Thursday, January 31, 2013

To Whom It May Concern: Letter Collections

30 January 2013                                                                                                       Home
                                                                                                                                Denver, CO

Dear Interweb,
 First, I desire a better address: Fitzroy House, Fitzroy Square, London W1 or Inch Kenneth, Gribun, Isle of Mull. Next year in Jerusalem?

 I have been giving quite a bit of thought recently to the nature of 'a life well lived.' I blame this chiefly on my decision to read the collected correspondence of A) Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, ed. Charlotte Mosley) and B) Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz (My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz ed. Sarah Greenough)

A brief overview of the dramatis personae:
Deborah Devonshire (the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire) was born Deborah Mitford. If you are unfamiliar with the Mitford sisters, here are some highlights - - Jessica Mitford was a committed Communist who eloped to Spain to battle Franco, and later moved to California and wrote The American Way of Death; Unity Mitford was obsessed with Hitler and attempted suicide in Munich when England and Germany went to war; Diana Mitford divorced the heir to the Guinness fortune and married Oswald Mosley (leader of the Union of British Fascists); Deborah Mitford married the 11th Duke of Devonshire and inherited virtually all of England and Ireland.* The family is insanely fascinating and I highly recommend Nancy Mitford's semi-autobiographical novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.

Patrick Leigh Fermor walked across Europe to Constantinople when he was 18. He then joined the Irish Guards and fought in Greece and Crete during WWII (mostly behind enemy lines, alone, in the mountains, disguised as a shepherd). When he captured the German general in charge of operations in Crete, Patrick Leigh Fermor was able to COMPLETE THE HORACE ODE THAT HIS CAPTIVE QUOTED on the first morning of his imprisonment. He returned home to receive the DSO and OBE and then "retired" to Greece to a house he DESIGNED AND BUILT. His "retirement" consisted of writing several books (A Time of Gifts, most notably), traveling everywhere, and being sufficiently close to the Royal Family to have a pet name for the Queen Mother.** A BBC journalist once described him as a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.

The letters between DD and PLF are remarkable for their humor, breadth (DD sat with the Kennedys during JFK's inauguration; PLF hung out with Errol Flynn) and lack of cynicism. DD and PLF shared an unfailing enthusiasm for life despite its challenges (among others: Deborah's husband Andrew struggled with alcoholism; PLF suffered from tunnel vision for the last ten or so years of his life), and both were wonderfully enchanted by every place they visited and (virtually) everyone they met. 

*okay, maybe not ALL.
**Cake. He called her Cake. Not to her face, presumably, but still...

Georgia O'Keeffe: I think we're all good on this one.

Alfred Stieglitz did as much as anyone to legitimize photography as an art form. Between 1890 and his death in 1946, Stieglitz used his own work to demonstrate that photography was the medium best suited to capturing the reality of 'modern life.' The principals of the Modernist art movement (the fragmented self; the outside world and the individual personality is constantly changing; truth is relative) seemed ideally suited to being captured by a camera rather than by art forms that required an artificial halting of life (sculpture, portraiture). In addition to creating his own work, Stieglitz promoted the work of other photographers and brought the work of European modernists (Picasso, Rodin, Brancusi) to the attention of American collectors. 

My Faraway One is a massive collection of some 650 letters that chart a love story pitched at the highest romantic level. Yet O’Keeffe and Stieglitz were not actually compatible. They were the sort of couple who seemed to experience their most genuine togetherness when they were separated by a safe distance of at least a few hundred miles. Stieglitz’s 'love' letters to O’Keeffe at times read like an exercise in reverse psychology. He complains about his insomnia, his headaches and frayed nerves. Worn down by the tides of depression, he craves a long, “steaming bath” every night, to better face the challenge of falling asleep. In her letters, O'Keeffe rhapsodizes about the western plains and sky and seems to retain a certain distance from Stieglitz's occasionally hysterical missives. She also maintained a literal distance from him, particularly after the late 1920s when he began an affair with Dorothy Norman. In short, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe's letters are not odes to idealized love. Yet, when Stieglitz suffered a massive stroke in New York, O’Keeffe took the next plane out of Albuquerque. The night before the funeral, she tore out the tacky pink-satin lining that came with his coffin and sewed in its place a pristine lining of white linen: a clarifying, wholly lovely image.


  1. I would like henceforth to be known as Cake. To my face.

  2. I would like henceforth to be given cake. Also to my face.