I’m amputating you

It was when she joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927 that Frida Kahlo first met Diego Rivera, a fellow artist 21 years Kahlo’s senior who soon became her mentor and husband. Kahlo’s life up until then had been a struggle due to polio as a child and a serious traffic accident as a young

How beautiful!

Born in Catalonia in 1904, Salvador Dali’s artworks are known the world over thanks in no small part to their surreal, dreamlike nature, his iconic paintings filled with optical illusions, distorted scenery, melting objects, and sexual imagery. This, coupled with a flamboyant persona that itself was somewhat a work of art, have cemented his place

Am I really writing it at all?

Author Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, and to this day remains one of the greats in the world of crime fiction thanks to his creation of Philip Marlowe, the hardboiled detective who stars in many of his stories: The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), The Lady

Better Letters of Note

Dear all, It gives me untold amounts of pleasure to announce that the Letters of Note website has been given its first facelift since I naively launched it in 2009 using a bog-standard Blogger template. I would like to thank, profusely but from a very safe distance, the patient team of wizards over at Automattic

It is only a matter of time

On September 12th of 2011, the New York Times published an article by Dr. Abigail Zuger in which she criticised certain supposedly unrealistic aspects of Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s recently released and widely lauded thriller in which a deadly pandemic sweeps the globe. In response, a week later the following letter reached the newspaper, penned by the movie’s screenwriter, Scott Burns, and

God be with you

On September 29th, 1918, months before the end of World War I, a freshly assigned physician at Camp Devens military base in Massachusetts wrote the following letter to a friend and fellow doctor, and described a terrifying influenza epidemic that was now killing hundreds of his camp’s soldiers each day. The death toll in this

How the hell have you done it?

On April 18th of 1961, it was announced that iconic Hollywood star Gary Cooper was dying of cancer after a glittering 36 year career that saw him amass countless fans, plaudits, and awards across the globe. Weeks after that news broke, and just days before he died, Cooper received the following fan letter from Kirk Douglas,

There is no danger down here

On October 31st, 1918, as the First World War neared its end, celebrated war poet and officer of the Second Manchesters Wilfred Owen wrote home to his mother. Sadly, this would be his last letter. Four days later–exactly a century ago–Owen was shot dead as he led his company across the Sambre–Oise Canal. His mother

It’s the trip of a lifetime

In the early hours of July 21st, 1969, shortly after the Apollo Lunar Module landed on its surface, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on the Moon. 28 years later, Buzz wrote a letter to Barry Goldman, a professor at the University of Maryland. Transcript follows. (Many thanks to

Diversity guarantees our cultural survival

In November of 1993, a week after the death of celebrated Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, the New York Times published an article by Bruce Weber in which he made clear his impatience with the supposedly opaque, perplexing movies of directors like Fellini. One person who read the piece was Martin Scorsese–he responded by letter. (Source: New

Farewell, my dear brother

On October 15th of 1944, with support from Nazi Germany, the far-right Arrow Cross Party took control of Hungary and immediately began to kill large numbers of Jewish citizens. Thousands more were deported to Auschwitz. The following farewell letter was written the next day by 17-year-old Budapest resident Pinchas Eisner to his brother, Mordechai, who at

The Elephant Man

In December of 1886, the chairman of London Hospital, Francis Carr-Gomm, wrote to The Times newspaper and told of a disfigured 27-year-old man whose appearance was so “terrible” that he was reduced to living in a small, isolated attic room at the hospital, hidden from view. Carr-Gomm was in fact describing Joseph Merrick—”The Elephant Man”—a

This appalling horror

Florence Nightingale’s influence in the world of nursing is impossible to quantify. Born in 1820 to a wealthy family, she knew from a young age that caring for the sick and vulnerable was her calling in life, much to the disapproval of her parents. Little did they know, but their daughter would one day become

What do you take me for?

Sitting behind a sheet of glass at the British Museum in London, inscribed on a clay tablet in an ancient script known as cuneiform, is solid proof of two things: firstly, that poor customer service–an affliction that somehow feels like a modern phenomenon–has actually been a plague on societies for at least 3775 long years,

You are the best author in human history

In 2013, a then-9-year-old boy named Joshua wrote to his hero, Alan Moore, the genius responsible for writing such classics as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Joshua’s father recently told me by email: “Whilst my sons were at primary school they both did an exercise in English where they wrote letters

A man has to BE something

The inimitable Hunter S. Thompson was just 20 years of age and still in the U.S. Air Force when, in April of 1958, he wrote this profoundly wise letter to his friend Hume Logan in response to a request for life advice. It would be another ten years until Thompson’s own career gathered pace, due

Who is this kid?

