Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Scarce Rare Book That Spawned "It's A Wonderful Life" Offered At $15,000

by Stephen J. Gertz

George said, “give me just one good reason why I should be alive.”

The little man made a queer chuckling sound. “Come, come, it can’t be that bad. You’ve got your job at the bank. And Mary and the kids. You’re healthy, young, and—”

“And sick of everything!” George cried. “I’m stuck here in this mudhole for life, doing the same dull work day after day. Other men are leading exciting lives, but I—well, I’m just a small-town bank clerk that even the army didn’t want. I never did anything really useful or interesting, and it looks as if I never will. I might just as well be dead. I might better be dead. Sometimes I wish I were. In fact, I wish I’d never been born!”

The little man stood looking at him in the growing darkness. “What was that you said?” he asked softly.

“I said I wish I’d never been born,” George repeated firmly. “And I mean it too.”

So begins The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Tale, a 4,100 word novella by American author, editor, and noted Civil War historian Philip Van Doren Stern (1900-1984), who began writing it in 1939 and finished in 1943. Publishers treated it as coal in their Christmas stockings; Stern could not find a home for the book. And so he privately printed it in a twenty-one page edition of 200 7.5 x 5.5 inch signed copies bound in orange wrappers and distributed them to friends for Christmas 1943.

It was ultimately published by David McKay in New York in 1944 with illustrations by Rafaello Busoni. Stern sold the magazine rights to Reader's Scope, which published the story in its December 1944 issue, and to Good Housekeeping, which published it under the title The Man Who Was Never Born in its January 1945 issue (on the streets in December 1944).

It was optioned by RKO studios for film adaptation in 1944. Ultimately produced by director Frank Capra's Liberty Films and released in 1946 under the title It's A Wonderful Life, the movie is now an American Christmas classic. But this, the true first edition of the book that started it all, has become quite scarce. Just in time for Christmas, however, a copy has come into the marketplace. Offered by Royal Books in Baltimore, the asking price is $15,000.

OCLC records seven copies of this edition in institutional holdings worldwide, with 193 copies theoretically left. But they appear to have left with Elvis, and, like the King (but more reliably reported), copies are only occasionally sighted this side of the heavenly veil. According to ABPC there has not been a copy seen at auction within at least the last thirty-seven years. A copy was offered in 2011 by Mullen Books in Pennsylvania. Who knows when another will surface?

Those for whom the screenplay to It's a Wonderful Life is a sacred text will be disappointed to learn that its protagonist, George Bailey, is George Platt in The Greatest Gift. There is no Bedford Falls. There is no Mr. Potter. And there is no Clarence Odbody, Angel-2d Class, just a mysterious, unnamed little man:

"He was stout, well past middle age, and his round cheeks were pink in the winter as though they had just been shaved…He was a most unremarkable little person, the sort you would pass in a crowd and never notice. Unless you saw his bright blue eyes, that is. You couldn’t forget them, for they were the kindest, sharpest eyes you ever saw. Nothing else about him was noteworthy. He wore a moth-eaten old fur cap and a shabby overcoat that was stretched tightly across his paunchy belly. He was carrying a small black satchel. It wasn’t a doctor’s bag - it was too large for that and not the right shape. It was a salesman’s sample kit, George decided distastefully. The fellow was probably some sort of peddler, the kind who would go around poking his sharp little nose into other people’s affairs."

In what will likely be a major bah humbug to Wonderful Life fans and horrifying to those who may not believe in Santa but definitely believe there's a war on Christmas, the unnamed little man does not earn his wings when a Christmas tree bell rings, nor is there any mention of heaven or angels. The Greatest Gift is a secular story with a Rod Serling twist at its end. You're traveling through another dimension: there's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: a Twilight Zone Christmas.

You can read the full text of The Greatest Gift here.

VAN DOREN STERN, Philip. The Greatest Gift. A Christmas Tale. New York: Privately Printed for Distribution to His Friends, Christmas, 1943. First edition, limited to 200 copies, each signed by the author. Octavo. 21 pp. Orange wrappers with printed title label. Near fine.

With the exception of Clarence's note card, images courtesy of Royal Books, with our thanks.

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