Letters of the Century

America 1900-1999
Trade Paperback

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"Immediate and evocative, letters witness and fasten history, catching events as they happen," write Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler in their introduction to this remarkable book.  In more than 400 letters from both famous figures and ordinary citizens, Letters of the Century encapsulates the people and places, events and trends that shaped our nation during the last 100 years.

Here is Mark Twain's hilarious letter of complaint to the head of Western Union, an ecstatic letter from a young Charlie Chaplin upon receiving his first movie contract, Einstein's letter to Franklin Roosevelt warning about atomic warfare, Mark Rudd's "generation gap" letter to the president of Columbia University during the student riots of the 60s, and a letter from young Bill Gates imploring hobbyists not to share software so that innovators can make some money...

In these pages, our century's most celebrated figures become everyday people and everyday people become part of history. Here is a veteran's wrenching letter left at the Vietnam Wall, a poignant correspondence between two women trying to become mothers, a heart-breaking letter from an AIDS sufferer telling his parents how he wants to be buried, an indignant e-mail from a PC user to his on-line server...    

"Letters," write Grunwald and Adler, "give history a voice."  Arranged chronologically by decade, illustrated with over 100 photographs, Letters of the Century creates an extraordinary chronicle of our history, through the voices of the men and women who have lived its greatest moments.



In 1955, the day after Jonas Salk announced that he had found a vaccine for polio, an expectant mother in Nyack, New York, sat down to write him a letter. The gratitude she expressed in this letter still mingles, on its pages, with a note of relief and longing, and an echo of recent pain.

The difference between knowing that Americans were grateful to Jonas Salk and reading this letter to him is like the difference between knowing the words of a song and hearing it sung. Letters give history a voice.

This book celebrates that voice, as it has changed and deepened, whispered and shouted, wept and teased, laughed and pleaded, throughout the letters written during the last hundred years in America. Yet this is not a book about letters. It is a book about the twentieth century, as told in letters. The 423 letters printed in this volume are arranged chronologically—with the hope that as you read them, you will feel as if you are hearing successive verses in a national ballad.

Throughout the last hundred years—beginning, in fact, with the very first letter in this book—observers have lamented the fact that people don't write letters anymore. Yet letters have described most of the century's major events, have reflected or reflected upon most of its social and cultural trends, have captured most of its political passions, and have been written by most of its principal figures. We may think we've heard the whole story, but that story resonates more deeply when we read the century's letters.

Part of the reason for that resonance is the immediacy of letters. Letters are what history sounds like when it is still part of everyday life. While aftershocks from the San Francisco earthquake continue, a man who owns a clothing store recounts the terror of watching it burn. A teacher who doesn't yet know how many friends of hers have been killed describes being forced to leave her home during the St. Louis race riots of 1919. A nurse living in Honolulu tells her brother in Ohio how the smoke looks over Pearl Harbor just a few hours after the bombing. Immediate and evocative, letters witness and fasten history, catching events as they happen. Sometimes letters even shape those events: the order to drop the bomb on Hiroshima; the Lindbergh baby ransom note; Nixon's letter of resignation.

In addition to immediacy, letters have intimacy, and this, too, gives history resonance. Lord Byron wrote: "Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude and good company," and the safety of that combination seems to inspire the courage to be honest. Dreams are confided in letters—both the nightmares and the hopes. Love is confided in letters—without fear of hearing laughter. Sex and jealousy, money and drugs: all of these are subjects that the intimacy of letters allows. A young man dying of AIDS describes to his parents how he wants to be buried. A woman tells her mother about having an abortion. An illegal immigrant reveals for his family his journey across the border.

A lot of the joy of reading letters comes from hearing the ring of unaffected truth. People describe things in letters, in passing, that they take for granted but we need not. The pack of wolves passing the schoolhouse near the shack of a lone woman homesteader. The code words for ordering liquor during the dry days of Prohibition. The overcrowded schedule of a doctor's loyal secretary during the 1950s. The Kennedy calendars adorning the walls of ramshackle houses in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. These are the little details that refresh even the most familiar events.

