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Born in Annapolis, Maryland, James Thorne Smith (1892-1934) had a brief but prolific career as a best-selling comic novelist. He began his working years as an advertising copy-writer, but soon turned to fiction writing. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1917 and worked as an editor and writer for The Broadside, a newspaper for enlisted men. His stories about an inept serviceman, Biltmore Oswald, became wildly popular among the magazine's readers. After the war, he moved to Greenwich Village, where he became friends with writers such as Sinclair Lewis and had a brief affair with Dorothy Parker. He continued to work in advertising while trying to succeed as a poet. After marrying in 1919, he and his wife frequently visited the experimental community of Free Acres in nearby New Jersey. In 1926, he achieved sudden literary stardom when his comic supernatural novel Topper was published to great success. The scandalous story of a strait-laced businessman visited by two free-spirited ghosts was packed with sex and drinking. Smith published prolifically for the next several years, mostly in the same vein as Topper. Having been plagued by repeated bouts of pneumonia, he died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 40. Various of his books were made into films and television series and continued to enjoy large readerships for many years. Despite the fact that Smith is little known today, his books have a lingering influence in popular culture; for instance, his novel Turnabout (1931), was the basis for the final episode of the original Star Trek series.
The dust jacket for Topper: A Ribald Adventure (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1926)
This wildly popular book transformed Thorne Smith from a starving Bohemian to a best-selling novelist, and its success lasted well beyond his short life. A 1937 film adaptation featured Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as the ghosts, and a television series, launched in 1953, ran for 79 episodes.