Joseph Roulin: Postman Muse

Postman Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Portret_van_de_postbode_Joseph_RoulinMeet Joseph Roulin, friend and model of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh not only painted many portraits of Roulin in Arles, but also of all the other members of Roulin’s family.

He wrote to his brother Theo on December 4, 1888:

“I have made portraits of a whole family, that of the postman whose head I had done previously — the man, his wife, the baby, the young boy, and the son of sixteen, all of them real characters and very French, though they look like Russians.”

Portrait_of_the_Postman_Joseph_Roulin_(1889)_van_Gogh_KrollerWhile Postes is emblazoned across the front of his hat, Roulin did not deliver the mail. Instead, he worked at the railway station as a brigadier-chargeur, a lofty title that meant he unloaded the mail bags from the trains and sorted the post for others to deliver.

Van Gogh loved painting Roulin, from his snappy blue uniform with the gold braid and brass buttons to his parted beard and dignified calm. In total, Van Gogh painted or sketched 25 portraits of Joseph, his wife Augustine, their sons Armand and Camille, and four-month-old baby daughter Marcelle. I saw his pen and ink sketch of Joseph at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Van Goeth Postman at GettyMany citizens of Arles shunned Van Gogh and called him the crazy redhead (Fou-Roux), but the Roulin family was always kind and supportive. They remained in touch with Van Gogh until his death in 1890 at age 37.

The youngest of the Roulin models, Marcelle, lived until 1980, long enough to see Van Gogh lauded as one of the world’s most famous artists. While she did not remember meeting him as an infant, she did recall the six paintings he gave the family, which hung for a few years in her parents’ bedroom — five portraits and a still life of a vase of oleanders. Unfortunately for the Roulin family fortune, her father sold the collection in 1895 to art dealer Ambroise Vollard for 450 francs.

A few years after Marcelle died, the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought one of Van Gogh’s portraits of her father for $58 million AND some other pieces in exchange.

Check out all of the Roulin family paintings on this website, which also lists the museums that house them.

Ladies with Letters: Ups and Downs of Hair

Otto Franz ScholdererAlthough dressed as an elegant young woman, the subject in this painting entitled “Girl with a Letter” is wearing her hair loose under her charming velvet hat, something only an adolescent girl would do in the Victorian era.

Yet, look at the ring worn on the ring finger of her left hand. Is she engaged or promised? Then there are the roses in her lap, perhaps sent with the letter. Would a girl old enough for such romances still wear her hair down?

Pinning up one’s hair was a rite of passage for young women, making the mismatch between her attire and her hair puzzling. The fact that she has put on a hat also indicates that she is definitely dressed to leave the house, so it’s not a case of wearing casual attire in her own boudoir.

Wavy HairWhatever the reason she wore her hair loose, I feel a kinship with those wavy — slightly frizzy — locks. My own curly hair drove me crazy for years before I gave up the battle and admitted straight hair was not for me.

A German artist named Otto Scholderer painted the long-haired girl. Born in Frankfurt in 1834, his career took him to Kronberg, Dusseldorf, Munich, Paris and London, where he lived from 1871 until 1899, nearly half his life. Scholderer counted Edouard Manet as one of his friends, and possibly one of his artistic influences.

For your own writing needs, cards depicting Scholderer’s painting are available at the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.

Film Friday: Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It

Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It  4Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It, third in a trio of lighthearted British detective movies, was retitled Mail Train for release in the United States. Made in 1941, this low budget film was designed to keep English audiences laughing during wartime.

Veteran actor Gordon Harker starred as Hornleigh while Alistair Sim (whom I know best as the ultimate Mr. Scrooge) played his bumbling assistant, Sergeant Bingham.

As a villain described them, “One of them is tall, bald, looks intelligent and isn’t. The other one is short with a sour face, doesn’t look intelligent and he is.”

Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It opens with an on-screen reassurance to the British public: “The mail train incidents in this story are entirely fictional. G.P.O. safeguards would preclude any such happenings. No reflection is made on any member of the post office staff.” Whew, that’s a load off my mind!

Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It  1The two main characters are assigned to go undercover as privates at an army base to root out scroungers nicking supplies for the black market. Instead, they stumble on a ring of spies, a much more exciting challenge, and hare off in pursuit of the ringleaders.

Army sequences allow Sim free rein to mug for the camera, while later scenes include many elements that were probably standard for all the Inspector Hornleigh films: the Sergeant chatting up pretty girls, the inspector assuming different voices and personas, and their colleague Inspector Blow making sarcastic remarks about them.

“What do you want us to do, consult the stars for you?” asks Hornleigh.
“I’m not interested in your usual methods of solving crime,” snaps Blow.

Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It 3All of the action moves to the mail train for the last 10 minutes of the film, giving us a glimpse of how the postal system worked 70 years ago—mail bags yanked off hooks as the train roars past and clerks slotting letters in the mail car, working through the night to deliver the post.

Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It is an obscure little movie, but makes for an entertaining 80 minutes..

Film Friday: Do you give Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It your stamp of approval? You can watch the movie for free on YouTube.

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One More Story

letter022When I was 21, I relocated thousands of miles and one hemisphere away to Australia. As soon as I learned where I would teach for the next two years, I sent my parents the school address so that they could write to me, even before I found a flat of my own. Of course, by “they” I mean my mother, who dutifully began her first aerogramme as soon as she knew where to send it.

with KualaAll old letters are time capsules, but this one is especially poignant. It captures a turning point between my childhood, with Mom talking about life at the house where I grew up, and my transition into adulthood. Not only was I making my own living, but I also had traveled to the other side of the world.

Everything around me was new, from the accents to the food to the Southern Cross in the night sky. My students ordered meat pies and pasties for lunch, cars drove on the “wrong” side of the road, and even the meanings of words changed so that a sweater was called a jumper and jumpers were called tunics.

MomMy mother’s letter to this looking glass world carried the reassurance of everyday news from home: mowing the overgrown lawn, “Dad and I finally manicured that wheat field around the house…”; buying her first pair of cowboy boots; and the vivid fuchsia of the bougainvillea spilling over our wall.

However, Mom also told me about meeting Sam Spade’s doppelganger at the department store where she managed the cosmetics counter: “I waited on a man who was a dead ringer for Humphrey Bogart, looks, voice, speech, and even stoop-shouldered a little. I told him this and he said he didn’t ever admit this to anyone but that in the 1950s when Bogey was so ill a friend of his got him a job as a stand-in. He worked in The Caine Mutiny, The African Queen, and another one with him.”

Strangely, I didn’t remember that anecdote about Bogart’s stand-in, so reading it decades later was like hearing something new from my mother, who has been gone almost three years now. That’s the magic of snail mail — Mom can still share one more story.

Posting People

MayPierstoffCharlotte May Pierstorff’s parents must have been a thrifty couple because 100 years ago they were the first — and last — folks to mail their child in lieu of buying a train ticket.

In 1914, the Pierstorff family lived in Grangeville, Idaho, and wanted to send five-year-old May to visit her grandparents in Lewiston, about 70 miles away. Train fares seemed a little steep, but the new parcel post service introduced by the post office the previous year accepted packages up to 50 pounds. May weighed in at 48 1/2 pounds.

So, for 53-cents in stamps affixed to May’s coat, Mr. and Mrs. Pierstorff “shipped” their daughter in the train’s mail compartment. Leonard Mochel, the clerk on duty in Lewiston, duly delivered her to her grandparents’ house. Once the U.S. post office got wind of the incident, they changed regulations to prohibit shipping humans. Spoil sports!

mailing_may_lgMay’s story was forgotten for many years, but Michael O. Tunnell wrote a children’s picture book about it, Mailing May, in 1997.

If we could still send people by post, how much might it cost today? I’ll assume that most of us would opt for first class mail when it comes to shipping children. Today’s first class rate is 98¢ for the first ounce plus 21¢ per ounce thereafter. At 48.5 pounds, it would cost a whopping $163.94 to mail May in 2014.

By comparison, bus fare from Graingeville to Lewiston comes in at a bargain $16.50, and the journey by coach takes less than two hours (definitely faster than the mail).

