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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

15 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Lesbian Love Letters of Pioneering Victorian Photographer and Photojournalist Fannie Benjamin Johnston

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“If I have been proud of you and your work and put you on a pedestal, as you say, please let me keep you there, for you deserve it surely and that is my way of loving.”

Pioneering photographer Frances “Fannie” Benjamin Johnston received her first camera as a gift from Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman and used it to usher in a new era of photojournalism. Beginning with portraits of family and friends, she was soon recognized as a formidable talent and came to photograph some of the era’s greatest celebrities, including Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Roosevelt, becoming a true self-made woman and creative entrepreneur by the standards of the age. Around the time she turned thirty, Fannie met Mattie Edwards Hewitt, the then-wife of the St. Louis photographer Arthur Hewitt — a marriage the arrangements of which remain unclear, but appear to have been largely for practical purposes. Mattie worked in her husband’s darkroom and was herself passionate about photography, so when Johnston first encountered Hewitt’s work, she was impressed and complimented it effusively. This mutuality of creative admiration soon blossomed into romantic love — a proposition particularly radical, and even dangerous, for two nineteenth-century women.

And yet what a romance it was — the soul-stirring letters from Hewitt to Johnston, found in the altogether fascinating biography The Woman behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864–1952 (public library), join the ranks of other exquisite epistolary exchanges of lady-love, including those between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wynn Matthison, and Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

Mein Liebling —

… Just reread your letter, am I all the nice things you say about me, I wonder? Ever since you told me that I was indeed worthwhile, I have felt like another woman, and now if I have been able to make you truly care for me, well, I am very very happy over it. You do not know the wealth of tenderness there is in my heart for you, and shall I tell you why I have needed you so much and seemed so longing for love and affection? I have already told you of how little of the above I [received] in my home.

When I married that nice little man, I thought of course I should get all the love my heart had yearned for, but somehow he has always seemed too busy to stop long enough for such nonsense, as he calls it.

Seven years ago, baby came and stayed just long enough to leave me with a hungry mother’s heart. Since then I have never met with anyone that could fill this great big [void] … until I met you in Buffalo and well, you know how I have tried to show you in every possible way that I loved you, loved you dearly.

… I am not foolish enough to expect you to love me in this way only it was so sweet and meant so very much that I could not but tell it over and over.

Your life is so full and your friends so many — that you have cared for me should make me satisfied.

I am not going to weary you with a love letter every time I write, so don’t worry dear…

… If I have been the help you say I am to you, then I am more than glad. I have been so afraid from the first that you would think me a foolish sentimental woman and I was so happy when you told me the other day that you understood — If I have been proud of you and your work and put you on a pedestal, as you say, please let me keep you there, for you deserve it surely and that is my way of loving. . . .

I wonder why I expect you to understand me better than most people — is it because I love you so?

In another letter, Hewitt wrote:

…Ah I love you, love you better than ever you know. . . . Yes my dear we will turn over a new leaf and stand together in time of weakness or need of help and we must not ever again turn away head or take hand away but when I need you or you need me — must hold each other all the closer and with your hand in mine, holding it tight, I will clear away all misunderstandings or doubts and the sun will shine again. . . .

And in another:

I slept in your place and on your pillow — it was most as good as the cigarette you lit and gave me all gooey — not quite, for we had you and the sweet taste too — I am foolish about you I admit. . . .

Portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

In 1909, Mattie divorced Arthur and moved to New York to be with Frances, living and working together, and eventually making their creative collaboration official in 1913 when they opened a joint studio specializing in architectural photography. The only surviving record of their romance are those early letters from the years when they lived apart and wrote to each other, more of which can be found in The Woman behind the Lens.

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11 NOVEMBER, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut’s Life-Advice to His Children

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Educate yourself, welcome life’s messiness, read Chekhov, avoid becoming an architect at all costs.

Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) endures as one of modern history’s most beloved authors, a wiseman of storytelling and a shaman of style. He was also, however, one great dad: In Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (public library) — which also gave us the author’s priceless daily routine, his endearing apartment woes, and this lovely short poem he penned for his friend — Vonnegut adds to history’s finest letters of fatherly advice in a series of letters to his children. Besides his own three kids — Nanette, Mark, and Edith — Vonnegut and his first wife, Jane, ended up raising three of his sister Alice’s four children after Alice and her husband died of unrelated causes within 24 hours of each other; he later adopted another daughter with his second wife, Jill.

