Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Nick Cave’s Beautiful Letter About Grief

We would rather not grieve. Because we avoid it, death can leave us numb, and we may not know how to talk about it with­out turn­ing loss into a les­son. “Even when it’s expect­ed, death or loss still comes as a sur­prise,” writes psy­chother­a­pist Megan Devine in her book on griev­ing, It’s OK That You’re Not OKAnd in grief, it can so hap­pen that “oth­er­wise intel­li­gent peo­ple have start­ed spout­ing slo­gans and plat­i­tudes, try­ing to cheer you up. Try­ing to take away your pain.” Every­thing hap­pens for a rea­son, they’re in a bet­ter place, they’d want you to be hap­py, this will make you stronger….! How­ev­er well-inten­tioned, “plat­i­tudes and cheer­lead­ing solve noth­ing.”

Is loss a prob­lem to be solved? Can we avoid grief with­out shut­ting out the inti­ma­cy of love? There are many sage answers to these ques­tions. Few, for exam­ple, have writ­ten as ele­gant­ly or ago­nized as pub­licly about love and loss as singer Nick Cave of The Birth­day Par­ty and The Bad Seeds. These are sub­jects to which he returns on album after album and in entries of his cult-favorite blog The Red Hand Files, where Cave pub­lish­es answers to an assort­ment of fan ques­tions.

Mus­ing in 2019 on whether arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence will ever pro­duce a great song, for exam­ple, Cave states one of his major themes plain­ly: “A sense of awe is almost exclu­sive­ly pred­i­cat­ed on our lim­i­ta­tions as human beings. It is entire­ly to do with our audac­i­ty as humans to reach beyond our poten­tial.” From this capac­i­ty come our great­est imag­i­na­tive feats, Cave writes: our abil­i­ty to con­jure “bright phan­toms” in our deep­est grief.

Cave wrote these last words in 2018 to a fan named Cyn­thia who told him about her fam­i­ly’s loss­es and asked the singer if he and his wife Susie com­mu­ni­cat­ed with their son Arthur, who died trag­i­cal­ly in 2015. In answer, Cave avoids the clich­es that Devine says do noth­ing for us. He nei­ther denies the real­i­ty of Cyn­thi­a’s pain, nor does he leave her with­out hope for “change and growth and redemp­tion.”

Dear Cyn­thia,

This is a very beau­ti­ful ques­tion and I am grate­ful that you have asked it. It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are for­ev­er inter­twined. Grief is the ter­ri­ble reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-nego­tiable. There is a vast­ness to grief that over­whelms our minus­cule selves. We are tiny, trem­bling clus­ters of atoms sub­sumed with­in grief’s awe­some pres­ence. It occu­pies the core of our being and extends through our fin­gers to the lim­its of the uni­verse. With­in that whirling gyre all man­ner of mad­ness­es exist; ghosts and spir­its and dream vis­i­ta­tions, and every­thing else that we, in our anguish, will into exis­tence. These are pre­cious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spir­it guides that lead us out of the dark­ness.

I feel the pres­ence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, par­ent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He vis­its Susie in her sleep reg­u­lar­ly, speaks to her, com­forts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phan­toms in its wake. These spir­its are ideas, essen­tial­ly. They are our stunned imag­i­na­tions reawak­en­ing after the calami­ty. Like ideas, these spir­its speak of pos­si­bil­i­ty. Fol­low your ideas, because on the oth­er side of the idea is change and growth and redemp­tion. Cre­ate your spir­its. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impos­si­ble and ghost­ly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jet­ti­soned; bet­ter now and unimag­in­ably changed.

