Did you know that Noël Coward and Virginia Woolf were essentially pen pals? Are you aware that Graeme Souness once received a letter from Frank Sinatra? Would it make you gasp to learn that John Steinbeck wrote to Marilyn Monroe and asked for her autograph? Are you excited when I tell you that Cornwall Council refused to change their behaviour despite receiving a letter from rock legend Dave Grohl?
If so, you’re in for a treat. If not, I can only apologise. I can and will do better.
Noël Coward and Virginia Woolf
Maybe I’m easily flabbergasted, but when I first read The Letters of Noël Coward and realised that Noël Coward and Virginia Woolf exchanged letters, I had trouble believing it. In my tiny mind, you see, they lived in different eras, so how would that even work? The fact is, I’m an idiot, and Coward first wrote to Woolf in 1928, after reading Orlando:
I am still hot and glowing with it ... At the risk of sounding insincere, I am completely at your feet over it. Oh, I do so congratulate you and thank you for the lovely “unbuttoned” feeling you’ve given me and I hope to God it will last ... If ever I could write one page to equal in beauty your “Frozen Thames” description ... I should feel that I really was a writer. Please when I come back to England let's meet and talk a good deal.
And Woolf to Coward, later that year:
Dear Noël Coward (but I hope you will drop Woolf-stick to Virginia)
How very charming of you to write to me! I liked your letter so much that I put off answering it. I didn't want to scribble a line. But I will now plunge, and say that it gave me immense pleasure. I can't conceive somehow why you-being such a success and all the rest of it-would like what I write. But if you do, I am, I repeat, immensely pleased.
Your secretary has sent me two books of yours, much to my delight. Now I am going into the matter of Noël Coward and his plays very seriously. I didn't like to tell you at Sybil's how some of the things in This Year of Grace struck me on the forehead like a bullet. And what's more, I remember them and see the enveloped in atmosphere-works of art in short ...
I think you ought to bring off something that will put these cautious creeping novels that one has to read silently in an arm chair deep, deep in the shade.
But I must stop. I'm interrupting thousands of people who are battering at your door. But do please come to Bloomsbury when you've come back and let us discuss everything in the world shabbily over the gas-fire.
(Both excerpts from The Letters of Noël Coward, edited by Barry Day.)
Frank Sinatra to Graeme Souness
At Ibrox Stadium on the evening of 10th July, 1990, Frank Sinatra belted out the hits in front of thousands of awestruck Glaswegians—a gig he later claimed to be one of his most satisfying thanks in no small part to a crowd so welcoming that he was moved to tears. Before Frank took to the stage, he was given, by Rangers’ manager Graeme Souness, a decanter filled with Jim Beam; a month later, Ol' Blue Eyes thanked him by post. All of which means, you are about to read a letter—brief though it may be—from Frank Sinatra to Graeme Souness.
Thank you for the marvelous gift. It has a special place in our California home.
And the wonderful people of Glasgow will always have a special place in my heart. I was shown so much love and warmth at the Ibrox Stadium concert that I am still overwhelmed by the reception I received. It is a memory I will always cherish.
Cher and Audrey Hepburn
In 1991, three years after first meeting her at the Oscars, Cher was due to appear at a televised tribute to her idol, Audrey Hepburn. However, at the last minute, due to ill-health, Cher had to pull out, and instead penned this lovely letter. According to Cher, they continued to write.
This is a very hard letter for me to write, because what I had dreamt of doing all my life was to be able to tell you all of this in person—or at least in front of hundreds of people Monday night! I bought a new dress (something I thought you would love) and was completely ready to tell my innermost feelings about you because of the profound effect you have had on my life.
On the night I won the Oscar you touched my hand and said you were glad I’d won… you can never imagine what that meant to me. Since I was a little girl you have been my idea of a “star” and it was partly because of you that I became an actress.
You were a brilliant light for me in a sometimes dark childhood. I so wanted to be like you in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” that I put my hair in 2 ponytails, bought huge sunglasses, and wore the closest thing to “you” I could put together. I got suspended from school for the sunglasses but never mind—I was on my way to being just like you. But as I started to grow up I realized I couldn’t be you because there is only one you.
