Tuesday, October 23, 2012

O. Henry (1862-1910)

Pseudonym of William Sydney Porter
Né William Sidney Porter
Pharmacist, Artist, Laborer, Draftsman, Bank Teller, Journalist, Author
Born September 11, 1862, Greensboro, North Carolina
Died June 5, 1910, New York, New York

Like Marco Polo, Cervantes, and Henry David Thoreau, O. Henry was a writer who served time behind bars. His crime was embezzlement and he spent three years in the slammer. The writer known for his twist endings was born on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina, making this year the sesquicentennial of his birth. He loved reading as a child and after graduating high school in his hometown, Porter went to work as a pharmacist. Over the years, he also worked as a ranch hand, shepherd, cook, draftsman, bank teller, and journalist. His work in a bank is what got him in trouble and separated him from his family for three years. O. Henry began writing stories under his pen name while in prison in Columbus, Ohio. He lived in Texas, New Orleans, Honduras, Pittsburgh, and finally New York, where he spent the last eight years of his life penning 381 short stories. Among them were "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Ransom of Red Chief," two perennial favorites. Weird Tales reprinted just one of those stories, "The Furnished Room" (Sept. 1925).

O. Henry died on June 5, 1910, in New York City. Less than a decade after his death, his name was attached to a collection entitled Prize Stories 1919: The O. Henry Memorial Awards. Every year since then (except in 2004), twenty prize stories have been collected in book form as part of the O. Henry Awards. The editor of the first collection, Blanche Colton Williams, was a teacher at Columbia University. Among her students were Genevieve Larsson and Theda Kenyon. One of the first winners of the top prize was Edison Marshall for his story "The Heart of Little Shikara” (from Everybody's Magazine, Jan. 1921). Marshall, an adventurer and a prolific writer, was also a posthumous contributor to Weird Tales. You'll find museums devoted to O. Henry in Austin and San Antonio, Texas.

O. Henry's Story in Weird Tales
"The Furnished Room" (Sept. 1925)

Further Reading
There is plenty of reading on O. Henry online and at the library. If you don't find it, you're not looking hard enough.

The U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp this year to observe the sesquicentennial of O. Henry's birth.
Just two years after his death, the New York World gave him a full-page spread in its magazine section. (The date was May 24, 1912.) The Rolling Stone by the way was a humorous journal founded by O. Henry during his years in Texas. I surmise the occasion was the semicentennial of his birth.
One of O. Henry's most famous stories is "The Ransom of Red Chief," included in this collection.  
Even long after his death, O. Henry's tales appeared in book form. Here's a British edition. Visually, the gag on the cover is an old one. Juxtaposed with the image, the title becomes very suggestive.
In 1952, 20th Century Fox adapted five of O. Henry's stories to a movie anthology called O. Henry's Full House. 
Here's a collection of lobby cards for the film. It looks like Richard Widmark was still playing the gangster years after his debut in movies. 
O. Henry is also famous for creating The Cisco Kid. Originally an outlaw, The Cisco Kid first appeared in a story called "The Caballero's Way," published in 1907. The Kid showed up in movies a scant seven years later. Here's a poster from 1946 and the film Beauty and the Bandit
Gilbert Roland first played The Cisco Kid in The Gay Cavalier from 1946. I wonder if The Kid and his sidekick, Pancho, could have been modeled in any way after Don Quixote and his own sidekick, Sancho Panza. If so, it would have been necessary of course to convert Don Quixote into a more heroic character, while Sancho Panza could remain the comedy relief as the similarly named Pancho.
Before Gilbert Roland, there was Cesar Romero. Here he is in Ride on Vaquero from 1941. 
The Cisco Kid was also in comic books, on the radio, in newspaper comic strips, and on television. Merchandising included trading cards, bread labels, View-Master reels, and toys. Isn't it long past time for someone to assemble a Cisco Kid scrapbook?
Text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

1 comment:

  1. A very underrated weird fictioneer -- and I did not know he created The Cisco Kid -- fascinating!