Every love letter brings with it a back story.
Leigh Perkins, a writer from North Andover, Massachusetts, volunteered in the early days of the project to write narratives to accompany a selection of artist Peter Bruun’s drawings, illuminating the histories behind the letters upon which the drawings are based. It soon became clear the ambition of the undertaking surpassed the possibility of seeing it through, but nonetheless Perkins created a handful of stories that are worth sharing.
As examples, they suggest the vast depth of meaning behind each drawing and letter in the project. Here, in no particular order, is a sampling—20 images with accompanying back stories researched and written by Perkins.
Ludacat, an irascible, mesmerizing Maine Coon, was one of few physical ties Peter had left to his daughter, who had slipped away into un-wellness and substance use. Longing and love fed Peter’s need to reach across Elisif’s silence. What more could he say? How else connect? There was Ludacat, of course. Hers since kittenhood, a hopeful step in an early attempt at recovery, now left behind. As exotic and lovely and unpredictable and wild as she was. In a letter to Elisif in the spring of her 24th year, Peter channeled his fear and yearning into an achingly simple note, hoping his love would pierce the haze she was cloaked in. It may have; he never knew. Peter never received a reply, and Elisif was dead within the year, leaving Ludacat to the care of her family.
At 30, c. had left the hardest coming out conversations for last, including Pop, her stoic Yankee father who she loved intensely but who had always been emotionally distant. The idea terrified her, but her brother had presented an ultimatum: come out to their parents before his wedding, and bring her partner to that happy event in the full light of honesty. So she rode up on a pleasant September Saturday for dinner, determined. Whiling away the evening fielding questions about her new job and waiting for the “right time,” finally there was no time left at all. She found herself outside, about to get on her motorcycle and ride off, goal unmet. Heart pounding to burst, she poured out her truth to him in a tumble. She doesn’t recall his words in the moment, just the wash of relief at being met by gentle kindness and radiating love, allaying all fear. Pop’s letter arrived a few days later, and has served as a grounding element in her life since.
When Frida Kahlo married larger-than-life Diego Rivera, 42 years her senior and a notorious womanizer, her parents lamented the union of their dove with the brash artist they considered an elephant in comparison. The passion and pain of their tumultuous life together, marred by infidelities on both sides (he with her own sister), fed their art and their notoriety. An electric filament pulses through the heat and longing of their correspondence – a laser-focused beam of pure love for each other, of attention to what was best for the other, despite the damage they did to each other. The confusing, chaotic imperfection of their enduring love – that’s what Frida so longed to capture, but couldn’t.
Irish writer Oscar Wilde first met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas when the latter was still an undergraduate at Oxford – a brash young aristocrat already making a name for himself as a poet. Wilde fell profoundly, passionately in love, and their tempestuous affair spanned nearly a decade. He indulged Douglas’ every whim and when they were apart wrote urgent, achingly beautiful letters to his “darling boy.” Douglas was reckless, mercurial and fickle, in turn spurning Wilde and slavishly adoring him. Their love was a crime in Victorian England, and Bosie’s father, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, did everything in his power to keep the two apart, culminating in the prosecution that landed Wilde in jail for “gross indecency.” Upon his release,Wilde left England forever, never seeing Bosie again and dying just a few years later of health complications. Posthumously pardoned by the Crown in 2017, Wilde’s letters to Bosie remain some of the most elegant, eloquent expressions of “the love that dare not speak its name” from that era.
It took him 12 years to win her, and it was worth the wait. Johnny Cash’s storied love for June Carter was a study in patience, faith and trust. He credited her with saving his life as she supported him in his recovery from alcohol and drug addiction – for being his light in those darkest days. She reveled in his steady, abiding and honest adoration of her. Their 35-year collaboration spanned love, music and family; they were model partners. In this modest note to June on her 65th birthday, penned while he was on the road performing in Denmark, Johnny conveys the purity and reach of his love in characteristic Man in Black style: with simplicity, and depth.
In a surprising and unprompted letter, Countess Ewelina Hańska of Poland first wrote French author Honoré de Balzac in1832, using a nom de plume to interrogate him on several of his novels, intrigued by his strong positive portrayals of women. He was captivated and became consumed with her, single-mindedly corresponding for months. Their invigorating repartee allured him all the more, and though she was still known to him only as l’Etrangère – the Stranger – he fell desperately in love with her. She was married at the time and intended to maintain anonymity, but after a year revealed herself, becoming his Eva. Their 20-year “soul-drama” was grounded in equality, a loving admiration of each other outstripping all other challenges. Eighteen years after their relationship began, she was finally free to become his wife, and they married in 1850. Just five months after that “summit of happiness,” he died.
He saw her as he checked into the B&B for the weekend. Despite convention (she so much younger and engaged to be married, he traveling with his long-time girlfriend), he was drawn to her powerfully. He spent the weekend seeking moments in her orbit, finding himself unexpectedly, inexplicably, magnetically attracted. In his letter, an audacious volley sent just days after they met, he laid the irrepressible urges and wild pull he felt at her feet. Within months they were together, and within a year, married.
