IDEAS | ALEX KINGSBURY

You’ve got mail — for now

For historians, handwritten letters are a gold mine. So what happens when they disappear?

The packet of letters became a local curiosity in the city of León, Spain. Not because of what was in them, but because of where they were found: in the secret compartment of a desk. The three dozen missives were sent by a woman named Constance MacBride to her father Paul, who lived at 479 Chestnut Street in the village of Waban in Newton, Mass.

I first learned about the letters from my mother-in-law, who lives in León, a city four hours north of Madrid. She knows the family who found them and last spring, through a series of WhatsApp messages, she sent me a few photos of the curious, creased letters and the envelopes in which they were found. One glance and I was hooked. During our family trip to my wife’s native country this winter, I went to get a first-hand look at the secret chamber and the letters themselves.

They smell like they’ve been locked away for a half a century. But the sheets of paper aren’t as brittle as you’d imagine, and the words written on them vibrate with life — like memories caught in the wild.

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One, dated April 7, 1945, describes Constance’s arrival in the Philippines. “Upon reaching our destination we were confronted with such complete devastation that in your wildest dreams you couldn’t imagine possible,” she wrote.

The month before, Manila had been liberated by Allied forces at a terrible cost. More than 100,000 civilians had been massacred by the retreating Japanese army. Fighting still raged on the islands.

She wrote that she was staying in an requisitioned Spanish-style castle “surrounded by patios and statues and brilliantly colored bushes” outside an unnamed city and assigned to a cot under a large portrait of Don Juan. Further down the page she wrote something that ran afoul of the military censors, who used scissors to cut out some sentences lost forever to time.

The letters document the loving bond between a father and daughter separated by 8,500 miles and a global conflagration of unimaginable chaos. They offer a glimpse into military life behind the trenches. They’re artifacts of an ordinary life nevertheless littered with boldface names, from Cordell Hull to John F. Kennedy. And they’re a tribute to the power of serendipitous discovery.

History is a mosaic of individual accounts of past events — not necessarily the most trenchant or authoritative accounts, but simply the ones that archivists could find. Our history books are full of lives memorialized in letters that people write, receive, and then store away in the drawer or in the attic. Or, at least, they used to.

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In the future, how much correspondence will we hold on to, and in which form? The US Postal Service delivered more than 21 billion letters in 1945. Today, there are tens of billions of e-mails sent in the country every day. To say nothing of texts, social media posts, and the WhatsApp messages that ultimately brought me to León.

This shift presents two seemingly contradictory problems: First, as people die, or at least lose their phones and forget their passwords, much of the digital detritus of their lived experience will be forever sequestered — never to show up in an antique shop.

Second, to the extent that someone’s correspondence does become available, there’s likely to be too much of it. Instead of three dozen heartfelt letters shut up in a desk, future historians and archivists will have to sift through not haystacks, but entire hay fields worth of memories and records.

Many average e-mail users today are swamped by their own overflowing inboxes, and the information overload will only compound when they will their inboxes and cloud storage accounts to their heirs. Consider the National Security Agency, which by its own admission collects too much information; it has essentially drowned its analysts in data. For historical researchers, the imbalance between useful and routine information will be just as acute.

“The archiving community has been thinking about this problem seriously for at least a decade and there are some solutions but no clear answers,” says Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, the archivist at Harvard University. “We still have another decade of collecting paper from the 20th century, there’s so much of it. But the focus is also shifting to how to store digital information.”

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That brings up the obvious conundrum: “It’s great that we can document so much of a person’s life,” says Sniffin-Marinoff. “But should we? And why?”

Page three of a letter sent from Manila to Newton by Constance MacBride on April 7, 1945. It was opened, read, and censored by Army examiners.
A section from page three of a letter sent from Manila to Newton by Constance MacBride on April 7, 1945. It was opened, read, and censored by Army examiners.

* * *

Why do we save what we save? Research by sociologist Michelle Janning shows that it’s an effort to control how we’re remembered. In her new book “Love Letters: Saving Romance in the Digital Age,” she writes that parents often reveal their self-interest when compiling family photo albums — either digitally and in print. “When it comes to saving, organizing, and sharing, sometimes it’s not about the present,” she asserts. “Sometimes it’s about an imagined future where, once someone is gone, they hope their story is told in a favorable light.”

Memory is so central to our own identities that record keeping is an important ritual. Once, nostalgia was considered a malady. But modern science has shown it to be a fundamental and valuable human emotion. Seeing, touching, smelling items from our past can physically trigger the parts of the brain that regulate emotion. Indeed, recent research suggests that revisiting our pasts can actually improve our moods and mental health. It turns out dwelling a bit in the past can pay real dividends in the present, and thus the future.

When people of earlier eras decided to hold onto letters rather than turning them to kindling, they were sending a message about what they thought was important. And it turns out that how we curate items like this — whether in a shoe box or in the cloud — says a lot about who we are. Janning has found that women save more old love letters than men, while men look at the letters they do save with greater frequency. Women, she found, are more likely to store those letters in cold places like attics or garages, while men were more likely to store them in warm places like closets.

As for Paul MacBride, it’s unclear why he saved what he saved in the secret compartment in his desk. He was a Boston native, a Navy veteran, and president of the Milford Shoe Company. He owned a handsomely renovated house in Newton and saw his daughter presented to Boston society in 1938.

Wars make quick adults out of debutantes, and Constance MacBride was no different.

