from dust jacket of The Lonesome Bear

Harrison Kinney's life & times:
a brief autobiography

My birthplace was Mars Hill, Aroostook County, Maine, on the border of New Brunswick, Canada. My family lived in a small potato-farming community, Easton, Maine, another border village. In 1929 my father purchased a farm in Houlton, Maine, a town of 7,000 and the county seat of Aroostook. It was the start of the Great Depression and the farm was lost to bankruptcy. We moved to a small house in town, heated inadequately by one wood stove. I routinely ran from the heated schoolhouse after school to the heated Cary Library to do my school homework and read books. As a seventh-grader I discovered the writings of James Thurber and became a determined life-long devotee of the humorist.

Never suspecting that surviving the Depression and spending three years in the army during WWII would eventually qualify me as a member of Tom Brokaw's greatest generation, I was most ungracious about the poverty, the occasional bouts of hunger and wearing clothes to school with holes in them. I felt doubly cheated years later when it was fashionable for my children to wear expensive new blue jeans with holes or patches at the knees factory-made.

A fatherly high-school teacher staked me to a six-dollar aptitude test that suggested journalism as a profession. In my senior year my English teacher submitted one of my poems to the state of Maine amateur poet's contest. It took third prize. Writing seemed to be an area to be explored. After high school graduation I worked as a laborer in Hartford, CT, saving money for college. In 1940 I was admitted to Washington & Lee University, a journalism major. I ran out of money after the first semester but was given a merit scholarship and won a short-story writing contest whose prize paid for half a semester. Delivering the New York Herald Tribune on campus, baby-sitting for faculty members, waiting on table and working in the university library, I made it through my first year.

The Lend Lease Act had generated industry jobs by 1941 and I found a summer job in Hartford as a “wet grinder,” making bullets for the military. Working the graveyard night shift, midnight to eight a.m., paid even better. In my college junior year I was called up by the Army. After basic training at Camp Pickett, VA, I was selected to attend the Medical Administrative Corp officers' candidate school in Camp Barkley, Texas. By then, large convoys out of Hampton Roads, VA, were supplying the Mediterranean theater. Many Liberty ships had been outfitted to carry 550 troops. With a shortage of Medical Corps officers (physicians), a group of us "MACs" were put through a Battalion Aid Surgeon School in Texas and shipped to Hampton Roads as potential "ship's surgeons." After four round-trips to the Mediterranean the Liberty ship I was on during my fifth run ran into a cluster of German magnetic mines off the coast of Italy. Luckily the troops had been disembarked earlier. After a couple of days in a lifeboat with a dozen Merchant Marine chaps, we were spotted by a B-26 bomber and picked up a day later by a British destroyer. My chief regret was losing 30,000 words of a novel I'd been working on.

W&L had no summer school and, on the GI Bill, I spent the summer of 1946 at the University of Missouri's school of journalism in Columbia, MO. I was graduated in 1947 from W&L and enrolled in Columbia University's graduate school, an English major, that fall. My roommate was Charles McDowell, a W&L alumnus and a member of Columbia's journalism graduate school. McDowell's career with the Richmond Times Dispatch in the years that followed was crowned by his nationally syndicated humorous column and regular membership on PBS's Washington Week in Review. We have remained in frequent touch. Two other Columbia friends and service veterans were John Graves, author of Goodbye to a River, and Sam Hynes, whose published books include his war-time memoirs and major works of literary criticism. Graves taught at Rice University, Hynes at Princeton.

At Columbia I selected James Thurber as my thesis subject and was granted several meetings by Thurber at The New Yorker . I told Thurber I planned to write his biography. He was pleased but hesitant, believing it was too early in his career for any conclusive summary of his work and life. But he was flattered by the thesis and insisted that it be read by the Time magazine researchers then preparing the cover story on Thurber. During some of the interviews, Thurber would invite a friend or colleague to join us. The essayist E. B. White once met us for a gin-and-tonic at the Algonquin Hotel, where Thurber stayed when in town. I'd just been hired as a New Yorker Talk of the Town reporter and found drinking with two of my literary heroes a somewhat heady brew for a novitiate.

The New Yorker under Harold Ross didn't seem to believe in money for its writers. Ross believed that under-paid reporters worked harder. There were no expense accounts and one was supposed to ride subways on assignment. It helped to have a private income, which I didn't have. My beginning salary, a complicated matter, was $40 a week plus a cost-of-living addition based on the 1933 Bureau of Labor statistics. By my sixth accepted “Talk” story, I was raised to $60 — amounting to about $100 a week with the cost-of-living adjustment. It soon became apparent that we were free to pick up free-lance assignments from elsewhere, as long as New Yorker assignments were in on time. My free-lance sales were to American Heritage, Readers Digest, The Saturday Evening Post , Collier's , Good Housekeeping , The Woman's Home Companion, and other magazines that television was already threatening to put out of business. I enlarged a Saturday Evening Post story into a children's book — The Lonesome Bear — at the request of the McGraw-Hill juvenile editor. (As a Scholastic paperback it sold nearly a half-million copies.) And at the request of Tim Coward, of Coward-McCann, I expanded a "Talk" story into a book about the replication of Da Vinci's painting, The Last Supper, by an American artist. For a time I even wrote “Briefly Noted” Sunday book reviews for The New York Times.

