washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Dating

Sighed and Sealed

Unlocking the secrets of the love letter

By Kristin Henderson
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page W16

Two years ago, my husband was on the other side of the world in a war zone. I wrote him a letter, and I call it a love letter, even though the word "love" appeared nowhere except at the end -- "Love, Kristin." It was the same way I signed letters to my mother. And yet, this letter was nothing like the letters I wrote to my mother. I can't tell you exactly what made them different, I just know they were as different as kissing your lover and kissing dear old Mom. They're both kisses. But . . . you know.

When I wrote this love letter, it had been 20 years since I first began sending and receiving such letters. Back then, I was 20, and on Sundays I would drive my grandparents to church and watch the cute guy who assisted the pastor up front. And one time when the pastor was praying and everyone else's head was bowed, the cute guy looked up, caught me watching him and winked.

Famously doomed lovers F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I blushed. I felt naked; I was mortified. It was middle school all over again, when the absolutely last thing you want a guy to know about you is that you like him. I had never said much more than hello to him, and now I vowed I never would.

Then I found a note on my car: "I've been trying to catch you for three days now, but I keep missing you. So I have to resort to a note . . . do you watch me in services a lot? I felt someone's eyes on me during the service & saw that you were watching me. It wasn't the first time. Am I wearing the alb wrong? Is my hair messed up? My zipper down? (But how could you see that?) It doesn't bother me at all, I think you've got something very pretty in your eyes, and behind them, inside."

I wasn't 100 percent sure, but I had a sneaking suspicion that what I was holding in my hands was a love letter. That made him the first person to ever write me one. So, 2 1/2 years later, I married him.

A couple of decades went by. And then it was February 2003. "Did you see me," I wrote, "as your bus passed through Swansboro on the way to your departure point? Following the buses just happened since they left [Camp Lejeune] ahead of me and went the same way I had to go. I passed you when we reached Highway 24, and when I reached Church Street, I whipped around next to the Catholic church and was just getting out of the truck to wave when the first bus, your bus, roared past."

When the bus went by, it was 3 o'clock in the morning, it was raining, and that cute guy who had winked at me from behind the altar was on his way to Iraq. Now, two days later, he was in the desert with no e-mail, no phone. All I could do was write. Letters take two weeks to wend their way around the world. A month later, I received his answer, a slow-motion conversation: "Sorry -- did not see you at Swansboro. Fell asleep soon after leaving. Woke up briefly at some intersection, but slept through Swansboro. Really wish I had been awake."

We human beings have been writing love letters for about as long as we've been writing. "Let us get up early to the vineyards," wrote the author of the Song of Solomon 3,000 years ago. "Let us see if . . . the pomegranates bud forth. There will I give thee my love." Today, do a Google search on the Web, and you'll find more than 800 sites offering advice on how to write letters of amour. We've persisted at this for millennia, despite all the unpleasantness that can befall us when we commit feeling to paper.

For instance, once we write it down and hand it off to someone else, if things go badly, our own words can be used as evidence against us, proof that we are immature fools, or cheating cads or, worst of all, pathetic. "You showed me of yore a little interest," wrote Charlotte Bronte in 1845. "And I hold on to the maintenance of that little interest -- I hold on to it as I would hold on to life." This to a former professor who apparently showed zero interest after reading such desperate self-exposure. And, as if the original humiliation were not enough, consider this: 150 years later, the evidence that Charlotte was once a loser at love is still floating around for the rest of us to snigger at.

Producing self-incriminating evidence can cost you more than just pride -- love letters that fall into the wrong hands have long

enriched divorce lawyers and blackmailers. Queen Victoria wrote more than a few letters about her relationship with her personal

servant; her son paid a princely sum to get them back. And a good thing, too, because the go-between, who couldn't resist sneaking a peek, declared them "most compromising." More recently, James Hewitt, the cavalry officer who once had an affair with Princess

Diana, was said to be shopping around the late princess's love letters for 10 million bucks, earning him the nickname Major Rat. The fact is, love letters are no guarantee of undying devotion. After all, Henry VIII wrote love letters to Anne Boleyn while he was courting her, but that didn't stop him from later ordering her head chopped off.

