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Philip Van Doren Stern (September 10, 1900 – January 29, 1984) was an author, editor, and Civil War historian whose story "The Greatest Gift," published in 1943, inspired the classic film It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

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Early life[]

Philip Van Doren Stern was born in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania into a family of humble means. His Pennsylvania-born father was a traveling merchant of Bavarian descent, who came to Wyalusing from West Virginia with his New Jersey-born wife. Stern grew up in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey, and graduated from Rutgers University before becoming an author of some 40 books and editor most known for his books on the Civil War that a New York Times obituary called "authoritative" and "widely respected by scholars".


Philip Van Doren Stern was a historian and editor who compiled and annotated short story collections and the writings and letters of Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry David Thoreau.

After graduating from Rutgers in 1924, he worked in advertising before switching to a career as a designer and editor in publishing.

During World War II, he was a member of the planning board of the United States Office of War Information. He was the general manager of Editions for the Armed Services. He compiled and edited many collections and anthologies of short stories, pictorial books, annotations, and books on historical subjects.

Stern is most remembered today for a short story that he wrote in 1943. Inspired by a dream, Stern published a 4,000-word short story called "The Greatest Gift" in 1943 after working on it since the late 1930s but, unable to find a publisher, he sent the 200 copies he had printed to friends as Christmas cards in December 1943. One of the pamphlets came to the attention of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead, who showed it to actor Cary Grant, who was interested in playing the lead role. RKO purchased the motion picture rights for $10,000 in April 1944.[1] After several screenwriters worked on adaptations, RKO sold the rights to the story in 1945 to Frank Capra's production company for the same $10,000, which he adapted into It's a Wonderful Life.

The story was first published as a book in December 1944, with illustrations by Rafaello Busoni. Stern also sold it to Reader's Scope magazine, which published the story in its December 1944 issue, and to the magazine Good Housekeeping, which published it under the title "The Man Who Was Never Born" in its January 1945 issue (published in December 1944).

In 1946, director Frank Capra produced the movie It's a Wonderful Life, based on the Stern short story "The Greatest Gift". The movie starred James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore. The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards and would become a perennial Christmas classic.

Stern edited, compiled, and introduced The Viking Portable Poe in 1945, a compact collection of letters, short stories, poems, and essays by Edgar Allan Poe. Stern wrote the biographical introduction to the collection, selected the contents included, and wrote introductory essays on the varying genres. The collection became a standard single-volume anthology of Poe's works for almost fifty years.

Stern died on July 31, 1984 at the age of 83. The movie It's a Wonderful Life, based on his short story "The Greatest Gift", became a holiday classic that is one of the most popular and most viewed of all Christmas films.

Major works[]

  • An End to Valor: The Last Days of the Civil War, 1958
  • The Case of The Thing in the Brook, a mystery under the pseudonym Peter Storme, 1941
  • Prehistoric Europe: From Stone Age Man to the Early Greeks
  • A Pictorial History of the American Automobile, 1903-1953
  • Edgar Allan Poe, Visitor from the Night of Time, 1973
  • When the Guns Roared, 1965
  • They Were There, 1959
  • Soldier Life in the Union and Confederate Armies, 1961
  • Henry David Thoreau: Writer and Rebel, 1972
  • The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln
  • Secret Missions of the Civil War
  • The Man Who Killed Lincoln: The Story of John Wilkes Booth, 1939, dramatized and staged in New York in 1940
  • The Annotated Walden: Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau
  • The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe: or, How the Confederate Cruisers Were Equipped, with James D. Bulloch
  • The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1964
  • Robert E. Lee, The Man and the Soldier; A Pictorial Biography
  • The Confederate Navy: A Pictorial History
  • "The Greatest Gift", 1943 short story which was the basis for Frank Capra's classic film It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
  • Tin Lizzie : The Story of the Fabulous Model T Ford
  • The Portable Poe, 1945, edited, selected and with an introduction and notes by Stern


  1. "Tempest in Hollywood," New York Times, April 23, 1944, p. X3.

External links[]

Further reading[]

  • Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Volume 86. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.
  • Directory of American Scholars. Seventh edition, Volume 1: History. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1978.
  • The New York Times Biographical Service. Volume 15. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1984.
  • Twentieth Century Authors. First Supplement. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1955.
  • Who Was Who among English and European Authors, 1931-1949. Detroit: Gale Research, 1978.

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