the art of letter writing

In the old days before email people seemed to put a lot more effort into their letter writing. Here are three great examples:

Harold Pinter

In his early play The Birthday Party, two mysterious men terrorize a third named Stanley as he cowers in a tawdry English rooming house. In post-absurdist fashion, Pinter denies his audience virtually all clarification of his characters’ histories prompting one frustrated viewer to write:

image found here

“I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your play. These are the points which I do not understand: 1. Who are the two men? 2. Where did Stanley come from? 3. Were they all supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions, I cannot fully understand your play.”

my favourite birthday party boy found here

Pinter replied: “Dear Madam: I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your letter. These are the points which I do not understand: 1. Who are you? 2. Where do you come from? 3. Are you supposed to be normal? You will understand that without the answers to my questions, I cannot fully understand your letter.”

image found here

Harry S Truman

To Paul Hume, music critic who wrote a disparaging review of Truman’s daughter’s singing performance:

Mr Hume:

I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an “eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.”

Harry S Truman found here

It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!


Groucho Marx

To Jerry Wald, producer of Peyton Place

Dear Jerry:

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Peyton Place.” As a matter of fact, I CAN tell you. I enjoyed it very much.

image found here

In addition to enjoying the picture, it seemed that the whole evening had been planned by a master hand. My De Soto was whisked away from the front of the theatre so swiftly that I arrived at Romanoff’s in a Buick. There I rapidly got drunk, danced with Audrey Hepburn, looked down (and up) Jayne Mansfield’s knockers, had a fine lobster dinner and spent a good half hour rubbing someone’s legs under the table …. which, on investigation, turned out to be my wife’s.

Jayne Mansfield found here

It was a bang-up evening …. and that’s how I wound up.

Regards, Groucho

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48 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m very fond of Harold Pinter plays.

    • I’ve never seen his work live but I love his screenplays. Have you seen Comfort of Strangers?

      • I saw it a long time ago, I don’t think I liked it much. But it was originally by Ian McEwan who at that point I was growing tired of.
        I’ve read a number of his plays. And also a novel of his but I felt the same way as after reading a novel by Tennessee Williams – hugely disappointed but also convinced of his genius for dialogue.

  2. Harry Truman “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth there’s hardly any difference.”

  3. i wrote hundreds of letters when i was in my teens to pen pals all around, and accumulated hundreds in reply.

  4. I’m ashamed to admit I also didn’t quite understand The Birthday Party.
    That Jane Mansfield sure had a perky bosom, gosh!

    • You’re one up in me Cindy. I’ve never seen it.

  5. Wonderful! I particularly like Groucho’s words. He was a comedic genius

  6. I’ve had birthday parties like that.

    • When’s the next one? Am I invited?

  7. Pinter. (pause) Personal hero. (pause) Make me a cup of tea. (curtain)

    Groucho as his name implies, was a misanthrope. He delivered personal insult in every medium, but most decidedly made the poison-pen letter his own. One of my first introductions to the Marx Brothers was Groucho’s collected correspondence.

    http://www.librarything.com/work/194662/book/8905985

    He reached the peak of vitriol in the famous correspondence with Warner Brothers over whether the Marxes could make a movie about Casablanca (they could, as it turned out). Among the barbs was a question about whether the brothers Jack or Sam Warner could tell the difference between INgrid Bergmann and Harpo.

    • That looks like a great book, pity it’s not available on Kindle. I’ll do a search for it at the library

      • Definitely do. It is an excellent book. I love Groucho.

  8. The epistolary method of exposition has a lot going for it. Tweets are far too short to build up such beautiful heads of spleen…

  9. i am quite fond of letters myself. “N” and “S” are personal favorites…

    • What about “M”?

  10. emails are letters just sent electronically, i treat them as such and write them as such but here in H’america writing, reading, thinking in general is a lost art.

  11. I haven’t sent a letter snail-mail in so long I can’t even remember the last time. A stamp you say? Entirely too expensive. If it weren’t for email, I’d have no mail at all – except for junk mail and bills of course. Sometimes I look at the past and think, what would have happened if they could have had email and blogs back then? I’m thinking the entire New Testament would have started out as an email thread. Cleopatra would have been a blogger. Alexander the Great probably would have had his own forum. Nero would have been a twitter fanatic. Instead of burning libraries, they would have sacked server rooms.

  12. Dear Nursemyra,

    With kindest regards

    Nota Bene

  13. Ah, Truman. Just think if any such letter were written by a politician today.

  14. Groucho was a genius.

  15. Nick Cave lives just along the coast (between me and DaddyPapersurfer) in Brighton. Apparently he is quite often seen in the town, there is a huge music scene there.

    • Oh if you see him, will you give me a big kiss from me?

      • I once got arrested (it wasn’t me – honest!) in Brighton, I don’t push my luck any more. :)

  16. Did Harry write that when he was President??

    • Yep. He wrote it in 1950

  17. I wonder if Harry ever penned as amusing a response to whoever wrote “Dewey Defeats Truman”?

    • I had to google that. What a gaffe!

  18. Groucho was the king of wordology, he’s yet to be bested.

  19. I may have to use that ulcer insult in the future. Classic!

  20. Truman sounds pretty bitter. If I felt obliged to verbally attack every person who hated my book or my comedy, I’d have no time to do anything else. He should have just let his daughter kick the guy in the nuts.

  21. I love getting proper letters – wish I’d been at that party too!

  22. Words are overrated.

  23. I think I’m going to use “Who are you? Where do you come from? Are you supposed to be normal?” the next time I get a call from a telemarketer.

    • Hmmmm….. good idea. I’m totally stealing that one.

  24. Call me creepy, but I think that support device looks kind of hot…

  25. I think I’m going to have to call you creepy B

  26. Interesting letters,
    I thought the first one was quite funny

  27. Harold Pinter is tricky going. Wade in those waters carefully but, my all means, indulge.

    I love the word poppy-cock. I don’t know what it means. It’s Pinteresque.

  28. We need to work “poppy-cock” back into daily conversation.

    I feel better now that I have a goal.

    • How many times have you used it today MJ?

  29. Those questions would be very handy if you’re stuck for conversation at some social do. You just march up to someone and ask “Where did Stanley come from?” or “Were they all supposed to be normal?” Then bingo, the conversation starts flowing.

  30. It is so much easier to terrorize people via the interwebs though . .

    Jayne Mansfield . . .MMMMMMM

  31. The last letter I hand-wrote was to a girl I met at a week-long writer’s workshop when I was a high schooler. I still wonder what happened to her. Google has not helped.

  32. In the old days, there was no email? But how did people end their love affairs?

  33. Groucho is the man!! I love that letter. I was reading about him one day and there was much written about his sexual problems. Didn’t last long apparently.

  34. Hot damn, Groucho, your pen and wit astounds me.


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