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The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger: chapter 34
By Allen Rich, with excerpts from The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger, 1899-1912
Feb 5, 2014
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 It would appear Harry Peyton Steger had two interesting assignments in his first months as literary advisor for Doubleday, Page & Company; one was to prioritize and then funnel the work of dozens of aspiring young writers into Short Stories magazine, while the other was to schedule an interview for short-story author O. Henry.  

If he had only known all the facts relating to these tasks, surely Harry would have chuckled at the irony of the situation.

On one hand, scores of young, unknown writers anxiously sending in submissions to Short Stories were enthusiastically waiting to be recognized.  On the other hand, O. Henry, was just rolling his eyes at Harry's request and hoping he wouldn’t be recognized

Editing Short Stories magazine came as easy as drawing the next breath to Steger.  But it turned out that coaxing his enigmatic prey out of the shadows would be a bit of a challenge.  Steger was already sensing the contradictions and chasms that lay between O. Henry the writer and his creator, William Sydney Porter.

"While he lets his light shine brightly before all men," Steger noted, "he has kept himself hid under a bushel."

Steger also relayed a story about how Who's Who in America got in touch with O. Henry in order to include only the barest necessities about the author in their publication. 

He declined.

"We'll have to rely, then, on such information as we can gather from other sources," Who's Who threatened, according to Steger.

"You're welcome," O. Henry said quietly as he eased the telephone down in its cradle.

The way Harry went about his assignment to provide long-sought publicity for Doubleday, Page & Company's top short-story writer is evidence of the level of competence Steger brought to the job.  George MacAdam, a veteran New York Times feature writer, was chosen to write the newspaper article. MacAdam had, only a year before in 1908, covered The Greatest Auto Race on Earth -- an amazing six-month race that logged 22,000 miles from New York to Paris.  Needless to say, MacAdam had the quickest quill in town. He was a consumate pro.

So was the photographer. 

Fortunately, William M. van der Weyde was not only a skilled professional photographer, but also a very competent journalist, as well.  His writing gives another rare glimpse into O. Henry and the man who was rapidly becoming the author's confidante, financier and friend, Harry Peyton Steger.

"How Harry Steger, of the Publishing House of Doubleday, Page & Company, ever persuaded O. Henry to sit for his photograph, and how he ever persuaded O. Henry to walk around to my studio from his quarters in the Caledonia, only two blocks away is a matter that must have been as astounding to Steger as it has always been to me and all the members of O.H.'s circle of friends," Van der Weyde wrote.  "I asked Harry one day how in the world he succeeded in getting him to my studio."

"He kicked like a mustang in harness in the first place," Steger confided with a groan.  "I was nearly an hour getting him dressed and out on the street, and then an hour was consumed walking the two blocks to your studio.  The last lap of the route, pulling and pushing him up your stairs was, of course, the worst.  My arms ached from it."

"I was expecting Harry and O. Henry," the photographer explains, "because Steger had written me the day before apprising me of their coming.  Steger's note is so characteristic of the big, whole-hearted Texan who wrote it, and who was later to become O. Henry's literary executor."

Van der Weyde even included Harry's letter.

I'm going to bring O. Henry up to your studio at eleven o'clock tomorrow morning to have you photograph him Van der Weyde style.  He hates being pictured, but the only photograph there is of him--except a couple of miserable snapshots--is a fiercely bad thing made years ago, and we must have a new one--your sort.  I'll bring O.H. myself.  Go at him gently or he'll jump the traces.

Harry Peyton Steger

George MacAdam was having a much more difficult time.  MacAdam found every trail cold, even though he came armed with an official letter from Doubleday, Page & Company, which logic would suggest should have the same effect as shaking salt on a magpie's tail -- the letter would compel O. Henry to grant his wish. 

Instead, O.H. flew the coop. 

At first MacAdam was turned away by a litany of excuses--too busy, trying to meet deadline, previous engagement.  Even after enlisting Steger's assistance, it still took six weeks to finally corner O. Henry. 

Suddenly, Harry couldn't get O. Henry to return a letter.  The staff at the Caledonia didn't recall seeing their tenant, which didn't mean much because of the writer's unusual schedule, and even Harry's secret knock went unanswered. 

Finally, the publisher's needs and the author's desires found a common denominator -- O.Henry needed money.

"Mornin' Colonel," O. Henry said when Steger answered the phone.  "Say, word has reached me that it would be in my best interest if I can present one of my creditors with the $54.14 I owe him before six o'clock tomorrow evening."

O. Henry did his best to sound nonchalant, but Steger knew his friend had been dodging him and he also knew the request must have had unspeakable urgency to bring O. Henry out of hiding.  

"Tell you what," Steger said after a second to remember the lines he had rehearsed, “how about we make it an even $60 and we'll deliver the funds tomorrow at noon."   

It was the sort of compromise that allowed both men to function cordially in their primary capacities as writer and publisher.   

The implication of the plural pronoun wasn't lost on O. Henry.   

A moment of silence followed. 

"That can be arranged," he said softly and the phone line went dead.

Previous Steger articles: