Month: February 2016 (page 1 of 2)



Don’t let the nickname fool you. Though known throughout Paducah as “Babe,” John Adolph Vasseur (1864-1931) was one tough customer. A man’s man. People called him “Babe” as one might call a fat guy “Tiny.”

Babe Vasseur was born in Paducah in 1864 to a tavern-owning father named Achilles. He lived in an area of town called Mechanicsburg along the I.C Railroad. Babe grew to become a drayman (a teamster), and spent his working life delivering goods with his mule and cart all over town. Family legend has it that his own mule chomped off a few of his fingers. Before he died in 1931, he started constructing his own headstone, a structure of stone and concrete which still stands in Oak Grove Cemetery today.

By all accounts, Babe Vasseur was a “nose to the grindstone” sort of guy, not the sort of man to conjure a story. So, when Babe Vasseur reported seeing a ghost on the evening November 20, 1900, folks believed him.

The Paducah Daily News relayed the spooky tale in its pages a couple days later despite the fact that Babe’s first words to the reporter were, “I do not believe in ghosts. But…”

According to Babe, on that Tuesday night around 6 PM, he and his wife and niece were awaiting supper in the dining room of their house at 1518 S. 6th Street, when the niece reported seeing a figure through the window.

Babe and his wife rushed to window, and “both saw the face of a handsome young woman peering in.” But upon immediately opening the window, the woman disappeared. Again, when they rushed outside and inspected the neighborhood, there was no sign that anyone had been there.

So was it a ghost or just a peeper? Logic would suggest that a curious passerby took it upon herself to have a looksee in the Vasseur home. But keep in mind…Babe knew everyone in town, as did everyone else, and nobody recognized the young woman or claimed a visiting relative.

Babe himself seemed torn, hesitant, but ultimately iterated hisBABE1 stance at the end of the article by finally admitting he thought it to be a ghost: “I am not superstitious as I said before, but I could not be mistaken, as both my niece and my wife saw the face of the woman. My wife is rather inclined to believe that the ghost or apparition is bad omen.

The house at 1518 S. 6th Street is no longer standing.

Many thanks to Brent Vasseur for lending us this family story (and photos) for this post. And as always, for all your otherworldly needs, make sure to visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger

JAZZ HANDS: Fate Marable, Paducah’s Musical Pioneer

Fate Marable at the piano. Louis Armstrong to his left.

Fate Marable at the piano. Louis Armstrong to his left.

When considering western Kentucky’s musical heritage, many different genres come to mind: the roustabout folksongs of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the rockabilly stylings of Rockin’ Ray Smith, contemporary Christian with singer/songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman, and the current burgeoning of Americana and Rock musicians.

Jazz is not one of those genres that leaps to the forefront when thinking about Paducah’s legacy, but a look through most histories on jazz will mention one native Paducahan who was instrumental in the spread of jazz up and down the rivers. A pianist and band leader on riverboats for over 40 years, Fate Marable is not only one of our own, but truly one of jazz music’s pioneers and a champion for African-American musicians

FATE2Fate was born in Paducah in 1890 to James and Lizzie Marable. Though a piano teacher, his mother at first forbid Fate to touch the instrument. Thankfully, he didn’t obey her and by his early teens became prodigious on the instrument, as well as a skilled reader of music. The Paducah papers from the early 1900’s mention many of Fate’s local performances, particularly in the schools. But at age 17, Fate’s encounter with a Streckfus excursion boat at Paducah’s riverfront would change the course of his life, and perhaps the course of popular music.

The boat, called the J.S. after owner John Strekfus, was one of the first steamboats in the country built solely for the purpose of excursion cruising. To that point in time, steamships were used primarily for trade and overnight passage. But Streckfus Steamers changed that by innovating long-term voyages on their excursion boats (essentially floating hotels) that took passengers on sight-seeing trips up and down America’s inland rivers. Like any cruise today, onboard entertainment was a big attraction and the boats hired many musicians.

Fate Marable’s fortuitous run-in with the J.S. Steamer landed him a job as pianist and calliope player. Given the racial prejudices of the day, this in and of itself was a major accomplishment for a relatively unknown, young, African American man. Yet, Marable’s charisma and ability were so great that he was soon given charge over his own orchestras, often made up of all white musicians. Soon, Marable’s name and word of his talent became familiar in every major port city between Pittsburgh and New Orleans.

When in New Orleans, Marable continued to hone his skill and knowledge in the ever-growing jazz scene by playing in clubs and studying music at Straight University. Whenever he returned to playing on the Streckfus Steamers, he took the jazz sound with him, helping spread the genre to ports across the country.

Ultimately, Marable became the primary bandleader for the boats on the Streckfus Line with the freedom to choose the musicians in his orchestras, a job which included Marable’s organization of the first all African-American orchestra in 1917. It is said that Marable was an extremely demanding and strict bandleader who possessed an unusual ability to uncover great talent. Many musicians who would go on to jazz fame got their start on the steamships under Marable’s tutelage. His protégés include Red Allen, Baby Dodds, Johnny Dodds, Pops Foster, Jimmy Blanton, and none other than Louis Armstrong. Armstrong’s first musical experiences outside of New Orleans occurred on Streckfus Steamers as part of Marable’s orchestra. In fact, at Marable’s insistence, Armstrong took a train from St. Louis to Paducah in order to join the African American’s Musicians Union, which had not been an option in New Orleans. In the picture above, Fate sits front and center at the piano and Louis Armstrong sits to his left.

FATE3It is hard to quantify Marable’s impact both on the world of jazz and on the furtherance and recognition of African American musicians. But as an incredibly talented, prominent, visible, African American in the early 1900’s, his influence as a pioneer can’t be underestimated. He died on January 16, 1947 and is buried at back home in Paducah at Oak Grove Cemetery.

As always, if you’d like to know more about Fate Marable, come see us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library. You also might be interested in a book called “Jazz on the River,” by William Howland Kenney which dedicates an entire chapter to the contributions of Marable. And if you like this post, make sure you also “like” our Facebook page so you have access to even more articles.



Since the Middle Ages, the Feast Day of St. Valentine has been associated with love and lovers. This rang true for the folks in early Paducah, too. Here are 10 brief Valentine’s anecdotes and traditions which took place over 100 years ago:

1897 – Speaking from their experience, local postman and booksellers noted that the observance of Valentine’s Day was in a state of decline, thinking that it might disappear altogether. The newspaper stated, “The custom was always regarded as more or less absurd by all but those inclined to sentimentality.”

1898 – For the week of Valentine’s Day, McPherson’s Drug Store offered a free Lover’s Thermometer with any 5 cent purchase of Kis-Me Chewing Gum. The Love Thermometer was a novelty made of cellophane, like Fortune-Telling Fish, that “predicted” your love life by the way it curled in your hand.

1901—The post office reported a falling off in the number of Valentine’s Cards sent, but the police reported a rise in pranks. For Valentine’s Day, the Paducah Sun reported that jokesters were “taking every gate that can be moved off its hinges, and dropping it from a block to a mile and a half away, ringing door bells and running away, and marking up people’s front porches with chalk.

1902 – “Cupid’s Voting Cards” were all the rage. The recipient of a voter card would write their name under one of the four playing card symbols to express how they felt about the giver of the card: Heart=Love; Diamond=Friendship; Spade=Independent; Club=Marble (Cold) Hearted.

1903 – Local stores reported selling Valentine’s cards that ranged from 2 cents (cardboard heart with a verse) to 12 dollars (hand-painted Cupid). Popular cards in 1903 also included fake passports which permitted the bearer to “enter the Court of Love” and “enjoy all the privileges of that land of joy.”

1904 – Valentine’s Day fell on a Sunday in 1904 which meant that no mail was delivered. However, the local post office employed a clerk to work the counter in case anybody wanted to pick up their Valentines. And many did!!

1907 – 16,000 one-cent stamps were sold at the Paducah Post office on February 13, a record one day sales record to that point in time. A letter cost two cents to mail in 1907.

1908 – One trend in 1908 was to send an anti-Valentine’s card. For example, a recipient would open a heart-shaped card only to find a picture of a lemon with the words: “This is a lemon I hand to you and bid you skidoo—because I love another, there’s no chance for you.”

1909 – Apparently, some young people in Paducah were taking the sentiments expressed on Valentine’s cards a little too seriously, seeing them as personal references rather than in light-hearted spirit of the holiday. One local merchant decided to alleviate the confusion by printing messages on the back of all his Valentine’s cards that stated that the card had been sent only by a “fun-loving friend.”

1910 – “The florists report good business as the custom of sending flowers has gained headway.” We’d dare say that particular tradition caught on.

–Matt Jaeger

WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NEW NAMES: When Third Street was Locust

Sanborn Map containing old Paducah street names

Sanborn Map containing old Paducah street names

It’s very simply organized now. If you need to go to Third Street, you make your way to the street that is three blocks west of the river. However, in the early days of Paducah, Third Street used to be called Locust Street. In fact, none of the streets had numbered names.

An ordinance passed on June 26, 1886 renamed each of the first eleven cross streets in the city. Below is a list of those changes, the former name followed by its numbered equivalent:


–Matt Jaeger

PAST PADUCAHANS: Charles H. Brooks – Advocate, Author, and Odd Fellow


“A leading principle of our Order is its firm hope in the future…looking forward to the time when love, not fear, shall rule the human breast…the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows makes no discrimination.” –Charles H. Brooks

Born in Paducah in 1859, Charles H. Brooks grew to embody the very definitions of brilliance and success. He began teaching at age seventeen, and by the age of twenty-three had been appointed the principal of the Runkle Institute, one of the earliest state supported high schools for African-Americans in Kentucky. Seeking bigger challenges and opportunities, Brooks left Paducah in 1889 and moved to Washington D.C. to work in the Pension Bureau Office. While in D.C., he not only completed his degree in bookkeeping, but also entered law school at Howard University. Such was the respect for his character, that upon graduation from law school in 1892 he gained admission to practice before the Supreme Court of the District.

Teacher, principal, accountant, and lawyer all by the age of thirty-three…we could stop there and declare Brooks an enviably accomplished man. Not to mention the fact that he did all this while sporting a dazzling set of “friendly muttonchops” (the term for when your mustache connects to your sideburns).

Brooks’ success wouldn’t stop there, however. He’d ultimately find his greatest impact in his next venture, which wasn’t as a teacher or lawyer, but as an advocate and author for the Odd Fellows.

An Odd Fellow, you say? What is an Odd Fellow?

Essentially, the Odd Fellows was a club, a mutual aid society that focused on kindness, hard work, and charity. Whatever you call them—fraternal orders, benevolent organizations, secret societies—these clubs were all the rage in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of them, like the Masons and Elks, are still around today, but a quick look in a Paducah City Directory from the 1880’s shows there used to be dozens more, including the United Order of the Golden Cross, the Independent Oder of B’Nai B’rith, the Knights of Pythias, and the Grand Army of the Republic.

The Odd Fellows got its start in England, and like any self-respecting social club, tried to trace its origins back to the Knights Templar and the Goths of the 5th century. The truth is that no one is quite sure how Odd Fellows got its start. Further, no one is quite sure where the curious name came from, though the most likely explanation is that because the members of Odd Fellows were not required to belong to any particular career or creed or faith, they came from many walks of life. Therefore, they are a gathering of “odd fellows.”

Despite those professions of inclusion, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in the United States did not welcome non-white members into its organization. Thus, in 1843, a West Indian immigrant named Peter Ogden founded a new inclusive branch called the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, after a charter in England that was inclusive to men of all races.

This is the order of Odd Fellows that Brooks first joined while teaching in Paducah and a membership that he maintained through all his subsequent careers. Brooks’s intelligence, civic mindedness, and social compassion gained such renown in the organization, that following his graduation from law school, he was unanimously elected to serve as the Grand Secretary of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. He left his job as a lawyer to work for the Odd Fellows, and used his position to spread the word about his beloved organization.

In his writings about the official mission of the G.U.O.O.F., Brooks penned these beautiful words: “The true Odd Fellow, he is out in the field, gathering the ready harvest; in the workshop, laying his strong hand to the anvil, the loom, and the forge; in the counting house, employed in the pursuits of professional labor. He is at home, fulfilling the duties of parent, husband; gladdening the hearth and the board by the virtues of the social spirit. He is by the bed of sickness, wiping the moist brow and cooling the parched lips; he is in sorrowful places ministering to poverty, comforting affliction, and relieving distress.”

Those words make you want to sign up, don’t they?

As the primary spokesman for a prominent and predominantly African-American organization, Brooks also became an early voice for civil rights in a period of time not too far removed from Emancipation. In a book Brooks wrote called “The Official History and Manual of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America,” he chronicled the establishment of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in opposition to blatant racism. With these powerful words, Brooks heralded the wisdom and conviction of founder Peter Odgen: “He [Ogden] thought it folly, a waste of time, if not self-respect, to stand, hat in hand, at the foot-stool of a class of men who, professing benevolence and fraternity, were most narrow and contracted, a class of men who judge another, not by principle and character, but by the shape of the nose, the curl of the hair, and the hue of the skin.”

Brooks served the Odd Fellows for ten years, and followed that career by operating his own real estate and insurance firm in Philadelphia. He stayed socially active with organizations like the National Negro Business League and the Reliable Mutual Aid and Improvement Society. Brooks died in 1940 at the age of 81 and is buried beside his wife in Oak Grove Cemetery, back home in Paducah.

To learn more about Charles H. Brooks or other great Paducahans, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library. And if you like this post, make sure to “Like” our Facebook page so you have access to more stories.

–Matt Jaeger

AN “ISLAND” IN THE FLOOD: Cunningham Grocery

Evacuation at 28th and Broadway

Evacuation at 28th and Broadway

Evacuation for all of Paducah’s 27,000 citizens was mandatory during the 1937 flood. As you can see from the accompanying photo, the primary evacuation point was at the intersection 28th and Broadway.

The Paducah Sun-Democrat reported of one other dry spot in town, however, a “Stretch of land on the Cairo Road, between Perkins Creek and Palm Street on outer North Thirteenth Street.” Today that area would be found in the vicinity of the FedEx building on HC Mathis Drive. Curiously, this small patch of land stayed dry, one of the few, if not only, areas of land below 28th Street to stay above water during the flood. Naturally, evacuees flocked there, and fortunate for them, this small area of land was also the home of Cunningham grocery.

In the true spirit of charity, Mr. and Mrs. L.E. Cunningham welcomed all flood victims. Along with a dozen or so volunteers, the Cunninghams fed the hungry, warmed the cold, and tended the sick. The Paducah Sun-Democrat said: “It is estimated that probably as many as 5000 persons cleared through that little ract of land, and, so, through the Cunningham store.”

–Matt Jaeger

HIGH FLIER, “TYPHOID” BILL KLIER: Parachuting Hero of the 1937 Flood


The Ohio River crested at 60.8 feet on February 2, 1937, but by then the majority of damage had been done. In the days leading up to the crest, the waters washed out homes and businesses, ruined utilities, and incapacitated avenues of transportation. Paducah’s population of 27,000 was evacuated by mandate. Families were displaced, and in some instances, separated from one another. Initial estimates put the cost of the damage at just over $26 million, which is equivalent to nearly $400 million today.

It was a bad time to be in Paducah. The city found itself isolated, an island besieged by water and winter weather. With no supplies coming in because of flooding throughout the Ohio Valley, Paducah’s stores of food, clean water, and medicine quickly dwindled. Beyond the obvious dangers presented by flood waters, a further great concern was the spread of disease, especially typhoid fever.

Evacuation at Madison Apartments.

Evacuation at Madison Apartments.

Typhoid is a bacterial infection transmitted most often through poor hygiene and sanitation. It thrives in dirty water. A major flood, like the one in 1937, creates conditions ideal for the plague-like spread of typhoid.

Such was the fear of typhoid in Paducah during the flood that the Kentucky Board of Health declared mandatory vaccinations for all 27,000 residents. There was a problem with that mandate, however. Paducah didn’t have nearly enough serum to inoculate everyone, and with the flooding of the rails and roads, the options for quickly importing more serum were severely limited.

Enter Bill Klier to the rescue!!

Paducahans received word that a plane from Louisville would fly over on January 26, 1937 and drop 100 pounds of additional medical supplies onto the city. A group of citizens gathered in boats to await the plane’s delivery, and when they finally saw the plane circling high above, they assumed the pilot David Kratz would drop a package attached to a small parachute.

But then they saw a man step out on the wing…and jump! It was Bill Klier!

