Sunday, April 19, 2015

Another Writer Who Enjoys Found Objects

I recently heard from a writer named Ben Feldman, who likes found objects and the stories behind them as much as I do. He chronicles some of these stories on his blog, New York Wanderer.

Typical of Ben's work is his investigation into the tale behind the promotional change purse shown above, which he found at a flea market. He's a better and much more dogged historical researcher than I am, so he was able to extrapolate a several decades' worth of family history, including tales of illicit liquor sales during Prohibition, from this one item. The resulting blog is lengthy but fascinating — check it out here (and you may also want to see the New York Times piece that emerged from Ben's work).

Ben has done similar investigations into a memorial plaque for the former head of a hatters' union (there's a follow-up to that entry here), a small daily memorandum book, and a tinted glass slide. Good stuff from a kindred spirit.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Pair of Old Towels from Lancaster, Pennsylvania

For all of today's photos, click to enlarge

I'm a sucker for retro stripe patterns. So when I recently saw this vintage linen tea towel at a flea market, I was enticed, even though I don't really have any need or use for a tea towel. What sealed the deal was the original price tag still pinned to a corner of the towel — I'm a sucker for that kind of thing as well. I bought the towel, along with another one (which we'll get to in a minute), for $7.

I was curious about the shop listed on the price tag — Hager & Bro. Inc., of Lancaster, Pennsylvania — so I Googled it. Turns out there's a lot to learn.

Hager & Bro. (sometimes listed as Hager Brothers) was a department store run by the Hager family, which has deep roots in the Lancaster area. The family's retail history in Lancaster dates back to the early 1820s (different sources give conflicting accounts of the exact year), when Christopher Hager purchased a plot of land on the corner West King and Market Streets and established a mercantile business there. Here's an eBay listing for a pamphlet showing the business's clothing prices in 1889. (Some really nice typography and wording in there, incidentally — definitely worth a closer look.)

That same property at the corner of West King and Market later became the site of the Hager Building, which was built in 1910 and housed the family's department store:

According to this item in the Nov. 19, 1921 issue of the trade journal Dry Goods Economist (now there's a publication name!), Hager & Bro. was at that time "the oldest department store in the United States continuously operated by the same family." The item also mentions Christopher Hager's savvy business maneuvers, such as the time "he purchased an entire cargo of coffee that had become drenched by not damaged."

Hager's was acquired by another department store, Watt & Shand, in 1968 and closed in 1977, but the building remains. It's now occupied by an assortment of shops and condominiums and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There's also a box of Hager's-related artifacts at the Lancaster Historical Society.

It's not clear exactly when my tea towel was available for sale at Hager's, although the design of the towel and the tag both seem 1960s-ish to me. I love that the tag is pinned on (as opposed to being stapled or some other format), which absolutely screams "old-school dry goods shop."

But wait — there's more. When I told the flea market vendor that I was interested in the towel, she said, "Here, do you want this one, too?" She then produced this towel, which I hadn't initially seen because it was hidden underneath some other items:

photo 1-2

Frankly, I didn't like this towel as much as the first one — the stripe pattern seemed a little too busy, too showy. But then I thought to myself, "Does this one have a Lancaster price tag too?" Yes — but not from Hager's:

photo 2-2

How did one flea market vendor end up with two such similar towels that were originally sold at two different shops in the same city? Bizarre.

Unfortunately, there isn't as much readily available information about M.T. Garvin & Co. as there is about Hager & Bro., but I did find a few pieces of the puzzle. Milton T. Garvin was a prominent Lancastarian who helped establish the city's Unitarian Universalist church. He had a department store (here's an obituary for someone who once worked there as a buyer), which presumably competed with Hager's. According to this 1918 listing of oleomargarine licenses (!), Garvin's was located at 29-37 East King St., just a few blocks from Hager's.

It's not clear to me when Garvin's closed, but it was still going strong in 1970, as seen in this 1970 postcard that I found on eBay. You can see "Garvin & Co." on the side of the building and a big "G" logo over what is presumably the main entrance:

Another thing I found on eBay was this Garvin's promotional ruler, which lists three different slogans: "Where the Thrifty of Lancaster Shop and Save"; "Lancaster's Big Cash Department Store"; and "Where Boys and Girls, Mother and Dad Are Always Welcome":

There's something about that broad range of sloganeering that I find very amusing.

