A quick “I love you, babes” text might do the job nowadays but such a flippant declaration of romance would hardly stand the test of time. For years and years, history’s greatest lovers have been putting voice to their feelings via the humble pen, translating the tumult of their hearts into a series of ardent, amorous and impassioned letters.
At times, poetic and sexual, lyrical and desperate, these heartfelt missives never fail to strike a chord in the eye of the reader. Whether it’s Richard Burton raving about Liz Taylor’s “special and dangerous loveliness” or Oscar Wilde heralding his lover Bosie’s “red rose-leaf lips”, these letters strip away emotional barriers to lay bare their authors’ true and often anguished state of mind.
Come revel in the spirit of literary lust and remind yourself of the sensual power of words in a pre-internet and mobile era, with our pick of history’s most moving and powerful love letters…
From Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf – 1927
Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf met at a dinner party in 1922. Both writers and intellectuals, they quickly struck up a friendship which blossomed into a sexual affair in 1925. In a diary entry around that time, Virginia raves about her lover’s “maturity and full-breastedness: her being so much in full sail on the high tides”. The fact that both women were married doesn’t seem to have affected their relationship much; both husbands were aware of the affair and Vita and her partner had an open marriage anyway. Vita was not the only lesbian lover in Virginia’s life (she often ended up jealous and insecure of the other women Virginia was drawn to) and the two split up around 1927 or 1928. However, they remained devoted friends right up until Virginia’s suicide death in 1941.
This letter was written in January 1927 and shows in eloquent but understated detail the heartache – and humiliation – of true love.
I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.
From Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor – 1968
These two screen icons played out one of the most passionate and tempestuous relationships in the history of Hollywood. They met and fell madly on-set Egyptian epic Cleopatra in 1963, when both were married and their affair caused an international sensation (the Vatican slammed it as “erotic vagrancy”).
They were extravagant, glamorous and impulsive with a simmering chemistry that frequently erupted into blazing rows. As Elizabeth said, You can’t keep clapping a couple of sticks of dynamite together without expecting them to blow up.” Their relationship famously endured two marriages before they finally called it quits and divorced a second time in 1975. Despite this and subsequent relationships, they were widely regarded as the greatest loves of one another’s lives.
And this extract from a letter Richard sent to Liz early on in their relationship illustrates just how strong his feelings were for her. We love the way that rather than be poetic, he is entirely honest in expressing his carnal desires for the movie star:
I lust after your smell … and your round belly and the exquisite softness of the inside of your thighs and your baby-bottom and your giving lips & the half-hostile look in your eyes when you’re deep in rut with your little Welsh stallion.
My blind eyes are desperately waiting for the sight of you. You don’t realise of course, E.B., how fascinatingly beautiful you have always been, and how strangely you have acquired an added and special and dangerous loveliness.
Your breasts jutting out from that half-asleep languid lingering body, the remote eyes, the parted lips.
And in a later diary entry in November 1968, Richard wrote:
I have been inordinately lucky all my life but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth. She has turned me into a model man but not a prig, she is a wildly exciting lover-mistress, she is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool.
She is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography, she can be arrogant and wilful, she is clement and loving. She is Sunday’s child, she can tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness, she is an ache in the stomach when I am away from her and she loves me.
She is the prospectus that can never be entirely catalogued, an almanac for poor Richard. And I shall love her forever.
From Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir – 1929
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were the intellectual cool kids of the 20th Century; rebellious, outspoken and devoted to existentialism and second-wave feminism. Despite their infamous open relationship, they were deeply devoted to one another – as much in mind as in soul. Indeed, it’s possible that these two achieved a state of independence and equality that few others, even today, could manage.
As Louis Menand points out in The New Yorker, they were a powerful couple “with independent lives, who met in cafés, where they wrote their books and saw their friends at separate tables… but who maintained a kind of soul marriage.”
This letter was written by a 24-year-old Jean-Paul to his 21-year-old love in early 1929, just before he proposed marriage (which Simone turned down). It comes from the book, Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone De Beauvoir, 1926-1939 via brainpickings.org
My dear little girl
For a long time I’ve been wanting to write to you in the evening after one of those outings with friends that I will soon be describing in “A Defeat,” the kind when the world is ours. I wanted to bring you my conqueror’s joy and lay it at your feet, as they did in the Age of the Sun King. And then, tired out by all the shouting, I always simply went to bed. Today I’m doing it to feel the pleasure you don’t yet know, of turning abruptly from friendship to love, from strength to tenderness. Tonight I love you in a way that you have not known in me: I am neither worn down by travels nor wrapped up in the desire for your presence. I am mastering my love for you and turning it inwards as a constituent element of myself. This happens much more often than I admit to you, but seldom when I’m writing to you. Try to understand me: I love you while paying attention to external things. At Toulouse I simply loved you. Tonight I love you on a spring evening. I love you with the window open. You are mine, and things are mine, and my love alters the things around me and the things around me alter my love.
