Letters to the editor have always been the first thing I read in a magazine, and in 2006, I had my own letter published in New York. It was about Will Shortz, and I thought it was sort of clever, and it made me happy. But even so, I often find myself wondering about others who write in to the editor: Who are these people?
I understand why a doctor would write a letter to the Atlantic about, say, the role of fast food in public health. And I understand why a young woman would write to New York with a trying-to-be-pithy observation about a crossword puzzle, I guess. Reba Shimansky, a legendary letter-writer from Brooklyn, once told the New Yorker that she writes because “There’s a lot of things that anger me.” But why would a person write to Redbook extolling the great beauty and virtue of Eva Longoria? I have my own set of favorite actors—I dream of sipping wine with Connie Britton and just laughing and learning—but I can barely imagine composing a sincere tweet about them, let alone writing multiple paragraphs and then sending them to a magazine for publication. That’s even more true in an era in which it’s so easy to do one’s gushing online, using less formal language. What compels an enthusiastic reader to let Entertainment Weekly know that this year’s fall TV preview was the best ever?
Sophisticated types have long speculated that plenty of letter-writers aren’t real people at all. In 2007, Gawker collected emails from people claiming that many letters in Blender, Organic Style, and Redbook, among others, were invented by magazine staff who signed them with the names of friends and family. Most of their stories were convincing. And when you look at dozens of letters at a time, it’s hard not to be suspicious that so many of them seem to come from generic names in large cities: Good luck finding the “Rebecca Williams” who lives in Chicago and thinks Elvis would be so proud of Lisa Marie and his granddaughters.
But not all writers of peculiarly enthusiastic letters to the
editor are fake. I know because I spoke with four of them: two
women who published glowing letters about Kerry Washington in the
October 2013 issue of Vanity Fair, and two men who recently
published letters in People. I chose them because I could
find them, and also because their letters were polite and positive,
and did not appear to have been culled by the magazine from tweets
or online comments, an approach to which many letters sections have
turned in recent years. They had different motives—pride,
gratefulness, passionate Julie Harris fandom—but they were all
very, very real.
Joyce L. Hatch, letter published in Vanity Fair, October 2013
Letter excerpt: “Kerry Washington’s presentation both on- and offscreen mesmerizes and frankly flatters all women.”
I sent Hatch a short note on Facebook and, like several of the people I contacted, she replied in a charmingly formal style. (“Ms. Graham, my name is Joyce LaNette Hatch, and it seems I neglected to give you my phone number during a previous correspondence.”) Hatch, 63, is a retired postal worker who is writing a novel set in 1913, about a man who goes on the run after witnessing a murder. She spoke to me from her home in Houston, where she lives alone, across the street from her son.
You mentioned in your email that you’ve had several letters published in Architectural Digest, including one about Wesley Snipes’s home.
Yeah, Wesley Snipes’s home in Orlando. That came out in August 1997, right after my father died, and it was the first time I had anything in print. I was so happy. I really don’t know what it means. You might think it’s kind of silly because you don’t get anything for it, but I do feel good about it getting out there. It makes me feel that the editors kind of like what I do.
How many letters have you had published in Architectural Digest?
I think about 7. I just wrote one about David Adjaye. He’s an architect that’s designing the new Smithsonian African-American museum. So they might publish it, they might not. I just sent it off about three days ago.
Do you think the editors have noticed that you’ve been published there a lot? Have they ever mentioned it to you?
No. [laughter] It would be nice!
Have you written other letters that haven’t been published?
Yes, to Ebony, Essence, Black Enterprise, and House Beautiful. Southern Living.
Are most of the letters you write positive? That’s one thing that stuck out to me in your Vanity Fair letter.
Yes, if I feel positive about the house—the Frist home in Tennessee [Hatch had a letter published in AD about the former senator’s home] was very pretty, very nice. I have to have an emotion come up to want to write. Most of them have been positive. I wrote [to AD] about Howard Stern’s assistant—she’s an African-American lady, and they got my name wrong. They called me Joyce Natch. I think I wrote them a note, but it was too late.
It’s really been fun to do. I hope that maybe it means something, and [that] I’m a literate person, literate enough to write a book. I have been to college for writing, at the University of Houston-Downtown, 84 hours towards that, but now I’m 63 years old, and I haven’t been back to finish.
Do people you know in real life notice when you’ve had a letter published?
I usually have to point it out to people. I have grown children,
and they get excited but they say, “When are you going to do
something to get you some income?” It might be crawling before I
walk, but it’s something I enjoy. It’s a passion, I guess. It’s
something I get a lot of pride from.
