John Steinbeck’s letter to Marilyn Monroe in 1955 has been making the rounds on social media.
And you thought Steinbeck’s writing prowess was on full display in “The Grapes of Wrath” or perhaps “Of Mice and Men.”
It turns out that Mr. Steinbeck saved his best for a letter that tin cups for Ms. Monroe’s autograph on behalf of his nephew — if we’re going to be precise, his nephew-in-law — a boy named Jon.
The man packs funny, self-deprecation and cleverness into a story that follows the classic arc. Here’s the letter minus the two spaces after each sentence.
In my whole experience I have never known anyone to ask for an autograph for himself. It is always for a child or an ancient aunt, which gets very tiresome, as you know better than I. It is therefore, with a certain nausea that I tell you that I have a nephew-in-law who lives in Austin, Texas, whose name is Jon Atkinson. He has his foot in the door of puberty, but that is only one of his problems. You are the other.
I know that you are not made of celestial ether, but he doesn’t. A suggestion that you have normal functions would shock him deeply and I’m not going to be the one to tell him.
On a recent trip to Texas, my wife made the fatal error of telling Jon that I met you. He doesn’t really believe it, but his respect for me has gone up even for lying about it.
Now, I get asked for all kinds of silly favors, so I have no hesitation in asking one of you. Would you send him, in my care, a picture of yourself, perhaps in pensive, girlish mood, inscribed to him by name and indicating that you are aware of his existence. He is already your slave. This would make him mine.
If you will do this, I will send you a guest key to the ladies entrance of Fort Knox and, furthermore, I will like you very much,
What a great example of “show, not tell.” Steinbeck doesn’t write the boy has a mad crush on Monroe. He shows us it’s actually more than mad crush in a way that adjectives can’t do justice.
The letter really — if John Steinbeck can put “really” too good use, mortals should be able to as well — showcases the beauty of conversational language. And notice how he pays off certain points with staccato sentences (“You are the other.”).
That’s how one asks for a favor.