It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.
- HARRY S TRUMAN
A Man of Means
Sam, the inveterate prankster, had a favorite trick, one that amused him well into his eighties. He would tape a thread to a dollar bill and leave it in the middle of the hallway outside his apartment, the other end of the thread extending under his door and resting in his hands. His eye would be fixed to the peephole until someone came upon the bill and stooped to pick it up. Then he would give the thread a swift jerk and snatch the bill away before the passerby could lay a finger on it. He could scarcely control his laughter.
In an envelope, I have one of those dollar bills, the long thread still taped to its underside. Like many of his tricks, this one was rooted in Sam’s own life. Time and again the prospects of good fortune and better times had been cruelly snatched away from him. But by 1927, he had finally established himself as a respected merchant. He was then thirty-nine. His Canton store, Stone’s Clothes, provided him and his new bride with a solid living. He had investments in real estate, and a lifestyle he could never before have imagined. Then came the crash of ’29 and it nearly wiped him out. He had allowed himself to become overextended in real estate, the clothing store that he had nurtured was failing, and, like so many businessmen of that period, he stood on the brink of bankruptcy. It was a severe setback, but he’d endured worse. Through it all he did what he could to insulate his wife from financial worries, holding to his routine and concealing whatever doubts he had. A few years later he would recognize that same trait in many of those who wrote to his alias, B. Virdot.
After the reversals of 1929, it took Sam three years to get back on his feet. He worked frightful hours, saved what he could, and turned customers’ sensitivities to price to his advantage with promotions such as “Buy a suit and get an extra pair of pants free.” His own rough edges, his lack of pretension, and his empathy for their struggles helped him win over the workingman and those just eking by. In him, they recognized one of their own. Like them, he was scrappy, determined to keep what was his, and to win back that which had been lost—even if it meant giving chase to a shoplifter and tackling him blocks away, as he was known to do.
By the fall of 1933 Sam had reestablished himself and his business. Like many businesses that survived those years, his store had become not merely a place to shop but a refuge where men fatigued by years of disappointment and rejection could engage in friendly banter and be valued for more than what was in their pockets. He had a gift for drawing laughter from the dourest of circumstances. It proved to be no small asset in those years.
By late 1933, he was in the enviable position of being able to take advantage of business opportunities others could not. Stores were closing all around him, and retail chains, desperate to raise cash, sought to unload their marginal operations at a fraction of their worth. On September 1, 1933, Sam purchased the Kibler Company and its nine menswear stores in Ohio, Illinois, and West Virginia. But even in the depths of debt, he had sworn that he would repay his creditors, and even those willing to have accepted fifty cents on the dollar were paid in full, though it took years.
As the decades passed, Sam continued to enjoy a life of comfort and luxury, pocked with intermittent setbacks. At home he had a private stash of Beluga caviar, but nothing, in his view, beat the hot dogs served at Woolworth’s lunch counter. In later years, when he belonged to the Jockey Club, he drove such a clunker that he was mistaken for the help. It was always as if he were straddling two worlds, prepared to exit one or the other at a moment’s notice. To the end, he imagined himself a peasant, unable to swallow his own good fortune. And the way he said the word peasantcommanded respect. Even in the best of times he saw himself as the man who came upon the dollar bill with the unseen thread attached.
Sam knew the value of hard work but also the caprice of fortune. It was reason enough for his alter ego, B. Virdot, to focus on other “white collar men” whose fate so mirrored his own. He understood them as well as he understood himself. These were men who had invested much of their lives in their work and whose businesses, like his own, carried their names, elevating their personal success in the good times, but exposing their failure to public scrutiny.
Looking out across Canton that Christmas of 1933, what Sam saw resembled nothing so much as a dark version of Monopoly, the board game invented by an out-of-work heating engineer named Charles Darrow and first distributed in 1933 in Philadelphia. But instead of expansion, the sole object was survival. Where one landed in life seemed to have less to do with strategy than with dumb luck and a roll of the dice. Men of means—financial and social pillars of Canton—were brought low, their possessions sold off one by one, their grand homes vacated, their office suites traded in for a broom, a paint brush, or a snow shovel. One minute they were at the pinnacle of success, the next, holding their hand out to a stranger named “B. Virdot.” Sam Stone knew firsthand about such vulnerability and what such a fall truly meant—a loss measured not only in dollars and cents but also in self-esteem.
OF ALL THE letters, none would have resonated more with Sam than the one from George Monnot, who, like Sam, was self-made, a family man, and someone who cared deeply about his community. Their paths doubtless crisscrossed countless times, making it all the more imperative to the success of the B. Virdot offer that Sam’s true identity be veiled.
Monnot’s name appears in a multivolume history of Stark County that contains sketches of Canton’s most prominent and privileged citizens. Published in 1928—a year before the stock market crash and the cascading events that became the Depression—it offers a freeze-frame of Canton at its financial apogee, a time when fortunes and positions seemed secure. The names that appear both in this celebratory volume and on the list of Mr. B. Virdot’s checks provide an index of who fell the furthest. When B. Virdot addressed his offer to the “white collar man,” it was the likes of George Monnot that he had in mind.
The trajectory of Monnot’s career and life closely tracked that of industrial America. In 1905, just two years after Henry Ford incorporated the company that would bear his name, a prescient George W. Monnot looked beyond his modest Canton bicycle shop and opened the city’s first Ford dealership. From there his fortunes would rapidly ascend along with Ford’s. By 1920, half of all cars in the United States were made by Ford. The first transcontinental highway—the Lincoln Highway—built in 1928, passed right through Canton, running one short block from Monnot’s Ford showroom, and bringing with it a constant flow of traffic. But Monnot’s success had not just been a matter of luck. Like Sam, he had proven himself to be a shrewd businessman, surviving when so many lesser rivals did not. In 1916, Canton boasted some twenty car dealerships. Eight were gone before World War I ended. Only three outlasted the depression of 1921.
By 1928, Monnot was accorded three full pages in the History of Stark County Ohio and a full-page formal portrait. Dressed in suit and tie, a perfect part in his hair, he looked like the exemplar of corporate America. By that year, his Ford dealership, bearing the name Monnot & Sacher, occupied an entire city block and had a cavernous showroom. The company even had its own eleven-person band that dressed in tuxes and performed under the name of The Monnot & Sacher Serenaders.
In Canton, the Monnot name was well known, the family pedigree widely respected. George Monnot was born in Canton on September 29, 1878, of French stock. His family had helped settle the county a generation earlier. His father, a councilman active in the city’s political and religious life, had two sons—George and Richard, and two daughters—Barbara and Joan.
George’s wife, Alice, was a socialite and belonged to the Canton Women’s Club. Monnot was a prominent member of the Better Business Bureau, the Canton Chamber of Commerce, the Canton Club, and the Brookside Country Club. (As a Jew, Sam Stone was barred from belonging to the last two.) The county history said of Monnot that “he is keenly and helpfully interested in everything that pertains to the welfare and progress of the city and his cooperation can at all times be counted upon to further any plan or measure for the general good. He finds his diversion in golf and hunting and is a lover of all outdoor sports, but he never allows these to interfere with the conduct of his commercial interests.”
The fawning portrait noted that “he has developed an enterprise of mammoth proportions. He deserves much credit for what he has accomplished, for he started out in the business world without financial aid soon after entering his teens and has steadily worked his way upward through determination and ability until he is now numbered among the foremost business men of his native city.”
To an outsider, he seemed to have it all. Each day Monnot would lunch at Bender’s, a fashionable downtown tavern and restaurant where Sam Stone also lunched daily, then stop for a fine cigar at Simpson’s and play the tip sheets. Monnot also had a summer home and a thirty-five-foot yacht at nearby Turkey Foot Lake—not far from where my grandfather had a cottage. It was likely that the two businessmen knew each other, as they traveled in the same orbit. Only one block separated Monnot’s dealership from Sam Stone’s clothing store.
But just one year after that county history celebrated Monnot’s achievements, the stock market crashed. It was 1929. Henry Ford furloughed between twenty-five thousand and thirty thousand workers. The Great Depression was making itself felt everywhere, and Canton was no exception. His grandchildren were told that Monnot’s reluctance to lay off some of his employees, notwithstanding his own dire straits, hastened his financial failure. In 1931 Monnot lost his business and his splendid brick home in the upscale Ridgewood neighborhood—the same neighborhood where Sam Stone had lived before business reversals had forced him out of his home. Monnot moved himself, his wife, and his four children into cramped quarters on Woodward Place, more alley than street. His neighbors—the few who could find jobs—were steelworkers and tradesmen.
