In June 2008, when Ted Gup's mother turned 80, she rewarded her son's longtime interest in family history with a musty suitcase filled with old papers. Among them were 150 letters and an equal number of canceled checks for $5 each, all signed by "B. Virdot."
A tiny newspaper advertisement, addressed to "the white-collar man," helped unravel the mystery: On Dec. 18, 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, the pseudonymous B. Virdot had asked the townspeople of Canton, Ohio, to "familiarize me with your true circumstances." Then, he promised, "financial aid will be promptly sent" — and neither their identity nor his would be revealed.
B. Virdot was Gup's beloved grandfather, Sam Stone. And he was as good as his word.
Gup, a former investigative reporter for the Washington Post and Time, already had written two books about secrets, The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA (2000) and Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life (2007). This time, though, it was personal.
In A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness — and a Trove of Letters — Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression, Gup uncovers heart-rending stories of economically desperate men, women and children who were cheered one Christmas by an unexpected act of charity. The book is also Gup's exploration of his grandfather's suppressed immigrant past, which included poverty, discrimination, business failure, family rivalries and forged documents. (Read an excerpt from A Secret Gift.)
On Nov. 5, in Canton, Gup, now professor and chair of the Department of Journalism at Emerson College in Boston, hosts a reading of some of the letters, followed by a banquet for about 50 of the letter writers' descendants. On the book's website, Gup provides examples of the letters and photographs, and a chance to share Great Depression memories.
The AARP Bulletin talked to Gup about his project.
Q. Your book is subtitled in part, The Hidden History of the Great Depression. What did you learn that differs from conventional accounts of the period?
A. This book offers something that is nearly unique in the annals of the Great Depression: It is a street-level view of an entire community, a biopsy of an entire American town taken the week of Christmas 1933 — as bleak a period financially in American history as there is. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, [but] the New Deal was still not much more than a glint in his eye. And so it captures that precise moment when Americans' distrust of government and their intense desire to make it on their own changed. People came to realize there were limits to what human beings could do. What you hear in these letters is the sound of pride mixed with capitulation.
Q. You write about that generation's reticence and aversion to seeking charity. Why did the letter writers open up to B. Virdot?
A. He promised anonymity. And that immunized them and allowed them to preserve their pride and their appearance of independence.
Q. What exactly motivated your grandfather's gift?
A. In part it was a way of thanking the country for taking him in, for accepting him, for allowing him to create a life here and a home. It's very hard for us today to imagine what it's like to live in a community where so many children are hungry, where half your neighbors are out of work. He was not the kind of person who could tune that out. I'm sure that it all affected him deeply because of his own impoverished childhood. He felt compelled, as a matter of conscience, to try to do something.
Q. How did your grandfather choose whom to help?
A. There's no evidence of how he triaged these letters. But what is clear is that every one of these letters came from someone who was desperate. And there was a humility and an innocence about each of the writers. Most of the letters do not ask for anything for the letter writer. They asked for something for their loved ones: They wanted to provide Christmas for their children, a winter coat for their wife, shoes for the family.