As the years go by, we may begin to offload the ill-fitting sweaters, the never lit sand cast candles, and the Styrofoam ball snowmen. But a present made of words takes up very little space, and it has the Ghost of Christmas Past’s power to instantly evoke the sender as they once were.
Seventy years ago, poet Langston Hughes, too skint to go Christmas shopping, sent everyone on his gift list simple, homemade holiday postcards. Typed on white cardstock, each signed card was embellished with red and green pencils and mailed for the price of a 3¢ stamp.
Although he had recently purchased an East Harlem brownstone with an older couple who doted on him as they would a son, providing him with a sunny, top floor workspace, 1950 was far from his favorite year.
His typewritten holiday couplets took things out on a jaunty note, while paying light lip service to his plight.
Why? Like other famous figures to whom spurious words are attributed, Einstein isn’t just well-known, he is revered, a celebrity, and celebrities are people we feel we know intimately. (A common defense for fake-quote-sharing goes: “Well, if he didn’t say it, then it’s exactly the kind of thing he would say.”) Discussing the theft of Einstein’s brain after his death, Ross Anderson at Aeon observes that “an ordinary person can live and die privately, but a genius—and his grey matter—belongs to the world.” We might add, “and so do the intimate details of his private life.”
The letters are real, and they are “spicy,” as YouTuber Tibees shows us in the video at the top. No awkward private expression is safe: we begin with letters Einstein wrote to his high school girlfriend, Marie Winteler, including a breakup letter at 3:13. The excerpts here are all timestamped on the video’s YouTube page, with helpful summaries like “Einstein’s mom trying to break them up” (them being Albert and Mileva), “Einstein having an affair with his cousin Elsa,” “Breaking up with Elsa,” and “Getting back with Elsa.”
Elsa, you may know, was Einstein’s second wife, in addition to being his cousin, and the cause of his separation and divorce from Mileva, to whom he had professed undying devotion. In the interest of fully invading the genius’s privacy, we have, above, some readings of his harsh “divorce letters” to Mileva, with hits like “Separation,” “Proposing divorce,” and “Court proceedings.” Love may or may not be a “universal force”—we do not, sadly, have Einstein’s thoughts on the matter—but we do know he found it a troublingly chaotic, unpredictable one.
Painter Diego Rivera set the bar awfully high for other lovers when he—allegedly—ate a handful of his ex-wife Frida Kahlo’s cremains, fresh from the oven.
Perhaps he was hedging his bets. The Mexican government opted not to honor his express wish that their ashes should be co-mingled upon his death. Kahlo’s remains were placed in Mexico City’s Rotunda of Illustrious Men, and have since been transferred to their home, now the Museo Frida Kahlo.
And a locked bathroom in which he decreed 6,000 photographs, 300 of Kahlo’s garments and personal items, and 12,000 documents were to be housed until 15 years after his death.
Among the many revelations when this chamber was belatedly unsealed in 2004, her clothing caused the biggest stir, particularly the ways in which the colorful garments were adapted to and informed by her physical disabilities.
These treasures might have come to light earlier save for a judgment call on the part of Dolores Olmedo, Rivera’s patron, former model, and friend. During renovations to turn the couple’s home into a museum, she had a peek and decided the lipstick-imprinted love letters from some famous men Frida had bedded could damage Rivera’s reputation.
In what way, it’s difficult to parse.
The couple’s history of extramarital relations (including Rivera’s dalliance with Kahlo’s sister, Christina) weren’t exactly secret, and both of the players had left the building.
One thing that’s taken for granted is Kahlo’s passion for Rivera, whom she met as girl of 15. Tempting as it might be to view the relationship with 2020 goggles, it would be a disservice to Kahlo’s sense of her own narrative. Self-examination was central to her work. She was characteristically avid in letters and diary entries, detailing her physical attraction to every aspect of Rivera’s body, including his giant belly “drawn tight and smooth as a sphere.” Ditto her obsession with his many conquests.
Not surprisingly, she was capable of penning a pretty spicy love letter herself, and the majority were aimed at her husband:
Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. The dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.
Her most notorious love letter does not appear to be one at first.
Bedridden, and facing the amputation of a gangrenous right leg that had already sacrificed some toes 20 years earlier, she directed the full force of her emotions at Rivera.
The lover she’d tenderly pegged as “a boy frog standing on his hind legs” now appeared to her an “ugly son of a bitch,” maddeningly possessed of the power to seduce women (as he had seduced her).