The same thing happens with the most familiar people. When Charlie Chaplin was offered his first film contract and sat down to write an ecstatic letter to his brother, he could not have known that that letter would survive him: as a consequence, we get to hear all his youthful, unsophisticated enthusiasm—misspellings and all. When Janis Joplin went to San Francisco to try out for Big Brother and the Holding Company, she wrote home to her parents in a tone of girl-down-the-block contrition that completely defies her Woodstock image. Rock Hudson and Bill Gates, Frank Lloyd Wright and Lady Bird Johnson, Elvis Presley and Groucho Marx: in their letters in this volume, they all reveal unexpected sides of themselves. Henry James burned most of the letters he received precisely because he feared for the privacy of the letter writers. E. B. White once lamented "A man who publishes his letters becomes a nudist—nothing shields him from the world's gaze except his bare skin." But fortunately, he wrote that lament in a letter, and the letter was saved.

There was a surprising familiarity in the voices of these letters, despite all the dizzying changes of the twentieth century. A fledgling journalist writing home from New York City in 1916 to explain her antiwar protests could be any young woman of any decade reveling in her independence. Likewise, the slightly self-pitying college musings of Carl Van Doren may have been written in 1909, but in spirit they are no different from any number of soul-searching letters, and they are a touching reminder that even great men have to search for their beginnings. War letters, apart from references to specific battles, are remarkably similar in tone. So are letters of bigotry, and letters of love. Through all the advances and setbacks, people, it turns out, didn't change all that much. We kept finding men and women we thought we knew—including ourselves—in the letters we read. The thrill of voyeurism mingled with the wonder of recognition. We hope you will feel this too.

Because this is not a book about letters, you will not find a lot of speculation about how letter writing has changed over the century. Obviously, there's less of it now, at least of an intimate sort. (The post office reports that, while the volume of letters has increased, less than 2 percent of it is now personal mail.) Obviously, too, e-mail has taken over, with its oft-lamented knack for scattering ideas, observations, and potential memories to the wind. And it's true that e-mail lacks a lot, at least in romance. Reading a typewritten John Reed letter at Columbia University, you can see that he pounded the period key so hard that every sentence ends with a tiny hole. You can sense the force of his feelings in a way that e-mail may never allow. (You can also see that this champion of the masses used dollar signs to cross out his mistakes.) But if e-mail is a threat to real letters, it is nonetheless reviving certain skills of communicating that became rusty with the telephone, and it is giving anyone open-minded enough to try it the joy of putting thoughts into words that they can see. (There are also more similarities than one might suspect between mail and e-mail. At the turn of the century, hundreds of books were written on the etiquette of correspondence, and in tone and content they are remarkably similar to the Internet's "netiquette" tips today.)

We come to the question of e-mail with a special bias. This book could not have been completed without the Internet, or at least not completed on time. From virtual exhibitions (such as those on the invaluable Library of Congress site) to on-line library catalogues to e-mail exchanges with experts in various fields, we found the Web an indispensable—and ever-growing—resource. In the last months of our research, we found some wonderful documents on the Web that had simply not been there when this project began.

The research for this book took nearly four years and provided us with the joy of a scavenger hunt and the edification of a college course. It gave us something to look for in flea markets, at bookstores, and on our friends' bookshelves, and, incidentally, a topic of conversation to last a lifetime. Our rough estimate is that we read about a half a million letters to choose the 423 that are here. It's an estimate that reflects letters found on the Web, in anthologies, biographies, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, presidential libraries, historical societies, company archives, university archives, numerous other archives and manuscript collections, friends' attics, and, in one case, our dentist's mother's house.

Our rules for what we would and would not include evolved. Early on, we decided that memos and telegrams would count as correspondence, but that we should resist the temptation to consider press releases, presidential statements, court opinions, advertisements, or affidavits. A few times, we allowed ourselves to print a letter that was never intended as a private communication but used the form as a conceit. The most famous example of this is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which we felt was too important to exclude. Similarly, James Baldwin's letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time is probably one of the most beautifully written letters in this volume. Though it is more an essay than a letter, you will find it here nonetheless.

