He submitted his poems to several newspapers and magazines and was published in The Smart Set. The Smart Set was widely known as the literary magazine to have one’s work published in. This output of work combined with his poems from THE BROADSIDE resulted in his first volume of poetry, Haunts & By-Paths.
Haunts & By-Paths did not sell well and was met by, at best, lukewarm reviews. While the publication of the book was another notch in Thorne’s belt, its critical failure hurt. Thorne would refer to the book later in “Thorne Smith His Life & Times” as something he wished he could have back “for purposes of destruction.” Interestingly enough, prior to his death, he makes mention of having had another book of verse ready for years. No information has surfaced about this book of poetry, so one has to wonder if Thorne did indeed have something completed or if it was something he had good intentions of putting into print at a later date.
It was at this time in his life that he met and fell in love with a Greenwich Village resident by the name of Celia Sullivan. Thorne called Celia his “Mona Lisa”. Celia’s parents were against the relationship from the beginning, feeling that Thorne had little or no prospects in life. Mr. Sullivan wanted Celia to marry someone the family had picked out. The couple continued to see each other, eventually eloping to Rye, New York in the Fall of 1919, much to the displeasure of the Sullivans. The couple moved to an apartment on Jones Street in Greenwich Village.
Since his poetry wasn’t paying the bills, Thorne hired on with Edward Bird Wilson, Inc. advertising firm in the city and wrote ad copy for banking clients. By all reports he was very good at his job, but he couldn’t stand the corporate world. He designed an ad for a Florida bank showing a Santa in a bathing suit enjoying the day at the beach. In his work with the firm, Thorne was one of the first to poke fun at the client through the ad. For as much as he disliked going into the office, being able to utilize humor and creativity in his work brought him a little pleasure, making the day bearable.
On August 23, 1920, Thorne father, the Commodore, passed away. It appears Thorne was the sole beneficiary of his father’s estate. Due to the fact that his brother Skyring had a family, Thorne gave him the house in New Rochelle. In 1921, with some of the money he received, Thorne and Celia took a vacation to Southern France. When they came back, Thorne purchased a summerhouse in Free Acres, New Jersey. At that time Free Acres was like a mini-Greenwich Village -- another creative center outside of the city limits.
Thorne and Celia quickly saw to spending the remainder of their inheritance. By all reports they were not good at managing money and frequently in debt, something that would continue to plague them to the end of Thorne’s days and beyond. Much of the money was spent on exotic vacations such as cruises and European holidays.
As was mentioned before, Thorne hated working in Advertising. It wasn’t that he hated writing ad copy, but the fact that he had to write copy in order to make a living depressed him deeply. This in turn led to drinking, oftentimes to excess.
On November 14, 1922, Celia gave birth to their daughter Marion. Two years later, on March 4, 1924, a daughter, June. Thorne loved these girls and gave them all he could. You’ll note that Marion was the namesake for Topper’s blithe female spirit. He even wrote a book and dedicated it to the two of them, the very collectible Lazy Bear Lane. But now with two more mouths to feed and little income, Thorne was forced to go back into the advertising field.
Thorne left the Wilson ad agency on March 5, 1925 and joined another firm, INECTO. His employment lasted only seven months and left in October of 1925. He remained unemployed for the next six months. During this period of unemployment he drove up to the Chateau Frontenac Hotel in Quebec with his friend Frank Moritz. They drove a Buick touring car like the one used by hunter Hawk in The Night Life of the Gods.
During the time Thorne had been working on his most ambitious project yet, a serious novel by the name of Dreams End. His poetry wasn’t getting him anywhere, and the royalties from Biltmore Oswald and Out ‘O Luck weren’t enough to pay the bills, so Thorne decided to write a novel. He worked on Dream’s End while at work and at the house in Free Acres. After many months of revisions, he finished work on the book in 1925; but to his dismay, could not find anyone willing to publish it. With much bitterness and a heavy feeling of rejection, he went back to the world of corporate advertising once again to support his wife and daughters.
He found work in 1926 at Doremus & Company in New York City as a copy executive. He wrote copy for such clients as Schrafft’s Chocolates, Fall River Steamboat Line, Tubize, Artificial Silk, and the Canadian National Railway. While he always turned out quality work, he despised every minute spent in the office. He felt his calling was as a writer, not an ad executive, but the rejection of Dream’s End gave him no other option.
While the family’s financial condition was adequate, Thorne lived with Celia and the kids in a dreary apartment on West 11th near 6th Avenue. This was done out of necessity to keep costs down and Thorne close to the office. These were lean times for the Smith family. Thorne, obviously frustrated with his job and lack of success in writing, continued to drink. But things were about to change for the better.
Thorne had been working on what stated out as a short story based on an observation he had made of a dog tromping through the high grass. All he saw was a tail moving frantically from place to place – a tail without a dog. Happy with the story, he decided to expand it to include a middle-aged, henpecked Banker by the name of Cosmo Topper. The novel that emerged from this short story would become Thorne Smith’s biggest success, “Topper.”