One final thought: If you look again at the two price tags, you'll see that one of them is marked "11-A-3" and the other "A 4":

That seems like too big much of a coincidence to be random. Anyone know what those "A"-based designations were for? (Update: Reader John Vahey has found some information explaining that the alpha-numeric designations on the price tags may have been part of a system for dry goods stock numbers.)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Artifacts in Briefcase Reveal Long-Ago Affair

In May of 1969, a 39-year-old German businessman named Günter K. began an affair with his 24-year-old secretary, Margret S. Both were married. Over the next 19 months, they engaged in an extended series of sexual romps while traveling hither and thither. Günter's wife eventually learned of the affair and confronted Margret, who threatened to withhold sex from Günter unless his wife apologized to her — which, incredibly, she did.

We know all this because of a large cache of unusually detailed documentation — photographs, receipts, a journal, snippets of hair, empty birth control packaging (examples of which are shown throughout this blog post) — that was found in a briefcase purchased at a German estate sale 30 years after Günter and Margret's affair. Those items were the subject of a book and gallery exhibition in Germany in 2012, and now the exhibition is making its American debut under the title "Margret: Chronicle of an Affair — May 1969 to December 1970" at the White Columns gallery in New York.

The White Columns web page for the show provides good background info. Here's an excerpt:

The archive [of materials found in the briefcase] consists of hundreds of color and black-and-white photographs showing the same woman (Margret S.) in various places and poses: sitting at a typewriter at the office, traveling, or in hotel rooms, undressing, changing, or getting dressed. In the archive, inscribed with dates, are samples of Margret's hair (from both her head and pubic region), her fingernails, and empty contraception packages, as well as a blood-stained napkin. Receipts from hotels and restaurants, as well as travel documents and tickets from theaters, reveal insights into the places the couple visited as well as acknowledging their preferences and interests. Personal notes and diary entries, mostly written with a typewriter, resemble official records. The focus of virtually all these writings is the sexual act, its frequency, its endurance, etc. — all factually underlined yet at the same time described in a coarse and often obscene language. In its conceptual denseness — resulting partly from the obsessiveness of the documentation — the collection seems to reverberate with the practices of artists such as Sophie Calle, where the viewer often finds themselves in a conflicted space, exposed to their own voyeurism.

Faaaaascinating. I haven't gotten over to White Columns yet to see the exhibit, but I definitely plan to. You can see more photos from the show here.

Based on what I've read so far, it's not clear to me if any attempt has been made to find Günter and Margret (who, if they're still alive, would now be 85 and 70, respectively). I hope to learn more about that when I check out the exhibit.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Long-Lost John Lennon Letter Inspires Hollywood Movie

In 1971, a small music magazine called ZigZag published an interview with a 21-year-old British singer-songwriter named Steve Tilston. At one point Tilston was asked if fame and fortune — should he be lucky enough to achieve them — would change his art. He said they would probably have a negative effect on his songwriting.

Tilston needn't have worried — he never became famous (although he's sustained a career as a professional musician, and good for him). But his comments in ZigZag caught the eye of John Lennon, who at the time was 30 years old and in the early stages of his post-Beatles solo career. Lennon jotted out a note (see above) telling Tilston and the writer who'd interviewed him, Richard Howell, that money didn't actually change anything. Here's what he wrote:

Dear Steve Tilston + Richard Howell

Being rich doesn't change your experiences in the way you think. The only difference basically is that you don't have you worry about money - food - roof - etc. But all other experiences - emotions - relationships - are the same as anybodies. I know, I've been rich and poor and so has Yoko (rich-poor-rich). So whadya think of that.

