Man of Letters
After more than fifty years, my father is going through his letters. This daunting task involves unloading a green Army duffel bag full of papers, and probably mice, as well as decoding ancient computer data dating back to a time when floppy discs actually flopped. He's been wanting to do it for a while, and many people have tried to give him a hand. All archiving efforts were quickly abandoned, though -- until a few weeks ago, when the Western History Department of the Denver Public Library asked my dad to donate his papers to its collection.
"I still don't know why," he says. But that hasn't stopped him from hiring a couple of helpers and filling the library's acid-free boxes with press clippings, photographs, letters to and letters from. "I'm known for hanging around with important people," he muses. "How important is that? My father hung around with some really important people, and a college in Boston got his papers, which makes sense."
Although my father's filing cabinet looks emptier than it has in my lifetime, I still manage to find a letter from my dad to his dad, written on onionskin in 1958.
"Oh, that's a terrible letter," he remembers. "We didn't talk for two years after I wrote it."
In some families, this outcome might be cause for concern. Not in mine, however, where not speaking is as common a description as retired and living in Florida.
"Can I read it?" I ask.
"Oh, sure. Go ahead."
I think altogether you behaved quite badly, my 32-year-old father had written. You spent most of the session tooting your own horn and dismissing everything and everyone else as incompetent....You were a flagrant name dropper....He wraps it up with a plea for peace and a final warning that, if not, this must really be the End.
For as far back as I've been able to trace,my family has been obsessive about putting everything into writing. This Is the End is one of the grand old themes running through the correspondence, and I have used it, too. When I was young and stupid and my father was older and not all that smart, we went dove hunting and drove back from Last Chance in a ferocious disagreement about, if you can believe it, oil-rig machinery. Two days later, I received You Have Behaved Badly/Straighten Up or This Is the End! I scrawled off a brilliant counterargument. Twenty-four hours later, he telephoned.
"Why?" I asked snottily. "If you're not speaking to me, why call?"
"Because I got your letter," he said.
"And I can't read your handwriting. So listen, you wanna just call this off? You eat yet?"
And that was that, until the next time.
"I loved my father, and I miss him," my father now says. "I was the apple of his eye, unless I wasn't."
I know the feeling. Weirdly, it's a sign of my father's extreme loyalty. Earning a place on his letter-writing roster means you've been accepted forever. Every time you make a mistake, you'll hear about it, but that won't change the way he feels about you, which tends to be optimistic. In addition to This Is the End collections, my sisters and I all have How Wonderful You Are and Let Me Tell You Exactly Why compilations. And, as the Western History Collection will shortly discover, we constitute just a tiny percentage of Blair Chotzinoff's correspondents.
If the boxes contain letters to the guy who sets up the pool in spring, an accountant, a meter reader and Mrs. Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies fame, it's because my dad is unable to write the words "To Whom It May Concern." With him, it always gets personal. People have either wronged him grievously -- And why? Why? -- or made him unexpectedly happy, which is what Mrs. Fields did with that wonderful rye bread that suddenly appeared on either side of the sandwich fillings at her Cherry Creek store.
He receives mail in the same spirit, treasuring the memory of a thirty-year-old letter from a collection agency.
"It said, 'This is absolutely the last time we will contact you about this matter,'" my dad recalls. "And it was!"
The filing system has become crudely alphabetical:
Gus: my daughter, who can't read but has received mail from my father.
Gehachte: a recipe for homemade chopped liver, sent out -- but to whom?
Gloria: Steinem. Once his fiancée, she founded feminism instead. All her letters begin "Dearest Blair," and I'm embarrassed to read more, even though my father isn't one bit concerned.
"I don't value privacy the way some people do," he says. "I really have nothing to hide unless I've done something illegal or stupid."
This is completely untrue.
One night at 3 a.m., my father awoke with a craving for the kind of ice cream sauce that goes on hot and instantly forms a shell. In his second-floor kitchen, and following a recipe in The Joy of Cooking, he got as far as "measure with a candy thermometer," substituted an oral thermometer that promptly blew up, chased bits of glass and mercury into the garbage and started all over again. The second batch of sauce turned out perfect, and with my dad's first bite, he glued his dentures shut. After attempting to chisel them apart with a screwdriver, he removed them from his mouth, began soaking them in the upstairs sink and went off to take a nap. The water ran until it soaked down to the first floor.
No one would know this story if my dad hadn't told approximately everyone. I heard it in answer to the question "Why is your dining room table covered with plaster?"
"Okay," he says, "but there's a difference between stupid and really, really, stupid. Like that girl on that train." I wait. "I was only seventeen," he reflects. Then he tells me the rest of the story, which I will not repeat, not even to the Western History Department. There's a difference between private and really, really private.
My father writes the best sympathy letters in the world. Never "I can imagine just how you feel," or "She's surely gone to a better place," or "Death is a mystery."
"How do you do that?" I ask.
"How long is a piece of rope?" he counters. "How fast is quick?"
"Is this fun for you, going through all this paper?"
"Yes," he admits. "Some of it is very amusing, and sometimes the writing is good. But I still don't know why the library wants it."
"My job is to acquire material on the history of the American West," says Barbara Walton of the DPL's Western History Department. "We have an interest in the papers of journalists, which your father certainly is. For one thing, they write well. You don't have to pick apart their sentences to figure out what they were talking about. Anyone interested in music at the turn of the century will be interested in this collection. Also, he has this expansive personality and a huge circle of friends. His life experiences are incredible. And he's outgoing.
"He's not exactly unwilling to share."
In the ensuing conversation, Gloria Steinem comes up again, as do some of the "really important people" my father grew up around, a lot of them connected to the classical-music world, since my dad's dad directed the NBC orchestra and his uncle was eminent violinist Jascha Heifetz. None of it is particular to the American West, nor was my father's first journalism job, writing a nightlife column for a New York newspaper. Walton knows this. In her line of work, she explains, you never know exactly what you're looking for or who might find it interesting fifty years down the road, so she tends to collect it all.
"When I ask for people's papers, they usually say, 'I didn't know anyone cared,'" she says. "They're happy I do, and they want me to convince them it matters."
That's not a problem, she adds, because it does matter. Not just papers filled with the great and brushes with greatness, but everyday details. "Even famous people write about those things -- the weather, family, children, schools," Walton says. "Only rarely do important people write about important things."
I'm assuming the subjects in my dad's papers fall somewhere between the weather and important things. The Western History Department will catalogue and preserve them all. "For you," Walton says, "and anyone else who wants to see them."
I like to imagine that person's first glimpse of my father's bequest to the DPL collection. I picture this future scholar unearthing the last word on rye bread, chopped liver, how not to cook ice cream sauce and other matters loosely (or not at all) related to food at the turn of the 21st century.
This Is the End, for instance, Unless It Isn't.
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