One of the city’s most admired businessmen, he was now struggling to feed his family. He had nothing but his pride and now he was even prepared to put that at risk by reaching out in response to an offer he read in the newspaper from a man named B. Virdot. That day he picked up a pen and wrote these words:
CANTON O. DEC 18-1933
B. VIRDOT GEN. DEL.
Your interesting and benevolent article appearing in the Repository prompted me to write and advise how the depression left the writer.
For 26 years was in the Automobile business prosperous at one time and have done more than my share in giving at Christmas and at all times. Have a family of six and struggle is the word for me now for a living.
Xmas will not mean much to our family this year as my business, bank, real estate, Insurance policies are all swept away.
Our resources are nil at present perhaps my situation is no different than hundreds of others. However a man who knows what it is to be up and down can fully appreciate the spirit of one who has gone through the same ordeal.
You are to be congratulated for your benevolence and kind offer to those who have experienced this trouble and such as the writer is going through.
No doubt you will have a Happy Christmas as there is more real happiness in giving and making someone else happy than receiving. May I extend to you a very Happy Christmas.
GEORGE W. MONNOT
1329 WOODWARD AVE. NW
Three days later, on December 21, 1933, check number 22 for five dollars, signed by “B. Virdot,” was sent to George W. Monnot. A thank-you note soon followed:
CANTON, OHIO DEC. 27-1933
My Dear Mr. B. Virdot,
Permit me to offer my sincere thanks for your kind remembrance for a Happy Christmas.
Indeed this came in very handy and was much appreciated by myself & family.
It was put to good use paying for 2 pairs of shoes for my girls and other little necessities. I hope some day I have the pleasure of knowing to whom we are indebted for this very generous gift.
At present I am not of employment and it is very hard going. However I hope to make some connection soon.
I again thank you on behalf of the family and an earnest wish is that you have a most Happy New Year.
GEORGE W. MONNOT
1329 WOODWARD AVE NW
Beyond that letter, George Monnot could never bring himself to speak of the losses he had suffered. Nor did he ever recover. He refused to declare bankruptcy and, like Sam, insisted that he would repay his debts no matter how long it took. It would, by family accounts, take a decade—well into the 1940s. Even after his business failed, George Monnot remained an inveterate inventor and dabbler. From the Ford dealership, he had salvaged his massive workbench and great wooden tool chest. In the basement of his home he spent endless hours working on projects and schemes, hoping that one or another might restore him and his family to a measure of financial security and position. He was always just one invention away from making it again. The army, in World War I, had been poised to buy the “Hydrocar,” an amphibious vehicle he had designed, but the military lost interest with the signing of the armistice.
In short order, Monnot went from owning a thousand cars to owning none. He and his wife had to travel by city bus. He worked until age and health forced him to stop. At seventy-five he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died two months later, on February 27, 1949. On a chill Tuesday morning, March 1, 1949, a Requiem High Mass was sung in his honor at Canton’s St. John’s Catholic Church and the following morning he was buried in the church cemetery.
But the real epitaph to this once shining career was written on his death certificate. Under “Occupation,” he is listed as “Stock Clerk, Hercules Motor.” He had indeed become a casualty of the Great Depression, a grand entrepreneur now working as a clerk. As for the giant Hercules Motor plant on the edge of Canton, it was once the world’s largest maker of combustion engines and supplied the power to Willys jeeps, landing craft, armored cars, picket boats, and trucks that helped win World War II. The 600,000-plus-square-foot plant sat on twenty-six acres and during the war years operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, employing fifty-eight hundred men and woman. The company produced eighteen thousand engines a month. Monnot, in his own small way, was a part of that effort.
Monnot’s precipitous fall from fortune was particularly hard on Alice, his widow. For her, the Depression never ended. For decades after, she was forced to face not only the loss of wealth and position but that of identity and friends as well. She was no longer a part of that elite social circle in which she had long been the center. Instead of vacations in Cuba, a summer home by the lake, and exquisite furniture, she had social security checks. Instead of the grand home, she had a dismal basement apartment. Few visitors ventured down the stairs past the exposed pipes into the spartan one-bedroom apartment where she lived out her life.
But it was perhaps Monnot’s eldest son, George E. Monnot, who paid the steepest price during the Depression. A superior student, he yearned to go to college to become an engineer. Instead, to help support the family through those years, he wielded a broom at Weber Dental Manufacturing Company and watched as some of his well-heeled peers went off to college and pursued professions. But over time Monnot rose through the ranks and became a company executive. Later, he wintered in Florida, but the memories of pre-Depression wealth persisted. In his 1994 obituary, it is said of his son George E. Monnot that “He spent much of his youth enjoying the Turkey Foot Lake area and sail boat racing at the South Shore Yacht Club.”
The younger son, Richard J., would also reflect back on the earlier days of comfort. When peeved with his wife, Jeannette, he would say, “When we had a maid . . .” But she would cut him off midsentence. Richard Monnot spent thirty-three years working the furnaces at, of all places, Canton’s Ford plant, which as late as 1986 employed some nine hundred workers. In 1988 the plant was shut down.
The B. Virdot check that Christmas of 1933 had gone to buy shoes for Monnot’s two daughters, Barbara and Joan. That too must have touched Sam. He then had daughters of his own, the youngest named Barbara. But Monnot’s daughter Barbara never fully escaped the Depression mentality. She rarely spoke of it directly, but she also, like many who survived it, never complained and was exceedingly frugal. After she died in 1998, her son Tom Haas discovered drawers of old underwear and linens and a host of other things that his mother could not bring herself to throw away. She had become something of a packrat, unable to part with something she might conceivably need later. She lived on social security and never tapped into the investments that accrued from her husband’s pension—investments that totaled $400,000 when she died. From what the Monnot descendants call “the good times”—the days before the Great Depression—the Monnots were able to hold on to only a few baubles, passing from George and Alice to daughter Barbara and finally to grandson Tom. Among these were some fragile glass Christmas bulbs to decorate the tree.
On a rainy day in early March 2009, I sat with Tom Haas in the dining room of the McKinley Grand Hotel. Through the window we looked out on where Monnot’s bike shop stood a hundred years before. Now it is an empty space dubbed “Bicentennial Park,” one of many parks and playgrounds that attempt to fill the void left by exiting merchants and residents. We mused at our being brought together by the B. Virdot gift. Monnot and my grandfather had to know each other, says Haas. They traveled in the same circles, had businesses virtually across the street from each other, dined at the same restaurant, and boated on the same small Portage County lake. And yet Monnot never knew the identity or proximity of his benefactor.
Now here we were, the grandsons, poring over an old scrapbook—a photo of the South Shore Yacht Club, of three children in a canoe, of a sailboat—the only evidence of a lifestyle otherwise erased by the Depression. Over a cup of coffee, Tom Haas reads his grandfather’s letter for the first time and simply shakes his head. There is an unspoken bond between us, our grandfathers joined by Hard Times and common interests, our own link forged by a letter that surfaced a lifetime later.
But the grandchildren too would find their way in the world. A granddaughter, Martha, got a master’s degree in education and married Herbert J. Lanese, who would become president of McDonnell Douglas Aerospace.
The huge wooden chest of tools that George Monnot used, first to repair bicycles and later to assemble Ford Model Ts, is now with another grandson, Jeffrey Earl Haas. This grandson too had a modest childhood, having grown up in a third-floor apartment above a drugstore. But the real inheritance, Jeffrey says, was not the tool chest but the lessons his mother, Barbara, handed down to him from the Depression, lessons in how to manage one’s affairs. Barbara Monnot was something of a miser and her sons too were raised to believe in the value of saving, the dangers of excessive debt, and the importance of hard work. Today, at sixty-five, George Monnot’s grandson Jeffrey enjoys many of the material comforts that his grandfather had also once known. He divides his time between a home in America and one in England that is on the famous Wentworth golf course and near both Windsor Castle and Ascot Racecourse. A collector of ancient Greek coins and an avid scuba diver, the retired Procter & Gamble vice president owns a Mercedes and a Porsche. No Fords.
Seventy-five years after George Monnot wrote his appeal to Mr. B. Virdot, he would still be able to recognize much of Canton, though not even his favorite restaurant, Bender’s (originally, Bender’s Hofbrau Haus), was immune to the Depression. In 1932 it closed its doors, but it reopened six months later under new ownership. In some ways, the Depression literally gave Bender’s a new lease on life. When the American Exchange Bank failed, its executives, John Raymond Jacob and his son, Wilbur Henry Jacob, decided to try the restaurant business and leased Bender’s from the founder’s widow. John Raymond Jacob was a formidable figure weighing some three hundred pounds. He’d made much of his money in the travel business helping to bring German immigrants to Canton. (My grandmother Minna Adolph’s first meal in Canton, getting off the train in 1912 as a five-year-old, was at Bender’s.) Its German murals, of which Jacob was so proud, were covered over in World War I when the United States was at war with that nation, but were restored after the armistice.