In 1952 I married Doris Getsinger, a Wellesley graduate and highly thought of reporter for Life magazine. We left the city for suburban Croton-on-Hudson, NY. The New Yorker had no medical insurance plan for its editorial people and the economies of marriage with children soon led me to accept an offer to become copy chief at McCall's magazine. McCall's, a women's service publication, was making an effort to develop a dual readership in the hopes of competing for the advertising that was going to the general interest magazines. Seeking to make good on its hopeful new theme, “The Magazine of Togetherness,” the publisher, Otis Wiese, attempted to bring male writing, editing, and thinking to the magazine. In retrospect I've decided that McCall's' promotion department was stronger than the editorial: it had Joseph Heller, prior to his Catch 22 , and Gene Shalit, who eventually grew a mustache and joined NBC television as a film critic.

I later moved from the copy desk to become an articles editor and then a columnist for the magazine. In 1958 I quit to free-lance. My experiences on McCall's — those of one of six men working with 22 women editors — were fictionalized in my Simon & Schuster novel, Has Anybody Seen My Father? My second children's book, The Kangaroo in the Attic, was published by McGraw-Hill's Whittlesey House that same year.

In late 1960, with a fourth child on the way, I accepted the offer of a job as speech writer for IBM's senior executives. When I could I continued to interview former colleagues and friends of Thurber. In 1962 I was introduced to the legendary novelist William Gaddis by my friend, classmate, and former New York City roommate, Stewart "Sandy" Richardson, editor-in-chief at Doubleday. Gaddis was a speech writer for the Pfizer pharmaceutical company and was finding life in a brownstone apartment with a wife and two children somewhat cramped. I persuaded him to move to Croton-on-Hudson. It was the start of a long-lasting friendship between the two families. (My recollections of the two-decades-long association are on the Gaddis web site .)

Thurber died in 1961 at age 66. Ed Kuhn, editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, had been a classmate at Columbia and remembered my thesis on Thurber. He signed me to a contract to write the biography. The advance enabled me to take a leave of absence from my job and interview Thurber's many surviving friends and colleagues in Columbus, Ohio, New York, and Connecticut. Thurber's widow, Helen, met with me several times, answered all questions but withheld Thurber's correspondence for whomever she would choose to write the "authorized" biography. That authorized version was published in 1975. Helen described it as a hatchet job, considered suing the author, was told she could only lose, and nursed a lasting and bitter resentment of the matter until her death in 1986. In that year I retired to spend full time completing my own book on Thurber. My agent had settled my contract obligations to McGraw-Hill and Patricia Strachan, then executive editor at Harcourt, Brace, bid successfully for the book. When she left Harcourt she took the book with her to Henry Holt. Strachan had worked as a fiction editor at The New Yorker for four years and she chose as her production assistant for the book Sara Lippincott, long-time New Yorker editor. Rosemary Thurber, willing to support a definitive biography of her father, made all his correspondence available to me, including letters he had written to her, and granted me the use of Thurber's art for what she called "a bargain rate" of payment.

I was ready to follow my editor's suggestions for cuts — the draft ran to over a thousand manuscript pages -- but Strachan said she could find little to delete, while knowing well that large books as a rule don't sell in large quantity. No writer could be more grateful to an editor. The book, as its title — James Thurber: His Life and Times — connotes, is not only about Thurber but about The New Yorker and the social times in which he lived.

The book was praised by the Boston Globe , Christian Science Monitor , Washington Post , Chicago Tribune , San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times , among others. It continues in paperback and internet sales, and I continue to hear from pleased readers who happen upon it since its publication in 1995. In July 2001, I received a letter from Jack Olsen, the acclaimed true-crime writer of nearly 30 books and former staff member of Time and Sports Illustrated magazines. I'd never met Olsen nor written to him. Olsen's letter read in part:

"The Thurber book is the best bio I've ever read — and I've read a few. The reviewers who carped about the length are full of [baloney]... Anyway, this writer's hat is off to you. I wouldn't have cut one word of James Thurber. And I doubt that Thurber would have, or Ross, or any good editor (of whom there are two or three on earth, but I can't think of their names). You have produced a monument, sir, and you should be very proud. With appreciation for a week of superb reading — Jack Olsen"

And later he wrote me again: "I've re-read parts of the Thurber book and still cannot believe that anyone could produce such a literary monument without winning a Pulitzer, Booker, Prix Goncourt and Nobel and being knighted and/or given the deed to a dozen square miles of downtown Columbus at the very least."

I'm sorry to say we never met. A few months after these glowing words from Olsen he died of a heart attack in Seattle.

In collaboration with Thurber's daughter, Rosemary, I edited a large selection of Thurber's letters, published by Simon & Schuster in 2003 as The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber. A glowing review of the book by Janet Maslin in the New York Times and one by Christopher Buckley in the Los Angeles Times helped lead to an immediate second printing by the publisher.

In 2000, I moved from Carmel, NY, to Lexington, Virginia, where I had attended college. I've been reviewing earlier writing starts that had been put aside—discovering my past, one could say. My efforts are too often sabotaged by all the exciting cultural events that take place in a college town and the welcome family visits of my children. A daughter and son live in northern Virginia, a daughter, in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, and another in Charlestown, RI.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Reading to the children: from the dust jacket of
The Kangaroo in the Attic
photo by Robert Northshield

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lexington, Virginia, August 2001