We rejected some letters when they turned out to be entirely fictional, parts of epistolary novels that were not labeled as such. We lost other letters when we found out that they were apocryphal. Cary Grant, for example, was once supposed to have received a cable from a magazine fact-checker asking "HOW OLD CARY GRANT?" and to have answered it "OLD CARY GRANT FINE." To our lasting regret we discovered that, according to Grant, the story had been made up. According to another, apparently fanciful, tale, some friends of Mark Twain, not knowing where he was, sent out a birthday card addressed "Mark Twain, God knows where." Some weeks later, they supposedly received a note from Twain that said only "He did."

Other letters failed to make the cut because they were written in one period to describe another—for instance, a friend's aunt in 1985 describing Armistice Day: the letter was wonderful, but we had to respect the chronology. Still other letters aren't here because, while fascinating, they were too idiosyncratic. History.turns out to be incredibly contradictory when told by one person at a time, and one of our guidelines quickly became not to be overly unconventional in the choices we made. We found women with modern morals at the turn of the century; we found immigrants defeated, rather than liberated, by America; we found Edith Wharton—so brilliant in dissecting the relationships of her fictional characters—almost incapacitated when it came to assessing her own. In some cases, we printed the letter that contradicted the assumptions we'd brought to the project. In most, however, we stuck with more comfortable choices. It seemed more important, for example, to have a letter acknowledging Henry Adams for his contribution to American literature than for his undeniable and uniquely pompous anti-Semitism.

If a letter was beautifully written and historically important, it was in. If it was one or the other, it was considered. If it was neither, it was out. With that rule, and with space for only hundreds of letters, this book will no doubt lead readers to note some regrettable omissions. Where, for example, are letters reflecting the 1939 World's Fair, the first moon landing, the 1968 Olympics? We tried in vain to find the right ones. Where were letters about listening to Sinatra? Watching Ali fight? Taking the Pill? And were the people at Woodstock just too stoned to write letters? Perhaps readers will help us fill the gaps in future editions. There are people missing, too. Walter Cronkite, the beacon of the television age, wrote us with characteristic courtesy: "With a regret so deep as to be unfathomable, I am a product of the telecommunications age and my cupboard of correspondence is bare." Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, by e-mail, promised to look for something, then disappeared into cyberspace—after first admitting he wasn't sure his e-mail was working, which seemed rather like Edison saying he didn't know how to change a lightbulb.

One thing you won't find missing from this book is a single word of any of the letters as we found them. If you come upon an ellipsis in this volume, it's there either because the author put it there or because we were unable to locate the original and complete text, but not because we decided to edit anything out. Digressions of all sorts remain because, as an anonymous author commented in a 1905 book review of Queen Victoria's letters: "It cannot be doubted that a letter is a living thing with an individuality of its own, and if the head and tail are cut off, and two or three pieces taken out of the body, that individuality is lost."

We didn't add anything, either. Sometimes letters end abruptly, without signature or sign-off. Sometimes they start without salutation. We didn't correct errors of spelling, punctuation, or grammar, even when a letter writer misspelled a name three different ways in the space of one paragraph. Most letters include mistakes. When you find an error-free letter in this volume, you can assume another editor has been there first. To us, correcting letters for readability seemed too much a slippery slope. It was too short a distance from cleaning up someone's punctuation to cleaning up his or her idioms. We decided to let history speak for itself, even when it mumbled.

Finally, it should be said that we came to this project as writers and editors, with liberal arts educations and no expectation that our selection would be anything but idiosyncratic. We would certainly agree with the famous anonymous statement that "a historian is a person who gets to read other people's mail." But the converse is not equally true. People who get to read other people's mail are not necessarily historians. In our case, they are—as we hope you'll become— people luckily and delightedly browsing through time.

—Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler
New York City
June, 1999

BETWEEN 1920 AND 1929 . . .

