By Mary Pat Musick
Do you remember the first time reading O’Henry’s The Gift of the Magi? Do you recall the lump in your throat when the hero, Jim, sold his only valuable possession, his watch, to buy a set of jeweled combs to decorate Della’s long beautiful hair? And the tears that rolled down your cheeks when you read that she sold the one luxurious thing she had, her magnificent hair, to buy a chain for his watch. How wonderful to love so deeply; how glorious to be loved so much.
O’Henry must have witnessed a couple so in love. Visualize him sitting on a park bench watching strolling lovers, moving in no particular destination, stop to kiss and ear-whisper. Perhaps it was a crisp winter afternoon with a dusting of snowflakes that dampened his paper and caused the couples to snuggle together for extra warmth. He watched them wander by and he focused on one pair; she with goddess hair that fell down her back; he, a handsome man who stopped to take out a watch from his pocket to show her. O’Henry saw as she lovingly held her partner’s hand with the watch and raised it to her lips and the author settled on that look as the couple held each other, unaware of him, or anyone else, in the piazza.
I was reunited with the story again while visiting New York during a heat wave last summer. Our son suggested dinner at a tavern down the street from his new place in the Gramercy area of Manhattan. “It’s air conditioned, the beer is cold and the food is pretty good. Pete’s is the oldest continuous bar in New York,” he said.
The historical detail intrigued me, as did the cold beer part for my husband on a hot evening. Pete’s Tavern, est. in 1864, looks its age in contrast with its sleek wine bar and stylish French bakery neighbors. The black paint used extensively both inside and out, adds to the old world appearance. The worn marble tile floors, original rosewood bar and deep burgundy ceiling make it known it is a men’s bar and indeed most of the patrons in the bar are males. Three high-backed black booths line one wall of the bar, each with hat hooks along the tops of them. The hooks do not look as they’ve seen a fedora for some time.
Our son told us that on his first visit to his neighborhood bar; he sat in the third booth from the windows. Because of the high sides of the booths, it was a dark setting. He mentioned that it had a plaque to O’Henry. The booth was empty and I walked over and sat and placed my hands on the table, now covered with a red and white-checkered tablecloth, like all the others in Pete’s, and reflected on the Italian menu. An article from the New York World Magazine entitled, The Gift of the Magi, was posted. It looked like it was dated December 21, 1905, but the paper, even framed, was yellowed. There was a small plaque that hung below the large glass cabinets, which were filled with dusty antique liquor bottles, stating that William Sydney Porter, pen name O’ Henry, frequented Pete’s in the early 1900’s and in this booth wrote The Gift of the Magi.
I looked around at the men standing and sitting at the bar having an after-work refreshment, some on cell phones, a few chatting with the bartender and others watching the Yankees game. I pictured men after work a century ago exchanging stories and back-slapping and drink-induced loud talking. So there was no piazza, no strolling couples and the smells that surrounded him as he wrote were not the park’s fir trees and roasted chestnuts carts, but cigar smoke and stale beer. William Sydney Porter sat in a dim booth in a boisterous bar with a bottle of whiskey and wrote of one of the tenderest relationships in American literature.
Pete’s Tavern opened in 1851, as a grog and grocery store, in the same spot it stands today. That alone makes it worth a visit. It is the oldest continuously operating tavern in New York City. During prohibition, it had a front as a flower shop but ran as a speakeasy with the knowledge of powerful politicians that frequented the bar. Today it is a respected historical site, neighborhood tavern and good Italian restaurant. The decor hasn’t changed and Pete’s is proud of its heritage. The difference today is that you can have a pint of Pete’s Original House Ale or one of the now popular fruit flavored martinis. Beyond the bar area are rooms set with more of a restaurant atmosphere.
My original rumination on the source of the famous couple now eroded, I wanted to discover how he ended up creating a romantic story while writing it in such an unlikely setting. Finding the dark booth at Pete’s was only the first of the plot twists I learned about the writer’s life. No wonder he did not see his stories as contrived, as some critics have charged. His own experiences show that life frequently has unexpected episodes.
He was born William Sydney Porter on a plantation near Greensboro, North Carolina during the Civil War to a doctor and his wife, Mary Virginia. Young Will’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was just three years old and his father took to heavy drinking letting Will’s care fall to his grandmother. In his Aunt Lina’s small private school, he learned to love books and was a stellar student. At age 19, mentored by an uncle, he became a licensed pharmacist in Greensboro. Will had a persistent cough and some suggest he had tuberculosis. When a family friend, who had a sheep ranch in Texas, recommended the climate of the southwest might be better for his health, he leaped at the opportunity to make the change.
