I find fifteen letters and two postcards from Jesus Pena de Alonso of Madrid, Spain. Jesus and I were matched up by our foreign language teachers when Jesus was fifteen and I was seventeen. Jesus’ first letter is dated November 5, 1930, the last March 11, 1941. He wrote in Spanish and I replied in English. We continued to write on and off after we both completed secondary school. For eleven years!
I don’t remember my Spanish anymore so I had my good friend and neighbor Alex Alvarez, a Spanish speaker and an avid student of history, translate Jesus’ letters into English. Alex told me some about the tumultuous history of Spain in the 1930’s and acted as a consultant to me while I wrote this story. Thank you Alex.
Just like in the U.S. a lot was going on in our two countries during the time Jesus and I corresponded. Of course, lots was going on in our young lives. It makes my head spin just thinking about it.
In the U.S, we had the depression and FDR and the New Deal and the beginning of World War II. And I became a working girl, more interested in having adventures and pursuing creative endeavors than in getting married. In Spain, political unrest led up to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Jesus attended University and then went to work in his father’s factory. He must have witnessed much of the war, since many of the battles took place in Madrid (the capital of Spain) and the surrounding areas. Jesus didn’t write during the war, and after our correspondence resumed, he mentioned the war only briefly. Who can blame him?
Looking at Jesus’ letters (and envelopes) today, I am struck by his beautiful script.
In his letters, Jesus addressed me as Clara, my birth name. I liked that.
For the first couple of years, Jesus’ letters were friendly and informative. I don’t have copies of my letters to him, but I can infer some of what I wrote in his letters to me. We wrote about our interests – his in football (soccer), swimming, and travel; mine in writing, journalism, and theater. He wrote me about “an ancient royal castle … converted into a museum” and sent me postcards of the beautiful salons in the castle. I wrote about the much younger skyscrapers in Chicago and sent him a postcard of the thirty-four story Tribune Tower. Today thirty-four stories seems like nothing, but in the 1930’s the new skyscrapers were amazing, tall, architectural marvels.
In 1932, I sent Jesus U.S. currency and he attempted to send me Spanish currency but couldn’t.
I had written a letter to you, but because I had sent along some currency, the Central Post office refused to mail it.
Alex explained that during the early 1930’s the Spanish government forbade sending currency out of the country due to the on-going political crises.
Jesus’ letters continued along this same line, breezy and conversational, until 1934 when we exchanged photographs. His was a studio portrait and I liked how he looked with his half smile, bedroom eyes (or so I perceived them), slicked down hair, and beautifully tailored suit. I was mildly charmed by the inscription that read (in translation) “To Clara as a token of my admiration and fondness Jesus.”
However, Jesus was majorly charmed after he received my publicity photograph taken for an amateur production of the play Death Takes a Holiday, in which I had the lead role of Graziela.
|Claire LeBrint Publicity Photo 1934|
From that point on his letters became romantic.
From October 1934
I don't know how you dare to call me a flatterer after sending me a photograph so superior to anything I may have imagined. Truly, the more I look at your photo, the more difficult it is for me to believe that you are an American woman, as the beauty of your eyes is not surpassed by the Grenadine dolls.
The letter continued with a brief reference to the trouble in Spain “…the police have been using my car, they have even requisitioned many automobiles,” and ended with more affection and devotion towards me.
Furthermore, dear friend, I continue to maintain much serenity, as I have never had the joy of having at my side someone as precious as you. My most respectful tribute, Jesus
Being compared to a Grenadine doll (from Grenada, Andalusia Spain) seemed a high compliment. Alex found a picture of a 1950’s Spanish doll and made a Xerox color copy for me. Color copying – what a marvel of technology. We both agreed that this must look something like the “Grenadine doll” Jesus referenced. What a compliment Jesus gave me!
Little did I know that Jesus’ romantic feelings would grow into an obsession and possessiveness toward me.
From February 1935
. . . I have a sister who was also taken with the idea of becoming a writer like you and who now has abandoned those ideas because she is soon to be married. Has the thought occurred to you of doing the same?
As you have asked me to advise you in the past, I hope you will allow me to advise you now not to leave the house, so you will find no diversions, you will speak to no one, you will be dressed in your oldest dresses. And if you will be following these suggestions, I believe that when the time comes, you will be spared the inconvenience of marrying the man who would have to murder your husband.
I knew that Jesus’ letters indicated he was “crazy-in-love” with me. But did he really imply that I should stay home, alone, away from all guys and that if I should happen to marry, he would come to the U.S., murder my husband and expect me to marry him? I thought Alex had gotten the translation wrong. “It’s right for sure,” he told me and added, “I even had a Spanish teacher friend of mine from Sauk Valley Community College double check my translation and she confirmed I got the crazy-talk right.”
You might be asking yourself why I continued writing to Jesus.
I was having fun doing some heavy-duty flirting in my letters to him, goading him on, encouraging his growing attachment to me. We girls did that kind of thing, and my girlfriends loved to read his crazy letters. It was our own personal soap opera and I loved being the romantic lead.
Besides, Jesus was far away, as he wrote in another letter when he was again pondering whether I was married or not, “If it happens that you now have a husband, tell him that he lives because of the distance between Madrid and Chicago.”
There is so much in Jesus’ fifteen letters, and I was getting tired from reading them and thinking back to when I received the letters. But before I put them away, I decided to skim through the rest and a few sections of letters jumped out. First was the letter Jesus wrote after the Spanish Civil War ended.
From September 1939
. . . I am sure you can easily understand the many circumstances which have prevented my writing to you during these trying times.
And then I found the only letter where Jesus referred to experiencing the war, where he used the war as a reason to threaten my male friends. In my letters to him after the war ended, I must have casually mentioned the guys I was seeing (not seriously) and continued teasing him, flirting with him. No harm done, I thought. Not so for Jesus.
From June 1940
. . . As to those two boyfriends . . . after three years of being witness to war and guns and shooting and killings, they would not pose the same obstacles as was the case previously.
That letter frightened and shocked me when I received it in 1940, as it does to this day. His threats were no longer funny. The amusing soap opera had become a horror story.
It took me a long time to reply to that letter, as Jesus wrote in March 1941, when he chided me that he “was not able to read (my) last two letters because (I) didn’t mail them.” True I wrote several letters that I tore up and I have no idea what was in the letter I finally sent.
But I finally was done with Jesus and wrote him one last letter. I remember that my message was short and to the point and it went something like this.
It is not acceptable that you continue to make threats against my gentlemen friends. You have no right to claim me. You are not my boyfriend, fiancé, nor will you ever be my husband.
This correspondence is over. Please do not write me anymore.
Jesus Pena de Alonso of Madrid, Spain must have gotten my message loud and clear. He wrote no more letters and you better believe I was relieved.
But, as they say, it was fun while it lasted.
The Clara Stories are dedicated to
Claire LeBrint Metzger, of blessed memory
b 1914 - d 2002