I love you with all my heart and soul.
From Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera
Two of Mexico’s greatest and most provocative artists married in 1929, when she was a student and he was already an established talent, 20 years her senior. Theirs was a creatively stimulating but fiery relationship punctuated by infidelity on both parts; in fact, it’s said Diego once asked his doctor for a note that would say it was physically impossible for him to be faithful.
Frida was devastated by Diego’s affair with her younger sister Christina in 1935 (“I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down… The other accident is Diego,” she once said) and the couple divorced in 1940. But they married once again in 1950 and Diego was by Frida’s side as her health deteriorated in the last few years of her life.
These intimate, touching musings about Diego come from an illustrated journal Frida kept, depicting her innermost thoughts, poems, and dreams, along with around 70 watercolour illustrations. Available on Amazon.
Truth is, so great, that I wouldn’t like to speak, or sleep, or listen, or love. To feel myself trapped, with no fear of blood, outside time and magic, within your own fear, and your great anguish, and within the very beating of your heart. All this madness, if I asked it of you, I know, in your silence, there would be only confusion. I ask you for violence, in the nonsense, and you, you give me grace, your light and your warmth. I’d like to paint you, but there are no colors, because there are so many, in my confusion, the tangible form of my great love.
Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.
From Henry Miller to Anaïs Nin – 1932
Sparks flew when French-born Cuban author Anaïs Nin and novelist Henry Miller met in Paris in 1932 and the two embarked on an intense affair that lasted decades. Both were married and kept other lovers but nevertheless enjoyed a close intellectual bond, encouraging one another both in terms of imaginative writing and sexual liberation – or sharing “literary fuck fests”, as they described them.
Theirs was a meeting of mind and body in the truest sense of the term – their lives were inextricably drawn together – and they exchanged some of the most fevered love letters ever written. Here’s one from Henry (viaLettersofNote.com), written soon after his visit to Anaïs’ home in north-central France in 1932.
August 14, 1932
Don’t expect me to be sane anymore. Don’t let’s be sensible. It was a marriage at Louveciennes—you can’t dispute it. I came away with pieces of you sticking to me; I am walking about, swimming, in an ocean of blood, your Andalusian blood, distilled and poisonous. Everything I do and say and think relates back to the marriage. I saw you as the mistress of your home, a Moor with a heavy face, a negress with a white body, eyes all over your skin, woman, woman, woman. I can’t see how I can go on living away from you—these intermissions are death.
…I say this is a wild dream—but it is this dream I want to realize. Life and literature combined, love the dynamo, you with your chameleon’s soul giving me a thousand loves, being anchored always in no matter what storm, home wherever we are. In the mornings, continuing where we left off. Resurrection after resurrection. You asserting yourself, getting the rich varied life you desire; and the more you assert yourself the more you want me, need me. Your voice getting hoarser, deeper, your eyes blacker, your blood thicker, your body fuller. A voluptuous servility and tyrannical necessity. More cruel now than before—consciously, wilfully cruel. The insatiable delight of experience.
From Oscar Wilde to ” Bosie” – Lord Alfred Douglas – 1893
“Wilde wanted a consuming passion,” said Oscar Wilde’s biographer, Richard Ellman. “He got it and was consumed by it.”
He’s referring to Lord Alfred Douglas, or “Bosie” as he was known to his friends, the Oxford graduate Oscar met and fell in love with in 1891. Despite a 16-year age gap, the two were devoted to one another with Bosie describing the Irish writer as “the most chivalrous friend in the world”. Bosie was described by acquaintances as spoilt and manipulative though; he used Oscar’s love for him to get what he wanted, including money.
Their relationship enraged Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry and his campaign against Oscar contributed to his imprisonment for gross indecency. Behind bars, Oscar wrote De Profundis, in which he lambasted Bosie for not supporting him enough, as well as acknowledging his love for him.
Their illicit relationship was complex but destined to last the distance; and there’s no mistaking the depth of Oscar’s feelings for his lover in these two impassioned notes from early 1893 (taken from Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters via brainpickings.org)
My Own Boy,
Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.
Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there to cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things, and come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and lacks only you; but go to Salisbury first.
Always, with undying love, yours,
And two months later:
Dearest of All Boys — Your letter was delightful — red and yellow wine to me — but I am sad and out of sorts — Bosie — you must not make scenes with me — they kill me — they wreck the loveliness of life — I cannot see you, so Greek and gracious, distorted with passion; I cannot listen to your curved lips saying hideous things to me — don’t do it — you break my heart — I’d sooner be rented* all day, than have you bitter, unjust, and horrid — horrid.
