Requiem for Letters

These days most of the hand- or typewritten letters we usually receive are “official” or “junk” correspondence. Email is, after all, quicker and easier for personal greetings. However, personal letters and cards make better artifacts.

Recently, I uncovered a cache of letters I had saved since the 1970s from artists and writers with whom I had corresponded with for various reasons. The batch includes missives from Tom Wolfe, Robert Rauschenberg, Red Grooms, Gyorgy Kepes, Andre Francois, Fritz Eichenberg, Roland Topor, Milton Glaser, Tomi Ungerer, Erik Nitsche, Paul Rand and many others. Funnily, as I read these short and long letters, I recalled almost every one, if not verbatim, then at least that I received them. I can’t say I have the same recall of emails.

A few of those artifacts are reproduced here. From R. Crumb (1982),  Feliks Topolski (the great chronicler of the passing scene, 1983) and George Nelson (1985).

Before the early 70s I didn’t save letters, and I had received some great ones from Spanish painter Joan Miro (who wanted a subscription to The New York Review of Sex), Salvador Dali (who turned me down for a design commission), and even President Dwight D. Eisenhower (who rejected my invitation for dinner – I was just seven years old).

Incidentally, here are some other fascinating letters –  job rejections I found sent to an educated young woman, Zola Shirey, who was vigorously trying to build her career in the hospitality industry during the Great Depression. They were beautifully reprinted in Esopus magazine. I guarantee they will break your heart.

7 thoughts on “Requiem for Letters

  1. Richard

    A wonderful, timely article as I have just vowed to write more letters and less email this year. Letters certainly are more memorable, especially when written on paper like that used by Feliks Topolski.

  2. Byron Goldstein

    Steven — 
    Not dead yet!  In my work with young people (college admissons counseling) I always advise handwritten thank you notes in an envelope with a stamp.  I advise the same for my high tech marketing clients for their corresondence.  We get great results!
    I would have written and US mailed you a note to this effect, but I don’t have your US mail address – ha-ha!
    Byron L. Goldstein

  3. RWordplay

    Apropos of Mr. Lynch’s post. He reminded me of one one my great losses. When my family moved from New York to Los Angeles, in 1965, my grandfather wrote my brothers and me every week. His letters were filled with events and adventures, real and imagined. In each envelope he enclosed three $5 bills. Greedy children we were, my brothers and I glanced at his handwritten letters and grabbed the cash. These letters arrived for years. I think in the ugliness that characterized my parents divorce these letters ended up in fireplace. I wish I had them today. The last family correspondence I have is a card  sent by my grandmother, my father’s stepmother, explaining that she will mail him my grandfather’s personal effects, ring, watches, etc., and asking him not to stop by and retrieve them. She was broken by pain and anger but her script was easy and fluid, the scratching of her fountain pen revealed nothing of her emotional state. Why my father kept the card, that was an much an indictment as a note, remains a mystery to me.
    I suspect people are already buying a stashes of strangers’ letters at flea markets, in the hope of reconstructing their own stories, or in search of material for their fictions.

  4. RWordplay

    Especially timely post at this time of year, as I’ve five letters to send before I can fully embrace the New Year. The R.Crumb card, something beautiful. A Treasure.
    I am an inveterate writer of letters, fond beyond description of the battered but sound blue box on the corner (for now) standing at MacDougal and Prince. I write friends, family editors and politicians, and in recent years begun to illustrate them with images taken from around town with my BlackBerry. (I am not a photographer.) My letter folder has copies of letters I’ve written for more than a dozen years, and I’ve two paper archival boxes, and one antique Japanese lacquer Sutra box stuffed with letters kept since I moved to the City in 1980. (Every so often an old girl friend asks if I have the letters she wrote from the Ivory Coast or Bombay, Paris or Rome.)  
    Writing this, the inevitable response to letters I send in the mail is one that expresses delight or anger or agreement, as the case may be, but it “arrives” invariably via email.
    In closing, one of my favorite as well as most successful headlines I’ve ever written was a newspaper ad I wrote more than a decade ago for Sam Flax. It read: “It’s not a love letter if it’s sent by email.” It sold quite a few MontBlanc pens but proved I’ve no gift for prophecy.

  5. Bernard M Jr Lynch

    PS. One more note: 
    It’s heartwarming to have letters from friends and relatives who died from AIDS in the years from 1982 – 1988, for me. AIDS was such a scourge on a generation, I treasure these letters as much as I treasure the notes from my mom or grandmother. The generation who never knew computers left me something richer. And, also, you know what their handwriting actually looked like, which is so personal it’ll never come across in this digital world.

  6. Bernard M Jr Lynch

    Your posting today hit a great nerve, in both a positive and negative manner. While I cannot even stack up my backlog of handwritten correspondence (only a letter from President Bill Clinton and a handwritten note or two from the late, great photographer Arnold Newman), I have, what is to me, an abundance of treasures in letters from my dearly departed grandmother, who would have turned 100 this month, as well as letters from friends across the ages, my mom when I was away at Syracuse studying photography, and various friends which whom I kept in touch spanning the globe. These letters received, along with 28 years of handwritten diaries, are the very foundation of my “true and accurate” memoir (re: A Million Little Pieces). And given that I am a photographer of some 31 years, I can track what I was shooting along with what I was feeling and how I developed as a photographer, person, and artist. I tell my students today: you don’t know what you are missing by having a digital life. I’m looking at a 1st edition copy of John Loengard’s brilliant CELEBRATING THE NEGATIVE, realizing I’m not “celebrating the megabytes.”
    So RIGHT ON! or WRITE ON! The paper and pen are not dead, and while the computer is quick and convenient, I still drag out even post-it notes to get thoughts out of my head and onto paper.
    Brilliant read today. Good for you!