Love letters can produce misunderstandings, too, with their lack of facial expression or tone of voice, or the inevitable unfortunate turn of phrase or unexplained failure to respond. To Josephine, Napoleon wrote: "I love you no longer; on the contrary, I detest you. You are a wretch, truly perverse, truly stupid, a real Cinderella. You never write to me at all . . . What then do you do all day, Madame? . . . Who can this wonderful new lover be who takes up your every moment, rules your days and prevents you from devoting your attention to your husband?"

Yet despite all the risks inherent in this business of love-letter writing, still we cannot seem to resist engaging in it. No matter the costs, against all odds, passionately, irrationally, we write. Whether our lovers are far away, as in the case of the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote to his wife from the remote Black Sea outpost to which he'd been banished, or as near as canoodling co-workers who tap out e-mails from neighboring cubicles -- we write.

Take the early 20th-century novelist Edith Wharton. Even with plenty of opportunities for face time, she and her lover exchanged more than 3,000 handwritten notes, this during a love affair that lasted less than two years. Nowadays, Edith and her paramour probably would have relied on as many telephone calls, instant messages and e-mails -- new forms of communication, fleeting and intense, that are having their own effect on modern love.

But no matter how we communicate our desire, still, many of us write. Why? What drives us?

WALKING HAND IN HAND. Eating together. Lying together in each other's arms. Romantic love is so closely linked with physical contact that when we can't see or touch the ones we love, they can start to seem like figments of the imagination. Then we long to feel the reality of their skin beneath our hands, their breath against our cheek. Maybe that longing is what impels us to write, the longing to make the other person real again, because, unlike phone calls, which exist only in memory once we hang up, the written word lasts. It's real.

This longing has always been intensified by war. In Indiana, on a cold March evening during the Civil War, an ordinary-looking woman of thirtysomething, short and rounded and blunt-faced, wrote a love letter to her husband, William Vermilion, captain of Company F, 36th Iowa Infantry, who earlier had written: "[Your letters] are my comfort here, Dollie, and they can come from no person but you . . . Every person has (or ought to have) one or more such persons to write to them. You are the only one for me." Their letters to each other, collected in the book Love Amid the Turmoil, make up the most complete husband-wife collection from the Civil War -- most wives' letters were lost in the course of marches and battles.

On that evening in March, as William's unit was on its way south into the fighting, the nib of Dollie's pen scratched across the paper. "I dreamed last night that I saw you," she wrote, "and you laid your head in my lap, and I kissed you and petted you, and combed your head, and pulled out all your grey hairs. Oh, I loved you so much in my dream . . . Do you think much dear, about the happy days we spent together at Woodside? Do you think people were ever happier in the world?"

Maybe the need to remember a shared yesterday is part of what makes us write. And maybe the hope for a shared tomorrow. As the Civil War ground on, as men continued to fall at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, as thousands of pen nibs scratched across innumerable sheets of paper, all of them then, as now, struggling to capture what was in the heart, a 21-year-old former slave named Samuel Cabble, hoping for the future, wrote a love letter to his wife.

Samuel probably would have had to learn to write such a letter, and his wife probably would have had to learn to read it, in secret, because it was illegal to teach an enslaved African American to read or write. These laws were a means of control, but they were also part of the larger effort to deny the slaves' humanity -- to stamp out their ability to express themselves. As a result of these laws, the letter Samuel wrote after leaving his wife in Missouri and making his way north to fight for the Union is so rare that today it's preserved in the National Archives.

"Dear wife," he wrote: "i have enlisted in the army i am now in the state of Massachussetts but before this letter reaches you i will be in north Carlinia and though great is the pres-ent national dificulties yet i look forward to a brighter day when i shall have the opertunity of seeing you in the full enjoyment of fredom i would like to no if you are still in slavery if you are it will not be long before we shall have crushed the system that now opreses you for in the course of three months you shall have your liberty. great is the outpouring of the colered peopl that is now rallying with the hearts of lions against that very curse that has seperated you an me yet we shall meet again and oh what a happy time that will be . . ."