With love, Nick

Cave’s full let­ter, above, is as elo­quent a piece of writ­ing on grief and loss, in its way, as John Don­ne’s famous med­i­ta­tion (a poet for whom Nick Cave has a “soft spot,” he writes in anoth­er entry). At the top, you can hear a very mov­ing read­ing of the text by Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch for Let­ters Live. Read more of Cave’s brief-but-deep med­i­ta­tions and lyri­cal replies at The Red Hand Files.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Nick Cave Answers the Hot­ly Debat­ed Ques­tion: Will Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

How Do You Help a Griev­ing Friend? Acknowl­edge Their Pain and Skip the Plat­i­tudes & Facile Advice

An Ani­mat­ed Leonard Cohen Offers Reflec­tions on Death: Thought-Pro­vok­ing Excerpts from His Final Inter­view

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Sir Ben Kingsley Reads a Letter Written by Gandhi to Hitler (in the Voice of Mahatma Gandhi)

Sev­er­al years before Indi­an inde­pen­dence as World War loomed, Mahat­ma Gand­hi found he had lit­tle sway in inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics even as he built his move­ment at home. The phi­los­o­phy of satya­gra­ha did not sound noble to the British in 1939, for exam­ple, when the Indi­an leader wrote a let­ter exhort­ing them to let the Ger­mans take their coun­try, their homes, and even their lives rather than fight back. That same year, he wrote to Hitler, address­ing him as “Dear Friend” and writ­ing, “It is quite clear that you are today the one per­son in the world who can pre­vent a war which may reduce human­i­ty to a sav­age state.”

Gand­hi’s first 1939 let­ter to Hitler implies that the Führer was the only world leader who want­ed such a war. The Indi­an leader ful­ly under­stood the stakes. “My sym­pa­thies are all with the Jews,” he’d writ­ten in a 1938 arti­cle. “If there ever could be a jus­ti­fi­able war, in the name of and for human­i­ty, war against Ger­many to pre­vent the wan­ton per­se­cu­tion of a whole race would be com­plete­ly jus­ti­fied.” Still, he con­clud­ed, “I do not believe in any war.” He stuck to his prin­ci­ples even after Ger­many’s inva­sion of Poland in 1939.

“Not deterred by the out­break of war,” Alexan­der LaCasse writes at the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, “Gand­hi wrote to Hitler a sec­ond time.” Just above, you can see Sir Ben Kings­ley read that let­ter, in char­ac­ter as Gand­hi and per­haps sound­ing much like Gand­hi did when read­ing his let­ters aloud. Gand­hi “took cor­re­spon­dence very seri­ous­ly,” Nick Owen writes, and he “wrote — and was writ­ten to by — almost any­one.” In this much longer let­ter from 1940, Gand­hi extols the prac­ti­cal virtues of non-vio­lence and attempts some moral rea­son­ing:

If not the British, some oth­er pow­er will cer­tain­ly improve upon your method and beat you with your own weapon. You are leav­ing no lega­cy to your peo­ple of which they would feel proud. They can­not take pride in a recital of a cru­el deed, how­ev­er skill­ful­ly planned. I, there­fore, appeal to you in the name of human­i­ty to stop the war.

“There is no evi­dence to sug­gest Hitler ever respond­ed to,” or even read, “either of Gand­hi’s let­ters,” writes LaCasse. And maybe lit­tle evi­dence that Gand­hi expect­ed a response. “I am aware that your view of life regards such spo­li­a­tions as vir­tu­ous acts,” he writes. “But we have been taught from child­hood to regard them as acts degrad­ing human­i­ty.” He con­tin­ues to pro­fess Hitler a friend, writ­ing “I own no foes. My busi­ness in life has been for the past 33 years to enlist the friend­ship of the whole of human­i­ty.”

