Heir to a Scandal

By Laura Wexler
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Each weekday morning Andrew Gifford wakes in his modest apartment in a complex on the outskirts of Silver Spring, walks to the bus stop a few blocks away, rides the bus to the Metro, takes the Metro to Union Station and walks the block to the headquarters of the American Psychological Association. He takes the elevator to the sixth floor, enters a set of glass doors and passes a matrix of cubicles to reach what he calls "the cave," a windowless room where for the past seven years he has worked as a "communications specialist." It's a fancy title for what is essentially a boring customer service job: When subscribers to the APA's 57 journals have a problem (an issue gone missing or arriving in the mail battered and dog-eared), they call Gifford, and he fixes it.

At 7 p.m., he passes the matrix of cubicles, walks the block back to Union Station, takes the Metro to Silver Spring, catches the bus, gets off at the bus stop and walks home to his apartment. He eats dinner, watches a DVD on his computer (he has no TV), reads and goes to bed.

Gifford is 34, with an average build and average features. He wears khakis and cotton shirts in muted colors. He doesn't have children, a wife or a girlfriend. His life seems mind-numbingly routine. We might call it small. We might even feel sorry for him, as though he were some modern-day Bartleby, inscrutable and pathetic. How can you survive -- how can you tolerate -- such an ordinary life, we might want to ask.

But that would be the wrong question, because Gifford's life has been anything but ordinary. When he was 21, he began suffering from what is widely considered some of the worst physical pain known to humankind, a condition eventually diagnosed as trigeminal neuralgia (TN). In the midst of struggling with TN, an affliction so intolerable it's known as the "suicide disease," he managed to find the will to commit an act so idealistic it verges on foolishness: founding a small literary press and funding it through his credit cards and savings. This September, Gifford's press, the Santa Fe Writers Project, will bring out its third title, a collection from cult writer and Bethesda native Pagan Kennedy called "The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories."

"It's become something of a calling," says Gifford of his publishing efforts. He would like to devote himself to them full time, but he can't afford to. Even though he lives close to the bone -- working two jobs, eating ramen noodles, driving a used car and paying only $600 in monthly rent -- he says he's in a financial hole as a result of the press. When he talks about his money worries, there's no anger in his voice, and yet it wasn't supposed to be like this. Until he was 10 years old, Gifford lived comfortably as the heir to one of Washington's most beloved family businesses. Then, almost overnight, he went, as he says, "from riches to rags."

NEARLY ONCE A WEEK, someone asks Gifford, "Are you one of the ice cream Giffords?" When he says yes, the person might recall going to Gifford's Ice Cream and Candy as a child or a teenager, wax poetic about a favorite flavor or muse upon the elaborate ice cream logs that appeared for every holiday. "Sometimes they ask what happened, and I always dodge it," Gifford says. "It's a story I've not really shared, not really wanted to." It's not that he's secretive. It's that it's impossible to tell what happened to Gifford's, the legendary D.C. institution, without telling what happened to the Gifford family, a tale that's complicated and sad, and remains ultimately mysterious.

On an afternoon this summer, Gifford stops his car in front of the two-story building at 8101 Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring that houses Quality Time Early Learning Center. In 1938, Gifford's grandparents, John and Mary Francis Gifford, opened the first Gifford's ice cream parlor on this spot, offering table service, high-butterfat ice cream made from a secret recipe and sundaes topped with homemade chocolate sauce poured from individual metal pitchers. "You'd walk in there and immediately to the left was where they made the candy, big vats of chocolate. It was like Willy Wonka. Behind it and to the right were the tables and chairs," Gifford says. "And behind that was the factory -- I just remember all these big freezers and the freight elevator. You could really get lost in there. It was loads of fun."

Lifelong Silver Spring resident Robert Aubry Davis, host of WETA's "Around Town," lived just down the street from the Gifford's Silver Spring location. He says that his parents used to court there before they were married and that they took him there once every few weeks as a child. Time hasn't dimmed Davis's memories of the shop's glass cases full of delectable homemade candy, or the old-fashioned fountain that dispensed ice-cold water, or, especially, the Swiss chocolate sauce and Swiss chocolate ice cream. "Until you've tasted it, you've never experienced a flavor like it," says Davis, a self-proclaimed ice cream aficionado.

Within two years of opening the Silver Spring store, Gifford's opened a second location in Bethesda, followed by one a decade later in Arlington County and a fourth at Baileys Crossroads in 1956. With each new location, the popularity only grew. "Ask anyone about Gifford's on a Saturday night. Lines were out the door," says Allen Currey, 82, Andrew Gifford's maternal grandfather, a retired Montgomery County science teacher who worked nights and weekends as the chain's general manager. "We had to have a greeter at the door to govern the seats, or else someone would have gotten hurt."

From the factory behind the original Silver Spring store, Currey says, ice cream was shipped to restaurants throughout Washington, and occasionally to the White House. According to the Gifford's legend, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a fan, as was Jacqueline Kennedy.

When John Gifford died in 1976, his only son, Robert, a Harvard-educated accountant, took over as president. The stores continued to be packed and profitable, Currey remembers, but behind the scenes, things quickly went downhill. "Robert Gifford had some mental problems, and he for some reason intentionally would not pay people," Currey says. "He didn't pay suppliers. He would even give employees bad paychecks."

In 1982, the Bethesda location closed, and in 1984, Gifford's filed for bankruptcy protection, citing roughly $200,000 in debt. One Friday evening that year, Andrew Gifford, who was then 10, recalls his father, Robert, telling him in the parking lot of Jhoon Rhee Karate Super Center in Kensington (now Black Belt Martial Arts Center), where they were both taking taekwondo lessons, that he was going to Charlottesville for the weekend and would return that Sunday. "Those were his last words to me," Gifford says. "He vanished then."

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