Wednesday, 5 April 2017

It's up to you now


In 1983, at the end of an amazing career during which she was nominated for a then-record breaking ten Academy Awards for acting, two of which she won, Hollywood actress Bette Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgery followed, as did a number of strokes which left her partially paralysed. Then, in 1985, her daughter, Barbara, released a controversial book, titled My Mother's Keeper, that exposed their supposedly troubled relationship and generally painted Davis in a terrible light. Two years later, Bette Davis published her memoirs—at the very end was this letter to her daughter.

(This letter, along with 124 other fascinating pieces of correspondence, can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note; Photo of BD Hyman and Bette Davis: Getty Images.)


The Letter
Dear Hyman,

You ended your book with a letter to me. I have decided to do the same.

There is no doubt you have a great potential as a writer of fiction. You have always been a great storyteller. I have often, lo these many years, said to you, "B.D., that is not the way it was. You are imagining things."

Many of the scenes in your book I have played on the screen. It could be you have confused the "me" on the screen with "me" who is your mother.

I have violent objections to your quotes of mine regarding actors I have worked with. For the most part, you have cruelly misquoted me. Ustinov I was thrilled to work with and I have great admiration of him as a person and as an actor. You have stated correctly my reactions to working with Faye Dunaway. She was a most exasperating co-star. But to quote me as having said Sir Laurence Olivier was not a good actor is most certainly one of the figments of your imagination. Few actors have ever reached the towering heights of his performances.

You constantly inform people that you wrote this book to help me understand you and your way of life better. Your goal was not reached. I am now utterly confused as to who you are or what your way of life is.

The sum total of your having written this book is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given.

In one of your many interviews while publicizing your book, you said if you sell your book to TV you feel Glenda Jackson should play me. I would hope you would be courteous enough to ask me to play myself.

I have much to quarrel about in your book. I choose to ignore most of it. But not the pathetic creature you claim I have been because of the fact that I did not play Scarlett in "Gone With the Wind." I could have, but turned it down. Mr. Selznick attempted to get permission from my boss, Jack Warner, to borrow Errol Flynn and Bette Davis to play Rhett Butler and Scarlett. I refused because I felt Errol was not good casting for Rhett. At that time only Clark Gable was right. Therefore, dear Hyman, send me not back to Tara, rather send me back to Witch Way, our home on the beautiful coast of Maine where once lived a beautiful human being by the name of B.D., not Hyman.

As you ended your letter in "My Mother's Keeper" — it's up to you now, Ruth Elizabeth — I am ending my letter to you the same way: It's up to you now, Hyman.

Ruth Elizabeth

P.S. I hope someday I will understand the title "My Mother's Keeper." If it refers to money, if my memory serves me right, I've been your keeper all these many years. I am continuing to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Speeches of Note



Ladies and gentlemen!

For the past few years I've been working on a new book--a collection of speeches titled, unsurprisingly, Speeches of Note--and I'm very excited to say that you can now pledge for this beautiful object over at the mighty Unbound and then visit the Speeches of Note blog which I shall be updating regularly.

The Speeches of Note book will celebrate oratory old and new, taking care not just to highlight the speeches that we know and admire but also to shine a light on those speeches which, despite their brilliance, have until now been largely ignored in these collections through no fault of their own. Some, for compelling reasons, were never actually read aloud. Speeches of all flavours will feature--enlightening, gripping, comforting, disturbing, cheering, emboldening--and the majority accompanied either by a photograph of the speaker or the speech being made, a gorgeous illustration, or even, where possible, a facsimile of the original speech itself. Each entry will feature an introduction that will offer the context necessary for the speech to be fully appreciated. Anthologies of speeches have been published before; however, none have contained a selection quite like Speeches of Note.

To watch me speaking very badly about the book, and to get your name in the back of the special edition, visit Unbound. As always, suggestions are very much welcome--the easiest way to do so is via the Speeches of Note submission page.

