Magazine article The New Yorker

Epistolary Mystery

Magazine article The New Yorker

Epistolary Mystery

Article excerpt

The first of five hundred and twenty-six (and counting) anonymous postcards that have brought bafflement, diversion, and, finally, pleasure to the British actor Simon Jones arrived at his apartment on Central Park South in July, 2003. On the front was a photograph of the head of the Statue of Liberty awaiting transport to America; on its back the message "Plan Ahead." "And, as you see, they did," Jones said recently, in a restaurant around the corner from the theatre where he was, until last month, appearing in T. S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party." "But what the plan is--and why--I do not know."

Jones took a sip from a cocktail--a Gibson--and produced a shoebox-size wicker hamper fastened with blue masking tape. The cards were neatly stuffed inside, in chronological order and rubber-banded together by year. Jones pulled out the second and third cards to have arrived. The first was a picture of Buster Keaton. The meaning of its message--"Hey, Buster, never shall . . . "--became clearer after a gap of two days, with the arrival of an 1870 portrait of Mark Twain, which said ". . . the Twain meet." "So maybe that was a manifesto," Jones said. "Plan ahead. And you are never going to find out."

Thereafter, the mystery correspondent settled into a routine--on the back of each card a wry comment on the picture overleaf. Jones pulled out examples, like a gardener showing off prize vegetables. Next came a photo of Emily Dickinson, with the message "Seeking Agent"--"because this is so clearly not a head shot that would get you any parts," Jones said. There was Marilyn Monroe in front of a Cadillac ("Ready to Ride"); a diorama of two early humans, male and female ("First Date"); and a literary gathering at George Plimpton's in 1963 ("It's All Tru," which seems mystifying, until one makes out Truman Capote on a sofa). A four-word message on a 1954 portrait of Graham Greene was artfully placed with one word on each corner: "Greene Around the Edges."

Jones explained that at first he kept the cards "because I thought someone would come up and say, 'Did you get my witty postcards?' " Soon, he and his wife were keeping them for their own sake. "We didn't speak of it to others for at least five years," he said. …

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