8 historical notes on World Letter Writing Day | Lifestyle | DW | 01.09.2020

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8 historical notes on World Letter Writing Day

Mahatma Gandhi addressed admonishing words to Adolf Hitler, and Elvis Presley sent greetings from Germany: eight letters full of fervor, humor and heartache.

Priscylla Beaulieu sitting at a desk writing a letter to Elvis Presley, with a picture of him in front of her

Priscylla Beaulieu writing a letter to Elvis Presley

Handwritten letters are a rarity today. We communicate digitally, around the clock and often in small bits. Writing a letter takes time and effort, but it is all the more pleasurable when something handwritten flutters into the mailbox every now and then between all the bills.

What has become an exception in the 21st century was still part of everyday life just a few decades ago. Plenty of contemporary documents bear witness to this, such as letters penned by Elvis Presley, Frida Kahlo, Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi.

In celebration of World Letter Writing Day on September 1, we present eight letters sent off by famous people, which even today may still make readers smile or marvel over them.

Elvis Presley sends greetings from Germany

"I am sorry that I can't answer every letter personally," wrote Elvis Presley in 1959 during his stay as a US soldier in Germany. In 1958, Presley was drafted by the US Army and stationed in Friedberg, in the German state of Hesse, until 1960. During that time, the rock 'n' roll star received so much mail from all over the world that he felt compelled to write a newsletter. "My mind is constantly thinking of all my friends and fans that I had to leave behind," wrote Presley. "But I appreciate each and every one of you as friends, fans, and every letter that I receive helps me so much to carry on."

Frida Kahlo 'amputates' her husband

In 1953, one year before her death, one of artist Frida Kahlo's legs was amputated due to gangrene. While waiting for the operation to take place, she wrote a letter to her artist husband Diego Rivera. "When they told me it would be necessary to amputate, the news didn't affect me the way everybody expected. No, I was already a maimed woman when I lost you, again, for the umpteenth time maybe, and still I survived." Kahlo accuses her husband of having cheated on her numerous times, including with her sister. She ends her letter with the words: "I'm writing to let you know I'm releasing you, I'm amputating you."

Albert Einstein honors Mahatma Gandhi

In 1931, Albert Einstein wrote a letter of admiration to Mahatma Gandhi: "You have shown through your works, that it is possible to succeed without violence even with those who have not discarded the method of violence. We may hope that your example will spread beyond the borders of your country, and will help to establish an international authority, respected by all, that will take decisions and replace war conflicts." Gandhi promptly responded and invited Einstein to his ashram in India, but a personal meeting between the two never took place.

Mahatma Gandhi sitting on the floor in 1946

Mahatma Gandhi sent a letter of warning to Adolf Hitler just weeks before World War II began

Mahatma Gandhi warns Adolf Hitler

In light of Albert Einstein's letter, Mahatma Gandhi's letter to Adolf Hitler in 1939 appears even more striking. "Dear friend," his letter begins, "It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state. Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?" But of course Gandhi's words to Hitler fell on deaf ears. A few weeks later, the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland and the Second World War took its course.

Virginia Woolf says farewell

The British writer Virginia Woolf wrote a moving farewell letter to her husband Leonard in 1941. "You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came," wrote Woolf, who suffered from severe depression. "I shan't recover this time … If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness." Shortly thereafter, the writer drowned herself in a river.

Leonardo da Vinci applies for a job

Bursting with gusto and self-confidence, Leonardo da Vinci wrote a letter to apply for a job in the early 1480s. With a list referring to 10 different points, he recommended himself as a military engineer at the court of Ludovico Sforza, the later Duke of Milan. "And should any of the above seem impossible or impracticable to anyone, I am happy to demonstrate them in your park or any other place as Your Excellency pleases, to whom I humbly recommend myself." Sforza hired the young da Vinci and some years later commissioned him to paint The Last Supper.

Queen Elizabeth II shaking hands with US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957

Following a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, then US President Eisenhower asked for a recipe for Scotch pancakes, or 'drop scones'

Queen Elizabeth II offers up a recipe

Handwritten recipes simply lead to the best results, especially when the advice comes from Queen Elizabeth II herself. The lucky recipient of the royal letter in 1960 was then US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had previously fallen in love with the drop scones, also known as Scotch pancakes, served during a visit to the United Kingdom. A few months later, the Queen sent the recipe: "Though the quantities are for 16 people, when there are fewer, I generally put in less flour and milk, but use the other ingredients as stated."

Poet Goethe pours out his heart

"Your presence has had a wonderful choking effect on my heart, I cannot say what I feel," wrote poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe to Charlotte von Stein in 1776, full of longing and deep affection. The young Goethe wrote more than 1,500 letters to his beloved, seven years his senior, who is said to have remained faithful to her husband. Goethe distracted himself from his unrequited love by spending several years in Italy and returned to Weimar in 1788, where he met his later wife, Christiane Vulpius.


Sources: dpa news agency and lettersofnote.com

Translation: Louisa Schaefer

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