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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.