Her Letters To Lovecraft: Jonquil Leiber

But first I must explain that my husband, Fritz Leiber, Jr, son of the Shakespearian actor, (who often played in Providence in time past) met Lovecraft through myself and formed a delightful friendship. We were the recipients of many letters now in the hands of the Wisconsin people, Eerleth [sic] et al. Many of the things you touched on in your article, we knew a little more in detail due to this correspondence – about his brief marriage for instance. And since I wa [sic] more interested in Lovecraft as a man or human than I was as a writer, (I lean to the Montague Rhode James, plus the weird man known as Summers type of mystery having been brought up in a draft old English castle – I’m an Englishwoman) so that I learned a number of things about him that his more well bred correspondents did. The man literally starved to death.
—Jonquil Leiber to William Townley Scott, 18 May 1944, MSS. John Hay Library

Jonquil Ellen Stephens married Fritz Reuter Leiber, Jr. on 18 January 1936. Fritz was working as an actor and pursuing a career as a writer; he had met and dated Jonquil at the University of Chicago in 1933-1934. They shared a love of supernatural fiction and poetry, and she encouraged her husband’s interests. On the 14th of October 1936, Jonquil wrote to Lovecraft.

Then in the late summer my wife, with a bold directness I had been unable to conceive for myself, wrote a letter to Lovecraft care of Weird Tales. A few days later the great man replied with what we thought was a long letter, until we had received some of his average-sized communications. That was the beginning of an orgy of letter-writing which lasted the few short months until his death. My wife wrote more letters herself and shortly we were joined by my friend and fellow enthusiast for the fantastic, Harry O. Fischer, then of Lousiville, Kentucky. Our letters were returned to us by Mrs. Gamwell afterwards. The entire correspondence was excerpted by Derleth for the volume of letters and later borrowed and retained, permanently as yet, by another individual who shall remain nameless here.
—Fritz Leiber, Jr. “My Correspondence with Lovecraft,” Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 375

Of the nine published letters from H. P. Lovecraft to Fritz & Jonquil Leiber, based off the Arkham House Transcripts created by August Derleth & co., four are addressed to “My dear Mrs. Leiber.” The originals letters, as far as I am aware, have not surfaced in the interim.

It is difficult to feel out who Jonquil was through these letters. As she told Scott, they show an interest in Lovecraft as a human being more than in his fiction; where Fritz and Lovecraft soon got deep into literary criticism and history, which would cause Fritz Leiber to revise his first Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser novella Adept’s Gambit, to her he answered questions on his life, who Lovecraft was and how he lived. Yet this was a real correspondence, a two-way channel of communication, and Lovecraft found out about her even as she was finding out about him.

It is interesting to know that you have a touch of piracy in your ancestry! I have a counterfeiter as a great-great-grand-uncle about whom I’ll tell you some time.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Jonquil Leiber, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 317

The best picture of her probably came from her husband, writing decades later after thirty-three years of marriage which only ended with her death due to a combination of alcohol and barbiturates. He remembered her as she was when they married:

She was small (four foot ten; best weight, ninety pounds), had bright blue eyes that were at times violet; she was fast (at Cyfartha Castle school in Wales she’d been a great scorer in field hockey; her method: get the ball and dodge your way to the enemy goal, no teamwork needed—you can always dodge big girls) and a good apache dancer; she had natural grace and artistry (early on she’d done illuminated manuscripts just as had the hero of Machen’s The Hill of Dreams); in America she posed for silk stocking advertisements; she was a great party planner and giver, a gifted fortuneteller, enthusiastic, and friendly, but capable of sudden vast dignified reserves, again just like a kitten.
—Fritz Leiber, Jr., “Not Much Disorder and Not So Early Sex: An Autobiographic Essay”
in The Ghost Light 334

Fritz talks about how cold winter was that January and February in Chicago, and how he read to Jonquil “At the Mountains of Madness” by H. P. Lovecraft from the pages of Astounding Stories (the first part appeared in the February 1936 issue, which might have been on the stands the month before). Their correspondence itself is almost lost in his account of their life together. It was, after all, only about four months—though it would influence Fritz for the rest of his life, help inform his work and make connections with the circle of Lovecraft’s correspondents, and he would return the favor with literary analyses and appreciations such as “The Works of H. P. Lovecraft: Suggestions for a Critical Appraisal” (1944), “A Literary Copernicus” (1949), “Through Hyperspace with Brown Jenkin” (1963), and “To Arkham and the Stars” (1966).

Throughout his life, Fritz Leiber, Jr. never forgot his debt to Lovecraft—or to Jonquil.

Because without Jonquil, none of it would have happened. Perhaps Fritz would have found his voice eventually; sold his stories and made his name. Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser may yet have helped inspire Dungeons & Dragons and played their part in the sword & sorcery boom of the 1960s and 70s; Fritz may even have written his homages to Lovecraft without that personal connection and communication. Yet because she had the courage to write to Lovecraft, a torch was passed from one generation of weird writers to another—and the effects of her letters to Lovecraft are still being felt today. They can still be read today, thanks to her: his final hopes to get a job, his painful economic necessities to scrimp on food. Not always pleasant reading, but the kind of insight which Lovecraft did not always share with every correspondent.

Lovecraft’s letters to Jonquil & Fritz Leiber were published in part in volume five of the Selected Letters (Arkham House, 1976), published more fully in Fritz Leiber and H.P. Lovecraft: Writers of the Dark (2005, Wildside Press), and reprinted in Letters to C. L. Moore and Others (2017, Hippocampus Press).

To A Dead Lover

Your limbs lie quietly beneath the grey dust and mould
And I am done with you and all you were of old
The blind worms creep about that once lovely head
I held against my heart…once, when your blood ran red.

Long years ago I loved you, but now I smile
Having other men a long, long while
I have forgotten you, I say, and all you were….

….But why do I hear your slow step on the stair…
And wait, eyes closed, to feel your arms about me?
—Jonquil Stephens, Sonnets to Jonquil and All (1978) vii


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

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