Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, to Charles L. Thurber and Mary Agnes "Mame" (née Fisher) Thurber on December 8, 1894. Both of his parents greatly influenced his work. His father was a sporadically employed clerk and minor politician who dreamed of being a lawyer or an actor. He is said to have been the inspiration for the small, timid protagonist typical of many of his stories. Thurber described his mother as a "born comedian" and "one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known." She was a practical joker and, on one occasion, pretended to be crippled and attended a faith healer revival, only to jump up and proclaim herself healed.
Thurber and one of his brothers were playing a game of William Tell, and his brother shot James in the eye with an arrow. He lost that eye, and the injury later caused him to become almost entirely blind. He was unable to participate in sports and other activities in his childhood because of this injury, but he developed a creative mind which he used to express himself in writings. Neurologist V .S. Ramachandran suggests that Thurber's imagination may be partly explained by Charles Bonnet syndrome, a neurological condition which causes complex visual hallucinations in people who have suffered some level of visual loss. (This was the basis for the piece "The Admiral on the Wheel".)
From 1913 to 1918, Thurber attended Ohio State University where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. He never graduated from the university because his poor eyesight prevented him from taking a mandatory ROTC course. In 1995 he was posthumously awarded a degree.
From 1918 to 1920, Thurber worked as a code clerk for the United States Department of State, first in Washington, D.C. and then at the embassy in Paris. On returning to Columbus, he began his career as a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch from 1921 to 1924. During part of this time, he reviewed books, films, and plays in a weekly column called "Credos and Curios", a title that was given to a posthumous collection of his work. Thurber returned to Paris during this period, where he wrote for the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers.
In 1925, Thurber moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, getting a job as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1927 as an editor, with the help of E.B. White, his friend and fellow New Yorker contributor. His career as a cartoonist began in 1930 after White found some of Thurber's drawings in a trash can and submitted them for publication; White inked-in some of these earlier drawings to make them reproduce better for the magazine, and years later expressed deep regret that he had done such a thing. Thurber contributed both his writings and his drawings to The New Yorker until the 1950s.
Thurber married Althea Adams in 1922, but the marriage was troubled and ended in divorce in May 1935. They lived in Fairfield County, Connecticut, with their daughter Rosemary. He married Helen Wismer (1902–86) in June 1935.
On one of several vacations with his wife at the Homestead Resort in Warm Springs, Virginia, Thurber was stricken with a heart attack and transported by ambulance to Clifton Forge, Virginia, a small railroad town, where the nearest hospital was. He survived.
Thurber's behavior became increasingly erratic and unpredictable in his last year. He was particularly so at a party hosted by Noël Coward and had to go back to the Algonquin Hotel at six in the morning. Thurber was stricken with a blood clot on the brain on October 4, 1961, and underwent emergency surgery, drifting in and out of consciousness. The operation was successful, but he died, aged 66, due to complications from pneumonia. The doctors said his brain was senescent from several small strokes and hardening of the arteries. His last words, aside from the repeated word "God", were "God bless... God damn", according to his wife, Helen.
Curiously, he had repeatedly predicted that when he was on his deathbed, his wife would be at the hairdresser. She had gone there to get away from the strain of his deathbed vigil and hastened back when told that James was sinking fast.Established in 1997, the annual Thurber Prize honors outstanding examples of American humor.
In 2008, The Library of America selected Thurber's story, " A Sort of Genius", first published in The New Yorker, for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime.
Two of his residences have been listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places: his childhood Thurber House in Ohio and the Sanford-Curtis-Thurber House in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Uniquely among major American literary figures, he became equally well known for his simple, surrealistic drawings and cartoons. Both his skills were helped along by the support of, and collaboration with, fellow New Yorker staff member E. B. White, who insisted that Thurber's sketches could stand on their own as artistic expressions. Thurber drew six covers and numerous classic illustrations for The New Yorker.
The last twenty years of Thurber's life were filled with material and professional success in spite of his handicap. He published at least fourteen more books, including The Thurber Carnival (1945), Thurber Country (1953), and the extremely popular account of the life of the New Yorker editor Harold Ross, The Years with Ross (1959). A number of his short stories were made into movies, including "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1947), which is also regarded as one of the best short stories written in the twentieth century. Many of his short stories are humorous fictional memoirs from his life, but he also wrote darker material, such as "The Whip-Poor-Will", a story of madness and murder. His best-known short stories are "The Dog That Bit People" and "The Night the Bed Fell"; they can be found in My Life and Hard Times, which was his "break-out" book. Among his other classics are The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Catbird Seat, A Couple of Hamburgers, The Greatest Man in the World, If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox. The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze has several short stories with a tense undercurrent of marital discord. The book was published the year of his divorce and remarriage. His 1941 story "You Could Look It Up", about a three-foot adult being brought in to take a walk in a baseball game, is said to have inspired Bill Veeck's stunt with Eddie Gaedel with the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Veeck claimed an older provenance for the stunt, but was certainly aware of the Thurber story.