Bill Klier was an expert parachutist, a veteran of airshows, who leaped toward Paducah in order to see the vaccines safely delivered to its anxious citizens. True to his ability, Klier hit his mark and landed very close to the Paducahans waiting on him. Unknown to Klier, however, was the fact that the water was ten feet deep.

Klier believed the water to only be about shoulder-high, so he landed without a second thought. Yet since the water was so deep and since he was carrying an extra 100 pounds of supplies, he immediately went under. The folds of the parachute folded over him, trapping him below the surface.

KlierThankfully, he’d submerged near enough to the waiting boatman that they were able to row to his side and haul him out of the water. Perhaps they saved Klier from drowning that day, but Klier’s heroics likely saved many more in the days to come. Safely wrapped in water-proof packaging, the vaccine survived the drop and was quickly delivered to needful citizens.

A source states that seven people died in Paducah during the 1937 flood. Though tragic, one imagines it could have been a lot worse without the efforts of Bill Klier and countless others like him. It was a bad time to be in Paducah, but Paducah pulled through, as it always will. As for Bill Klier, he went right back to jumping. A few months later in June 1937, a Hopkinsville paper reports that Klier broke his leg following a leap during an American Airshows’ circus.

For more about rising waters and falling men, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library. And if you like this story, make sure to “Like” our Facebook page so you can see more.

–Matt Jaeger

TODAY IN LITERARY HISTORY: America’s First Inaugural Poet


On this day, January 20, 1961, Robert Frost became the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration, at the specific behest of president-elect, John F. Kennedy. Throughout his campaign, Kennedy had been fond of quoting Frost, often using one of the poet’s most famous lines to end his speeches: “But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”

While Kennedy joked that Frost would probably steal the show at the inauguration, Kennedy was such of fan that he not only requested a specific poem, but also a change to the poem.

The poem “The Gift Outright,” which Frost himself called the “the history of the United States in 12 lines of blank verse,” ended with the phrase “such as she will become” in the last line. Kennedy requested the poem but suggested changing the phrase to “such as she would become” to show optimism and hopefulness for the country. Frost agreed and made the change.

Frost planned to read “The Gift Outright” along with a new poem written just for Kennedy’s inauguration called “Dedication.” Yet, Frost’s eyesight was so weak and the sun so bright on the day of the inauguration, that Frost couldn’t see the words to the new poem. After stumbling over the words for a few seconds, he forsook the new poem and ended up reciting the words to “The Gift Outright” by heart.

The Gift Outright
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

THE (Fading) WRITING ON THE WALL: Woman’s Tonic, Bullseyes, Bombs, and Pianos

3rd and Kentucky

3rd and Kentucky

Ghost signs. Paducah is haunted by them. Stand just about anywhere in downtown Paducah, look up, and you’re likely to see one.

Ghost signs, also called fading ads, are the old, painted advertisements on the sides of buildings, most often on brick. It’s believed that the signs have endured for so long (often for more than a century) because of the lead used in early 20th centughost2ry paint.

Paducah has some striking ghost signs, including General Electric, Rhodes Furniture, Mail Pouch Tobacco, Bruton’s Snuff, Coca-Cola, and Dr. Bell’s Pine Tar Honey (which the library has previously written about). But one of the more historically interesting ghost signs in our midst is one that perhaps goes largely unnoticed. Formerly “The Fabric Store,” the large vacant building at Third and Kentucky has several signs along its side, yet the images are so faded that one could miss the fact that anything is there at all.

But if you squint and stare and tilt your head at just the right angle, you can just make out what remains.

The whole wall is tough to read, but this is perhaps the toughest. In very faint white letters across the top are the words “L.E. Girardey & Co. Pianos.”

In the early 1900’s, Leo Edward Girardey wasn’t just a dealer of pianos but a manufacturer of them, crafting his instruments by hand right here in Paducah. His first factory at Seventh and Washington streets was damaged by fire in January of 1897 after the explosion of a stereopticon lamp. He then moved his business to Seventh and Kentucky, and finally to the location of the ghost sign at Third and Kentucky in August of 1904. In this large factory space, he could craft up to forty pianos at a time.

Girardey Fuse

Girardey Fuse

The Paducah Sun said of his craftsmanship, “The Girardey piano is not made in very large numbers, but the piano is strictly up to date as any made, and has many unique features, original with Mr. Girardey, which, in fact, make it a most superior instrument in every way.”