Freshly returned from a trip abroad together and pried apart by life once more, Nicole longed for Alonzo and sought to express the rapture she felt with and for him. His very first letter had altered her world and his raw, beautiful words – every letter he sent thereafter – transfixed her all the more. As surprised as they both were to find themselves here, she could imagine herself nowhere else. Wherever she had been before, he was her country now.
How do you say goodbye to your closest friend, the one who buoyed you and everyone around him? How do you do him justice while looking truth in the eye? In Jason’s celebration of Anthony’s beautiful life and dark struggle, he gave air to what many of those in the room that day were thinking and what those left in the wake of suicide always wonder: Could I have done more? And though Anthony’s battle wasn’t a secret one, and though he’d spoken of giving up more than once, on that day Jason found himself standing before so many others who loved his friend offering up his guilt and anguish, no satisfactory answer to the questions they were all left with.
Those who succumb to suicide leave shattered lives behind them, and Jason counted himself in this group after losingAnthony, his closest friend since high school. On a day set aside to remember the survivors of suicide loss, Jason told his story to the world in a newspaper column that offered the unvarnished truth of Anthony’s journey – his bright light and remarkable successes, and the skulking black disease that had hounded him since their youth. As fiercely as Jason loved his friend, just as fiercely did the pain of Anthony’s loss gut him, laying waste to normalcy, leaving him wondering what was real. The love he felt – that was real, and immortal. And learning to hold onto that offered Jason a path to recovery.
Love, when it leaves, leaves a mark. The electric high of new love with a much younger man carried Clarinda into life after divorce, and he quickly wove himself into life with her and her kids. Their love was intense and vertiginous, but somewhere in the back of her mind she knew he wouldn’t stay. Even in the entropy of those last days when his distance was palpable and her heart strained, the words, when they finally came, knocked her back. Unexpected? Not really. But even so, his departure left a cold blue bruise on her heart.
Reigniting a high school flame at a reunion – could there be a more romantic start to a later-in-life love story? Six decades before, Clarinda had loved Tom from afar, but the smart, charismatic athlete barely noticed the clever, bookish girl. He slipped into her history, and she moved forward. Fifty-five years later, the man of her dreams reappeared at their high school reunion, and sparks flew over barbecue. Clarinda’s fairy tale began when Tom moved to her city and then into her home, not long after. Their love was comfortable and natural; they fit snugly together. But Clarinda sensed something was wrong. Tom’s sense of time was off, his memory spotty. The career pilot and lifelong sailor had lost his sense of direction. A hard conversation and a few appointments later, their creeping dread took form: Alzheimer’s. Her perfect, beautiful man was slipping away, and she’d only just started her journey with him. In time he was more disease than Tom, but even the merciless scourge of dementia could not erase his most primal urge, rooted in their long-simmering love: to care for her, however he could.
Early in their relationship, French writer and director Jean Cocteau struggled to control his feelings for young actor Jean Marais, to whom he was immediately drawn (“I did not meet him. I recognized him.”) Though Marais may have first reciprocated the older man’s affections to win a film role in 1938, the two fell precipitously in love while working together. Cocteau tried vainly to tamp down his passion for Marais, first casting it as paternal with the hope that his consuming jealousy would not flare up and drive his new muse away. But Marais soon replaced opium as Cocteau’s singular inspiration, and the poet quickly confessed, “I no longer exist apart from you.” Despite regular clashes fueled by mistrust and possessiveness, the two became Paris’ premier couple and lived together for a decade, collaborating closely until Cocteau’s death in 1963. Though he tried to fight it in the early years, Cocteau ultimately came to peace with his simple observation: “There is no such thing as a small love.”
Best-selling author Melissa Nathan, 37, set out to write “a rather unusual set of acknowledgements” to start the last book she’d ever write, one she knew would be published after she died. That she had Sammy in her life at all was a miracle – her first round of breast cancer five years earlier left her doubting she’d be able to conceive, and she and husband Andrew Saffron were thrilled to welcome Sammy two years after her first diagnosis. Their joy was soon suffused with anguish as doctors discovered her cancer had spread to her liver and bones. Time short, Melissa wrote notes and stories for Sammy to read when he was older and wrapped presents for his next 15 Christmases. In her final words to him, poignant and characteristically unsentimental, she wished her newly minted 3-year-old happiness, and solace in the knowledge that he had been everything to her, that being his mother had brought her meaning in her last days.
