Long-lost letters unveil a doomed, yet eternal love

SEATTLE - John Zelnicker, very much a Southern Gentleman, opens the door of his home for his guest, Michele Savelle. She has traveled all the way from Seattle to Mobile, Alabama to see some letters, and to peer into the naked heart of her own father as a young, wild-eyed romantic.

Michele takes a seat on the couch. John opens a small cabinet in his living room and pulls out a box. He carefully sets the box on the coffee table, and pulls back the lid. The two of them gaze quietly, nervously for a moment at the contents. There are faded letters, more than a hundred of them, maybe two hundred, yellowed by time and arranged in chronological order. The first letter was written on May 20, 1913.

In 1912, a girl named Pearle Schwartz attended Barton Academy in Mobile. It was, and still is, a glorious building, with six giant pillars guarding the entrance, and a round cupola on top with a dome and more pillars, like a state capitol building. It was there that she knew a wavy haired boy named Max Savelle, and it was there that they fell madly in love more than a hundred years ago.

John explains, "Pearle Schwartz was my father's great aunt, my grandmother's aunt." She died in 1980. And among her belongings were the letters, found tied together with string and a note attached on top. It read, "These are my letters from Max Savelle. To be burned when I pass on."

John Zelnicker's father decided not to abide by her wishes. He saved the letters, and 35 years later they were among his belongings when he died last year.

John found them, and immersed himself in them. What he discovered, letter after letter, was poetry and passion, young love and old love and forbidden love. He discovered two lives intertwined with affection, religion and resignation.

He found, to his amazement, a love affair for the ages.

"Pearle, what do I think of you? Why, I love you more and more and more when I think that you love me, as you have told me. Goodnight my little girl. Much love, more than ever. Max."

They performed music together at the local country club. She played piano, he was, by all accounts, a very good tenor.

Walking the streets of Mobile today, with its tree lined streets and the stunning, sprawling mansions that line up on either side, it's easy to imagine the two of them strolling along holding hands, their whole lives ahead of them, gazing in amazement at one another and laughing at the sheer possibility of life and love and an eternity of happiness.

Michele is reading the letters one-by-one, each a window into her father's soul.

"Everything is quiet and restful. I dreamed of you again last night, a beautiful dream."

She stops as she reads that line, the emotion of seeing her father's young heart laid out in black and white almost takes her breath away. She takes a deep breath and plows ahead.

"I only wish it would come true soon."

Michele is surprised not only by his emotion, but by her own. "Huh," she says, "I didn't expect this."

Max and Pearle had a photo taken together one day on a picnic with a friend. Max in a suit and fedora, holding bottles and looking handsome and confident, Pearle disheveled in a fur-collared coat, happy and young and in love. Maybe they thought it would be like that forever.

"My little girl, tonight I shall live over the many times we have been together, for as soon as I finish this I'm going out on the porch and dream of you."

We don't have Pearle's letters. But we know that she wrote often because on the back of each letter from Max she put check-marks to indicate that she had answered. Some letters had multiple checkmarks on the back.

At the Historical Society in Mobile, we stumbled across a Barton Academy annual from 1912. And even more amazingly, a high school memory book, belonging to Pearle herself.

Next to Max's name she wrote in very clear handwriting, "Oh you, Max!"

And then in a section about boys she knew, she could only have been talking about Max when she wrote:

"One look from him and you feel as though you were standing in the center of the earth with the world revolving around you. When your glance meets his, gee! Such a funny feeling!"

But there was a problem. Pearle was Jewish, and Max was a devout Southern Baptist. Their love was seen as religious betrayal. Parents intervened, lines were drawn, hearts were broken. They were forbidden to love.

On one envelope, Pearle wrote the words, "After I told him we could be nothing but friends because of our religions."

Max's letter inside must have been written through tears.

"I understand. I have understood from the beginning. I only lacked your confirmation of my belief. I cannot come to the club anymore. I am very weak, and cannot make myself undergo the torture it would mean for me. And why? Because I love you. I could not bear to be near you and see you, and feel that you could never be anything but a friend to me. Perhaps this is strange. Nevertheless it is so. Goodnight and may God keep you. Max."

Her answer was a pact, an ingenious agreement that would keep their love alive for 70 years. It would be away from the churches and the parents. It would be unspoken of to friends and family, but alive nonetheless. They would love secretly, she vowed in her letter, forever.

His reply was a joyous one.

"Dear Pearl, I received your letter yesterday with greater joy than I've ever received before in my life! Loving secretly suits me fine. Just as long as we can love each other at all. I am tickled to death."

The house Pearle lived in through her 20's is still standing in Mobile. It is yellow with white gingerbread trim, modest for the time, but lovely and well-kept. It was there that she received his letters after he moved away from Mobile in 1918.

Some are short, simple declarations.

"Dearie, I love you truly. Max. That's all."

Many are tortured in the way that only a lovesick young man can be tortured.