When the war ended in 1865, Samuel returned to Missouri to find his wife. Reunited, they headed west, in search of a new life together. William Vermilion returned to Iowa and his Dollie, where they lived, happily by all accounts, until her death 18 years later.

Perhaps their love letters helped them write their own happy endings. During an earlier wartime deployment when we had e-mail access, my husband once wrote: "Your love seems to come through better in e-mail when I am away than when I am around." Maybe that's because when the one you love is far away, after a while he starts to fade in your imagination. But if, through the act of writing, you're able to fill in his fading silhouette with the details of his own best nature, the person he could be, his finer qualities taking up all the space his annoying habits and human failings used to occupy, you can fall in love all over again.

IN THE SPRING OF 1919, in Montgomery, Ala., 18-year-old Zelda Sayre wrote a love letter to her fiance. "I've spent to-day in the grave-yard," she wrote. "It's all washed and covered with weepy, watery blue flowers that might have grown from dead eyes . . . Why should graves make people feel in vain? I've heard that so much . . . but somehow I can't find anything hopeless in having lived -- All the broken columnes and clasped hands and doves and angels mean romances -- and in an hundred years I think I shall like having young people speculate on whether my eyes were brown or blue -- of cource, they are neither -- I hope my grave has an air of many, many years ago about it -- Isn't it funny how, out of a row of Confederate soldiers, two or three will make you think of dead lovers and dead loves -- when they're exactly like the others, even to the yellowish moss? Old death is so beautiful -- so very beautiful -- We will die together -- I know."

A few days later in New York City, her fiance opened this letter and read it, and liked it so much that he copied it nearly word for word into the last few pages of the novel he was writing. The novel, This Side of Paradise, was published a year later and sold out in three days, catapulting Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald into the celebrity firmament. Just married, the newlyweds arced across the horizon of the Roaring Twenties, drinking in speakeasies and diving into fountains and dancing to jazz all night. They lived in France and in New York hotels; they were thrown out for disturbing the other guests. They partied with the Hemingways, and tycoons and showbiz types, before finally, inevitably, crashing back to Earth. They were beautiful and doomed, a fairytale with no happily ever after. Seventy years later, long after they were dead, their love letters were published for all the world to read.

Jackson Bryer and Cathy Barks teach at the University of Maryland and edited the Fitzgerald letters into the book Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda. The majority of the letters, especially Zelda's, had never been published. Bryer says, "I was attracted to Fitzgerald because, temperamentally, the person I am . . ." he shrugs. "I'm a romantic."

According to Barks: "Usually, the deeper you dig, the more unappealing these writers become. With the Fitzgeralds, it's the opposite. The bad stuff was all right there on the surface. Whereas in their letters you find deeper reflections on life, more generosity, more self-awareness."

Bryer agrees. "I see a very complicated couple, both of whom were wrestling with their own demons. They brought out the best and worst in each other."

They drank heavily. They fought loudly. They made up brilliantly. In a love letter of the kiss-and-make-up variety, Zelda wrote: "Without you, dearest dearest, I couldn't see or hear or feel or think -- or live -- I love you so and I'm never in all our lives going to let us be apart another night. It's like begging for mercy of a storm or killing Beauty or growing old, without you. I want to kiss you so -- and in the back where your dear hair starts and your chest -- I love you -- and I cant tell you how much -- To think that I'll die without your knowing -- Goofo, you've got to try [to] feel how much I do -- how inanimate I am when you're gone -- I can't even hate these damnable people -- nobodys got any right to live but us -- and they're dirtying up our world and I can't hate them because I want you so -- Come Quick -- Come Quick to me."

