Mabel Wagnalls Jones was many things to many people
-- an author, concert pianist, friend to literary and
entertainment luminaries, promotor of Esperanto...and
benefactress to the home town where she grew up, as
only child to the Wagnalls family of the great Funk
& Wagnalls encyclopedia publishing house.
In Northport, Long Island where literary tourists are
more likely to be visiting the haunts of Jack Kerouac,
Eugene O'Neill or Antoine de St Exupery, there is scarcely
a mention of the fact that Wagnalls-Jones was resident
of the home on Ocean Avenue better known as "The
Jimmy Walker House" in the 20s -- which she and
her husband (steel magnate Richard Jones) titled "DoReMi"
and where old Mr Wagnalls himself spent his last days
It was here that Mabel Wagnalls Jones was witness to
an event of considerable significance to historians
of America's literary community -- the funeral of O
According to her account (published in 'Letters To
Lithopolis,' a book of correspondences from the great
American short story writer to Wagnalls Jones, an account
which became the subject of a vitriolic but shortlived
literary exchange in the New York Times) O Henry's death
and funeral was a rather odd and O Henry-like affair.
Mabel Wagnalls Jones (1871-1945) was the daughter of
the Wagnalls of Funk & Wagnalls fame, a well known
composer and writer, and a friend to numerous celebrities
during her long and adventuresome life. It was Mabel
who wrote the definitions of the musical terms in the
dictionaries, for example. She originated a kind of
"Imagery in Music" mode of recital, in which
she pioneered multi-media presentation by projecting
pictures while concertizing. She was a proponent of
Esperanto. As an author, she wrote a number of works,
including the particularly successful "Rosebush
of a Thousand Years," which was made into a film
starring Alla Nazimova, entitled "Revelation."
Andd somewhere along the line her story became entwined
with the odd and checkered life of the famed O Henry.
O Henry was the pseudonym, of course, for William Sydney
Porter, 1862-1910, American short-story writer, born
near Greensboro, N.C. and the most popular short story
writer of his era -- author of such classics as Gift
of the Magi and Ransom of Red Chief. Born on Polecat
Creek in Guilford County, he was raised and educated
in Greensboro by an unmarried aunt who ran a private
school, worked in an uncle's drug store until nineteen
and moved to Texas where he got into freelance writing,
bank telling, and some trouble with the law that ultimately
landed him in a penitentiary in Ohio, not far from Mabel's
home town, for embezzling. There he practiced his shortstory
writing, which came to its great fruition after his
release and move to New York City. It was while he was
working with The New York Sunday World, for whom he
wrote weekly short stories, that his fame came. In 1904,
at the suggestion of an editor from McClure's Magazine,
he assembled all of his short stories into his first
book -- Cabbages and Kings. Two years later he collected
another group of stories under the name The Four Million.
Book and film deals followed his success, and for a
time he moved into a home on Long Island to escape the
temptations of the city -- but he would stop neither
his visits to Manhattan nor his drinking and in June
5, 1910, O. Henry checked into a hospital -- under a
fictitious name -- and died at the age of 47.
Attending the funeral was Mabel Wagnalls Jones, by
now a major social figure in Manhattan and a woman in
It should be said that Mabel was no stranger to friendship
with literary types and adventurers. She had befriended
the likes of Edwin Markham, Harry Houdini and even captain
Joshua Slocum, the first man to circumnavigate the world
solo -- who she saw off on his voyage on April 1895
and to whom he dedicated a book he wrote of the experience.
But she evidently held a special affection for O Henry,
no doubt in part because of the long exchange of letters
It is not clear exactly when the letters to Mabel,
later published in 1922 as Letters to Lithopolis while
she was living in Northport, were written. Recently
republished by Eakins Publication thanks to the O Henry
Museum in Austin, Tx, it is considered a rare bit of
"O. Henry-ana." The letters are addressed
to Mabel in Lithopolis (a number of the originals are
on display at the Wagnalls Memorial Library in Lithopolis
Ohio to this day).
In the book she wrote a piece on O Henry's funeral,
and once it hit the literary community, her comments
became the subject of considerable comment. "We
supposed there would be a large crowd, probably cards
of admission would be required," she wrote. "We
had none, but we went intending to stand on the curb,
if need be, to pay our last deferences to one of America's
immortals." And then Mabel states unequivocally
that there were very few people at the author's funeral.
"A few of us -- astonishingly few -- unbelievably
few -- sat forward in the dim nave while a brief --
a very brief -- little service was read."
Critics like George MacAdam of the New York Times pounced
on this assertion, claiming that a number of the nation's
literary luminaries were present -- and suggesting pointedely
that her memory was fickle.
But Mabel stuck to her guns -- in a letter to the NYT
after MacAdam's scathing June 3 1923 attack, she replied:
"that matter of my fickle memory and of looking
back across a considerable stretch of years...it just
happens that I wrote down my memory of it at once, and
this item was included with my letters when I handed
them to my father to put away."
In the end Mabel's recollection of the death and funeral
of O Henry provides a colorful -- and quite O Henry-like
-- story. It is replete with the irony and unusual twists
and turns at the ending which made the man's fiction
so distinctively his own.
How so? It seems that, due to the author's use of a
fictitious name, she says, there was no little time
"to announced his demise, or invite people to the
hastily arranged funeral." In fact, the funeral
was held while a wedding party -- already scheduled
for the church the same day, stood by.
Thus is was that one of America's greatest writers
was sent to his grave without much fanfare -- as a large
party of people celebrated the marriage of two other
people. "No great crowd thronged the church or
sidewalk and the service was brief," noted Mabel
Wagnalls Jones. "No eulogy was spoken. Neither
O Henry's name nor his work were mentioned." There
was no music provided, and the ceremony was only of
the briefest sort.
Why? "It was brief chiefly because the minister
knew, and the pallbearers knew, and the sexton knew,
that a bride was outside waiting to be married."