Inside the Fascinating Letters of Great 20th Century Minds

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Letters often give a glimpse of an individual's private life and innermost thoughts. These letters, available in Sotheby's upcoming Fine Books & Manuscript auction, offer insight into some of the 20th century's greatest minds, including Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright and the famously reclusive Thomas Pynchon.

Fine Books & Manuscripts
11 December | New York

Inside the Fascinating Letters of Great 20th Century Minds

  • Ernest Hemingway. Two recently discovered autograph letters, Milan, 1918, to Frances Elizabeth Coates of Oak Park, Illinois. Estimate $20,000–30,000.
    Writing from the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, where Hemingway was convalescing from war injuries, he writes to a young woman back in his hometown, “Oh yes, I can now read, speak and write love letters in Italian, also reports. Though the latter are more difficult and frequently add to the gaiety of nations. Love letters are fine. For example I never could bring myself to address anyone as ‘My treasure,’ but ‘Tesora mea’ just runs out of the pen.”

  • Thomas Pynchon. Typed letter signed, Mexico City, 1 December 1962, to Bob Hillock. Estimate $12,000–18,000.
    “The GOP screwed up once, in ’52, as you know, by nominating that drooling imbecile what’s-his-name instead of a legitimate conservative like Taft. They are now reaping the result, namely an irresponsible and possibly lunatic right wing.”

  • Frank Lloyd Wright. An important collection of early letters from Wright to various members of his family, 1909–1926. Estimate $60,000–80,000.
    Writing to his first wife, Catherine Tobin Wright on 2 October 1918, “You say it was no fault of yours that the past was dead – but you show in your every act good reason why it could not live. If this is what you are – if this is what I provided for in six children who bear this forward – thank God the past is dead! Could I cut it out of any future harm it may do as the offspring go their selfsame way I would. It would be better if they were never born!”

  • J. R. R. Tolkien. Two autograph letters signed, Oxford, 1956, to William Galbraith. Estimate $15,000–25,000.
    Tolkien remarks on his Oxford colleague and fellow novelist C. S. Lewis, “…he is my close friend, heard all of The Lord bit by bit as it was written, and apart from my children is almost the only person who has heard the Silmarillon or the (verse) Lay of the Luthen. We have doubtless affected one another, at any rate superficially …. But I do not think we have similar ‘ideas’ about the Moon.”

  • Thomas Pynchon. Typed letter signed, Mexico City, 11 April 1964, to Bob Hillock. Estimate $12,000–18,000.
    “There is … the matter of Kennedy’s assassination, which hit me harder than I will probably ever tell anybody, or even admit to myself, not because of how I feel about him, which as you know was favorable, but because I thought we were through with that kind of crap back when Czolgosz got McKinley. I would feel the same way if it were Eisenhower who’d got it. The logic being that political murders should not be part of a civilized democracy, and if they are then something is wrong with the country,  and by extension something is wrong with me, and you too.”

  • Hunter S. Thompson. Three typed letters signed, 1967–1965, to Jim Goode. Estimate $4,000–6,000.
    “Frankly I’m a bit nervous at your idea that the grass-running thing is full of humor. It’s a goddamn serious business for a lot of people; I recently spent a day in the yard at Nevada State Prison talking to some of them. And like I told you on the phone, my friends tell me stories …. Anyway, I’ll be in touch when I get straight which shouldn’t be too long, now that I know the Dexedrine won’t cure the flu.”

  • Le Corbusier (Charles Édouard Jeanneret). Letters from the architect to various recipients and one letter from Mies van der Rohe to Corbusier, 1928–1949. Estimate $10,000–15,000.
    “I’ve been struggling for 6 years in all these places at once: Algeria, America, England, France. I need a lot of energy and perseverance. I’ve come a long way, and it’s a tremendous achievement to have gained the public’s favor. I feel that I’m surrounded by a rising light.”

  • Jean Cocteau. Four autograph letters signed, three with original drawings, to Jean Desbordes, 1929. Estimate $6,000–9,000.
    Giving advice to Desbordes on his writing, Cocteau says, “Relax. Give yourself the luxury of relaxing …. This fever risks making you ‘overload’ your prose …. Your soul is holy enough, fresh enough so you can avoid stimulants.”

  • Joseph Conrad. Autograph letter signed to G. F. W. Hope, discussing the sinking of the HMS Hampshire. C. 1916. Estimate $2,000–3,000.
    “All Portsmouth is gone into mourning because of the Hampshire. Personally I have a notion this might have been an internal explosion of some sort. In war-time as you know accidents with ammunition will happen.”

  • Frank Lloyd Wright. A group of letters to architect and Taliesin Fellow Edgar A. Tafel, 1933–1957. Estimate $10,000–15,000.
    “I hope you and Sally are finding wage-slavery a better choice than Fellowship co-operation. But, I have my doubts. A pity you should allow the place you made for yourself  with us to grow cold. A mink coat for Sally wouldn’t make up for it. As a matter of fact all mink coats are for some kind of prostitution, I believe.”

  • John Graham. An archive including 35 autograph letters with 14 drawings, to Charles Rieger, 1960, with other archival material. Estimate $15,000–20,000.
    One letter is signed in Latin: “Ioannus Magus Servus Domini” (Johannes Magus, Servant of God).

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