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Pick a Life, Any Life

As I get older, my reading tastes have changed, moving away from fiction and other creative prose to history, journals and letters. I seem to be seeking the more authentic voices, the "real" people behind the celebrity and reputations. I usually become most engaged by the published collections of letters, for as technology advances, the art of letter-writing fades into a quaint act of the past. Fortunately, quite a few "Selected Letters" have been published, providing a glimpse into the daily lives behind the famous names. And lately, the books that have caught and kept my attention have been the letters of well-known stage actors who later gained further fame in film.

Sir John Gielgud: A Life in Letters covers nearly eight decades of the fascinating life of the actor. Many of his letters are to his mother, who provided a reliable sounding board for his stories of the actor's life and the triumphs and frustrations it included. An extremely literate and witty man, Gielgud never failed to honestly express his opinion of his colleagues:

"I went to the Don Juan in Hell (by Bernard Shaw) reading, with (Charles) Laughton, (Charles) Boyer, (Cedric) Hardwicke and Agnes Moorehead in Los Angeles before I left, but I found it a most affected exhibition of faked spontaneity and a terrific bore, as I am no Shaw addict anyway. However, it was packed to the roof and the audience adored every minute of it."

In My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor, Alec Guinness utilizes journal entries to cover one year of his life, 1995. While not a collection of letters, the entries read as though Guinness is writing to a friend about his continual bemusement regarding fame and celebrity:

"Today I have picked up a rather good notice in an American film trade paper for a performance I have never given in a film I have never heard of. It says that I am 'almost unrecognizable' in the film. I like the 'almost'."

In the often surprising The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder, the writer describes his experience in 1933 of meeting a remarkable young American actor who, at age sixteen, had already been onstage as both Hamlet's father and stepfather:

"He left the stage to become a writer. He's now eighteen; has a long play about John Brown. I gave him one of those galvanizing talks (that are really directed at myself) and now he wants to act again. Armed with my letters he is soon going to New York. Apparently it's something daemonic: he is a rather pudgy-faced youngster with a wing of brown hair falling into his eyes and a vague Oxford epigrammatic manner; the pose is from his misery and soon drops under a responsible pair of eyes like mine. The name is Orson Wells (sic) and it's going far."

These are moments in the lives of these individuals which offer us a glimpse into the person behind the name, as well as giving us another piece of history we wouldn't otherwise become aware of. There are many such publications of journals and collected letters; I just purchased a recent release, The Man With the Golden Typewriter, which includes Ian Fleming's letters regarding his James Bond novels. It's not something I would've found intriguing in the past, but now I'm curious as to the behind-the-scenes thought processes of such a cultural icon. And if stage actors and spy novelists don't interest you, here's a list of some other famous names whose selected letters have been published:

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Willa Cather, Langston Hughes, Norman Mailer, Florence Kelley, Elia Kazan, Charles Dickens, Lucretia Mott, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stegner, Dorothy Day, and Evelyn Waugh.

Pick a life, any life.

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