The story takes place in Greenwich Village, New York City in November. The three main characters in the story are two young female artists called Johnsy and Sue and an older male artist called Behrman. Behrman is considered a failure as an artist. For many years, he has spoken about painting a masterpiece but has not yet begun work on it. When Johnsy becomes seriously ill with pneumonia, the doctor thinks that she has little chance of surviving because she does not have the will to live. Johnsy becomes convinced that her fate is connected to that of some leaves on an ivy vine which she can see from her bedroom window. When she first fell ill, there were dozens of leaves on the vine. Soon, there is only one left. Johnsy is convinced that she will die when the last leaf falls. Although Behrman thinks it is ridiculous that someone should imagine that her life is connected to leaves on a vine, he secretly risks his own life to help Johnsy.
There have been a number of film adaptations of the story.
The Greenwich Village district of New York City has attracted a great many artists. Among those who live there are a woman from California named Joanna (who prefers to be called Johnsy) and a woman from Maine called Sue. The two women soon become good friends and decide to share an apartment.
In November, there is an outbreak of pneumonia in Greenwich Village. Johnsy, since she comes from the much warmer climate of California and is not used to cold winters, soon becomes seriously ill with the disease. A doctor tells Sue that he does not believe that Johnsy will get better because she has made up her mind that she is going to die. He asks if Johnsy has anything special to live for. Sue replies that her friend has always wanted to paint the Bay of Naples. The doctor does not think that this is enough.
Sue hears Johnsy counting backwards from twelve. It is revealed that Johnsy is counting leaves on an ivy vine. The vine grows on the wall of a neighboring house which Johnsy can see out of her window while lying in her bed. She says that, when she first fell ill, there were more than a hundred leaves on the vine. While she has been ill, the autumn winds have blown most of the leaves away. There are now only four left. Johnsy is certain that she will die when the last leaf falls. Sue tells her friend that this is nonsense and tries to get her to take something to eat and drink. Johnsy, however, is only interested in looking out of the window at the vine. She is certain that the last leaf will fall and that she will die before the end of the day.
Needing a model for a magazine illustration which she is drawing, Sue goes to see her downstairs neighbor Mr. Behrman. Behrman, an elderly man who drinks too much gin, has been trying unsuccessfully to make a living as an artist for forty years. For at least twenty-five years, he has been talking about the masterpiece which he will paint one day. However, he has not yet made a mark on the canvas which he has set aside for his masterpiece. He hardly ever paints anything now and makes a meager living by posing as a model for younger artists. Sue tells Behrman about how Johnsy thinks that her life is connected to the leaves on the vine and that she will die when the last leaf falls. Behrman dismisses this as nonsense.
The night is a stormy one. In the morning, Johnsy expects to find that the last leaf has fallen. She is surprised to find that there is still one leaf on the vine. The leaf is still green at the base, although the edges have turned yellow. Nevertheless, Johnsy expects that the leaf will fall and that she will die before the end of the day. When, after another stormy night, the leaf is still in place the following morning, Johnsy asks for food and drink and talks about how she plans to paint the Bay of Naples one day. The doctor is confident that she will make a full recovery.
Sue is informed that Behrman has also caught pneumonia and has been taken to hospital. He dies the following day. Sue tells Johnsy that Behrman was found, after having gone out on a damp and stormy night, icy cold and wearing soaking wet clothes and shoes. Paintbrushes were found scattered around him as well as a palette with green and yellow paint on it. Sue points out to Johnsy that the one remaining leaf does not move in the wind. The reason for this is because it was painted onto the wall by Behrman. Sue declares the painting of the last leaf to be Behrman's masterpiece.
A short silent film based on "The Last Leaf" was released in the United States in 1917.
"The Last Leaf" is one of five short stories by O. Henry to be adapted for the 1952 American anthology film O. Henry's Full House. The segment based on "The Last Leaf", directed by Jean Negulesco, stars Anne Baxter as Joanna (the name by which Johnsy is called in the film), Jean Peters as Susan (Sue from the short story) and Gregory Ratoff as Behrman. In the film, Joanna and Susan are sisters, rather than just friends and roommates as they are in the short story. Joanna catches pneumonia after a lover throws her out of his house and she walks back to her sister's apartment in the snow. When Joanna first falls ill, the vine has twenty-one leaves on it. She thinks that this is significant because she is twenty-one years old. Behrman dies not from pneumonia but as a result of falling off his stepladder while painting the leaf on the wall. Susan does not tell Joanna the truth about the painted leaf but hints that she will do so in the future when Joanna has fully recovered. A running gag in the film is that Behrman has not been successful as an artist because he is ahead of his time. Nobody in New York at the turn of the 20th century likes or understands the abstract art which Behrman creates. An art dealer tells him that his pictures may be popular in the year 1950.
A short film based on "The Last Leaf", starring Art Carney as Behrman, was released in 1983. As in O. Henry's Full House, the two main female characters are sisters named Joanna (played by Jane Kaczmarek) and Susan (played by Sydney Perry). It is fourteen-year old Susan who becomes ill with pneumonia. Behrman is French in the film. Although he has never completed his masterpiece, he is a hard working artist who is not without talent. There is also no suggestion that he ever drinks to excess. The film was financed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A title card at the start of the movie declares it to be "a parable for Easter". The film seeks to draw a parallel between Behrman, who sacrifices his life so that someone else may live, and Jesus.
The 2013 Hindi-language film from India Lootera ("Robber") is credited as being inspired by "The Last Leaf".
- ↑ Although it is not explicitly stated in the story, Behrman appears to be an immigrant whose first language is German. This is indicated by the way in which he mispronounces several words, saying, "haf" for "have", "bose" for "pose", "pusiness" for "business", "vy" for "why", "dot" for "that" and "Yohnsy" for "Johnsy".
- ↑ Other segments in the film O. Henry's Full House are based on "The Cop and the Anthem", "The Clarion Call", "The Ransom of Red Chief" and "The Gift of the Magi".