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This Is Not a Eulogy

This is an appreciation. Our friend, writer, editor, and teacher Leslie Harpold recently died. A memorial for a woman who was difficult to describe—and who couldn’t stand sentimental bullshit.

Leslie Harpold In the fall of 2003, we received an email to the Non-Expert:

I have a crushing inability to write proper thank-you notes. Can you offer me some guidelines?—Helen

We forwarded the message to our contributing writers, and Leslie Harpold said she wanted to answer it. Since the time we published her advice on how to write a thank-you note, the article has become the number-one search result on the subject. We’ve received more requests to reprint her article than any other piece we’ve published, all of which we forwarded to her. At one point, when we compared notes, she said she easily received the same number of requests in her inbox. It’s no exaggeration to say Leslie Harpold has taught thousands and thousands of people how best to express their gratitude to each other.

In the wrap-up to her thank-you article, Leslie includes this advice: “It’s not overkill to say thanks again. So say it.”

Thank you, Leslie Harpold.


* * *

Todd Levin: Leslie was the Internet’s den mother. She adopted me in 1996, after discovering my website—perhaps you were familiar with its very memorable URL,—and presented me with her plan to launch a web zine called Smug. It was to be both a repudiation of the early web’s Whole Earth Catalog brand of sincerity, and a big Midwestern embrace of everything we hold dear. It was going to be amazing. It was going to change the medium, and maybe even the world.

I thought she was full of shit, and that Smug would never be seen by any eyes other than Leslie’s. I also honestly thought she was using this fictitious zine as counterfeit currency to purchase an online friendship, because I didn’t trust anyone I met on the Internet. But no one else had shown any interest in my writing, and there’s something very intoxicating about someone who wants to create something new and explosive and world-changing, and wants you on her team. So yes, fuck yes. Smug was going to change the world.

Smug did not change the world. It didn’t even really change the Internet, but it was a fun read, and it cemented my friendship with Leslie and a few of its other contributors. The experience, while overwhelmingly positive, never stopped me from doubting Leslie along the way, but I would eventually discover that even her most outlandish insistences would prove true. (I remember her telling me she was trying very hard to get Mike Watt to contribute something to Smug. I thought this was unlikely to impossible but, several months later, there was his byline. I bragged to everyone about it. Leslie was full of surprises like that.)

I am grateful to Leslie for making me more aware of my own writing, and its potential, and grateful to Smug for making others aware of me. But, again, a debt of gratitude to Smug is a debt to Leslie, since it was essentially her own grand plan to bring together all of her adopted Internet kids, and show them off like a proud mother.

I feel angry that she’s gone. I will feel sad later, I guess, but I feel mostly angry right now. I used to spend a lot of time obsessing over a book I couldn’t finish. Part of my obsession was imagining every last detail of the published book, from its typography and cover design to its dedication page. It’s a very delusional exercise, but show me someone who hasn’t done something similar. In my fantasies, the dedication page was going to read, “For Leslie, most of all.” I am not changing that fantasy, ever. Even in her inconceivable absence, I feel compelled to make Leslie proud.

* * *

Liz Entman: I knew Leslie only through her writing, which reveals a woman I would very much have liked to meet in person—sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful, perceptive, and deeply, quietly hilarious. Her writing is fresh and very, very good. She wrote an article for us before I came on board that is especially poignant to read now—“How to Write a Thank-You Note”—which seems to reveal her wit, warmth, and humor as much as it explicates a problem of modern etiquette. It is fitting, then, to give thanks here for Leslie and her many gifts. She will be missed.

* * *

Kevin Guilfoile:

When I google “Thank You,” to my surprise,
I get more than 300 million replies.
Three hundred plus millions of writers and bloggers
Thanking each other for You Tube and Frogger
And iPods and White Stripes and Stephen Colbert,
Thanks coming and going to most everywhere.
And with every post the Net’s gratitude grows
For the things that make us feel good, I suppose.
But what won’t surprise me when I search for thanks
Is of 300 million, how high Leslie ranks.

* * *

Andrew Womack: Leslie’s writing is praised for any number of worthwhile reasons: its emotional accuracy, her refusal to retread, the sensitivity to beat and detail—try reciting the Rock Show Attendees’ Creed at the end of “A Brief Catechism of Rock Shows” to hear what I mean. However, as someone who edited many of her pieces for The Morning News, what stands out most to me about her writing is her dedication to the craft.

