Before visiting the O. Henry museum in Austin, my knowledge of this famed American writer could be summed up in just a few words: “The Gift of the Magi,” the tale of a financially strapped young couple who, through a clever plot twist, discover the true meaning of gifts and giving.
But if this sentimental short story was my only impression of O. Henry, we got quite a plot twist as we learned about the writer himself, a hard-living and colorful character worthy of any story he could write.
The O. Henry museum sits on prime real estate in downtown Austin. The small brownish cottage with gingerbread trim was the writer’s home for two years.
I was in Texas visiting family for the holidays and was taking some time to catch up with my high school friend Rebecca, an Austin transplant who gamely joined me for her first Nerd Trip. She’d lived in Austin for years, but had never visited the O. Henry museum. I imagine that’s the case for many people.
O. Henry’s real name was William Sidney Porter, born in North Carolina in 1862 and trained as a pharmacist. He moved west in 1882 to escape illness and a cough that plagued him in his early years. Illness seems to play a pivotal role at several points in Will’s life. His mother died of tuberculosis, and his wife and daughter had it as well.
After moving to Texas, Will had a series of odd jobs, including sheep herder, cook and musician. He moved Austin in 1884, falling in love and eloping with Athol Roach in 1887. Her illness would later force him to return to Austin where he was arrested for embezzlement.
Just FYI: our guide often referred to O. Henry as “Will” as if he was an old friend of ours. I liked the informality, it seemed to fit his character.
The house itself is small, just a few rooms. The whole visit took about 2o minutes, and we got lots of one-on-one attention as we were the only two people on the tour.
One highlight was seeing Will’s original writing desk. In the same room, you’ll see a cool piano; Will’s wife apparently enjoyed music and singing as well.
Our friend Will seemed to be full of life, playing the guitar and mandolin, singing in the “Hill City Quartet,” participating in theater groups and enjoying a good party (he eventually died from cirrhosis of the liver). A temporary exhibit questioned if O. Henry was “the original slacker.”
But I wouldn’t call him a slacker when it comes to writing. He produced his own newspaper, called “The Rolling Stone,” where he wrote all the articles, creating fake names so it seemed like different people contributed to the publication.
I was surprised to learn that Will was such an accomplished artist. One display claims that some people think drawing was “Will’s primary talent over writing.” The museum has a great book of his drawings, and I was even more surprised that they let you touch the book and flip through it. Here are some samples:
In the meantime, if you are in Austin, give yourself a gift by visiting the home of the writer who wrote “The Gift of the Magi.” Here’s another gift: it’s free!
P.S. Be sure to check out our “On the Map” page for more details about visiting the O.Henry Museum.