His wife, Carrie Girardery, was a successful business woman in her own right. For a while, she was Paducah’s most prominent milliner, a maker and seller of women’s hats, and operated her enterprise out of Rudy’s Department Store.

Further noteworthy is Leo Girardey’s father, Major Isadore Girardey, who came to live with his son in Paducah at the end of his life. A confederate general, Major Girardey was credited with once building and operating the largest opera house in the South (located in Augusta, GA), as well as inventing an artificial cork leg and a fuse used in bombs during the Civil War. The Girardey Fuse better insured that bombs didn’t explode prematurely and that they exploded much more reliably when appropriately percussed (i.e. they blew up better when you threw them). Isadore Girardey died in Paducah in 1898.

Leo and Carrie Girardey left Paducah around 1913 and headed west to Santa Barbara, California where he continued to construct pianos.

Next, take a look between the two windows on the upper left hand side of the Third and Kentucky building. In black letters you should be able to make out the words, “The Woman’s Tonic.” In addition, on the far right hand side of the building at the very top in yellow are the letters that spell out that brand of tonic…CARDUI. Manufactured by the Chattanooga Medicine Company, Cardui (sometimes called Wine of Cardui) was ghost4developed and marketed specifically for womanly health issues, and claimed to “relieve pain, correct derangements, quiet nervousness and cure Whites, Falling of the Womb and Suppressed or too Frequent Menses.”

So, was it just snake oil? Cardui purported to contain the ingredients Black Haw, Blessed Thistle, and Goldenseal. According to WebMD, the shrub Black Haw was traditionally used to treat cramps and relax the uterus, the flowering tops of Blessed Thistle treated diarrhea and indigestion, and the herb Goldenseal helped with a laundry list of ailments: whooping cough, ringworm, urinary tract infections, menstrual problems, gas, and the common cold.

Perhaps, then, Cardui did offer some relief, though the fact that it also contained 19% alcohol didn’t hurt either.

Finally, the last visible ghost sign is perhaps the most mysterious. Bridging the second floor windows in the center of the building are the words “Smoking Tobacco” and beneath the letters are the images of two bullseyes which look similar to the current logo for Target Stores. Truth is, it’s not clear what tobacco brand is being advertised here and if the bullseyes are a related logo or simply remnants of a different sign. We’ve conjectured the sign might refer to Bull Durham or Lucky Strike Tobacco, but we’ve yet to find any historic company that used that specific logo in its advertising. (Since the writing of this article, we’ve been informed that the bullseyes were part of a logo for Red Spot Paint.)

The ghost signs on the Third and Kentucky building have nearly faded to the point of illegibility. Luckily, enough remains to still provide us with a few clues to some interesting history. But it makes you wonder about what was once pictured there that we simply can’t see anymore. If anyone happens to have a historic photo or memories of the sign that would provide more information, we’d love for you to share.

For more about local signs, follow this link to read about Dr. Bell’s Pine Honey ( or visit us in the Local and Family History Deparment at the McCracken County Public Library. And if you like this article, please make sure to “Like” our Facebook page.

–Matt Jaeger


It's a wonderful life

The idea for Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story, “The Greatest Gift,” came to him in a dream in 1938. He spent the next five years working on the 4,100 word tale, but try as he might, he could find no publisher for his work. So, in December 1943, Stern printed a 21 page pamphlet of the story and sent it out in Christmas cards to 200 of his friends and associates. One of those pamphlets happened to find its way into the hands of RKO producer David Hampstead who admired the story so much he purchased the movie rights in April 1944 for $10,000. After several unsuccessful attempts to adapt Stern’s story into a film script, RKO sold the rights to the story to film director Frank Capra. Capra devised a workable script and shot the picture between April-July 1946.

Before the film’s release on December 20, 1946, one of the actors from the picture, Jimmy Stewart, wrote the original author, Philip Van Doren Stern, to tell him that his story was “an inspiration to everyone concerned with the picture… the fundamental story was so sound and right.”

Jimmy Stewart was right. Stern’s story “The Greatest Gift” was the basis for the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” one of the most beloved and inspirational movies of all time.

Older posts