Tom Perrotta: “What makes the men and women in his book seem truly of another age is that they keep to themselves feelings and stories we today would share. They make do and then move on. No doubt Sam Stone, who kept his gift and its recipients secret for so long, thought that his grand gesture was in fact very small.”
American history books make no mention of Rachel DeHoff. Neither does Wikipedia or Google. In all the catalogs of this country’s achievements, heroes and calamities, DeHoff, as inspirational a citizen as one might imagine, had no place—until now. A survivor of the Great Depression, a loving mother and among the first women to obtain a real-estate license in Ohio, DeHoff is one of the many admirable everyday Americans unearthed by “A Secret Gift,” Ted Gup’s tirelessly reported and lively book on those hard times, and the especially hard year of 1933.
Mr. Gup’s characters lived in or near Canton, Ohio (his hometown), and shared what until recently had been a secret: At a time when they were hard up, each wrote a letter in response to a December 1933 newspaper advertisement from a man named B. Virdot, who promised to send Christmas cheer—in the form of a $5 check—to those he deemed the neediest. “B. Virdot” was Mr. Gup’s grandfather, Samuel J. Stone, who owned a chain of clothing stores.
The recipients of B. Virdot’s checks were not given a king’s ransom (the author estimates $5 to be worth almost $100 today), but at a time when a gallon of gas cost 18 cents and a dozen eggs cost 30, these much-needed alms were a welcome help at the holiday season. The citizens of Canton mostly asked for money to buy the essentials: shoes for their children, clothes, food. They wrote on behalf of neighbors and relatives. B. Virdot wrote 150 checks in all.
Mr. Gup, a former investigative reporter for the Washington Post, is an expert gatherer. Yet he nearly fumbled the story of B. Virdot. When his mother, Virginia, turned 80, she gave Mr. Gup an old suitcase stuffed with family memorabilia. He ignored it for days. When he later opened it, he came across the B. Virdot letters but found them unreadable. Only on a second encounter with the letters did Mr. Gup stumble upon the advertisement in the Canton Repository and realize B. Virdot’s true identity.
Given a good scoop, Mr. Gup characteristically gets to work. He chases down relatives of the recipients of his grandfather’s charity and records their family histories, frequently revealing to them a bitter chapter they themselves either never suspected or never fully understood. He sifts through census reports, obituaries and deeds—documents that eventually cram six drawers of a file cabinet. In terse, polished prose he rebuilds Canton’s once popular haunts, its factories, its homes and its history of vice, crime and graft.
In Canton, as in the rest of the nation, the Depression did not discriminate: It laid low poor, middle-class and well-to-do families alike. One man B. Virdot sent a check to was George Monnot, once the owner of a Ford dealership so successful that it employed its own 11-musician band, outfitted in tuxedos. The Depression took his business, his savings, his insurance policy and his home. He and his wife had four children.
When Rachel DeHoff wrote to B. Virdot on Dec. 19, 1933, she had recently been widowed, age 35. She had just four years of education, no savings, a mortgage and two sons, one in high school and one age 9. “It looks pretty dark sometimes but we still hold on to that ray of hope—that this terrible depression will soon be over,” she wrote. “I have never received charity of any kind.”
It’s a common sentiment in these letters: Most correspondents wanted a job or a loan, not a handout. What they desired most was dignity. Charles Stewart, an unemployed clerk and bookkeeper, couldn’t work in a factory because tuberculosis had wrecked one of his lungs. He asked B. Virdot to reveal his own real name so that Stewart might one day repay any gift with interest.
A book about kindness to strangers, this is also very much a book about family secrets. Like the recipients of B. Virdot’s checks, who frequently hid the darkest period of their lives from their children or grandchildren, Mr. Gup’s grandfather had a past he never shared. He had always claimed he was born Samuel J. Stone in Pittsburgh. In fact, he was Sam Finkelstein from Dorohoi, Romania. More shockingly, Mr. Gup discovered that his grandfather had arrived in the U.S. illegally and never normalized his immigration status.
Instead, he told a lot of lies to make sure no one found out. When the government required foreign-born citizens to register (on pain of deportation) during World War II, Stone took his chances and did not come forward. Mr. Gup distresses over this. “The record was one of deliberate and calculated deception,” he writes, harshly. “And he got away with it, if you can call living decades in uncertainty and anxiety getting away with it.”
Mr. Gup hints that his grandfather’s fear of discovery played a role in his decision to keep his good deeds anonymous. He also suggests they were a way of making amends and giving back to the adopted country that he feared at any moment might rescind its own generosity. That could be true—or it could have been plain and simple kindness from a man who well knew his own good fortune. Mr. Gup’s instincts as a reporter lead him to always ask “why,” but he occasionally demands more answers than his now-dead subjects can provide.
What makes the men and women in his book seem truly of another age is that they keep to themselves feelings and stories we today would share. They make do and then move on. No doubt Sam Stone, who kept his gift and its recipients secret for so long, thought that his grand gesture was in fact very small.
—Mr. Perrotta is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.