Ladies with Letters: Madame de Pompadour

FRancois Boucher -- PompadourIn Wikipedia’s article about Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour, her occupation is listed as “Chief Mistress to Louis XV.”

And perhaps that is the best way to describe her position, a complex job that she filled for 19 years in the intrigue-filled world of the 18th century French court.

Jeanne became the king’s mistress at age 24 and held the official title of Chief Mistress until her death. Even though there were other mistresses, including some introduced to Louis by Madame de Pompadour herself, she maintained her position and influence through wit and charm, and by having several flattering portraits painted of herself to remind the king of her beauty even as age diminished it. Jeanne was also intelligent enough to treat Queen Marie with respect, leading her royal highness to frequently remark, “If there must be a mistress, better her than any other.”

Although Madame de Pompadour is neither reading nor writing a letter in this portrait by François Boucher, the supplies necessary to pen something are near at hand on the bedside table: quill pen, stick of red sealing wax, pot of ink and probably paper stored out of view in the little drawer. Apparently, she favored small sheets of notepaper, edged in gold, for those letters she wrote herself as opposed to those she signed after a secretary drafted them.

I love how her gown is as decorated with ribbons and roses as an old-fashioned wedding cake. Her femininity is also echoed in the lush roses at her feet, but she is careful to display her cultured side as well with books and papers strewn about the room. An opened letter sits on the table, waiting to be answered as soon as Madame de Pompadour finishes one more chapter of the book held in her silken lap.

You can find cards and other items featuring Madame de Pompadour in the Post Whistle store on Zazzle.

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.

Time for that Happy Dance

Susan's envelopeA couple of weeks ago I posted a vintage illustration of a puffin holding an envelope, saying  that’s how I react to snail mail — a happy dance. That inspired my friends Susan and Jeanne to send actual mail, one of them even printing the happy puffin on the envelope. What fun!

Now, the question is, do I owe someone a dance?

Susan's cardAnything is possible — even mail!
postcard003Technicolor hammocks a la the 1950s.

Escaping the White House

Dolley_MadisonExactly two hundred years ago today, First Lady Dolly Madison listened to distant cannon as the British battled American forces near Washington, D.C. Her husband, President James Madison, had ridden off to meet with the troop commander, leaving her behind to oversee the evacuation of the White House if the battle appeared lost. Between watching the horizon through her spy-glass and directing staff to pack White House treasures (including Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington), Dolly still found time to pen a letter to her sister. Or did she?

Experts do not question that the First Lady wrote the letter, but some wonder WHEN she wrote it, suggesting she may have written the account some 20 years later to substantiate her legendary rescue of White House artifacts before the British burned the city. She was certainly on hand when they evacuated, but whether she took time to record history while it happened is subject to debate.

Burning_of_Washington_DC_1814“Three o’clock. — Will you believe it, my sister? we have had a battle, or skirmish, near Bladensburg, and here I am still, within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not. May God protect us! Two messengers, covered with dust, come to bid me fly; but here I mean to wait for him… At this late hour a wagon has been procured, and I have had it filled with plate and the most valuable portable articles, belonging to the house. Whether it will reach its destination, the “Bank of Maryland,” or fall into the hands of British soldiery, events must determine. Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor with me, because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out. It is done! and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping. And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write to you, or where I shall be to-morrow, I cannot tell!”

Me as DollyYou can read the entire letter here.

I have always had a soft spot for Dolly since I played her in a 5th grade school recital. The only photo we have of my stage debut is of me standing in front of the living room curtains, sniffing away tears because my parents were running late in driving me to the school.

While my mother’s shawl hid my shoulders, I will reveal that my turquoise colonial gown had a more modern, bare-armed style because my seamstress was my 13-year-old sister, who had not yet mastered the art of setting sleeves.

I guess that made me even more like the original Dolly, a fashion trendsetter.

Film Friday: You Made Me Love You

Clark Gable Embracing Judy GarlandI’m cheating today, sharing not an entire film, but a single snippet that has transcended the movie in which it originally appeared.

A radiant 15-year-old Judy Garland sang “You Made Me Love You” to a photo of Clark Gable in Broadway Melody of 1938 (actually released in 1937 with the tagline, “So new it’s a year ahead!”). But the original song was first published in 1913 and sung to a pre World War I generation by the likes of Al Jolson.

