Dear Pe­dro… How a let­ter from Truf­faut sparked a life­long pas­sion

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Paula Co­cozza

When he was 12 years old, Pe­dro Cor­rêa do Lago wrote to JRR Tolkien, and François Truf­faut – whose L’En­fant Sau­vage he had just seen – and asked for their au­to­graphs. Cor­rêa do Lago’s fa­ther was a diplo­mat and, as a re­sult, there was a chunky red copy of Who’s Who on the fam­ily book­shelves. This was 1970, and, along with a bio­graph­i­cal note, Who’s Who printed each celebrity’s home ad­dress. Cor­rêa do Lago posted his let­ters and waited.

Tolkien’s sec­re­tary was quick to re­ply; the au­thor was swamped by re­quests for an au­to­graph and had de­cided to de­cline them all. From Truf­faut, only si­lence.

Two months passed. Cor­rêa do Lago was “mov­ing on to bet­ter things”, pur­su­ing other in­ter­ests be­fit­ting a 12-year-old, when one day he came home from school to find a par­cel. In­side was a copy of the book that in­spired Truf­faut’s film, in­scribed by the French di­rec­tor.

“He changed my life,” says Cor­rêa do Lago, now 60. “I was so ex­cited, I wrote to lots of peo­ple. I would rush home from school to see if Joan Miró, Pi­casso, Cha­gall or Iris Mur­doch had sent me a let­ter.” (All did, apart from Pi­casso.) Cor­rêa do Lago pri­ori­tised his em­i­nent ad­dressees by age, to catch them be­fore it was too late. This wasn’t al­ways suc­cess­ful: he re­ceived a note from Ezra Pound’s sis­ter, com­mis­er­at­ing that his let­ter had ar­rived the day the poet died.

Af­ter a few years Cor­rêa do Lago had gen­er­ated dozens of re­sponses – and the be­gin­nings of a life­long pas­sion for the hand­writ­ten word. Now he owns 100,000 let­ters writ­ten by fa­mous names (not all ad­dressed to him) – the largest pri­vate col­lec­tion of cor­re­spon­dence in the world. There are let­ters from Emily Dick­in­son, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Lenin and Marx. He owns one from Freud to his mother on her birth­day, en­clos­ing $6 to spend as she pleased. There are countless let­ters by world lead­ers and roy­als – in­clud­ing Di­ana, princess of Wales, her hand smudged by then baby Wil­liam in what Cor­rêa do Lago re­gards as “the fu­ture king’s first sig­na­ture”. Some fea­tured in a solo ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mor­gan Li­brary & Mu­seum in New York this year, while a com­pan­ion book is re­leased this month.

Cor­rêa do Lago stores the let­ters in fil­ing cab­i­nets, which, at half a ton each, have to be kept on the ground floor of his home in Rio. Some­times he hangs out there, “and I sort of visit the peo­ple”, he says: “Some­times the popes, some­times the im­pres­sion­ists, some­times the me­dieval era … When you hold a let­ter that was writ­ten by some­one

you ad­mire, you hold a lit­tle slice of their life. It’s about 15 min­utes that they’ve spent over this piece of pa­per. And they’ve touched it.

“It’s a lit­tle fetishist, of course, but it is the most di­rect con­tact you can have with some­one who died be­fore you were born.”

Cor­rêa do Lago points out that he has come a long way from the sig­na­tures he so­licited as a child. “This book is not about any­thing very naive,” he says, turn­ing the pages. “The way it started bears un­for­tu­nately lit­tle re­la­tion to what the col­lec­tion be­came.”

As a child, Cor­rêa do Lago made lists of the peo­ple whose writ­ing he wished to ac­quire; al­most 50 years on, he is en­grossed in what he refers to as “the project – an en­cy­clopaedic panorama of west­ern cul­ture”, com­pris­ing sig­nif­i­cant pieces of “the 4,000-5,000 peo­ple I thought had played the most im­por­tant roles in the fields of his­tory, mu­sic, lit­er­a­ture, art, sci­ence and en­ter­tain­ment”.

His in­stinct for a bar­gain has been a con­stant. He paid $4 (“four weeks of pocket money”) for his first find when he was 13: a let­ter from Édouard Manet, which even then he un­der­stood to be worth more, let­ters by the pain­ter be­ing rel­a­tively rare. Even th­ese days, “some sales are not well cat­a­logued and you can find trea­sures over­looked by ex­perts”.

Still, Cor­rêa do Lago has to work over­time in his day job as a dealer of con­tem­po­rary and 20th-cen­tury Brazil­ian art to fund his more ex­trav­a­gant pur­chases: his most ex­pen­sive item (more even than the Descartes he didn’t buy) was Jorge Luis Borges’ man­u­script of The Li­brary of Ba­bel. Cor­rêa do Lago knows “self­ies are the new form of au­to­graph. And why not?” he says. But he has no plans to stop col­lect­ing let­ters. Descartes still eludes him, as does Mar­tin Luther King.


The writer Iris Mur­doch re­sponded to a re­quest by a young Pe­dro Cor­rêa do Lago for a let­ter

Truf­faut and a signed book, be­low; right, a signed por­trait of the Ro­manovs; bot­tom left, a bill from Sig­mund Freud; bot­tom right, Joan Miró

▲ Cor­rêa do Lago, who owns 100,000 let­ters writ­ten by fa­mous names

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