letters of note

“This is my son, he speaks Greek”: A millionaire father writes to his (not yet) billionaire son

Ted Turner is a billionaire, famous for inventing Captain Planet, and perhaps less notably, CNN.

When he was young he decided to study the Classics at university. His father, Billboard mogul, was less than impressed and wrote him this letter, now featured on Letters of Note.

Here are some highlights.

I am appalled, even horrified, that you have adopted Classics as a major. As a matter of fact, I almost puked on the way home today. I suppose that I am old-fashioned enough to believe that the purpose of an education is to enable one to develop a community of interest with his fellow men, to learn to know them, and to learn how to get along with them. In order to do this, of course, he must learn what motivates them, and how to impel them to be pleased with his objectives and desires.

Ted Sr thinks the Classics are interesting, but largely useless.

I am a practical man, and for the life of me I cannot possibly understand why you should wish to speak Greek. With whom will you communicate in Greek? I have read, in recent years, the deliberations of Plato and Aristotle, and was interested to learn that the old bastards had minds which worked very similarly to the way our minds work today. I was amazed that they had so much time for deliberating and thinking, and was interested in the kind of civilization that would permit such useless deliberation. Then I got to thinking that it wasn’t so amazing—after all they thought like we did because my Hereford cows today are very similar to those ten or twenty generations ago…

…I suppose everybody has to be a snob of some sort, and I suppose you will feel that you are distinguishing yourself from the herd by becoming a Classical snob. I can see you drifting into a bar, belting down a few, turning around to the guy on the stool next to you—a contemporary billboard baron form Podunk, Iowa—and saying, “Well, what do you think about old Leonidas?” Your friend, the billboard baron, will turn to you and say, “Leonidas who?” You will turn to him and say, “Why Leonidas, the prominent Greek of the Twelfth Century.” He will, in turn, say to you, “Well, who in the hell was he?” You will say, “Oh, you don’t know about Leonidas?” and dismiss him, and not discuss anything else with him the rest of the evening. He will feel that he is a clodhopper from Podunk, Iowa. I suppose this will make you both happy, and as a result of it, you will wind up buying his billboard plant…

…”It isn’t really important what I think. It’s important what you wish to do with your life. I just wish I could feel that the influence of those oddball professors and the ivory towers were developing you into the kind of a man we can both be proud of. I am quite sure that we both will be pleased and delighted when I introduce you to some friend of mine and say, “This is my son. He speaks Greek.””

The bold bit pretty much sums up my thinking regarding the study of Greek. Though it turns out that Ted Jr was probably right. History favours the brave.

What Huxley thought of Orwell’s Dystopian Vision

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World wrote a fan letter to George Orwell after reading a copy of 1984. While he enjoyed, if that’s the right word for these two extreme pessimists, Orwell’s vision of the collapse of society, he didn’t think it was quite bleak enough.

Image Credit: Letters of Note

These guys aren’t the type to invite along to a dinner party.

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. “

I’m thankful that God is sovereign, not these guys.

How to be a con man, and 5 other great lists

Lists of Note is from the guy who brings you the ever brilliant Letters of Note.

Contrary to popular belief, numbered lists have been around for longer than the blogosphere, and indeed for longer than the internet.

These 10 commandments for Con Men are good. A sample:

  • Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con-man his coups).
  • Never look bored.
  • Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
  • Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.

I also enjoyed:

  1. Fumblerules of Grammar“Late-1979, New York Times columnist William Safire compiled a list of “Fumblerules of Grammar” — rules of writing, all of which are humorously self-contradictory”
  2. Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing“In the early-1930s, as he wrote what would become his first published novel — the hugely influential Tropic of Cancer — Henry Miller wrote a list of 11 commandments, to be followed by himself.”
  3. The rules for the Anti-Flirt Club“In the early-1920s in Washington, D. C., a lady named Alice Reighly founded the Anti-Flirt Club — an organisation “composed of young women and girls who have been embarrassed by men in automobiles and on street corners,” and which aimed to protect such women from future embarrassment.”
  4. Rules for Wives“In 1923, the Legal Aid Society of New York City published some advice to wives in the area, in the form of the following list of rules.” 
  5. How to Write – advertising legend David Ogilvy wrote a letter to his staff. Part encouragement. Part motivational lecture. Part kick up the bum.

The last one strikes me as either being straight out of Mad Men, or a preaching class. So I’ll reproduce it in full.

1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing*. Read it three times.

2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.

3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.

5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.

6. Check your quotations.

7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning—and then edit it.

8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.

10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

How to get off a speeding ticket in NZ: Write a completely honest complaint letter

Ahh. New Zealand. Home of the long white cloud, Fergburger, and other holiday memories…

Also, home to this ingenious bloke who wrote a letter that humourously told the department of issuing stupid fines that their infringement notice was riddled with factual errors. Letters of note has the exchange.

