Thursday, March 03, 2022

From the Archives: A Letter

The post below was posted in a different venue in 2006; I'm dusting it off in honor of Michael Leddy's post at Orange Crate Art.

I've never read Rose Macaulay's novel The Towers of Trebizond and I suspect that I'm never going to get around to it. But I still have the hardcover copy that I bought at a used book sale a number of years ago, and I'm not quite ready to give up on it. That's only partly because everything I've ever heard about the book is positive; when you come down to it, I suspect, the book is probably not really my thing at all. The real reason I'm hanging onto it is the following letter, which I found neatly folded inside the front cover when I bought it.



April 6, 1959

Mr. James H. Sachs
Bedford, New York

Dear Jimmy:

            It was so sweet of you to think of us and to introduce us to the Schaffners. As the result of The Tower of Trebizond we are going to get a wonderful trip to Europe.

            We are sailing with them on the Giulio Cesare on the 9th and will see Ravello, Sicily and trans-Appenine Italy. Mr. Schaffner thinks that he can enjoy me more completely on board. I don't know just what it means but it sounds alarming. Thanks so much. If I survive maybe I will send you a postal card.

Sincerely yours,


Rose Macaulay

At first sight this seems like the kind of witty missive a cosmopolitan, well-educated older British woman like Macaulay might have written to a social acquaintance in the mid-20th century. The hint of naughtiness in the second paragraph, the learned reference to “trans-Appenine Italy,” the British “postal card,” instead of “postcard,” all seem fit to type. But there's a problem: the date. Rose Macaulay died on October 30, 1958, a full five months before the letter was supposedly written. Moreover, as far as I have been able to determine, she was not in New York at any time in the last months of her life, making a simple dating mistake of a year or so (but how likely would that have been anyway?) less than probable.

The closer I examine the letter, the less genuine it seems. The date is in American style, not British. The title of the book is wrong — it's Towers not “Tower,” and in fact what the correspondent originally typed was “Trevizone”; the correct spelling is overwritten in pencil. (It's true that the errors involve contiguous pairs of letters on the keyboard, so it's possible she — whoever she was — was simply a bad typist.) And why would the real Rose Macaulay write gratefully of the prospect of “a wonderful tour of Italy” as if she were not a seasoned, independent traveler herself?

If the letter is not really by Rose Macaulay, and it seems very doubtful that it is, then two possibilities come to mind. The first one, unlikely but consistent with the signature, is that it was written by another woman named Rose Macaulay, who somewhow, as the “result” of the odd coincidence of her name with that of the famous author, was invited to see some of her namesake's old stomping grounds.

The other possibility is that the writer of the letter was not named Rose Macaulay at all. She was simply a woman who, perhaps as the outcome of a conversation about The Towers of Trebizond, was invited to Europe by a wealthy couple she had just been introduced to. The signature, then, would have been just a little joke for the benefit of “Jimmy.”

In either case, I wonder if she survived the trip.

Update: The James H. Sachs to whom the letter was addressed appears to be the individual of that name who was one of the founders of Newsweek and later a publisher of Horizon magazine. He also donated a few acres of land to a preserve where I occasionally hike. If the identification is correct he died in 1971. The New York Times obituary is here.


Michael Leddy said...

What a find! I was startled by the shift from the plural pronouns — “they,” “us” — to the singular — “he,” “me.” A love boat?

Chris said...

Perhaps Mrs. Schaffner had her own amours.

I was able to trace the ship; the MS Giulio Cesare was built for the Italian line and originally used for service to and from South America, but it sailed regularly between Europe and New York in the late 1950s.

Note the old telephone exchange: TEMPLETON 8-7440. I wish I could identify SECNARFS.