The party lasted 10 years. By the 1930s, they were broke. Scott was an alcoholic battling tubercular hemorrhages; Zelda was institutionalized, battling schizophrenia. They would live most of the next decade apart, Zelda mostly in sanitariums, Scott mostly in Hollywood, scripting movies to pay the bills. They loved -- and fought -- through their letters. "Your life has been a disappointment," he typed in one bitter exchange, "as mine has been too."

"Needless to say," Zelda scribbled back, "your letter somewhat hurt me."

Don't the ones we love the most have the power to hurt us the most? In that sense, even these angry letters are love letters, the anger itself proof of the love that lies beneath it. And further proof: In between the bitter ones, outnumbering the bitter ones, were letters like this, in Zelda's hand: "You said in your letter that I might write when I needed you." She was in the Prangins Clinic in Switzerland after one of her early breakdowns. The love of best friends underlies the curly, up-and-down cursive script. "Every day it seems to me that things are more barren and sterile and hopeless. . . I am so afraid that when you come and find there is nothing left but disorder and vacuum that you will be horror-struck . . . Do you mind my writing this way? Don't be afraid that I am a meglo-maniac again. I'm just searching and it's easier with you."

Later, in Baltimore, his literary reputation tumbling, Scott wrote: "I can carry most of contemporary literary opinion, liquidated, in the hollow of my hand -- and when I do, I see the swan floating on it and -- I find it to be you and you only. But, Swan, float lightly because you are a swan, because by the exquisite curve of your neck the gods gave you some special favor; and even though you fractured it running against some man-made bridge, it healed and you sailed onward. Forget the past -- what you can of it, and turn about and swim back home to me, to your haven for ever and ever -- even though it may seem a dark cave at times and lit with torches of fury; it is the best refuge for you -- turn gently in the waters through which you move and sail back . . . The sadness of the past is with me always . . . The good things and the first years together . . . will stay with me forever, and you should feel like I do that they can be renewed, if not in a new spring, then a new summer. I love you my darling, darling."

On December 21, 1940, Scott fell dead of a massive heart attack, his last novel unfinished. He was 44. Zelda died eight years later in a fire at Highland Hospital in North Carolina. Today they lie together in a cemetery in Rockville. The stone laid over them is inscribed with the famous final line from The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Or, as Zelda put it in a postscript once, "Happily, happily foreverafterwards -- the best we could."

LONG BEFORE Jackson Bryer began poring over the Fitzgeralds' love letters, he married his college sweetheart. The marriage didn't last. Then a few years ago, his ex-wife died, and the youngest child of their marriage brought Bryer a small box. Inside, he found dozens of letters bearing his signature, all the letters he'd apparently written while courting his first wife. He had no memory of writing them.

"The interesting thing," Bryer says, "is that I wrote letters to her at all. She was at another college only 20 minutes away. I could have called her anytime. I guess in some way I had to get it down on paper."

Ever re-read one of your own old love letters? For many, the experience can be excruciating. Reading other people's love letters, though, in addition to providing a voyeuristic thrill, can be quite educational. Other people's love letters give us insight into our own relationships, inspire us, make us grateful for what we have or enable us to forget, for a little while, what we don't have. Which may explain the success of the first modern novel, Pamela, written as a series of fictional letters about a developing love affair between a servant and her master. It was the runaway hit of 1740. More recently, an astonishingly simple play, nothing but two people reading aloud from a lifetime of love letters, has been similarly embraced by audiences. The playwright, A.R. Gurney, based it on his own love of old-fashioned letter writing.

He grew up in the 1930s and '40s. "At home, the telephone was always in an uncomfortable place, in the front hall," he says of that era. He attended single-sex boarding schools and colleges where phone calls were out of the question. If boy wanted to meet girl, boy had to write. You presented yourself, or better yet, the self you wanted to be, through your penmanship, your stationery and your hip, excessively punctuated expressions, which you picked up from the comic books everyone read, expressions like EEK!! and GULP!! You learned how to smile and wink through language.

