• Mary A. Dempsey

Love Letters

February 14, 2020

Ulysses S. Grant was a Civil War hero, president, functioning alcoholic and—surprise—a prolific writer of love letters. He sent dozens of romantic notes to the woman he loved, tucking flower petals among their pages.

On this Valentine’s Day, love letters, the most emotionally charged of all correspondence, come to mind. With greeting card companies on a downward slide (Papyrus stores closures are at the forefront), will we return to penning our own notes of affection and desire?

Love letters have long been a catharsis for professional writers. Ernest Hemingway wrote gushy letters to Marlene Dietrich for more than a decade, even though their love remained unconsummated. Oscar Wilde passed risky letters to Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. And Mark Twain put pen to paper to woo his future wife, Olivia Langdon, known as Livy.

Romantic correspondence is not restricted to writers. Beethoven’s personal papers included a love letter—never sent—addressed to his “Immortal Beloved.” The recipient’s identity remains a mystery. Artist Georgia O’Keefe wrote sexy, achy love letters. Napoleon Bonaparte wrote longingly to Josephine, even after he divorced her.

Sometimes the emotion expressed in treasured letters is fleeting. Henry VIII sent deeply moving letters to Anne Boleyn, then had her beheaded.

Oddly, the White House has been a love letter pulse point. Grant sounds dedicated, but he was easily outdone by Woodrow Wilson, who sometimes sent several letters a day when he courted D.C. widow Edith Bolling Galt. First lady Abigail Adams slipped adoring notes to John Quincy Adams. Richard Nixon wrote to Pat, and Ronald Reagan wrote to Nancy. Reagan penned one of his letters aboard Air Force One on the couple’s 31st wedding anniversary.

What happens to these written professions of love? They are saved, tossed, burned, lost, discovered between pages of old books and found under floorboards in old home. Henry VIII’s love letters were stolen by a papal envoy and remain part of the Vatican collection. Grant’s love letters are held by the Library of Congress. Last year, a cache of love notes from World War II turned up in a secondhand store in Tennessee.

I have a small basket of sweet missives my husband sent me more than 20 years ago. The marriage didn’t last. The letters did.

It can be exhilarating to write a love letter, and sweet and wonderful to receive one. Hannah Brencher, founder of the More Love Letters organization, said contemporary love letters carry a subliminal message: “You’re more than just words on a screen to me.”

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