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Dear Valentine: A Brief History of Great Love Letters

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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
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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
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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