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Letters of Note

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Mohandas Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, July 23rd, 1939
Mohandas Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, July 23rd, 1939 Courtesy of Miranda Davies

We celebrate the release of Shaun Usher's Letters of Note – a book documenting some of history's most fascinating acts of correspondence – by bringing you five of our favourite letters

Since its addition to our Reader in 2010, we've been enjoying the wonderful world of correspondance brought to us by freelance copywriter Shaun Usher via his blog, Letters of Note. A celebration of the dying art of letter-writing, as well a fascinating exploration of the letter's multiple forms, Usher finds some of the best "letters, memos and telegrams of the famous, the infamous and the not-so-famous" and offers them up to the wider audience they deserve. Now, four years after Letters of Note began, Usher has finally fulfilled his ambition to publish a book containing the most fascinating examples he has unearthed on his journey.

In the book's introduction Usher promises to "grip and fling you from one emotion to the next, [to] occasionally educate even the most informed of minds and to perfectly illustrate the importance and unrivalled charm of old-fashioned correspondence"; and, happily, he succeeds wholeheartedly. Here, we let the letters do the talking and bring you five of our favourites, including Virginia Woolf's heartbreaking suicide note and three Elvis fans' plea to president Eisenhower to keep Elvis' hair intact.

Mohandas Gandhi to Adolf Hitler: For the Sake of Humanity
On July 23rd 1939, as tensions mounted in Europe following Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia, Mohandas Gandhi, the famously non-violent leader of the Indian independence movement, wrote a letter to the man who was orchestrating what would become World War II: the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler.  As it happens, Gandhi’s letter – a clear and concise plea for Hitler to avoid war “for the sake of humanity” – never reached its intended recipient due to an intervention by the British government.  Just over a month later, the world looked on in horror as Germany invaded Poland, thus beginning the largest, most deadly conflict in the history of the world.

Dear friend,

Friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request, because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence. Something tells me that I must not calculate and that I must make my appeal for whatever it may be worth.

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. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success? Any way I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.

I remain,

Your sincere friend

M. K. Gandhi

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf to Leonard Woolf: I Can’t Fight Any Longer
One evening in March 1941, Virginia Woolf attempted to end her life by jumping into a river; however, she failed and simply returned home, sodden.  Sadly, she persisted, and a few days later, on March 28 1941, she tried again and this time succeeded in escaping a lifetime of mental illness.

On the day of her death, unaware of her whereabouts, Virginia’s husband, Leonard, discovered this heartbreaking letter on their mantelpiece.

Dearest,

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.

V.

Steve Martin to Jerry Carlson, 1979
Steve Martin to Jerry Carlson, 1979 Courtesy of Steve Martin & Jerry Carlson

Steve Martin to Jerry Carlson: A Personal Letter From Steve Martin
Back in the day Steve Martin replied to fan mail with “A personal letter from Steve Martin”, a form letter in which just a few words were personalized for each recipient, and which was hilarious precisely for that reason.  This particular example was sent to a 17-year-old fan named Jerry Carlson in 1979, the year The Jerk, arguably one of the funniest films Martin has ever starred in, was released.

A PERSONAL LETTER FROM STEVE MARTIN


DEAR Jerry,

WHAT A PLEASURE IT WAS TO RECEIVE A LETTER FROM YOU. ALTHOUGH MY SCHEDULE IS VERY BUSY, I DECIDED TO TAKE TIME OUT TO WRITE YOU A PERSONAL REPLY. 

TOO OFTEN PERFORMERS LOSE CONTACT WITH THEIR AUDIENCE AND BEGIN TO TAKE THEM FOR GRANTED, BUT I DON'T THINK THAT WILL EVER HAPPEN TO ME, WILL IT Jerry? I DON'T KNOW WHEN I'LL BE APPEARING CLOSE TO YOU, BUT KEEP THAT EXTRA BUNK MADE UP IN CASE I GET TO Flint.

SINCERELY,

(Signed, 'Steve Martin')

STEVE MARTIN

P.S. I'LL ALWAYS CHERISH THAT AFTERNOON WE SPENT TOGETHER IN RIO, WALKING ALONG THE BEACH, LOOKING AT rocks.

Three Elvis Presley fans to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Three Elvis Presley fans to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower © White House Central Files

Three Elvis Presley Fans to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower: Don’t Touch His Hair
On March 24th 1958, on what was named “Black Monday” by many of his distraught followers, 22-year-old Elvis Presley – King of Rock ’n’ Roll and still to this day one of the most famous entertainers on earth – was inducted into the US Army.  Worse still, he was to be stationed many miles away, in Germany, where he would stay until being discharged two years later.  Naturally, Presley’s fans became consumed with panic and spent much of their time speculating about his future, some even aiming for the top by sending urgent mail to the White House in an effort to keep him away from harm.  This letter is just one of thousands, sent to President Eisenhower in 1958 by three female fans seemingly resigned to their idol’s US Army induction, but not to suspected changes to his physical appearance.

Dear President Eisenhower,

My girlfriends and I are writting all the way from Montana, We think its bad enough to send Elvis Presley in the Army, but if you cut his side burns off we will just die! You don't no how we fell about him, I really don't see why you have to send him in the Army at all, but we beg you please please don't give him a G.I. hair cut, oh please please don't! If you do we will just about die!

Elvis Presley Lovers

Linda Kelly
Sherry Bane
Mickie Mattson

Presley
Presley
IS OUR CRY
P-R-E-S-L-E-Y

Iggy Pop to Laurence
Iggy Pop to Laurence Courtesy of Iggy Pop

Iggy Pop to Laurence: Hang On, Ly love, and Grow Big and Strong
It took nine months for Iggy Pop to reply to 21-year-old Laurence’s fan letter, but really the timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as on the morning his thoughtful note did arrive at her home in Paris, Laurence’s family were being evicted by bailiffs, Laurence recalls that moment back in 1995:

"By the time I finished I was in tears. Not only had Iggy Pop received the letter I had sent him nine months before - but he had read the whole ‘fucking’ 20 pages; my description of being the child of an acrimonious divorce with the string of social workers, lawyers, greedy estate agents and bailiffs at the door, the fear, the anger, the frustration, the love."

Although brief, Iggy’s empathetic, handwritten response addressed Laurence’s problems with both grace and eloquence, and really can’t be praised enough.

dear laurence,

thankyou for your gorgeous and charming letter, you brighten up my dim life. i read the whole fucking thing, dear. of course, i'd love to see you in your black dress and your white socks too. but most of all i want to see you take a deep breath and do whatever you must to survive and find something to be that you can love. you're obviously a bright fucking chick, w/ a big heart too and i want to wish you a (belated) HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY 21st b'day and happy spirit. i was very miserable and fighting hard on my 21st b'day, too. people booed me on the stage, and i was staying in someone else's house and i was scared. it's been a long road since then, but pressure never ends in this life. 'perforation problems' by the way means to me also the holes that will always exist in any story we try to make of our lives. so hang on, my love, and grow big and strong and take your hits and keep going.

all my love to a really beautiful girl. that's you laurence.

iggy pop

Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience by Shaun Usher is published by Canongate Unbound and is available now.

Text by Daisy Woodward

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