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Letter writer Nelson Marans has displayed excellent topical range in recent missives published by the Washington Post. A sampling:
•He wrote that marble—not bronze—is the “ultimate material” for sculptors. That was in a March 7 letter in the Arts section.
•He wrote that “George West, Hymie Perlo and Ernie Travis” kicked off a 1940s basketball dynasty at D.C.’s Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School. That was in a March 6 letter on the paper’s Free for All page.
•He wrote that “London theaters have been forced to raise their prices to remain solvent.” That was in a Nov. 2 letter in the Travel section.
•He wrote that when a museum obtains a painting by gift, “the curators should have the decency to retain the original frame…until the benefactor dies.” That was in an Aug. 17 letter in the Arts section.
Arts, Travel, Free for All—at the Post, those places are the epistolary back of the bus. The 79-year-old Marans these days craves placement in the Post’s hottest letter-writing real estate: those three columns of reader-generated commentary just to the right of the paper’s editorials. That space hasn’t featured any of Marans’ thoughts since September 2002, when he attacked a local judge for a decision in a sexual-abuse case: “Judge [Durke G.] Thompson has shown that he is unfit for office,” wrote Marans. “His disclaimer of blame is fatuous. His conduct is a disgrace to Montgomery County and to its judicial system.”
Since then, Marans has pounded out one or two letters a week tailored to the Post’s main letters page, to no avail. In all, that’s about 100 unrequited letters. “I would say my luck has not been great,” says Marans.
Much of the unpublished material expresses Marans’ persistent belief that the Post’s Middle East coverage carries an anti-Israeli bias—a point he has made at Washington Post Co. shareholders’ meetings.
Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, who oversees the letters section, says no one is blacklisting Marans. “It’s just that we want to give lots of people a chance,” he says.
Fret not: The Post isn’t keeping Marans’ reflections out of the public realm entirely. Such a feat would require a widespread conspiracy among letters-page editors against one of the country’s most vigilant consumers of journalism. Community papers such as the Montgomery Gazette, big-city papers such as the Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the New York Times, national mags such as Time and Business Week, and specialty pubs such as the American Scientist have published Marans’ thoughts on everything from Tommy Franks to the closing of a Magruder’s grocery store in Wheaton.
“Certainly most of the loyal customers of this Magruder’s store will find it difficult to use other locations of the small chain. We have suffered another loss,” declared Marans in an online Gazette letter this month.
Jack Murphy, editor and executive vice president of the Gazette, said his paper received so much mail from Marans that it had to limit him to one published letter per month. “He would tend to drive out less frequent letter writers if we printed everything he used to write,” says Murphy.
That’s a safe bet. On average, Marans writes two to three letters to the editor per day. As of this week, he says, he has placed 955 letters in a correspondence career that stretches back to a couple of years after his 1987 retirement from W.R. Grace & Co., where he worked for 30 years as a research chemist.
Marans channels the sensibilities of letters-page editors from the bottom floor of his split-level home in Silver Spring. A couple of years back, he got a productivity boost by switching from a Royal manual typewriter to a Dell computer, which sits alongside an expansive spread of household clutter. “It’s a horror—a horror,” exclaims his wife, Rhoda Marans.
His 2003 numbers: 880 letters sent, 101 published. That translates to an 11 percent success rate—the envy of any serial letter writer.
Read a few of his best works and a Marans Method sorts itself out: (1) Refer to a story in the targeted publication, as opposed to spouting off on your pet topics; (2) write strong, punchy sentences free of sarcasm; and (3) avoid gratuitous ad hominem slams. “My wife says they’re not appropriate,” he says.
Says Post Letters Editor M.J. McAteer: “He’s cogent, and that’s something we’re always looking for.”
One other pointer: Run to daylight. Marans says his takes on sports have no business getting published. “I’m really not qualified to write on sports,” he says. “I’ve never played any of these sports.” Yet the Baltimore Sun sports folks, it would appear, appreciate his opinions on the NBA and the Olympics, among other topics. Over the past decade, Marans has made the page about 20 times. So he keeps on sending. “If the letters make sense and if they make a point,” they’re good to go, says Sun assistant sports editor Ray Frager.
On the other hand, says Marans, the New York Times’ sports page is a dead end. “They see right through me,” he says, noting that he’s written 20 letters to them over a decade. “My percentage there is zero.” Times Sports Editor Tom Jolly confirms that his section tries to “keep track of number of times an author has appeared” and values “provocative or thoughtful” points of view.
Marans’ lessons have come through stacks of trial and error. Two years ago, he tossed out 4,500 letters that never made the cut. One of the rejected letters that survived his purge was sent to the Post Home section. It begins like this:
With little change in the construction of toilets in the last one hundred years, there should be an opportunity for modifications that will suit the requirements of water conservation and flushing (An Update on Low Flushing Toilets, 10/14/99). An obvious solution that would give the flushing power of a 3.5 gallon toilet when necessary and a 1.6 gallon one when that amount would be sufficient would be to build a two compartment toilet with the compartment that is directly connected to the toilet bowl 1.6 gallon in volume and partitioned from a 1.9 additional reservoir with an opening into the first compartment that can be manually or electronically controlled.
Marans himself concedes that the toilet letter wasn’t his best stuff.
When Marans ventures into matters more weighty than double-barreled toilets, he sometimes draws return fire from the publications. For example, his scrapbooks document a long-running dialogue with Post Chair Donald Graham over Israel coverage and the fate of Marans’ letters. In a September 1998 dispatch, for example, Graham wrote: “I am sorry that your letters are being rejected, but I am certain that they are being opened and read.” Graham’s letters to Marans appear to be handwritten, although Marans suspects that the executive uses an automated shortcut. Graham declined to comment for this story.
At least Graham responds to Marans in his own words, which is more than can be said for other elite industry names. “Thank you for your warm words of support for Mr. Will’s commentary,” reads a June 1996 letter from an assistant of George Will. “Mr. Will would like to respond personally, but current constraints on his time make that impossible.”
And if anyone supposed that Post book maven Michael Dirda was a humble soul reared on homespun wisdom, check out his response to a critique from Marans: “…I will write about whatever I want to. When it comes to such intellectual freedom, I follow the example of Kafka, Paul Celan, Wittgenstein, Georges Perec, Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, and others among my artistic and scholarly heroes.”
Marans professes no such list of intellectual influences. He just gets mad when he reads bad journalism. “When I get very angry, I want to get rid of the anger. At the same time, I want to let them know that they have violated their journalistic integrity,” he says.
And he may have to live with more rejection from the Post’s editorial page. “We just can’t publish him twice a week,” says McAteer. “It’s not that kind of real estate. It is for rent.” —Erik Wemple