Much love and thanks,
Shaun

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

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 York Times; Photo: Scorsese in 2006, via Peabody Awards on Flickr.)

The Letter
New York,
19 Nov 1993

To the Editor:

“Excuse Me; I Must Have Missed Part of the Movie” (The Week in Review, 7 November) cites Federico Fellini as an example of a filmmaker whose style gets in the way of his storytelling and whose films, as a result, are not easily accessible to audiences. Broadening that argument, it includes other artists: Ingmar Bergman, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Cage, Alain Resnais and Andy Warhol.

It’s not the opinion I find distressing, but the underlying attitude toward artistic expression that is different, difficult or demanding. Was it necessary to publish this article only a few days after Fellini’s death? I feel it’s a dangerous attitude, limiting, intolerant. If this is the attitude toward Fellini, one of the old masters, and the most accessible at that, imagine what chance new foreign films and filmmakers have in this country.

It reminds me of a beer commercial that ran a while back. The commercial opened with a black and white parody of a foreign film—obviously a combination of Fellini and Bergman. Two young men are watching it, puzzled, in a video store, while a female companion seems more interested. A title comes up: “Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?” The solution is to ignore the foreign film and rent an action-adventure tape, filled with explosions, much to the chagrin of the woman.

It seems the commercial equates “negative” associations between women and foreign films: weakness, complexity, tedium. I like action-adventure films too. I also like movies that tell a story, but is the American way the only way of telling stories?

The issue here is not “film theory,” but cultural diversity and openness. Diversity guarantees our cultural survival. When the world is fragmenting into groups of intolerance, ignorance and hatred, film is a powerful tool to knowledge and understanding. To our shame, your article was cited at length by the European press.

The attitude that I’ve been describing celebrates ignorance. It also unfortunately confirms the worst fears of European filmmakers.

Is this closed-mindedness something we want to pass along to future generations?

If you accept the answer in the commercial, why not take it to its natural progression:

Why don’t they make movies like ours?
Why don’t they tell stories as we do?
Why don’t they dress as we do?
Why don’t they eat as we do?
Why don’t they talk as we do?
Why don’t they think as we do?
Why don’t they worship as we do?
Why don’t they look like us?

Ultimately, who will decide who “we” are?

—Martin Scorsese

Sunday, 29 January 2017

We all wish for peace




In 1960, George Whitman, owner of the world-famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, wrote the following letter to Anne Frank, the young girl whose diaries have been read the world over since her death in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. The letter is still on display in Whitman’s store.

(Photo: Anne Frank in 1940, via Wikipedia.)

The Letter
Le Mistral
37 rue de la Bûcherie

Dear Anne Frank,

If I sent this letter to the post office it would no longer reach you because you have been blotted out from the universe. So I am writing an open letter to those who have read your diary and found a little sister they have never seen who will never entirely disappear from earth as long as we who are living remember her.

You wanted to come to Paris for a year to study the history of art and if you had, perhaps you might have wandered down the quai Notre-Dame and discovered a little bookstore beside the garden of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. You know enough French to read the notice on the door - Chien aimable, Priere d'entrer. The dog is not really a dog at all but a poet called Francois Villon who has returned to the city he loved after many years of exile. He is sitting by the fire next to a kitten with a very unusual name. You will be pleased to know she is called Kitty after the imaginary friend to whom you wrote the letters in your journal.

Here in our bookstore it is like a family where your Chinese sisters and your brothers from all lands sit in the reading rooms and meet the Parisians or have tea with the writers from abroad who are invited to live in our Guest House.

Remember how you worried about your inconsistencies, about your two selves - the gay flirtatious superficial Anne that hid the quiet serene Anne who tried to love and understand the world. We all of us have dual natures. We all wish for peace, yet in the name of self-defense we are working toward self-obliteration. We have built armaments more powerful than the total of all those used in all the wars in history. And if the militarists who dislike negotiating the minor differences that separate nations are not under the wise civilian authority they have the power to write man's testament on a dead planet where radioactive cities are surrounded by jungles of dying plants and poisonous weeds.

