Winter 2005



Leah Caracappa

Mabel Wagnalls Jones was many things to many people -- an author, concert pianist, friend to literary and entertainment luminaries, promotor of Esperanto...and benefactress to the home town where she grew up, as only child to the Wagnalls family of the great Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia publishing house.

In Northport, Long Island where literary tourists are more likely to be visiting the haunts of Jack Kerouac, Eugene O'Neill or Antoine de St Exupery, there is scarcely a mention of the fact that Wagnalls-Jones was resident of the home on Ocean Avenue better known as "The Jimmy Walker House" in the 20s -- which she and her husband (steel magnate Richard Jones) titled "DoReMi" and where old Mr Wagnalls himself spent his last days on earth.

It was here that Mabel Wagnalls Jones was witness to an event of considerable significance to historians of America's literary community -- the funeral of O Henry.

According to her account (published in 'Letters To Lithopolis,' a book of correspondences from the great American short story writer to Wagnalls Jones, an account which became the subject of a vitriolic but shortlived literary exchange in the New York Times) O Henry's death and funeral was a rather odd and O Henry-like affair.

Mabel Wagnalls Jones (1871-1945) was the daughter of the Wagnalls of Funk & Wagnalls fame, a well known composer and writer, and a friend to numerous celebrities during her long and adventuresome life. It was Mabel who wrote the definitions of the musical terms in the dictionaries, for example. She originated a kind of "Imagery in Music" mode of recital, in which she pioneered multi-media presentation by projecting pictures while concertizing. She was a proponent of Esperanto. As an author, she wrote a number of works, including the particularly successful "Rosebush of a Thousand Years," which was made into a film starring Alla Nazimova, entitled "Revelation."

Andd somewhere along the line her story became entwined with the odd and checkered life of the famed O Henry.

O Henry was the pseudonym, of course, for William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910, American short-story writer, born near Greensboro, N.C. and the most popular short story writer of his era -- author of such classics as Gift of the Magi and Ransom of Red Chief. Born on Polecat Creek in Guilford County, he was raised and educated in Greensboro by an unmarried aunt who ran a private school, worked in an uncle's drug store until nineteen and moved to Texas where he got into freelance writing, bank telling, and some trouble with the law that ultimately landed him in a penitentiary in Ohio, not far from Mabel's home town, for embezzling. There he practiced his shortstory writing, which came to its great fruition after his release and move to New York City. It was while he was working with The New York Sunday World, for whom he wrote weekly short stories, that his fame came. In 1904, at the suggestion of an editor from McClure's Magazine, he assembled all of his short stories into his first book -- Cabbages and Kings. Two years later he collected another group of stories under the name The Four Million. Book and film deals followed his success, and for a time he moved into a home on Long Island to escape the temptations of the city -- but he would stop neither his visits to Manhattan nor his drinking and in June 5, 1910, O. Henry checked into a hospital -- under a fictitious name -- and died at the age of 47.

Attending the funeral was Mabel Wagnalls Jones, by now a major social figure in Manhattan and a woman in her thirties.

It should be said that Mabel was no stranger to friendship with literary types and adventurers. She had befriended the likes of Edwin Markham, Harry Houdini and even captain Joshua Slocum, the first man to circumnavigate the world solo -- who she saw off on his voyage on April 1895 and to whom he dedicated a book he wrote of the experience.

But she evidently held a special affection for O Henry, no doubt in part because of the long exchange of letters between them.

It is not clear exactly when the letters to Mabel, later published in 1922 as Letters to Lithopolis while she was living in Northport, were written. Recently republished by Eakins Publication thanks to the O Henry Museum in Austin, Tx, it is considered a rare bit of "O. Henry-ana." The letters are addressed to Mabel in Lithopolis (a number of the originals are on display at the Wagnalls Memorial Library in Lithopolis Ohio to this day).

In the book she wrote a piece on O Henry's funeral, and once it hit the literary community, her comments became the subject of considerable comment. "We supposed there would be a large crowd, probably cards of admission would be required," she wrote. "We had none, but we went intending to stand on the curb, if need be, to pay our last deferences to one of America's immortals." And then Mabel states unequivocally that there were very few people at the author's funeral. "A few of us -- astonishingly few -- unbelievably few -- sat forward in the dim nave while a brief -- a very brief -- little service was read."

Critics like George MacAdam of the New York Times pounced on this assertion, claiming that a number of the nation's literary luminaries were present -- and suggesting pointedely that her memory was fickle.

But Mabel stuck to her guns -- in a letter to the NYT after MacAdam's scathing June 3 1923 attack, she replied: "that matter of my fickle memory and of looking back across a considerable stretch of just happens that I wrote down my memory of it at once, and this item was included with my letters when I handed them to my father to put away."

In the end Mabel's recollection of the death and funeral of O Henry provides a colorful -- and quite O Henry-like -- story. It is replete with the irony and unusual twists and turns at the ending which made the man's fiction so distinctively his own.

How so? It seems that, due to the author's use of a fictitious name, she says, there was no little time "to announced his demise, or invite people to the hastily arranged funeral." In fact, the funeral was held while a wedding party -- already scheduled for the church the same day, stood by.

Thus is was that one of America's greatest writers was sent to his grave without much fanfare -- as a large party of people celebrated the marriage of two other people. "No great crowd thronged the church or sidewalk and the service was brief," noted Mabel Wagnalls Jones. "No eulogy was spoken. Neither O Henry's name nor his work were mentioned." There was no music provided, and the ceremony was only of the briefest sort.

Why? "It was brief chiefly because the minister knew, and the pallbearers knew, and the sexton knew, that a bride was outside waiting to be married."




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