"Pearle, I am nightly lonesome and am speculating on the possibility of making these days shorter. I don't see how I'm going to live through it. But I guess I must."

"My Priceless Pearle, I am very lonesome for you tonight. I have the blues and feel generally miserable. I always do on Wednesday night, for thinking of the span of time which must elapse before I can see you again."

"But then I am very happy too, because in all my broodings there still lies great joy in knowing that you love me."

"The sadness is tempered with joy. Goodnight. And though I may not kiss you in reality, I send you a million here to tell you that I love you."

As far as we can tell from the letters, he only made it back to Mobile one time after he left. He went to the Navy, to Columbia University, then traveled to Chile and Spain. Life took Max all over the world, and still the letters kept coming.

"I am very happy tonight. I traced our love tonight back to the first time we knew we cared for each other. It makes me very happy to think that a wonderful girl like you should love me."

Pearle never left her music, and she became a concert pianist. Months became years, and years became decades. Max and Pearle's star-crossed love would not die.

"Your birthday. One hundred kisses for every year. Make that one hundred million. How terrible it is that we must forever remain separated."

There were moments of doubt and frustration to be sure. How could there not be?

"I cannot believe that you love me when you give no evidence of loving anyone. Now, I don't believe you ever really loved me."

But there were also moments of beauty and inspiration. Could anything but true love have created these words?

"My soul is so much smaller, so less capable of feeling, so far below yours in the grade towards the spiritual... that I bow in humility and reverence before the shine of your love, hoping for grace in the sight of a love exceeded only by the love of God."

Eventually, at the age of 40, Max married. Then he married again, and again after that.

He ended up teaching history at Stanford University, and ultimately at the University of Washington. He wrote books and published papers. He was an expert on American Colonial History, and was much honored and respected.

If you visit Allen Library on the UW campus, deep in the catacombs of storage, amongst thousands of boxes of printed material, you can find his life's work. There are letters in those boxes, all kinds of correspondences. But nothing from Pearle. Her letters are lost forever.

And Max's love refused to stay inside the lines of convention. Even as a married man he kept writing to Pearle. And he would for the rest of his life.

"You built a fence or starlight around your soul, that none might enter there.
A Fence so light, so pure, so clean, so beautiful... and yet so strong that never could I enter, never know you fully, never with you share the joy of love, Remember? But still, I think your soul over-leaped that wall and all unknown to you, it came into my own and dwelled there.
For in the in-most chamber of my heart you are. And you are mine, and dwell in me forever."

The letters didn't come as frequently in the 60's and 70's as before.

At one point, Max wrote this:

"Dearest Pearl, Why don't you write? You and I are too old and have loved each other too long to be conventional."

Pearle stayed in Mobile. She never married, and never had children. It's tempting to imagine that she never completely got over Max.

By the late '60s, their world was so different. Mobile Bay, where they used to swim and picnic must have seemed a lifetime away.

Max had three children, one of them Michele. She knew him only as an older man, somewhat stern, with a temper. But she also remembers his love for camping and the outdoors. He taught her how to fish and build a fire. And she remembers a keen wit.

By the late 70's Max was old and dying, and he knew it.

"The prospect ahead for me is grim, to say the least. Your moral support and love means much to me. Pearle, your letters give me great happiness. Please keep writing, Love Max."

He wrote to her now not so much out of romantic longing, but more for assurance. It was still important to communicate with his first love, but now instead of saying, "I love you", he seemed to be saying, "Thank you."

"Pearl, I have wished to thank you for your get-well letters and cards. They do cheer me up and they encourage me, because I know you love me. I hate to admit that I'm a sick man. And I must get accustomed to remaining that way more or less for the rest of my life. So keep writing. My love to you, as always, Max."

Those were the last words of the last letter that Max Savelle ever wrote to Pearle Schwartz. A love affair that was never fully realized, but lasted 70 years anyway, had come to an end.

Max left this world in 1979. Three months later Pearle died too.

I ask Michele what the letters mean to her, what she has learned about her father.

She says that her mother had a loving relationship with Max. She tells me he was a fulfilled man in his third marriage. But she knows now that there was a place in his being that only his first true love could ever reach.

She considers Pearle for a moment, the 'other' woman. "I think she occupied a place in his heart that no one else ever filled," she says.

She says she's thrilled to have had the opportunity to peer into his broken heart.

Max and Pearle, like all of us, were amazed by love. And through their letters, we are reminded of its eternal conundrum.

Love is eternal, it is irrational and reckless. A fever that burns... an unquenchable thirst. It builds and breaks. Lives and dies. Love is an immortal dream in the human spirit.

And sitting there, looking at the pile of letters, I think back to that picture of the two of them on a picnic, so very young and in love, and I wish I could climb back into time to implore them, beg them to fight back against the forces of the world that would keep them apart. I imagine myself shaking them and saying, "Run away! Don't just write about your love. Live it!"

I'm brought back to the present by the squeak of a small cabinet opening. And a man in Mobile, Alabama carefully puts a faded box of old letters away.