In a 1969 letter to his 22-year-old son Mark, Vonnegut offers a daisy chain of practical and irreverent fatherly advice:

Advice my father gave me: never take liquor into the bedroom. Don’t stick anything in your ears. Be anything but an architect.

The following year, Kurt and Jane separated, and he began living with the woman who would become his second wife nine years later. Worried about how the divorce might affect his youngest biological daughter, Nanette — whom he affectionately addressed as “Nanny,” “Nanno” or “Dear old Nan” — he wrote in a 1971 letter to the 17-year-old girl:

Well — it could go two ways with us: you could figure you had been ditched by your father, and you could mourn about that. Or we could keep in touch and come to love each other more than ever before.

The second possibility is the attractive one for me. It’s the absolutely necessary one for me. And the trouble with it is that you will have to write me a lot, or some, anyway, and call up sometimes, and so on. We’ve got to wish each other happy birthdays, and ask how work is going, and tell each other jokes, and all that. And you’ve got to visit me often, and I’ve got to pay more attention to what sorts of things are really good times instead of chores for you.

Nanette — who recently wrote about her conflicted relationship with her dad and his fame in the introduction to this fantastic posthumous collection of Vonnegut’s first and last works — took the second possibility and the two remained in close touch over the years. This heartening excerpt from a 1972 letter to Nanette reveals the warmth of their relationship:

You should know that I as a college student didn’t write my parents much. You said all that really matters in your first letter from out there … that you love me a lot. Mark wrote me the same thing recently. That helps, and it lasts for years. I think I withheld that message from my parents. Either that, or I said it so often that it became meaningless. Same thing, either way.

In another letter, 50-year-old Vonnegut writes to his “Dear Nanno”:

Most letters from a parent contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice. My good advice to you is to pay somebody to teach you to speak some foreign language, to meet with you two or three times a week and talk. Also: get somebody to teach you to play a musical instrument. What makes this advice especially hollow and pious is that I am not dead yet. If it were any good, I could easily take it myself.

(More than three decades later, he would echo this in his wonderful letter of life-advice to the children in a high school class, urging them to “practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience BECOMING, to find out what’s inside you, to MAKE YOUR SOUL GROW.”)

Vonnegut on a trip to Niagara Falls with his children, 1963.

His most timeless advice, however, comes in a late-1971 letter to Nanette and speaks to today’s recurring theme of welcoming the unplanned:

Dear Old Nanno —

You’re learning now that you do not inhabit a solid, reliable, social structure — that the older you get people around you are worried, moody, goofy human beings who themselves were little kids only a few days ago. So home can fall apart and schools can fall apart, usually for childish reasons, and what have you got? A space wandered named Nan.

And that’s O.K. I’m a space wandered named Kurt, and Jane’s a space wanderer named Jane, and so on. When things go well for days on end, it is an hilarious accident.

You’re dismayed at having lost a year, maybe, because the school fell apart. Well — I feel as though I’ve lost the years since Slaughterhouse-Five was published, but that’s malarky. Those years weren’t lost. They simply weren’t the way I’d planned them. Neither was the year in which Jim had to stay motionless in bed while he got over TB. Neither was the hear in which Mark went crazy, then put himself together again. Those years were adventures. Planned years are not.

I look back on my own life and I wouldn’t change anything. . . .

Later in the same letter, he adds another piece of advice:

I think it’s important to live in a nice country rather than a powerful one. Power makes everybody crazy.

He concludes the letter with some vital advice on educating oneself beyond the classroom, offering Nanette a mock-strict directive on soul-expansion:

Learn German during your last semester at Sea Pines, and you’ll learn more than I ever learned in high school. I doubt that they can get you in shape to cool the college boards, so the hell with the college boards. Educate yourself instead. In the final analysis, that’s what I had to do, what Uncle Beaver had to do, and what we all have to do.

I am going to order you to do something new, if you haven’t done it already. Get a collection of the short stories of Chekhov and read every one. Then read “Youth” by Joseph Conrad. I’m not suggesting that you do these things. I am ordering you to do them.