Before his death in 1948, Gand­hi called the Holo­caust “the great­est crime of our time.” Accord­ing to a biog­ra­ph­er, he also added, “the Jews should have offered them­selves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown them­selves into the sea from cliffs. It would have aroused the world and the peo­ple of Ger­many.” Had he sug­gest­ed this in a let­ter to Europe’s Jews, it is unlike­ly they would have been per­suad­ed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Jung Psy­cho­an­a­lyzes Hitler: “He’s the Uncon­scious of 78 Mil­lion Ger­mans.” “With­out the Ger­man Peo­ple He’d Be Noth­ing” (1938)

When Mahat­ma Gand­hi Met Char­lie Chap­lin (1931)

Mahat­ma Gandhi’s List of the 7 Social Sins; or Tips on How to Avoid Liv­ing the Bad Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Watch Brian Cox of “Succession” Read Hunter S. Thompson’s Profanity-Laden Letter

Bri­an Cox has maneu­vered over four decades of act­ing while remain­ing a bit anony­mous from one role to the next. Or at least that was the case until his star turn as Logan Roy, the sten­to­ri­an patri­arch at the cen­ter of HBO’s Suc­ces­sion. Now it is hard to sep­a­rate Cox from his char­ac­ter. His way of deliv­er­ing the deli­cious insults of the show’s scripts are both fright­en­ing and hilarious–as is his way of punc­tu­at­ing a scene with two sim­ple words: “Fuc& Off.”

Look, we try to keep swear­ing to a min­i­mum on this site, but Cox does won­ders with that phrase. Just watch one of the many super­cuts of Logan Roy say­ing it, and hear a mas­ter at work.

So the clip above, from a UK event series called Let­ters Live, shows why Cox is a per­fect fit to read Hunter S. Thompson’s let­ter to a cer­tain Dave Allen, direc­tor of pro­gram­ming at the writer’s local net­work affil­i­ate, KREX-TV. Allen had tak­en the CBS news off the local sta­tion, and Thomp­son was hav­ing none of it.

Thomp­son wrote many blis­ter­ing, pro­fan­i­ty-laden let­ters from his Col­orado home. The above was col­lect­ed in Hunter S. Thomp­son, Fear and Loathing in Amer­i­ca: The Bru­tal Odyssey of an Out­law Jour­nal­ist (Gonzo Let­ters, Vol­ume II, 1968–1976). Allen joins a list of recip­i­ents of Thompson’s ven­om that includes his edi­tor at Ran­dom House, Loren Jenk­ins of Newsweek, Paul Gor­man of WBAI-FM, and many oth­ers, most of whom owed him mon­ey for this or that writ­ing assign­ment.

Let­ters Live keeps its epis­tles short, and Bri­an Cox acts out Thompson’s short note, pour­ing con­tempt through every turn of phrase.

The pro­jec­t’s YouTube chan­nel offers many oth­er let­ters from his­to­ry, read by actors like Olivia Cole­man, Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, Stephen Fry, Matt Berry, Carey Mul­li­gan, Gillian Ander­son, Ian McK­ellen, and many more. It’s worth check­ing out, espe­cial­ly if his­tor­i­cal swear­ing is your thing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hunter S. Thomp­son Writes a Blis­ter­ing, Over-the-Top Let­ter to Antho­ny Burgess (1973)

Hunter S. Thomp­son Calls Tech Sup­port, Unleash­es a Tirade Full of Fear and Loathing (NSFW)

Shake­speare­an Actor Bri­an Cox Teach­es Hamlet’s Solil­o­quy to a 2‑Year-Old Child

The His­to­ry of Ancient Greece in 18 Min­utes: A Brisk Primer Nar­rat­ed by Bri­an Cox

The Scotch Pro­nun­ci­a­tion Guide: Bri­an Cox Teach­es You How To Ask Authen­ti­cal­ly for 40 Scotch­es

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads “the Best Cover Letter Ever Written”

In the 1930s, many a writer jour­neyed to Hol­ly­wood in order to make his for­tune. The screen­writer’s life did­n’t sit well with some of them — just ask F. Scott Fitzger­ald or William Faulkn­er — but a fair few made more than a go of it out West. Take the Bal­ti­more-born Robert Pirosh, whose stud­ies at the Sor­bonne and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Berlin land­ed him a job as a copy­writer in New York. This work seems to have proven less than sat­is­fac­to­ry, as evi­denced by the piece of cor­re­spon­dence that, still in his ear­ly twen­ties, he wrote and sent to “as many direc­tors, pro­duc­ers and stu­dio exec­u­tives as he could find.” It was­n’t just a request for work; it was what Let­ters Live today calls “the best cov­er let­ter ever writ­ten.”