1920: For the first time, more Americans live in cities than in rural areas. * The U.S. population is 105,710,620. * Average number of Americans per square mile: 35.6. * Prohibition begins at 12:01 on the morning of January 16, after a night of subdued drinking and mock funerals for "John Barleycorn." * In Springfield, Ohio, a judge hangs an "ankle curtain" in the courtroom so that women jurors will not have to show their bare ankles. * Warren G. Harding is elected president. * Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman is hit by a pitch and killed. * Women get the vote. * More than 6,000 suspected Communists are rounded up in raids authorized by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. 1921: New word: "robot." * New fragrance: Chanel No. 5. * New tradition: the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with contestants showing bare knees. The first winner: Margaret Gorman, five feet, one inch tall; 108 pounds; 16 years old. * Charlie Chaplin's first full-length movie, The Kid, becomes a smash hit. 1922: The Reader's Digest begins publication. * Harrison Jones, Coca-Cola's vice-president in charge of sales, sees a man struggling to carry a 24-bottle case of Coke, and comes up with the idea of the 6-pack. * In Schenectady, New York, radio station WGY broadcasts the first sound effect: a slamming door suggested by two pieces of wood banged together. 1923: A female teacher's contract in Utah declares, in part, "Teacher is not to marry. Teacher is not to keep the company of men. Teacher may not loiter downtown in ice cream parlors. Teacher may not dye her hair." * The first issue of Time magazine is published. * More than 13 million cars are in circulation. * Warren Harding dies in office, and Calvin Coolidge becomes president. 1924: With the accompaniment of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, George Gershwin premieres Rhapsody in Blue. * Membership in the Ku Klux Klan is now estimated to be in the millions. * Defended by Clarence Darrow, teenagers Nathan Leopold, Jr., and Richard Loeb receive life sentences instead of the electric chair for their part in the "thrill kill" of Loeb's 14-year-old cousin, Bobby Franks. * Notebooks are made with spiral bindings. * The Citizenship Act declares all American Indians to be U.S. citizens. * Seen for the first time: frozen food, Little Orphan Annie, and Kleenex. 1925: Howard Johnson borrows $500 to turn a Quincy, Massachusetts, patent-medicine shop into an ice cream stand. * F. Scott Fitzgerald publishes The Great Gatsby. * John T. Scopes is arrested for teaching evolution in the town of Dayton, Tennessee; the trial begins with a ten-foot-long banner proclaiming Read Your Bible hanging behind the judge's bench. * In The New Republic, Bruce Bliven describes the current skimpy women's fashions this way: "Ladies who used to go away for the summer with six trunks can now pack twenty dainty costumes in a bag." 1926: Biggest box-office star of the year: Rin Tin Tin. * Among flappers, especially, good things are called "the berries," "the cat's meow," "the cat's pajamas," "swell," "hotsy-totsy," or "the bee's knees." * Bootlegging is estimated to be a $3.6 billion business. 1927: Clara Bow is the "It" Girl. * Piloting the Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh becomes the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. * Babe Ruth hits 60 home runs. * Al Jolson stars in The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length "talkie." 1928: Herbert Hoover is elected president. * Popular songs include "Makin' Whoopee" and "I Wanna Be Loved by You." * Bubble gum, broccoli, and Mickey Mouse make their first appearances. * Bootleg liquor kills 1,565 Americans. 1929: The first Academy Awards ceremony, lasting five minutes, is held in the Blossom Room of Los Angeles's Roosevelt Hotel. * On February 14 in Chicago, in what will become known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, a bystander and six members of the Bugs Moran gang are lined up against a garage wall and shot, presumably on orders from Al Capone. * In Kansas City, Gypsy Rose Lee performs as a stripper for the first time. * Ernest Hemingway publishes A Farewell to Arms, Thomas Wolfe publishes Look Homeward, Angel, and William Faulkner publishes The Sound and the Fury. * U.S. radio sales surpass $900 million. * Weekly movie attendance is 100 million. * California astronomer Edwin Hubble declares that the universe is expanding. * The stock market crashes.

1920: SEPTEMBER 28

The greatest sports scandal of the century began with the rumor that eight members of the favored Chicago White Sox had agreed to throw the 1919 World Series. Charles Comiskey (1859-1931) was owner of the White Sox and, though famously tightfisted, offered $200,000 in reward money for information that would prove the fix. More than a year later, the eight playersamong them the very popular Shoeless Joe Jacksonreceived this telegram. Though several of the players confessed, they were ultimately found not guilty at trial. Still, all eight would be banned from the game for life.