In addition to his other fiction, Thurber wrote over seventy-five fables, some of which were first published in "The New Yorker" (1939), then collected in Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated (1940) and Further Fables for Our Time (1956). These were short stories that featured anthropomorphic animals (e.g. The Little Girl and the Wolf, his version of Little Red Riding Hood) as main characters, and ended with a moral as a tagline. An exception to this format was his most famous fable, The Unicorn in the Garden, which featured an all-human cast except for the unicorn, which doesn't speak. Thurber's fables were satirical, and the morals served as punchlines as well as advice to the reader, demonstrating "the complexity of life by depicting the world as an uncertain, precarious place, where few reliable guidelines exist."
His stories also included several book-length fairy tales, such as The White Deer (1945), The 13 Clocks (1950) and The Wonderful O (1957). The latter was one of several of Thurber's works illustrated by Marc Simont. Thurber's prose for The New Yorker and other venues included numerous humorous essays. A favorite subject, especially toward the end of his life, was the English language. Pieces on this subject included "The Spreading 'You Know'," which decried the overuse of that pair of words in conversation, "The New Vocabularianism", "What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?", and many others. His short pieces – whether stories, essays or something in between – were referred to as "casuals" by Thurber and the staff of The New Yorker.
Thurber wrote a biographical memoir about the founder/publisher of The New Yorker, Harold Ross, entitled The Years with Ross (1958). He wrote a five-part New Yorker series, between 1947 and 1948, examining in depth the radio soap opera phenomenon, based on near-constant listening and researching over the same period. Leaving nearly no element of these programs unexamined, including their writers, producers, sponsors, performers, and listeners alike, Thurber republished the series in his anthology, The Beast in Me and Other Animals (1948), under the section title "Soapland." The series was one of the first to examine such a pop-culture phenomenon in depth. Thurber's wit made it more than a sober piece of what would later be called investigative reporting.
While Thurber drew his cartoons in the usual fashion in the 1920s and 1930s, his failing eyesight later required changes. He drew them on very large sheets of paper using a thick black crayon (or on black paper using white chalk, from which they were photographed and the colors reversed for publication). Regardless of method, his cartoons became as noted as his writings; they possessed an eerie, wobbly feel that seems to mirror his idiosyncratic view on life. He once wrote that people said it looked like he drew them under water. Dorothy Parker, a contemporary and friend of Thurber, referred to his cartoons as having the "semblance of unbaked cookies". The last drawing Thurber completed was a self-portrait in yellow crayon on black paper, which was featured as the cover of Time magazine on July 9, 1951. The same drawing was used for the dust jacket of The Thurber Album (1952).Thurber teamed with college schoolmate (and actor/director) Elliott Nugent to write The Male Animal, a comic drama that became a major Broadway hit in 1939. The play was adapted as a film by the same name in 1942, starring Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland and Jack Carson.
In 1947 his short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", was loosely adapted as a film by the same name. Thurber intensely disliked the film, which he felt had little relation to his story. Danny Kaye played the title character.
In 1951 United Productions of America announced an animated feature to be based on Thurber's work, titled Men, Women and Dogs. The only part of the ambitious project that was eventually released was the UPA cartoon The Unicorn in the Garden (1953).
In 1960, Thurber fulfilled a long-standing desire to be on the professional stage and played himself in 88 performances of the revue A Thurber Carnival (which echoes the title of his 1945 book, The Thurber Carnival). It was based on a selection of Thurber's stories and cartoon captions. Thurber appeared in the sketch "File and Forget". The sketch consists of Thurber dictating a series of letters in a vain attempt to keep one of his publishers from sending him books he did not order, and the escalating confusion of the replies. Thurber won a special Tony Award for the adapted script of the Carnival.
In 1961, "The Secret Life of James Thurber" aired on The DuPont Show with June Allyson. Adolphe Menjou appeared in the program as Fitch, and Orson Bean and Sue Randall portrayed John and Ellen Monroe.
In 1969-70, a full series based on Thurber's writings and life, entitled My World and Welcome to It, was broadcast on NBC. It starred William Windom as the Thurber figure. Featuring animated portions in addition to live actors, the show won a 1970 Emmy Award as the year's best comedy series. Windom won an Emmy as well. He went on to perform Thurber material in a one-man stage show.
In 1972 another film adaptation, The War Between Men and Women, starring Jack Lemmon, concludes with an animated version of Thurber's classic anti-war work "The Last Flower".
In 2013, a new adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Ben Stiller as the title character.
Beginning during his own father's terminal illness, television broadcaster Keith Olbermann read excerpts from Thurber's short stories during the closing segment of his MSNBC program Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Fridays, which he called "Fridays with Thurber."
On an episode of Norm Macdonald's video podcast, Norm Macdonald Live, Norm tells a story in which comedian Larry Miller acknowledges that his biggest influence in comedy was Thurber.