“I realize that your first assignment in the Department may seem dwarfed by the magnitude of events in the world today,” Secretary of State Cordell Hull wrote welcoming her to Washington in a Feb. 15, 1944, letter. But pushing paper in Washington was dull. And there was a desperate shortage of office workers with the Red Cross, which island-hopped with the military as the front lines moved across the South Pacific.

From New Guinea in March 1945, she told her father that she’d spent a night on the town with a friend, Hugh Shannon, who she writes was “magnificent” on the piano. That’s likely the same Hugh Shannon who returned from the war and went to New York, where Billie Holiday encouraged him to become a cabaret singer. He did, and was world-famous for it until his death in 1982.

Constance asks her father, in closing, to send “the biggest bottle of No. 5 Chanel you can find. (That is my morale booster and I’d like to pay for this myself Daddy dear.)”

By May 11, 1945, news of the end of the war in Europe three days earlier had made it to the Pacific, where fighting was far from over. “The war news is almost too good to be true, but is received with wild emotion out here, for we are close enough to realize the enormous battle yet to come,” she wrote from the Philippines. “Not meaning to be pessimistic, but I don’t think people at home are aware of how much there is still to be done. I only wish the ‘noblesse hauteur’ of Boston could become more alert about it and perhaps for a while stop fluffing around in the same silly circles.”

The war went on. Heat rashes. Rain. Side effects from the medicines to ward off tropical diseases. “Miss Connie has a figure like a B29!” she wrote, “picture en-route will explain.”

By the end of September 1945, with the war over, Constance, then suffering from mild depression and exhaustion, was scheduled to rotate home.

On October 6, 1945, the MacBride home in Newton received a Western Union telegram: “EVERYTHING FINE IN MANILA LEAVING FOR STATE IN ONE WEEK == LOVE CONNIE.”

A telegram announcing Constance MacBride’s scheduled return to the United States.
A telegram announcing Constance MacBride’s scheduled return to the United States.

* * *

Constance’s experience was, in some sense, typical of a young woman involved in the war effort. In the 1960s and ’70s, historians made a big push to capture history not just as presidents and generals saw it, but also through the eyes of everyone else. Personal letters have become a staple of PBS documentaries about the Civil War or Vietnam in part because they’re easy for the average viewer to relate to, but also because individual voices, taken together, can tell a larger story.

When there’s enough information in archivists’ hands, the gaps between ordinary people and boldface names begin to fill.

The JFK Library houses more than 23 million pages of documents, 415,000 photographs, and tens of thousands of sound and film recordings from one of the country’s most exhaustively documented families. One photo, taken in Palm Beach, Fla., around 1935, shows an impossibly young John F. Kennedy dressed all in white, smiling, and striding among palm trees flanked by two men, Bill and John Coleman.

John was a classmate of the future president during his brief stint at Princeton. Bill Coleman, John’s first cousin, was killed during the war. John, meanwhile, remained friends with Kennedy until he married Constance MacBride in 1949 and they moved to Chicago.

Constance MacBride Coleman died on Aug. 27, 2001.

“My mom never talked about what she did during World War Two,” her son Tim Coleman told me, when I caught him by phone in his Chicago office. “I remember asking my grandmother about it. Once. She said it had an impact, basically saying that she wasn’t the same. But I never heard any details.”

Bill Coleman, John Kennedy, and John Coleman in Palm Beach, Fla., circa 1935-36.
Bill Coleman, John Kennedy, and John Coleman in Palm Beach, Fla., circa 1935-36.
JFK LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, BOSTON

* * *

When letters have survived decades of dirt and mold and the recycling bin, fortune sometimes extends an opportunity to find them.

Paul MacBride retired from shoe making to do more fishing, Tim says, but died not long after in 1964. His belongings were either sold or distributed among the family.

The desk came into the home of David López in the early 1990s, bought through a furniture importer in León who often traveled to London for business. It is a handsome piece, probably made in the United States around the 1920s. Soon after it arrived in López’s home, the family found the letters.

On the day of my visit, López leafs through the letters and the other items found in the desk — a receipt for a fur coat, an invoice for home renovations to No. 479, a dog license for a miniature French poodle named “Pipit” — before he gets to the point: “Do you want to see the secret compartment?”

He walks to a desk (actually an Edwardian-style dressing table) and slides open one of the drawers. He reaches inside, gives a gentle push, and a panel pops open, revealing the secret space.

When the letters were first discovered, the family puzzled over them. They imagined that the censored bits were evidence that the writer was a spy. Tales of their provenance ricocheted around León for years. The saga of the discovery was retold by a family friend, a 13-year-old girl, in her 1995 school report “El cajon secreto” — “The secret drawer.” She tells the story of the desk and imagines one day traveling to the distant state of Massachusetts to return them to the woman who’d written of her adventures in World War II.

Who knows what Paul MacBride intended for the letters he placed into the secret compartment? It’s fair to say that he wouldn’t have imagined them discussed in the pages of the Globe. Then again, he probably didn’t think they’d be discovered by people halfway around the world, who couldn’t read the language they were written in and imagined fantastic stories about what they might say.

Had the López family happened across a flash drive of old e-mails, would it have captured their imagination in a similar way? Perhaps not. We’re in the midst of an explosion of written communication — and preservation — on scale that was unfathomable until only a few years ago. But analog letters have benefits that vanish as written words become increasingly divorced from physical form.

When I spoke with Tim Coleman, I told him the story of the letters and their discovery inside a desk in a city in Spain, and sent along some photos of the letters.

“That’s my mother’s handwriting,” he told me. “I knew it the moment I saw it.”

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