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters remains a delight. Pair it with Vonnegut on how to write with style, his fictional interviews with luminaries, and this NPR interview with him in Second Life shortly before his death, then pair his advice with more fatherly wisdom from Einstein on the secret to learning anything, John Steinbeck on falling in love, Ted Hughes on nourishing the inner child, and Sherwood Anderson on the creative life.

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07 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Interpretation of Leonard Bernstein’s Dreams

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Freud, Jung, sexual identity, and the creative process.

A friend — a rather rational and highly intelligent friend — recently shared with equal parts self-consciousness and delight that she had had her chart, as in astrological chart, done. (Done, no less, by a Buddhist-monk-turned-startup-entrepreneur who also happens to be a hobbyist astrologer — one of those details that captures our era’s peculiarity so poetically.) The incident stood out as a particularly poignant embodiment of the curious allure mysticism and pseudoscience hold for even the most intelligent among us — perhaps a testament to our restlessness and longing to resolve the burden of life’s ambiguities, however essential those might be to creativity, with concrete directives and tangible answers.

In fact, a number of history’s most celebrated minds succumbed to this very human tendency: George Eliot had her head cast taken by a leading phrenologist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fancied himself a psychic, and Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin spent a good portion of their lengthy love affair bonding over their shared obsession with astrology. But hardly any luminary demonstrates the deeper psychological needs people seek to address through such mystical pursuits than legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990), who was intensely interested in the interpretation of his dreams, believing they held the answers to his deepest and most conflicted questions.

In the early 1940s, plagued by anxieties over his career and in a state of confusion over his sexual identity as he found himself falling in love with men at a time when homosexuality was classified as a mental illness and regarded as an offense as unamerican as communism, Bernstein started seeing a psychoanalyst named Marketa Morris, whom he nicknamed “The Frau.” A few years later, he turned to the Jungian psychoanalyst Renée Nell, who studied with Carl Jung himself, hoping the interpretation of his dreams would put his waking restlessness at peace. Bernstein’s correspondence with the two women is revealed in the magnificent and long-awaited anthology The Leonard Bernstein Letters (public library), for which editor Nigel Simeone painstakingly trawled through 10,000 letters to cull the 650 epistolary treasures included in the book.

Leonard Bernstein with Aaron Copland in Bernardsville, NJ

In June of 1942, Bernstein writes to Aaron Copland — by then one of the most popular voices in American classical music and young Bernstein’s greatest love — about his sessions with Marketa Morris and the opposing forces of his reluctant desire to “fix” his homosexuality and his irrepressible love for Copland:

The Frau-sessions have borne some fruit. Little green fruit, of course, but fruit. The main thing being that I can’t kid myself any more. Kid myself, that is, into thinking that I have a closeness with someone when it is all really wishful thinking, or induced, or imagined, or escape from being alone with myself, etc. And so, one by one, all the old relationships tend to fall away; and I find that I’m not at all interested in seeing anybody — really — whereas I used to run and see anybody at the drop of a hat. This all makes the trouble harder, of course; since I still hate being alone, and yet don’t want anyone in particular. And that’s where you come in; cause you’re the only one that persists and persists, come hell or high water. And I love you and miss you as much as I did the first month I knew you, and always will. Believe that, Earth-Scorcher, it’s so real. And then this wish for closeness always manifests itself in a sexual desire, the more promiscuous the better — giving rise to experiences like being taken (by Pfb [Bowles], of course) to a Bain Turc (or is it Turque?) and seeking out the 8th Street bars again. But I’m not attracted any more to any one I find there, and it’s just as horrible as if I hadn’t gone at all. One of those unpleasant stages forward.

In the 1930s and 1940s, many psychoanalysts believed that homosexuality was a disorder that could be “cured” with proper “treatment.” In this 1947 letter, “the Frau” responds to a dream Bernstein had sent her and touches on the subject, while reminding Bernstein of the vital difference between productivity and presence in one’s life and creative process:

Lenny,

I got your dream letter. You know that it is quite impossible to give a written interpretation to a dream — and more so a dream without interpretation.

