Elliot Essman Professes His Fervid Love to 365 Valentines—Not One of Them His Own
There is no more to say: only believe
That onto you my whole heart gives one cry,
And writing, writes down more than you receive;
Sending you kisses through my fingertips—
Lady, O read my letter with your lips!
Here, on the other hand, is how Elliot Essman of New York, a modern-day love-letter writer-for-hire, is making a surrogate pitch for his clients on this St. Valentine's Day:
I want to whisper my love for you, standing with you on a quiet hillside, walking with you on a deserted beach, kissing your sweet lips while we're alone in an elevator, after one of us has had the impulse to push the stop button.
If the eloquence gap is obvious, at least Essman comes close on the ardor index. And let's be generous—the impetuous whimsy of his elevator fantasy is worth a point or two. Essman, a Cyrano for the fast-food age, started Incurable Romantix nine months ago, guaranteeing subscribers an effusive love letter (with a recipient's first name inserted by computer) each month for only $35 a year. He now has 365 clients, so he's got to be a bit more generic than his predecessor in Edmond Rostand's 1897 play. In fact Essman writes just one letter a month, which all his clients receive. Still, it's tough work. Essman usually begins at 1:30 a.m., finding the wee hours conducive to unfettered emoting. A couple of hours of staring into the computer screen produces a smoldering one-page letter. "I feel depleted after I finish," he says. "I put my soul into it."
Many subscribers, Essman says, are middle-aged, married men from Middle America ("More than one businessman has me send them to his office marked 'Personal' "). Typically a customer will copy Essman's missive over in his own hand and send it on to the unsuspecting object of his affection.
While he asks each subscriber to fill out a personal questionnaire, Essman hasn't yet found a way to weave this information into his letters. In some cases benign neglect would seem wisest anyway. "Look at this," he says, holding up a questionnaire. " 'Favorite movie: Fort Apache, the Bronx.' I would find that really tough to get into a romantic letter."
Cyrano would be swamped with business if he were around today, says Essman, who views his barely breakeven love-letter writing as a sideline to his word-processing business. Challenging a common theory, he says, "Television, not the telephone, killed letter writing. TV trained people to think in little snippets. People will spend an hour looking for a greeting card when they could write a letter in half an hour. But people can't express themselves anymore. So they're quick to write a check to have it taken care of for them."
Among Essman's satisfied clients is Beatrice Manners of Hollywood, a TV-comedy writer. About six months ago she sent her first Essman love letter, more or less as a gag, to her husband of 40 years, Zeke Manners, a music producer. "He called me when he got it," she remembers, "and said, 'Gee, I didn't know you felt this way about me.' Then he asked, 'What are you trying to get out of me?' " For the next four months Manners kept her husband convinced that the letters were her own. "After he got a couple of them," she says, "I found him to be more coy. He came home from work more playful, softer. It worked."
Alas, such happy endings have eluded Essman, 37, in his own love life. Growing up in suburban Mount Vernon, N.Y.—his father is an oncologist and his mother a professor of Russian language and literature—Essman discovered that he had "a kind of dreamy romanticism. I first fell in love when I was 11." Essman, who holds degrees in philosophy and law from Fordham University, has been married and divorced twice. He now lives in a four-room apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Last August he and his latest steady girlfriend broke up. Since then he's been answering personal ads and secretly admiring a woman he often sees at an office where he does freelance work. "She's not totally aware of my feelings," he says.
Why not write her a letter? No, says the gushing ghost, "I don't want to force it. I want to see how she feels and tell her face to face. This might take another year."