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Return to sender: Shakespeare and the mysterious Ella J

Bill DeYoung

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Veronica Leone Matthews has been holding on to the "Ella J" letter since 2005. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

The mystery began in 2005 when Veronica Leone Matthews, a recent graduate of the USF St. Pete Department of English, found an envelope in her mailbox, addressed to “Resident.”

Inside, the U.S. Postal Service, via a rigid, all-caps form letter, apologized for “losing” her mail: A handwritten, unsigned, five-page letter without an envelope. Matthews’s Old Northeast address was printed at the top.

Matthews could tell by the somewhat frayed pages, and the faded ink, that the correspondence was old. But it bore no date, and its contents gave up few details about the author or the intended recipient. Indeed, it began with the words My Darling rather than a proper name.

Matthews read the letter – of course she read the letter – and her vivid, English-major imagination began to take hold.

“It was very clear that it was a woman writing to a man,” she says. “It seemed to me that the woman was married, and that she had a child with her husband – and that child’s name was probably Bill, or Billy. And she was pregnant again, it seemed like, with the child of the man she’s writing to. Sort of an illicit love affair.”

Was any of this true? There was no way to know.

“She mentions sailing down to Havana, so I thought, that has to be pre-1957. It could have been any time before that, too. She says things like ‘You made a wreck out of me,’ ‘Would it be so awfully wrong if I had a child of yours?’ Again, this is not the way we talk now.”

Matthews would go on to get a Master’s degree, and co-found (with Dr. Lisa Starks-Estes, USF’s Shakespeare scholar) the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival, but she never forgot that unsigned letter.

“That first day, I got a little shaky, and I realized I was holding something that was probably never delivered to this person. She pretty explicitly asks his opinion on what she should do with the baby. So I’m thinking, obviously he never got the letter – she never received a response. What if she never tried again, had the baby, didn’t have the baby, made a huge life choice with no input from this man?”

She combed through St. Petersburg property records, researching her former address, but the only clue – well, possible clue – that emerged was the name of the apartment’s owner in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The name was Ella J. Murphy.

Matthews made a series of phone calls, thinking she might get lucky and find a story to match the name. “I just wanted to return the letter,” she says, “thinking it might have meaning to them.”

But she dead-ended. “That’s where I left it. I don’t know if it was the right choice or not, to leave it there, but all the years later it’s been playing in my head.”

As part of the inaugural Celebration of the Arts, which carries the umbrella theme of William Shakespeare, Matthews agreed to mount a small production.

A staged reading of Hamlett, Snell and Ella J is presented Saturday (Feb. 9) at 7 p.m. at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, with a suggested donation of $5. There’s a free, open-to-the-public rehearsal from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the same day at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.

“I love to write mash-ups of Shakespeare plays,” Matthews beams. “This is something I’ve been interested in for a long time, since I was an undergraduate.”

It was Rui Farias, director of the Museum of History, who suggested that the (fictitious?) Ella J might well have been writing to early St. Pete developer Perry Snell, who was known to be something of a womanizer.

Research revealed that Snell’s business partner was one J.C. Hamlett.

And that was all it took for Veronica Leone Matthews’ wheels to start turning. This is her third Shakespeare mash-up – she looks for a storyline, an emotion or character from a work by the Bard of Avon that will “fit” with the storyline she has in mind. Sometimes, it’s an entire theme.

She put Hamlett, Snell and Ella J in a blender with As You Like It, Hamlet, Richard III and other Shakespearean works and hit “Puree.”

“I decided to make Hamlett – with two T’s – very similar to Iago from Othello, where he plants this seed of doubt in Othello’s mind,” Matthews reports. “In Othello, it’s actually about Desdemona’s loyalty. In this one, Hamlett is planting the seed of doubt, but I’ve altered the lines just ever so slightly so that it shows that she’s young and will eventually choose her husband over him anyway. So he shouldn’t put too much time or energy into her.”

The dialogue in the 24-page play is part Shakespeare, part Matthews. It takes place in the past and the present, and in St. Pete and Havana. “It makes sense,” she says, “but at first it was a big ol’ mess. I was copying and pasting, and gently changing a word here and there. I was waking up in the middle of the night with ideas, and jotting them down. And we’ll definitely re-visit it again, probably over the summer.”

As a tie-in to provable reality, she wrote herself into the story, as a letter-discovering character named Samantha. “Ella J’s name was on the property records; that doesn’t necessarily mean that she lived there,” Matthews says. “I don’t know for sure that she even wrote the letter.

“But I did start to get this whole idea, from this letter, about who she was. She’s very expressive and dramatic in this letter. It was weird to live in that apartment after that. I felt like she was there with me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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