“It has been a long time since any of us boys have seen a woman, so we are writing to you in hopes that you’ll help us out of our situation,” Cpl. Frank J. Gizych lamented in a letter posted from the fog-shrouded Aleutian Islands. “Since we know that it’s impossible to see a woman in the flesh, we would appreciate it very much if you could send us a photo of yourself.”
It was July 1944, and America was at war. From bases and battlefields in Europe and on Pacific islands, soldiers, sailors and airmen were sending streams of letters to their favorite actresses in Hollywood, asking for pinup photos and commenting on life on the front lines.
Almost all of that mail, which studios usually answered with a glossy shot showing the star in a saucy pose, has been lost. But the actress Donna Reed, later famous for her roles as Mary Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the middle-class housewife Donna Stone on “The Donna Reed Show” and who won an Oscar for “From Here to Eternity,” saved some of the correspondence. After nearly 65 years in a shoebox inside an old trunk long stored in the garage of her home in Beverly Hills, Calif., the letters have at last been read and made public by the actress’s children. Ms. Reed died in 1986 at age 64.
All told, Ms. Reed held on to 341 letters, some typed but many written in the kind of elegant Palmer method cursive script rarely seen today. Taken as a whole, the correspondence offers a candid glimpse of a vanished era, a time when six hard-bitten Marine sergeants could write that “we think you’re swell” and mean it in something other than an ironic sense.
At 84, Edward Skvarna is retired and living in Covina, Calif. But in 1943, he was fresh out of high school in a mill town near Pittsburgh, newly enlisted in the Army Air Forces and training in Kansas to be a right gunner on a B-29 when he met Ms. Reed at a U.S.O. canteen and asked her to dance.
“I had never danced with a celebrity before, so I felt delighted, privileged even, to meet her,” Mr. Skvarna recalled in a telephone interview this month. “But I really felt she was like a girl from back home. She was from a smaller community, and we were more or less the same age, so I felt she was the kind of person I could talk to.”
I can't recommend this story highly enough. Both because it is Memorial Day, but also because it offers a really unique window on (and starting point for discussion about) fan/celebrity interaction.