Dear Judge Lovecraft,
So pleased to have your wonderful letter today, which will have to be pondered over more than ours! Am hastening to send this out, closed cuttings, for fear they will become untimely, although they are not very astonishing, I do fear me! Am frankly delighted you liked some of my last ones sent—it makes me very proud and happy […]
I am, faithfully yours,
4 June 1935, MSS. John Hay Library
In 1924, H. P. Lovecraft—who at this point was well-known in amateur journalism circles for his poetry and poetry criticism—was invited to be a judge for a poetry contest held by the League of American Penwomen. One of the participants was Elizabeth Augusta Toldridge (1861-1940), a graduate of the Maryland State Normal School (now Townson University) who had worked as a clerk at the U.S. Treasury, and the author of two collections of poetry: The Soul of Love (1910) and Mother’s Love Songs (1911). She had also published a fair amount of poetry in newspapers, sometimes under the name of her father Barnet Toldridge.
By 1928, Toldridge was 67 years old, and apparently living alone in the Farragut building in Washington, D.C. There is no evidence she ever married or had children, and seemed to live alone. Toldridge was presumably retired from her work as a clerk, and apparently had recently suffered an accident of unknown severity; Lovecraft later described her as “crippled and shut in,” although newspaper accounts suggest she was still relatively active in the American Poetry Circle in D.C.
Lovecraft’s first letter to Elizabeth Toldridge is dated 16 August 1928; he was answering her inquiry about the long-ago poetry competition. What followed was a correspondence that would last the rest of Lovecraft’s life; 103 letters survive from 1928 to 1937 representing Lovecraft’s side of the correspondence which Toldridge had dutifully kept. Her own letters, kept by Lovecraft, amount to only five plus some miscellaneous cards, preserved among his papers at the John Hay Library. So, as with many of Lovecraft’s other women penpals, most of what we know about their correspondence comes from his letters…and what he mentioned of her in letters to others.
Just before leaving town I shall have to telephone the good old lady amateur poet Miss Toldridge, who (though learned & interesting in letters) is probably a bore, but who would naturally be offended if she heard of my passing through without a word on the wire.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 6 May 1929, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.792-793
Upon my return I gave my duty telephone call to the old lady—Miss Toldridge—& she cordially insisted that I pay at least a brief call in person. She is a somewhat stately & intelligent gentlewoman living amidst family portraits & reliques in a pleasant apartment-house in Farragut Park. After a short call—less boresome than I had anticipated—I returned to my hotel & spent the later evening reading.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 7 May 1929, LFF 2.795
Over the next eight years and change, Lovecraft and Toldridge would discuss poetry, writing, ancient history and anthropology, and modern politics. On his trips to the American South, Lovecraft dutifully sent back travelogues and postcards, and Toldridge followed the careers of Lovecraft and his contemporaries in the pulps. A particular aspect of their correspondence was Toldridge’s tendency to send Lovecraft cuttings from newspapers on subjects she thought he would be interested in—anthropology, literature, the British royal family, etc.—which would often serve as meat for Lovecraft’s next dutiful letter. It is from these remarks that we get some of Lovecraft’s most interesting comments on contemporary anthropology during the 1930s…and perhaps they gave him ideas as well.
This cutting, for example, was sent with Toldridge’s letters of 1 July 1935, MSS John Hay Library. While it’s probably a bit much to say this could have been part of the inspiration for “An Heir to the Mesozoic” (1938) by Hazel Heald, if Lovecraft did have any hand in that work, maybe Toldridge’s clipping proved an inspiration…or perhaps not; there is too little evidence to say anything definite.