You have to read all the way to the twist:
My dear Mr. Diego,
I’m writing this letter from a hospital room before I am admitted into the operating theatre. They want me to hurry, but I am determined to finish writing first, as I don’t want to leave anything unfinished. Especially now that I know what they are up to. They want to hurt my pride by cutting a leg off. When they told me it would be necessary to amputate, the news didn’t affect me the way everybody expected. No, I was already a maimed woman when I lost you, again, for the umpteenth time maybe, and still I survived.
I am not afraid of pain and you know it. It is almost inherent to my being, although I confess that I suffered, and a great deal, when you cheated on me, every time you did it, not just with my sister but with so many other women. How did they let themselves be fooled by you? You believe I was furious about Cristina, but today I confess that it wasn’t because of her. It was because of me and you. First of all because of me, since I’ve never been able to understand what you looked and look for, what they give you that I couldn’t. Let’s not fool ourselves, Diego, I gave you everything that is humanly possible to offer and we both know that. But still, how the hell do you manage to seduce so many women when you’re such an ugly son of a bitch?
The reason why I’m writing is not to accuse you of anything more than we’ve already accused each other of in this and however many more bloody lives. It’s because I’m having a leg cut off (damned thing, it got what it wanted in the end). I told you I’ve counted myself as incomplete for a long time, but why the fuck does everybody else need to know about it too? Now my fragmentation will be obvious for everyone to see, for you to see… That’s why I’m telling you before you hear it on the grapevine. Forgive my not going to your house to say this in person, but given the circumstances and my condition, I’m not allowed to leave the room, not even to use the bathroom. It’s not my intention to make you or anyone else feel pity, and I don’t want you to feel guilty. I’m writing to let you know I’m releasing you, I’m amputating you. Be happy and never seek me again. I don’t want to hear from you, I don’t want you to hear from me. If there is anything I’d enjoy before I die, it’d be not having to see your fucking horrible bastard face wandering around my garden.
That is all, I can now go to be chopped up in peace.
Good bye from somebody who is crazy and vehemently in love with you,
No doubt, she was sincere, but this couple, rather than holding themselves accountable, excelled at reversals. In the end the letter’s threat proved idle. Shortly before her death, the two appeared together in public, at a demonstration to protest the C.I.A.’s efforts to overthrow the leftist Guatemalan regime.
Once Frida was safely laid to rest, by which we mean rumored to have sat bolt upright as her casket was slid into the incerator, Rivera mused in his autobiography:
Too late now I realized the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida. But I could not really say that given “another chance” I would have behaved toward her any differently than I had. Every man is the product of the social atmosphere in which he grows up and I am what I am…I had never had any morals at all and had lived only for pleasure where I found it. I was not good. I could discern other people’s weaknesses easily, especially men’s, and then I would play upon them for no worthwhile reason. If I loved a woman, the more I wanted to hurt her. Frida was only the most obvious victim of this disgusting trait.
They’re also on display in his message to then-undergrad Luke Messac, now an emergency medicine resident at Brown University, whose research focuses on the histories of health policy in southern Africa and the US, and who recently tweeted:
13 years ago, I emailed Dr. Fauci out of the blue to ask if I might interview him for my undergrad thesis. He invited me to his office, where he answered all my questions. When I sent him the thesis, HE READ THE WHOLE THING (see his overly effusive review below). Who does that?!
Here’s what Fauci had to say to the young scientist:
It certainly reads like the work of a class act.
In addition to serving as one of the COVID-19 pandemic’s most recognizable faces, Dr. Fauci has acquired another duty—that of scapegoat for Donald Trump, the 6th president he has answered to in his long career.
He seems to be taking the administration’s potshots with a characteristically cool head, though compared to the furious criticisms AIDS activists directed his way in the 80s and 90s, he’s unlikely to find much of educational value in them.
Last March, The Body Pro, a newsletter for workers on the front lines of HIV education, prevention, care, and services quoted ACT UP NY’s Jim Eigo on the doctor’s response to a letter demanding parallel tracking, a policy revision that would put potentially life-saving drugs in the hands of those who tested positive far earlier than the existing clinical trial requirements’ schedule would have allowed:
Lo and behold, he read the letter and liked it, and the following year he started promoting the idea of a parallel track for AIDS drugs to the FDA. Had he not helped us push that through, we couldn’t have gotten a lot of the cousin drugs to AZT, such as ddC and ddI, approved so fast. They were problematic drugs, but without them, we couldn’t have kept so many people alive.
Fauci, despite being straight and Catholic, was not only not homophobic, which much of medical practice still was in the late 1980s, he also wouldn’t tolerate homophobia among his colleagues. He knew there was no place for that in a public-health crisis.