Today, a dark round oak table indistinguishable from that at which Monnot and my grandfather, Sam Stone, lunched with other business leaders in the good days before the Depression is there still. But now it is the grandsons’ and granddaughters’ turn to gather around it beneath the old tin ceiling and talk of Canton’s future. The women are no longer required to use the “Ladies’ Entrance,” though what was their dining room is still referred to as the “LDR,” or “Ladies’ Dining Room,” a carryover from the days when the main dining room was largely off-limits to them, as was the bar that featured a row of brass spittoons.
In 2002, Bender’s observed its one hundredth anniversary, still serving its famed turtle soup, Camp Cagle pickerel, and Bender’s fries. That the tavern still stands is a miracle. On January 1, 1988, it was engulfed in flames and nearly consumed, but the arsonist (never brought to justice) failed to bring the venerable restaurant down. Its sandstone façade is lit by antique gaslights and blackened by the fire and years of exposure to wind and soot. It has catered to the likes of Guy Lombardo, Eddie Cantor, Roy Rogers, Tiger Woods, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, evangelist Billy Graham, baseball’s Early Wynn and Cy Young, überathlete Jim Thorpe, and, it is whispered, the mobster Baby Face Nelson. But it is generations of Canton’s own families—the Monnots, the Stones, and thousands of others—who, coming out of the cold, have placed their feet upon its sandstone lintel until it has been worn down into a bowl, like some ancient grindstone.
The Depression left its mark on Bender’s as it did on everything else. Decades afterward, there was still an effort to conserve even the last trace of butter. The paper that wrapped the butter was subjected to heat, because the butter would surrender to the flame before it would to the wax. And when diners’ plates were gathered after their meals, the butter was scraped into a common cask and heated until it purified. When patrons dipped their lobster into drawn butter, they were unknowingly dipping not only into the leavings of an earlier diner but into the legacy of the Great Depression as well.
Like much of Canton’s industrial prowess, the once formidable Hercules plant where Monnot and thousands of other citizens worked is now relegated to the past. Today, the plant, which between 1915 and 1999 produced more than two and a half million engines, is empty, the company gone. Abandoned but not forgotten, the site is on the National Register of Historic Places. Grand plans for developing the site ran headlong into the Great Recession.
As for the vast building that once housed Monnot’s Ford dealership, it suffered a fire that destroyed its top floor in 1947, and underwent a host of transformations, first as home to Caxton Press, then Thurin’s furniture store, and then a Robert Hall department store. But since 1978, the huge showroom has been something that would surely have pleased George Monnot. It is a museum for classic cars. In the midst of it all is parked a gleaming Model T, and at night, with the lights low, one can imagine the ghost of Mr. Monnot proudly showing off this, his latest model.
But as Christmas 2008 approached, George Monnot might also find the economic landscape of Canton eerily familiar. The American auto industry was in shambles. In 2008, the stock of his beloved Ford Motor Company plummeted to historic lows—one dollar a share. And in the deepening recession, hundreds of Ford dealerships across the country closed their doors. At Canton’s Downtown Ford Lincoln Mercury dealership, owner Brad Black says what George Monnot himself said: “I haven’t laid anybody off yet. I probably should have.” But what has kept Black’s head above water, he says, are the Depression-era lessons his parents passed on to him—not to spend everything he made, but to save, and not to take on excessive debt. Others, says Black, were less disciplined. “They were living on the edge when times were good. One hiccup, and it took them down.” A black-and-white photo of the enormous Ford dealership that Monnot once owned now hangs in his waiting room.
Just months later, Chrysler declared bankruptcy. Then, on June 1, 2009, General Motors filed for bankruptcy, saying it would cut some 21,000 more jobs, close 14 plants, and cut loose 2,000 of its 6,000 U.S. dealerships. Even George Monnot had not witnessed such calamity in his beloved auto industry.
There were many like my grandfather, Sam Stone, who had made their own way into that select circle of Canton’s leading businessmen. But some few were to the manor born, princes and heads of long-established family businesses, part of the city’s upper crust, which, generation after generation, enjoyed positions of privilege. They too were not safe from the Depression. Within a matter of years—for some, just months—they found themselves destitute, scratching for pennies and feeling as if they had let down their families, their employees, and their community. As Sam Stone himself learned more than once, the bright line that separated the favored class from those below them could dissolve almost overnight, exposing the fragile divide between the haves and have-nots.
Among those who experienced such a precipitous fall was Frank J. Dick, a man seemingly marked for success from birth. He was the son of the founder of Joseph Dick Manufacturing Company, established in 1874. Dick was of pioneer stock. His family came from Alsace-Lorraine and settled in Stark County in 1837. The company his family founded was renamed Blizzard Manufacturing for its agricultural device that blew feed into silos. It served a global market and was the largest maker of agricultural machines in the state. Its plant took up an entire city block. Frank Dick’s father, Joseph, had been a major part of the Canton community and beyond, hobnobbing with the city’s power brokers and social elite. He received dozens of patents for his agricultural inventions, and his contributions to the community were well known. He was a member of the school board, a director of the Board of Trade, and vice president of the Canton Home Savings and Loan Company.
“Progressive, enterprising and liberal, [Joseph Dick] has been largely instrumental in promoting the general welfare and industrial thrift of the city of Canton and is in every way worthy of the high place he holds in public esteem,” noted an 1892 profile. The family even gifted a fabulous altar to St. John’s Catholic Church.
The mansion where Frank Dick lived until he was twenty-seven was an imposing Victorian edifice on Tuscarawas Street. It was built in 1890 of wood and stone, some of it imported from Europe. Boasting twenty-two huge rooms, it claimed eight fireplaces, five chimneys, an elevator finished in fine walnut, and, in the basement, a bin designed to hold as much coal as an entire railroad car. The dining table featured fine crystal, the chairs were carved ornately. City luminaries had been frequent guests in the home, recalls a great-grandson.
It was in that home that Joseph and his wife, Rosanna, raised six children in an aura of privilege and refinement. Each child was taught to play at least one instrument, and they formed an orchestra and toured on vacations. Among the boys, Frank J. Dick was the quietest. Soft-spoken, gentle, and, above all, proper, he would become the company’s vice president and assistant manager, displaying a talent for both management and invention. Like George Monnot, he was a tinkerer. With his wire-rimmed glasses and somewhat starched personality, he was a formal man. He was never seen without a white shirt and tie. Like his father, he took pleasure in helping others—what he called “the good work.” A gifted photographer, he had more of an artist’s temperament than a businessman’s. His portraiture and landscape pictures all proudly displayed his initials, FJD.
Raised in comfort, he and his wife, Harriet, and children became accustomed to the same. His daughter Florence, born in 1908, attended finishing school, was a young socialite who mingled with Canton’s elite, played tennis, and was said to have flown with the famed pioneer aviator Jimmy Doolittle.
Frank Dick, like his father, was a man of influence and of civic involvement. He possessed sound business judgment—which mattered not a jot when the end came for the company. In an effort to resuscitate the firm, Frank Dick pledged everything he had—stock, his home, and all other assets—but to no avail. After more than half a century his business and all he had was gone. He was fifty-seven. In his December 18, 1933, appeal to Mr. B. Virdot, the pain of his circumstances can be heard to fuse with the formality of his upbringing.
“Mr. B. Virdot,” he wrote. “The writer is forced by serious business reverses to accept temporary assistance if it is available. I do not of course know to whom I am directing my appeal, but shall immediately give you my identity. I am Frank Dick. Residence 1018 12th St. N.W.
“Possibly you are familiar with the serious business reverses I have suffered but for your information I shall state briefly my position. For thirty-five years I have been a member of The Joseph Dick Mfg. Co. one of Canton’s oldest Manufacturing Companies. While with above company . . .” The top of the letter is too tattered to make out, but it picks up with these lines:
I also owned stock in our company to the approximate value of Sixty-five thousand dollars. . . .
Little did we know that the reverse conditions in agricultural would extend over so long a period.
Nevertheless our company required additional finances to carry on the good work. Once at this point I personally endorsed the company’s paper and in so doing placed my home valued at approximately thirty-seven thousand dollars, in support of my endorsement.
Agricultural conditions continued to grow worse and our company after weathering the storm for over fifty years ceased to be and I experienced the loss of all of my stock holdings, my home and everything of value I possessed together with thirty-five years of hard work and efforts, leaving me without a dollar to support my family. My dear friend, am sure you are in position to realize what this means. I am sure I would never wish it to befall anyone . . . Would very much appreciate an opportunity of meeting with you personally. I am sure I can give you sufficient evidence and references as to my character and ability, if given the opportunity.