As an adult, Gurney wrote all of his plays in longhand, "The Dining Room," "Scenes From American Life" and "The Middle Ages," all written with a fountain pen. He didn't even use an electric typewriter. Then, in 1987, his father-in-law gave him a computer. Gurney practiced using the thing by writing letters on it. "I discovered I wasn't writing letters to particular people," he remembers. "I was writing a story about writing letters. I was saying goodbye to the letter-writing tradition, the scratching of pen on paper."

The story turned into a play, "Love Letters."

The male character, Andy, reads aloud from a childhood letter: "Will you be my valentine?"

The female character, Melissa, reads from her response: "Were you the one who sent me a valentine saying, 'Will you be my valentine?'"

Andy, reading aloud: "Yes, I sent it."

Melissa, reading aloud: "Then I will be. Unless I have to kiss you."

The play made its debut at the New York Public Library, when Gurney read it aloud instead of delivering a lecture. With the actress Holland Taylor, Gurney began reading at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and, since he knew a play wasn't what most of the 200 people in the audience were expecting, he built in an intermission so they could leave in the middle. By the time he and Taylor finished reading, two hours later, no one had left.

The play has since been performed on Broadway and in community theaters and high school auditoriums from Baltimore to France to China. The scribbling lovers have been portrayed by E.G. Marshall and Maureen O'Sullivan, Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt, and countless others. It's as if the letters in this play tell our own story.

Melissa, reading aloud: "Dear Andy. This is supposed to be a thank-you note for the Yale-Harvard weekend, but I don't feel like writing one, and I think you know why. Love, Melissa."

Andy, reading aloud: "Dear Melissa. I keep thinking about the weekend. I can't get it out of my mind . . . We didn't really click, did we? I always had the sense that you were looking over my shoulder, looking for someone else, and ditto with me. Both of us seemed to be expecting something different from what was there."

Melissa, reading aloud: "I was looking for the person who's been in these letters all these years . . . all this letter writing has messed us up. It's a bad habit. It's made us seem like people we're not. So maybe what was wrong was that there were two people missing in the Hotel Duncan that night: namely, the real you and the real me."

MAYBE WHEN WE'RE YOUNGER, before we've figured out who we really are, we craft love letters like masks. Maybe later, once life has forced us to face ourselves, maybe, if we're lucky, we take off those masks. And maybe today's technologies help us do that.

In Bruce Wilson's book-lined office, masks hang on the walls -- the empty-eyed masks of Chinese demons in rainbow hues, the pale, frozen human masks of Japanese Noh theater. He's in his fifties, a professor of English and Asian studies at a small liberal arts college in rural Maryland. It was winter, early in 2001, when he opened his laptop to write an e-mail, a love letter to the man he'd been dating for two months.

"I'm just very happy to have met you . . ." he typed. "I thank my stars for the gift of you! I'd like to nurture this start with time and honesty and patience, and a healthy respect for the differences that are bound to arise between us."

He clicked "send."

In the District, Bill Foskett opened Bruce's e-mail and read it. He was 60 then, a government project manager. They had met at Bruce's farm, both of them active outdoorsmen, their faces weathering, their hair silvering. After that first meeting, as Bill was getting ready to make the nearly two-hour drive back to the city, he asked, "Do you do e-mail?"

"A little bit," said Bruce.

They began to e-mail each other every day. Bill is an inherently shy person who has lived alone most of his life; Bruce is not given to revealing himself in conversation. For them, e-mail worked. With another person staring at them, they might have held back, but alone with their computers, they opened up.

Bruce and Bill are apparently unusual in preferring e-mail for expressions of love.

In The Art of the Handwritten Note, letter-writing expert Margaret Shepherd describes a survey in which 1,000 adults were asked how they wanted to receive their Valentine's Day sentiments. Nearly 9 out of 10 preferred a handwritten note or a greeting card. Only 9 percent said they wanted a virtual e-mail card, while a mere 2 percent wanted to hear from their love via standard e-mail. But for Bruce and Bill, the back and forth of e-mail was so quick that it encouraged them to write about the issues that were urgent, what was foremost in their minds. "We worked through a lot of things," recalls Bruce.