I must see you soon — you are the divine thing I want — the thing of grace and genius — but but I don’t know how to do it — Shall I come to Salisbury — ? There are many difficulties — my bill here is £49 for a week! I have also got a new sitting-room over the Thames — but you, why are you not here, my dear, my wonderful boy — ? I fear I must leave; no money, no credit, and a heart of lead –
Ever your own,
From Charles Eames to his wife-to-be Ray – 1941
Together, Charles and Ray Eames revolutionised the face of 20th Century design, with their unique approach to architecture, furniture, manufacturing and photographic arts. The couple met and fell head over heels in love in Michigan in 1940, whenCharles was studying architecture and design at Cranbrook Academy. Charles was married at the time, but divorced his wife in 1941 and wed Ray one month later. They set off on a honeymoon drive to their new home in Los Angeles soon after, picking up tumbleweed which still hangs from the ceiling of the Eames House today along the way.
Charles and Ray were united in their vision of the “good life” concept of celebrating the beauty of everyday objects as well as precious ones. They worked tirelessly, even hiring a cook so they wouldn’t have to leave their studio to eat.
This guileless, misspelled and slightly frustrated handwritten letter from “Charlie” to his sweetheart was penned in 1941. It begs for her hand in marriage in the simplest and most romantic terms possible and sowed the seeds of a marriage that lasted nearly 40 years, up until Charles’ death in 1978 (Ray died 10 years later to the day).
Dear Miss Kaiser,
I am 34 (almost) years old, singel (again) and broke. I love you very much and would like to marry you very very soon.* I cannot promise to support us very well. — but if given the chance I will shure in hell try –
*soon means very soon.
What is the size of this finger??
as soon as I get to that hospital I will write “reams” well little ones.
Napoleon Bonaparte to Joséphine de Beauharnais – 1796
Glamorous and beautiful, French heiress Joséphine de Beauharnais embarked on a string of love affairs with high-profile figures in 18th Century post-revolutionary France. General Napoleon Bonaparte was one of her amours and he was completely enraptured with the older widow from the outset. They wed in 1796, despite opposition from his family, and Napoleon sent his new wife a string of impassioned letters as he began on his campaign in Italy. Both were said to take lovers in the years that followed and enraged by word of Joséphine’s infidelity, Napoleon threatened to divorce her.
Their marriage was in shambles but somehow survived their coronation as French emperor and empress on December 2, 1804, although they later lived apart.
This extract is taken from a letter written at the beginning of their marriage in 1796; even at this point, rumours of Joséphine taking on lovers reached Napoleon, making his messages to her all the more ardent as a result.
I’m going to bed with my heart full of your adorable image… I cannot wait to give you proofs of my ardent love… How happy I would be if I could assist you at your undressing, the little firm white breast, the adorable face, the hair tied up in a scarf a la creole. You know that I will never forget the little visits, you know, the little black forest… I kiss it a thousand times and wait impatiently for the moment I will be in it. To live within Josephine is to live in the Elysian fields. Kisses on your mouth, your eyes, your breast, everywhere, everywhere.
From Zelda Sayre to F. Scott Fitzgerald – 1919
F. Scott Fitzgerald fell hard for vivacious, irrepressible Southern belle Zelda Sayre after he watched her perform a ballet at a country club in Alabama in 1918. His love and obsession for her would fuel a lifetime’s work of short stories and novels, but their relationship was far from straight-forward. After marrying and moving to Paris, Scott’s literary career took off but he struggled with alcoholism as Zelda suffered from a series of breakdowns.
Despite all the ups and downs of their life together, they were one of the 20th Century’s greatest love stories and this letter from Zelda to Scott in 1919 indicates just profound and powerful the attraction between them was, right from the very beginning.
Scott–there’s nothing in all the world I want but you–and your precious love–All the materials things are nothing.
I’d just hate to live a sordid, colorless existence-because you’d soon love me less–and less–and I’d do anything–anything–to keep your heart for my own–I don’t want to live–I want to love first, and live incidentally…
Don’t–don’t ever think of the things you can’t give me–You’ve trusted me with the dearest heart of all–and it’s so damn much more than anybody else in all the world has ever had–
How can you think deliberately of life without me–If you should die–O Darling–darling Scott–It’d be like going blind…I’d have no purpose in life–just a pretty–decoration.
Don’t you think I was made for you? I feel like you had me ordered–and I was delivered to you–to be worn–I want you to wear me, like a watch–charm or a button hole bouquet–to the world.
And then, when we’re alone, I want to help–to know that you can’t do anything without me…
All my heart–
I love you