In the meantime I assure you that any assistance whatever will be gratefully received and I am sure that you will never have cause to regret any confidence placed in me.
FRANK J. DICK
1018—12TH ST. N.W.
The letter was desperate, the signature elegant. Three days later he received a check for five dollars from Mr. B. Virdot and on December 22, 1933, penned this thank-you note:
My dear friend,
I wish to thank you kindly for the assistance you have given me and I assure you it is very greatly appreciated and I hope that I shall have the pleasure of meeting you personally, offering me the opportunity of expressing my gratitude for this act of friendship.
Before I unfortunately met with business reverses, my greatest pleasure was found in assisting everyone about me in every possible way and I hope that I shall again be in position to carry on the good work.
Wishing you a most enjoyable Christmas and continued success. I am
VERY GRATEFULLY YOURS,
FRANK. J. DICK
What Frank Dick did not say in his letter to Mr. B. Virdot—what others in the Dick family also chose to keep to themselves—was their belief that the company had been the victim of embezzlement, and, worse yet, that the crime might have been perpetrated by a member of the family, though not Frank Dick himself, who was above suspicion. That theft, they said, pushed the firm over the edge. But the family apparently concluded that nothing could bring the company back, that the negative publicity of a criminal trial involving family would only further wound its reputation and its dwindling standing in the community. Even today, descendants speak guardedly of the incident. The idea that one family member would steal from another was something I later learned resonated all too painfully with my grandfather, who, like the Dicks, would decide that pursuing the matter in the courts would bring only more pain.
Compounding the shock of Frank Dick’s own losses was the knowledge that the company’s failure would profoundly affect the lives of its 150 employees, many of whom had been with the company for decades. Blue blood and blue collar, young and old alike, together found themselves walking Canton’s cold December streets looking for work and unable to find it. Among these was James A. Brownlee, who lived one block away from the First Presbyterian Church, where the Dickens tale had been read. He had worked for years as the Blizzard Company’s paint foreman. The same day his former boss reached out to B. Virdot, James Brownlee wrote his own appeal for help.
“Mr. B. Virdot,” he wrote, “I am doing something I have never did befor, that’s ask for that I have not earned or rather inform you I am one who could use the gift you so kindly offer to share . . .”
I am 73 years old, however I’m feeling not a day over 40. I want to say how I would rather have work to pay for my own way than any other thing. I have never wasted what I earned in fast living and feel proud to be able to say that I have registered for Road Work or bridge painting but so far have not been called. Why I am writing this to you is a mystery to me. Without there’s ⁅sic] in your printed (beautiful) offer, the Real Spirit as sung by the Angelic Host at the First Christmas in Bethleham of Judea.
After receiving the five dollars from Mr. B. Virdot, James Brownwell wrote a note of thanks dated December 22, 1933: “Your fine and much appreciated Gift received this AM. And I hasten to thank you and say I am in hearty cooperation with your idea of lessoning the amount and reaching more needy ones. Accept my sincere thanks with my wishes for Many Blessings not only at the coming Christmas Season but throughout the year. Merry Christmas to you and yours. I am Thankfully Yours, J. A. Brownwell.” To this he added a stanza of verse from the popular poet Edgar A. Guest:
He has not lived who gathers gold,
Nor has he lived whose life is told
In selfish Battles he has won,
Or deed of skill he may have done,
But he has lived who now and then
Has helped along his fellowman.
Such a note would have touched Sam Stone. It was the kind of poetry he admired, and Guest was among his favorites. There was nothing coy about it. Its meaning was clear and Sam embraced its sentiments. He had his own ready stock of verses whose homespun wisdom was just waiting for the right occasion. In reading Brownlee’s note my grandfather would surely have felt a special kinship.
I suspect he would have found less in common with Frank Dick. When the Blizzard Company went under, Dick lost everything. For him, as with so many other leaders in Canton’s business community who now found themselves stripped of wealth, position, and influence, the drop was stunning. For a time Frank Dick hoped that he might convert his longtime hobby of toy making into a new career. Shortly after the failure of the family business Frank Dick incorporated a new company called “Dixtoy,” set up works in an empty plant, and spoke optimistically of building a factory of his own. For a time, his mechanical clowns and scooters and wagons were featured in the windows of the five-and-dime, W. T. Grant and Company, in downtown Canton. But launched in the depths of the Depression, when parents were far more concerned with feeding their children than giving them toys, the venture went nowhere.
His grandson, James Vignos, son of Florence Dick—the socialite—said his grandfather never recovered. “He was poor the rest of his life.” Frank Dick, the man who had helped oversee a major company, was reduced to eking out a living in woodworking, making and selling children’s jigsaw puzzles, pictures burned into wood, and games. It was his only income. In later years, his wife lost her vision and he ended up a boarder in one of Canton’s seedier neighborhoods. He never complained. He never talked about what he had lost. But those who knew him could see the toll it had taken.
He increasingly retreated into his woodworking and found escape in creating worlds unto themselves. One of these was an enormous electrified city in miniature, another an animated Christmas scene depicting a girl and her dreams of what Santa might bring. Finally, there was a four-by-three-foot farm scene of wood and metal, composed of 1,032 pieces, including many that moved and made sounds: the cow mooed, the chicken cackled, the train whistled; the people sawed logs, worked at a churn, drove the horses, and washed clothes. The windmill turned and the salesman knocked at the door. It was a universe protected under a glass dome and it was the only part of his world that Frank Dick had any control over.
At ninety, a widower, he was to be found in a gloomy nursing home, sharing a room with three other poor, aging souls. His grandson Robert and his wife, Sally, would visit him weekly. What Sally remembers of those visits is that even in that crowded room with the three other men, Frank Dick invariably wore a shirt and tie—whether he was expecting visitors or not. In my grandfather’s words, he was the consummate “white-collar man.” But by then his clothes were as tired and old as he was. The knees of the pants had a sheen to them where the material had worn thin, and the collars and cuffs of his shirts were frayed.
Both men lost it all when the company failed—the onetime executive Frank J. Dick and the painter James A. Brownlee. Both lived to be ninety-one. And neither ever recovered. James Brownlee died on August 17, 1951. On his death certificate he is listed as a retired paint foreman for the Blizzard Manufacturing Company, a position he had not held in decades.
Frank Dick died on September 27, 1967. Even his obituary reflected a certain sense of disappointment, referencing only his family pedigree and the factory that had vanished so many years before. The service for him was held at St. John’s Church, beneath an ornate altar that his father had given to the church years earlier. Little was passed down from him. The ornate farm he had created, in dire need of repair, was sold to a stranger. Crystal champagne glasses that had been in the Dick family are now with Sally Dick, but are chipped from hitting the spout as a nearly sightless Harriet Dick washed them.
The Dick mansion fared no better than Frank Dick himself. It passed into the hands of Rush D. Hiller, an undertaker, and later was converted into a furniture store. By 1940, appearing “doomed to slow death by deterioration,” as the Canton Repository put it, the house was turned into efficiency apartments. Later still, it was unceremoniously dismantled. Today, near where the opulent mansion once stood now stands the Canton Inn, which has its own inglorious history. In the late 1990s, police were called to the scene nearly four hundred times because of violence, drug dealing, and prostitution. In 2001, the city, threatening to shut it down, reached an agreement with the owner, who pledged to clean it up. The vast plant where the Dick family designed and produced agricultural equipment for the nation was also torn down. By the late fifties it was the site of a used-car lot.
Like a blizzard, the alleged embezzlement together with the Depression had taken down a venerable company and a respected family. Nor was there a return to the cushy life for the descendants of Joseph Dick. Frank Dick’s son, Edward, would spend his days in a Timken steel mill helping to support his aging parents. One of Edward’s sons, Robert, would work for Goodyear, and the other, Thomas, for the public library. And in the Dick family tradition, Thomas would play an active role in the community, and later, in Canton’s chamber of commerce and the annual parade for the Football Hall of Fame.
For Frank Dick’s once-pampered daughter, Florence, the loss of position and wealth was hard to accept. She married Henry Vignos on February 18, 1930, in the depths of the Depression. Though the Dick family had already suffered its grievous financial loss, they did what they could to provide her a stylish wedding, which was featured prominently in that day’s “Social Affairs” column of the Repository. The paper noted that the marriage “united two of Canton’s pioneer families.”
“The bride,” the paper wrote, “was beautiful in a princess frock of pie crust crepe and she wore a baku straw hat in cocoa shade. Her bouquet was of bronze roses.” But the decline in status and wealth took its toll on Florence Dick. Her son, James Vignos, could see the difference between the photos taken of her during what she longingly referred to as “the good times” and those taken in the difficult years after. There was a loss of confidence, observed her son. “For her, the good times were wonderful, then all hell broke out. Friends of hers said she had been full of pep and vigor. I didn’t know her that way at all, so I think it probably did a job on her. It crushed her a little.”
