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Dear Valentine: A Brief History of Great Love Letters

For as long as people could write, it seems, the more romantic and less self-conscious have been penning love letters. But in the era of texting ("luv u") and tweeting and emailing, the visceral pleasure of a handwritten love letter is largely lost. What grammar school kid even gets an "I like you, do you like me? Check yes or no" note anymore? And sure, an email can explain the depths to which you love your "own dear boy," your "Best Beloved," or your "Dearest Creature," but it just doesn't look the same on the brightly glowing screen as it does scrawled on a scrap of notebook paper.

This Valentine's Day, take a bit of inspiration from these few famous love letters and pen your sweetie a love missive. You can even add an ironic "check yes or no" if you're feeling self-conscious about it.

Love letters spell trouble

Tales of thwarted love capture the human imagination like nothing else. So it's not surprising that the early 12th century story of Pierre Abelard and Héloïse has endured for generations.

Abelard was in his early 30s and one of the most promising philosophers and teachers in medieval Paris; young Héloïse was the clever and academic live-in niece of a respected churchman, Canon Fulbert. Claiming the upkeep of a home and the commute to Paris was too onerous, Abelard appealed to Fulbert: In exchange for room and board, he'd tutor bright Héloïse. Some claim that Abelard knew exactly what he was doing by securing a room with the Canon, but whether it was fate or the crafty work of a besotted suitor, it worked. They soon fell in love and, after a brief period of intense "study" sessions, Héloïse became pregnant. They married in secret and for a short time, it looked like things were going to turn out OK for the illicit pair. But that wouldn't make it a tragedy: With wounded pride and a vengeful heart, Canon Fulbert hired some men to find Abelard and castrate him.

With Abelard a eunuch and her child entrusted to the care of her family, Héloïse was given little choice but to take the vows; she later became prioress of her abbey, while Abelard's career as a philosopher thrived.

Abelard seems to have turned away from sensual love after the incident, but Héloïse continued to pour her romantic love for him into letters: "But if I lose you, what is left to hope for? What reason for continuing on the pilgrimage of life, for which I have no support but you and none in you except the knowledge that you are alive, now that I am forbidden all other pleasures in you and denied even the joy of your presence which from time to time could restore me to myself?"

In the more than 800 years since their deaths, the lovers' story, now the stuff of paintings and poetry, has cemented their place in the pantheon of great lovers. Their letters also remain—although there is some scholarly debate as to whether the two even wrote them. The real question is, as the couple has already passed into legend, does it matter?

Most mysterious love letters

Though he never married—he was, according to one woman he professed his love for, "very ugly and half crazy"—Ludwig Von Beethoven fell in love deeply and often, usually with women who were unattainable (either by reasons of social obligations or because they were already married). While Beethoven wrote a number of love letters, three stand out—the so-called "Immortal Beloved" letters.

beethovenThe three letters, written over two July days in 1812, are all the more stunning because their recipient not only never read them, but has also remained nameless for all history. The letters, addressed only to someone he called "Immortal Beloved," were discovered in his papers after his death.

In the first, dated the morning of Monday, July 6, Beethoven writes: "Love demands everything and is quite right, so it is for me with you, for you with me"¦" In the second, dated that evening, he "weeps" at the thought that the post only goes on Monday and Thursdays early in the morning—because he has already missed the first, his beloved won't receive word from him until Saturday.

The next day, he writes, "I can only live, either altogether with you or not all"¦. Your love made me the happiest and the unhappiest at the same time." He ends the last letter:

"Oh, go on loving me—never doubt the faithfullest heart
Of your beloved
L
Ever thine.
Ever mine.
Ever ours."

Attempts to conclusively determine the identity of his "Immortal Beloved" have generally come to naught, although some say the most likely candidate is Antonie Bretano, a Viennese woman who, true to Beethoven's form, was already married to a Frankfurt merchant. Others say she was Josephine von Brunsvik, an unhappily married Hungarian aristocrat who'd formed an attachment to Beethoven some years earlier. Still others claim it was the Countess Julia Guicciardi, to whom he'd dedicated his gorgeous "Moonlight Sonata." But no one believes the version put forward by Hollywood director Bernard Rose, in his 1994 Beethoven biopic starring Gary Oldman: That the Immortal Beloved was actually Johanna Reiss, the wife of Beethoven's brother and a woman who, outside the make-believe world, Beethoven actually hated.

