The Greatest Gift

Over the weekend, a “People” feature story suggesting gift books for the holidays appeared in The Missourian. After the deadline for the article had passed, an audio book landed in my mailbox. It was too late to get it in the feature, so I’m suggesting it here and hoping you’ll find “The Greatest Gift,” published by Simon and Schuster, as interesting as I did.

Many are familiar with the beloved tale because of the classic, black and white film it spawned, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. As luck would have it, the film aired over the weekend, just after I’d listened to the audio recording.

The short story was written by Philip Van Doren Stern and the new audio edition, packaged in seasonal red, has an afterword by his daughter, Marguerite Stern Robinson. This afterword provides fascinating information about her father and how the book and film came to be.

Kind of Miraculous

Ideas for stories sometimes come to writers while they’re asleep. Usually only bits and pieces materialize, but Van Doren Stern’s “The Greatest Gift” “emerged full blown” on Feb. 12, 1938, and came back to him while he was shaving.

Already a prolific author of history books, Van Doren Stern had only dabbled with fiction. “I was just learning,” he admitted. He finished his first draft of “The Greatest Gift” in April 1938 and said it was “pretty terrible.”

Five years later, in 1943, Van Doren Stern showed the revised story to his agent, who told him it would be “difficult to sell a fantasy to the magazines.” He was right. Rejections came in from farm journals to the Saturday Evening Post. Still Van Doren Stern loved the story, and so he decided to send copies of it out as a Christmas card, over 200 holiday pamphlets in all.

His daughter stated on the audio recording that she remembered helping distribute them.

Marguerite Stern Robinson also recalled the Western Union telegram that came in March 1944. When her father took the call, he exclaimed, “Hold me up. I can’t believe it.” The telegram was from his agent. The movie rights to his story had been sold to a well-known studio. Frances Capra, the director, is reported to have said, “It was the story I’d been looking for all of my life.”

Onto the Silver Screen

Though the movie wasn’t an “overnight success” when it debuted Dec. 20, 1946, at the Globe Theater in New York City, it has become one of the most successful, classic films of all time. Jimmy Stewart said the story was an inspiration to him, and of the 70 movies he’d been in, “Wonderful Life” was his favorite.

Listening to “The Greatest Gift” provided some surprises. The book, unlike the movie, begins on the bridge where George contemplates suicide as he gazes into the “glassy blackness” of the river.

Suddenly an “unremarkable little person” appears as if out of nowhere. “I wouldn’t do that,” he tells George. When George says he wishes he’d never been born, his guardian angel makes it so — no one in town knows George, a man who has done so much for so many.

George’s parents are childless. Because George never lived, there was no one to save his brother when he drowned. His wife Mary is married to the town alcoholic and only has two children, not the houseful in the screen version.

Despite the differences in the movie and the book, the message is the same — life is our “greatest gift.” It’s a theme we need to be reminded of 365 days of the year, not just at Christmastime.