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The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger: chapter 41
By Allen Rich, with excerpts from The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger, 1899-1912
Feb 14, 2014
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In The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger 1899-1912, there was only one brief mention of the passing of William Sydney Porter and that was to professor D.F. Eagleton at Austin College in Sherman.  Professor Eagleton was considering submitting a manuscript that used two O. Henry short stories to define the writer.

Porter died June 6, 1910.

I think your selection of "The Passing of Black Eagle" and "The Ransom of Mack" are very discerning.  And what you tell me of your own changing attitude to O. Henry's work is very interesting, for I have a theory that he nearly always responds to "advances."  The difficulty you outline is entirely real.  With his many-facetted, elusive, lovable, deep personality back of his work, it is impossible in two short stories to give an adequate impression of the man himself.  I find this whenever I try---in my fanaticism---to secure converts.

By all means let Doubleday, Page & Company have a chance at the manuscript, if you are so good.  Send it to me here when it is completed and I promise you a quick and friendly consideration.

Very sincerely yours,

Harry Peyton Steger

Fate kindly punched the ticket on O. Henry's final trip out of his beloved Baghdad-on-the-Subway on June 5, 1910.  The last two panic-stricken years of frantic races to meet deadlines were over.  A short-lived second marriage, coupled with too much drinking, too much smoking and too little sleep finally drained what little remained of one of the most accomplished short-story writers that particular medium ever knew.

Art imitates life and that was never truer than the way William Sydney Porter's bittersweet stories, written under the pen name O. Henry, reflected his tumultuous life.  On one hand, it is hard not to smile at the dozens of humorous stories about Porter; at the same time, the letter he wrote telling his daughter not to think he had forgotten her birthday gift---Porter told little Margaret he had the perfect gift in mind but he couldn't find the exact one he wanted yet---was haunting.  Little Margaret Porter would have been about 10 years old and she had already known the horror of watching her mother slowly wither and die of tuberculosis two years earlier.  She didn't know her dad was writing the letter from prison. 

Neither did the publishers that helped launch Porter's writing career.  All the unsuspecting publishers actually knew was that these stories were signed by a man named O. Henry and postmarked from New Orleans.   Porter was sending short stories from Ohio Penitentiary to an old pal in New Orleans who would then forward them to publishers.

Where exactly the name O. Henry originated is still the subject of conjecture.  If you remember, O. Henry claimed he picked up a newspaper, combined a couple of names and came up with O. Henry.  But, then again, the man tended to be rather economical with the facts at times.  A remarkable intellectual named Guy Davenport suspects the name was a derivative of Ohio Penitentiary.  Davenport has credentials that are difficult to contradict; he was a Rhodes Scholar that studied under J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford before earning his PhD at Harvard. 

Still, another theory makes you wonder.  According to writers Bennett Serf and Van Cartmell, there was a guard at Ohio Penitentiary named Orrin Henry.  Somewhere, either on a uniform or a duty roster, William Sydney Porter spotted the guard's name with the first name abbreviated---O. Henry.  It had a nice ring to it.

Porter's struggle with deadlines was legendary.  One tale seems to indicate that after Porter missed deadline after deadline while writing "Gift of the Magi," the frustrated editor came and sat on the writer's sofa to make sure the promising start actually reached an appropriate conclusion. 

Another time, Porter had sent in a very interesting beginning to a short story and an excited editor happily issued an advance to the writer.  However, a lengthy period passed and no ending was in sight.  Not wanting to waste the captivating beginning to the story, the resourceful editor printed what little of the story he had and offered a $100 prize to whoever could devise the best conclusion.   

That was a lot of money.  Entries poured in, ranging from mundane to magnificent finales.  The winner, it just so happened, turned out to be submitted a fellow named O. Henry.

But place yourself in Porter's shoes and suddenly his stark, forbidding perspective comes into focus.  Failure to meet any of a number of contractual obligations could easily mean another trip to prison and the end of a second chance at life the writer had created in the place had grown to love, New York City.

Harry Peyton Steger had become Porter's bookkeeper, personal banker, publisher and confidante.   Steger championed the writer's cause, although Porter's fear of publicity made large-scale promotion difficult.

Steger finally managed to get a professional photograph made of Porter by William M. van der Weyde, but his initial attempt with another photographer was a two-fold failure.   After a difficult debate, Porter agreed a promotional photograph was necessary and Steger scheduled a photographer to capture the historic image on celluloid.  At the appointed time, neither the photographer nor O. Henry showed up.  It took some time, but Steger finally tracked down the photographer only to find the fellow had pawned his camera.  Steger helped the man get his camera back.

It was easier to find O. Henry---he was in bed and complained bitterly to Steger when roused about being unable to keep the commitment because he had no suit of clothes to wear.  It seemed O. Henry was in arrears to his tailor for $7.50 and the clothier refused to release the author's only suit until he was paid in full.  Steger reached into his pocket for the $7.50.

Part of Porter's problem may be attributed to his favorite drink.  In his one official interview, Porter referred to his time in New Orleans as "the highball stage."  New York Times feature writer George MacAdam noted that Porter was fond of Sazerac cocktails, a powerful pre-Civil War concoction made with Rye whiskey, Peychaud's Bitters and absinthe. 

Two other fans of absinthe were Vincent van Gogh and Ernest Hemmingway.  The green fairy, as absinthe was often called, didn't make a habit of leaving happy endings under your pillow. 

And so it was that in the early summer of 1910, three months and one day short of his 48th birthday, William Sydney Porter succumbed to complications arising from a lethal combination of cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes and an enlarged heart. 

The memorial service in New York City would have made a great short story because the chapel had unknowingly scheduled a wedding and a funeral for the same time.  It was as though O.Henry saved one last bittersweet twist for his own ending.  Happy wedding guests and grieving friends of Porter began taking their seats when the mistake became obvious.  In deference, the wedding party bid their condolences and retreated to rooms at the back of the chapel until the funeral service was over.  A heartbreaking ending followed by joyous beginning; Porter would have smiled and jotted down some notes.

William Sydney Porter was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina, the same cemetery where Thomas Wolfe would be interred 28 years later.  North Carolina was always close to Porter's heart, as was Austin, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana.

But one city he loved most of all. 

"Open the curtains so I can see New York," were his last words.  "I don't want to go home in the dark."

Note: Every year, the O. Henry Award is bestowed upon exceptional short stories.  Winners include Stephen King (1996), John Updike (1991), Woody Allen (1978), Eudora Welty (1968), John Cheever (1956), William Faulkner (1949), Truman Capote (1948), Stephen Vincent Benét (1940) and Irvin S. Cobb (1922).

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