Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Dying Art and a Broken Heart

If you're anything like me, it's difficult to remember the last time you wrote a letter. I don't mean planting yourself in front of yet another set of plastic keys and tapping out some paragraphs before submitting them to the whirring printer -- we've all done that countless times. Nor am I referring to sending e-mails or texts or tweets, or posting updates on social media sites or blogs like this one. Scribbling a couple words and a harried signature across the bottom of a holiday card doesn't count, either. I mean a real letter, where your elegant pen left a trail of script across creamy, heavy-bond stationery as you shared inquiries and thoughts and fears and hopes with someone close to you.

It's not just you. When's the last time you came back from your mail box with a personal, handwritten letter nestled among the pile of bills and solicitations that ceaselessly vie for your time, attention, and money six days a week? Yeah, I can't remember, either.

So imagine my fascination when I recently stumbled across a small cache of very old, yellowed, and delicate handwritten letters my late mother had saved her entire life. Most are in English, though some are in Italian. They're all addressed to my Mom's ancestors who lived just south of Cincinnati, in northern Kentucky. They were written and mailed decades before my mother was the proverbial twinkle in her parents' eyes. The letters came from all over the country -- Ohio, New York, and Louisiana supply a few of the return addresses. Some of the letters are dated as far back as the 1840's, when my literary hero Edgar Allan Poe first published "The Raven," and the Mexican-American War raged before the California Gold Rush captivated a young nation's imagination.

Satellites didn't gird the globe then. There was no Internet. There were no telephones. The raw, bleeding edge of communications technology in the States at the time was Samuel Morse's electrical telegraph. In May, 1844, Morse publicly unveiled his telegraph by sending a message from the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., to a depot at the B&O Railroad in Baltimore. That first message was, "What hath God wrought?"

I don't know about God. But what Morse wrought was the electric way we virtually exclusively communicate with each other today.

Still, half a century later sending a telegram or finding a telephone didn't cross Gus Sutton's mind on the night of November 14, 1897. Telegrams were expensive and impersonal, and tolls for long distance calls over the country's fledgling and unreliable telephone network were outrageous. Besides, for some things, the truly important ones, there was no remotely acceptable substitute for giving the heart reign to speak through committing dark ink to fine paper. So the night after he learned the girl he loved had become engaged to be married to another suitor back in Kentucky, Sutton sat down in his flat on Seventh Avenue in New York. He picked up a pen and started to write on a piece of stationery he got from the magnificent new luxury hotel that had just opened a couple of blocks away on Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street, named The Waldorf-Astoria.

Like the art of scripting heartfelt handwritten letters, the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel would soon be sacrificed in the name of progress. About 30 years after Sutton wrote his gracious letter to my great-grandmother Blanche, the original hotel (the one that literally invented room service as we know it today) was demolished to make way for a new structure that still stands now as an enduring emblem of everything new and modern and shiny. I've been there a few times, and if you haven't, you've seen it more times than you can remember. It's the Empire State Building.

How's that for symbolism?

Don't get me wrong. I'm no Luddite. I'm all for progress. Every day I use the same communications technologies you do, for which my thanks are profuse and my regrets are few. But after finding Gus Sutton's letter among my Mom's belongings, it strikes me that even now, for the things that really matter, there's still no remotely acceptable substitute for giving the heart reign to speak through committing dark ink to fine paper.

The Waldorf-Astoria
Fifth Avenue 33rd and 34th Streets
and Astor Court
New York.

[November] 14th -- [18]97


Dear Friend
     Last Eve while perusing the "New York World" I came across an Article with the following Headlines

     Another Kentucky Belle to wed. Miss Blanche Mariana and Mr. George Bardo.

     And then it went on to try and describe you. What an utter impossibility for anyone who has not seen known and beheld that lovely face and figure.

     The description was very good of a pretty face [e]tc but nothing in comparison to Newport's leading lady.

     Allow me as your distant Admirer, to extend my congratulations.

     Hoping that Cupid will do full Justice to one so deserving, I remain as ever Your Sincere Friend.

                                                                                             Gus Sutton

#45 Seventh Ave.
                   NY City


  1. This is wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing it.

  2. I'm glad you liked it, Brenda. Thanks for letting me know.

  3. Richard, what a charming piece of personal history - and interesting bit of N.Y. history! Thoroughly enjoyed it. So true - we hardly put pen to paper any more. Thanks for this great post.

  4. Very nice. I enjoyed. Handwritten letters are so much more personal. With out new fangle technology, we really are sort of missing out.