James Thurber: Portrait of the Man Who Invented Walter Mitty

James Thurber 1945
Bob Landry—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Caption from LIFE. "Thurber draws a cartoon in 6 minutes, did this one for LIFE to show his speed."
Art & Artists
'40s

The man LIFE magazine once called “the most disturbingly funny humorist in the U.S.” was both a marvelous writer and a sharp, wry cartoonist. “His characters,” LIFE noted (and this was as true of his writings as it was of his deceptively simple drawings), “inhabit a world of permanent desperation.”

James Thurber, 1945Today, as the movie adaptation of one of his most famous stories, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” lands in theaters all over the world, Thurber is remembered as a 20th-century cultural force on a par with other famous New Yorker contributors like E.B. White, Charles Addams and John Cheever.

For countless readers, though, it was Thurber — perhaps more than any other writer or cartoonist — who most reliably defined that fabled magazine’s tone and its visual style in the 1930s and ’40s.

Here, as James Thurber’s imaginative brilliance again enlivens the pop-culture landscape, this time in a film starring Ben Stiller and set in, among other places, LIFE magazine’s New York offices, LIFE.com remembers the great humorist in a series of pictures from 1945. Here he is, compensating for his famously poor eyesight — he lost one eye as a child when his brother shot him with an arrow — while creating a cartoon (below). The lines are a little wobbly, and the caption is written in just-legible handwriting, but the classic battle-of-the-sexes tension that Thurber made his particular area of study and parody for decades survive undimmed.

James Thurber Cartoon 1945

Bob Landry—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Thurber portrait: Bob Landry—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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