Love on Paper: From Jerry to Eva on Valentine’s Day

Portrait of Jerome Kern seated at piano, between 1930 and 1945. LC Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-122179, Prints & Photographs Division.

Without a doubt, I’m happiest in my job when I come across revealing, interesting, funny, and touching stories within our amazing collections. On Valentine’s Day, I choose to focus on the shows of affection that lie in our stacks. And despite the millions of love songs preserved in the Music Division, one of the best places to look for such amorous expressions is in the personal correspondence from our special collections. In the past I’ve highlighted a dramatic love letter from Robert to Clara Schumann from late in their courtship. Today, I shift to a different time place as I share beautiful letters written by the Father of American Musical Theater, Jerome Kern (1885-1945).

Though he is now recognized as one of the most important composers in the history of Musical Theater, Kern was hardly a household name when he first met the ultimate love of his life. In the first decade of the 20th century, Kern studied music in New York as well as Heidelberg, Germany, eventually returning to New York after time in London writing for the stage. In 1909, while in London, Kern took a boat ride on the River Thames and stopped for a drink at an inn in Walton-on-Thames. The inn owner’s daughter, Eva Leale (1891-1959), made quite an impression on Kern, and very soon the composer was deeply in love.

The Jerome Kern Collection holds music manuscripts as well as a modest amount of correspondence. Cataloged separately from the Kern Collection, however, are several love letters to Eva Leale worth highlighting on Valentine’s Day. The first is a letter dating from the couples’ courtship (1909-1910) where Kern wrote to his beloved:

Letter from Jerome Kern to Eva Leale, 1909-1910. Music Division, Call number ML95.K477 no. 2 case.

Sweetheart mine,

Your sweet letter has made me so happy. I really don’t know, my own darling, how to tell you how much I care for you, and with what longing I look forward to seeing you again.

I never have given much thought to money except as a necessity, but how I wish now that I could leave everything here and come over to be near you, dearest. Then there would be no need of writing clandestinely, that I love you, and sending you empty kisses on this unresponsive paper. I could tell you in your pretty ear, that I adored you, and perhaps I could even go so far as to kiss you. Could I, my sweet, again & again on your lovely lips? I wonder if there is such bliss in store for me.

Write soon dear heart and hold out a little ray of hope to me. You say you read and reread my letter to you. Do you think it wise to keep them? I should hate to get you into trouble with your parents, darling. They are such lovely people.

As far as I am concerned I would be proud to tell them I loved you, and indeed would much prefer to correspond openly with you, but until you say the word, as you probably know best, I will continue your little personal notes.

Isn’t it queer darling that we should love each other as we do, considering we’ve never been five minutes alone? Do write soon.

With all my love I am
Your Jerry.

The last question is telling, as Kern reveals that the two have never spent real time alone with one another! Still, Kern and Leale ultimately wed on October 25, 1910 and lived at her father’s inn while Kern was working in England. Speaking of Leale’s parents, another special letter stands out in the Kern collection. Leale’s father sent Kern a letter over a quarter of a century after Kern’s marriage that reads:

My dear Jerry.

I am enclosing you a letter you wrote me 27 years ago. Every word in it you have kept now quite fully. I hope this letter will reach you on your 27. Anniversary. Thank you Jerry and God bless you.

Yours – Dad

The letter that Leale’s father enclosed with his own was a significant one as it documents Kern’s official request for permission to propose. It’s noteworthy that Kern does not ask Mr. Leale for permission to marry Eva, but rather he asks for his blessing to propose to her, noting that she will have substantial time to consider his proposal and make a decision:

Letter from Jerome Kern to his future father-in-law. Jerome Kern Collection, Music Division.

My dear Mr. Leale –

I don’t think you will be surprised when I ask your permission to pay my addresses to your daughter Eva. I love her dearly and should I be fortunate enough to win her hand in marriage I will spend my life trying to make her a devoted husband and you and Mrs. Leale a dutiful son.

Should you give your consent I will, from motives of economy not visit you and your dear ones until late in the winter or early spring, then God willing we will be married and start on a fresh journey from the shelter of your roof…I know she is young and inexperienced but (granted that you approve) she will have almost a year in which to make up her mind, and be sure of her feelings…It may not be amiss to mention that I have an assured income of between five and six hundred pounds a year, and though a poor man at five and twenty, my future business prospects are bright and I’m certain I can make Eva happy. Although comparatively young in years it is my duty to tell you I have lived every minute of them. As the saying goes, my wild oats are sown. Being a man you will appreciate my desire to henceforth lead a clean, wholesome life, and can understand my ambition to have your dear Eva share it…I am hopefully yours,

Jerome D. Kern.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all of our readers! And may you hold onto any love letters or special cards that you receive in your own life. There is nothing sweeter than bearing witness to the most personal expressions of love, especially when we come across those exchanges in the Music Division’s collections!