Firstly, the ‘date of offence’ is listed as the 23rd of June 1974 with the time being at or around half past six in the evening. This is of grave concern to me because I was not issued a drivers license until sometime in 1990 and I have no desire to be charged with driving while not legally licensed. I do not have a clear recollection of very much at all before I was three and a half years old, so I rang Mum to see if she remembered what I was doing that day. She said that – coincidentally – I was born that day!!

He goes on (and you should read the whole thing).

“This is where it starts to get really strange. The car that I must have crawled into had the same license plate number as the one I have now – AEH924 (according to the infringment notice). However, my car is a dark gray Nissan Bluebird SSS, with dual cup holders, 1800cc’s of grunt, air-conditioning and electric windows.

You will notice that a time-travel option is not included on this model, so that rules out any ‘Back to the Future’ issues and the car I was driving back then could not have been the the one I drive today.

This is clarifed by the infringement notice which states that the vehicle was a Honda saloon. How this relates to my Nissan Bluebird, I cannot fathom. I can only hypothesise that, back in 1974, the first range of proto-type Hondas had an automated number plate changing mechanism (like on the A-Team) which were used to avoid parking tickets and facilitate safer getaways from burglaries, armed hold-ups and the like.”

Coppola on the metaphor behind the Godfather…

This letter from Francis Coppola, director of the amazing Godfather Trilogy, to Marlon Brando, star of Part 1, trying to persuade him to come back for a second round as Vito (the part eventually played by Robert De Niro) is pretty cool.

Cooler, perhaps, is this paragraph…

“All I’m saying is that if you will be in this movie; I will do my very best to make it be good; and human, and express the notion that the Mafia is only a metaphor for America and capitalism, which will do anything to protect and perpetuate itself. (I will do this anyway, if you’re not in the film…but if you were in it, it would be better, and you would help me with your ideas as I work on the script.)”

Did you know that was the metaphor? I just thought the Mafia was a metaphor for depraved human self-interest. But maybe that’s the same thing… I guess then the Corleone family is the “America” in that system, with a refusal to compromise some principles (the Corleones wouldn’t deal drugs), but a willingness to compromise on many others… Thinking through other elements of mafia culture within that metaphor is also a pretty fascinating exercise.

Why Bond uses a Walther PPK

This Letter of Note is fascinating and awesome if you are a fan of James Bond, accuracy in fiction, or the idea that a passionate fan can speak out and influence process. Otherwise it’s a piece of history that might come in handy at your next trivia night.

Some background is important. Ian Fleming wrote the James Bond stories which became the James Bond movies. He received a letter from a bloke named Geoffery Boothroyd who didn’t like the gun Fleming had given Bond. It turned out Boothroyd knew a thing or two about firearms.

“I have, by now, got rather fond of Mr. James Bond. I like most of the things about him, with the exception of his rather deplorable taste in firearms. In particular, I dislike a man who comes into contact with all sorts of formidable people using a .25 Beretta. This sort of gun is really a lady’s gun, and not a really nice lady at that. If Mr. Bond has to use a light gun he would be better off with a .22 rim fire; the lead bullet would cause more shocking effect than the jacketed type of the .25.

May I suggest that Mr. Bond be armed with a revolver?”

Fleming liked this commitment to accuracy so much he named a character after Boothroyd. The character who later became famously known as Q.

The letter Fleming sent Boothroyd is below, and a transcript is available at Letters of Note.

Funniest letter response ever

I’m filing this for “response letters I’d like to send one day”… there’s a slight language warning. Via DeadSpin.

Here’s the transcript of the original letter:


I am one of your season ticket holders who attends or tries to attend every game. It appears one of the pastimes of several fans has become the sailing of paper airplanes generally made out of the game program. As you know, there is the risk of serious eye injury and perhaps an ear injury as a result of such airplanes. I am sure that this has been called to your attention and that several of your ushers and policemen witnessed the same.

Please be advised that since you are in a position to control or terminate such action on the part of fans, I will hold you responsible for any injury sustained by any person in my party attending one of your sporting events. It is hoped that this disrespectful and possibly dangerous activity will be terminated.

Very truly yours,

Roetzel & Andress

By Dale O. Cox”
Here’s the response the team sent:

“Attached is a letter that we received on November 19, 1974. I feel that you should be aware that some a*&#&$ is signing your name to stupid letters”

On a brighter note: How Abraham Lincoln got his beard

So this morning’s letter was pretty sad. I thought I’d balance it with this one – a letter from a little girl to a then clean faced Abraham Lincoln who was just embarking on his presidential campaign.

“My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin’s. I am a little girl only 11 years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”

And he replied.

“I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters— I have three sons— one seventeen, one nine, and one seven years of age— They, with their mother, constitute my whole family—

As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now?”

He grew a beard though. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Again, via Letters of Note.

Great Scott: Because it’s always fun crying before breakfast

You know a letter addressed “To My Widow” is going to be a tear jerker – and this one didn’t fail to hit that mark. I’m as tough and manly as the next guy, but this letter from Captain Robert Scott, who was beaten to the South Pole by some guy from Norway and died on the way back, to his wife, smashed me in the guts.

