Who was Walter Mitty?

Walter Mitty is a fictional character of a daydreamer in James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

first published in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939, and in book form in My World and Welcome to It in 1942. Thurber loosely based the character on his friend, Walter Mithoff.

It was made into a film in 1947 starring Danny Kaye, with a remake directed by and starring Ben Stiller released in 2013.

Mitty is a meek, mild man with a vivid fantasy life. In a few dozen paragraphs he imagines himself a wartime pilot, an emergency-room surgeon, and a devil-may-care killer.

Although the story has humorous elements, there is a darker and more significant message underlying the text, leading to a more tragic interpretation of the Mitty character. Even in his heroic daydreams, Mitty does not triumph, several fantasies being interrupted before the final one sees Mitty dying bravely in front of a firing squad. In the brief snatches of reality that punctuate Mitty’s fantasies the audience meets well-meaning but insensitive strangers who inadvertently rob Mitty of some of his remaining dignity.

The character’s name has come into more general use to refer to an ineffectual dreamer and appears in several dictionaries.

When referencing actor Errol Flynn, Warner Brothers studio head, Jack L. Warner, noted in his autobiography,

“To the Walter Mittys of the world he [Flynn] was all the heroes in one magnificent, sexy, animal package”.

In his 1992 biography of Henry Kissinger, Walter Isaacson records that on 6 October 1973, during the 1973 Arab Israeli War, Kissinger urged President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff General Alexander Haig to keep Nixon in Florida in order to avoid

“any hysterical moves” and to “keep any Walter Mitty tendencies under control”

In 2007, automaker Ford stated that it had to exclude from the list of potential bidders “Walter Mitty” types who had dreams but no experience, prior to the sale of their Aston Martin British GT car brand to a consortium of business interests from America and the Middle East.