Tuesday 20 August 2019

The stars choosing to bare all in a love letter

As celebrities face the fallout from leaked online pictures, Elizabeth Taylor shows us the written word can be just as revealing.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
Jennifer Lawrence was a victim of the hacking scandal

Hannah Betts

In a week in which today's Hollywood giants have found themselves physically exposed via the circulation of private images, voyeurism of an emotional variety has been no less in evidence. For a poignant love missive from Elizabeth Taylor to Richard Burton, is about to go on sale. It was written on their 10th wedding anniversary, in 1974, a few days before the pair first separated over his drunken philandering. Taylor's note, inscribed in pencil, was discovered at a house rented by this legendarily loving, yet sparring, couple, hidden between the pages of a book.

Forty years on, both parties dead, it is being sold for £35,000 by a Bristol-based auction house. The firm's founder says: "This is one steamy letter, from one of the steamiest marriages in history," which is evidently the sort of remark one leaves oneself open to by people who put a price on relics of such intimacy.

The letter - now it has been made public - merits quoting: "My darling (my still) My husband. I wish I could tell you of my love for you, of my fear, my delight, my pure animal pleasure of you - (with you) - my jealousy, my pride, my anger at you, at times. Most of all my love for you, and whatever love you can dole out to me - I wish I could write about it but I can't".

There are many notable things about these scant, yet lacerating, lines. Taylor's words have a lightness, a deftness with their parenthetical refrain of "still", and an eloquent use of four-letter words - "love", "lust", "wife". Taylor nimbly achieves the love letter's function of being an expression of the inexpressible: a sweetly dignified, 11th-hour appeal in the face of the inevitable, which followed days later.

As the fallout from the theft of intimate images from 101 iCloud accounts continues, of which Jennifer Lawrence, pictured below, was one of the victims, Taylor's letter reminds us that, long before the exposure of the screen, came the page.

Moreover, via such a medium, one could be shown just as naked, arguably still more.

Literate lovers, from Héloïse and Abélard, via Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Napoleon and Josephine, Oscar and Bosie, Scott and Zelda, Sartre and de Beauvoir, Plath and Hughes, to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have discovered the love letter's peculiar intimacy. The latter stars recently confessed to penning romantic missives to each other while working on war films on opposite sides of the globe.

Personally, I find love letters today self-consciously portentous, sent when all is lost by someone never, or no longer, loved, attempting to manipulate. My first, at 13, was handed to me by a boy with an alarmingly large head, who loomed over me while I read, then demanded: "Well? What are you going to do about it?" "Nothing?" I ventured, in a way that would set the standard for manipulators to follow.

Even letters issued while still in the first, mutual throes of desire may prove too much.

Where some lovers gush, so others appear overly pragmatic. Witness the hilarious note delivered by Marlon Brando to an air stewardess who caught his fancy mid-flight in the Sixties: "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. 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… 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." Think: a boss-eyed John Donne attempts the mile-high club.

At times, it is the recipient rather than the sender who is banal. Allies of Edith Wharton were horrified to discover that the "mustached Lothario" Morton Fullerton was the object of her affections, epistolary as bodily. Wharton destroyed or returned her lover's letters, begging him to do the same. He demurred.

To my mind, the greatest one-liner in the history of the love letter is issued in a missive from author Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf: "I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia". If only she - and everyone else - stopped there.

Irish Independent

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