David Bruce: Letters Anecdotes

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For a while, writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur ran a movie studio in which they produced their own scripts. They had a policy of not responding to letters, instead hiring someone to burn their mail each day, unread. However, they did read a letter from a movie theater owner in Iron Mountain, Michigan, which was printed in the Exhibitors’ Herald, a movie trade magazine. The letter complained that the Hecht-MacArthur movie The Scoundrel was bad for business and annoying to the Iron Mountain movie-goers. Hecht and MacArthur spent all day composing an insulting letter, saying among other things that the citizens of Iron Mountain were so backward that they lived in trees. After mailing the letter, Hecht and MacArthur read the reply in the next issue of the Exhibitors’ Herald. The movie theater owner had written, “Messers Hecht and MacArthur, I have received your letter, framed it and hung it in the lobby of my theatre, where it is attracting a great deal more attention than did your motion picture.”

Wilson Mizner, a scoundrel with a penchant for spending money, married into society, but soon after he was married, his wife began to receive anonymous letters sent from the West, where Mr. Mizner had lived before his marriage. All of the letters warned Mrs. Mizner that Mr. Mizner was quite capable of killing her for her money. Mr. Mizner pretended to be surprised that so many of his former acquaintances were literate, but since the letters were so upsetting to his wife, he asked that a private secretary open the mail and burn all the anonymous letters.

Mark Twain once wrote this letter to the gas company: “Some day you will move me almost to the verge of irritation by your chuckle-headed Goddamned fashion of shutting your Goddamned gas off without giving any notice to your Goddamned parishioners. Several times you have come within an ace of smothering half of this household in their beds and blowing up the other half by this idiotic, not to say criminal, custom of yours. And it has happened again today. Haven’t you a telephone?”

Operatic tenor Leo Slezak and his wife enjoyed getting letters from their children while they were traveling on short tours. One letter from his little daughter read: “My goldfish bowl got broken when I was changing the water in the bathroom, the goldfish tumbled out and I couldn’t catch him, so I filled the bathroom with water. Nanny was very cross about it, but my goldfish is all right.”

John Cage was usually a prolific composer, whether working with Merce Cunningham or on his own. Gordon Mumma, a composer for Cunningham, once noticed that Mr. Cage didn’t compose any music in 1964 and asked him why. Mr. Cage explained that he was too busy to compose that year because of writing letters to raise funds for Merce Cunningham dance tours.

One grandmother was upset because her grandchildren didn’t write thank-you letters when she gave them a gift. Therefore, she wrote each of her grandchildren that unless they started writing her thank-you letters, she had sent them the last gift they would ever receive from her. It worked — she soon began to receive thank-you letters.

When Oscar Wilde visited Denver, he was warned against going to see the mines in Leadville, since the rough miners of that town would end up harming either himself or his manager. Mr. Wilde wrote the miners of Leadville and “told them that nothing that they could do to my travelling manager would intimidate me.”

When actor John Drew wrote his memoirs at the age of nearly 70, he still had in his possession — and quoted — a letter his mother had written to him on the eve of his 10th birthday party: “Sorry that the shoes are too large, but if you can get along till you come home I will get a pair to fit better.”

An American sergeant in World War I was given a letter by a Frenchman to deliver to his wife, whom the Frenchman had not seen for years because of the war. Of course, the wife was ecstatic to receive the letter, and she gave the American sergeant a precious gift which she had carefully been hoarding: two pounds of sugar lumps.

During 1902, James McNeill Whistler was very ill — so ill, in fact, that a London newspaper thought he had died and so it printed his obituary. Mr. Whistler wrote a letter to the newspaper, correcting the errors in his obituary and saying that reading it had greatly improved his health.

New York Mayor Fiorella La Guardia had an interesting way of answering letters. He would read letters, then hand them one at a time to his secretary while saying the appropriate reply: “Say yes, say no, throw it away, tell him to go to Hell.”

J. P. Morgan’s librarian, Belle da-Costa Greene, was alleged to have burned some of George Washington’s letters that were in his collection. When asked why she had done that, she supposedly replied, “Why not? Mr. Morgan can afford it.”

Now is a good time for Ohio University first-year students to write their parents: “Dear Mom and Dad, I love OU. Send money. Last night I killed my roommate. Love. P.S. Don’t worry. I made it look like an accident.”

American dance pioneer Ted Shawn was writing letters in a Savannah hotel when he surprised himself by typing, “I smell smoke.” He looked up and discovered that the hotel was on fire.

Noël Coward once wrote a letter to Lawrence of Arabia — Aircraftsman T.E. Shaw, No. 338171. Mr. Coward began the letter, “Dear 338171, May I call you 338?”

Occasionally, people wrote Noël Coward using stationery that said, “From the Desk of ….” Mr. Coward always replied to those letters by writing, “Dear Desk of ….”

Journalist George Jean Nathan of the American Mercury used to receive 200 hate letters a day — he paid attention only to the ones that were well written.

An English schoolboy once wrote his parents: “S.O.S. L.S.D. R.S.V.P.” (By the way, the initials of “L.S.D.” are the abbreviations of English money — pounds, shillings, and pence.)

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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