(There is no better argument for being an individual than you, being you, living your life as you do on screen. I could never presume to know the private you by your image alone).
Someone once said to me that I was like a “3rd world Audrey Hepburn”—I’m not sure how they meant it, but it’s one of my favourite comments regarding me. Your work is so beautiful that it has inspired me again and again.
I love you and respect you and you will never know how sad I am to miss this golden opportunity to say it in person. I send you my love,
(With thanks to Christie’s and Cher.)
George Harrison to Mike Myers
The last letter ever written by Beatles guitarist George Harrison was to Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Wayne’s World, and so on) and it reached him on 29th November, 2001, the day of Harrison’s death. Prior to this missive they had never met, nor had they corresponded, and in an interview with GQ in 2014, Myers revealed that the letter made him cry like a baby. All we have is this excerpt:
Sitting here with my Dr. Evil doll ... I just wanted to let you know I've been looking all over Europe for a mini-you doll … Dr. Evil says frickin’, but any good Scouser dad will tell you it's actually “friggin” as in a “four of fish and finger pie”, if you get my drift … Thanks for the movies, so much fun.
Dave Grohl to Cornwall Council
FYI, this plea did not work. It will clearly take more than a letter from Dave Grohl to change minds at Cornwall Council.
22nd March 2016
Dear Cornwall Council,
My name is David Grohl, and I'm writing on behalf of the local musical group Black Leaves of Envy. It has been brought to my attention that the band is having difficulty functioning within the current noise restrictions placed upon them by the Cornwall Council, a maximum of 30 to 40 decibels (approximately the level of a dishwasher at 15 meters distance).
I am an American musician of over 30 years, having played professionally with such bands as Nirvana and Foo Fighters, just to name a few, selling over 100 million records combined. I have traveled the world since 1987 playing clubs, arenas, festivals and stadiums, many of them in the UK.
Like many musicians, I started in a garage in my neighborhood. Together with my friends, my adolescent years were made better by playing music with others. Music is not only a healthy pastime, it is a wonderful, creative outlet for kids, and fosters a sense of community necessary to the emotional and social development of any child. It is tremendously important, and helped me through those otherwise difficult years growing up in Springfield, Va.
For musicians that lake the resources to rehearse in professional facilities, a garage or basement is the only place they have to develop their talent and passion. I believe that it is crucial that children have a place to explore their creativity and establish a sense of self through song. The preservation of such is paramount to the future of art and music. Without them, where would we be? As a proud father of three aspiring musicians myself, I have always made this a priority in our home, to great results.
For the sake of your local band Black Leaves of Envy, and for the generations of young musicians that they may eventually inspire, I ask that you reconsider the restrictions put upon the volume of their private rehearsal space. I believe that in doing so, you will be sending a message that Cornwall is not only a home to music and the arts, but a place that encourages children to follow their dreams in a world where anything is possible.
Thank you for your time,
(Letter courtesy of Black Leaves of Envy.)
Gandhi to Hitler
Needless to say, this letter was unsuccessful.
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.
Your sincere friend
Jim Carrey and Tupac Shakur
It’s been revealed in interviews that throughout 1995, Jim Carrey wrote joke-filled letters to Tupac Shakur in an effort to keep his (Tupac’s) spirits up whilst in jail. Much to my frustration, none have been published, and Jim Carrey’s team are yet to respond to any of my emails.
Marge Simpson and Barbara Bush
In 1990, in an interview with People magazine, First Lady Barbara Bush described The Simpsons as being “the dumbest thing [she] had ever seen.” A ludicrous statement, but one for which I am grateful, for it provoked a letter from Marge, which provoked a reply from Barbara. (This exchange features in More Letters of Note, by the way.)
Groucho Marx and Queen
I understand that you have a new album coming out called A Day at the Races. That, as you undoubtedly know, happens to be the name of one of the Marx Brothers’ more successful film outings. Though my stereo listening these days is pretty much restricted to hearing aids in both ears. I recall a number of the young people who look after my house playing your last album — which I believe was titled A Night at the Opera. That, too, was the name of a Marx Brothers movie.