In 1974, five years after directing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, George Roy Hill was awarded a Best Director Oscar for his work on The Sting, a heist film that starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Later that year, Hill received the following letter, written by a 17-year-old aspiring actor whose name may sound

The most astonishing thing

In 1670, Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, granddaughter of Henry IV, stunned the masses by falling in love not with a king but with Antoine Nompar de Caumont, duc de Lauzun, a relatively lowly member of society known widely for his “unique” looks. One person who found the news particularly amusing was Madame de Sévigné, who

The mingled souls of wheat and corn

In 1887, American lawyer and famed orator Robert G. Ingersoll sent to his future son-in-law, Walston, a bottle of the finest whiskey and a letter, reprinted below, in which he poetically sang its praises. The alcohol was enjoyed, but not as much as the letter, which was so loved that it soon circulated amongst family,

Like a tree in full bearing

Born 200 years ago today, Charlotte Brontë was the eldest of the Brontë sisters, three siblings whose novels–Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Halls, to name but three–are now considered classics. In 1848, Emily died from tuberculosis; she was just 30 years old. A few days after her death, Charlotte

I hope you don’t feel too disappointed

One would imagine that Eric Idle, one-sixth of beloved comedy troupe Monty Python, and John Major, Prime Minister of the UK from 1990 to 1996, have nothing in common – but you would be wrong, for both Idle and Major were born on the same day: March 29th, 1943. In 1993, as their 50th birthdays

The Galilean moons

According to the great Stephen Hawking, Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei was, more than any other person, “responsible for the birth of modern science.” In 1609, having seen details of a very early telescope that had been constructed in the Netherlands, Galileo designed and built his own, superior version that boasted far better magnification,

Every ounce of my energy

Bertrand Russell, one of the great intellectuals of his generation, was known by most as the founder of analytic philosophy, but he was actually a man of many talents: a pioneering mathematician, an accomplished logician, a tireless activist, a respected historian, and a Nobel Prize-winning writer, to name but a handful. When he wrote this

I drank too much wine last night

Since her death in 1817, Jane Austen’s anonymously penned novels – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, to name but three – have become required reading in many circles and are now held aloft as classics. She was also a prolific and observant writer of frank letters that rarely failed to entertain; however,

New Fangled Writing Machine

Few authors have made an impact as enduring as literary icon Samuel Clemens, a man who, under his pen name, Mark Twain, wrote such classics as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book which has been read by many millions of people around the world since its publication in 1884. It was ten years earlier, whilst

I would like to give you your own history

In 1976, shortly after a coup that saw the President of Argentina, Isabel Martínez de Perón, replaced by a military dictatorship, the life of celebrated Argentine poet Juan Gelman darkened immeasurably when his son and daughter-in-law—Marcelo, 20, and Maria Claudia, an 18-year-old expectant mother—were kidnapped, just two of approximately 30,000 people to go missing in

The Parakeet Has a Goiter

Remington Steele the parakeet is prepared for surgery at the Animal Medical Center, NYC. The dreaded rejection letter is, more often than not, an entirely miserable experience for all concerned. To receive one is to instantly and all at once have one’s hopes dashed, confidence thinned, and mood dampened; to send the same is to

Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here

In 1987, multi-award winning author Ursula K. Le Guin was asked to supply a blurb for Synergy: New Science Fiction, Volume 1, the first in a new four-part series of anthologies edited by George Zebrowski which intended to showcase science fiction stories from authors both established and up-and-coming. For Ursula K. Le Guin, however, the

I see no beauty in lopsided true love

Above: Elizabth Smart, c.1930 Elizabeth Smart was in her 20s when she first met and fell for fellow poet George Barker; despite his already being married, by 1941 she was pregnant with the first of their four children. Smart and Barker’s unorthodox relationship was a famously rocky affair due in no small part to their

The most extraordinary scenes

Above: British and German troops meet during the truce On Christmas Eve of 1914, five months into World War I, something amazing happened: thousands of British and German troops on the Western Front decided to put down their weapons, rise from the trenches, and greet each other peacefully. In fact, for the next few days,

Give women the vote

It wasn’t until the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act in 1928 that women in the UK were finally given the same voting rights as men. Campaigners had been pushing for such a development for decades, however, progress had been far too slow for some. In 1903, a small group of frustrated activists, headed

Is it a disgrace to be Born a Chinese?

