When Jersey City native Philip Van Doren Stern wrote his short story The Greatest Gift, he had no idea it would become one of the most famous tales in American history. It’s a story that readers may recognize by a different name: It’s a Wonderful Life. This iconic film is a cherished part of many families’ holiday movie-watching, but few know about the story’s tie to Jersey City. Read on to learn more about author Philip Van Doren Stern and the ties linking Jersey City to this enduring film.
About the Author
“You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life.” – Guardian Angel, Clarence
Philip Van Doren Stern was born in a small town in Northeastern PA but grew up in Jersey City. He lived at 229 Jewett Avenue, just off Lincoln Park, and attended Lincoln High School and Rutgers University before beginning his career in Newark.
Philip attended Rutgers University and graduated in 1924. He was the first in his family to attend college and helped to found what is now the Rutgers University Press. In 1941, Philip was invited to write something in celebration of the University’s 175th anniversary. The essay, titled Rutgers University and the American Way of Life is preserved on campus in the University Archives.
“Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” – Guardian Angel, Clarence
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In November of 1939, at the tail end of the Great Depression, Philip wrote The Greatest Gift, but the story’s success was far from certain. After being rejected by several publishers from The Saturday Evening Post to farm journals, Philip self-published the story as a 24-page pamphlet and mailed it to 200 friends and family members for Christmas of 1943. What started as something for friends and family is now an iconic part of the holidays and of New Jersey film history.
“A man doesn’t get in a situation like this every day.” – George Bailey
Perhaps Philip’s guardian angel performed a Christmas miracle because the pamphlet miraculously wound up in the hands of RKO producer David Hempstead who bought the rights to the story for $10,000 – worth over $150,000 today. And the original story? Copies go for over $1500 at rare book auctions.
The film eventually ended up with the renowned director Frank Capra and actor Jimmy Stewart—both of whom have claimed the film to be their favorite. While director Frank Capra modeled the fictional town of Bedford Falls on Westchester County, Philip’s original story was inspired by Califon, NJ, and its Victorian homes and small downtown. The historic Califon Bridge served as the inspiration for the backdrop of the scene where George famously considers his options, ultimately meeting guardian angel Clarence.
The movie’s enduring popularity was just as unexpected as the success of Philip’s initial 24-page pamphlet. Though the film flopped at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life would go on to enjoy lasting fame due to a serendipitous clerical error.
Photo Credit: Public Domain
By 1974, National Telefilm Associates owned the rights to the film but forgot to renew the copyright. Due to the lapsed copyright, the film entered the public domain allowing television stations and movie theaters to air the film free of charge. A terse legal battle ensued, but not before the damage had been done, depleting distribution deals.
“A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town.” – Harry Bailey
Though It’s a Wonderful Life has become a cultural touchstone, it was not considered one of Philip’s biggest accomplishments. When Philip died of a heart attack in 1984, The New York Times obituary headline read: “Philip Van Doren Stern dies; A specialist on Civil War era.”
Photo Credit: Public Domain
After penning “The Greatest Gift,” Philip went on to write more than 40 history books focusing on mid-19th century America. He was a leading scholar of Civil War-era military history. During World War II, he helped manage a non-profit organization called the Armed Services Editions, which distributed paperback books to soldiers.
“Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!” – George Bailey
Despite the lasting success of the film, locals don’t need Philip Van Doren Stern to know it’s a wonderful life in Jersey City.