The ranch had more books to devour and the cowboys more stories to absorb, some of which he later turned into his works. When the farm was sold, he moved down to the city of Austin, where he spent thirteen years and perhaps the happiest of his life. He took up the guitar, started a band, “The Hill City Quartet” and was even a wedding singer for the band. Will was a regular in local watering holes, a custom that continued though most of his adult life. To support himself he had a variety of jobs from selling cigars to working as a draftsman in the Land Office.
It is thought that he first laid eyes on the lovely Athol Estes during the ceremony setting the cornerstone for the Texas capitol building. Athol represented her high school graduating class and among the items placed in the time capsule was a lock of her hair. They shared a love of art and music and literature. Carefree and in love, they performed together in the Austin production of HMS Pinafore as well as with the church choir. After a brief courtship, they eloped; she was 17 and he, 25. The writer O’Henry used real people as models for his characters. It has been widely speculated that Athol was the model for Della.
Heartbreak did come to the couple when their first child, a son, died shortly after birth. The following year they were delighted when a daughter, Margaret, was born. Athol shared her husband’s dream of becoming the writer he wanted to be, but Will Porter was neither the first nor last to discover that writing is a difficult way to support a family. He secured a position as teller at the Austin National Bank. Concurrently, he started a little paper, called The Rolling Stone, a humorous satirical weekly, (precursor to The Onion?).
So he is married to a lovely and supportive woman, has a little family living in a charming house, works in a respected profession and is writing his own publication and is a popular figure in the city saloons. Life is good. At this point, Will Porter’s real story takes one of its strangest twists. The First National Bank of Austin has accounting practices that can generously be called lax. It is a poorly managed institution and there are no regular audits. When money comes up missing, he is accused. His father-in-law, a local merchant, pays the bank the missing funds, and neither admitting guilt nor professing innocence, Will resigns and becomes a columnist with the Houston Post. His weekly, The Rolling Stone, folds. Two years later, federal auditors review the books of the National Bank of Austin and find its accounting a mess. The bank management may have found a scapegoat in Will, but he is accused of embezzlement, arrested in Houston and released on bail pending trial.
On a train back to Austin, Will decides to depart at a station along the way and instead takes an eastbound train for New Orleans. From there he lands on a ship and ends up in Honduras where he hangs out with other fugitives for a few months. He tries to get Athol to join him, but she is gravely ill and when he learns that her time on his earth is limited he returns to Austin. She dies of tuberculosis, shortly after he gets there, leaving young Margaret, age three, in care of her grandmother as her father surrenders to the Court. While the jury of public opinion is still out on his guilt or innocence, the only jury that mattered at the time, found him guilty and he was sentenced to prison.
Humiliated, demoralized, grieving his beloved Athol and missing his child, William Sydney Porter enters the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. In a scenario not even one of his tales can manufacture, he emerges three years later as, O’Henry, short story writer, sought by New York publishers. While in the penitentiary, he works at the prison pharmacy and, due to his contribution, is given sufficient time to write. Another inmate’s sister submits the O’Henry stories and three of them are published and are well received. The publishers did not know they were actually from prisoner Number 30664.
Which brings us back to the streets of New York where, after serving his time, he spent the final nine years of his life and wrote over 250 pieces during this prolific period. O’Henry, a gentleman with a slightly southern dialect, was a private person and his fans and publishers did not know the real man behind the name. He found stories in the people who lived and worked in the city and solace in its neighborhood bars, like Pete’s Tavern. He often met deadlines after their time limit and when the December 21, 1905 story, was due for the New York World Magazine, his publisher sent the illustrator to get it. Unprepared, O’Henry looked around the room where he lived and told the illustrator to draw a sparsely furnished room with a girl and a man sitting side by side and he would build a story around it. He went to Pete’s and three hours later, submitted to the newspaper, his classic, Gift of The Magi.
At some point, he began corresponding with his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Lindsey Coleman from North Carolina. Towards the end of his New York years, she came up to the city and they were married. They briefly lived out (what was the then the countryside) in Long Island where she attempted to make him a stay-at-home author/ husband but that lasted less than a year. He preferred the city streets and bars and Sarah, a southern aristocrat, returned to North Carolina.
One of his last tales, The Ransom of Red Chief, which is still in many a high school literature textbook as an example of the American short story, was published in 1910. The same year, at age 47, he succumbed to complications from diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver. He was broke when he died. In one last O’Henry turn of events, anthologies of his short stories became even more widely read after his death and when, what he feared happened; a biographer exposed the man behind the name, his fame soared internationally. His daughter Margaret and wife Sarah were the beneficiaries of O’Henry’s later success.
In his honor, Doubleday, his publisher, established the O’Henry Awards for the best short stories from American and Canadian magazines. It is still the most prestigious recognition of short fiction.
Jim and Della’s generous love continues to inspire me
Pete’s Tavern is located a block south of Gramercy Park at: 129 East 18th Street New York, New York, 10003