James Thorne Smith (1892-1934) was an American author of comedic supernatural fiction known for his rapier wit and heavy drinking. Born in Annapolis, Smith briefly attended Dartmouth College before moving into advertizing. After a spectacular literary success in 1927, he moved to the town of Free Acres, the experimental village founded by Bolton Hall. His most popular works were his two Topper novels, Topper and Topper Takes a Trip. Smith’s humorous ghost stories influenced many later works of the 20th century, from Casper the Friendly Ghost to Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice. This collection, the Thorne Smith papers, contains two distinct subsets of material, both interesting.
The first set of material is a series of correspondences between Joseph Blotner, then a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, and a number of individuals in the literary world as well as Smith’s personal friends. Blotner was working on a paper that would eventually become his dissertation, “Thorne Smith: A Study in Popular Fiction.” From Smith’s various publishers and publicists to noted authors such as Ogden Nash and H. L. Menken, the correspondences span a wide range of individuals. Blotner would go on to become one of the most respected scholars of William Faulkner, befriending the author and publishing the definitive Faulkner: A Biography in 1974.
The second set of materials is comprised of Smith’s own handwritten notes and manuscripts for a number of short stories and novels, nine in all, including both Topper and Topper Takes a Trip. Additionally, there are a number of typescripts for these same novels. Topper, sometimes known as The Jovial Ghosts, is the story of what happens when banker Cosmo Topper, who is trapped in a boring marriage, buys a used car only to discover that the car is haunted by its previous owners. A ghostly couple, George and Marion Kerby, died when they crashed the car into a tree. The friendly spectres take Topper on a whirlwind of zany adventures, vowing to liven up his dreary existence for good. The Topper novels were so successful that they led to a film version starring Cary Grant, which blossomed into a trilogy and a television series written in part by Stephen Sondheim as well as a radio drama.
Thorne Smith suddenly died of a heart attack while vacationing in Florida. It is unknown whether or not he became a humorous ghost like those in his books.