REMEMBERING THE MASTER
LOOKING BACK AT 153 YEARS OF O. HENRY
Birthday parties are typically a big deal. So what do you do for a famous writer when recognizing his 153rd birthday?
You help realize his dream of becoming famous and show that he continues to have a strong impact in his hometown and the world. Local businesses, arts and museums continue to do just that for William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry.
The American short-story writer is widely recognized in Greensboro for stories that shined a spotlight on the everyday people and things that they went through. He was considered a master of the short story and his stories featured sympathy, coincidence or sentiment for the working class through humor or irony.
“He is known for popularizing a short story with a surprise ending,” said Linda Evans, community historian at the Greensboro Historical Museum. “He’s writing about shop girls and people who want something more. He’s also writing about characters who want a second chance in life, which is kind of like his own life.”
He is known for stories like The Gift of the Magi, The Last Leaf, The Ransom of Red Chief and The Cop and The Anthem. A film was made in the 1950s with his better-known stories called O. Henry’s Full House. The cast included Charles Laughton, Marilyn Monroe and Dale Robertson.
Porter was born in Guilford County on September 11, 1862 to Algernon Sidney Porter, a local physician, and his wife Mary Jane Virginia Swaim Porter. He was one of three boys born to the couple, with one of them dying early in childhood.
The family moved to Greensboro in 1865, staying with Porter’s paternal grandmother Ruth and her daughter Evelina on West Market Street. This is where he spent most of his childhood, being raised by his grandmother and aunt after his mother died of tuberculosis in 1865.
“When Will was here Greensboro was a pretty sleepy southern town,” Evans said. “He had lots of adventures and lots of friends. There was lots of wildlife nearby and it was a safe, fun place for little boys to run around and explore nature. He would’ve spent a lot of time playing where the ballpark is now because he had a friend that lived on that property. He just had a lot of fun.”
His aunt began teaching her nephews how to read in the home’s parlor in 1867. Soon, neighbors began dropping their children off for lessons as well, prompting the opening of Miss Lina’s School. A small schoolhouse was built across the street.
“She was well-educated and neighbors began to ask her to teach their children,” she said.
Aunt Evelina Porter is credited with having a strong influence on his work as his teacher. He gained most of his education there. Evelina tutored young Will until he was 15. He later attended Lindsey Street High School from 1877-1879.
“She was extremely creative,” Evans said. “Part of the school day was story time. One of the things that his aunt did was have one student start the story, with another who would continue, etc. It’s said that Will always wanted to be the one to go last. Perhaps he was coming up with imaginative endings at a young age.”
The author began to work in his uncle’s drug store soon after. The W.C. Porter and Company Drug Store was located on South Elm Street. Porter worked there for three years and even obtained his license as a Pharmacist in 1881 before heading off to Texas in 1882 at the age of 20.
The visit-turned-two-year-stay at the ranch is believed to have improved his health and apparently motivated Porter. He began to sketch and write stories and skits, using his skills as a drug clerk and singer to make income while he was in Austin. In 1886, he began working as a bookkeeper for a real estate firm and would go on to become a draftsman at the Texas Land Office. He began dating Athol Estes and the couple eloped in 1887.
The newlyweds lived in Austin and Athol gave birth to a boy who lived only a few hours in 1888. The couple would welcome a daughter, Margaret Worth Porter, in 1889.
Having lost his job in the land office, Porter found work as a teller in the First National Bank of Austin as he continued to pursue his dreams of becoming a published writer.
In 1894, he bought the press of the Iconoclast, a radical monthly paper published in Austin, and began printing a weekly tabloid called the Rolling Stone to supplement his bank salary in April of 1894. He wrote the majority of the content for the publication, which consisted of eight pages, and produced the pages at night. The paper would later fold in the spring of 1895.
Porter lost his bank job in the later part of 1894 after a bank examiner discovered that his account ledgers were short. In July 1895, Porter was brought before a grand jury and charged with embezzlement. When no indictment was returned, the bank examiner appealed to the Treasury Department of the United States.
