U bent hier
In the 1930s, many a writer journeyed to Hollywood in order to make his fortune. The screenwriter’s life didn’t sit well with some of them — just ask F. Scott Fitzgerald or William Faulkner — but a fair few made more than a go of it out West. Take the Baltimore-born Robert Pirosh, whose studies at the Sorbonne and the University of Berlin landed him a job as a copywriter in New York. This work seems to have proven less than satisfactory, as evidenced by the piece of correspondence that, still in his early twenties, he wrote and sent to “as many directors, producers and studio executives as he could find.” It wasn’t just a request for work; it was what Letters Live today calls “the best cover letter ever written.”
Pirosh’s impressive missive, which you can hear read aloud by favorite Letters Live performer Benedict Cumberbatch in the video above, runs, in full, as follows:
I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.
I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.
I have just returned and I still like words.
May I have a few with you?
Though not known as an unsubtle actor, Cumberbatch seizes the opportunity to deliver each and every one of these choice words with its own variety of exaggerated relish. Though none of these terms is especially recherché on its own, they must collectively have given the impression of a formidable mastery of the English language, especially to the ear of the average Hollywood big-shot. One way or another, Pirosh’s letter did the trick: according to Letters of Note, it “secured him three interviews, one of which led to his job as a junior writer at MGM. Fifteen years later,” he “won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on the war film Battleground.”
A World War II picture, Battleground was written at least in part from Pirosh’s own experience: a few years into his Hollywood career, he enlisted and made a return to Europe, this time as a Master Sergeant in the 320th Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, seeing action in France and Germany. After the war he went right back to writing and producing, remaining active in the entertainment industry until at least the 1970s (and in fact, his writing credits include contributions to such programs that defined that decade as Mannix, Barnaby Jones, and Hawaii Five-O). Pirosh’s was an enviable 20th-century career, and one that began with a suitably brazen — and still convincing — 20th-century advertisement for himself.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
Benedict Cumberbatch Reads “the Best Cover Letter Ever Written” is a post from: Open Culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or get our Daily Email. And don't miss our big collections of Free Online Courses, Free Online Movies, Free eBooks, Free Audio Books, Free Foreign Language Lessons, and MOOCs.
Medieval Scribes Discouraged Theft of Manuscripts by Adding Curses Threatening Death & Damnation to Their Pages
I’ve concluded that one shouldn’t lend a book unless one is prepared to part with it for good. But most books are fairly easy to replace. Not so in the Middle Ages, when every manuscript counted as one of a kind. Theft was often on the minds of the scribes who copied and illustrated books, a laborious task requiring literal hours of blood, sweat and tears each day.
Scribal copying took place “only by natural light — candles were too big a risk to the books,” Sarah Laskow writes at Atlas Obscura. Bent over double, scribes could not let their attention wander. The art, one scribe complained, “extinguishes the light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the viscera and the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys, and weariness to the whole body.”
The results deserved high security, and Medieval monks “did not hesitate to use the worst punishments they knew” for manuscript theft, writes Laskow, namely threats of “excommunication from the church and horrible, painful death.”
Theft deterrence came in the form of ingenious curses, written into the manuscripts themselves, going “back to the 7th century BCE,” Rebecca Romney writes at Mental Floss. Appearing “in Latin, vernacular European languages, Arabic, Greek, and more,” they came in such creative flavors as death by roasting, as in a Bible copied in Germany around 1172: “If anyone steals it: may he die, may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.”
A few hundred years later, a manuscript curse from 15th-century France also promises roasting, or worse:
Whoever steals this book
Will hang on a gallows in Paris,
And, if he isn’t hung, he’ll drown,
And, if he doesn’t drown, he’ll roast,
And, if he doesn’t roast, a worse end will befall him.
The plucking out of eyes also appears to have been a theme. “Whoever to steal this volume tries, Out with his eyes, out with his eyes!” warns the final couplet in a 13th-century curse from a Vatican Library manuscript. Another curse in verse, found by author Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses, gets especially graphic with the eye gouging:
To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming ‘oh, oh, oh!’
Remember, you deserved this woe.
The hoped-for consequences were not always so grimly humorous. “Gruesome as these punishments seem,” the British Library writes, “to most medieval readers the worst curses were those that put the eternal fate of their souls at risk rather than their bodily health.” These would often be marked with the Greek word “Anathema,” sometimes “followed by the Aramaic formula ‘Maranatha’ (‘Come, Lord!’).” Both appear in a curse added to a manuscript of letters and sermons from Lesnes Abbey. Yet, unlike most medieval curses, here the thief is given a chance to make restitution. “Anyone who removes it or does damage to it: if the same person does not repay the church sufficiently, may he be cursed.”
Curses were not the only security solutions of manuscript culture. Medieval monks also used book chains and locked chests to secure the fruit of their hard labor. As the old saying goes, “trust in God, but tie your camel.” But if locks and divine providence should fail, scribes trusted that the fear of punishment – even eternal damnation — down the road would be enough to make would-be book thieves think again.
Medieval Scribes Discouraged Theft of Manuscripts by Adding Curses Threatening Death & Damnation to Their Pages is a post from: Open Culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or get our Daily Email. And don't miss our big collections of Free Online Courses, Free Online Movies, Free eBooks, Free Audio Books, Free Foreign Language Lessons, and MOOCs.