Why am I living in Brooklyn?

Jimmy’s Restaurant in Greenwich Village

Why another cab to go to Brooklyn? What’s about 289?

It’s getting dark at four o’clock in the afternoon?

Switches putting on lights upstairs and not downstairs? What’s the difference between up and downstairs in this beautiful, big, expensive house?

What about the two girls blocking the exit from behind your desk?

Write me if you feel like — besides the dreams! For instance why cannot you relax and just simply not compose? Remember, you had the idea that adjustment to homosexuality could facilitate heterosexuality! Couldn’t adjustment to relaxation constitute a capacity of creative work? Of course not pretending to relax only.

Bernstein also had his personality “read” by the noted harpsichordist and pianist Rosalyn Tureck who, like our Buddhist-entrepreneur friend, had a side-interest in astrology. While she presents it with the necessary grain of salt, she does make a special note of the g-word:

Dear Leonard,

At long last, here is your “personality analysis”. I cannot take these things seriously but they are wonderful fun especially since the person who did it does not know to whom the doodling belongs.

According to the analysis it looks as tho you must face the fact that you definitely fit into the genius category…

She then encloses Bernstein’s full personality profile, which makes it hard not to project onto these vague generalities the concrete biographical particularities of the composer’s life, such as the intertwining of his professional admirations and his love interests, his identity confusion, and his musical genius — the same trick that to this day keeps horoscopes in business:

This person’s character shows a peculiar and great singleness of purpose. The sex development is practically nil and the personality which might have started to assert itself at one stage in the man’s development has become completely absorbed by career.

The career is complex. Its division is almost geometric and the line of demarcation, very clear. For each phase of the career, there is a well thought-out and deliberate development. The dark areas indicate the creative and the white areas the mechanical. The mechanical seems to dominate the subject and he is more curious about the development of it at this stage than he is about his creative development. There is one point about the career, which seems to come early in the middle life, which indicates the great peak of success. The subject will have attained a very happy balance of creation and mechanics.

The sex symbol is interesting in that the line — the only line connecting it and the rest of the personality chart — extends right to the career symbol. This indicates that the subject’s development is completely concentrated in his career. His personality symbol shows the same direction. There is no embellishment, no additions to it, there is no sign that any development of self has been accomplished. The sign connecting it with the career is merely two extensions from the sex symbol.

It is interesting to note that, in spite of the fact that the sex symbol is not developed as a physical unit, it is present and the aesthetic aspects of it will be found in this man’s career creations later in life.

This man may not be a good mathematician, but he has an excellently organized mind. It is well disciplined as demonstrated by the complete lack of extraneous matter. It is also the mind of a purist.

This man has great ego-maniacal tendencies and will often go to bizarre ends to gain a point. By nature though, he is retiring and socially shy. His great ego, however, serves as a shield against society.

A fruitful creative life is indicated, but an extremely lonely social life will be his lot.

Leonard Bernstein seated at the piano, making annotations to musical score (Photograph by Al Ravenna courtesy of The Library of Congress)

In July of 1947, a few months after the composer announced his engagement to the Costa Rican actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre, Marketa Morris revisits the question of Bernstein’s conflicted sexual identity, still raging in his dreams:

Lenny,

Your letter stirred up lots of problems.

To go into them adequately would require an elaborate paper — and that does not agree with my vacations. I try a compromise. I have to be honest in the first place. Honest and short means usually: it hurts! I have to rely on your perspicacity and your English to translate my thoughts into a good, nice, considerate English. Will you?

[…]

Of course there is a chance that we may come to some essential clarification. No way to deny it. It’s fifty fifty — and you have to know it.

In your dreams there is confusion, you are not able to go where you have to go: two simultaneous engagements or dates and so on. You are seeing Felicia and the day she leaves you have to see a boy.

The same old pattern. You can’t give up. Very eager to resume analysis but the queer fish resistance is as big a fish as your drive to get well.

[…]

Remember that you wanted to challenge people and find out whether they would still love you. … Lenny, I hope very much that you understand what I really want to convey to you! Do you?

