— Annette Jolles, Bethesda, Md.
On Dec. 24, 1911, the Pensacola News Journal published several letters from youngsters hoping for Christmas presents. “Dear Santa Claus,” one missive began. “I am a little boy 13 years old. I want you to bring me a monkey on a string. … Good-bye. From Edward Bernstein.”
Eddie would eventually get his monkey — and a lot more besides.
A newspaper reporter once described Eddie as “an unusually bright and energetic little fellow.” He was well-known to many Pensacolans, who would encounter him hawking papers on the street. He was the son of an itinerant dry goods salesman who had immigrated from Lithuania. In April 1911, 11-year-old Eddie had the misfortune of being run over by a train while crossing the tracks near the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co. depot.
Against all odds, Eddie survived. His legs did not. Both were amputated above the knee. Eddie’s father sued the railroad and won a $12,314 settlement.
It’s unclear what drew Eddie to Washington. He starts showing up in local newspapers in the 1930s, distinctive because of his missing legs, his dapper appearance — a pencil-thin mustache, bow tie and straw fedora — and his companion, a dog named Snowball.
Eddie’s favored spot was in the 1200 block of F Street NW, outside Reeves Bakery. In warmer months, Eddie would position himself on a wheeled, wooden platform and sell pencils and newspapers to passersby.
When his work day was done, Eddie would roll the five blocks to 929 H St. NW, where he rented a room above an optical shop. He would then wait outside for someone who looked trustworthy enough to open the door. Eddie would tuck his gurney under an arm and propel himself up the narrow stairway.
“He must have had powerful arms,” one man later told The Post.
In 1938, Snowball was struck by a car and killed. The following year, Eddie got what he’d wanted since childhood: a monkey, a gift from Evalyn Walsh McLean, owner of the Hope Diamond. This capuchin monkey was named Gypsy, and Eddie soon became known as “Eddie the Monkey Man.”
But the monkey came with complications: When Gypsy started attracting crowds, Eddie was charged with blocking the sidewalk. And the city thought Eddie should pay a dollar a day for an exotic animal permit, the same as a circus owner would have to.
Eddie went to court and won on both counts.
The monkey died in 1941 and Eddie obtained another one, which he also named Gypsy.
In 1959, Eddie was rushed to the hospital after being found unresponsive in the boardinghouse. When he was revived, Eddie seemed less concerned about his health than about the cash he said had been stashed in his sweatshirt.
The “begrimed” sweatshirt was recovered — and so was the $2,350 that was pinned inside. That was a lot of money, equivalent today to more than $20,000. It seemed at odds with someone so lamentable and destitute that he would be forced to beg on the streets.
In November 1972, The Post ran a profile of Wilbur Davis, a man whose multiple back injuries had left him doubled over like a paper clip. Davis had held a tin cup at Connecticut and L NW for seven years. He mentioned that some of D.C.’s best beggars had a gimmick, like Eddie Bernstein.
Wrote The Post: “Davis said he and Eddie became friends and in their conversations Eddie said he had made enough money to buy several homes in Florida, a Cadillac, and some mechanical legs to replace his own legs, which were amputated.”
Davis said Eddie told him he only came to Washington around Christmas, when he knew people were a soft touch.
When Eddie saw the story, he was livid. He rolled himself to The Post to set the record straight.
“If I had money and property, do you think I’d be sitting out in the cold all day?” he said. “That guy who told you those stories was pulling your leg, to say the least. If you think begging’s a good life, just try it.”
Next week: The double life of Eddie the Monkey Man — and the final resting place of Gypsy.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.