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Collectors hot for last letters of rich and famous

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Don Skemer, Princeton's manuscripts curator, looks through original letters by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the university vaults. Fitzgerald's last letter to his wife is one of Skemer's favorite last letters. (AnnaLee Pauls)

The Scottish explorer Robert Falcon Scott wrote his final letter while huddled in a tent at the South Pole in 1912. It was 70 degrees below zero, a storm was gathering force outside and he was 11 miles from his supply camp. The letter began, “To my widow.”

“Dearest Darling,” Scott continued, “we are in a very tight corner and I have doubts of pulling through.”

Scott’s last letter was on display at the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University in England earlier this spring, the latest reminder of the poignant appeal that final letters hold for the living.

In an age of e-mail and text messages, people are writing fewer letters than ever, but they still love to peer through glass cases at weathered brown paper, particularly at the last letters written by important figures.

Some final letters show how great minds come to terms with death, says Don Skemer, curator of Princeton University’s manuscript collection. Others reveal something unexpected about a writer’s character or have an uncanny twist that makes it seem that the writer was dimly aware he was setting down his parting words. But most final letters impress because they show a person in the midst of life, unaware that death lies just around the corner.

“Last letters are special,” Skemer said. “They let you see famous people imagining the future, and only you know things didn’t turn out how they thought it would. You’re an informed fly on the wall.”

Among Skemer’s favorite final letters in the Princeton collection are F. Scott Fitzgerald's last letter to his wife, Zelda, expressing his excitement about finishing his novel “The Last Tycoon,” which was never completed; Russian poet Osip Mandelstam's last letter to his wife from a gulag; and Ernest Hemingway's last letter in which he reminisces about Paris in the 1920s and tries to find a title for his unpublished “Paris Book,” published posthumously as “A Moveable Feast.”

Hemingway’s unmailed final letter was found in his publisher's files in the early 1990s. It was on his desk in the log cabin in Ketchum, Idaho, when he killed himself in the summer of 1961. In the letter, he told his editor that he had been reluctant to publish the “Paris Book” because in it he said unkind things about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. But the time had come, he concluded.

Skemer treasures good last letters and says the decline of letter writing in America presents a dilemma for future researchers and biographers, who rely on letters--and especially last letters--to get information about people they can’t find anywhere else.

Princeton’s collection includes more than 1,000 separate collections of personal papers. When stacked back to back, the boxed collection runs almost two miles in length.

Skemer declined to comment on how much the university spends to acquire the letters of famous people, but says that many of the most valuable collections were donated to the university. When Princeton receives letters worth thousands of dollars, Skemer writes thank you notes not by e-mail but with an antique fountain pen.

Historically, letter writing was a daily task, fueling business and social life. During the Victorian era in England there were three mail deliveries a day, which meant people were writing nearly as frequently as we e-mail today, generating huge quantities of nonessential communication that Skemer calls “Let’s do tea?” mail.

The rarity of a good last letter amid all that correspondence is what makes it such an exciting find.

But last letters are often plucked out before a collection arrives in a library, Skemer says. That’s because archivists and scholars aren’t the only ones who appreciate a good last letter--collectors and dealers do too.

Last letters appeal to “a private collector’s whims and fancies,” says Joshua Lipton, assistant vice president of the books and manuscripts department of Sotheby’s, the international auction house.

Lipton says the value of a letter depends on the content, not its status as a final letter. But last letters fetch high prices in part because they are extremely rare, says Chris Coover, senior vice president of the books and manuscripts department at Christie’s, another large auction house. “One person, one letter,” he says.

It can be difficult to determine whether a letter is truly the last. Auction house specialists have to spend a good deal of time studying a person’s biography, scholarly sources and testimonies of the people known to be close to the source. And even then, it’s hard to verify a letter’s finality.

Many popular American last letters tend to come out of the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, Coover says. Celebrity last letters also garner high prices on the market, but letters from people at the height of their fame in most cases go for more, Coover says.

The same goes for presidential letters. Collectors prefer letters written from the White House to a former president’s final letters.

But what about a letter by a president who died while in office at the end of the Civil War? That’s a triple whammy, Coover says. Abraham Lincoln signed a number of letters and documents on his last day, April 15, 1865, and any one of them would be a hot item on the market.

The letters of many famous people are published, and it's worth skipping to the last pages of the collected correspondence to see what turns up. One of Mozart's last letters to his wife chronicles the daily life of the 35-year-old composer in Vienna in the winter of 1791. But in the postscript, after asking his wife to send his son two nips on the nose and a hearty pull at his hair, he says, "Adieu! 'The hour strikes! We shall meet again! Farewell!'"

Legend has it that these words, taken from the grand trio of the opera "The Magic Flute," were among Mozart's last. Within weeks of writing this letter, Mozart came down with a mysterious fever and died.

Paul Gauguin's last letter to a friend traveled all the way from Tahiti.

"Artists have lost all their savagery, all their instincts, one might say their imagination," the painter wrote before dying of syphilis in 1903 at age 54. "I can say: no one taught me anything. On the other hand it is true that I know so little! But I prefer that little, which is of my own creation. And who knows whether that little, when put to use by others, will not become something big?"

As for the last letter of someone who is alive today? Nearly everyone agrees with Skemer: “I think it will be e-mail, and it will be lost,” he says.

SIDEBAR: Final Letters

--Ambrose Bierce, the American writer, mailed this last letter before disappearing in Mexico in 1913, at age 71: “Good-by," he wrote to his niece, "If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.”

--Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, died in 1824 in Greece, where he caught a fever while helping the Greeks fight for independence from the Turks. In what is apparently one of two final letters, Byron expresses impatience with the Greeks and complains of their "'strong and long pull' at my purse."

--Arthur Rimbaud, a French poet, died in 1891. The night before his death, the 37-year-old wrote from his hospital bed in Marseilles asking for a passage back to Africa, where he had worked as a trader and gunrunner. "I am completely paralyzed, and so I am anxious to be on board early. Please tell me at what time I must be carried on board."

--Aubrey Beardsley, a British illustrator and contemporary of Oscar Wilde, kept a thick cloak of mystery around his private life. In 1898, as he died from tuberculosis, the 25-year-old wrote to his publisher, “I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings . . . By all that is holy all obscene drawings.” He signed off, adding, “In my death agony” at the bottom of the page.

--Some letters have a sense of finality to them, even if they weren’t the author's last. The most expensive letter ever sold by Christie’s was an alternative draft of Einstein’s letter warning President Roosevelt of the possible dangers of nuclear technology in 1939. It was sold by the Forbes family to a private collector for $2,096,000.

E-mail: ac2635@columbia.edu