Movie stars used to receive thousands of letters a month in some cases – and some of it was on the, er, ‘direct’ side.
Long before the internet was a thing, if you wanted to get the attention of a movie star, you had to resort to something far more old fashioned: fan mail. You couldn’t sit at a keyboard and bash out 280 characters and then put your feet up. You had to get a paper and envelope, a pen, a stamp and, well, you get the idea.
This was not a deterrent to a lot of people. Classic Hollywood studios would expect to receive thousands upon thousands of letters from moviegoers over the course of a year, with requests ranging from autographs of their favourite movie star to, well, let’s just say ‘more intimate things’.
All the way back in 1927, an article in Hollywood trade bible Variety surveyed the fan mail phenomenon, and reported at the time that studios between them were receiving 32 million pieces of such post a year. Letters poured in from around the world, in an era where the closest you could get to Tweeting a movie star was writing a letter by hand, sticking a stamp on it, and hoping for a reply.
Further analysis of the mail revealed that a notable proportion came from people who couldn’t actually get to the movies, due to price.
Paramount Pictures in those early days was receiving more mail than anyone, and it revealed that 75% of correspondents were women, and it was female stars that received more letters than their male counterparts. Mary Pickford for one was said to get 18,000 letters a month at one stage, with 18 secretaries employed just to keep on top of them. Shirley Temple, decades letter, would receive 60,000 a month.
As you might expect, the movie stars themselves rarely actually saw any of this mail. Instead, the studios had departments who dealt with it on their behalf. And there are some particular highlights that have come to light over time.
Here, then, is a selection of fan mail that movie stars have received over the ages. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that most of these never got a reply.
In 1916, actor Kathlyn Williams received a lovely note telling her “you are my favourite moving picture actress”. So far so good. The sting? “I would appreciate it so much if you would give me one of your old automobiles, any one. I wouldn’t care how small”.
Four years later, actor Enid Bennett (pictured) got what might be called in the modern era a dose of shade when she was sent a letter saying “I am making a collection of pictures of the most notorious actresses. Please send me yours”.
More recently, in the aftermath of the Fifty Shades Of Grey movie, co-star Jamie Dornan opened a letter with a picture of a child in. The letter informed him that the child was his, and that he should tell his wife. As Dornan would tell Variety, “ I think they were trying to say that the kid was mine and Dakota Johnson’s [his 50 Shades co-star], and we’d had this baby while we made the first Fifty Shades movie”.
You’ve got to admire the woman who hedged her bets back in 1946 in her letter to Glenn Ford. “I am 22, pretty, but I never saved my money. You did”, she noted. “That is the real reason I would like to marry you”.
It’s the sign off that’s the killer: “Please let me know soon as I have also written to Dick Powell and Larry Parks”.
Chutzpah too wasn’t lacking from the writer of a letter to director George Roy Hill in 1975, the year he won an Oscar for helming The Sting (with Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid already to his name).
“Let’s work out the details of my discovery”, they wrote. “We can do it the way Lana Turner was discovered, me sitting on a soda shop stool, you walk in and notice me and – BANGO – I am a star. Or maybe we can do it this way. I stumble into your office one day and beg for a job”. The 17-year old writer added “I do not want to be some bigtime, Hollywood superstar with girls crawling all over me, just a hometown American boy who has hit the big-time, owns a Porsche, and calls Robert Redford ‘Bob’”.
The writer was Thomas J Hanks. You can read the full letter here.
Frank Sinatra, meanwhile, was the recipient of a marriage proposal through the post following one of his films. In 1956, a young woman wrote to him and added “we’ve never met, but I’m a singer, and I feel can do so much for your career”.
Some do reply, of course. Few manage quite the personal touch as Steve Martin, as one blogger found back in 2008 when they received this response to a letter (do check out the full explanation here)…
Still, if I have a favourite, it’s the request sent to Una Merkel in 1933. It was a follow-up letter she received, from a fan who’d originally asked for a signed picture. “Do not send the picture”, read the second letter. “Am moving and decided I didn’t want it”.
In this instance, the star replied. “Picture is sent”, Merkel wrote. “You’ll take it and like it”.
I think that’s what the youngsters might call a mic drop…
Sources: Variety, Guinness Movie Facts & Figures, Letters Of Note
Lead image: BigStock. Enid Bennett image: Wikimedia Commons
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