One of my favorite things about blogging is connecting with other curious, creative people — especially when those people become real-life friends.
I wrote about graphic artist Carolyn Porter last May after being deeply moved by the beautiful but heartbreaking story behind a font she designed. But I never imagined she would email me many months later, or that we’d actually meet in person just a few weeks after that.
I felt as if I’d known Carolyn for ages when we sat down for coffee on Saturday. We covered all the topics old friends might discuss: work, travel, family, favorite books.
Then our conversation veered into the extraordinary as she told me about five old letters and a postcard she bought at an antique store, and her years-long quest to find the man who wrote them.
The letters were in French, so she wasn’t sure of their content at first. But as she explained in a recent interview,
“I was drawn to the handwriting and the shapes of individual characters. And even without being able to read them, it was clear that these letters were special.”
The letters, stained and scarred with censor marks, included rare first-person testimony of survival inside a labor camp. One of the letters, written to his wife and three young daughters back home in rural France, began, “Now I can give you details about my life as a prisoner.” He described the clothes he had been given to wear, how hungry he was, a schedule of his daily work life, and how he and his fellow prisoners sought shelter while the factory was bombed.
As Carolyn said in another interview,
Once I found that out, the next question I asked was: ‘Did he live?’ In Marcel’s detailed letters, he talks about day-to-day life in camp. I researched more about the conditions at the specific labor camp where he was, and it seemed unlikely anyone could have survived.
I’m not really giving much away by telling you that Marcel Heuzé did survive the labor camp, and that he returned to his family in France.
Marcel Heuzé and his wife Renee in 1932, via DailyMail.com
There’s much more to Marcel’s story … but it will have to wait for another time. And anyway, it was Carolyn’s story I found most compelling on Saturday.
I was riveted as she described her electric sense of discovery when she first saw the letters, then her overwhelming desire to find their author, the dead-ends and disappointments in her research, and finally her meeting with Marcel’s descendants in Paris.
I was equally enthralled by the parallel story of her font:
Carolyn had taken letterform classes as part of her college graphic design program requirement. That’s where she first learned about the history of typography, and about the shape, style, balance and proportion of letters. But it wasn’t until years later that she decided to design a font.She didn’t know how else to begin, so she scanned the five letters, then meticulously traced her favorite characters. “In hindsight, it was probably the single most inefficient way to begin,” she admitted with a laugh.
After some trial-and-error and a few false starts, Carolyn had immortalized Marcel’s hand — and built her first font. On Saturday she told me how surprised she’d been by the subsequent media attention. “I’m just an ordinary person,” she said.
Marcel was just an ordinary person, too. But his letters were so full of love and hope that, 70 years later, they compelled a stranger half a world away to research and retell his story. Now, that’s extraordinary.
Marcel’s story reminded me of Hélène Berr, another ordinary French citizen whose life was destroyed by the Nazis. In her diary she wondered, “Will anybody ever be able to understand what it was like to live through this appalling tempest? Will they ever acknowledge the merit there was in preserving a sense of fairness in the mind and softness in the heart throughout this nightmare?”
Thanks to Carolyn’s determination and devotion, we now have Marcel’s account of what it was like to live through that appalling tempest — and proof that through the merit and softness of his heart, love did triumph after all.