Love,
John + Yoko

Lennon mailed the letter to Tilston in care of the ZigZag offices, but Tilston never received it. It's not clear what initially happened to it (maybe it was waylaid by a ZigZag staffer who opened the envelope and decided that a handwritten letter from John Lennon was too special not to keep), but Tilston didn't learn of its existence until around 2005, 34 years after it had been written, when a collector contacted him and asked him if he could vouch for its authenticity. Tilston was confused because he'd never known about the letter in the first place. It had apparently been bought and sold several times by that point. (Yoko Ono later confirmed that she remembered Lennon writing the letter.)

This story is now the rough basis of a new movie called Danny Collins, which features Al Pacino playing a popular singer in the latter stages of his life and career who receives a long-lost letter from John Lennon, triggering a major personal reassessment. Here's the trailer, which, frankly, looks awful:

I don't think I'll be seeing Danny Collins, but I do like that a lost letter has inspired a movie. And it's also nice that Steve Tilston is getting a bit of fame out of this after all.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Old Library Book Cards

fronts backs
For all images, click to enlarge

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my Mom volunteered at our local library, and I'd sometimes go there when she was on duty. I remember thinking how cool it looked when she (or, really, anyone) used the rubber stampers to stamp the date onto the card for each book being loaned out.

I thought of that when I recently acquired some old library book cards, including the three shown above (those are the fronts on top, and the corresponding backs beneath them). The Etsy seller from whom I purchased them said they were from the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., so the people who checked these books out the library were probably spoiled rich kids.

It's fun to see these old cards, from the days before bar codes and electronic book-tracking systems. I love seeing how long the gaps were between the books being borrowed, the cumulative span of the books being on the shelves, the Dewey decimal numbers, the handwriting of the borrowers. I also love the title Further Adventures in Essay Reading (which begs the question of whether there was a previous volume simply titled Adventures in Essay Reading).

Here are two more:

fronts3 back3

Lots to like here, like the way Steven Anderson crossed the "t" in his first name. I also like how the date for April 11, 1973, was initially stamped upside-down and then re-stamped in the correct orientation. Did my Mom ever do that? Also, it's interesting to see that borrowers signed their names in pencil in the 1940s and ’50s, with pens becoming more common in the 1960s. I'm pretty sure this reflected the increasing nationwide use of ballpoint pens.

Where are these students today? And where are these books?

I no longer have these cards in my possession (I recently gave them to my friend Gilmore as a gift but scanned them first), but I have more of them. Perhaps I'll share them in future entry.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Student of the Week: Madeline Garbarini

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For all documents, click to enlarge

Our latest Manhattan Trade School student is Madeline Garbarini, a dressmaking student from Staten Island whose primary card is shown above. I should admit from the outset that her story is not particularly remarkable, but I was drawn to her student record because of her photo, which is one of the most engaging and likable portraits to be found in my report card collection. Let's take a closer look:

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Nice haircut and jacket, right? Here are her grades, which were generally solid if unspectacular:

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And here is Madeline's work record. The interesting thing here is that she left the school in 1927 but was still taking job referrals from the school in 1937 — another case of the school maintaining a surprisingly long relationship with its students:

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And here are the comments regarding Madeline's work experiences:

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Here's a transcript of some of the more interesting commentary (as usual, I've spelled out some abbreviated terms and made other small adjustments for the sake of clarity):

Oct. 14, 1927: Working with tailor and do not like it. Rather work on dresses. JBA [job placement secretary at school] called O'Sullivan [the employer], who said she would arrange to have girl do part-time work with tailor and part-time dressmaking.

Dec. 21, 1927: We get an extra dollar if we get to work on time every day. I like this place very much.

Feb. ??, 1929: "Don't like it." AMG [school official] wrote telling girl to come in last [day] of month if still dissatisfied. Dressmaking positions scarce now.

Dec. 14, 1932: Worked two months this fall. Prior to that, I was unemployed for one year. Anxious to get a position as a finisher or [sewing machine] operator.

Feb. 15, 1937: Attending Manhattan Trade evening School, Millinery Dept.

Very interesting to see that Madeline went back to Manhattan Trade to learn millinery. This was during the Great Depression, of course, and she must have been desperate to increase her employment prospects.

That's all I have for Madeline. If you know more about what became of her, please get in touch.

