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A close up of a comic book panel featuring a woman.
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It’s Complicated: Documents of Love

Items related to love from across Special Collections were presented in this exhibition organized by Special Collections Curators Cassie Brand, Skye Lacerte, Joel Minor, Miranda Rectenwald, and University Archivist Sonya Rooney.

From love letters and poetry to romantic comics, dance cards, and heartbreak, many stories and relationships are highlighted — including voices of LGBTQ people.

Highlighted here are just a few of the items that were on display in the exhibition.

Local Love

Correspondence from John Hansford to Bill Leach as seen in the image below offers a tender look at the courtship of two young men starting in 1974.

"Tuesday, July 16, 1974. 
My darling Bill, 
Twenty-six weeks ago I happened to meet a wonderful person - a warm, funny, tender, sensitive, beautiful, loving, silly, generous, talented, happy man who has become the most important person in my life. 

These last six months have been the fullest and brightest and happiest I have ever known. Some angel must have been smiling on me that night in January, a time when not much else was going right for me. 

From the first night I met you until I saw you again, I went through every known emotion from joyful optimism to gloomy pessimism. I had no reason to believe that you would come back - no one else ever had. But you did, [...]" (page 1 of 4, the rest of which can be found in the John Hansford and Bill Leach Personal Papers linked within the page).
Page 1 of 4, which begins — “My darling Bill.” John Hansford and Bill Leach Personal Papers (WUA00466)

John wrote this poem (right) on their second Valentine’s Day together. They moved from Ohio to St. Louis in 1983, when John joined the staff of Washington University and remained devoted partners for 37 years.

John and Bill remained devoted partners until John died in 2011. After Bill’s passing in 2015, their surviving letters, documents, and photographs were saved by the St. Louis LGBT History Project and donated to Washington University Libraries.

Poem from Sarah Teasdale to Lillie Rose Ernst titled "To L.R.E." and which reads: When first I saw you - felt you take my hand, / I could not speak for happiness to find / How more than all they said your heart was kind, / How strong you were, and quick to understand - / I dared not say: "I who am least of those / Who call you friend, - I love you, and I crave / A little love that I may be more brave / Because one watches me who cares and knows," / So, silent, long ago I used to look / High up along the shelves at one great book, / And longed to see its contents, childishwise, / And now I know it for my Poet's own, - / So stometime shall I know you and be known, / And looking upward, I shall find your eyes. (signed S.T.T)
From The Potter’s Wheel (St. Louis) PS3539 E15 F76 1910 4o

Early 20th-century local history is also shown in the exhibit, with this poem (left) from Sarah Teasdale to Lillie Rose Ernst. Ernst was one of the earliest female graduates of Washington University, going on to become a teacher, community leader, and founder of the local literary group, The Potters.

Expressions of Love

Modern campus history is represented, including issues of X Magazine: Wash U’s Premier Sex & Sexuality Magazine from 2006. This publication and many more from campus organizations of all orientations are part of the University Archives.

From the Modern Literature Collections, the exhibition includes one of many erotic love letters between American poet and playwright, May Swenson, and Pearl Schwartz while the two women were at the Yaddo artist colony in 1950-51.

Typed letter on yellow paper from May Swenson to the poet Elisabeth Bishop. The full text of the letter can be found within the May Swenson Papers, which is linked within the text.
May Swenson Papers (MSS111), Series 1, Box 52-53

Perhaps to help hide their genders to any outside readers, they used nicknames for each other, such as Blackie and Jessie. This letter is from the May Swenson Papers, which also include Swenson’s extensive personal correspondence with poet Elisabeth Bishop.


The more difficult side of romance is also shown in the exhibit, including this letter from longtime partners James Merrill and David Jackson. Together for forty years, the two men slowly drifted apart emotionally. In this July 12, 1994 letter Merrill calls out Jackson for his “betrayal” in carelessly telling others about Merrill’s AIDS diagnosis.

James Merrill Papers (MSS083) Series 1, Box 4, Folder 83

Visitors to the exhibition can also watch interview footage of dancer Bill T. Jones, conducted for the documentary I’ll Make Me A World reflecting on his partner’s diagnosis of HIV/AIDS. Following the death of his partner Arnie Zane, dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones staged The Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, his first work overtly exploring the black experience in America.

Still from an interview with Bill T. Jones, November 6, 1997. I’ll Make Me a World [production] Papers (FMA0002)

Part of the Henry Hampton Collection in the Film and Media Archive, I’ll Make Me A World featured achievements by African-American writers, dancers, painters, actors, musicians, and other influential artists of the 20th century.