He always wrote to me with a dark blue calligraphy pen. In his almost illegibly elegant scribble, his letters detailed things like how many calories “amorous kissing” burns, the mating habits of his local geese and how much he loved me (sometimes in the form of a poem he’d spent the afternoon writing at his house in the country). He was a silly and loving man and usually did his silly loving with flair. When it came to writing, this meant not settling for email.
One of my first male lovers, he was worldly, intellectual, much older and saw it as part of his job to acquaint me with my gay heritage. It was all Rimbaud, Wilde, Chatwin, Mishima and similar figures. And whatever other purposes his love letters served, receiving them gave me an appreciation for similar letters written by such people — letters that are often the best and most interesting evidence of homosexual relationships in the past.
(Illustration: Yigi Chang)
I’ve compiled some noteworthy examples of historical gay love letters. For more, consider reading Rictor Norton’s book My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries (where I found the first three).
William Burroughs to Jack Kerouac
Naked Lunch author William Burroughs often fled stuffy 1950s US for hotter places with hotter boys. Writing to beat icon Jack Kerouac, he talks about Kiki, a boy he had a particularly engrossing, three-year affair with in Tangier.
Just a line to tell you I am back in the Promised Land flowing with junk and boys. The trip was rough, but by sheer will power I managed to sleep straight through to Gibraltar, waking up only to eat occasionally. Been spending 15–20 hours daily in bed with Kiki catching up on my back screwing. He is really a treasure, my dear. So sweet and affectionate but at the same time indubitably male . . .
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to Vladimir Lvovich Davïdov
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky writes to his lover — and also nephew — Vladimir Lvovich Davïdov. The Russian composer would dedicate his final symphony, Symphonie Pathétique (1893) to him.
I feel an awful fool. Here I have another two weeks without anything to help me kill time. I thought this would be easier in Paris than anywhere else but, except for the first day, I have been bored. Since yesterday I do not know what to think up to be free of the worry and boredom that come from idleness . . . Am still keeping my incognito . . .
I often think of you and see you in my dreams, usually looking sad and depressed. This has added a feeling of compassion to my love for you and makes me love you even more. Oh God! How I want to see you this very minute. Write me a letter from College during some boring lecture and send it to this address (14, Rue Richepanse). It will still reach me as I am staying here for nearly two weeks.
I embrace you with mad tenderness.
Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas
Babbacombe Cliff, 1893
Integral to the story of Oscar Wilde, this letter, written to his lover Bosie, was famously used in an attempt to blackmail Wilde. It later played a role in the Irish author’s trial for “gross indecency.”
My own Boy,
Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those rose-red lips of yours should have been made no less for the music of song than for the madness of kisses. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.
Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there to cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things, and come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place — it only lacks you; but go to Salisbury first.
Always, with undying love,
Takeda Shingen and Kosaka Masanobu
Japan (precise location unknown), 1542
Kosaka Masanobu was not only a general in the army of Japanese warlord Takeda Shingen, but his lover. Though not strictly speaking a letter, these are excerpts from a contract written by Shingen and co-signed by Masanobu.
Although I have sometimes said to Yashichiro, “Let’s have sex,” he has refused me, saying, “I’m having stomach problems and am not feeling well.”
Yashichiro has never slept with me as my attendant in bed. To date, that has never happened. Not only have I never had sex with him at night, but never in the daytime either. Especially now, I have no thought of having sex with him.
Since I want to become intimate with you, from now on if you have any doubts about these things, I want you to understand that I do not plan to hurt you. If I should ever break these promises, may I receive the divine punishment of the Great Myoshin of the First, Second, and Third Shrines of the province of Kai, Mount Fuji and Shirayama, and particularly Hachiman Bosatsu, and all the higher and lower deities.
Yuri Yurkun to Mikhail Kuzmin
Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), 1933–1934
In 1906, Mikhail Kuzmin published Wings, the first Russian gay novel. While he was in the hospital with heart disease, his lover, Yuri Yurkun, wrote these three notes to him on scraps of paper. Kuzmin died only two years later.
(These letters were translated for this column by my friend John A Barnstead, retired associate professor of Russian at Dalhousie University)
My Darling Michael,
Forgive me for God’s sake — I’ve become very sorry for you, my poor little one — I will return very soon. And you get at least a little sleep for the time being.
I kiss you hard. I have gone to see Lavrovsky he wants to show me something — probably nonsense — but it wouldn’t be polite not to drop by. I shall return soon. Lay down to sleep for a while, be sure to lay down!
Have something to eat from what Mama has on hand without waiting for me — eat some sausage — there’s enough for guests, too. I bought some amusing things — I tell you later.
I’m off now to get buns and sour cream, etc. Get some sleep. I kiss you hard. Yura.
Ask them to prescribe them for you. In their pharmacy but for our money. What should be done when the breathlessness strikes suddenly. Here? And at home?
(History Boys appears on Daily Xtra on the first and third Tuesday of every month. You can also follow them on Facebook.)
(Original illustration by Yigi Chang)