• • • • •

Every now and then, someone will email me out of the blue and say, "I was doing some genealogical research and spotted a family member on your list of report card students. Could I see her student record?"

I receive only two or three of these emails per year. So it was rather amazing when I received two of them, just a few hours apart, this past Tuesday. In both cases, I've emailed the report card scans to the people who got in touch and am hoping they'll agree to do follow-up interviews with me for Permanent Record. Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Lifetime's Worth of Pay Stubs

I recently received the following email from PermaRec reader Jim Wooley, who grew up in Manitoba, Canada:

Both my parents have recently passed away (Mom in May 2014 and Dad last week). Mom was 85, Dad 88. Due to poor health, my Dad had been in a care home for the past two years. Mom was able to be on her own and lived in their condo until she passed last year.

Mom was always a bit of a hoarder but in the past few years she started giving things away to anyone who was interested. She gave me some really cool things, including a box full of old pay stubs. My Dad was a zinc and copper miner and worked for the same mining company from 1947 to 1985. They kept every single pay stub he earned during that time [see above], bunched together by year. According to the first pay stub, he earned 94.5 cents per hour.

Interesting. Much like cancelled checks and savings passbooks, which we examined last week, pay stubs are, for many people, a bygone relic from another age. Most of us are now paid via direct deposit, and even the corresponding stub is often delivered electronically.

Jim examined his father's stubs and found that the mining company used four distinct stub formats or designs during his father's 38 years with the company. Those designs are shown on the following four stubs, which date back to (from top to bottom) 1947, 1951, 1965, and 1970:

1947 1951 1965 1970

I love that the company was called the Hudson Bay Mining Mining and Smelting Co. There's something about the word "Smelting" that sounds very old-school industrial, no? The company still exists today, although its name is now far less satisfying: HudBay Minerals.

Other notes:

• The first two stubs are watermarked, while the latter two are not. Feels like a downgrade.

• Similarly, the shift from purple type to black type somehow makes the latter two stubs feel less "official" than the first two.

• I've always wondered why British- and Commonwealth-associated corporations use "Limited" instead of "Incorporated." Could anyone give me a decent explanation, in layman's terms?

Jim later followed up with a photo of his dad, taken on his last day at work. Everyone says mining is a rough job for tough people, and there's certainly nothing in this photo to refute that (click to enlarge):

Garnet Wooley

(Huge thanks to Jim Wooley for sharing these interesting artifacts, especially during such a difficult time for him and his family.)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Love Tokens From the River Thames

The two coins shown above were both found on the banks of the River Thames in England by a guy named Steve Brooker, who's made a hobby of scouring the river's banks for odd objects. Based on the notations that have been scratched into the coins, the one at the top was apparently cast into the river on Jan. 11, 1921, but we don't know by whom; the other one was tossed in by (or perhaps for) somebody named Benjamin Claridge, but we don't know when.

These coins are among the countless tokens that have been thrown into the Thames. Many were simple "make a wish" offerings, but others — most likely including the two shown above — were love tokens, as explained in this article about Brooker and his salvaged coins:

For centuries, smoothed coins were used as love tokens, with the initials of the sender engraved or embossed upon the surface. Sometimes these were pierced, which gave recipient the option to wear it around the neck. In Steve’s collection, the tokens range from heavy silver coins with initials professionally engraved to pennies worn smooth through hours of labour and engraved in stilted painstaking letters. In many examples shown here, the amount of effort expended in working these coins, smoothing, engraving or cutting them is truly extraordinary, which speaks of the longing of the makers.

They're highly evocative artifacts. I'll include a few more of them here, but you can see the full assortment, and read more about them, here.

(Big thanks to David Brown for letting me know about this one.)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Pre-Electronic Banking Records

Click to enlarge

I recently received a package from my friend David Greenberger, an artist and musician who does, among other things, the great Duplex Planet project. Inside was his latest CD (recorded 20 years ago but newly released) and the cancelled check that's shown above.

At first I was confused by the check. Did David owe me money? Did I owe him money? Then I realized the check was from 1981, and that there was a note written on the back:

12 Feb 15

Paul —

Another new CD (recorded 20 years ago).