Via: Letters of Note (there’s a full transcript there).

“I must write a little letter for the boy if time can be found to be read when he grows up — dearest that you know cherish no sentimental rubbish about remarriage — when the right man comes to help you in life you ought to be your happy self again — I hope I shall be a good memory certainly the end is nothing for you to be ashamed of and I like to think that the boy will have a good start in parentage of which he may be proud…

You see I am anxious for you and the boy’s future — make the boy interested in natural history if you can, it is better than games — they encourage it at some schools — I know you will keep him out in the open air — try and make him believe in a God, it is comforting.

Oh my dear my dear what dreams I have had of his future and yet oh my girl I know you will face it stoically — your portrait and the boy’s will be found in my breast and the one in the little red Morocco case given by Lady Baxter — There is a piece of the Union flag I put up at the South Pole in my private kit bag together with Amundsen’s black flag and other trifles — give a small piece of the Union flag to the King and a small piece to Queen Alexandra and keep the rest a poor trophy for you!”

His son became a famous natural scientist, and television host, and his wife did remarry. So it seems the letter paid off.

Bringing back Pluto

A bunch of kids in third grade took exception to the decision to withdraw Pluto’s planetary status. So they did what people taking exception have done for generations. They wrote complaint letters. To the astronomer responsible. The curator of the New York planetarium.

There are more here.

Including this rather conciliatory missive.

Letter from a kamikaze to his children

Letters of Note. If you’re not reading it already. Do yourself a favour.

Here’s a letter from a Japanese kamikaze pilot to his children.

“Even though you can’t see me, I’ll always be watching you. When you grow up, follow the path you like and become a fine Japanese man and woman. Do not envy the fathers of others. Your father will become a god and watch you two closely. Both of you, study hard and help out your mother with work. I can’t be your horse to ride, but you two be good friends. I am a cheerful person who flew a large bomber and finished off all the enemy. Please be an unbeatable person like your father and avenge my death.”

A bit chilling. A bit sad. Very interesting. Imagine growing up with that letter in the place of one of your parents.

How to get free tomato soup

1. Be an artist.

2. Paint a can of tomato soup.

3. Become famous – perhaps even more famous than the soup. Perhaps even as a result of your painting of said soup.

4. Wait for the soup company to write you a letter with the offer of free soup.

5. Accept the soup.

That’s pretty much what Andy Warhol did.

From Letters of Note (read the transcript there).

How to write funny comics

Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson responded to a piece of fan mail with these tips on creating funny comic strips. He’d know.

Here are the tips.

1. Materials are not important, so long as your work reproduces and reduces clearly. It’s what you do WITH the materials that counts.

2. I think characters are more important than jokes. Any cartoonist ought to be able to come up with funny gags, but the best strips have rounded, complex characters that readers can care about. Cartoon characters should be more than standing props to deliver jokes.

3. Don’t imitate other strips. Editors are looking for something new and original.

4. Most importantly, have fun with your work, and practice writing and drawing all you can.

Via Letters of Note.

The author of Tarzan on writing fiction

Are you reading Letters of Note yet? If not you’ll have missed this interchange between a youngster (a boy named Forrest Ackerman who later went on to coin the term “sci fi”) and Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of Tarzan.

Ackerman, at 14, wrote Burroughs after his English teacher spend a lesson decrying the author’s popular schlock fiction. He describes the tirade as follows:

Well with that she burst into a perfect tirade! “If I were to buy the highest priced box of chocolates obtainable,” she said, “and were to offer it to you along with a box of old cheap stuff, which would you take? Why the good candy of course! Yet you’ll go to extremes to pick up this horrid literature out of the garbage cans such as Burroughs writes.” — and she went on for hours and hours and hours. I got in a good word for you every chance I could.

And then signs off with class belying his age:

“I don’t expect you’ll bother to answer this–maybe you haven’t even read it–but anyway will you please autograph the enclosed card and return it to me. Thank you, so much!

And now I’d better sign off. I certainly envy the fellow–if there is such a fellow–that is friendly enough with you to call you Eddie!”

Burroughs did reply. With a lesson on good fiction and bad criticism.

“Tell your teacher that, though she may be right about my stories, there are some fifty million people in the world who will not agree with her, which is fortunate for me, since even writers of garbage-can literature must eat.

My stories will do you no harm. If they have helped to inculcate in you a love of books, they have done you much good. No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment. If it entertains and is clean, it is good literature, or its kind. If it forms the habit of reading, in people who might not read otherwise, it is the best literature.

Last year I followed the English course prescribed for my two sons, who are in college. The required reading seemed to have been selected for the sole purpose of turning the hearts of young people against books. That, however, seems to be a universal pedagogical complex: to make the acquiring of knowledge a punishment, rather than a pleasure.”


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