Some years ago, I did a favor for a psychic and she offered me an intuitive reading in return. I said I’d like it as soon as possible, as I’d received the most important letter. I was in the midst of an affair with a novelist and we’d parted, sadly, a week or so earlier. His short, to-the-point letter reiterated our difference of opinion and our shared hope that we might work it out. We never did, but I always remember the power of that paper, the stamp, my address written out, his signature affixed to his words, outweighing anything a fiber optic cable could deliver, no matter the speed.
Literature is filled with great epistolary exchanges. Perhaps the most famous is Dangerous Liaisons, told entirely through letters, but in terms of the sheer power of a single letter to revive a storyline, I’d have to go with Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The heroine spends the entire novel unsure, and then, with a single missive, it all comes together. I had to pull it off the shelf tonight to reread it, and the opening lines affected me just as they always have: I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever…
This past January, I resolved to write more letters, and with my Dempsey & Carroll engraved house stationery, made out to Emily Post’s 1922 specifications –– “Thin white paper, with monogram or address stamped in gray to match gray tissue lining of the envelope is for instance, in very best taste.” –– I have. I write them all out with a beautiful silver pen sent to me by an editor whom I greatly admire, but this one’s nice, too.
After a memorable party, evening, or any other occasion worth noting, it gives me great pleasure to dash off a note to a friend with gratitude for the gift of his or her time. One of my regular correspondents is the novelist Emma Straub, who wrote this year’s marvelous Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, about a small town girl who makes good in the Golden Age of Hollywood, and that’s just the beginning.
Emma has sent me many lovely notes for this or that, but one of my favorites came while she was on tour for her book, on hotel stationary from Los Angeles, with her room number charmingly noted as the return address.
Certain letters I can quote from memory, as in one of the only recently famous ones between Marlene Dietrich and Ernest Hemingway –– only ever said to be just friends –– came up at auction and were widely reported on. On June 19, 1950, 4 a.m., said he, “What do you really want to do for a life work? Break everybody’s heart for a dime? You could always break mine for a nickel and I’d bring the nickel.”
Like a swimming pool, the Letters of Noel Coward are irresistibly satisfying to dip into any time. Whether life is up, down, backward or forward, he finds the right words, even when it’s obvious that to do so requires extraordinary effort: BLUE HARBOUR, PORT MARIA, JAMAICA, WEST INDIES, 18th February 1965: “Let me hear from you. Just an ordinary love letter will do.”
Lauren Cerand, Publicist & Guest Blogger