Best wishes,
David

So instead of writing a note on a piece of scratch paper or a Post-it, David had used an old cancelled check! I emailed David to ask him about this. Here's his response:

Glad you liked the check stationery. I was clearing out decades old envelopes of taxes dating back 30+ years and had this stash of checks from an old account (bank now gone, bought by some other bank, I think). Haven’t lived in Brookline since ’84.

If that’s one of the green checks with the little guy repairing a toaster or something in the upper-left corner, here’s how those came to be. One of my roommates back then, for my birthday, went to that bank, which was around the corner from our apartment, and ordered new checks for me with that little picture on it.

I love this. It's particularly interesting given that, for the most part, banks no longer return our cancelled checks to us — instead, we get small facsimiles of the checks along with our statements or, for those who've gone paperless, we access scans of the checks online. So future generations won't be able to repurpose their old checks as note paper, or to tell stories about how the little illustration on the check was a birthday present.

Cancelled checks aren't the only hard-copy aspects of banking that have been replaced by electronic recordkeeping. If you're older than, say, 40 or 45, you may recall bank passbooks, which provided a record of all the deposits, withdrawals, and interest payments on a savings account. This was before the days of ATMs — if you wanted cash, you had to go to the bank and present your passbook to the teller, who would put the passbook into some sort of special machine/printer thingie that would record the transaction on the passbook's pages in very official-looking type.

I recently went looking for old passbooks on Etsy and bought several of them from one seller, including this one, issued by a Massachusetts bank in the early 1980s (for all of these photos, you can click to enlarge):

As you can see, the pages of this passbook were stamped "Cancelled." That's nice (I'm thinking this was probably before the days of self-inking stampers and that a bank employee therefore had to keep moving the rubber stamp back and forth between the passbook and an ink pad in a rapid-fire rat-a-tat-tat), but it's even better to find a cancelled passbook with those dot-matrix letters punched through it. Here's an example of that (click to enlarge):

Then there's this old passbook, which was punched with all sorts of numbers. Not sure what that was about, although I'm fairly certain it had to do with the cancellation process (click to enlarge):

The first two of these books were issued to a couple named Roger and Helen Motta; the third belonged to a woman named Florentine Agrella. I haven't yet done any research on these people to see if they're still alive — not even a simple Google search — because for now I'm enjoying the mystery surrounding these artifacts. As I've said before, sometimes the questions are more fun than the answers.

• • • • •

Update: Shortly after this post was published, I received an email from reader Doug Keklak, as follows:

Oh how this entry takes me back! I have worked my entire adult life in the banking industry. In the late ’90s, when I was getting started, things were in the midst of a change. We began to offer a free service known as "check safekeeping" — instead of returning all your cancelled checks each month, we'd make any copy available to you upon request, free of charge. In order to accommodate those "old-timers" who still wanted their checks returned, we still offered that, but at a monthly fee to offset the shipping cost to the bank. Of course this was prior to the post-9/11 world and Check 21 legislation, which really changed everything.

It was similar story for the passbook accounts, as they were being grandfathered at that time as well. While we still serviced existing passbook customers by entering their interest, deposits, and withdrawals, all new accounts were opened as "statement savings," not passbook savings. For these accounts, we'd simply give the customer a register, just like with their checking account, where they would be responsible on their own for entering withdrawals, deposits, and interest. They would also receive a statement to "balance," should they choose. This was a complete 180 from the days when the passbook was it and was treated pretty much like money by the customer.

Another topic, not mentioned on your post, is Certificates of Deposit or CDs. At one time, they were printed on official-looking certificate-style document paper (hence the name). Customers would often place them in their safe deposit boxes for security purposes. Again, as with the passbook, these were treated like money by customers and you could not redeem on maturity date without the certificate. These days, customers are given a paper receipt, but it's only for recordkeeping purposes. With proper ID, they can redeem any CD at the bank on the maturity date.

Very illuminating — thanks, Doug!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Student of the Week: Virginia Carucci

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For all documents, click to enlarge

Our latest Manhattan Trade School enrollee is Virginia Carucci, a dressmaking student who took classes at the school from 1928 through 1930. As you can see above, she was part of a large Italian-American family (she had six siblings) that lived in the Bronx, where her father worked as a butcher.