Pirosh’s impres­sive mis­sive, which you can hear read aloud by favorite Let­ters Live per­former Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch in the video above, runs, in full, as fol­lows:

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat but­tery words, such as ooze, turpi­tude, gluti­nous, toady. I like solemn, angu­lar, creaky words, such as strait­laced, can­tan­ker­ous, pecu­nious, vale­dic­to­ry. I like spu­ri­ous, black-is-white words, such as mor­ti­cian, liq­ui­date, ton­so­r­i­al, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Sven­gali, svelte, bravu­ra, verve. I like crunchy, brit­tle, crack­ly words, such as splin­ter, grap­ple, jos­tle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowl­ing words, such as skulk, glow­er, scab­by, churl. I like Oh-Heav­ens, my-gra­cious, land’s‑sake words, such as tricksy, tuck­er, gen­teel, hor­rid. I like ele­gant, flow­ery words, such as esti­vate, pere­gri­nate, ely­si­um, hal­cy­on. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blub­ber, squeal, drip. I like snig­gly, chuck­ling words, such as cowlick, gur­gle, bub­ble and burp.

I like the word screen­writer bet­ter than copy­writer, so I decid­ed to quit my job in a New York adver­tis­ing agency and try my luck in Hol­ly­wood, but before tak­ing the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, con­tem­pla­tion and hors­ing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?

Though not known as an unsub­tle actor, Cum­ber­batch seizes the oppor­tu­ni­ty to deliv­er each and every one of these choice words with its own vari­ety of exag­ger­at­ed rel­ish. Though none of these terms is espe­cial­ly recher­ché on its own, they must col­lec­tive­ly have giv­en the impres­sion of a for­mi­da­ble mas­tery of the Eng­lish lan­guage, espe­cial­ly to the ear of the aver­age Hol­ly­wood big-shot. One way or anoth­er, Pirosh’s let­ter did the trick: accord­ing to Let­ters of Note, it “secured him three inter­views, one of which led to his job as a junior writer at MGM. Fif­teen years lat­er,” he “won an Acad­e­my Award for Best Orig­i­nal Screen­play for his work on the war film Bat­tle­ground.”

A World War II pic­ture, Bat­tle­ground was writ­ten at least in part from Pirosh’s own expe­ri­ence: a few years into his Hol­ly­wood career, he enlist­ed and made a return to Europe, this time as a Mas­ter Sergeant in the 320th Reg­i­ment, 35th Infantry Divi­sion, see­ing action in France and Ger­many. After the war he went right back to writ­ing and pro­duc­ing, remain­ing active in the enter­tain­ment indus­try until at least the 1970s (and in fact, his writ­ing cred­its include con­tri­bu­tions to such pro­grams that defined that decade as Man­nixBarn­a­by Jones, and Hawaii Five‑O). Pirosh’s was an envi­able 20th-cen­tu­ry career, and one that began with a suit­ably brazen — and still con­vinc­ing — 20th-cen­tu­ry adver­tise­ment for him­self.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hunter S. Thompson’s Ball­sy Job Appli­ca­tion Let­ter (1958)

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Incensed Let­ter to the High School That Burned Slaugh­ter­house-Five

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Let­ter of Advice to Peo­ple Liv­ing in the Year 2088

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads a Let­ter Alan Tur­ing Wrote in “Dis­tress” Before His Con­vic­tion For “Gross Inde­cen­cy”

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Albert Camus’ Touch­ing Thank You Let­ter to His Ele­men­tary School Teacher

“Stop It and Just DO”: Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Advice on Over­com­ing Cre­ative Blocks, Writ­ten by Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse (1965)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Letter of Advice to People Living in the Year 2088