As a college student, Frank Dick’s grandson James corresponded with his grandfather, but he escaped the cycle of poverty. In some ways James Vignos’s career more closely resembles that of his great-grandfather, Joseph Dick. James went on to get a Ph.D. in physics from Yale University, and would teach at Dartmouth, later go into industry, and today enjoys retirement in a Boston suburb. Like his great-grandfather, he holds a number of patents.
When George Monnot needed his showroom painted, when Frank Dick considered painting an office or factory, when my grandfather Sam Stone needed someone to paint his store, it’s likely they would have turned to Bill Gray. Most of Canton’s leading businessmen relied on Bill Gray. He was one of them, a success story in his own right. Only a few years before 1933, he had had the most prosperous painting business in Stark County. At the pinnacle of his career, “Gray the Painter,” as he was known, counted sixty employees. He painted virtually every major business. To ensure that his customers did not have to disrupt their businesses or close shop, he sent his teams of painters in to work all night. He also painted many of the town’s homes and even had a man whose specialty was doing the detail work in Canton’s churches. Likely he did the First Presbyterian Church, where the Dickens reading was held. In those prosperous days, Bill Gray would take two hundred dollars off the painting bill for stores that sold women’s clothes, and in exchange his wife and daughters would be allowed to go in and get the season’s newest outfits.
Bill Gray was a prominent figure in the community, active in its social life and its many clubs and societies. He was a bon vivant who counted his membership in such clubs among his most prized possessions, and his fellow members felt the same way about him. He drove an Essex hardtop, rented a lakeside cottage, and moved to Willowdale Lake, a private club where he won prizes for ballroom dancing. A 1927 article in the Canton Daily News featured his daughter Marjorie, then fifteen, who each day would swim a half mile from the cottage dock across Willowdale Lake to a bakery, and then a half mile back, returning with a perfectly dry loaf of bread to be toasted for breakfast. Bill Gray was a regular at Bender’s, and surely dined in easy sight of George Monnot and Sam Stone. He was tall and thin and jolly, and, busy though he was, his surviving daughter remembers him making time to tell his children stories.
Business was so good that he let the paint companies he represented persuade him to expand into a second major store. That was on the eve of the crash of 1929. Five years later, he had next to nothing.
His December 18, 1933, letter to Mr. B. Virdot chronicles his decline in excruciating detail—but also his resolve to climb back out of the economic crevasse into which he had fallen. That was exactly the sort of grit that would have instantly won over my grandfather. Gray was a workingman who had elevated himself to the ranks of the city’s business class, as Sam Stone had done. His six-page letter was written in ink on the very stationery—“Gray the Painter”—that had once been synonymous with entrepreneurialism, and was now reduced to carrying his appeal for help. Sam Stone’s offer forged an instant bond with such men, who saw in the words of Mr. B. Virdot a kinship and shared experience. In the wasteland of the Depression, when men rarely felt free to truly open up to one another and share their doubts, Sam Stone had created a rare comfort zone. Those who had long guarded their feelings could finally release them without fear of disappointing others or humiliating themselves. Such trust showed itself in the very first words of Bill Gray’s letter.
“Dear Friend,” it began:
Your word picture in tonights newspaper hit me squarely in the face, what a blessing it is for me just to tell someone of my painful experiences since July 25, 1931. Someone that will realize, when others cannot or will not.
I’ll lay my cards on the table.
Gray the Painter—2 stores The Save The Surface 212-3rd St N.W. and 1438 Tusc. St. W. Wholesale & Retail—Contracting Painting and Decorating. Gray the Painter no longer in the telephone book, not listed in Brad St & Dun. Bankruptcy July 25—1931. Store, fixtures, merchandise, ladders, equipment, business and all gone, after 18 profitable years in the Game. Saved the truck and Household Furniture, which was mortgaged by Loan Co. and is yet. So this is what I have. That which is mortgaged.
I am now living in Summer Cottage at Willow Dale Lake, ½ mile north of McDonaldsville, O. address W. H. Gray. North Canton, O. R.D. #7.
Four in family dependent (2 children going to Jackson Township School.) Thank God all in good health.
Yes I drift back into Canton once or twice a week to look for work & view the once fertile field of endeavor. Once recognized as largest Painting Contractor in Stark Co. with pay rolls running from $1,600 to $2,200 per week for my men and office help & truck drivers. Now begging for painting to do at 40 cents per hour. Yes I am still a Mechanic. Friday of last week was turned down on a paint job because 40 cents per hr was too high, for the customer. I agreed to furnish drop cloth, ladder, brushes & labor for 40 cents per hr then agreed to take part out in tobacco & gasoline. This was at a Roadhouse-Gas Filling Station where in my good times I spent plenty. Well I am trudging home on foot overalls and brushes under my arm.
Yes I have warm clothing. And am not uncomfortable for I have one suit of clothes left from the good old days & just one pair of shoes. No I don’t want to complain, because I’ll come back again and you’ll see it. After I lost my store business & all I rented a barn, rear 715 Cleveland Ave. N. W. No lights, no heat, no water, no toilets, I put in a telephone & got busy, done a little advertising but could not make it go. I was forced to vacate, I could not pay the rent $12.50 per mo. Yes I sacrificed my Club Lodge & all Social & Sport activities to stage a comeback. I’ve dropped $25,000 Life Insurance Policies, which I had been carrying & had paid for from 8 to 10 years.
But I’ll get back and a going some day, and snap off some of those nice big jobs that I once used to call Mine. Today I stood in line at C.W.A. [Civil Work Administration] but that brought me nothing. Two hours later I got a break. A chance to work out my back dues in the Elks Lodge #68 Canton. Painting work to be done about the kitchen, refrigerator, & stock rooms, which will put me in good standing once again. Bros. Clayton Carver one of the officers of the Elks made me this proposition & you bet I took him up for I am an Elk & want to always be an Elk. Now if Lily Lodge #362 K of P and the (U.C.T.) United Commercial Travelers #41 of Canton would make a like proposition I would be in good standing again in the 3 Secret 7 Fraternal orders I once belonged & in some held office. Friend I am not complaining to you. You wanted to know my true condition. Here it is, all these facts above mentioned are true & real & you can check me up on same.
You may read between the lines a few more things. My wife, family & myself had to forego aside from what I told you. No I don’t want charity, I want work, I want to get agoing again. My earnest desire is that I can retain my health & get jobs that I may fulfill my obligations to my children as a parent. Before I close I want to tell you something-You whoever you are, you are doing a most wonderful piece of good work & sympathy & charity to just that class that are most forgotten & the public refuses to consider. Whether the writer shares in your kind offer or not, you have made me feel good, and if more of the unfortunate Has Beens would write you & empty out their painful burdens to one that has taken such a unique plan of encouragement, the road would be easier to travel & this world a better place to live in. May God bless you & may the best men win. Your open letter is a tonic to a guy that can take [it] on the chin. Yours for a Happy Christmas and always a Brighter New Year Coming.
Thanks for this priveledge
AGAIN JUST BILL GRAY
B. Virdot’s check for five dollars arrived four days later, on December 22, and on that day, Bill Gray wrote:
Mr. B. Virdot
Merry Christmas to you. I rec’d your check for $5.00 today. Thanks for same. You can be assured that it will be spent for something useful & I know that this fine gift of yours is much needed at this time & I’ll always remember you for it and again I want to thank you for it & I know each one you have helped will appreciate your kind offering. A Merry Christmas &
Always a Happy New Year
I AM BILL GRAY
NORTH CANTON, OH. R.D. #7
Bill Gray, like so many who wrote to Mr. B. Virdot, wanted not a handout but a job. It was the hope of many that in reading their letters the mysterious B. Virdot would reach out to them with an offer of employment, a part-time position, or someone to contact who might know Someone. During the Depression, that “Someone” was capitalized because he or she might have an inside track on a possible job. In those leanest of days a job went unfilled only as long as the time it took for someone to get wind of it.
Many of those who wrote to B. Virdot invited him to their homes. “Here it is,” wrote Bill Gray, “all these facts above mentioned are true & real & you can check me up on same.” In an era of scams, Gray and scores of others wanted the donor to see for himself that things were as described—or worse. In the Canton of the 1920s and the Depression, a fellow couldn’t be too careful, and the well meaning and trusting were prime targets for the unscrupulous. Those who wrote the letters were constantly exposed to flimflammers and schemers. Sam Stone was not a child himself, and it may well be that among the many considerations that led him to operate behind the mask of B. Virdot was this: its anonymity shielded him from the connivers who would have been eager to make his acquaintance. But those who wrote to Mr. B. Virdot inviting him to inspect their homes and their lives had a purer aspiration—they hoped that if he visited and attached a face to their hard-luck stories he might find work for them. His gift was most welcomed, to be sure, but the relief it brought was transient and their misery was not.