Bernstein did — at least for a time. His engagement with Felicia was broken off in September, but they eventually married four years later, in September of 1951. Felicia wrote Leonard shortly after they married, “You are a homosexual and may never change […] I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” And yet, as the plethora of his letters to Felicia reveal, Bernstein really did love her profoundly — a testament to our irreconcilable, coexisting inner contradictions.

Leonard Bernstein with Felicia Bernstein and their children

But perhaps most poignant and insightful in addressing Bernstein’s dreams and his psychological tumults is this 1949 letter from Renée Nell, who relays the era’s theory of what happens while you sleep — more than half a century before modern science shed new light on the mystery — and in the process addresses the rivalry between Freud and Jung:

Dear Lenny,

Thank you for your nice letter and poem to which I have this to answer: “When the real animus and the real anima web, you can get married and take your wife to bed.”

Some short remarks on your dream: when you are unconscious (“taking a nap, sleeping”), you find that your rather undifferentiated feeling is playing tricks on you, bringing people into your psychology whom you do not want to have in there. Rather than finding out what these people really want from you, or why they were invited, you get angry at that side of yourself who played the trick on you. You get in touch with that side by hurting it, then you regret. You would know more if you would try to make her understand why you don’t want these people anymore. Then, when you do get away from the unwanted collective, you get into an even less desirable one, a very pedestrian collective (street). Being alone now, without anything but yourself, you are eager to make contact with some other side, contact in the usual average pedestrian way — sex — which is the substitute for human relationship. When you find that that is impossible you are caught in some very dull, past aspect of your own bourgeois-side. That shows very nicely why you are so eagerly seeking homosexual contact in reality, it seems the way out or the escape from the fear of being caught in bourgeois patterns, and seems to symbolize the free and non-bourgeois life. They talk about your work in the dream; your fear always seems to be that being a conductor and being set in a profession is the same as being dully married and leading a middle-class life. I am sure it could be that way, but must not be that way, and will stop to look to you that way the moment you get some real color into your life; then you can give up to the so-called “colorful life” you are leading.

Freud’s definition: Id — subconscious; Ego — conscious; Super-Ego — conscience. Ego is the whole of consciousness. Jung: has the same concept of the Ego, he terms it the center of consciousness, the difference between F[reud] and J[ung] is in the way [the] use and function of the Ego are seen. With F. it is the censor and adaptor to reality. With J. it is understood as the channel for the forces that want to flow from the inside to the outside, and vice versa, it has a consciously screening function and serves the forces of the Self or the unconscious. With F. it is supposed to master them. To F. the Ego is the human being as such, therefore it has a very high value; to J. it is an aspect of the human, subordinated to the Self, which means the unspoiled essence of the human being. The Self is to J. the highest value in a human being. I hope that does not confuse you more.

I wonder if you have enough contact with my way of analysis yet that the long distance dream-interpretation means anything to you. Generally it is difficult to get anything out of such answers in such an early stage of work; later when one is more attuned to each other it is easier. Let me know. I hope you have a fairly good time, not too many tensions.

Kindly, Renée

Bernstein soon dropped out of his sessions with Nell, but his subconscious summoned her in a dream he describes to his sister Shirley in April of the following year, noting how Nell helped shepherd his disjointed unease into a more unified direction of living:

Last night I dreamed at length that I had found her and solved our problems together. It was a hard dream, but full of richness. And, on awakening, I was desolate at the thousands of miles that still lay between us, and the grayness of doubt and not-knowing. My day-dreams are of her flying to Israel, and our being married in Jerusalem. Renée, of course, would be the uninvited fairy who would pronounce the curse. Strangely, though, I think she’d be delighted. I was not at all surprised at your news of Renée: I had always seen these things, but had always diminished their importance in the light of her values and of my affection for her. Of course, I have no intention of returning to her, or, I hope, to anyone, if I can begin really to live my life (as I can now) and not only live on the circumference of it. And, willy-nilly, Renée has helped to that point — a point where my world changes from one of abstractions and public-hungry performance to one of reality, a world of creativity, of Montealegre-Cohn, of Spanish & French and travel and rest and love and warmth and intimacy.

Leonard Bernstein conducting

Complement The Leonard Bernstein Letters, which peels away at layers upon layers of the beloved composer’s complex psychological constitution, with Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections and the science of dreams and why we have nightmares.

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