Books

'A Secret Gift': Hidden In an Old Suitcase, a '30s Largesse

Carolyn Kellogg
Los Angeles Times (MCT)
Sam Stone, aka B. Virdot

In telling their stories, the book becomes a portrait of endurance and recovery, as well as of a community in the throes of the Great Depression.


A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness--And a Trove of Letters--Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 368 pages
Author: Ted Gup
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-10
Amazon

On 18 December 1933, an ad appeared in the Canton, Ohio, paper offering financial aid to 50 to 75 families to help them have "a merry and joyous Christmas." The benefactor asked simply that the applicants write of their "true circumstances" — and, when the letters arrived, felt compelled to help twice as many.

Before Santa arrived, $5 checks from B. Virdot — as the paper noted, a pseudonym — reached 150 people. Virdot's identity remained a secret for 75 years, until his grandson, Ted Gup, opened a suitcase to discover a bankbook and the cache of letters.

They could hardly have landed in better hands. Gup, a former Washington Post reporter who now chairs the journalism department at Emerson College in Boston, dived into public records to trace what happened to the recipients of his grandfather's generosity — and to their children and grandchildren. When he could, he interviewed the families connected to those long-ago, modest gifts.

In telling their stories, the book becomes a portrait of endurance and recovery, as well as of a community in the throes of the Great Depression.

Before the stock market crash of 1929, Canton was a busy industrial city, home to Hoover and Republic Steel. But it was kneecapped by the Depression, with unemployment running as high as 50 percent. Local banks failed, taking all the deposits with them. Assistance programs there frequently ran out of food. Malnourished children in homes their parents couldn't afford to heat got sick; some died.

The devastation hit all levels: The people who received $5 from B. Virdot included a grocer who'd gone broke extending credit to his customers, and a man who lost his family's mansion after putting it up as collateral for the farm machinery business he had inherited.

The letters, many of which are reproduced in full, are snapshots telling desperate stories their authors would later downplay or deliberately forget. "We do not own a home here, nor furniture, tho we once did," wrote Edith Saunders. "Recently we were unable to pay any rent for five weeks and were ordered to move."

Ora Beggs, who'd been sick after losing a son the year before, explains, "We do have a large Dr. bill at Dr. Maxwell, a hospital bill, grocery at Mr. Brown's on Navarre rd. The last two I have been paying a dollar on whenever possible. Also owe $16 at Jacobs funeral home yet."

The Beggs family moved to the country, where it had no indoor plumbing but could at least raise its own food. Son Don, now in his 80s, remembers getting a paper route — and selling chickens and rabbits to the people who could afford them. The necessary grimness of these true stories is leavened by the long view — the septuagenarians who remember the local amusement park, the boy who grows up to fight bravely in World War II, the grandchildren safe from want.

In his letter, Howard Sommers detailed the efforts he and his wife made to earn money, including picking wild dandelions and selling them door to door. "Please destroy this letter," he writes, "so no one will know but you & I." That pact of secrecy — between the authors and the anonymous B. Virdot — was key to their frankness.

In chapters that alternate with the letters and their legacy, Gup weaves the story of B. Virdot. Initially, Gup wanted to understand why his grandfather undertook this singular act of generosity, but he found himself exploring why he invented B. Virdot at all. That exploration led to a stack of secret upon secret, which Gup fans out like a deck of cards.

B. Virdot, the man Gup knew as Sam Stone, was born Sam Finkelstein in Romania, although he maintained otherwise. Driven by anti-Semitism, the family emigrated to the US, landing in Pittsburgh.

Apparently to deny the legacy of his abusive father, Sam shed his last name and reinvented himself as a man who, eventually, was able to make his way in Canton as a successful businessman. Hampered by the cratering economy and the troubled family he foreswore, Stone's path to success was never assured.

"As Sam Stone learned more than once," Gup writes, "the bright line that separated the favored class from those below them could dissolve almost overnight, exposing the fragile divide between the haves and have-nots."

The last two years have proved that to be the case all over again. But after the Great Depression, the US learned how to take care of its people: Bank deposits are insured, and our network of social services, if imperfect, is far more robust. Even the unfortunate are living in comparatively fortunate times.

The letters, Gup writes, "reminded me of the difference between discomfort and misery, between the complaints of consumers forced to rein in their spending and the keening of parents whose children went hungry night after night." They also show that a gesture of generosity can deliver, along with small relief, good fortune that rings with hope.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Music

Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.

Music

IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.

Music

Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Film

NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.

Music

The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.