Tradition dictated she should be mourning, and she was. Her charming, popular husband had been senselessly beaten to death just months before, leaving her stunned and alone with their 4-year-old twins and determined not to let the tragedy overshadow their lives. Then, unexpectedly, the universe offered some relief to her pain. They met when she sought his legal advice in the wake of the murder, and though she was grieving, the pull between them was strong. There were those in her sphere who balked, scandalized by the pace of her decision to remarry. But she trusted her heart, and out of unimaginable loss found her way to healing and new life for her and her children. His love grounded her, centered her, and gave her the strength to heal and find compassion. Twenty years on, its glorious current continues to nourish and lift them all.
Across the classroom from Khalilah sat a boy who had something he wanted to share with her before they graduated. On the last day of their last political science class together, this quiet boy with the beautiful skin handed her a note and walked away. Bewildered, she opened it, and read the litany of the feelings he had harbored for her but never shared. The poignant last line signaled that he knew it was too late, yet he’d chosen to open his heart anyway. Khalilah read his honest words and her chest tightened; she was seeing someone who she would ultimately marry (and later divorce), and knew she’d choose loyalty and “what’s right” over the mystery of this brave, vulnerable boy and “what could be.” She felt a flash of loss, and went on with her life. In time Khalilah learned to listen to her heart and make choices differently, and she has kept this letter for 20 years as a symbol of the possibility of pure love, and a reminder of the courageous boy who braved almost certain rejection to share his heart with her. She holds onto the slim hope that perhaps another of his measure will come into her life someday.
In perhaps the consummate of literary ironies, notorious lothario George Gordon Lord Byron met his final and surpassing love while in Italy writing his epic poem DonJuan. Eighteen-year-old Countess Teresa Guiciolli, married just a few days to 60-year-old Count Guiciolli, felt a passion for Byron that her marriage of convenience had not awoken in her. Overcome with desire, Byron refused to be constrained by the discretion typical of Italians in such affairs, and the two scandalized society with their early openness. Once noted for his relentless sexual charm and countless lovers, Byron was smitten, behaving according to friends as if this were his first love. For the rest of his life, Teresa was the only star on his horizon. Byron traveled to Greece 1824 to help the fight for independence, and died there at just 36, his one true love on his lips. She remained devoted, dying fifty years later with these enduring words at her side, binding them still.
Russian émigré poet Vladimir Nabokov had gained attention in the literary community of 1920s Berlin and caught the eye of fiercely intellectual Véra Slonim, the daughter of a publisher, who admired his work. At a spring gala, a masked Véra stalked the writer whose words had so drawn her, reciting them back to him and astonishing him with how in tune she was with his sensibilities. Two months later, in his first letter to her, he confessed, “I’m so unused to being understood…that in the first few minutes of our meeting I thought: this is a joke…” Within two years they were married, and for the next 52 Véra was his partner, lover, editor, translator, chauffeur and even bodyguard, carrying a pistol in her purse when his fame grew to infamy. Consumed with an unbearable need for her, he seemed to sense their destiny on that first meeting: “You came into my life not as one who comes to visit… but as one comes to a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection…”
Violet Keppel declared her love for Vita Sackville-West when she was just 14, giving her older schoolmate a ring and pledging devotion. This was no fleeting crush – Violet remained true to her pledge for the next 13 years, facing societal and family pressure including Vita’s marriage to a social peer and start of a family. Still, the two took long holidays together and the heat of their romance intensified; each time they parted, the urgency of Violet’s need to possess Vita exclusively increased.Violet sent Vita a letter on the eve of their attempt at elopement – a desperately vulnerable plea with a hint of ultimatum. “I want you hungrily, frenziedly, passionately,” she wrote. “Something will go ‘snap’ in my brain if we wait any longer.” The two ran to France, but their families went after them after news of their “loose” behavior reached England. Vita and Violet were ultimately separated for good by their scandalized families, Vita moving on to a more famous lover in Virginia Woolf, and Violet standing as a beacon of courage, willing to ignore society and live as her heart demanded.
He first saw her when he was 14. She was magnetic: luminous onstage, dressed to kill, and so far out of his league he just shook his head and went on with life. Over the next ten years they crossed paths regularly, often trading hellos at performances but no more than that, despite the visceral quickening he felt every time he saw her. That changed when he was 23. On a whim, he invited the world into conversation via social media: This is your chance if there’s anything you’ve ever wanted to tell me… When her name popped up while he was in a meeting, his heart vaulted. He had to see what she’d written, and stealthily tapped her reply. I’ve always thought you had something you wanted to tell me, she wrote, but I don’t know what. If you do, here’s my number. Unexpectedly, he broke into tears. She had felt it too, she saw him, and she was brave enough to reach out. He had nothing to lose and called her, laying it all on the line. Their first date was a few days later, and they’ve been together ever since. Now 30, half a lifetime since that first glimpse, they are soon to be married; their love is more mature now, having stood the test of time. She pushes him every day to be the best man he can and the best father, and he treasures that, needs it. Their love is beautiful hard work, a journey made better by the challenges they meet together. Both flawed, together they are perfect. Unamore fatto di baci e dolcezza.