“There are thoughts about him working at the bank and taking the money. Was it to use it to pay bills for his newspaper? Well, maybe,” Evans said.
Porter went on with his life, moving to Houston in October to take a job as a reporter, columnist and cartoonist for the Houston Post. His daily column was entitled “Some Postscripts.”
Unfortunately, just as Porter was realizing his dream, a new warrant was drawn up for the embezzlement in Austin. A total of four indictments, worth more than $5,000, were filed causing him to return to Austin to turn himself in before heading back to Houston where his wife, Athol, was battling tuberculosis.
He continued to write for the Post until he was due back in Austin in July 1896, to stand trial. While his wife and daughter made it to the city, Porter decided to flee. He changed trains on the way and ended up in New Orleans, where he boarded a boat for Honduras, a country without extradition laws at the time.
News of his wife’s illness brought him back to Austin in early 1897. Authorities allowed Porter to post bail and nurse his dying wife, postponing his trial until February 1898. She died in July of 1897 and later on in the year he sold his first short story, “The Miracle of Lava Canyon,” to a national magazine published by the S.S. McClure Company, marking the beginning of his successful career. One that he would launch while housed in federal prison.
In 1898, Porter was convicted and sentenced to five years at the Ohio Federal Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. Due to good behavior, his sentence was shortened to three years and three months and he was allowed to work night duty as pharmacist in the prison hospital to earn money to support his daughter. He would also use the time to send stories, under the pen name O. Henry, to national magazines and had at least 12 of those stories published.
When he was released from prison in 1901, he moved to Pittsburgh where his daughter lived with her maternal grandparents. He published nine more stories, before moving to New York in 1902 enticed by a regular monthly income by Ainslee’s Magazine.
By 1903, Porter’s career took off bringing nothing but success for him. He earned a contract for $100 a week with the New York World while he wrote for magazines. His first book, Cabbages and Kings, was published in 1904, followed by The Four Million (1906), The Trimmed Lamp (1907), Heart of the West (1907), The Voice of the City (1908), The Gentle Grafter(1908), Roads of Destiny (1909), Options(1909), Strictly Business (1910) and Whirligigs (1910).
Despite his fame and marriage to old sweetheart Sara Coleman, the final years of Porter’s life were full of financial struggle, alcoholism and poor health.
He died on June 5, 1910, after having becoming ill with pneumonia. The attending physician listed sclerosis of the liver, kidney disease, diabetes and a dilated heart as the famed author’s cause of death. He was buried in Asheville.
After his death, Porter’s legacy lived on as more of his works were published in the form of Sixes and Sevens (1911), Rolling Stones (1912) and Waifs and Strays (1917). Later seven fugitive stories and poems, O. Henryana (1920), Letters to Lithopolis (1922), and two collections of his early work on the Houston Post, Postscripts (1923) and O. Henry Encore (1939), were published.
“I think he was a talented person, a dreamer and he never quite fit in and that the everyday of drudgery of a life was just not for him,” Evans said.
Greensboro has O. Henry’s imprint all over the city and educates many residents and visitors on his life in the area.
Evans said that’s because residents in the city followed his career and took pride in his accomplishments and him being from the area.
“Here’s a boy from this little old town who wasn’t much when he left and he became someone read nationally, and later internationally. People couldn’t wait to read his stories,” she said. “They were published in magazines and then published in books. That didn’t happen to people from Greensboro during that time.”
Because it didn’t happen often made it even more important for residents to preserve the legacy of Porter, any way they could.
“A childhood friend wrote one of his early biographies, people collected and treasured the letters he had written and they wanted to buy the magazines and books published no matter the cost,” Evans said.
The Greensboro Historical Museum has an exhibit “Voices of a City,” which contains many of Porter’s first editions that have been donated, his cradle, a slingshot he used as a little boy, a desk from his aunt’s school, paintings and images.
The museum also has an archives collection that includes letters to his daughter, legal documents, scrapbooks, drawings, newspaper clippings, photographs, magazines, an audio recording and paintings from 1843 to 1970.