What we can say is that Lovecraft continued to keep in touch—and while Toldridge continued to address her letters to “Judge Lovecraft,” he began to affectionately refer to her (at least in his letters to others) as “Aunt Lizzie” or “Aunt Liz.” In 1934 when traveling through Washington, D.C. he stopped by to see her again, and encouraged his young friend R. H. Barlow to do likewise:
By the way—try to get time to call on that good old lady who addresses me as “Judge”—the poetess Miss Elizabeth Toldridge, The Farragut, Farragut Sq. (Telephone District 5870) She is crippled & shut in, & welcomes any pleasant breath from the outside. She’s heard all about you, & hopes to see you. You’ll find her really very cultivated interesting underneath a veneer of Victorian mannerisms. A kindly & admirable soul, all told.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 1 Sep 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 174-175
Hope you’ll look up Miss Toldridge before long—in the Farragut apartment house at Farragut Square. The poor old soul will probably have to move soon, though she’s lived there 32 years; since the owners want to transform the edifice into a medical building.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Oct 1934, OFF 186
Glad you’ve called on good old Miss Toldridge, & hope he moving will be as easy as possible. It was really a crime to dislodge the amiable old soul from her shelter of 30 years—but I trust she’ll find the La Salle not less comfortable after a while.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 1 Dec 1934, OFF 193
Glad you took nice old Miss Toldridge to see “Don Quixote”—she seems to get around very little nowadays, with lameness & natural timidity acting in conjunction.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, OFF 275
In 1934, Barlow and Lovecraft perpetrated a hoax, anonymously mailing out copies of “The Battle That Ended The Century” to their friends—which were mailed from Washington, D.C. Toldridge was one of Lovecraft’s few acquaintances in the city at the time, but there is no record of her being the D.C. end of the hoax in their extant correspondence. More likely it was one of Barlow’s friends in the area who mailed off the bit of fun…and the association of Barlow, Lovecraft, & Toldridge had other benefits. Toldridge submitted some of her poetry to Barlow for use in his amateur journals The Dragon-Fly and Leaves, where her poem “H. P. Lovecraft” (1937) was eventually published. When Lovecraft visited her in D.C. in 1935, they discussed the possibility of Barlow publishing a collection of her poetry:
Well—I called on Aunt Liz, but she doesn’t seem to want to name the definite contents of any book yet. Says she wants to write some more & “better” poems for it! Didn’t get a chance to talk amateurdom—-another old lady was there most of the time discussing this & that. You’ll be sorry to hear that Lady Macdonald died last month. Her daughter sent Miss T. the sand news. Aunt Liz sent you all sorts of regards, & said she thought you were the nicest boy she had ever encountered. She marvels at the maturity of your mind.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 1 Sep 1935, OFF 289
A manuscript for a collection of her poetry titled Winnings was left behind after her death.
Periodic references to Toldridge appear in Lovecraft’s letters to Barlow, and Barlow in Lovecraft’s letters to Toldridge, as they all three appear to have kept in touch from in 1935-1937. Lovecraft’s letters appear to show a growing awareness of her own mortality, as age and health issues continue to be referenced, and in late 1936 Lovecraft received an unexpected gift:
Yesterday I received from Aunt Lizzie that heirloom ring which she’s talked so much about. I had tried my best to stop her sending it—she ought to snap out of that “not long for this world” attitude. Hope you drop her occasional cheering letters. I try to do so.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11 Dec 1936, OFF 384
By the time you have the letter in which I acknowledge—most gratefully & appreciatively—the delightful & memory-surrounded ring which arrived on Thursday. It is pleasant indeed to know its history, & the source of that attractive [“]planetary system” of diamonds. Let me repeat my thanks for this honour of custodianship—& my assurances that the heirloom is at your complete disposal whenever you wish to have it with you again. I am sure that the kinsfolk in the mother land will appreciate most profoundly the other reliques sent to them—although in this case also you really ought to have retained the article for your own enjoyment. No apologies are necessary for the ‘un-shined’ state of the ring—indeed, I always prefer a certain appearance of mellowness in any object to utter, sapolio-suggesting spic-&-span-ness. So once more let me attest my sincerest appreciation & gratitude!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 21 Dec 1936, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 349
Elizabeth Toldridge sticks out as a bit of an oddity among Lovecraft’s correspondents: she doesn’t appear to have had any direct relationship with amateur journalism until relatively late in life, when Lovecraft got her into the National Amateur Press Association, nor was she a fellow pulpster, a fan, family, or a family friend. Little to no mention of her is made in Lovecraft’s letters to anyone except Barlow and his aunts.
Yet she wrote to him in 1928; Lovecraft was too much of a gentleman not to answer. So she kept writing, and he kept answering…and so grew their correspondence and friendship over a period of years. Whether he was humoring her because of her age, or whether she was really lonely and desperate for contact is impossible to say at this juncture, but as with many folks, Lovecraft’s initial assessment became much more positive once he had a chance to meet and talk with her face to face. Their correspondence on poetry certainly appears to have helped Lovecraft away from his strict adherence to meter (he once proclaimed himself a “metrical mechanic”) to the more evocative verse of his “Fungi from Yuggoth.”
Lovecraft’s last letter to Toldridge is dated 7 January 1937. He was glad to hear that the copy of The Shadow over Innsmouth, published by Visionary Press, had arrived to her safely. He included a poetic tribute to his friend Clark Ashton Smith, “To Klarkash-Ton, Wizard of Averoigne”—and he signed off simply:
All good wishes—
Yrs most sincerely,
H P Lovecraft
Of the one thousand abridged letters in the Selected Letters, 84 were selected from Lovecraft’s letters to Elizabeth Toldridge; in part, no doubt, to the breadth of the subject matter of their correspondence. The full 103 letters from Lovecraft to Toldridge were published in Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge and Anne Tillery Renshaw in 2014. The few surviving letters and cards from Toldridge to Lovecraft, along with many poetry manuscripts she sent, may be read online for free at the John Hay Library—although the faint pencil strokes and the yellowing from the acidic newsprint cuttings laid in with the letters make them difficult to read.