Speaking of correspondence, Dr Messac seems to have taken the “perpetual student” concept Dr. Fauci impressed upon him back in 2007 to heart, as evidenced by a recent tweet, regarding a lesson gleaned from Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron, a 1977 documentary about bodybuilders:
Schwarzenegger explained how he would figure out what to work out every day by looking in a mirror and finding his weakest muscles. It’s pretty good advice for studying during residency. Every shift reveals a weakness, and greats never stop looking for their own.
In writing to Messac, Dr. Fauci alluded to his commencement speeches, so we thought it appropriate to leave you with one of his most recent ones, a virtual address to the graduating class of his alma mater, College of the Holy Cross:
“Now is the time, if ever there was one” he tells the Class of 2020, “to care selflessly about one another… Stay safe, and I look forward to the good work you will contribute in the years ahead.”
People have been graduating from college this year who are as old as the role of internet truther. It is a venerable hobby (some might call it a cult) leading increasing numbers of people to bizarre conclusions drawn from dubious evidence proffered by spurious sources; people convinced that some wild allegation or other must be true because they saw it on the Internet, shared by people they knew and liked.
Twenty years ago, one pioneering truther wrote Mr. Neil Armstrong to put him in his place about that bugbear, the faked moon landing. The author of the letter, a Mr. Whitman, identifies himself as a “teacher of young children” charged with “a duty to tell them history as it truly happened, and not a pack of lies and deceit.” His letter shows some difficulty with grammar, and even more with critical thinking and standards of evidence.
Mr. Whitman makes his accusations with certainty and smugness. “Perhaps you are totally unaware,” he writes, “of all the evidence circulating the globe via the Internet,” which he then summarizes.
He also sends Neil Armstrong—an astronaut who either walked on the Moon or engaged in perhaps the greatest conspiracy in history—a URL, “to see for yourself how ridiculous the Moon landing claim looks 30 years on.” Whitman sent Armstrong the letter on the astronaut’s 70th birthday.
Armstrong’s response, via Letters of Note, can be read in full above. Perhaps Mr. Whitman learned something from the exchange—or had a moment of clarity about his methods of investigation. One can hope. In any case, Armstrong’s unsparing reply serves as a template for responding—should someone be so inclined—to internet truthers armed with wild conspiracy theories 20 years later. These letters have been collected in A Reluctant Icon: Letters to Neil Armstrong.
Though the coronavirus pandemic has put a stop to many formerly normal activities around the world, it’s hardly put a stop to global communication. In fact, it’s almost certainly intensified global communication, what with all the attention the struggle against COVID-19 commands from 24-hour media professionals — and all the time and energy the rest of us have put into social media as a substitute for socialization. But how would we have communicated amid a pandemic of this kind in an age before the internet? Assuming postal services remained in good working order, we would, of course, have written letters to each other.
We can still write letters to each other in the 21st century, but now we can also read them to each other, wherever in the world we may be. This is the basis for the #ReadALetter campaign, which actor Benedict Cumberbatch introduces in the video at the top of the post. “I really hope this letter finds you in good spirits as we navigate our way through this truly surreal crisis, where upheaval and uncertainty are daily realities,” he says, reading aloud a missive composed at his home and meant for the world at large.
“But so, thankfully, is the totally inspiring self-sacrifice, togetherness, courage, generosity, and camaraderie the people are exhibiting.” It is those honorable qualities, Cumberbatch continues, that “we at Letters Live are looking for a way to celebrate through our favorite medium of the letter.”
You may remember Letters Live, a series of events inspired by Letters of Note, from when we’ve previously featured Cumberbatch’s appearances there interpreting correspondence by the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Albert Camus, and Alan Turing. The stars of Letters Live have heretofore been historically important letter-writers and the skilled professional performers who read their words. But now, Cumberbatch says, “we want to hear you read letters. They can be letters to the heroes on the front line. They could be letters to relatives in need. They could be letters to strangers who have stepped up and made a difference. They could be letters to neighboring families or streets or towns or countries.” To participate, you need only use a camera phone to record yourself reading a letter aloud, then post that video on Twitter or Instagram and send it to email@example.com.