“We even have sketches that he drew of people who came into the drug store,” Evans said.
He was so revered, even in death, that a hotel was name after him.
The original O. Henry Hotel was opened in 1919 and considered one of the finest in the state. It was located at the corner of Elm and Bellemeade Streets before it was razed in 1979.
“That would be the hotel with the ballroom and beautiful spaces. That’s where events happened if you were going to have a big dinner party or a dance, that’s where it happened,” Evans said. “F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stayed in that hotel one time and created quite the commotion because she wore pants and they were drunk. It was a landmark and a point of pride. It was where travelers wanted to stay.”
The new hotel, located at 624 Green Valley Road, mirrors the time period of the writer and shows his imprint throughout the hotel in its decoration and elegance, even down to giving each guest a copy of his short stories. Evans said that the owner Dennis Quaintance, and his wife Nancy, did an excellent job with the hotel.
“How fantastic is that? You can see the images and quotes in the lobby while drinking tea,” she said.
Along with the hotel, the O. Henry Magazine is another example you can see of the author’s time here and the city’s pride.
“It’s a mix of news and literature, fun, wit and seriousness. Everything that he exhibited in his works,” Evans said.
The museum will be celebrating the author’s birthday with a week of plays in its 29 th annual presentation of 5 by O. Henry. The performance features stage adaptations of short stories written by Porter. The stories have been adapted for the stage by playwright Joe Hoesl, who said he has written since the series began in the mid-1980s. In the beginning, he said he wrote the plays, directed them, hired the actors and built the sets and is glad that things have changed with the help of Barbara Britton as artistic director. He said that she brings something out of the actors that ensures the audience has a great experience.
“Guests will laugh the whole performance. The stories all have that twist at the end so it keeps everyone on their toes. His short stories are better on stage than they are on the written page, it’s so much better than reading it,” Hoesl said. “They’re funny and exciting. In between shows the actors, with the audience’s participation, sing songs that are over 100 years old and that’s kind of fun.”
This year’s playbill features The Love Philtre of Ikey Schoenstein, Whirligig of Life, Makes the Whole World Kin, Transients in Arcadia and The Exact Science of Matrimony. O. Henry will be played again this year by Stephen A. Hale, a graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. Hale has appeared in Nunsense as Mother Superior, A-Men!, Blood Brothers as Mickey, Wizard of Oz as the Scarecrow, the teen angel in Grease, Huck Finn in Big River and as Dickon Sowerby in The Secret Garden.
Hoesl said he chose those particular stories because they haven’t been done in quite some time. When asked how he decides what will be adapted to stage and what won’t, he admits that it can be a tedious and lengthy process.
“He’s written over 300 hundred of these stories and I’ve gone through all of them. Some of them you just can’t do because the characters travel from city to city, or country to country. You can’t do that on stage sometimes so I’ve eliminated those,” he explained. “He uses so much dialogue in the stories so that helps. At this point, I’ve narrowed them down to the good ones.”
There will be six performances of 5 by O. Henry beginning September 16 through 18 at 7:30 p.m. One Saturday, Sept. 19, there will be two shows, one at 3 p.m. and one at 7:30 p.m. The final show will be Sunday, Sept. 20, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $16 for general admission and $15 for seniors and students, and $13 for museum members, plus tax. They can be purchased through the Museum Shop or online at www.GreensboroHistory.org.
Hoesl calls the play a must-see and encourages residents to purchase their tickets in advance since the performance went from 10 to six shows.
“We usually sell out. As I understand it we are already sold out Wednesday night, Thursday night and almost sold out Friday night.”
Hoesl said he is trying to keep the spirit of O. Henry and his works alive.
“A lot of the young kids don’t even know who he is anymore. Internationally, it’s different. I have a Russian doctor who said that’s how they learn English in Russia. They read O. Henry short stories,” he said. “He’s loved in Japan. Anytime, the Japanese come here they run to the museum to see all the artifacts that are there. He’s very popular around the world.” !