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In the throes of longing one hot summer night in 1936, playwright Clifford Odets bared his soul in a love letter to Oscar-winning actress Luise Rainer, soon to be his wife.
“I have such a strong sense of you that I could swear you are standing beside me. No, you are lying beside me. No, it is a closer thing than that,” he typed at 2 am. “Everywhere you are in this room and I am very much in love with you.”
A passionate, intimate expression of feeling, never intended for public view, the letter is one of many in the collections of BU’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center (HGARC) offering a glimpse into love in all its tangled forms. The collections include love letters from an interracial couple in the 1930s, a New York couple on death row, and famous celebrities like Odets and Rainer. At the time, Odets was the author of celebrated plays, among them Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! and Rainer was about to win her first Oscar for The Great Ziegfeld.
Their relationship was short-lived: the couple divorced after just three years of marriage and a jealous episode involving Rainer’s friendship with Albert Einstein.
“We rarely see an outpouring of emotions in scrawling script; proclamations of love are expressed with hashtags on Instagram rather than sent across the Atlantic,” says Gotlieb archivist Sarah Pratt. “It is important to preserve personal letters along with material surrounding an individual’s professional life. They often round out the story of those whose lives we think are so unrelatable until we find proof of them experiencing something so commonplace, like love and heartbreak.”
Actor Richard Burton met actress Claire Bloom when they appeared together on stage in The Lady’s Not for Burning. Burton was still married to his first wife, Welsh actress Sybil Williams. (Elizabeth Taylor came later.)
“I love you with awful intensity,” Burton confessed in a 1954 letter to Bloom. Sometimes “I just sit in a trance staring at a piece of paper, pen poised and immovable, longing for you and remembering you and imagining you.” The two later appeared in the 1956 biopic Alexander the Great.
In stark contrast, a 1767 letter in the Gotlieb Center from Founding Father John Adams to his wife, Abigail, decades before he became the nation’s second president is far more reserved in tone, focusing on dinner plans, religious observances, and a desire to return home.
“My regards where they are due, and expect Saturday morn’g yours,” he wrote, signing the letter “affectionately,” with his full name.
Some of the letters in the collection convey the challenges of pursuing a forbidden love, such as that of Julian Steele and Polly Dawes, an interracial couple who married in the 1930s, decades before such unions were legalized in every state by the US Supreme Court. Steele, a black Harvard-educated social worker, and Dawes, a white schoolteacher, stayed together even though news of their marriage plans caused black effigies to be hung at her alma mater, Ward Belmont College in Nashville.
Their letters are a loving testament to the way they supported each other in difficult times.
“After all dear, isn’t real love greater than illusion?” Steele wrote to Dawes in 1936. “For some of us it is, dear, isn’t it, for it enables us to see through illusion and fear and cowardice and strengthens us in the face of the unknown future with a faith that is vital.”
Julius Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel, were both convicted of espionage and conspiring to pass US atomic secrets to the Soviet Union in 1951, and they too took refuge in their relationship. In a letter in one of the most famous HGARC collections, Julius wrote Ethel in 1951 that she was key to his self-development, helping motivate him to continue their fight for freedom and justice even as both sat on death row.
“Your letters have become part of my being,” he wrote. “Habit-forming to the extent that they are emotionally invigorating, mentally stimulating and, above all, reinforcing my strength. It sounds like music. It is poetry.”
They were put to death at New York’s Sing Sing prison two years later.
Few have ever read what may be the HGARC’s most famous love letters: correspondence between actors Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. She was 19, he 44 when they met on the set of 1944’s To Have and Have Not.
Bacall gave the letters to the Gotlieb Center with the stipulation that they cannot be viewed by anyone except their children until 2030.
Special thanks to the BU School of Theatre and to student directors Jeremy Ohringer (CFA’19), Jillian Robertson (CFA’19), and Avital Rutenberg Schoenberg (CFA’20), who cast the actors in the accompanying videos.