Bill Gray was the son of Urias, a cigar maker, and Catherine Gray. He was the oldest of four children. He had a brother Charles, who worked as a foreman on the large painting jobs; a brother Roy; and a sister, Carrie, a nurse. Gray and his wife, Viola, had four children, Marjorie, Robert, Betty Jane, and Grace Ruth. In 1933, at the time he wrote to B. Virdot, he was forty-seven.
But even today, three-quarters of a century later, there are more than dusty memories from those Hard Times. Bill Gray’s eldest child, Marjorie Markey, turned ninety-seven on October 10, 2009. She lives in the County Home in Ohio’s rural Wyandot County, 108 miles due west of Canton. She remembers the Depression only too well. She was forced to drop out of high school after the crash of ’29 to help support the family. In 1933, she was twenty-one and had long been working as “Gray the Painter’s” bookkeeper, so she saw firsthand the economic maelstrom and what it meant for her father.
She remembers how he did all he could to protect the family from the worries that consumed him, but she also remembers the sound of his steps late at night pacing across the bedroom floor above. She remembers the terrible headaches that afflicted him, how underneath his straw hat he concealed a white kerchief he had soaked in cold water and tied around his head to relieve the throbbing ache. And she remembers how a lifetime of business acumen counted for nothing, how the steady flow of income was reduced to a trickle, and then, nothing. On top of the losses he suffered, there was the embarrassment, the sudden unseemly slide from prominence to subsistence, and all of it so terribly public.
But Bill Gray was determined to provide for his family, and if it meant finding another path, so be it. He picked up any odd job he could find. From the Amish, he bought Old Trail sausage and rounds of cheese that he cut into smaller sections. A first-class salesman even in the worst of times, he found just enough buyers for these foods to keep his own family fed. He would dig for potatoes at a farm, for himself and his aging parents and neighbors. That too would have touched Sam Stone, who shared whatever good fortune he had with those of his siblings in need. Another of Bill Gray’s daughters, Gloria Hawkins, now eighty-eight, still remembers the big iron skillet and the dinners of fried potatoes and eggs. Another Depression-era supper at the Gray home was mush—a porridge or pudding made from cornmeal that was allowed to set, then sliced and served with a bit of syrup over top. “We ate a lot of mush,” recalls Marjorie, suggesting that the sweetness of the syrup more than made up for the repetitiveness of the meal.
But it was not enough for Bill Gray that he could feed his own family. He also went door-to-door soliciting canned foods for others—“the poor.” It was a tradition in his family. His mother, Katy, had always put together baskets of provisions for the needy, and Bill Gray carried on the tradition even when he had little himself. (His daughter Gloria later volunteered for Meals On Wheels, and today her daughter, Connie, devotes her Thursdays to delivering Meals On Wheels.)
Groceries were sold a mere five doors away at Youngen’s, at the corner of Rowland Avenue and Ninth Street. The Grays rarely had the money to pay for them, but a routine evolved whereby on Saturday evenings, Bill Gray and his father, Urias, would stop in and pay off what they owed or at least what they could afford, hoping to start a fresh tab come Monday. John Youngen lived above the grocery and was liked by the Gray children, who would often poke their heads in the door and ask, “Would you give us a weenie?” Mr. Youngen obliged. The hot dog was eaten on the spot and added to the tab. Dr. Kelly, who made house calls to the Gray family and had delivered the children, knew he would have to be patient if he was to receive some semblance of payment, but some was better than none.
It seemed that winter mornings in Depression Ohio were particularly cold. Precious coal had to be conserved. The Gray children dressed in front of the oven, which was fired up just before school. In 1933 Marjorie Gray got married. Also that year her mother-in-law, Jennie Markey, inherited a sizable sum of money that was placed in a Fort Wayne bank for safekeeping. The bank failed and the entire inheritance was lost.
Bill Gray did eventually get back on his feet, though never to the degree he enjoyed before the Depression. He found work with American Oil and Paint, a Cleveland roofing company headed by millionaire C. D. Rogers. Gray covered much of the state selling tar and other roofing materials. And he did well enough that fifteen years after his letter to Mr. B. Virdot, he could afford to retire to a modest home in Ohio’s rural Wyandot County. There he pursued his hobbies: hunting rabbits and pheasants, fishing, and baseball. He volunteered to announce the evening games of the adult softball league and sometimes even sold snacks to those who had come out to watch.
To his grandson, William Markey, he was a hardworking man who never spoke of the Hard Times. Bill Gray enjoyed a long and peaceful retirement. One day in 1959, while driving down Route 23, a country lane south of the county, he pulled off onto the side of the road, shut off the engine, put his head back, and died right there. He was seventy-six. Bill Gray’s beloved business—“Gray the Painter”—is long since forgotten, but there remains one curious testimonial to him and to his painting skills. It is there in the tiny town of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, and is painted in his own hand, in huge black letters against the white outside wall of the Elks Club on Route 30. It says, simply, HELLO BILL. It was once a customary greeting among Elk Club members nationwide, a practice that goes back to the turn of the last century, but which has long since fallen into disuse. Bill Gray painted the sign in the late 1940s. Today it’s a kind of local landmark in Upper Sandusky, visible to passersby from far off. But to the descendants of Bill Gray, it is also the final salutation to “Gray the Painter.”
To many, like my grandfather, who entered the Depression as adults, it was neither the first trial they faced nor even the most severe. Their lives had already been tested by tragedies and terrors that now seem remote: influenza that wiped out millions, the Great War (ghastly even by modern standards), Old World pogroms, deadly workplaces, all created the expectation that life would be short and trying. Many of those who wrote to B. Virdot, even those who had enjoyed a measure of success, had come of age in a time so pocked with hardship that it did not even merit a mention in their letters. To dwell on such specifics would have been beneath them. Their creed was self-discipline, not self-indulgence.
This too my grandfather would have understood. Aside from a few carefully selected stories, Sam Stone never said a word of the true conditions of his youth. Men and women of that era were eager to distance themselves from the duress of their early lives. It was part of the allure of America that the past could be left behind, that men and women could reinvent themselves. Besides, it was a given that others had suffered similarly. There was little therapeutic value to be gained from opening up old wounds, and it was impolite to pry. Nothing in my grandfather’s day was as out of fashion as self-pity. Only to later generations, coddled by prosperity, analgesics, and concerns over leisure and longevity, would such flinty self-reliance seem extraordinary or explorations of one’s sorrows become so common as to be featured on daytime TV. Those who grow up in today’s society, determined to snuff out risk and surrounded by smoke detectors and seat belts, may find it hard to imagine the perilous lives their grandparents faced.
Coming of age in America, even before the Depression, meant running a gauntlet of hardships that for many included outrunning persecution, poverty, infant mortality, diseases (tuberculosis, polio, influenza, malaria, typhus, dysentery, and cholera), industrial accidents, and a world war. In 1900, when much of the Depression-era generation was still young, only one in twenty-five could look forward to reaching sixty-five. One in five newborns died before the age of five and the average life span of a male infant born that year was forty-eight years. It was a nation without antibiotics, Social Security, or Medicare. Against such a backdrop, one’s familiarity with tragedy and expectations of life were dramatically different from those of today. People were not unconscious of their burdens but, having known little else, could barely imagine being free of them. So fraught with risk and hardship was their world that the idea of voicing one’s particular plight would have struck many as curious, even presumptuous. After all, what did they expect?
Georgianna Pryor, in her letter to B. Virdot, wrote: “We do not come within the class of those who have had and lost. It seems we’ve never had anything to lose. My husband has tried hard, but we are still just a poverty-stricken family, not unlike countless others.” At the time she wrote the letter her six children were all quarantined with whooping cough.
Charles Stewart’s early exposure to hardship scarred him literally but did not even warrant a mention in his letter to B. Virdot. He wrote:
I read the article or item in the Canton Repository, yet I hesitate in even writing or asking aid from a person or organization of any kind.
Practically my entire working career has been a white-collared job, until April, 1930. Since that date I have been unable to obtain any kind of steady employment. I did manage to obtain a day now and then during the summer, which kept the wolf from the door, or at least wouldn’t allow him entrance. I applied to the Service Director for work, to be paid in groceries, but he stated he couldn’t assist me in any way.
My last position I held was with the Klein-Heffelman-Zollars Co. as collector, which was in April, 1930.
For myself, I can get along on nothing, but I have a wife and daughter to think of beside myself—and they certainly need shoes and clothing. We have been trying to get along on cast off clothes from other persons, but it’s rather a hard chore.
