Famous O. Henry's Christmas story may fail to add up
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Greensboro News & Record, December 2005
Artist Jay Jung wanted an illustration showing $1.87 in currency to go with "The Gift of the Magi," the famous Christmas short story by Greensboro native William Sydney Porter, best known as O. Henry. (Read the Gift of the Magi.)
At 5 a.m. Friday, workers completed putting the story, word by word, on the lobby walls of the hotel named for the writer.
Jung had the artistic talent to do the illustration, but not the mathematical skills.
The touching Christmas classic, written in three hours in 1905, begins: "One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And 60 cents of it was in pennies.''
When Jung, who owns Graphica, a graphic arts company downtown, tried to show $1.87 with 60 pennies, it wouldn't add up.
He wondered if O. Henry had pulled a fast one -- or had he just made a mistake.
Jung and others concluded that a combination of currency equaling $1.87 and including 60 pennies was impossible.
"O. Henry could have done it with 62 pennies, but not 60,'' says Dennis Quaintance, whose company owns the O. Henry and who hired Jung to inscribe "Magi'' across the social lobby, where afternoon tea is served.
Quaintance and Jung decided that James Dillingham Young, the husband of Della Young in the tearful but inspiring story, needed a two-cent piece to have $1.87 with 60 pennies.
The treasury issued a two-penny piece from 1864 to 1873. A few may have still circulated in 1905, the year the story is set and the year O. Henry wrote it. But no mention of this rare currency is made in the story.
O. Henry readers know his talent for clever endings in the 600 stories he wrote before his death in 1910 at 48.
Quaintance wonders if Porter also didn't plant erroneous tidbits to see if anyone noticed.
Scholars familiar with O. Henry's stories make no mention of such a practice.
Maybe Porter just messed up because money was so unfamiliar to him. He made plenty writing stories, but it disappeared fast, for booze and handouts to anyone who stopped him on the streets of New York.
"O. Henry never seemed to have enough money," writes Paul J. Horowitz in an introduction to "Collected Stories of O. Henry," published in 1979. "He was always asking for advance upon advance to pay off one debt or another."
Maybe haste was to blame. O. Henry dashed off "Magi" in three hours to make the deadline for the old New York Sunday World newspaper. He was a habitual deadline buster. Editors often baby-sat him to get a story completed.
Don't let a few pennies spoil a story about a husband desperate to buy for Christmas a set of combs for his wife's long, beautiful hair -- so desperate that he hocked his gold watch, only to find that his wife had cut and sold her hair to buy him a fob for his watch.
The reproduction of "Magi" starts on the lobby's west wall and ends at the far reaches of the south wall. A reproduction of O. Henry's signature appears at the end. People can sit in the comfortable sofas and chairs and read the story.
It took Quaintance longer to reproduce the story than it did for O. Henry to write it.
First, he had it typed into a computer and sent to Jung, who redid it digitally. Jung sent the words to American Signs of Greensboro, where Jim Duffer used a machine to make gold letters from vinyl.
Before this was done, Jung had to get the letter size perfect. Letters had to be large enough to be read from lobby seats. But if too big, the story would run out of space before it ended.
The story covers a green strip above the lobby's pine paneling.
Quaintance says he struggled for years to determine how to fill the space.
One day he and Jung were discussing "How we can get more O. Henry into the O. Henry Hotel."
"Magi" had to be part of the answer, they decided.
"I believe this is the second or third most popular nonreligious Christmas story," Quaintance says. "I bet I have read it 10 times. I always get goose bumps and an emotional response. It is crafted so well."
He turned the idea over to Leah Thompson, his special projects coordinator. She got it done with Jung and American Signs.
As lobby sitters read the story, they can see an O. Henry portrait done for the hotel's opening in 1998. The writer is leaning back, reading a newspaper.
Quaintance says he'll keep looking to make Porter a bigger presence in the hotel on Green Valley Road. He doesn't like generic decorations. Guests need to know they're in Greensboro, not some place like Cincinnati.
Quaintance helped reacquaint Greensboro with O. Henry by bringing back a hotel with his name. The first O. Henry stood downtown from 1919 -- nine years after Porter's death at 48 -- until it was torn down in the 1970s.
The story across the lobby isn't an ornament to be taken down after Christmas. It will remain up year-round, Quaintance says.
As for that $1.87 with 60 pennies, Quaintance gives O. Henry the benefit of the doubt.
"Maybe," he says, "he was trying to make us think."
Contact Jim Schlosser a