Do you remember the days before people needed an app to say “I love you?” We here at the History of Sex sure do.
But the love letter is facing extinction. New research has shown that just six percent of women and four percent of men still write love letters. Instead, people are turning to more modern methods. Most modern women and men admit to sending romantic emails and texts – and these days, sexting says slightly more than a thousand words.
Yet women and men are still divided by the wish to hold on to these mementos. Women are more than twice as likely as men to keep little love notes, but the grand tradition of love letters finds men doing a lot of the pining and penning. So as a tribute to the lost art of love-note-making, we take a look at some famous letters from the blog Letters of Note, which is an incredible archive with all sorts of handwritten letters – some filled with sweet talk – to show us how it used to be done.
Love notes are written for several reasons: to apologize, say thanks, celebrate, congratulate or de-stress the one you love. But they often reveal much more than that. They range from the profane to the sacred yet often anticipate the future. In “The Great Sex Note”, Neal Cassady writes to Jack Kerouac about his drunken traveling sex-capades in a style that would later be known the world over as Kerouac’s stream of consciousness, but for which Cassady apologizes – “P.P.S. Please read this illegible letter as a continuous chain of undisciplined thought, thank you…P.P.P.S. Postponed, postponed, postponed script, keep working hard, finish your novel & find, thru knowledge, strength in solitude instead of despair.” Simple notes can clearly inspire.
Love notes also shed light on a moment in history and reveal its vulnerability and hopeful romanticism – uninhibited by what the future may hold. As Frida Kahlo wrote to Diego Rivera, “Remember that once you finish the fresco we will be together forever once and for all, without arguments or anything, only to love one another.” Love notes often express the artistic personality of a famous figure in just a few lines, as in one that could’ve just as easily began its life as a song – Little Girl, happiness is within you….so unlock the chains from your heart and let yourself grow—like the sweet flower you are…..I know the answer—Just spread your wings and set yourself FREE Love to you forever, Jimi Hendrix
There is a temporary but timeless and ethereal quality to love notes that capture a moment just as fleeting as love itself. They are as photographs – saying something that needs to be said. They can be statements made by powerful people who felt the need to express some truth in their intensely political lives – talking of a secret affairs, as Henry VIII’s passionate confusion was for Anne Boleyn in 1527 (while still married to Catherine of Aragon), as he pines for her in a 1527 letter that could be from the drawer of a teenage boy. They can be grand gestures, revealing a sensitive side to historical figures that we perhaps didn’t know was there – as in Napoleon’s famous love letter to Josephine which reads,
“I am going to bed with my heart full of your adorable image… I cannot wait to give you proofs of my ardent love… How happy I would be if I could assist you at your undressing, the little firm white breast, the adorable face, the hair tied up in a scarf a la creole. You know that I will never forget the little visits, you know, the little black forest… I kiss it a thousand times and wait impatiently for the moment I will be in it. To live within Josephine is to live in the Elysian fields. Kisses on your mouth, your eyes, your breast, everywhere, everywhere.”
Unlike the careful steps taken by historical world leaders, love notes were often simply scribbled on whatever their desperate authors could get their hands on. Thus, the writing of love notes and letters can be seen as the ultimate, immediate expression of men’s fantasy. Intense, temporary and fleeting. For the women who kept them for decades – in some cases, centuries – they represent something quite different – intimate thoughts that last forever – how else would they have survived except to be cherished for all their imperfectness? No one letter does this better than Marlon Brando who, infatuated with stewardesses, decided to pen this little gem while crossing from NY to LA in 1966 –
Dear Lady —
There is something not quite definable in your face — something lovely, not pretty in a conventionally thought of way. You have something graceful and tender and feminine (sp). You seem to be a woman who has been loved in her childhood, or else, somehow by the mystery of genetic phenomena you have been visited by the gifts of refinement, dignity and poise. Perhaps you cannot be accredited with all that.
Irrespective of your gothic aspects, you have passed something on in terms of your expression, mien and general comportment that is unusual and rewarding.
It’s been a pleasant if brief encounter and I wish you well and I hope we shall have occasion to cross eyes again sometime.