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Love Letters in Demand : Retrograde Romance in the Age of the 11-Digit Relationship

October 19, 1986|JACK SMITH

In these days when it is so easy to "reach out and touch someone" by telephone, the love letter is a thing of the past.

What a loss to mankind in passion and poetry.

Even the least literate of us could write a love letter that would bring tears to the eyes of our sweetheart. Honest feelings made the simplest words poignant.

"Dear Mary: I love you. I miss you. I can't wait to be in your arms again. Love. John."

Today the stricken fellow merely dials a number, and when she answers, says, "Hey. How ya doin'?"

A young woman writes, "I write love letters. . . . But what exactly is the relationship of love letters to the teaching (or learning) of English?"

None. Only the most rudimentary grasp of English is required for the writing of love letters.

The young woman goes on: "Despite the convenience of the telephone (ours is an 11-digit relationship), it is my opinion that it discourages intimacy and intimate communication. There is no paper left over to tie up with ribbon . . . all that remains is the sensation of a tinny voice, and sweaty plastic making a dent in your ear."

The long-distance telephone is a powerful means of communication. In times of disaster, it can reassure someone of a loved one's safety. It can end, if only momentarily, an aching loneliness.

We have always been fascinated by its magic. Louella Parsons used to assure her readers that she had just talked to Carole Lombard or Clark Gable "on the long-distance telephone," and had thus received the confidences she was about to reveal.

We have all been kept cooling our heels in outer offices while secretaries assured us that the man we wanted to see was "talking long-distance," a miraculous phenomenon that was expected to placate us.

With the telephone so handy, and direct dialing so easy, does anyone write love letters anymore?

I suppose that people who are separated by long distances and who can not afford to telephone each other often may be reduced to taking out pen and paper and attempting to describe their sentiments in writing.

I doubt, though, that the mails are very often heavy with love letters. If separated lovers can't afford to reach out and touch each other by telephone, they will probably be disconnected, like the telephone of a user who does not pay his bill.

Recently I received a small letter opener from Benjor Products, of Torrance. It was sent to me by Marcia Reed of that company with the explanation that they hoped to market them in card shops. They are meant for opening love letters only.

I imagine that a letter opener intended for love letters only will serve just as well for opening bills and junk mail. However, I have put mine aside for use in the unlikely event that I ever receive another love letter.

Ms. Reed had been doing research on love letters and found that the form goes back at least as far as Cleopatra, who sent engraved tablets of onyx and crystal to Mark Antony.

Ms. Reed found that Henry VIII wrote to the luckless Anne Boleyn that he had been "for more than a year struck by the dart of love."

Try to imagine how the conversation might have gone if Henry had been able to dial Anne: "Hey, Anne. Hank here. How ya doin'?"

And Anne might have said, "If you don't quit calling me, King, I'm going to change my number."

Those two cases show that the dart of love does not always bring lasting happiness. Poor Anne had her head chopped off, and Cleopatra put a deadly asp to her breast.

Ms. Reed considers John Keats' letters to Fanny Brawne the ultimate in emotion distilled:

"My dear girl, I love you ever and ever and without reserve. The more I have known you the more have I lov'd. . . . In the hottest fit I ever had I would have died for you."

What might John have said if he'd dialed Fanny's 11-digit number and got her on the line: "Hey, Fannie, how ya doin'?"

The telephone has also outmoded almost every other written form of communication. I have a treasured letter written by the celebrated early-19th-Century English wit, Sidney Smith. It is simply a social note promising to call on a friend.

If Sidney had been able to telephone, I could not have this letter in a frame today. The sound of his message would be lost in the cosmos.

Even the office romance is no longer sustained by those furtive little notes that used to be pressed into open palms, sometimes by confederates. Today, office lovers leave messages on each other's computers. The method is private, and the messages can easily be wiped out.

But it doesn't leave you anything to tie up in a ribbon.

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