Read about May and other odd parcel post deliveries.

Holiday Hellos

Halloween card021Remember exchanging Valentines in grade school? All those little cardboard rhymes brought home in a lunch bag. And Christmas cards. I line them up on the bookcase and sometimes don’t take them down until well into January. (Of course, I’ve been known to do that with my tree as well…)

As for Mother’s Day, I received my first card years before I became a parent because a former roommate liked sending them to her friends, whether or not they had children.

Naturally, the greeting card industry would like us to mail cards on every holiday, so they also trot out a selection at Easter, Thanksgiving and Halloween. Especially Halloween. There’s something about playing dress up and eating way too many tiny chocolate bars that makes for a card-worthy occasion.

But before you join the hue and cry against modern commercialism, recall that sending greeting cards is not a new phenomenon. In Germany, printers produced New Year cards from woodcuts as early as the 15th century. By the advent of England’s penny post in the mid 1800s, mass production of greeting cards was in full swing. 1843 saw not only the debut of Charles Dickens’ holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol, but also the first published Christmas card.

4th of JulyBy the late 19th century, you would have been hard pressed to find a holiday that was not celebrated with a host of cards and post cards, bedecked with kittens, birds, flowers, and cherubic children. Some even injected a little humor into the occasion.

I’ve shamelessly borrowed several of those century-old designs to create my own holiday cards for the Post Whistle Shop, everything from French New Year’s greetings (Bonne Annee!) to a pumpkin-headed man driving a Model T. So if you feel like sending someone an unexpected 4th of July hello, you’re in luck!

Film Friday: Letters to Juliet

letters_to_juliet_ver3_xlgWhen it comes to advice regarding romance, my first choice would not be a teenaged girl who eloped with her lover, faked her death and then killed herself when she discovered her lover had died. “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Apparently, my view is not shared by thousands of women around the world, who mail letters to Juliet or leave them posted to the wall of a 17th century house in Verona, which is known as Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s House). The film Letters to Juliet weaves this custom into a fictional account of one such letter and the young woman who finds it.

Letters-to-Juliet-directe-006Amanda Seyfried is Sophie, an American tourist whose fiance is more concerned with meeting suppliers for his new restaurant than in spending time with her during their vacation in Italy. Sightseeing on her own, she finds Casa di Giulietta and watches a woman pull letters off the wall at the end of the afternoon. Sophie follows her to see what she does with the letters and discovers that a group of women volunteer to answer them, dispensing advice to lovers young and old.

Sophie joins them and finds—and answers—a 50-year-old letter hidden behind a loose brick in the wall under Juliet’s balcony. When Claire, the ever lovely Vanessa Redgrave, receives this reply, she drops everything in England and immediately flies to Italy in search of her long lost love, Lorenzo. Accompanying Claire is her stuffy grandson Charlie, played by Christopher Egan.

letters_to_juliet21To say the plot is predictable would be an understatement, but the golden views of vineyards and tiled roofs make it a mildly pleasant, if clichéd, cinematic jaunt. While there’s not much heat between the young couple, Claire and Lorenzo (Franco Nero) generate a few sparks during their short time together on screen.

I looked up Nero on the internet to show my daughter a photo of him and Redgrave as Lancelot and Guinevere in the movie Camelot. To my surprise, I discovered that the actors really were a hot item in the 1960s and have recently become a couple once more. Now that’s a story worth a love letter or two.

Although the custom of sticking letters to the wall of Casa di Giulietta sounds charming, people often use chewing gum or post-it notes, both of which are damaging the building. Read more about Verona moving  the letters to Juliet to a new location.

Film Friday: Let me know whether you give Letters to Juliet your stamp of approval.

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Stamp Ball Mystery

StampBallThe mystery is not what this is.
It’s a 600-pound ball of stamps that measures 32 inches in diameter.

Nor is the mystery the number of stamps in it.
Reportedly 4,655,000 in one solid — not hollow — ball. All cancelled.

The mystery is not its location.
It’s the centerpiece of the Leon Myers Stamp Center at Boys Town in Nebraska, the child care agency founded by Father Flanagan, whom Spencer Tracy personified in a 1938 film.