"I wrestle with feeling dependent and needy at times too," Bill tapped into his keyboard that winter of 2001. "It's been very, very hard for me to come to grips with my own legitimate emotional needs because they in reality do force me to depend on someone else besides myself, leading me to feel weak and unfree. Alone I cannot satisfy some of my major needs and when those are most acute (as during this holiday season) I can feel very, very bad about myself and very, very lonely."

Bill says, "When I sit down to write, I dig up more of myself to reveal than surfing around in conversation." After e-mailing during the week, when they got together each weekend, it seemed as if all the talking that they might have needed to do had already been done. They could walk on the beach near Bruce's old farmhouse and look up at the stars, listen to the waves lap at the shore of Chesapeake Bay and just be together, comfortable in the silence.

Then, after a year and a half of intense e-mail dialogue, a series of computer glitches blasted a hole in Bruce's e-mail file -- hundreds of their early messages gone. Bruce realized he'd been treating that intangible e-mail file like a box of paper letters that he could tie up in ribbon and carry around with him forever. "I didn't want to write anymore if it was all going to be lost," Bruce remembers thinking. "Why not just talk?"

So that's what they do now. It's been four years since they first met. During the week, they use the telephone to bridge the miles between them. "But I yearn for the e-mail," says Bill. "When it's 11 o'clock and I'm tired and we recite the events of our day, we don't get into that deeper level."

Sometimes Bruce is disappointed in himself for letting computer glitches bring the e-mail to an end. "But maybe I'm blaming external factors, when it's more than that," he says, reflecting. "Maybe the writing had served its purpose."

MY FRIEND JOANNE KUMEKAWA SAID to me: "When your poetry is in the lovemaking, it's hard to know how to translate that into words. You know, 'Thank you for last night' is so much less than last night itself." Which may be why most people seem to write love letters only when they're apart, when there is no last night.

While my husband waited in the desert for the order to invade Iraq, he had no e-mail, no phone, just a pen and the little brown paperboard boxes that held his MREs, or Meals, Ready to Eat. After he ate what was inside, he cut the boxes apart with his knife and wrote on them as if they were postcards, except instead of featuring famous landmarks or resort beaches like real postcards do, they boasted the nutritional data of, say, beef strips in teriyaki sauce. On the back of one, he wrote: "Hey Babe! Starting to miss you, although it is not a heart ache. Looking forward to the first mail drop." Eventually that postcard wended its way around the globe back to me, and I sat on the front stoop in the sunshine and read it, and reread it, and then added it to the rubber-banded stack I had begun to carry with me everywhere.

I wrote to him: "I've been thinking about how we sometimes talk about what we would do if one of us survived the other . . . And it used to be that I would fantasize about how, if I had to start over with someone else, I might have a shot at having children . . . It's a fantasy that I don't ever want to become real. I don't want to start over with someone else, even if it would mean having children. I want you. You're the only one I want or need, and I can't wait for you to come home to me. I love you more than I ever thought possible."

He wrote me back. "Many people are leaving 'dead letters' in their sea bags -- I am not. You already know all that is in my heart for you . . . If anything happens, just read my old mail -- I will be there for you all over again . . . I will no longer be trapped in time -- you will be with me again. There will be no passage of time for me as I am lifted out of it. But you will have to wait. So as you read my letters, know that I am still real, still exist, and will have better, clearer, deeper thoughts and feelings for you than I ever could have expressed in any letter."

"Love you forever" -- I came to love each of those handmade postcards more than I ever liked e-mail or the occasional phone call. Whenever I felt lonely for him, especially during the first month after the invasion began, when there was no word from him at all, I pulled out that fat stack of cards -- mixed fruit, beef with mushrooms, wild and yellow rice pilaf -- and ran my fingers over his familiar cramped handwriting. I couldn't hold him, but I could hold these cards that he had held.

Kristin Henderson is the author of the real-life love story Driving by Moonlight. She last wrote for the Magazine about military spouses coping as their loved ones serve in Iraq.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company