Portrait of a businessman in seven love letters
Desert Sage column
- On Ebay, you can buy letters written by ordinary people centuries ago. Our columnist gave it a try.
“I am eating a nice big juicy apple — wouldn’t you like some? Well, try and get it.”
Ruth depicts herself languishing on her bed, hair freshly washed, wearing clean pajamas (“I feel like a million”). She is writing to Dill, as she often does and probably shouldn’t.
“I have some news for you. I don’t know whether to tell you yet or not. I guess I’ll keep it until I’m sure.”
It is December 1929. The stock market has crashed and President Herbert Hoover is assuring the country that the worst is over. Ruth is still in college, it seems, in Washington, D.C. while Dill, recently graduated from Cornell, works at the legendary J. Walter Thompson advertising firm in New York City. Ruth longs to visit him there.
Seven handwritten letters sit on my table, posted a century ago with 2-cent stamps — four letters from Ruth and three from other women in Dill’s life — resembling colorful pieces of a puzzle that must remain incomplete. We have only these impressions of an early chapter in their lives. Dill’s presence, especially, is in negative space: We have none of his letters, but it is evident that he wrote often and sweetly. They all ask him to write more.
A pair of young women I think are sisters wrote sassy letters to him from home in 1923.
Helen flirtatiously scolds him for not writing in a while and details how she had been out dancing with a boy until 3 in the morning; that she had posed for some pictures in a skirt that came up over knees, and he could look forward to seeing them, but only if he came home for Christmas.
She signs off: “Your devoted wife, Helen.” Helen is a peach.
Three days later, from the same return address, Emma writes to Dill on Helen’s behalf: “If you don’t want to see or hear from her anymore, why don’t you be like Joe and tell her or write it, don’t keep her wondering.”
This Joe fellow appears to have had some history with both women, one of many unanswered questions raised in the letters.
The letters were an eBay purchase. Among the endless variety of collectible items found there, antique letters from ordinary people from all walks of life and different eras may be purchased, often in their original envelopes. Some sellers include research into who the authors were.
There are sites where one may purchase letters by well-known historical figures for large sums, yet there is much beauty to be found in letters by regular folks to family and friends, telling stories and describing daily minutiae that, a century later, is vivid history.
Was I reading them as a historian, an aficionado of the written letter, or a voyeur? Perhaps all three.
For a few hours, we read the letters slowly, my wife and me — some were more legible than others — and pieced together what we could learn about their lives from references in the letters. These people wrote frequently, replies were expected, and short of slipping a photograph into the envelope they relied on their pens and their words to touch one another.
In 1925, a young woman named Eleanor, most likely a student at Wells College in Aurora, New York, writes to Dill with sorrow that she missed him when he visited from Ithaca. “I was merely out playing golf,” she writes, “so they could have found me as easily as not, had they even half tried.”
She invites him to come visit when she is through with exams, “if you feel so inclined … you can usually reach me by phone after 10 p.m.”
The single letter from Eleanor reveals little about their relationship but it does not appear to have been intimate. Dill may have done some reconnaissance around the ladies’ college, but she does not seem to think of him as a rascal or ladies’ man. Whatever became of Eleanor is lost to me, without even a surname to go on.
We tried researching all of the writers but learned little for certain, as they presumably changed their names after marriage and left little in the way of historical records.
It was easier to find traces of Dill from alumni magazines and a few newspaper archives online. His obituary ran in the New York Times in 1990. He left advertising at some point and made his fortune in the packaging industry, founding his own company in 1946 and managing it until his death at age 84. He married and had children.
Dill did not marry any of these correspondents but seems to have kept the letters for a long while. How did they end up on eBay? They may have turned up at an estate sale, perhaps boxed together in a desk or among mementos in an attic. Are there more letters out there?
Ruth had secrets, we know from these four letters. They are genuine love letters of the earnest and unembarrassed sort. We read them aloud, touched, hoping Ruth’s shadow was not horrified.
Writing one letter while seated in her car, she tells Dill: “I think about you too much and am always wanting to get away from people so I can think about you.”
It is a forbidden romance, and she sees other men; but she thinks of Dill, the ad man in New York, his smile and his way of wrinkling his eyebrows, and the thought of him makes her cry. “I wanted you and you alone," she writes after a disastrous date.
There is a sense, already, that she knows they need to move on. She declines his invitation to come to New York. Her parents have caught on to them. It seems they snuck off together to Pittsburgh when she was supposed to be in Long Beach, and parents, being clever, know that a person cannot be in two places at once.
If she went to him, she writes, “things might happen that would cause trouble.”
Our last glimpse of her, writing in bed in her pajamas, enticing him to sample her apple while also encouraging him to move on and enjoy his life, is beautiful, her handwriting more elongated and less careful than in previous letters, as if she were sleepy and receding into dreams.
Her secret news, which she kept under embargo “until I am sure,” remains obscure although I have a guess and so do you. What became of dear Ruth?
These lovely shards are now in my care and I’m not sure what to do with them. Dill has descendants who could be found, but none of these letters were written by their mother or grandmother and it might seem odd to offer these papers to them. The women’s descendants, we never located with certainty.
So they remain with me, for now, these seven love letters that evoke more than their young authors could have realized a century ago writing to dear old Dill, who evidently penned more than a few passionate missives himself.
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