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Little Piece of Her Heart

In handwritten letters, which were recently auctioned off, Janis Joplin speaks candidly of her insecurities, her love for music--and her battle with drug addiction.

March 06, 2001|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She sounded pretty much like a swell college girl in the mid-'60s--putting together a hope chest, stitching a quilt with her mother and sister, baking corn bread and pies. An insecure Texas kid who enrolled in a poise-and-personality class so she would be able to go to nice places with her boyfriend.

But in nearly daily handwritten letters to her boyfriend, from July to November 1965, 22-year-old Janis Joplin also wrote about her insecurities and jealousies, and her fears about lapsing back into drug addiction. Five years later, on Oct. 4, 1970, it was no big surprise when Joplin was found dead of an accidental heroin overdose at a Hollywood hotel. Another side of the lusty, hard-living blues diva, though, is beginning to emerge.

Last week, about three dozen of Joplin's unpublished letters to her boyfriend, Peter de Blanc, were auctioned by Swann Galleries in Manhattan. The letters were written while she was attending a state college in Beaumont, Texas, and he lived in New York. And in April, a play based partly on Joplin's letters to her family will open at off-Broadway's Village Gate Theater. The play, "Love, Janis," was approved by her estate and includes music as well as readings.

In one letter to her mother, for instance, Joplin says she wants a good cookbook--maybe a Betty Crocker one--for Christmas. "We were trying to show the side of Janis we knew," says her brother, Michael Joplin, 47, who oversees the Janis Joplin estate with his sister, Laura Joplin. "A lot of people just think of Janis as being a ballsy mama."

Over the years, he says, he has watched the Janis Joplin he knew reduced to almost a caricature of a reds-popping, crystal-meth-smoking addict. But her enduring appeal is rooted in the humanness that comes through in her letters, Michael Joplin theorizes. She was the "local girl makes good. The ugly duckling-swan thing. It's a classic story."

Her letters to her boyfriend were written before her hits such as "Me and Bobby McGee." She had returned home to Port Arthur, Texas, from San Francisco in May 1965, leaving behind her fiance, De Blanc, who had moved to New York. In San Francisco, where she was singing in coffeehouses, her drug habit had whittled her to 88 pounds.

In neatly handwritten notes, some with sketches, Joplin showed two conflicting desires--one that tugged her toward music, another that pulled toward domestic life. Maybe, she wrote, she could get good enough on her sister's guitar to play a few blues songs in public. Someday, she hoped, she would have fans who thought her falsetto in a blues song called, "Come Back, Baby," was as good as she thought it was.

At the same time, Joplin bought six cups at a flea market for the new house that she hoped she and De Blanc would share one day. She flipped through a Sears catalog, making lists of what they would need for married life. She invited her mother to visit them someday when she became pregnant.

The auction drew "quite a bit of interest" from collectors, autograph dealers and institutions, partly because Joplin's letters rarely come up for sale, says Jeremy Markowitz, an autograph specialist at Swann galleries. He would not identify the person who sold the letters but says De Blanc was not the seller. Winning bids ranged from $9,200 for a nine-page letter detailing her life since high school to $4,140 for two letters, one of which discussed her love of folk music and the blues.

"It was an interesting part of her life before she hit it big," Markowitz says. "She had already gotten in some trouble in her life, so the letters presented a real dichotomy between this talking about cooking and being lovey-dovey about her boyfriend, and someone who says my life is really difficult. . . . There's interesting foreshadowing."

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