Sometimes, Obsession Finds Its Outlet in a Book. Here Are 2.

Dear readers,

My first experience with writing a fan letter didn’t go well. It was to the children’s writer and illustrator Tasha Tudor, known as much for her total commitment to living an 1830s lifestyle as for her watercolors of corgis and children. I tried to fashion a quill pen from a feather I’d found in the park (I had to switch to ballpoint) and donned the pair of pantaloons I favored for moments of maximum picturesqueness. “Dear Tasha Tudor” (I wrote), “I think we have a lot in common.” I detailed my near-worship of “A Time to Keep,” my attempts to replicate the Pumpkin House of “The Dolls’ Christmas,” the wonky maypole I had rigged up in the yard.

A classmate, over for a playdate, found the letter and mocked it, but I was undeterred. I applied sealing wax and dropped it in a mailbox. Maybe it was the fact that I sent it to “Tasha Tudor, Marlboro, VT,” but I never heard back.

I should have learned my lesson, but my misadventures did result in the following recommendations.


When I got to college, I learned that Gwendolyn Brooks lived not far from campus. I didn’t want to bother her, but I was moved to write my second fan letter. (You know how I feel about “Maud Martha.”) She died shortly after I sent my note — I doubt she’d have gotten it — but I’m not sorry I did. And I went down a deep Brooks rabbit hole; the university library had the majority of Brooks’s own writings, and also those dedicated to her work. I read Melhem’s biography of Brooks and then became interested in the biographer, who, I learned, had also been a dear personal friend and respected peer — Brooks recommended Melham’s “Notes on 94th Street” for a Pulitzer Prize.

That book — an unforgettable love-hate letter to New York City that’s considered the first English-language poetry collection published by an Arab American woman — is worth reading if you can get your hands on it. (With its follow-up, it’s collected in “New York Poems.”) But definitely read the more easily found Brooks biography. Don’t be deterred by the academic trappings: While this is, no question, a serious critical study, it’s also a vibrant portrait of the artist by a gifted poet. Brooks emerges as a complex figure who, almost until her death, was a tireless advocate for other Black writers, particularly young ones. Melhem locates Brooks’s large body of work in the context of her Chicago youth and her civil rights work; she studies her influences and her place in the canon. The book was published in 1987, but it remains relevant.

Read if you like: Gwendolyn Brooks; D.H. Melhem; Chicago
Available from: University Press of Kentucky (eBook)

By the time I was out of college, where I’d started freelancing, I was still shy but had learned that the fig leaf of journalism allowed me to meet all kinds of people in a relatively uncreepy way. Asked for story ideas from an embryonic online publication that wanted people to write for no pay (websites back then really emphasized the “free” in freelancer), I proposed an interview with the legendary portrait photographer and New York City character Editta Sherman. Sherman was one of the last holdouts at the studios in Carnegie Hall, a series of spaces above the theater that had been intended for the same creative types who were now being driven out; eventually, by 2010, they were all evicted. But when I visited Sherman, she was still living in the double-height studio with its black-and-white tiling and narrow mezzanine-second story where she’d raised her large family and photographed scores of celebrities and bohemians.

Sherman told me all about her eventful life; she showed me a VHS tape of her performing her signature party piece, “The Dying Swan,” in a feathered tutu; she and her neighbor Bill Cunningham — the longtime fashion photographer for The New York Times, who dropped by while I was there — dressed me in a series of hats he’d crafted as a young milliner. It was one of the best days of my life, even though the publication died before the piece could run. But as a memento, Editta gave me a copy of the book “Facades.”

“Facades” was printed from a 1976 exhibit of Cunningham’s photographs that he had donated to the New-York Historical Society. They were mostly of Editta, in period costumes the two had scavenged and rebuilt, then photographed over eight years, standing in front of New York architectural landmarks of the same era. The book is a photo essay featuring 91 photos of her in outfits ranging from mob caps (St. Paul’s Chapel) to Gilded Age gowns (Fifth Avenue mansions) to the chapeaux of the 1950s and Mies van der Rohe’s modern marvels, as well as anachronisms like a gowned Sherman in a graffiti-bedecked 1970s subway car. As Sherman explained, she did not have a conventional model’s figure, but posed with such dash and drama that she’d quickly become her friend’s muse. And the book is fabulous: a history of costume, of architecture, of two artists and their friendship and a moment when architecture and housing, appropriately enough, allowed for such inspired flights of fancy.

Read if you like: Bill Cunningham: New York”; “Just Kids”; “The Dying Swan
Available from: Used-book sites. You can see some of the images at the New-York Historical Society’s site — they also have a copy of the book.

  • Take a road trip? Perhaps scarred by the Tasha Tudor experience, when I wrote to Jane and Michael Stern with a tip for their book “Roadfood” (a donut shop near my grandparents’ house with great maple bars) I concealed the fact that I was 11. (When they printed it, it was, technically, my first published work and arguably my best.) I still admire their oeuvre, celebrating roadside arcana — “The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste,” “Elvis World” — and have a special love for “American Gourmet,” which charts the country’s changing midcentury tastes, from the 1950s’ bohemians’ embrace of garlic-scented rusticity to the white-tableclothed temples of Capote’s swans.

  • Read a writer who answers letters from children? I recently learned that, as a child, my friend Flora had not only written to Rumer Godden, but corresponded with her! I have also read that Ashley Bryan, Tove Jansson and Maurice Sendak all responded to their young fans. (Of course, those fans might have done a better job addressing their letters than I did.)

  • Buy your budding nerd a real quill pen? This website is not called Pen Heaven for nothing.

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