In September of 1884, San Francisco residents Joseph and Mary Tape did something seemingly quite ordinary: they attempted to enroll their 8-year-old daughter, Mamie, at Spring Valley School, a local school also to be attended by Mamie’s friends. However, this was 1884, and although born in the U.S., Mamie was of Chinese descent and the

A Most Important Discovery

On March 19th of 1953, weeks before it was announced to the public, scientist Francis Crick excitedly wrote a letter to his son and told him of one of the most important scientific developments of modern times: his co-discovery of the “beautiful” structure of DNA, the molecule responsible for carrying the genetic instructions of living

Do

In 1960, pioneering American artists Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse met for the first time and instantly clicked, quickly forming a strong, deep bond that would last for ten years and result in countless inspirational discussions and rich exchanges of ideas. Indeed, they remained incredibly close friends until May of 1970, at which point Hesse,

Darling old father

In December of 1882, while visiting Paris, distinguished psychologist William James received word that his father‘s ill-health had further deteriorated at the family home in the US. Almost immediately he travelled to England in a bid to return home, only to find that his brother, Henry, had already left his London home for New York.

I see you, my beauty boy

For two months in 1974, as Richard Burton filmed his part in The Klansman, he and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, moved to California with Cassius, just one of Taylor’s many beloved cats. Sadly, the trip confused Cassius somewhat and he soon went missing, never to return. Taylor wrote the following letter some time after his disappearance.

Arkell v. Pressdram

“Messrs Jeffrey Benson and Michael Isaacs of Tracing Services Ltd, currently on bail on charges of conspiracy to create a public mischief, appear to have lost most of the work collecting debts and tracing absconders for the Granada group, to the considerable regret of Mr James Arkell, Granada’s retail credit manager. Ever since last June,

Thine in the bonds of womanhood

In the 1820s, having grown up on her father’s plantation amongst dozens of slaves — many of whom she had befriended and educated — Sarah Grimké began to tour the Northern United States giving anti-slavery lectures to all who would listen. She was joined by her sister some years later, by which time the talks also covered

The Vision of Sin

In the 1840s, shortly after reading Alfred Tennyson‘s poem, “The Vision of Sin,” mathematician and “father of the computer,” Charles Babbage, wrote the following letter to the poet and suggested an alteration in the name of accuracy. For a modern day equivalent, see Simon Singh’s take on Katie Melua’s song, Nine Million Bicycles. (Source: The

The Skills of Leonardo da Vinci

In the early 1480s, many years before he painted the world-famous pieces for which he is now best known—the Mona Lisa being just one—Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci sought a job at the court of Ludovico Sforza, the then de facto ruler of Milan. Fully aware that Sforza was looking to employ military engineers, Leonardo

The Empire State Building

Early-1932, after seeing a photograph in the New York Times of the great Helen Keller at the top of the newly-opened Empire State Building, Dr. John Finley wrote to her and asked what she really “saw” from that height. Keller — famously both deaf and blind from a very early age — responded with the incredible

Deep sickness seized me

In October of 1819, 23-year-old schoolteacher Lucy Thurston and her husband, Asa, left their home in Massachusetts to become members of the first expedition of Christian missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands. Their efforts were welcomed, and for the rest of their lives they educated the locals, helped to build schools and churches, and even translated

Like all frauds your end is approaching

In November of 1964, fearful of his connection to the Communist Party through Stanley Levison, the FBI anonymously sent Martin Luther King the following threatening letter, along with a cassette that contained allegedly incriminating audio recordings of King with women in various hotel rooms — the fruits of a 9 month surveillance project headed by William

And then…silence

Dear All, In a move which thankfully won’t affect the vast majority of you, I have today disabled comments on Letters of Note. Permanently. All complaints should be directed towards a section of society to whom the concept of even vaguely civil discussion means nothing. This collective waste of flesh, bone, and dangerously limited brain

The first mail to be carried over the Atlantic

Alcock & Brown shortly after takeoff | Image: Wikimedia On June 14th of 1919 at St. John’s, Newfoundland, Captain John Alcock and his navigator Lt. Arthur Brown made history as they began what would become the world’s first non-stop transatlantic flight. For their troubles they were awarded £10,000 by the Daily Mail, a newspaper then-renowned

I greet you at the beginning of a great career

Now widely considered one of the greatest books of poetry ever written, Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855 and financed entirely by its author, Walt Whitman. Whitman – then an aspiring, unknown poet – immediately sent one of the 795 copies to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a highly respected man who, a decade previous, had

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER

On July 18 of 1969, as the world waited anxiously for Apollo 11 to land safely on the surface of the Moon, speechwriter William Safire imagined the worst case scenario as he expertly wrote the following sombre memo to President Nixon‘s Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman. Its contents: a contingency plan, in the form of a speech

I am the servant of the king, my lord, the dirt at his feet

The following remarkable letter was written on clay tablet between the years of 1350 and 1335, BC, by Ayyab – king of the city of Aštartu in the Canaan region – and sent to Amenhotep IV, then-Pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. It was discovered in the 1880s in Amarna, and is just one of 382 such Cuneiform