Love is Love in the Library

The exhibit It’s Complicated: Documents of Love features items related to love drawn from the Department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.

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 on display in the Ginkgo Room (Olin Library Level 1) celebrating love in all forms.

Local Love

Correspondence from John Hansford to Bill Leach offer a tender look at courtship of two young men starting in 1974.

Page 1 of 4, which begins — “My darling Bill.” John Hansford and Bill Leach Personal Papers (WUA00466)

 John wrote this poem on their second Valentines 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 Hansford and Bill Leach Personal Papers (WUA00466)

John and Bill remained devoted partners until John’s death 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 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.

From The Potter’s Wheel (St. Louis) PS3539 E15 F76 1910 4o

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 exhibit 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

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.    More about James Merrill, and the other authors in the collection.

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

Exhibit visitors 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 diagnoses 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 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.


It’s Complicated: Documents of Love will be on display in the Ginkgo Room on Level 1 of Olin Library through July 6, 2020.

Several exhibitions are now on display in John M. Olin Library. The exhibits are free and open to all. We hope to see you in the galleries!


Washington University Libraries’ Julian Edison Department of Special Collections is open to the public and welcomes researchers from both on campus and off. An active program of class visits, exhibitions, workshops, and public events highlight the Department’s vital role in scholarship at Washington University and beyond.

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.