1923: JANUARY 19

One of countless Americans who had found a way to circumvent the liquor ban, Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) was willing to give fellow author Theodore Dreiser a few tips. Van Vechten, a music critic and novelist, was the author of the acclaimed Nigger Heaven. Dreiser (see letter page 201) wrote, most famously, Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy.

The ellipsis is Van Vechten's.

19 January 1923
151 East 19th Street
New York City

Dear Mr. Dreiser, I saw the man I spoke to you about today, and gave him your name. So, when you want something, telephone him, mentioning my name:

His is

William Linehan
Kingsbridge 1228.

Over the telephone one is discreet and calls gin: white . . . mention the number of bottles you want. Scotch is gold. If he isn't in, leave your name and number and he will call you. I hope we may get together again soon.

very sincerely,
Carl Van Vechten

1925: JULY 1

Although its clipped syntax and its references to bullfights and fishing may make this letter sound like a parody, it was in fact written by Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) to his friend and fellow novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (see letter page 203). Hemingway was in Spain at the time, on his way to see the running of the bulls at the fiesta of San Fermin.

Burguete, Navera.
July 1—

Dear Scott—

We are going in to Pamplona tomorrow. Been trout fishing here. How are you? And how is Zelda?

I am feeling better than I've ever felt—havent drunk any thing but wine since I left Paris. God it has been wonderful country. But you hate country. All right omit description of country. I wonder what your idea of heaven would be—A beautiful vacuum filled with wealthy monogamists. All powerful and members of the best families all drinking themselves to death. And hell would probably an ugly vacuum full of poor polygamists unable to obtain booze or with chronic stomach disorders that they called secret sorrows.

To me a heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town; one where I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them truly and well and the other where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on 9 different floors and one house would be fitted up with special copies of the Dial printed on soft tissue and kept in the toilets on every floor and in the other house we would use the American Mercury and the New Republic. Then there would be a fine church like in Pamplona where I could go and be confessed on the way from one house to the other and I would get on my horse and ride out with my son to my bull ranch named Hacienda Hadley and toss coins to all my illegitimate children that lined the road. I would write out at the Hacienda and send my son in to lock the chastity belts onto my mistresses because someone had just galloped up with the news that a notorious monogamist named Fitzgerald had been seen riding toward the town at the head of a company of strolling drinkers.

Well anyway were going into town tomorrow early in the morning. Write me at the / Hotel Quintana

Or don't you like to write letters. I do because it's such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you've done something.

So long and love to Zelda from us both—


1925: JULY 14?

With his renowned ear for hypocrisy, H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) understood immediately the importance of the trial of John Scopes in the summer of 1925. It was Mencken who had helped persuade Clarence Darrow to defend the biology teacher arrested for teaching evolution, and Mencken who then described the trial for the Baltimore Evening Sun in a celebrated series that pulled no punches.

Raymond Pearl was a prominent biologist and statistician at Johns Hopkins University. Sus scofa is the Latin term for "pig." Mencken had cofounded The American Mercury magazine in 1924. Dudley Malone was part of the Scopes defense team.

Dear Pearl:—

This is far worse than anything you could imagine, even under the bowl. Every last scoundrel in sight is a Christian, including the town Jew. I begin to realize what life must have been in Judea 1925 years ago. No wonder the Romans finally bumped off the son of Joseph. After an hour on the main street, listening to the bawling, I feel like loading a cannon with the rejecta of the adjacent hogs (Sus scrofa) and letting fly. The thing is genuinely fabulous. I have stored up enough material to last me 20 years.

I expected to be poisoned by corn liquor, but have had to drink only one drink of it. That I got down out of politeness to the local Russell Sage. He is a frantic Prohibitionist, but usually half stewed. They tell a charming story of him. He arrived home one night in his cups, and told his wife that he was sick and that she would have to do the evening praying alone. She got on her knees and began: "Oh, Lord, throw the mantle of Thy mercy around my drunken husband". He cut in with: "Great God, woman, don't tell the old scoundrel I'm drunk; say I'm sick!"

