Sweet Nothings - Collecting Celebrity Love Letters
The last auctions of 2012 are offering a number of love letters, written by famous figures to their beloveds.A November auction sold a rare note from Horatio Nelson to his mistress Lady Emma Hamilton, written following an argument during the height of their affair, circa 1801. It was snapped up for £20,000 after an estimate of £6,000-£8,000.
Coming up this December we have more treats in store. Profiles in History will offer the notes of jazz legend Louis Armstrong to his mistress Lucille ‘Sweets’ Preston, spanning the years 1946-1968, with an estimate of $60,000-$80,000. Over at Sotheby’s, a scandalous collection of adoring correspondence from Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz to a woman 23 years his junior is expected to fetch $250,000-$350,000. And even rock n rollers fall in love. Rolling Stones idol Mick Jagger’s secret love letters to the beautiful singer and model Marsha ‘Brown Sugar’ Hunt, dating from the summer of ’69, are passionate, articulate, and expected to sell for £70,000-£100,000 at Sotheby’s London
Who says that spring is the season for romance? Love is patently in the air this December. Wikicollecting looks at the appeal of these intimate billets-doux to collectors.
The love letter is an ancient institution. A written proclamation of devotion to another person is a more steadfast gesture than whispered sweet nothings. They are the expression of emotions needing an outlet, of passions, of obsessions, of bliss and of pain.
Political, scientific, literary and artistic figures, music, film and television entertainers, people in the public eye, are just as capable of love as the rest of us. They too write adoring notes to their sweethearts, pour their hearts out onto paper.
Love letters of these famous figures are considered by some collectors to be the ultimate items of memorabilia. The interest that surrounds famous people often engenders a desire to see behind the public persona and into their private lives. What is more private than a love letter? Never intended for eyes other than the recipient’s, it is a window into their most confidential thoughts and emotions.
The collection of celebrity love letters is a much more intense pursuit than the collecting of their autographs. From these pieces of writing, they reveal themselves to be human, like the rest of us, with the same passions and torments. To own a love letter is to own a part of their soul, an entirely personal and private moment of their life.
Famous love letters are quite an elite group of collectibles. How do they come into public hands at all? It is hard to image the recipients themselves parting with such sentimental items. Perhaps they are lost, and unearthed years later, or perhaps the families of the recipients choose to profit from these fading cherished papers. Many letters are burned to keep them out of public hands, so the surviving items that find their way into the public domain are a true rarity.
Collectors are likely to be interested in one particular famous figure, in search of items relating to their lives, rather than collecting famous love letters in general. People are particular about just whose love letters they want to possess, evidenced by the recent auction of Joseph Goebbels’ love letters, which failed to sell.
There are above-the-board love letters, such as those between a husband and wife, and there are clandestine love letters, which for whatever reason were secret, scandalous, and damaging to public reputations. The letters between the unmarried Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton are a perfect example – she unwisely refused to destroy his letters to her, and they were published in 1814, contributing to her public downfall. As such these pieces of history can alter the way that famous people are perceived, can change public opinion about them, and that is very powerful.
Politicians are always in the public eye. They must uphold morality and solid values in order to govern, and thus any evidence of extra-marital romances, such as love letters, are evidence of the split between public and private selves, and interesting to collectors. John F. Kennedy’s love letters to Gunilla von Post, with whom he had an affair, sold for $115,537 in 2010.
Love letters are also expressive of a moment in history, and society’s expectations of the celebrity writer. Today there seems no reason for Mick Jagger’s letters to Marsha Hunt to be secret, yet they were written at a time when interracial relationships were challenged and fraught. Just as with the young James Dean’s love letters to girlfriend Barbara Glen, sold for £22,500 in 2011, they reveal the young man behind the superstar, the turmoil and insecurity that the brash and arrogant stage persona did not encompass.
Writers and artists
The love letters of famous writers are particularly sought-after. They are often eloquent and descriptive, the adulations of an artist to their muse, evidence of the influence that lovers had on their lives and work. Romantic poet John Keats wrote love letters to his fiancé while he was dying, as he was not allowed to see her. One of these sold for £96,000 in 2011. James Joyce’s erotically charged letter to his wife Nora sold for £240,800 in 2004.
Ian Fleming’s letters to his own Miss Moneypenny, Loelia Ponsonby, sold for £33,650 in 2008. An entire archive of Charles Bukowski’s letters, tracking his lifelong passion for his one true love Linda King throughout many years, sold for $60,000 in 2007.
The Charles Schulz letters coming up for auction this week provide a great insight into how his relationship with Tracey and his failing marriage affected many of the Charlie Brown and Snoopy strips he created at the time, during 1971. It provides a completely new perspective on why the artist chose the themes he did.
Options for new collectors
In reality, you have to be pretty lucky to come across these items, and even luckier to have the money to afford them.
If you really want to get your hands on some famous love letters, here are some options:
- Focus on slightly less famous people. A note from original Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe to photographer Astrid Kirchherr sold for £500 in July 2003. Compared to the thousands or millions a John Lennon private love note to anyone would garner, this is a snip. The drawback is that Sutcliffe and Kirchherr will perhaps not go down in history in quite the same way as someone like Lennon.
- Focus on living celebrities rather than dead ones. Personal notes and love letters from Bob Dylan to Suze Rotolo dating from 1963 sold for just a few thousand per item at Christie’s in December 2006. Madonna’s love faxes to an old boyfriend were similarly inexpensive at an auction in 2009.
- Start dating a famous person, or someone likely to become famous in the future, make them fall in love with you, and insist upon regular long, adoring letters of devotion.
A modern type of collection
Collections of famous love letters can be found in reproduced form, in printed books, and online. This type of collection can be purchased or viewed by anyone for little or no cost. People have started collecting electronically, just as they have ceased writing letters by hand and starting conducting the majority of correspondence over the internet.
This indicates that the interest in these letters, and fascination with the love lives of famous figures, is as acute as ever, though not many people have the means to sustain a collection of the original documents.
The website http://lettersofnote.com collects all manner of famous correspondence that anyone can visit and read cost free, including many of amorous subject matter. Until you can afford to hold the real items in your hands, these make for dreamy distant reading.