Though I have long since placed Billboard, Cashbox and Record World well below Youth’s Companion on my list of reading matter, I know that you are very successful recording artists. Could it, by any chance, be your sage choice of album titles? If so, you’re in for many productive years because the Marx Brothers made 13 turkeys all together, and I made five alone. And then, of course, there was my quiz show You Bet Your Life and my seven books, and boy, this could go on forever.
So. Keeping this in mind, I wish you much success with your latest record A Day at the Races and I'm certain it will be another big smash.
Hoping this finds you.
Captain Robert Scott and J. M. Barrie
Heroic adventurer Sir Robert Falcon was close to Peter Pan novelist J. M. Barrie, and days before his death, as he and his team attempted to return home from the South Pole, Scott wrote one of his final letters to his friend.
My Dear Barrie,
We are pegging out in a very comfortless spot. Hoping this letter may be found and sent to you, I write a word of farewell. … More practically I want you to help my widow and my boy—your godson. We are showing that Englishmen can still die with a bold spirit, fighting it out to the end. It will be known that we have accomplished our object in reaching the Pole, and that we have done everything possible, even to sacrificing ourselves in order to save sick companions. I think this makes an example for Englishmen of the future, and that the country ought to help those who are left behind to mourn us. I leave my poor girl and your godson, Wilson leaves a widow, and Edgar Evans also a widow in humble circumstances. Do what you can to get their claims recognised. Goodbye. I am not at all afraid of the end, but sad to miss many a humble pleasure which I had planned for the future on our long marches. I may not have proved a great explorer, but we have done the greatest march ever made and come very near to great success. Goodbye, my dear friend,
Bob Dylan and Katharine Hepburn
FYI, Hepburn did not attend.
Bertrand Russell and Muhammad Ali
In the 1960s, Muhammad Ali received a call from celebrated British philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell, of whom he knew nothing and had never met. They chatted at some length on the subject of Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, and then about Ali’s upcoming fight with Henry Cooper which Russell predicted Ali would win, to which Ali replied with his “stock response”: “You’re not as dumb as you look.”
They kept in touch. Two years later, Ali spotted a photo of Russell in an encyclopaedia. He explains his surprise in his autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story:
He was described as one of the greatest mathematicians and philosophers of the twentieth century. That very minute I sat down and typed out a letter of apology for my offhand remark, ‘You’re not as dumb as you look,’ and he wrote back that he had enjoyed the joke.
They wrote to each other often over the years. These are just two of their letters:
May 18, 1967
I have read your statements with the greatest admiration and personal respect. In the coming months there is no doubt that the men who rule Washington will try to damage you in every way open to them, but I am sure you know that you spoke for your people and for the oppressed everywhere in the courageous defiance of American power. They will try to break you because you are a symbol of a force they are unable to destroy, namely, the aroused consciousness of a whole people determined no longer to be butchered and debased with fear and oppression. You have my whole-hearted support. Call me when you come to England.
To which Ali replied:
Please accept my sincere apologies for the belated answer to your very wonderful and warm statement in support of my position against being drafted into the army for the purpose of fighting in Vietnam.
Your support was indeed inspiring and the wonderful way in which you worded your letter has caused me to treasure it and to keep it with me wherever I go.
Perhaps when this is all over and I am able to travel again, I will be able to visit you and thank you personally for all the wonderful things you have done-not only for me but for the betterment of the oppressed people of the world.
Please accept the enclosed copy of my favorite boxing picture as a token of my regard.
Russell died in 1970, a year before Ali’s conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court. The two never met.
John Steinbeck to Marilyn Monroe
In my whole experience I have never known anyone to ask for an autograph of himself. It is always for a child or an ancient aunt, which gets very tiresome, as you know better than I. It is therefore, with a certain nausea that I tell you that I have a nephew in-law who lives in Austin, Texas, whose name is Jon Atkinson. He has his foot in the door of puberty, but that is only one of his problems. You are the other.
John Steinbeck | Letter to Marilyn Monroe, 28 April 1955
If you haven’t already done so, subscribe to this newsletter so I can send it straight to your inbox, and please consider supporting it for a few pounds a month so I can spend even more time sending even more interesting emails to you. Paying subscribers will gain access to a monthly ‘members-only’ email and my everlasting love. Hit the first button below for options, and whichever you pick, thanks for signing up x