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