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Susquehanna Life

A Wonderful Life: Former Susquehanna River Resident Philip Van Doren Stern's Story

Nov 17, 2017 11:58AM ● By Melanie Heisinger

It's a Wonderful Life. Courtesy of IF Center.

By the time of his death in 1984, Philip Van Doren Stern was a respected Civil War historian, author and editor.  He was also the creator of one of the world’s most-beloved Christmas traditions.

A Wonderful Life

By Mary Beth Kennedy Voda

Philip Van Doren Stern,
Civil War historian, editor and author
of The Greatest Gift

On Sept. 10, 1900, the Chicago White Stockings beat the Detroit Tigers 6 to 2, Teddy Roosevelt made a stump speech, and in the tiny Susquehanna River town of Wyalusing, PA (pop. 525), a baby boy was born. 
His parents named him Philip.  By the time of his death in 1984, Philip Van Doren Stern was a respected Civil War historian, author and editor.  He was also the creator of one of the world’s most-beloved Christmas traditions.  His 4000-word short story, The Greatest Gift, first written in 1938, went on to became the 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life, a classic film beloved by millions.

Bringing the story to the screen                

At the start of the 20th century, a baby’s birth in a small town was as unremarkable as the town itself.   Philip and his parents lived alongside milliners, dealers in hay and straw, a blacksmith, and a telegrapher among others. Why the Sterns were in Wyalusing on that autumn day remains a mystery as does the length of their stay. 
Anne Van Doren Stern was a New Jersey native, and the family eventually returned there, where Philip was raised.  Following his 1924 graduation from Rutgers University, Philip worked in advertising and then publishing/editing.  As an editor during the 1940s, he worked for Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books, which published large print runs of popular book titles for distribution to soldiers during WWII.  Librarians, booksellers, and publishers founded a non-profit council on books in wartime.  This wartime distribution is credited with the spread of paperback books. 
Curiously, it was two war-weary men, movie director Frank Capra, who made war documentaries, and actor Jimmy Stewart, an Air Force pilot, who were pivotal in bringing It’s a Wonderful Life to the screen.

From inspiration to publication

Before this now-legendary story appeared on any screen, it spent eight years navigating the bumps from inspiration to publication. Stern’s daughter, Marguerite Stern Robinson, described the journey in the Afterword of The Greatest Gift’s 1996 reprinting.
“My father…was shaving on Saturday morning, Feb. 12, 1938, when he had the idea for the story.” She remembers that he said, “The idea came to me complete from start to finish—a most unusual occurrence, as any writer will tell you.”
Stern’s idea centered on George Pratt, a small-town man who feels his life is without purpose.  One night before Christmas, George leans over the railing of an iron bridge.  Thoughts of suicide swirl around him like the icy, black water. Before he can do anything foolish, an unremarkable little man intervenes and ultimately grants George’s wish that he had never been born. 

Refusing to give in

Although Stern had the story, he didn’t have the skills.  Writing fiction was new to him. His previous work centered on historical and literary subjects. Following the first draft of The Greatest Gift, he wrote in his notes, “I was just learning to write fiction, so that first version was pretty terrible.  Fortunately, I knew it was, so I had the sense to put it away.”
After years of reworking the story Stern tried unsuccessfully to sell it. Daughter Marguerite said, “Despite the knock-backs—from everyone from The Saturday Evening Post to farm journals—he became fond of the story that no one wanted, and like his hero, refused to give in to failure.”
Finally, as Christmas 1943 approached, Stern had 200 pamphlets of his story printed and sent them out as Christmas cards.  His daughter, by then a third grader, remembers delivering them to friends and teachers. 
One of those pamphlets found its way to RKO Pictures, which bought the rights to the story for $10,000. After numerous revisions, the screenplay was sold to director Frank Capra’s production company in 1945.

Capra remembered in an interview for American Film, “It was my first picture in five years.  I was scared to death.  But there it was…the story I had been looking for all my life!  Small town.  A man, a good man, ambitious.  But so busy helping others, life seems to pass him by.  Despondent.  He wishes he’d never been born.  He gets his wish…he sees the world as it would have been had he never been born.  Wow!  What an idea.”
Capra wanted Jimmy Stewart for the lead, but Stewart was struggling with memories of the war. He thought movie-making was frivolous and considered giving up acting. Capra convinced him to hear the story, after which Stewart said, “The two main ideas were: one, no one is born to be a failure; and, two, no one is poor who has friends.”  When Capra seemed doubtful, Stewart cried, “Frank! I think it’s wonderful!”
It’s a Wonderful Life opened in December of 1946 and received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. 

A holiday tradition

The film’s enduring success is evidenced by the millions who cherish it as part of their holiday tradition, including residents and visitors of another small Susquehanna River town, Tunkhannock, PA.  Just 25 miles downriver from Wyalusing, Tunkhannock’s Dietrich Theater has offered the community a free showing of It’s a Wonderful Life for 15 years, complete with popcorn, soda and Christmas cookies. 
“It’s our appreciation to community members, organizations and businesses who have been generous to the theater,” says executive director, Erica Rogler. “On It’s a Wonderful Life day, we feel that Tunkhannock is transformed into Bedford Falls, the fictional town in the movie, for a few hours.”
Marguerite Stern Robinson’s comment in the Afterword of The Greatest Gift sums up her father’s view of humanity.  “In this little book lies a power message about the significance of the lives of all of us.” 
She eulogizes her father’s legacy by borrowing a line spoken by Harry Bailey.  He says of his brother, George: “‘He was the richest man in town.’”

Mary Beth Kennedy Voda is a writer living in Wyalusing, PA.

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