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How I Found the Spirit of Christmas

Interview with Ted Gup, author of "A Secret Gift"

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.

Q. Your family is Jewish. Why a Christmas gift?

A. My grandfather was born an Orthodox Jew, born speaking Yiddish, keeping kosher. When he got off the boat from Romania, in 1902, he became a not-untypical secularized American Jew. He was still proud of his faith, but he had a Christmas tree in his own home every year. [B. Virdot's gift] is also, in a strange sense, very much in keeping with the Jewish tradition that the highest form of giving is anonymous, where the donor seeks no benefit in return.

Q. Many immigrants altered their names and details of their histories to become American. What was remarkable about your grandfather's rewriting of his past?

A. There was a great deal of fabrication going on. The immigrant generation were frequently reinventing themselves. He was extraordinary, and yet not. People of that generation demonstrated such grit, such determination and such humor in the face of so many obstacles, that in many ways my book is not about my grandfather, it's about the formation of American identity. He was so intent on becoming an American that he couldn't wait to do it the right way. I think that was not at all uncommon.

Q. B. Virdot's gift of $5 per family wasn't a huge amount of money — the equivalent, you say, of about $85 today. What impact did it have on people's lives?

A. Things were so inexpensive then that it was enough to buy an entire family a Christmas dinner and have stocking stuffers. In a landscape that was bleak and devoid of any hopeful features, it changed that landscape for that Christmas. It was emblematic of civic engagement, of community, of neighbors. And the idea that this was someone who asked nothing for himself, that the donor could be anyone among them, that mystery also multiplied the effect of the gift.

Q. For this book, you did an astonishing 500 interviews. What were your most exciting finds?

A. There were a couple of things that were just mind-boggling. I was all done with the book. I had found all the descendants of the letter writers that I had sought — with one exception, a 14-year-old letter writer named Helen Palm. I tried so hard to find one of her descendants, and had given up. I decided one afternoon, I'm going to try once more, and eventually I finally found her daughter Janet. I was interviewing her, asking her about when her mother was born, when she married, was about to ask when she passed, when she interrupted me and said, "Would you like to talk to her?"

Q. What did you do?

A. I nearly fell off my chair. The idea that there was a living letter writer was something I had never imagined. She was 90 when I spoke with her, and the thing that was doubly remarkable is that she remembered writing the letter, she remembered using the money to buy shoes and to take her family out.

Q. How many descendants of the letter writers knew anything about the gift?

A. Very few.

Q. And how did they react to learning about it so many years later?

A. In many instances, they remember a particular Christmas getting a gift, when all the other Christmases they didn't. But they did not know that their father or their mother had reached out to B. Virdot. The people given copies of their parents' and grandparents' letters, most of them wept. It was a very emotional event.

Q. What convinced you that you needed to tell this story?

A. Part of the reason that I became increasingly convinced I should write about it in late 2008 is that America was descending into the greatest recession since the Great Depression. Everywhere there were signs of hardship. My sister lost her job, my brother-in-law lost a job, my mother's travel business suffered profoundly. No one was immune. It made me think two things: One, people started referencing the Great Depression. And having read these letters and absorbed them, I realized that this was not the Great Depression, and that I could provide some degree of perspective. But also I could provide some support that we would get through this — because we got through worse.

Q. What are some of the differences between this recession and the Great Depression?

A. One of the profound differences between then and today is that there are myriad nets to catch us, or at least to break the fall. There was no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation when this story occurred, there was no Social Security, there was no unemployment [compensation], no Medicaid — none of the many things that actually came into being largely because of the suffering that these people experienced.

Q. What impact would you like this book to have?

A. I don't want these people to be forgotten. This is the story of Canton, Ohio, but also the story of every town in America in this period. This book may create something of a "no-whine" zone. There are many people that are hurting today. But the difficulties that many Americans face today are very different not just in degree, but in kind. People in 1933 were not fretting because their 401(k)s took a haircut — they faced a padlock on their bank and the loss of a life savings. When I started this book, I asked the descendants in their 80s or 90s if, as children, they ever went to bed hungry. I stopped asking that question early on because the response was, "I don't remember not going to bed hungry." We can draw strength from that knowledge and their examples. The character, self-sacrifice and the community coming together provide exemplars for today.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.