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'Second chance' for classic Christmas tale

Tom Glazer found an original copy of the

Tom Glazer found an original copy of the holiday classic by Philip Van Doren Stern while cleaning out his father's book collection. (Dec. 19, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz

Two years ago, among his late father's bookcases, Tom Glazer discovered a worn, palm-sized booklet published in 1944, about a man who was on the brink of suicide but was saved by a stranger.

Glazer Googled "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern and his heart thumped, for it was a story he knew well, a book that no publisher had wanted. But it was the seed that director Frank Capra and actor James Stewart nurtured into the holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life."

"It was just too hard to believe, that this movie I've seen year after year after year actually had its basis in a short story," said Glazer, co-owner of Graphic Image, a Melville stationery business started by his father, a former art director at Simon and Schuster publishing.

So Glazer, 53, of Lido Beach, contacted the author's daughter, Marguerite Stern Robinson of Boston, and got the rights to publish the booklet. As a third-grader in 1943 Brooklyn, she had delivered some of the 24-page pamphlets that her father paid to have printed as Christmas cards.

"My father would have been very pleased" with the new editions, said Robinson, 76, a microfinance adviser to foreign banks and governments. "It really is a second chance."

So like its main character, George Pratt (Bailey in the movie), "The Greatest Gift" is getting a second life. Graphic Image has published 25,000 booklets of the tale. It still resonates with lessons about the power of banks and how one person can make a difference.

Van Doren Stern, a Civil War historian, author and editor, died in 1984, having tried unsuccessfully to sell the novella that started as a February night's dream.

It was 1938, in the recession following the Great Depression, when Van Doren Stern woke up with the entire story of bank worker George: Thanks to a "stranger" with rosy cheeks and kind, blue eyes, a despondent George is saved when he learns about the tragedies that befall his younger brother and the bank had he not been born.

But the historian had trouble writing it, and five years went by before he shopped it around, his daughter said.

Despite publishers' rejections, her father liked the story so much, his daughter said, that he first printed 200 Christmas pamphlets with the tale. Then the following year, in 1944, he paid to print a limited number of illustrated, hardcover booklets, later dedicating one to Glazer's father, Bennett.

One day, Robinson recalled, she answered the phone at home. A Western Union telegram operator on the other line, usually a sign of bad news in wartime, wanted her father.

"Hold me up!" she heard her father say. He learned that an executive from the powerful RKO studio saw his pamphlet and bought the movie rights.

The rest, as they say, is history. In a Dec. 31, 1946, letter to Van Doren Stern, Stewart called the story "an inspiration to everyone concerned with the picture . . . the fundamental story was so sound and right."

This month, as Robinson signed red leather editions of the book at a Bergdorf Goodman signing, shoppers buzzed about the love their families still have for the movie.

For several fans, the story brought hope in these times of high unemployment, foreclosures and Occupy Wall Street.

"There's so much heartache and fear that somehow ends up being resolved into good," said one shopper, Sidney Korshak, a commodities trader from Connecticut. "If you don't believe in better things, it seems life would be purposeless."

Glazer, who has the publishing rights for three years, says he is like a real-life George, taking over the family business. He was a college philosophy graduate 30 years ago when he reluctantly began running his parents' Graphic Image business, headquartered in their kitchen: "They were surviving, but not a lot more than that."

To him, the book and the movie is an "evergreen story": "It's emotionally part of the fabric of the holidays for many, many people . . . The process of discovery of what this book was about is what I want readers to discover on their own."

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