MGM resurrected “You Made Me Love You,” added a few lyrics, and had a then unknown teen serenade Clark with the new version at his 36th birthday party on a movie set. Louis B. Mayer recognized a hit when he saw one and ordered that the musical fan letter be showcased in the next song and dance film available, which just happened to be Broadway Melody of 1938.

Dear Mr. Gable,
I am writing this to you
and I hope that you will read it so you’ll know
My heart beats like a hammer
and I stutter and I stammer
every time I see you at the picture show.
I guess I’m just another fan of yours
and I thought I’d write and tell you so…

And so a new career was launched.

teenaged MomLooking at Judy and her scrapbook, I think of my own mother telling me how she and her friends used to cut out pictures of stars from movie magazines and trade them with one another to get more of their favorites. Mom’s top two were Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. I wonder if she ever sent him a similar fan letter after seeing Rose-Marie or Naughty Marietta.

Unfortunately, for Judy and Clark, MGM repeatedly asked her to sing the song to him at his birthday parties through the years until they both probably wished it had never been written. But we can still enjoy the magic of the best fan letter ever sung.

Visit Film Friday’s Pinterest pinboard, Lights, Letters, Action!

Lost and Found: Medal from Napoleon

tumblr_n19ee5k5zH1soj7s4o1_500Lost: one medal. Found: one envelope.

Erik Kwakkel, a medieval book historian at Leiden University, unearthed this old envelope in a box of archival remainders — in other words, very old scraps. The envelope is 19th century rather than medieval like the other papers in the box, and originally contained a medal presented by Napoleon III (who ruled France from 1852 – 1870) to an old soldier who served in the army of that other, more famous Napoleon during the wars that engulfed Europe during the early 1800s.

Erik wrote: “The envelope is really not supposed to exist anymore: it is a miracle that it was not thrown out. I like to think it was received with a shout of surprise, opened up and put aside, while the medal was fixed to the recipient’s coat.”

How it ended up in a box of medieval scrap paper is anyone’s guess, but thank you, Erik, for finding it and sharing it on your blog. Read more about Erik’s find here.

The Black Hole

BH_LMCThis is a black hole, and that appears to be where three out of five letters of my great truth test ended up.

That’s right, to test how honest or helpful passersby would be, I dropped five stamped, addressed envelopes around town to see how many would be mailed for me. In England, where the test emulates an apocryphal claim by P.G. Wodehouse, the results have been as good as 85%. Here, not so much.

As I reported a couple of weeks ago, two were delivered. Sadly no others have reached their recipients.

letter 2Who can say what happened to the other three. Those on the ground might have been swept up by cleaners who never noticed these were stamped, unopened, un-postmarked letters. Or a letter had so little significance to the finder that it was simply thrown out as not worth the effort to mail. And, of course, a suspicion always lingers that untrustworthy finders opened the envelopes to see if there was something of value inside. In that case, I hope they read the contents and felt at least a tiny twinge of guilt.

But perhaps we should focus not on the three that fell into the black hole, but on the two that arrived at their destinations. Two honest, goodhearted people (40% of the finders) took the time to post the letters. They didn’t have to; no one would have been the wiser if they threw the letters away. Yet, these people made an effort because to them, mail mattered. The unknown sender and recipient mattered. So, let’s salute them, those anonymous passersby, who would have made P.G. Wodehouse proud.

My Happy Dance

PuffinNowadays, receiving a letter makes me want to do a happy dance. I like to think that if I ever have a Footloose moment by the mailbox, I’ll look something like this great little envelope-holding puffin, an illustration from the children’s club and magazine run by Puffin Books years ago.

To test that theory, someone needs to:

  1. Mail me a letter
  2. Lurk by my mailbox
  3. Secretly film me when I find it among the bills

On second thought, just send me the letter and imagine my happy dance. I promise I will FEEL like this puffin no matter what I look like.

Ceremony of the Pens

beautiful mindMy daughter and I watched A Beautiful Mind a few weeks ago. Although it’s a film — and a wonderful one at that — I am not reviewing it for Film Friday. Instead, I am focusing on one element of the movie: the Ceremony of the Pens.

A Beautiful Mind tells the story of brilliant, yet schizophrenic, mathematician Dr. John Nash, who in real life went on to win the Nobel prize in economics for his work on game theory.