She was no prima donna when it came to having her work edited. When she took issue with a change, she didn’t go headstrong; instead, she suggested we solve it together. Her revisions might come back with “What are you going for here? Maybe this could work better. Let me know what you think.” Not a prima donna, but certainly crafty.

So there was the work, but there was also the conversation that went along with the work. Our rounds of edits for “How to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner” is complemented by an email thread over twice as long as the article itself, spilling with recipes and stories about past Thanksgivings and plans for that year’s dinner. At one point I remember hitting “Send” with a lengthy response to our discussion about worst Thanksgivings ever—and I’d neglected to attach the latest round of edits to my message. And the entire time we were editing, writing, and chatting, she was actually prepping that year’s meal. She’d alert me when she had to sign off for a half-hour here or there to make up piecrusts or check the turkey, which was brining in the refrigerator.

Her best-known work for us is “How to Write a Thank-You Note.” Because the reader question was sent to the Non-Expert address, I expected Leslie to provide a jokey answer. But instead she’d delivered a smart, concise how-to piece. I wrote back and told her this, getting a response just a few minutes later. She apologized—could we still use the piece? I said I’d have edits back soon.

Looking back at the old Word documents—with “Track Changes” still activated—I can literally see how the article developed. A couple of jokes near the beginning were shaped. The usual formatting and style fixes. No punctuation errors. I put in the examples of the thank-you note’s components (“Dear Aunt Sally…”), but she changed the names and replaced the mittens with slippers. Which is such a small fix, but such an important one; everybody owns slippers, but not everybody owns mittens. More people can relate to slippers—it’s going to mean more to people.

* * *

Paul Ford: Sweetheart, you deserved better than to drift off into oblivion chased by tributes. One final indignity on the pile of indignities, right? But here we are.

I read on some website that you never, ever complained. I spit milk at that. I could hear you laughing.

“Paul,” you said once. “Listen to me. Listen to me. Stop wearing vests.”

“Greatness,” you told me on May 12, 2003, “only occurs when obsession meets complete vulnerability.”

Truth is, I can’t let you die just yet.

* * *

Josh Allen: We set up a fine tree this year. Did it up just right, and the funny thing is we got it at Home Depot. This tree that looks so stoic and ancient. Alexis put a very modest number of white lights on it, buried deep within the branches, and it just looks ghostly there in the living room, transforming the bleak salmon carpeting (which was unpleasantly moist during the summer) and 70s-era architecture into something elegant. Which is, I guess, what I strive for in every aspect of my life. ISN’T THAT RIGHT.

In the middle of writing the above paragraph last night, I heard about Leslie. It was a terrible night of vague information. I went to sleep. I woke up thinking about how we were going to live together in a farmhouse in Bucks County. And how she slept on the floor so I could sleep on her bed. And how she brought me on as a writer for Smug. And how she introduced me to Alexis. And how my life would be drastically different today without her, and how I probably wouldn’t’ve been in that living room last night, looking at that tree, and writing that paragraph, and writing it in that particular way.

* * *

Claire Miccio: I wasn’t sure if I liked Leslie until we started talking about a John Cheever short story and her voice caught on something and snagged. I looked up at her thinking it had something to do with her cigarette, and saw she was crying.

Later we were eating strawberry shortcake together when she turned on me with a plastic knife, wobbling with whipped cream, and said she would cut me if I thought fat people shouldn’t eat dessert. I’m pretty sure she was serious, too. I really liked her after that.

* * *

Jessica Francis Kane: When I was just starting to write for TMN and the world of online magazines seemed very uncertain and strange to me, I searched around the TMN archives and found a piece Leslie had written about thank-you notes. I thought it was beautifully done, a true guide to what is nearly a lost art. It seemed to me a good sign that this online magazine promoted thank-you note writing, and I loved the voice in which Leslie did it: blunt, no-nonsense, and a little funny, too, as if it were all really so obvious if only you’d pay attention. Like Sinatra teaching you a scale, or Fred Astaire showing you how to walk. She wrote: “Even if your friends and relatives aren’t of the note-writing variety, be the one who sets the precedent. Thank-you-note writing is one of the loveliest traditions to have been utterly compromised by the information age. Let’s start a movement to revive a little gracious living.”

She must have lived graciously. I never met her, but I was sure I would some day. I keep thinking: There was this person named Leslie Harpold who encouraged me to write for TMN, and now she’s gone. Why didn’t I write her a thank-you note?

