Yes, William Sydney Porter, better known to the world by his pen name O.Henry, lived right across the street from the Pete’s Tavern at 55 Irving Place. Yes, like so many writers, he was a heavy drinker, and Pete’s Tavern was his regular spot for imbibing and turning out some of the best short stories ever written. Here, in the third booth from the entrance, he wrote one of his best-known stories – “The Gift of the Magi.”

“The Gift of the Magi” illustration hanging in Pete's Tavern
“The Gift of the Magi” illustration hanging in Pete’s Tavern

Born and raised in North Carolina, William Sydney Porter was trained to be … a pharmacist! His mother died of tuberculosis when he was very young and his dad took to heavy drinking. He was brought up by his grandmother and relatives who, being worried about his health, arranged for him to move to Texas where he’d live on a ranch and enjoy the benefits of the healthy country air. The fun started when he moved from the ranch to the city of Austin, where he lived his young life to the fullest. To support himself he held a wide variety of regular jobs, including working as a draftsman in the Land Office. But being talented, educated and possessing a true zest for life, he also sketched, played guitar, sang in a ‘Hill City Quartet’ band (which he started), wrote articles for local publications, and visited every drinking establishment in town. Life was truly grand!

Hill City Quartet, O.Henry
Hill City Quartet was known for serenading young women on the streets of Austin, performing at local weddings, church festivals, and picnics.

Then he fell in love with a beautiful young lady. Although her parents didn’t approve, the young couple eloped and got married. She remained the love of his life and most likely was the prototype of Della, the lovely heroine of “The Gift of the Magi” story.

And later his story took a turn worthy of an adventure novel. Having been accused of embezzlement in the bank where he was employed, he fled to Honduras to avoid going to prison. When he returned on his own volition to see his dying wife, he had to face justice. The next three years of his life were spent in prison, where he started writing under various pseudonyms including “O. Henry”.

After his release in 1902, the newly minted writer by the name of O. Henry moved to New York City to be close to his publishers. The New York World hired him to write one story a week, which he did for over a year.

O. Henry is now recognized as one of the best American writers and one of the most notable short story writers in the world. His stories are known for their humanity and characteristically surprising twist at the end. Since his most prolific period of writing took place in the last 9 years of his life, when he lived in New York and wrote 381 stories, many of them are connected to the actual locations in the city.

At some point, O. Henry lived at 55 Irving Place, in close proximity to Gramercy Park and right across from Pete’s Tavern, where he spent a lot of time drinking and writing. Rumor has it that “The Gift of the Magi” was written in just a few hours before the deadline in the now well-marked booth in Pete’s Tavern.

The great writer died in 1910 at the age of 47 from cirrhosis of the liver as well as other health complications very likely induced by his drinking habits.

“The Gift of the Magi”, published in 1905, is perhaps his most known and most touching love story, most likely reflected his own love story between him and his wife.

Trimmed Lamp, O.Henry
“Wooed her across the counter with a king cophetua air.” – from “The Trimmed Lamp

“The Discounters of Money” and “The Trimmed Lamp” both take place in the Gramercy Park neighborhood. In the latter, the final scene takes place in front of the entrance to the Park. “The Lost Bend” is set in the Pete’s Tavern, which at the time was called “Healy’s”, and which O. Henry refers to as “Kenealy’s.”

“The Sparrows of Madison Square”, a heart-wrenching story about an aspiring writer whose dreams do not come true, takes place in Madison Square Park, while “The Last Leaf”, a sad and touching tale of the healing power of art, is set in Grove Court in the West Village.

Marilyn Monroe in O. Henry’s Full House (1952) - "The Cop and the Anthem"
Marilyn Monroe in O. Henry’s Full House (1952) – “The Cop and the Anthem”

Despite his popularity, O. Henry came to the end of his life without a penny to his name. But true to his penchant for surprise endings, several more volumes of his stories were posthumously published, and his works got translated and adapted for film, becoming beloved and read all over the world.

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