Martha Long opened a Tupperware bin three years ago in the shed behind her family’s cabin in the Maine woods. She was rummaging through family records and photos, preparing to celebrate her father’s 80th birthday.
That’s when she stumbled upon two neat piles of letters, carefully bound in twine. Handwritten by her grandparents during their courtship in 1927, the 100-plus letters were laced with their beliefs, passions and dreams. Never mind that John Leslie had just turned 22 and Marion Jean Savage was 19.
“How mature and ardent they were at such a young age,” said Long, 51, a school psychologist who lives in Wayzata. “I sat down to start reading. For me, they were impossible to put down. Eventually, someone ... found me on the floor of the shed, lost in those letters.”
Since then, she’s found time to transcribe the letters and organize them into a 25-page booklet of theme-sorted excerpts and snapshots. Long is a mother of twin seniors in high school, whom she lovingly calls “screenagers.” She marvels at the difference between today’s texters and her grandparents’ eloquence in that long-gone era of letter writing.
In one example, written just months after Charles Lindbergh’s ballyhooed first transatlantic flight, Leslie discusses his “plans for breaking into the airplane game” when he completes his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He will eventually became a vice president at Pan Am Airlines and, from 1929 to 1970, play a major role from early commercial transoceanic commercial flights to introducing Boeing 747s.
“We are shooting at ‘something big,’ ” he tells Savage in 1927, explaining how he hopes to differentiate himself from other emerging businessmen.
“I’m not ashamed at all to admit that I want money and power,” he writes. “But I like to think that I can get what I want in a sporting way … without giving up all the other things I look forward to — a happy home life, good health, leisure time, fishing trips.”
He describes his budding business philosophy — “that is, developing a steel-like sense of determination and self-confidence then covering it up with the soft velvet of courtesy, tact, and generosity.”
Both children of Lake Minnetonka privilege, John Leslie and Jean, as everyone called Savage, met in the summer of ’27 when he piloted his father’s elegant power boat from Brown’s Bay near their home in Orono to her family’s dock on Robinson’s Bay. Initially unimpressed, she warmed up on moonlit cruises that summer until he returned east to MIT after earning his undergraduate degree from Princeton.
That’s when the letters began going back and forth, leading to their engagement in 1928 and wedding at the Princeton chapel in 1929. Those events prompted society-page stories in the Minneapolis Star, the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune and the New York Times.
After all, one of Jean’s ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, and her grandfather (and namesake) Marion Savage made a fortune selling livestock feed. He’s most famous for owning fabled racehorse Dan Patch, which prompted the Minnesota River town near his farm to rename itself Savage.
Leslie also came from money — paper money. His father founded a wholesale paper company in 1892.
Their love letters gradually picked up steam between Wayzata and Boston as autumn turned to winter in 1927.
“I am honored, my dear, at your willingness to share with me through your letters your hopes, wishes, and ideals,” Jean wrote. “Your trust in me and mine in yourself will do much to bring us together. I hope that you will always find me a friend.”
Responded John: “I love you so deeply, so … serenely and with so much respect. You’re a gentlewoman, my dear — and you’ve an intelligence and a character that is your own; I respect that. … I have hardly ever dared hope that I might one day find in any girl such a wonderful balance of emotion and reason as I have in you.”
Jean replied: “Dearest, there are so many things I leave unsaid in these more or less formal letters to you. It is hard to write — to make you feel my happiness and pride and joy in the love and friendship you have given me.”
The 1,400 miles between them, at times, seemed too much.
“Patience certainly must be a virtue — I need some tonight,” John wrote. “ It’s so darned aggravating, sitting here writing you instead of really being with you — I sometimes feel like throwing things. … I’m so darn anxious to see you again — to do the things that we mutually enjoy — to feel you near me.”
Their 52-year marriage produced four kids and 16 grandchildren and saw Jean gracefully care for John after a polio attack in 1950 left him in a wheelchair. She died in 2000, at 92 — 18 years after John. They’re buried side by side at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
“More striking to me, in these letters, is how clearly John and Jean know themselves and what they want in life,” their granddaughter said.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.