The evolution of love

When most people think of Charles Darwin, they don't usually think "˜romance'—the author of Origin of the Species is far more well known for his theory of human evolution than for his reputation as a lover.

It's true that Darwin wasn't exactly sentimental. In 1838, seven years after his momentous voyage to Tierra del Fuego on the Beagle—a trip that planted the seeds of what would become his master work—the scientist decided he'd like to get married.

Darwin came to this decision after drawing up a pro-con list. Under "marry," he wrote, "constant companion" and "better than a dog anyhow." Under "not marry," he wrote, "conversation with clever men at clubs."

Ultimately, the pros outweighed the cons and he became engaged to his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood.

His love letters aren't sappy, but they do reflect his honest love for Emma and the genuine excitement he felt at his impending nuptials: "How I do hope you shall be happy as I know I shall be," he wrote, just days before their wedding. "My own dearest Emma, I earnestly pray, you may never regret the great and I will add very good, deed you are to perform on the Tuesday: my own dear future wife, God bless you"¦"

The couple had 10 children together and for the most part, their marriage was quite happy; even so, Emma, a devout Christian, worried desperately about what effect Darwin's scientific theories would have on his immortal soul and the souls of people who agreed with him.

Presidential love letters

Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States, a noted scholar, and the man who led America through the First World War. He was also a prolific love letter writer.

woodrow-edithDuring and before his first marriage to Ellen Louise Axeson, Wilson wrote hundreds of exceptionally beautiful and passionate love letters. After Ellen died in Wilson's second year in the White House, the president was devastated; but one day, riding about town, as the story goes, he caught sight of a beautiful woman and engineered a way to meet her. Wilson met Edith Bolling Galt (pictured), a Washington widow, and fell in love hard and fast—one Secret Serviceman said he was like a "schoolboy in his first love experience."

While wooing Edith, Wilson penned a series of love letters, some signed "Tiger" (Wilson was a Princeton alum, but this was before the university took on the tiger as its mascot.) In one, Wilson wrote, "You are more wonderful and lovely in my eyes than you ever were before; and my pride and joy and gratitude that you should love me with such a perfect love are beyond all expression, except in some great poem which I cannot write." In another, he pines, "Please go to ride with us this evening, precious little girl, so that I can whisper something in your ear—something of my happiness and love, and accept this, in the meantime, as a piece out of my very heart, which is all yours but cannot be sent as I wish to send it by letter."

Wilson certainly isn't the only American president to turn a bit mushy with a pen—or feather quill—in hand. In President Harry Truman's letters to Bess Wallace before they were married, he writes, "I suppose that I am too crazy about you anyway. Every time I see you I get more so if it is possible. I know I haven't any right to but there are certain things that can't be helped and that is one of them. I wouldn't help it if I could you know."

President Ronald Reagan wrote to Nancy Reagan after 31 years of marriage, "I more than love you, I'm not whole without you. You are life itself to me. When you are gone I'm waiting for you to return so I can start living again." Their correspondence was published in the 2002 book I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan.

And of course, some of the most famous presidential love letters were between John Adams and his wife, Abigail. Between debating public policy and the direction of American independence, the two exchanged sweet, affectionate, silly, and often deeply affecting endearments: "Dear Miss Saucy," he writes, "I hereby order you to give me as many kisses and as many hours of your company as I shall please to demand, and charge them to my account."

Love letters from HAL

According to London's Daily Telegraph, one of the world's first computers wasn't built to crunch numbers—but to write love letters. In 1952, when scientists wanted to test the capability of Manchester University's Mark One computer, they devised a software program that would have the computer search a database of tender nothings and spit out love verses. The researchers would tack the best ones up to a communal office board, including missives like, "MY LUST TEMPTS YOUR FOND ARDOUR. MY LIKING ARDENTLY CARES FOR YOUR HUNGER." If you're stuck for a sweet something to write to your dear darling, let the Mark One do it for you.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 


PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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