BELGRADE LAKES, Maine
Eight-five years ago this Christmas Eve, the London Evening News published a short story about a boy and a bear written by an assistant editor at Punch named A.A. Milne, thus engendering four children's books, a slew of films and videos and a merchandising empire estimated to be worth more to the Disney Co. than Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto combined.
(Not to mention providing the inspiration for Dorothy Parker's most withering review, when she responded, in her Constant Reader column, to Pooh's line that "pom" makes singing more "hummy" with the comment, "And it is that word 'hummy,' my darlings, that marks the first place … at which Tonstant Weeder Fwowed up.")
It also resulted in my finding myself in tears last Christmas in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building of the New York City Public Library.
The story goes back 35 years. In the 1980s, I had a gruesome copy editing job at E.P. Dutton, the American publishers of the Winnie the Pooh books. One of my colleagues was a crusty septuagenarian named Elliot Graham, whose title was director of publicity emeritus. Elliot was the shepherd of the original Pooh stuffed animals — Pooh, Tigger, Kanga, Piglet and Eeyore — which were kept in a glass case in the Dutton lobby on 2 Park Ave.
He'd take them to schools and literary festivals and the sets of early morning news shows. We used to talk about the Pooh animals together, Elliot and I, as if they were members of a rock band, and Elliot their long-suffering manager.
When Dutton was sold in 1985, the Pooh animals became the private property of the company's former owner, John Dyson, the chairman of the New York State Power Authority. I don't know the exact terms of the agreement that handed the Pooh animals over to the Dyson family. What I do know is that the glass case in the E.P. Dutton lobby was empty afterward, and Elliot Graham had no animals to shepherd any more. Some days you'd see him just standing there, looking into the empty case. It was sad.
I hadn't thought about any of this in 25 years, until the week before Christmas last year, when I walked into the Schwarzman building to see a friend who works in the children's book room. There in a glass case in the center of the library were all the Pooh animals, just as I remembered them — Pooh, Eeyore, even little Piglet, who is not much more than a threadbare pincushion. (Owl and Rabbit were fruits of Milne's imagination; Roo is said to have been lost in Ashdown Forest in England in the 1930s.)
As I learned, the animals had not remained with the Dysons forever; the family donated them to the New York Public Library, where they have been ever since. A 1987 article in the New York Times noted that an older man, Elliot Graham, was present on the occasion of the animals' return to New York. "If I were an ordinary person," he was quoted as saying, "there'd be tears in my eyes."
I quit my job at Dutton in 1985 and headed off to graduate school to study fiction writing. Back then I wasn't sure what was going to happen to me, once I went out in the world to seek my fortune. It seemed entirely possible to me, at the time, that I was about to fall off the edge of the Earth.
On my last day of work, there'd been a knock on my office door, and a crusty, bearlike voice said, "There's someone here who wants to say goodbye to you." And I turned to see Elliot Graham standing there, holding the original Winnie the Pooh. He held the bear toward me, and nodded. "Go ahead," he said dryly. "You can hug him."
So I did. He was soft.
When I was done, I gave Winnie the Pooh back to Elliot. He looked at me, and nodded, and said, "Good luck at school," and walked away. That was the last I saw of him.
I've thought about Elliot every once in a while, in the years since then. I suppose I should have called him up some time and let him know I did not fall off the edge of the Earth. But of course he died years ago, while I was busy typing.
On that December day last year, my friend and I headed out into Midtown. New York was all dressed up for Christmas. There on the corner was the restaurant where my father used to take me. There was the Daily News building, where I had a job in 1984. There was the lollipop street clock at 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue where my sister and I used to meet. I haven't seen her in a long time.
And I thought of the ending of The House at Pooh Corner, in which our hero takes his leave of the companions of his youth: "But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his bear will always be playing."
Jennifer Finney Boylan is a professor of English at Colby College and the author, most recently, of the young adult novel "Falcon Quinn and the Black Mirror."
© 2010 New York Times