Since a nuclear could destroy half the world's population as well as the material basis of civilization, the Soviet General Nikolai Talensky concludes that war is no longer conceivable for the solution of political differences.

A young girl's dreams recorded in her diary from her thirteenth to her fifteenth birthday means more to us today than the labors of millions of soldiers and thousands of factories striving for a thousand-year Reich that lasted hardly more than ten years. The journal you hid so that no one would read it was left on the floor when the German police took you to the concentration camp and has now been read by millions of people in 32 languages. When most people die they disappear without a trace, their thoughts forgotten, their aspirations unknown, but you have simply left your own family and become part of the family of man.

George Whitman

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Dear All,

It gives me great pleasure to announce that 2016--an unrelentingly gruesome year in many respects--is almost behind us. This website has been quiet for some of the year due to other commitments but shall spring back to life in the new year--enormous thanks to the millions who have continued to visit and enjoy these magnificent letters. Thanks, also, to those who have bought the gorgeous Letters of Note paperback that came out recently, and, for that matter, all other "books of note"which can be found on this handy website. Final thanks must go to everyone who has bought tickets to Letters Live: these events continue to go from strength to strength and never fail to take my breath away; without you, they couldn't go on. Our last show of the year, and arguably our most satisfying to date, took place last week in Brixton Prison and was an evening I shall never forget. More info here.

As for 2017: it looks set to be a corker, not least as I am soon to launch Speeches of Note, a project I've been planning for the past few years that I cannot wait to show you all.

Until that time arrives, however, as has become tradition, below are the most popular Christmas-related letters of note.

Have a wonderful Christmas!

1. America is like that second kind of Christmas

A cheery letter from John Steinbeck, on Christmas, gluttony and immorality.

2. The Matchbox

A fantastic letter of thanks from Sylvia Townsend Warner, in response to a seemingly mundane Christmas gift.

3. For your first Christmas

60-year-old Walter Page writes a charming letter to his grandson and discusses the things they have in common.

4. North Polar Bear's leg got broken

One of many letters written by J. R. R Tolkien to his kids, in the voice of Father Christmas.

5. The most extraordinary scene

A soldier writes home to his wife on Christmas Eve and describes the moment British and German troops put down their weapons and greeted eaach other.

6. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

A young girl writes to a NY newspaper with a question about Christmas. The editor's response is the most reprinted English language editorial in history

7. Your loving Santa Claus

Mark Twain writes to his daughter, as Santa Claus.

Much love,
Shaun


Monday, 15 August 2016

Tell him about his father


Above: Luz Long and Jesse Owens

To win four gold medals at a single Olympic Games is astonishing enough; however, to do so as a black person in 1936, at a tense Olympic Games hosted by Adolf Hitler, is almost beyond belief. Yet Jesse Owens did exactly that, somehow managing to ignore talk of Aryan superiority to take gold in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and long jump, all in the space of a few days. He also made a good friend in the form of German athlete Luz Long, the blond-haired, blue-eyed, long jump rival who swapped training tips with Owens and openly congratulated him after his final jump, in full view of Hitler.

Having bonded so well at the Games, Owens and Long kept in touch by mail. Below is Long's last letter, written during WWII from North Africa where he was stationed with the German Army and later killed in action. It reached Owens a year after it was sent. Years later, as per Long's request, Owens met and became firm friends with his son, Karl. He also went on to serve as best man at his wedding.

(Source: Jesse: The Man Who Outran Hitler. Photo via EAL09)

Transcript
I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father.

My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth.

If you do this something for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true.

That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer.

Then I not know how I know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than der Berliner Olympiade.

And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship.

I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse.

I think I might believe in God.

And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you.

Your brother,
Luz