A few years ago we post­ed Kurt Von­negut’s let­ter of advice to human­i­ty, writ­ten in 1988 but addressed, a cen­tu­ry hence, to the year 2088. What­ev­er objec­tions you may have felt to read­ing this mis­sive more than 70 years pre­ma­ture­ly, you might have over­come them to find that the author of Slaugh­ter­house-Five and Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons sin­gle-mind­ed­ly impor­tuned his fel­low man of the late 21st cen­tu­ry to pro­tect the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment. He issues com­mand­ments to “reduce and sta­bi­lize your pop­u­la­tion” to “stop prepar­ing for war and start deal­ing with your real prob­lems,” and to “stop think­ing sci­ence can fix any­thing if you give it a tril­lion dol­lars,” among oth­er poten­tial­ly dras­tic-sound­ing mea­sures.

Com­mand­ment num­ber sev­en amounts to the high­ly Von­negut­ian “And so on. Or else.” A fan can eas­i­ly imag­ine these words spo­ken in the writer’s own voice, but with Von­negut now gone for well over a decade, would you accept them spo­ken in the voice of Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch instead?

First com­mis­sioned by Volk­swa­gen for a Time mag­a­zine ad cam­paign, Von­negut’s let­ter to 2088 was lat­er found and repub­lished by Let­ters of Note. The asso­ci­at­ed Let­ters Live project, which brings notable let­ters to the stage (and sub­se­quent­ly inter­net video), counts Cum­ber­batch as one of its star read­ers: he’s giv­en voice to wise cor­re­spon­dence by the likes of Sol LeWitt, Albert Camus, and Alan Tur­ing.

Cum­ber­batch even has expe­ri­ence with let­ters by Von­negut, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly read aloud his rebuke to a North Dako­ta school board that allowed the burn­ing of Slaugh­ter­house-Five. Von­negut’s work makes clear that he did­n’t suf­fer fools glad­ly, and that he con­sid­ered book-burn­ing one of the infi­nite vari­eties of fol­ly he spent his career cat­a­loging. In light of his let­ter to 2088, the same went for human­i­ty’s poor stew­ard­ship of their plan­et. Von­negut may not have been a con­ser­va­tion­ist, exact­ly, but nor, in his view, was nature itself, a force that needs “no help from us in tak­ing the plan­et apart and putting it back togeth­er some dif­fer­ent way, not nec­es­sar­i­ly improv­ing it from the view­point of liv­ing things.” This is, of course, the per­son­i­fy­ing view of a nov­el­ist, but a nov­el­ist who nev­er for­got his sense of humor — nor his ten­den­cy to play the prophet of doom.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Incensed Let­ter to the High School That Burned Slaugh­ter­house-Five

The Graph­ic Nov­el Adap­ta­tion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugh­ter­house-Five

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads a Let­ter Alan Tur­ing Wrote in “Dis­tress” Before His Con­vic­tion For “Gross Inde­cen­cy”

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Albert Camus’ Touch­ing Thank You Let­ter to His Ele­men­tary School Teacher

“Stop It and Just DO”: Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Advice on Over­com­ing Cre­ative Blocks, Writ­ten by Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse (1965)

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, Mar­garet Atwood, Stephen Fry & Oth­ers Read Let­ters of Hope, Love & Sup­port Dur­ing COVID-19

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Langston Hughes’ Homemade Christmas Cards From 1950

Who doesn’t trea­sure a hand­made present?

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.

As biog­ra­ph­er Arnold Ram­per­sad notes:

The last weeks of 1950 found him nev­er­the­less in a melan­choly mood, his spir­its sink­ing low­er again as he again became a tar­get of red-bait­ing.

The year start­ed aus­pi­cious­ly with The New York Times prais­ing his libret­to for The Bar­ri­er, an opera based on his play, Mulat­to: A Tragedy of the Deep South. But the opera was a com­mer­cial flop, and pos­i­tive reviews for his book Sim­ple Speaks His Mind failed to trans­late into the hoped-for sales.

