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What Joan Rivers and Marcel Proust Doodled on Their Mail

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Illustrated Letters at the Harry Ransom Center
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"What can I possibly say!!?!?"

Thus begins a 1965 letter from comedian Joan Rivers to future New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow. In the letter, located in Gussow's archive at the Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at The University of Texas at Austin, Rivers thanks Gussow profusely for publishing an article about her at such a formative point in her career. Rivers closes the letter: "To say 'thank you very, very much' sounds so trite but I really mean it -- I'm floating on air." Then, when words don't suffice, Rivers lets a picture take over: a hand-drawn stick figure of herself literally floating on air, beaming atop a cloud.

A staple of most collections, correspondence can speak volumes about the letter-writer, and illustrated letters can be particularly revealing. From idiosyncratic letterheads to sketches, stamps, cartoons and multiple-choice form letters, what do a letter's illustrations reveal?

Marcel Proust began writing his magnum opus, "À la recherche du temps perdu," in 1909. In 1910, he wrote a letter, now found in the Ransom Center's Carlton Lake collection, to his former lover and lifelong friend Reynaldo Hahn, of whom Proust once said, "Everything I have ever done has always been thanks to Reynaldo." Proust wrote the letter in a made-up language he and Hahn invented and called their "lansgage." Elizabeth Garver, French Collections Research Associate at the Ransom Center, describes it as "a mixture of baby-talk, medieval expressions, and words phonetically written as if they had a cold."

In the letter, Proust writes to Hahn about his trouble writing "À la recherche du temps perdu." At the top of the letter, he sketched boats rising and falling on treacherous waves. Though Proust did not explain the sketch, Garver has two theories. The boats could refer to the Greek gods, dioscuri, who protected sailors and whom Proust mentions in the letter, or the boats may also reflect Proust's anxiety and emotional turbulence. Proust writes: "Especially if I have a severe crisis and an absolutely demolished heart, I know the danger it would be to ignore it and to receive you early. But perhaps my crisis will calm this evening... But I fear and fear. Tristch [roughly translated as "thad," i.e., "sad," an example of their "lansgage"] because it is the first time in a month that I feel so bad."

"I think that the boat drawings might represent Proust's feelings, as if he were being buffeted around by the elements and is unable to control his own course," Garver says.

Letterheads, often custom-made, reveal what the letter-writers want their correspondents to know about them. Take, for example, Muhammad Ali's letterhead, found in the Ransom Center's Norman Mailer collection. Proudly referencing his catchphrase, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," Ali's letterhead features a bee and a butterfly. Also plugging her own quote, Gertrude Stein's letterhead, located in the Carlton Lake collection, references the oft-quoted line from her poem "Sacred Emily": "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose."

The Coen brothers' letterhead, found atop a 2001 letter in David Mamet's archive, shows a horse from behind. Coincidentally, the Coens mention their own behinds in the letter, telling Mamet about their future projects slated to culminate in 2004: "These years look preposterously distant even to us, like the end of a jail term, but there it is: we don't get out for about three years. We will then be leathery, old, and buttsore, and perhaps ready to tackle your subject matter or perhaps loath to, but at any rate you have things to do."

When John Steinbeck sent letters on lined yellow paper, he often stamped them with a picture of a fat, winged pig labeled "Pigasus." According to Steinbeck's wife Elaine, "The little pig said that man must try to attain the heavens even though his equipment be meager. Man must aspire though he be earthbound." Steinbeck used to hand-draw Pigasus on his correspondence. In the 1950s, while living in Florence, Steinbeck befriended a Florentine nobleman/artist who offered to draw a proper Pigasus in the style of Raphael. Steinbeck turned the Raphael-inspired Pigasus into a stamp, which can be found atop some of Steinbeck's letters in his collection at the Ransom Center.

Some of the most sidesplitting letters at the Ransom Center come from Irving Hoffman, a former Broadway publicist and columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. Actor William Holden once said that "to Irving Hoffman, life is just a bowl of people." According to a 1960 article about Hoffman in Time, he was friendly with Truman Capote, Pablo Picasso, J. Edgar Hoover, ferry boat captains, prostitutes and the Maharani of Baroda. Published when Hoffman was 50 years old, the article reports that Hoffman "circles the earth carrying six shirts, five pairs of eyeglasses and 290 lbs. of old letters, news clips, books. Also in his luggage: pad after pad of his 'Handy-Dandy Little Giant Nervous Breakdown Avoider.'"

Several of these "Breakdown Avoiders" are in the Ransom Center's Morris Ernst collection. They reveal an eccentric, uninhibited and larger-than-life comedian. These letters are essentially multiple-choice mail-answering forms with checkboxes next to potential responses. Just a few of Hoffman's response options include: "Hi from iH," "Let's meet in the lobby of the Astor Hotel, Hong Kong," "Sorry, the only Kennedy I know is a bartender on 52nd Street," "You're an ass," "You're an ace [picture of an ace of spades]," "So sorry," "So what," and, alongside a line of supposed Japanese, "English translation -- Ken Cole is my friend and representative in Tokyo -- not yours. Please do not bother him for hotel, restaurant, plane, train or travel reservations in Tokyo or for anything else during your stay in Japan. In plain English -- go get your own Geisha!"

Elana Estrin is a features writer at the Harry Ransom Center.

A full version of this post appeared in the Harry Ransom Center's Fall 2011 Ransom Edition. The full text is available here.