What you read on camera (or off it, if you prefer) could be “an important letter you have always wanted to send, or a cherished letter you once received. It could be a favorite letter of yours that offers hope in our current crisis or a prescient warning too important to be ignored.” Here we’ve included the #ReadALetter videos so far contributed by other notables including Margaret Atwood, Stephen Fry, and Griffin Dunne, who reads a letter his father Dominick Dunne wrote when he put himself into isolation for creative purposes in 1980. Other participants from all walks of life include a rabbi, a college student, an emergency department doctor, and even a couple of nonagenarians. If you need more inspiration to #ReadALetter yourself, revisit Cumberbatch’s Letters of Live performance of Sol Lewitt’s 1965 letter to Eva Hesse, the one in which he delivers invaluable words of advice: “Stop It and Just DO.”
She spent much of that year shooting what would be her final completed movie – The Misfits (see a still from the trailer above). Arthur Miller penned the film, which is about a beautiful, fragile woman who falls in love with a much older man. The script was pretty clearly based on his own troubled marriage with Monroe. The production was by all accounts spectacularly punishing. Shot in the deserts of Nevada, the temperature on set would regularly climb north of 100 degrees. Director John Huston spent much of the shoot ragingly drunk. Star Clark Gable dropped dead from a heart attack less than a week after production wrapped. And Monroe watched as her husband, who was on set, fell in love with photographer Inge Morath. Never one blessed with confidence or a thick skin, Monroe retreated into a daze of prescription drugs. Monroe and Miller announced their divorce on November 11, 1960.
A few months later, the emotionally exhausted movie star was committed by her psychoanalyst Dr. Marianne Kris to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York. Monroe thought she was going in for a rest cure. Instead, she was escorted to a padded cell. The four days she spent in the psych ward proved to be among the most distressing of her life.
In a riveting 6-page letter to her other shrink, Dr. Ralph Greenson, written soon after her release, she detailed her terrifying experience.
There was no empathy at Payne-Whitney — it had a very bad effect — they asked me after putting me in a “cell” (I mean cement blocks and all) for very disturbed depressed patients (except I felt I was in some kind of prison for a crime I hadn’t committed. The inhumanity there I found archaic. They asked me why I wasn’t happy there (everything was under lock and key; things like electric lights, dresser drawers, bathrooms, closets, bars concealed on the windows — the doors have windows so patients can be visible all the time, also, the violence and markings still remain on the walls from former patients). I answered: “Well, I’d have to be nuts if I like it here.”
Monroe quickly became desperate.
I sat on the bed trying to figure if I was given this situation in an acting improvisation what would I do. So I figured, it’s a squeaky wheel that gets the grease. I admit it was a loud squeak but I got the idea from a movie I made once called “Don’t Bother to Knock”. I picked up a light-weight chair and slammed it, and it was hard to do because I had never broken anything in my life — against the glass intentionally. It took a lot of banging to get even a small piece of glass – so I went over with the glass concealed in my hand and sat quietly on the bed waiting for them to come in. They did, and I said to them “If you are going to treat me like a nut I’ll act like a nut”. I admit the next thing is corny but I really did it in the movie except it was with a razor blade. I indicated if they didn’t let me out I would harm myself — the furthest thing from my mind at that moment since you know Dr. Greenson I’m an actress and would never intentionally mark or mar myself. I’m just that vain.
During her four days there, she was subjected to forced baths and a complete loss of privacy and personal freedom. The more she sobbed and resisted, the more the doctors there thought she might actually be psychotic. Monroe’s second husband, Joe DiMaggio, rescued her by getting her released early, over the objections of the staff.
You can read the full letter (where she also talks about reading the letters of Sigmund Freud) over at Letters of Note. And while there, make sure you pick up a copy of the very elegant Letters of Note book.
Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in August 2015.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.
These two lions may have come at their respective crafts from different angles, but Sir Ian did Vonnegut proud, above, as part of Letters Live, an ongoing celebration of the enduring power of literary correspondence.
One was fairly universal, the sort of thing one might encounter in a commencement address: make art and in so doing, learn about life, and yourself.
The other was more concrete:
Write a 6 line rhyming poem
Don’t show it or recite it to anyone.
Tear it up into little pieces
Discard the pieces in widely separated trash receptacles
A chance for Xavier High School’s all male student body to air romantic feelings without fear of discovery or rejection?
Mayhaps, but the true purpose of the second assignment is encapsulated in the first—to “experience becoming” through a creative act.
This notion clearly strikes a chord with Sir Ian, 17 years younger than Vonnegut but by the time of the 2016 performance, closing in on the iguana-like age Vonnegut had been when he wrote the letter.
Should we attribute the quiver on the closing line to acting or genuine emotion on Sir Ian’s part?
Either way, it’s a lovely rendition.
November 5, 2006
Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:
I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.
Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
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