Thorne Smith

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Thorne Smith (mid 1920s)

James Thorne Smith, Jr. (March 27, 1892 – June 20, 1934) was an American writer of humorous supernatural fantasy fiction under the byline Thorne Smith. He is best known today for the two Topper novels, comic fantasy fiction involving sex, much drinking and ghosts. With racy illustrations, these sold millions of copies in the 1930s and were equally popular in paperbacks of the 1950s.

Smith drank as steadily as his characters; James Thurber's The Years with Ross tells the story of Smith's unexplained week-long disappearance. When asked why he hadn't called-in sick, he retorted, "The telephone was in the hall and there was a draft."[1] Smith was born in Annapolis, Maryland, the son of a Navy commodore, and attended Dartmouth College. Following hungry years in Greenwich Village, working part-time as an advertising agent, Smith achieved meteoric success with the publication of Topper in 1926. He was an early resident of Free Acres, a social experimental community developed by Bolton Hall according to the economic principles of Henry George in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.[2] He died of a heart attack in 1934 while vacationing in Florida.


  • Biltmore Oswald: The Diary of a Hapless Recruit (1918). A series of comic stories written for the Naval Reserve journal The Broadside while Smith was in the Navy.
  • Out O' Luck: Biltmore Oswald Very Much at Sea (1919).
  • Haunts and Bypaths (1919). A book of poetry.
  • Topper (1926, copyright renewed 1953—also known as The Jovial Ghosts). This and its 1932 sequel, Topper Takes a Trip (1932, set in the French Riviera) were probably Smith's most famous work, about a respectable banker called Cosmo Topper, married to his depressingly staid wife Mary, and his misadventures with a couple of ghosts, Marion and George Kerby, who introduce him to other ghosts. He is romantically attracted to Marion, who at one point tries to kill him so that they can always be together. Unusually for such a book, Mary is treated sympathetically—she does not like what she has become and tries to change. It was made into a film.
Topper was made into a 1937 film starring Cary Grant as George Kerby, Constance Bennett as Marion Kerby, and Roland Young as Cosmo Topper. Two filmed sequels followed: Topper Takes a Trip, in 1939, and Topper Returns, in 1941. The latter film was not based on a book. Young reprised the role in the 1945 NBC radio summer replacement series The Adventures of Topper.[3] The books were adapted into an American television series, Topper, beginning in 1953, with Leo G. Carroll as Cosmo Topper, and Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys as the ghosts. Seventy-eight episodes were made. The pilot episode and a few of the early episodes were written by Stephen Sondheim.
  • Dream's End (1927, copyright renewed 1955). A serious novel that was not a success.
  • 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. Lamb has, like many Thorne Smith heroes, a shrewish (and in this case adulterous) wife who at one point tries to murder him (at the time he is a goldfish). As in many Thorne Smith novels, a courtroom scene involving the protagonists and an exasperated judge provides a climax to the characteristically tipsy action. This novel is included with Turnabout and Rain in the Doorway in The Thorne Smith 3-Decker (Sun Dial Press, 1933).
  • Did She Fall? (1930). A mystery novel admired by Dashiell Hammett.[citation needed]
  • 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 Roman gods of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to life. Among other incidents, Mercury shows himself to be an expert pickpocket, while Neptune causes chaos in the fish market.
  • 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. Like Thorne Smith, Tim works in an advertising agency, and several scenes are set there, drawing on the author's experience. After the wife forcefully 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 sitcom starring Sharon Gless and John Schuck (canceled after six episodes) were based on Turnabout,[4] as to some extent was the last broadcast episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, "Turnabout Intruder".[5] This novel is included with The Stray Lamb and Rain in the Doorway in The Thorne Smith 3-Decker.
  • Lazy Bear Lane (1931). A children's book.[6]
  • The Bishop's Jaegers (1932). Depressed and indifferent heir of a vast coffee import fortune, Peter Van Dyke finds his 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 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. One of Smith's few comic novels in which no element of the supernatural is featured. Smith assumes the reader will know that "Jaegers" refers to a union suit.
  • 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. Unusually, his wife Lorna is an attractive personality.
  • 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, Nockashima, plays ju jitsu with the English language, the two slip into a swimming pool, the waters of which 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 Passionate Witch (1941, published posthumously and completed by Norman H. Matson). Produced in 1942 as the film I Married a Witch, this novel was 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.

Skin and Bones, Turnabout, The Night Life of the Gods, The Passionate Witch, The Stray Lamb, The Bishop's Jaegers, The Glorious Pool, and Rain in the Doorway were all published by Armed Services Editions.


  1. ^ Thurber, James. The Years with Ross, 1959.
  2. ^ Buchan, Perdita. "Utopia, NJ", New Jersey Monthly, February 7, 2008. Accessed February 27, 2011. "Free Acres had some famous residents in those heady early days: actors James Cagney and Jersey City–born Victor Kilian, writers Thorne Smith (Topper) and MacKinlay Kantor (Andersonville), and anarchist Harry Kelly, who helped found the Ferrer Modern School, centerpiece of the anarchist colony at Stelton in present-day Piscataway."
  3. ^
  4. ^ Turnabout - at
  5. ^ DeCandido, Keith R.A. "Star Trek The Original Series Rewatch: "Turnabout Intruder"". Tor. Retrieved 11 May 2019.
  6. ^ Fantasy and Science Fiction: Curiosities at

Further reading[edit]


  • Joseph Leo Blotner, Thorne Smith: A Study in Popular Fiction (1951 dissertation, 197 pages with bibliography and appendices)
  • Howard Steven Jitomer, Forgotten Excellence: A Study of Thorne Smith's Humor (1983 dissertation, 224 pages with bibliography)
  • Peter Zilahy Ingerman, The World in Thorne Smith (1991 dissertation, 323 pages including appendices)

Bibliographies and checklists[edit]

  • Haas, Irvin, comp. "[James] Thorne Smith [Jr.] 1893–1934." (American First Editions. Edited by Jacob Blanck.) The Publishers’ Weekly, 130 (28 November 1936): 2134.
  • Sprague, Don. "Thorne Smith." Collecting Paperbacks? 3, no. 2 (May 1981), 19.
  • Valone, Philip J., Jr. A Thorne Smith Source Book. N.p.: The author, 1982.
  • Bleiler, E. F. The Guide to Supernatural Fiction. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, [1983], pp. 464–66.
  • Scheetz, George H., and Rodney N. Henshaw. "Thorne Smith." Bulletin of Bibliography, 41, no. 1 (March 1984): 25-37. Illustrated.
  • [Ahearn, Patricia, and Allen Ahearn.] "Thorne Smith." Author Price Guide, No. [069], June 1986. 3 pp. Published by Quill & Brush; P. O. Box 5365; Rockville, Md. [Based on Scheetz, q.v.; credited.]
  • [Smiley, Kathryn]. "A Thorne Smith Checklist." Firsts: Collecting Modern First Editions, 3, no. 4 (April 1993): 19. Illustrated.

External links[edit]


Online editions[edit]