The week before Christmas 1933, a newspaper ad offered a gift of cash to residents of Canton, Ohio. The applicants never knew the identity of “Mr. B. Virdot,” their pseudonymous benefactor. In June 2008, Ted Gup’s mother handed him a suitcase that had belonged to his grandfather, Sam Stone, containing a cache of letters and canceled checks labeled “Pertaining Xmas Gift Distribution.”
Gup, a former investigative reporter for the Washington Post and Time magazine, and currently chair of Emerson College’s Journalism Department, seeks to solve a mystery story in reverse. Why had Stone done it? Why had he kept it secret? Why had he saved the letters? Gup searches for the descendants of the letter-writers to learn: Did the recipients survive? Prosper? Did their progeny know about the secret gift and did it make a difference in their lives? Eventually uncovering his grandfather’s hidden identity as a Finkelstein from a Romanian shtetl, Gup comes to better understand his own complex family heritage. And using the missives’ moving stories of hope and suffering as impetus to learn what subsequently happened to the families, Gup creates a poignant personal portrait of the Great Depression. Interweaving the two strands, Gup powerfully reveals the surprising commonalities between donor and recipients, and how a seemingly small act of charity reverberated across eighty years. Index, photographs, timeline.