December 7, 2011

Literary correspondence: T.S. Eliot ‘handsome’, Burroughs ‘has gone insane’


How about this for a delightful literary correspondence? In 1961, Electric Literature tells us, Groucho Marx received a request for a portrait from none other than T.S. Eliot. Presumably slightly bemused but nevertheless inclined to play along, he sent the venerable poet a picture as requested and asked for a portrait in return. Here’s Marx’s response to Eliot’s picture once it arrived:


 Dear T.S.:

Your photograph arrived in good shape and I hope this note of thanks finds you in the same condition.
I had no idea you were so handsome. Why you haven’t been offered the lead in some sexy movies I can only attribute to the basic stupidity of the casting directors.
Should I come to London I will certainly take advantage of your kind invitation and if you come to California I hope you will allow me to do the same.
Groucho Marx


‘Dear T.S.’! Oh to have written those words. Earlier this year Publishers Weekly featured some other letters written to and from great writers. Here’s an incredible missive sent by Jack Kerouac to Lucien Carr and his wife Francesca, about William Burroughs:


Dear Lucien & Cessa — Writing to you by candlelight from the mysterious Casbah — have a magnificent room overlooking the beach & the bay & the sea & can see Gibraltar — patio to sun on, room maid, $20 a month — feel great but Burroughs has gone insane e as, — he keeps saying he’s going to erupt into some unspeakable atrocity such as waving his dingdong at an Embassy part & such or slaughtering an Arab boy to see what his beautiful insides look like — Naturally I feel lonesome with this old familiar lunatic but lonesomer than ever with him as he’ll also mumble, or splurt, most of his conversation, in some kind of endless new British lord imitation, it all keeps pouring out of him in an absolutely brilliant horde of words & in fact his new book is best thing of its kind in the world (Genet, Celine, Miller, etc.) & we might call it WORD HOARD…he, Burroughs, (not “Lee” any more) unleashes his word hoard, or horde, on the world which has been awaiting the Only Prophet, Burroughs — His message is all scatalogical homosexual super-violent madness, — his manuscript is all that has been saved from the original vast number of written pages of WORD HOARD which he’d left in all the boy’s privies of the world — and so on, — I sit with him in elegant French restaurant & he spits out his bones like Mr. Hyde and keeps yelling obscene words to be heard by the continental clienteles — (like he done in Rome, yelling FART at a big palazzio party) — I’ll be glad when Allen gets here. — Meanwhile I explores the Casbah, high on opium or hasheesh or any drink or drug I want, & dig the Arabs. — The Slovenija was a delightful ship, I ate every day at one long white tablecloth with that one Yugoslavian woman spy. — We hit a horrendous tempest 2 days out, nothing like I ever seen, — that big steel ship was lost in mountains of hissing water, awful. — I cuddled up with TWO TICKETS TO TANGIER and got my laughs, I read every word, Cess, really a riot. — Also read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling which you should read, it’s down on your corner. — Right now I’m high on 3 Sympatinas, Spanish bennies of a sort, mild. — Happy pills galore. — The gal situation here is worse than the boy situation, nothing but male whores all over, & their supplementary queens. — Met an actual contraband sailing ship adventurer with a mustache. Etc. More anon. Miss you & hope you’re well. Jack.


It should probably be illegal for a letter to start any other way than ‘Writing to you by candlelight from the mysterious Casbah.’ Can anyone offer any other great literary letter-writing inspiration?


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.