* * *

Choire Sicha: Leslie has a perfect ear for the false, so, no bullshit. It is only a comfort knowing exactly what she would tell me to do with my life, and I think I’ll try to take her up on it while I can. (Tall order, too. High standards.) I wish she could be here to mock this tribute with that understanding and charitable way she had of being hilariously mean.

No more Big Meat at the Knickerbocker.

* * *

Margaret Mason: Leslie’s hair was soft, and she smelled like ripe apples. Even after a morning of gossip and cigarettes, that smell was more present than the smoke when she hugged you goodbye.

Leslie loved to talk, and she especially loved to talk about useful things. She had a bottomless bag of tricks, and she shared. She wanted your life to be happier, easier.

Here’s a bit of understatement: Leslie’s life was not easy. Hardship shaped her, but it never diminished her. By all rights, she should have been vacant or at least a little numb. Instead, she was vibrant, magnetic, disarming. She didn’t collapse, she fought.

She fought with humor, her projects, and sheer will. She sent uncannily thoughtful care packages. She wrote thank-you notes, made beautiful piecrusts, offered encouragement, found you a job. But she did not suffer fools.

Leslie stayed vulnerable. She loved people, and she wanted to be loved back. It was hard not to love her back; she was too charming. She held court at parties, she flirted, she liked to dance.

When Leslie talked, she leaned back in her chair and blew her smoke away from you. When she listened, she leaned forward with her elbows on the table and her eyes on yours. She nodded and averted her gaze when she was thinking especially hard.

She was tall, but you only had a few minutes each time you saw her to take her all in. She spent most of her time sitting with her cane resting near her chair. She hated that fucking cane.

Above all, Leslie was a nurturer—a big sister, a better mom perhaps than your own. The enormous strength she had, she gave to all of us. Whatever headway she made, she pulled us up with her.

She would have made an excellent mother and a fun wife. She had beautiful skin. She loved a red scarf. I did not want her to die alone.

Leslie wanted us to remember her, for us to think about her when she wasn’t around. And Leslie, sweet girl, we can give you that much. You’re a tough one to forget.

* * *

Sarah Hepola: Right before I met Leslie Harpold, a friend of mine died. Sometimes, this would slip out in weird ways. And by “slip out,” I mean that I would get drunk and tears would drip down my face, and people would start investigating the back of their hands or the other side of the room. Not because they were trying to be mean; because they were trying to be nice. It was not a good month for me. I was a serious buzzkill.

This happened at a TMN retreat, while Leslie and I were chain-smoking on the porch one night. We had only met the night before, but I liked her because she guzzled Diet Coke and seemed jaded about things I hadn’t even figured out yet. Things like web design and blog software. I knew shards of her story—that a husband had died, that she had health problems, and she seemed sad. I was pretty sad, too. So while people cannonballed into the pool, lit on fine Scotch and premium beer, we talked about people who’d died. I told her my sob story, and then—because Leslie had little patience for bullshit—I told her the ugly details, the conflicted, deep-down confessions I hadn’t told anybody. She nodded; she’d been there. What was great about Leslie, in this instance, was how unrattled she was by public grief, even from a near-stranger. For hours, she just listened, and asked questions, and occasionally, when I started patting my pockets, she offered me a light.

* * *

Rosecrans Baldwin: If it weren’t for Leslie, TMN never would have started taking summer staff retreats. It was her idea for a couple dozen of us to disappear over a weekend into the Hampton wilds for gossip, cigarettes, and drinking until we were sick.

The first night in Sag Harbor, three years ago, Leslie and I stayed up talking by the pool until sunrise, then she went to bed and I went for a jog. An hour later people started rising for breakfast. Andrew and I had a big presentation planned that day and neither of us was in any good shape for drawing on a whiteboard. I remember being irritable and my hands shaking, and Leslie, like the rest of us, being crabby from lack of sleep. But by the afternoon we got it together, went for a long walk, made drinks, and went back to the proper business of forgetting work.

Leslie and I and several others rode together in the same packed car on the Sunday drive home. Once we hit the Long Island Expressway we began singing along to the radio. It was obvious she was depressed when we eventually parked in Brooklyn and all got out to leave in separate directions. She hated parties ending.

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TMN’s Contributing Writers know where to find the purple couch. Long live the pan flute, mini mafia, and Michael Jackson. More by The Writers