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The art of the letter

A letter’s illustrations can be revealing. The Harry Ransom Center shares how letterheads, sketches and stamps speak volumes about letter writers.

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“What can I possibly say!!?!?”

Thus begins a 1965 letter from comedian Joan Rivers to future New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow. In the letter, now in Gussow’s archive at the Harry Ransom Center, Rivers thanks Gussow profusely for publishing an article about her at such a formative point in her career.

All too aware of what she can possibly say, Rivers closes the letter: “To say ‘thank you very, very much’ sounds so trite but I really mean it I’m floating on air.” Then, when words don’t suffice, Rivers lets a picture take over: a hand-drawn stick figure of herself floating on air, beaming atop a cloud.

Marcel Proust letter

Detail of a letter by Marcel Proust in the Carlton Lake collection. View a larger, complete version of the letter by Marcel Proust. Image: Harry Ransom Center

A staple of most collections, correspondence can speak volumes about the letter writer, and illustrated letters can be particularly revealing. From idiosyncratic letterheads to sketches, stamps, cartoons and multiple choice form letters, what do a letter’s illustrations reveal?

Marcel Proust began writing his magnum opus, “À la recherche du temps perdu,” in 1909. In 1910, he wrote a letter, found in the Ransom Center’s Carlton Lake collection, to his former lover and lifelong friend Reynaldo Hahn, of whom Proust once said, “Everything I have ever done has always been thanks to Reynaldo.”

Proust wrote the letter in a made-up language he and Hahn invented and called their “lansgage.” French Collections Research Associate Elizabeth Garver describes it as “a mixture of baby-talk, medieval expressions and words phonetically written as if they had a cold.”

In the letter, Proust wrote to Hahn about his trouble writing “À la recherche du temps perdu.” At the top of the letter, he sketched boats rising and falling on treacherous waves. Though Proust did not explain the sketch, Garver has two theories. The boats could refer to the Greek gods, dioscuri, who protected sailors and whom Proust mentions in the letter.

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali’s letterhead in the Norman Mailer collection. Image: Harry Ransom Center

The boats may also reflect Proust’s anxiety and emotional turbulence. Proust wrote: “Especially if I have a severe crisis and an absolutely demolished heart, I know the danger it would be to ignore it and to receive you early. But perhaps my crisis will calm this evening But I fear and fear. Tristch [roughly translated as “Thad,” i.e., “sad,” an example of their “lansgage”] because it is the first time in a month that I feel so bad.”

“I think that the boat drawings might represent Proust’s feelings, as if he were being buffeted around by the elements and is unable to control his own course,” Garver says.

Letterheads, often custom-made, reveal what the letter writers want their correspondents to know about them. Take, for example, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead, found in the Ransom Center’s Norman Mailer collection. Proudly referencing his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” Ali’s letterhead features a bee and a butterfly. Also plugging her own quote, Gertrude Stein’s letterhead, in the Carlton Lake collection, references the oft-quoted line from her poem “Sacred Emily”: “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein’s letterhead in the Carlton Lake collection. Image: Harry Ransom Center

The Coen brothers’ letterhead, found atop a 2001 letter in David Mamet’s archive, shows a horse from behind. The Coens mention their own behinds in the letter, telling Mamet about their future projects slated to culminate in 2004: “These years look preposterously distant even to us, like the end of a jail term, but there it is: we don’t get out for about three years. We will then be leathery, old, and buttsore, and perhaps ready to tackle your subject matter or perhaps loath to, but at any rate you have things to do.”

Some of the Ransom Center’s most imaginative illustrated letters are housed in the Harry Houdini collection. Ransom Center archivist Jennifer Hecker says many of these letters function “as a press kit of sorts.” Professor L. Krieger, “The Merry Wizard,” wrote to Houdini on the back of a full-length advertisement highlighting his 18971898 season. “Everything new this season,” The Merry Wizard boasts. “Wardrobe first-class in every respect. Absolutely the greatest sleight of hand performer.”

The modern-day equivalent is perhaps best embodied in American playwright Kenneth Brown’s letterhead: his resume. This self-promotion makes sense given Brown’s frustration, which he expresses in a 1994 letter to British playwright Arnold Wesker: “Sometimes it’s really infuriating to be an American in England, it seems that your past achievements afford you a certain respect, perhaps even a certain stature. In America, my past achievements are tossed on the trash heap and are of no significance whatever.”