Chattanooga is full of excellent Scotch. There is also one beer saloon. I had hardly got in before Founder Subscribers to the Mercury began to show up with jugs under their coats. I actually got four quarts the first night. Ever since then it has been pouring in—very good stuff. Even the Scotch of the bootleggers is drinkable, and they charge but $7.50 a bottle, by the bottle. Dudley Malone has rented a house here in Dayton, laid in a couple of cases, and sent for dancing women.

The trial is superb—an obscenity of the very first calibre. I'll be back in time for the club dinner Sunday, barring acts of God.


1927: AUGUST 21

In April of 1920, Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888-1927) and Nicola Sacco (1891-1927), a fish peddler and a shoemaker, were arrested for the murders of two shoe-factory workers. Liberals at the timeand panels of impartial judges lateragreed that the evidence against them was too scant to justify their convictions. But the charges stuck, largely because the pair were political anarchists at a time when revolutions abroad and fears at home were making a "Red menace" of all radicals. After seven years of trials and controversy, and despite the confession of a convicted killer, Sacco and Vanzetti died in the electric chair. This letter was written to Sacco's son the day before the executions.

Ines was Sacco's daughter. Susie was a family friend with whom Sacco's wife and children had been living.

August 21, 1927. From the Death House of Massachusetts State Prison

My dear Dante:

I still hope, and we will fight until the last moment, to revindicate our right to live and to be free, but all the forces of the State and of the money and reaction are deadly against us because we are libertarians or anarchists.

I write little of this because you are now and yet too young to understand these things and other things of which I would like to reason with you.

But, if you do well, you will grow and understand your father's and my case and your father's and my principles, for which we will soon be put to death.

I tell you now that all that I know of your father, he is not a criminal, but one of the bravest men I ever knew. Some day you will understand what I am about to tell you. That your father has sacrificed everything dear and sacred to the human heart and soul for his fate in liberty and justice for all. That day you will be proud of your father, and if you come brave enough, you will take his place in the struggle between tyranny and liberty and you will vindicate his (our) names and our blood.

If we have to die now, you shall know, when you will be able to understand this tragedy in its fullest, how good and brave your father has been with you, your father and I, during these eight years of struggle, sorrow, passion, anguish and agony.

Even from now you shall be good, brave with your mother, with Ines, and with Susie—brave, good Susie—and do all you can to console and help them.

I would like you to also remember me as a comrade and friend to your father, your mother and Ines, Susie and you, and I assure you that neither have I been a criminal, that I have committed no robbery and no murder, but only fought modestily to abolish crimes from among mankind and for the liberty of all.

Remember Dante, each one who will say otherwise of your father and I, is a liar, insulting innocent dead men who have been brave in their life. Remember and know also, Dante, that if your father and I would have been cowards and hypocrits and rinnegetors of our faith, we would not have been put to death. They would not even have convicted a lebbrous dog; not even executed a deadly poisoned scorpion on such evidence as that they framed against us. They would have given a new trial to a matricide and abitual felon on the evidence we presented for a new trial.

Remember, Dante, remember always these things; we are not criminals; they convicted us on a frame-up; they denied us a new trial; and if we will be executed after seven years, four months and seventeen days of unspeakable tortures and wrong, it is for what I have already told you; because we were for the poor and against the exploitation and oppression of the man by the man.

The documents of our case, which you and other ones will collect and preserve, will prove to you that your father, your mother, Ines, my family and I have sacrificed by and to a State Reason of the American Plutocratic reaction.

The day will come when you will understand the atrocious cause of the above written words, in all its fullness. Then you will honor us.

Now Dante, be brave and good always. I embrace you.

P.S. I left the copy of An American Bible to your mother now, for she will like to read it, and she will give it to you when you will be bigger and able to understand it. Keep it for remembrance. It will also testify to you how good and generous Mrs. Gertrude Winslow has been with us all. Good-bye Dante.


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