James N. Selvidge, letter published in People, August 19, 2013
Letter as published: “Your special issue on the royal family following the birth of Prince William and Kate’s firstborn was welcome and outstanding. Your reporting up to and after the birth, in addition to the history on the royal family inside the magazine, made it the collector’s issue you labeled it.”
Selvidge, 84, has survived a stroke and currently has cancer. But as he put it in his initial email, “fortunately my brain still functions.” He and his wife live in Burlington, Washington, where he operates a large database of thoroughbred racetrack information. He hopes to publish a book he’s written called “Treason, Treachery & Tricks: News Never Known,” which includes chapters on the JFK assassination, Area 51, and the Casey Anthony verdict. He says he has been reading People for decades.
Tell me about the letter you sent to People. What made you decide to write it?
I’m a long-time fan of “Piers Morgan Tonight,” and an author—I’ve written a number of things that might be interesting to him. But these days, from government to business to media, it’s very hard, if not impossible, to penetrate the veil. I could never reach him…. I had a reference in the letter to him. I think I ended with, “As Piers Morgan would say,” but that was eliminated. Otherwise, it was partly impulse.
People, as a long time subscriber, has drifted across many lines. It’s very different than when it started. If you’re following letters to the editor, probably 60% of the issues will not have a letter to the editor from a man. It’s exclusively women. Once in a while, one or two or three letters from men will drift in. It’s intentionally adopting a totally female audience. It used to be much more of an entertainment news publication. At least for me, it’s disappointing to see it shift gears. I’m not one that worries about seeing picture of Jennifer Aniston without lipstick.
You wrote in your email, “I spent a Saturday afternoon in 1939 in the company of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret (and ‘Queen Mum’) while my father met with King George VI.” That’s amazing.
I was raised in the worlds of journalism and politics and Hollywood celebrity. My father founded one of the first newspaper publishers’ associations, and starting in 1936 he was an advisor to four presidents, from Roosevelt to Kennedy. This particular incident was in the Vancouver Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was meeting with King George to discuss the land lease and “Bundles for Britain.” It was a long dialogue, and I was spending all that time with the family in the other room. As I said in my email, I was much more enamored with the Royal Guardsmen and the Canadian Mounted Policemen. I wasn’t that impressed with the princesses.
Did you realize at the time that these were very famous young girls?
They were famous young girls of a more famous father. To me, King George was the real interest.
Have you written other letters to the editor?
I’ve written on various issues, and I’ve never had a response. My letter in question, I think was impulse, because I never thought it would be published. I just opened it up and there it was. I have the impression they don’t spend a lot of time communicating with their clients.
Michelle Price, letter published in Vanity Fair, October 2013
Letter excerpt: “I was inches away from canceling my subscription when you released the solo cover with the talented and beautiful Kerry Washington. While skin color alone doesn’t attract me to a magazine, it’s appealing to see individuals that have likely had life experiences similar to mine.”
Price has a master’s degree from Stanford in electrical engineering, and she has worked on Wall Street for about 15 years. After working in quantitative strategies and portfolio risk analysis for Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and Edward Jones, she opened her own advisory firm in 2010. Price has black belts in karate and taekwondo, and she described herself to me as a “very single” workaholic.
Why did you decide to write your letter about Kerry Washington?
There was something about this issue, I had just left it on my coffee table so I could see it. I loved the feeling of seeing it, and seeing her on the cover. I’ve been a long-time subscriber to Vanity Fair/i>, and that was probably one of very few times I left an issue sitting out. There was something about it—something deeply emotional that I probably can’t articulate, made me want to write and say, Keep up the great work.
Are you active online at all? One of the things I’m curious about is, what’s the appeal of sending a formal letter to the editor when there are so many places online to let your voice be heard?
I think I’m a bit old-school. I’m just in my late 30s, but I grew up reading all different types of magazines. Something about writing a letter to the editor, I felt as if it would be taken more seriously than just a tweet or a Facebook post.
Have you written letters to other magazines or newspapers?
I never have. I was trying to think what prompted me, and it brings me back to something just very deeply emotional. Probably the best way to articulate it is using a quote Whoopi Goldberg made when Barack Obama was elected as president: She said she finally felt like she could put down her suitcase, like she belonged. I’ve been reading Vanity Fair for so long, and had that exact same feeling when I saw [Washington] on the cover.