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck’s Pigasus stamp in his collection at the Ransom Center. Image: Harry Ransom Center

While working on the Ransom Center’s spring 2011 exhibition, “Becoming Tennessee Williams,” Cathy Henderson, associate director for exhibitions and Fleur Cowles executive curator, came across what she describes as a “poignant letterhead.” When Williams flunked out of ROTC training at the University of Missouri, his father took him out of school and got him a job at a shoe company in St. Louis. Williams was miserable. But in 1933, he wrote a letter on the company stationery to a poetry journal editor recommending two poetry students he knew at the University of Missouri.

“I think this particular letter on this particular letterhead is very touching,” Henderson says. “At that point in his life, Tennessee was having to subsume his own ambitions to be a poet/writer to his father’s will, and yet he was willing to support fellow aspiring writers.”

When John Steinbeck sent letters on lined yellow paper, he often stamped them with a picture of a fat, winged pig labeled “Pigasus.” According to Steinbeck’s wife Elaine, “the little pig said that man must try to attain the heavens even though his equipment be meager. Man must aspire though he be earthbound.”

Steinbeck used to hand-draw Pigasus on his correspondence. In the 1950s while living in Florence, Steinbeck befriended a Florentine nobleman/artist who offered to draw a proper Pigasus in the style of Raphael. Steinbeck turned the Raphael-inspired Pigasus into a stamp, which can be found atop some of Steinbeck’s letters in his collection at the Ransom Center.

Al Hirschfeld

Detail of one of Irving Hoffman’s “Handy-Dandy Little Giant Nervous Breakdown Avoiders” in the Morris Ernst collection. View a larger, complete version of the form letter by Irving Hoffman. Image: Harry Ransom Center
Al Hirschfeld’s 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.
CAl Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld’s exclusive
representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York.

View a larger, complete version of Al Hirschfeld’s 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.

Famed illustrator Al Hirschfeld designed comedian and vaudevillian Fred Allen’s stationery. The Ransom Center’s Edward Weeks collection contains two versions, both taking up nearly half the page: one shows Allen emerging from a TV screen holding a dripping paintbrush, and the other depicts Allen sitting at his typewriter surrounded by stacks of paper. The latter image became the cover of the book “Fred Allen’s Letters.”

Hirschfeld’s stationery is plain by comparison. It only features his name in small print in the upper left hand corner. Nevertheless, ever the illustrator, Hirschfeld hand-drew what archivist Amy Armstrong calls “letter footers” at the bottom of his letters: caricatures of himself with spiral eyes signing his name, each sketch slightly varied.

Some of the most sidesplitting letters at the Ransom Center come from Irving Hoffman, a former Broadway publicist and columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. Actor William Holden once said that “to Irving Hoffman, life is just a bowl of people.” According to a 1960 article about Hoffman in Time, he was friendly with Truman Capote, Pablo Picasso, J. Edgar Hoover, ferry boat captains, prostitutes and the Maharani of Baroda.

Published when Hoffman was 50 years old, the article reports that Hoffman “circles the earth carrying six shirts, five pairs of eyeglasses and 290 lbs. of old letters, news clips, books. Also in his luggage: pad after pad of his ‘Handy-Dandy Little Giant Nervous Breakdown Avoider.'”

One of Irving Hoffman

Detail of one of Irving Hoffman’s “Handy-Dandy Little Giant Nervous Breakdown Avoiders” in the Morris Ernst collection. View a larger, complete version of the form letter by Irving Hoffman. Image: Harry Ransom Center

Several of these “Handy-Dandy Little Giant Nervous Breakdown Avoiders” are in the Ransom Center’s Morris Ernst collection. They reveal an eccentric, uninhibited and larger-than-life comedian. These letters are essentially multiple choice mail answering forms with checkboxes next to potential responses.

Just a few of Hoffman’s response options include: “Hi from iH,” “Let’s meet in the lobby of the Astor Hotel, Hong Kong,” “Sorry, the only Kennedy I know is a bartender on 52nd Street,” “You’re an ass,” “You’re an ace [picture of an ace of spades],” “So sorry,” “So what,” and alongside a line of supposed Japanese, “English translation Ken Cole is my friend and representative in Tokyo asnot yours. Please do not bother him for hotel, restaurant, plane, train or travel reservations in Tokyo or for anything else during your stay in Japan. In plain English go get your own Geisha!”

EXPLORE MORE: Find more stories in Know about the Harry Ransom Center.