I am unable to obtain factory employment, on account of not being able to pass their physical examinations due to Tuberculosis which has partly destroyed one lung.
Should I be fortunate enough to be one of the 50 or 75 family men granted aid, I request that you supply your real name, so that this may be repaid with interest when the writer obtains remunerative employment.
I trust I have made myself clear in all details.
I AM RESPECTFULLY,
C. LEROY STEWART
335 CLEVELAND AVE. S.W.
Stewart’s eloquence was matched by his penmanship. Each letter was formed with a spare upright discipline, the writing of a proud man. But what he doesn’t say reveals most about himself and his times.
For that, one must speak with the only child of Charles and Gertrude Stewart, Ruth Brown. She was eleven at the time her father wrote to Mr. B. Virdot, but knew nothing of the letter or the five dollars that her father received days later. But she does know her father’s story. One of six children, he was born in 1896 and raised on a farm in tiny White Fox, Ohio. Sometime in 1917 or 1918 he married Gertrude Wilson, who was thirteen years his senior.
On April 29, 1918, at twenty-two, Charles Stewart volunteered for service in the army and was assigned to Company F, 112th U.S. Engineers. On July 10, 1918, he joined the American Expeditionary Force. He soon found himself in the midst of World War I’s deadly trench warfare. One evening, he and a dozen others were ordered to go over the top, crossing no-man’s-land in the face of heavy gun-fire. They seized two German machine-gun nests and returned to the trench. Stewart’s hand was bloodied from shrapnel. He refused to be taken to the hospital.
But the date he would never forget was September 26, 1918. That was the day the Allies advanced against the Germans in the Argonne Forest; for Americans, one of the bloodiest of all battles. Within six weeks, more than 26,000 members of the Allied Expeditionary Force were dead. Another 96,000 were wounded. In the early bombardment some 800 mustard gas and phosgene shells rained down on the Germans.
During the battle, Stewart himself was exposed to mustard gas. The powerful agent seared his lungs and incapacitated him. On October 18, he found himself in an army base hospital in Toul, France. When the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, Stewart was still unable to get out of bed. Thanksgiving came and went. His unit went home, but he could not. In January, he was moved to yet another hospital, where he remained until January 21, 1919. It was not until four months after he was first hospitalized that he was fit enough to come home. On February 10, 1919, Stewart was honorably discharged. He had survived the war, but he would never escape it.
Even when he returned to America, he carried with him the damage to his lungs. Immediately following the war, he moved to Canton and worked as a clerk in a factory and later as a bookkeeper. He lived a quiet life, lost himself in Zane Grey novels, tended his garden, and provided for his family, his wife, Gertrude, and daughter, Ruth. But he lost his job during the Depression and thereafter took whatever work he could find—which in his increasingly fragile condition was not much. In 1930, he worked as an enumerator for the U.S. Census. The Stewart family had an apartment they enjoyed rent-free in exchange for the couple cleaning and maintaining the building. But even with Gertrude working as a maid in other people’s homes, they came up short.
Their daughter, Ruth, was hardly aware that they were poor. Still, she could not afford a movie at the Palace Theater or an evening at Bender’s fashionable tavern. But eighty-seven-year-old Ruth Stewart Brown insists she never suffered or wanted for anything. She hopscotched and roller-skated her way through the worst days of the Depression, and in the evenings enjoyed games of euchre with Mom and Dad in the apartment. “You survived and that was it,” she says. Like so many during the Depression, Ruth did not have far to look to see others in worse shape, and the few who enjoyed a measure of luxury or ease were too distant to see and, if they were sensitive at all, too discreet to put their good fortune on display.
Over time, and long after the Depression lifted, the Stewarts managed to get their feet on the ground somewhat. Charles kept the books for a printing company and later clerked for the Canton Police Department. Ten years after writing to Mr. B. Virdot, the Stewarts purchased their own home at 814 High Avenue Southwest. But through it all, Charles Stewart had to cope with his exposure to mustard gas. He had a constant sinus condition and was forever blowing his nose. His wife, fearing germs, would boil his handkerchiefs. But the source of his distress was rooted in events that occurred decades earlier. Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and until his final labored breath on July 20, 1955, at age fifty-nine, not a year passed when he was not in and out of veterans’ hospitals as doctors tried to attend to his lungs.
Decades later, a descendant of Charles Stewart, his great-grandson Evan Jet Brown, is a sheet-metal worker who has had his own taste of both economic hard times and war. These days, like many in Canton—and across the country—he is caught up in a constant scramble to find work to support his young family. In the early summer of 2008 he was helping to rebuild a local high school but facing an imminent layoff—and not his first. Not long after speaking with me, he was out of work for months—but at least there was unemployment. A father of two, he now commutes two hours to a job in Wooster, Ohio. When we last spoke he was standing on a twelve-foot ladder, keyhole saw in hand, cutting a hole in drywall to make way for a heating duct at Wooster Hospital, and knowing that a month from then he would be out of work yet again.
Half a dozen years earlier he was serving on the front in the war on terrorism. The former marine sergeant, in five years of service, was deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, and the Horn of Africa, and was even on the USS Nassau when, in December 2002, it boarded a North Korean ship carrying SCUD missiles to Yemen. Like his great-grandfather, he is reluctant to speak of his time in the service. “We don’t really talk about it,” he says. “We just did it, that’s all. I don’t tell anybody.” Charles Stewart would have saluted such silence.
FOR SOME THE decline from positions of stature to empty pockets and worn-out shoes was almost more than they could bear. It was not merely the loss of possessions, nor even the years of work and sacrifice with nothing to show for it. For some, it was also the humiliation that came with failure, made all the worse for those whose lofty expectations of themselves had been realized and then dashed by the Depression and circumstances over which they had no control. Those who had enjoyed prominence now had to cope with the loss of self-esteem, the severing of bonds with established social circles, and the lack of prospects that stretched before them. There are no figures in Canton for how many took their own lives during the Depression, but it is certain that some did commit suicide and others at least contemplated it. The B. Virdot gift did not restore fortunes or friendships, but it may have convinced some not to give in to despair. For some, it appears the offer by B. Virdot may have been enough to restore confidence and counter the daily barrage of bills and bad news.
J. L. White lived on Tuscarawas Avenue, just four doors away from what had been the Dick family mansion. He had owned two stores and lost them both in 1929, the same year Sam Stone nearly lost his. He had diligently saved his money only to discover, like so many others, that his savings were lost when his bank failed. “If I [had] only known at that time,” he lamented. Now he was unsure how he was going to feed his seven children. In his letter to Mr. B. Virdot, he wrote: “Your encouraging letter and generous offer in Repository of 18 December has again given me the courage to try again. Yesterday evening just before I read your letter was thinking of things that no person should. Four years ago I was a successful business man. . . . I am down flat. But since reading your letter will say that I am not out yet.”
Such dark thoughts were not his alone. But the outpouring of letters that greeted the B. Virdot offer—J. L. White’s among them—signaled that its power and appeal had less to do with the prospect of receiving a check than with the affirmation it offered that others cared and were concerned for them. Despite widespread unemployment and block after block of poverty, those suffering often felt profoundly isolated and abandoned by government and society at large. Washington had not yet demonstrated its commitment to address the suffering. The New Deal had not yet made itself felt upon the land, and the poor were desperate for some evidence that their plight mattered to anyone other than themselves. B. Virdot’s gift was modest, but the gesture behind it was not. To those like J. L. White, who momentarily lost their way, overcome by the gloom all around them, B. Virdot’s offer was seen as a small beacon, but enough to help them find their way back from the precipice.
Mr. B. Virdot’s Story: The Promise
There is nothing to prove that any of these men—George Monnot, Frank Dick, Bill Gray, Charles Stewart, or J. L.
White—were personal friends of the real B. Virdot, Sam Stone, though in a town of Canton’s size, it would be hard to imagine that their lives would not have intersected. Sam’s store, Stone’s Clothes, was located in the heart of the downtown on the busy corner of Tuscarawas Street and Market Avenue, a minute’s walk from the courthouse, the banks, Bender’s, the First Presbyterian Church, and the Repository’s newsroom. All those who benefited from this gift would have walked by his shop countless times and at least known of him. But whether he knew them on a personal level or not, it was not mere affection or commercial connections that moved him to do what he did. The Sam Stone I knew always identified with the struggles of workingmen and -women.
And Sam’s own financial troubles neither began with the Depression nor ended in 1933. Today many Americans think the Depression extended a few miserable years, starting with the crash in 1929 and ending in the midthirties. But as the men and women of Canton could attest—as Sam himself knew well—the Hard Times arced across the entire decade and, but for a brief respite in the middle, never loosened their grip. There was just enough time in the midthirties for the exhausted to drop their guard and catch their breath before the second blow landed.