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.

Maybe we can aspire to the same…

Hugh­es’ hand­made hol­i­day cards reside in the Langston Hugh­es Papers in Yale’s Bei­necke Rare Book and Man­u­script Library, along with hol­i­day cards spe­cif­ic to the African-Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence received from friends and asso­ciates.

via the Bei­necke Rare Book and Man­u­script Library at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Langston Hugh­es Reads Langston Hugh­es

A Sim­ple, Down-to-Earth Christ­mas Card from the Great Depres­sion (1933)

Hear Neil Gaiman Read A Christ­mas Car­ol Just as Dick­ens Read It

How Joni Mitchell’s Song of Heart­break, “Riv­er,” Became a Christ­mas Clas­sic

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Her lat­est alter ego, L’Ourse, wish­es you a very mer­ry Xmas and peace and health in the New Year  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Hear Readings of Albert Einstein’s Love Letters (and Chilly Divorce Letters) to His First Wife Mileva

Beware the fake quo­ta­tion. They have become so ubiq­ui­tous they often appear in books and speech­es by politi­cians and their fam­i­ly mem­bers, not that any­one seems to care much. But most of us feel a mea­sure of shame at being duped, as Katharine Rose did when she found her­self moved by a let­ter sup­pos­ed­ly writ­ten by Albert Ein­stein to his daugh­ter, Lieserl, “regard­ing the ‘uni­ver­sal force’ of love.” The let­ter is a “beau­ti­ful read,” and it’s a fake. But many admir­ers of Ein­stein were eager to believe it.

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 details of Einstein’s mar­riage, and of his very unpleas­ant sep­a­ra­tion and divorce, from Mil­e­va Mar­ić have long been pub­lic knowl­edge. “Few pub­lic mar­riages have been sub­ject­ed to a more unnu­anced ver­dict,” Maria Popo­va writes at Brain Pick­ings. Their love let­ters first came to light in 1986, dis­cov­ered by Einstein’s grand­daugh­ter Eve­lyn. They were pub­lished in 1992 as The Love Let­ters, “a col­lec­tion of fifty-four mis­sives exchanged between the begin­ning of their romance” when they met as stu­dents in 1897 to their mar­riage in 1903. Dozens more are avail­able at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty’s online col­lec­tion of Ein­stein’s papers.

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Ein­stein Impos­es on His First Wife a Cru­el List of Mar­i­tal Demands

Hear Albert Ein­stein Read “The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence” (1941)

Albert Ein­stein Explains Why We Need to Read the Clas­sics

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Frida Kahlo’s Venomous Love Letter to Diego Rivera: “I’m Amputating You. Be Happy and Never Seek Me Again”

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.

Rivera lies in the Pan­teón Civ­il de Dolores.

Oth­er cre­ative expres­sions of the grief that dogged him til his own death, three years lat­er:

His final paint­ing, The Water­mel­ons, a very Mex­i­can sub­ject that’s also a trib­ute to Kahlo’s last work, Viva La Vida

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.

Her pros­thet­ic leg, shod in an eye-catch­ing red boot was giv­en a place of hon­or in an exhib­it at the Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um.,

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,

Your Fri­da

This is a love let­ter mas­querad­ing as a doozy of a break up let­ter. The ref­er­ences to ampu­ta­tion are both lit­er­al and metaphor­i­cal:

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.

Image via Brook­lyn Muse­um

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.

via Let­ters of Note and the book, Let­ters of Note: Love.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Fri­da Kahlo’s Blue House Free Online

What the Icon­ic Paint­ing, “The Two Fridas,” Actu­al­ly Tells Us About Fri­da Kahlo

Dis­cov­er Fri­da Kahlo’s Wild­ly-Illus­trat­ed Diary: It Chron­i­cled the Last 10 Years of Her Life, and Then Got Locked Away for Decades

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

« Go BackMore in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.