I just had to write and tell them about it, because in my day-to-day, I don’t feel like I belong. No one really looks like me in the field of work that I do on Wall Street. I saw the cover and it hit me: Hey, in my free time, most of the time I’m paying to feel this kind of outsider feeling that I feel every day. It’s not just a matter of subscribing to a magazine with women in it, or black people in it. There are a lot of magazines out there that I don’t relate to, but I love the content in Vanity Fair, and I just wanted to feel like I could set down my suitcase while reading Vanity Fair. That was on the very few issues where I felt like that.
Warren Spencer, letter published in People, September 23, 2013
Letter as published, under the slug “Julie Harris”: “The late actress always had a gracious response to those who appreciated her quiet but joyful achievements. There is much to learn from her relentless professionalism and kindness to strangers.”
Spencer, 67, is retired after a long career teaching English and journalism, mostly in middle schools and high schools in Detroit. In one of his classrooms he hung a banner with lyrics from the song “Accentuate the Positive,” and he told me that he sees letters to the editor as one way to do that. He used to have his students read magazines and newspapers and then write their own letters, as an exercise in concise persuasive writing. Spencer lives in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. He and his partner of 12 years are getting married in Maryland next month.
So, tell me about the Julie Harris letter.
I lived for 25 years very near Julie Harris’s childhood home [in Michigan]…. Through that I met a niece of hers, and she would come back and do benefits and city things or church things. I read her book, which she cowrote, about advice to young actors. Then the tradition developed that every time I went to see her live, either in New York or in Michigan, I would send the book backstage and she would re-autograph it.
We finally met—and I had been a big fan since I was a teenager, when I made the connection that she was not just a star, but a real actress. She was always so kind to me as a fan, and she had no reason to be. We shared the location, but also had close birthdays in early December, although she was almost exactly 20 years older than me. We corresponded over the years. I can’t say I was her friend, more of a fan, but she treated me as a friend.
When she died, having followed her career, a lot of people called and told me they knew I would be affected by that. I have a big file on her and things she’d done…. I just wanted to sort of bring some closure to my collection of her things, and I thought the obituaries would do that…. I contributed [letters] to three magazines. Lo and behold, People printed one, and so I felt good about that. What I was writing about was more about the fact that beyond being an actress, she was a really decent and kind person. I thought that needed to be expressed.
Have you had other letters published in the past?
The one before Julie Harris was a hometown newspaper in which I felt compelled to say something about the homophobia that was being expressed in a conservative southern community [in Florida]. That letter was—I don’t want to call it a rant. But it was printed in its entirety, which surprised me.
What were the other two magazines you sent letters about Julie Harris to?
Entertainment Weekly, which I subscribe to because I’m a big movie buff, and to Time magazine…. I thought I’d do two frivolous ones and a serious one. It was the luck of the draw. I jokingly said to people that I’m going to cancel my subscription to Entertainment Weekly, but I don’t take it personally.
Have you had any other letters published in the past, besides the one to the newspaper?
At the age of 7… somehow I got it into my mind, on December 26 I wrote a thank-you note to Santa. It was very brief. I remember banging on the bathroom door for my mother to spell a word. It was no [longer] than the Julie Harris letter. And I’m assuming my mother or dad sent it off—instead of to the North Pole, it appeared in the newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot, in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area. I have it someplace. It’s very small and aged, and it’s cut out with pinking shears.
I don’t tell many people the story because it makes me sound like a goody-goody. But that was my first experience with this kind of thing. It was positive: my intention was just to communicate with Santa Claus! But now as a parent and grandparent, I’m able to understand the joy it brought my mom, especially, cutting it out of the newspaper. I thought maybe, in my little mind, it was good thing to do….
I think letters to the editor are always a good way to use your brain, but also your heart. The times I’ve written it’s been something like Julie Harris or bigotry, something I’ve tried to express an opinion about and hope that people might read it and be affected.
Did People tell you in advance that you’d be published?
No, they didn’t. I wrote quickly because as a former journalism teacher I know news is new. Even though I really feel Julie Harris should last through the ages, she’s dead and buried, and time moves on more quickly than ever. I thought I’d better pounce on it while they still might print it. I looked the following week and it wasn’t in there, so I more or less gave up. But I looked the second week and there it was….
And then, lo and behold, you contacted me out of the blue. Not only did People not contact me, but I was flabbergasted that someone like you did. I was complimented that you did. It’s proof that someone out there read it.
I’m sure many people read it!
I’m not sure many people knew who Julie Harris was. Her work was mostly on the stage, and therefore unrecorded for posterity…. I think part of my motivation was to encourage other people in the age of DVDs to see some of her work, so they would know what they missed and appreciate her.
Ruth Graham is a contributing writer to the Boston Globe’s Ideas section. She lives in New Hampshire.