Unfortunately, there's a sad note at the top: "Deceased 9-19-31." Virginia would have been only 19 at the time. We'll learn more about this later in her student record.

Before we get to that, let's take a look at Virginia's grades and teacher comments (as always, E = Excellent; G = Good; F = Fair; P = Poor):

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As you can see, Virginia's grades were generally quite good. She made the Honor Roll several times but was occasionally called out for carelessness.

Next up is a document that I don't think I've ever shown before here on the blog: an application for admission to Manhattan Trade. For whatever reason, this card doesn't show up in most of the student records in my collection, but Virginia's was preserved in her file:

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Next up is Virginia's employment record, showing the jobs to which she was referred by the school's job placement office:

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There are a few interesting entries here. For Virginia's second job, for example, her "Reason for Leaving" is listed as "too short." Does this mean that the duration of the job was short, or that Virginia herself was too short to do the tasks required of her? If you scroll back up and look at the lower-left corner of the first card in her file, you can see that she was indeed short — 5'1". Hmmmm.

Virginia also left several jobs because she objected to "piece work" — in other words, being paid by the piece instead of by the week, which is a hard way to make any money for all but the very fastest workers. But in one instance, an employer (whose comment is listed in red) rebutted Virginia's claim: "Told her it was not piece work. She just did not want to stay."

Now we come to the final card in Virginia's file, with comments from the school's job placement staff:

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Lots of interesting comments on this card. Here's a transcription of some of the more intriguing bits. As usual, I've spelled out a few abbreviated and omitted terms for the sake of clarity:

Oct. 14, 1930 [comment from Althea Kotter, the placement secretary]: Frail and pretty. Determined, but can't sell herself well. Will not take [any position] but dressmaking.

Nov. 5, 1930 [comment from Virginia, who at the time was working for a lingerie shop called Carol's]: I realize dressmaking is very slow, but after Christmas I would like to go back to dressmaking.

Nov. 11, 1930 [from Ms. Kotter to Virginia]: Wise to stay at Carol's for the present. Jobs are scarce. Besides, it's excellent to know negligee work.

Nov. 28, 1930 [from Virginia]: Forelady wanted to cut my salary from $14/week to $12/week. Didn't do any sewing, just laid the cloth for the cutter. Had to come in 14 mins. earlier every morning to open up the closets. And had to stay overtime, sometimes until 7.

Dec. 8, 1930 [from Ms. Kotter]: Dye from laces made her sick. Too much standing.

March 18, 1931 [from either Ms. Kotter or another school administrator]: Do not place. Much too particular, and her record does not warrant it.

March 20, 1931 [from Ms. Kotter]: Father came in. Very fine person. Father urged us to be lenient because of Virginia's peculiar disposition. Says she is afraid of things, particularly afraid of facing the world of business. Wants us to try to get her a dressmaking position regardless of salary.

May 7, 1931 [from Virginia]: No chance for advancement here. Could I get a position for the summer? [It's not clear what job this was, as Virginia's work record shows no entries after March 31, 1931. — PL]

May 7, 1931 [from Ms. Kotter]: Stay where you are until position ends. Will put you on the list for summer positions.

Sept. 21, 1931: Card from Josephine Radacinski, announcing death of Virginia on Sept. 15, 1931.

Sept. 21, 1931: Letter of condolence sent to father.

Sept. 29, 1931: Josephine Radacinski reported Virginia died of spinal meningitis.

And that's where it ends. Interestingly, there is now a vaccine to help prevent meningitis, which seems particularly relevant given the current controversy regarding childhood vaccinations. Had such a vaccine been available a century ago, Virginia might have lived into adulthood.

• • • • •

Update: Remember Tony Trapani, the 81-year-old Michigan man who found an old letter indicating that he had a son he'd never known about? There's a sad ending to that story: A DNA test has shown that his purported son is not his son after all. Both men are devastated but say they plan to treat each other as family anyway.

(My thanks to John Chapman for alerting me to this updated info.)