In Sam’s life and so many others, prosperity was that dollar bill lying on the floor that a hidden hand might snatch away. Just when Canton seemed to emerge from the Depression, as factories began to rehire and the pile of bills began to shrink, the town and the nation were hit by a devastating second wave of Hard Times that again drove unemployment skyward. In 1937, Canton’s misery was exacerbated by a series of bitter and sometimes violent strikes that disabled some of its most prominent employers—Republic Steel, Timken, and Hercules Motor Corporation—tossing additional thousands out of work. The headlines of riots, National Guardsmen, rock throwers, dynamite, and injured strikers were not Canton’s alone.
Caught in this economic downdraft were many of the town’s leading merchants, Sam Stone among them. He was forced to move the family from their stately Ridgewood Tudor into a cramped bungalow in one of the town’s modest working-class neighborhoods. My mother, then in her last years of elementary school, remembers her life being upended—twice changing schools, saying good-bye to friends, parting with some of the comforts she’d grown accustomed to, and sensing the tensions that come with such reversals. Like George and Alice Monnot before them, the Stones discovered how quickly some society friends could turn their backs on them. Short of cash, they lived for a time on traveler’s checks left over from an earlier cruise to Central America and the Panama Canal.
By September 1938, Sam Stone found himself in bankruptcy court with suppliers clamoring for the $205,000 owed them. Under a court agreement he pledged to pay his creditors thirty-five cents on the dollar. But in the years thereafter, despite the agreement, he insisted on paying off each debt in full and did, as noted in a later Dun & Bradstreet report. (That same report suggested that Sam was getting younger and younger, as it pushed his date of birth forward five years, to 1893.)
Periodic reversals were as much a part of Sam’s life and outlook as the good times, and continually chastened him to remember that the line between the down-and-out and himself was not drawn in indelible ink. I heard him say as much many times, especially in those moments when he was about to enjoy his own good fortune. A cracker with caviar would trigger a memory of a tougher time, to which he would refer, but only obliquely.
That Christmas of 1933, he knew how lucky he was and that he could just as easily have been one of the many supplicants to B. Virdot, a role he invented, I believe, in part to pay homage to the fickle nature of fortune. He always saw himself in the sunken eyes and hard-luck faces of those around him, particularly those who had fallen so far and so fast. Even decades later, he would speak of them as one might speak of a lost sibling. But unlike others in a position to help who merely said, “There but for the Grace of God, go I,” or dashed off checks to local charities, Sam Stone was driven to do something more. I am convinced that he felt the need to actually connect with them, to reach out in a human way that would provide not only momentary financial relief but some measure of spiritual comfort as well. His was an elaborate scheme whose true benefits were intended to be a multiple many times over the actual dollars that went out across the city. In 1933, when so many suffered in silence and isolation, such a release was as close to therapy as most would experience.
From the beginning, I sensed that the gift was uniquely rooted in Sam’s life, a life about which I knew next to nothing. The key was the anonymity of his gift. Promising the needy that their names would never be known was an insightful and compassionate way to persuade the souls of a beaten-down community that their candor would pose no threat to them, that they could safely express their financial and emotional needs free of the threat of exposure or humiliation. As for the donor’s anonymity, at first blush, it seemed to be a reassurance to the needy that even if they should know the giver or encounter him thereafter, they need feel no embarrassment. And it offered the donor a buffer against the potential barrage of desperate appeals and knocks at his front door.
But I suspected that behind the veil of anonymity that cloaked the donor was something more than pragmatism, more perhaps even than humility and selflessness. For my grandfather, it was also a way of concealing himself from further public inquiry, as if such scrutiny might produce more information than he wanted to disclose. For a man who loved to be the center of attention at a party but who deftly dodged any questions asked of his early years, the gift was not only an act of charity but something of a risk. No matter how slight, it raised the possibility that his true identity might be discovered, that such attention could undo the life he had so carefully stitched together, a life I would discover was rife with falsehoods and documentary fabrications. If that was his concern, it was ultimately borne out—but seventy-five years later, when the gift and the suitcase that held it found their way into the hands of his grandson.
I was determined to shine a light on those early chapters of his life that had long been denied me and all those who loved him, and to discover the link between what I came to think of as “the missing years” and the gift. This was not my first foray into Sam’s past. That had come in 1982, twenty-six years before I ever heard of B. Virdot. I had begun to research my family history for an article for the Washington Post Sunday Magazine. I was getting married and thinking more about my forebears—who they were and how their lives might have shaped my own. I applied my investigative skills to fleshing out the lives of my ancestors, relying on birth records, death certificates, city directories, census reports, wills, passenger lists, deeds, and other documentary evidence.
It was easy work piecing together the lives of my grandparents—all except for the branch that ended with my grandfather Sam Stone. Of his early life I knew little and could find even less. The records that had effortlessly revealed themselves to me for the other three grandparents were a cul de sac when it came to Sam. Even Pittsburgh proved to be a dead end. I tried every possible permutation of his name—Sam, Samuel, S.J., Samuel John. I enlisted the help of locals and city clerks, searched old newspapers and genealogical archives. I grilled relatives. Nothing.
I had more than a passing interest in Sam. He had always been a favorite, a bad boy whose wanderlust, roving eye, and sleight of hand hinted at a life led outside the margins. From Kenya, he had returned with a zebra-skin drum for me. From Lagos, Nigeria, he came back with the name of a pen pal. I had a drawer filled with postcards and letters he’d sent from Zanzibar, Madagascar, Uganda, and other far-off lands. Both of my grandfathers were named Samuel, but I always preferred to believe that my middle name—Theodore Samuel Gup—was for him, not my father’s father, a scholarly but starched rabbi. As an investigative reporter who had spent years under the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, I knew how to work the records, and yet I could find nothing of my own grandfather’s past.
Like Superman, Sam seemed to have suddenly popped up on the planet in the late 1920s, leaving a full thirty years unaccounted for. Once or twice I had asked my mother, but she too had no answers. Somehow she and everyone else had grown comfortable with the idea that Sam had no past—or that if he did, he must have had good reason to bury it.
So I turned to Minna, Sam’s widow. Earlier inquiries had gotten me nowhere, which was strange given that she and I were so close. She was my confidante, and I, hers. I told her of my frustration trying to retrace Sam’s life. She had generously walked me through her own family’s lineage, but, after fifty-four years of marriage, she seemed to know nothing of Sam’s. I pressed the case.
That’s when she dropped all pretense of ignorance and made me promise—actually swear an oath—that as long as she was alive I would not ask anything more of Sam’s past. The reporter in me tried to get at the reason for her resistance. I got nowhere. Finally, I surrendered and gave her my word. I would not delve into Sam’s life as long as she was alive. That was that. But it did not stop me from wondering what could possibly be so sensitive. Sam was dead. As a devoted grandson, I dropped the matter completely. But as an investigative reporter I could not resist running the universe of possible scenarios that might explain her demands of me. Was Sam a bigamist? Did he have another family that might come forward and claim his estate? Had he been a wanted man? Was Sam Stone even his real name? And finally, did Minna have the answers, or merely fear them?
Long before, there had been signs that something was amiss; I just didn’t see them. I had some vague knowledge growing up in Canton that several of his relatives—my relatives—lived around us, but I didn’t know their names or of what relation they were to me. In fact, I was never allowed to mention them. Doing so brought a sharp rebuke from my mother. It hadn’t occurred to me that she could be protecting me from something.
We lived on Twenty-second Street Northeast. Just up the street was a small house that I passed each weekday on my walks to and from Belle Stone Elementary School. I was forbidden from stopping there or talking to the people who lived there. I had come to look upon the house as a kind of Hansel and Gretel cottage where I might be taken captive or transformed. Many years later, as an adult, I learned that it was the home of one of Sam’s brothers. In my mind, it had some vague association with murder and mayhem. When I was seven I had overheard something, snippets of conversation about “murders,” the details of which would not make themselves known to me for years to come.
There were other hints that not all was as it appeared in Sam’s life. In 2005, when my grandmother Minna’s health was failing, I discovered an ancient strip of film, from which I had prints made. They were taken the day of Minna and Sam’s wedding in 1927. In the black-and-white photo, Sam and Minna are embracing in the backyard of my great-grandmother’s home. I noticed that no one else was in the photos. I had two of the pictures framed and sent to Minna. Later, when I visited her at the nursing home, I saw them by her bedside. I asked what had become of the wedding party. There wasn’t one, she said.
On January 13, 2005, my grandmother Minna left us. Her ashes were buried beside Sam’s remains in Canton’s Westlawn Cemetery. It didn’t occur to me then, indeed not until three years later, when my mother gave me the suitcase, that I was now free to follow the path of Sam’s life wherever it might lead.