Early in the film, a young Nash, played by Russell Crowe, watches a professor being handed pens by his colleagues in the Princeton faculty club. Nash is told it’s a mark of respect, a way to recognize a mathematician’s contributions to the field. Many years later, Nash himself is silently presented with pens by his fellow professors, who finally accept and acknowledge him, despite his illness.

ceremony of the pens

It’s a beautiful scene, a poignant scene. And it’s pure Hollywood.

I am so disappointed that Princeton does not really have a Ceremony of the Pens! I’ve dined in Caltech’s faculty club, the Athenaeum, where the paneled walls and dignified oil portraits provide the perfect setting for such a tribute, but they don’t have such a ceremony either. Apparently, no one does.

What better way to salute someone for his or her creative contributions than to symbolically present that instrument of creation: The Pen. How many novels, essays and letters have been written by pens? How many portraits sketched, inventions doodled, buildings designed and equations calculated? Generals have outlined strategy, cooks have passed down family recipes and boys and girls have expanded their horizons by writing to pen pals, all through the medium of the pen.

A pen is a magic wand, a conductor’s baton that can make real the symphony of imagination. And in a more perfect world, the Ceremony of the Pens would exist, and we could all hope that one day our peers might lay them before us, a tribute to our boundless capacity for creation.

Ladies with Letters: Bad News

Marguerite Gerard - Bad News 1804 zoom in to detailsMarguerite Gerard titled her 1804 painting Bad News, and clearly the woman has just read a surfeit of it. Collapsed in a chair, the offending letter grasped in limp fingers, she has swooned dramatically, unaware of an imminent wardrobe malfunction. Her bodice has slipped low enough to allow a hint of the forbidden (her right side, viewer’s left).

The woman’s letter was sent in a pre-envelope era so we see the paper that wrapped it lying on the floor, the four corners spread wide after the wax seal was broken. I have included a couple of close-ups to examine some of the painting’s rich detail more closely.

Marguerite Gerard - Detail1A young companion holds a bottle of smelling salts, made from an ammonia solution, to the woman’s nose to revive her. As late as World War II, the British Red Cross recommended that workplaces keep them on hand just in case… The young lady, while gowned more simply, is still richly attired with a diadem in her hair as well as a bracelet, brooch and earrings. Their high waisted dresses mark the time as the Regency era, now most frequently associated with Jane Austen films.

Marguerite Gerard - Detail 3The drama of the moment is echoed in the dog, who looks like he might be a King Charles spaniel. Note the slightly hunched back, and tail tucked between his legs. In fact, his behavior probably reflects Part I of the drama before the woman sank into her chair. Did she shriek, shout, drop her handkerchief to the floor before her collapse? Whatever happened, It’s clear that her little companion is not coming close enough to nuzzle her hand.

Dumont_-_Marguerite_GérardWhile Marguerite also painted portraits and miniatures, she is known best for her domestic genre work. Both sister-in-law and student of artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, she enjoyed a successful career in her own right with her work being acquired by several illustrious clients, including Napoleon and King Louis XVII.

Francois Dumont painted such a lovely portrait of Marguerite that I decided to include it along with her painting, perhaps as an apology for taking her work less seriously than it was intended. I can’t help adding my own caption to the scene: “Don’t faint…I sent you a letter.”

Cards with the Bad News image (along with less serious captions) are available at the Postwhistle Shop on Zazzle.

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.

Give Mom My Money

Grampa great grandma

In 1918, my grandfather shipped overseas as a doughboy in World War I. From France he wrote a brief letter to Mr. Warren, his former employer at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, requesting that all back pay be sent to his mother, my great grandmother. The note is pinned — literally — to a typed letter granting power of attorney to my great grandfather to have the money transferred.

Besides the straight pin, I love so many details of this note:

  • That it’s written on a YMCA notepad
  • That British has been crossed out and replaced with American to read “With the American Expeditionary Force”
  • That the current address is “Somewhere in France” (sarcasm, humor?)
  • That the fine print at the bottom reads,”To conserve paper, please write on the other side if required,” (which reminds me of another World War I letter)
  • That he made fancy curlicues on the letters “C” and “E”
  • And finally, that he wrote the letter 96 years ago today

Of course, the most curious fact is that my family still has the note. Did it prove unnecessary to mail or was it sent to my great grandparents to hand carry to Mr. Warren? I’ll never know the backstory, but I’m glad someone saved it, pin and all.

WWI REquest for pay035