And there’s no mystery about who made it.
That would be the members of the Boys Town Stamp Collecting Club who began in 1953 and finished in 1955. Apparently, they had a lot of time for hobbies.

No, ultimately, the mystery for me is WHY they devoted two years to layering over four million stamps into Planet Postage. I guess it’s a more lasting result than if they had spent their time playing Parcheesi or Capture the Flag.

R.S.V.P: Répondez S’il Vous Plaît

College invitationBesides a few cards at birthdays and Christmas, one type of mail I still occasionally find in the letter box is an invitation, like this one to my daughter’s college orientation. Of course, invitations, like any mail, can also be sent electronically, but I enjoy so much more the chance to slit open an envelope and pull out a card.

Most invitations ask that we RSVP: répondez s’il vous plaît. That snippet of French flair has been added for centuries, a bow to the gallic-inspired etiquette that long ruled English and American polite society. The literal translation — respond if you please — should not be taken, well, literally. According to Emily Post, you should always respond, even if you don’t please, unless the more modern “regrets only” has been added.

Having managed events with head counts and caterers, I can tell you that making assumptions about people attending, not attending, replying, not replying, nowadays is fraught with peril! If only everyone were an adherent of Emily Post.

Almack's voucherIn the realm of invitations and etiquette, the one I most fantasized about receiving when I was a young(er) miss was an invitation to Almack’s. Mentioned frequently in the witty Regency novels of Georgette Heyer, Almack’s was an exclusive London club that enjoyed its heyday in the early 1800s. At their Wednesday night balls couples even danced the daring new waltz where men actually placed their arms around the waists of young ladies. Oh my!

Admission to Almack’s meant the difference between being part of society as a whole and Society with a capital “S.” A handful of women, the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s, determined who was in, and even worse, who was out, though scandal did not seem to stick to the Patronesses themselves. Patroness Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey, had a mother who eloped, a daughter who eloped, and a mother-in-law who had been a well-known mistress of King George IV when he was still the Prince of Wales. Sarah’s nickname was Silence because she talked so much. (Read more about Lady Sarah’s life here and the elopement of her daughter here.)

Aussie Invite004The closest I’ve come to an invitation to high society was to a garden party in Melbourne, Australia to benefit the Red Cross. Held at Government House and hosted by the Governor, the Honorable Sir Henry Winneke, the outdoor affair attracted a couple hundred guests who helped themselves liberally from the trays of champagne and sandwiches circling the lawn. No waltzing, but I enjoyed myself. And though I can’t remember now, I’m sure that I RSVP’d.

Film Friday: Cheers

Screen shot 2014-03-29 at 8.52OK, it’s not a movie, but I can’t ignore America’s best known letter carrier, Cliff Clavin on the long running comedy, Cheers. The resident know-it-all, Cliff pontificated from his barstool for 11 years, always proudly sporting his postal uniform. To Cliff, being a mailman was the highest calling.

Played brilliantly by John Ratzenberger, Cliff delivered his rambling factoids in a wicked Boston accent, and apparently John ad-libbed many an embellishment. While Cliff spent most episodes seated beside Norm at the bar, he occasionally kicked over the traces and even broke the rules.

Screen shot 2014-03-29 at 8.31Perhaps his most postal-themed storyline was Season 7, Episode 12: “Please Mr. Postman.” Cliff begins the episode irked that he has been assigned to train a new recruit. However, letter carrier Margaret O’Keefe (played by Annie Golden) quickly wins him over, and Cliff tells her to get some rest before their training begins, “You’ll need plenty of sleep. Tomorrow is TV Guide day.”

Screen shot 2014-03-29 at 8.37They fall for one another, but Margaret commits a cardinal sin when she steals a postal van to rendezvous with Cliff at a sleazy motel. Inevitably, she’s found out and fired, and their short-lived romance ends when she leaves for Canada to join their postal service. “I’m a mail carrier; I have to deliver the mail.”

Watch and enjoy!

Film Friday: Let me know whether you give Cliff Clavin on Cheers your stamp of approval. 

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