King of Hearts

updated 02/17/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/17/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

ONE OF THE GREAT ROMANCE writers of modern times wears a lab coat to look over his work. Touring one of three plants that produce his many bestsellers, Walter J. Marshall holds a copy of his latest hit—FAX ME. "I call myself," he says, "the Valentme-meister."

His official title is vice president of corporate logistics and planning for the New England Confectionary Company, the primary manufacturer of those little candy "conversation hearts." "People really relate to them," says Marshall, 62, who oversees the more than 125 phrases etched on the 8 billion or so hearts sold each year. "They take them very seriously."

Some sentiments, such as BE MINE and SWEET TALK, have been in use since the 150-year-old Cambridge, Mass., company issued its first message hearts around the turn of the century. In 1996, Marshall modernized his sugary lexicon of love, adding FAX ME, followed by this year's E-MAIL ME, PAGE ME and I DON'T THINK SO (SAFE SEX didn't make the cut). "I am the final word," says Marshall. "But suggestions come from everybody." In fact, his grandson Joshua, 13, was the inspiration for AWESOME.

Marshall also stops more hearts than George Clooney. Over the years he has discontinued out-of-vogue messages (TRY ME, HOT STUFF), while nixing cynical phrases like PRE-NUP "If we ever get to that," he " says, "I'm out of here." Not that he's likely to leave anytime soon. The Boston-born Marshall spent nearly 30 years working for Schrafft's Candies before starting his current job in 1987. Happily married for 40 years to wife Marilyn, he thinks he knows why. "A man can't go wrong if he always has the last two words," says Marshall. "In fact, I put those words on one of the hearts—YES DEAR."

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