History’s Famous Pen Pals

When’s the last time you received an actual letter in the mail? Were you flipping through your bills and came across a hand-addressed envelope? Did your heart skip a beat? Was it a love letter? A continuation of your mom’s adamant refusal to use email or texting? Your 20 year old college kid using a deceivingly sweet method to ask for another $50 in his or her checking account? Or maybe you haven’t gotten one in years. But still, the thought of getting one probably brings a nostalgic smile to your face. 

Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop walking on the beach

Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop corresponded for 30 years

Up until the 19th century, letters were just about the only means of communicating with people aside from face to face contact, but that didn’t make them any less meaningful. Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell weren’t the first or last famous duo to have an equally famous correspondence. Some others are romantic. Some are fraught with unrequited adoration. Others still show mentorship, or simple yet powerful friendship. All demonstrate the powerful bond that the written word can create between two people, especially in the form of letters.

1. Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot

Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot

One of the most interesting and unexpected pair of famous pen pals is Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot. Their correspondence lasted three years, beginning in 1961 and ending 1964, not long before Eliot’s death. The two men began their exchange out of a mutual respect for one another’s work. Despite their contrasting personalities and some accusations of Eliot’s anti-semitism, the two men played well off each other. Eliot was a conservative and respectful man, and Marx loved to riff on this. Marx would try to offend Eliot by writing things such as, “I would be interested in reading your views on sex, so don’t hesitate. Confide in me, Tom,” and “Why you haven’t been offered the lead in some sexy movies I can only attribute to the basic stupidity of the casting directors.” The two men eventually met in person for the first time in 1964 when they sat down for dinner with their wives at the Eliot home. Apparently they lost contact not long after this, but Marx would later state he’d learned at the dinner that he had three things in common with Eliot: “(1) an affection for good cigars and (2) cats; and (3) a weakness for making puns.”Those sound like the three ingredients to any great friendship. 

2. Ronald and Nancy Reagan

Ronald and Nancy Reagan kissing over a cake

Far more well known and far more romantic were the letters that Ronald Reagan wrote to his beloved wife Nancy throughout their courtship and marriage―a span of over 48 years. Their relationship has been referred to as “probably the greatest love affair in the history of the American Presidency.” Some even thought it too good to be true, a relationship embellished to satisfy the public, but all you have to do is read just one of Reagan’s letters to Nancy and in order to know that their love was pure and legitimate. Reagan’s words were elegant, earnest, and sincere. In return for these letters, Nancy would leave notes around the house for him to find when she had to be away from him. In 2002, Nancy Reagan released a book called I Love You, Ronnie, which compiles Ronald’s letters to her as well as her reflections on the letters, their relationship, Ronald, and their life together. Men, take notes. 

3. Tony Danza and Tupac Shakur

 Tony Danza and Tupac Shakur

Even more unprecedented than the exchange between Marx and Eliot was the correspondence and friendship of actor Tony Danza and rapper Tupac Shakur. In 1995, Shakur was in prison, and Danza, upon listening intently to his song “Dear Mama,” felt compelled to conctact him. Danza wrote, “considering the situation you find yourself in, and considering the juxtaposition of the song [‘Dear Mama’] that reaches people like that, maybe there’s another way. I understand that the business you’re in is not—you can’t be a goody-two shoes in this business, but maybe there’s a way to inspire youth instead of—you know. Maybe there’s a way that you can use this talent of yours to inspire our youth, because they need somebody.”Basically, Danza wanted Tupac to stop with the illegal funny business and embrace the role he played in the lives of so many young people. Tupac’s response? Something along the lines of “thanks for understanding me.” The two wrote back and forth a few more times, and ended up meeting at a premiere after Tupac’s release and before his death. Danza had made an impact on Shakur, by reaching out to him in the form of written word. It’s amazing what a couple of letters can do.

Dear Elizabeth poster

The lives of the rich and famous have always been compelling, and unexpected treasures from their lives add to their novelty. Dear Elizabeth treats poetry lovers, Bishop and Lowell fans, theatre enthusiasts, and the general public alike to an inside look at one of the most beautifully written and heartfelt real-life friendships. Bishop and Lowell’s story is captivating and all the more powerful as it was upheld through a now out-of-date means of communication.Come see their words brought to life at the Lyric Stage Company’s presentation of Dear Elizabeth, October 17th through November 9th, 2014