Visiting an antique store is like going on a journey back in time. Most shops are filled with old furniture, paintings, dishes and knickknacks, but sometimes amazing treasures are found.
More than a decade ago, Carolyn Porter visited a now-closed antique store in downtown Stillwater that proved most fortuitous.
“I have an affection for old handwriting, and I had been keeping an eye out for old letters I could use as source material for a new computer font,” said Porter, a graphic designer in White Bear Lake. “But until that day, I had not found letters that included enough raw material to work with.”
For her font, Porter needed a handwriting sample that had a complete array of both upper and lowercase letters, along with numbers. She found exactly what she had been looking for in a collection of letters written during World War II by a Frenchman named Marcel Heuzé.
“I was drawn not only to Marcel’s beautiful, swashed handwriting, but to the papers the letters had been written on. The yellowed pages were covered with faded ink and stripes of blue and red had been painted in the background,” recalled Porter, who bought five of the 20 or so letters for sale. “They cost just over $6 apiece; $30 was all I felt comfortable spending that day.”
Over the next several years, Porter worked on the font in her spare time. She finished the font in late 2013, and was honored when P22 Type Foundry, a New York-based distributor that specializes in fonts based on art, history, and design, wanted “Marcel” to be part of its curated collection.
Since its release, P22 Marcel Script has garnered five awards, including the prestigious Certificate for Typographic Excellence from the New York Type Director’s Club. However, the creation of the P22 Marcel Script is only part of the story.
A few years before the release of the font, Porter took on another project.
Out of curiosity, she had one of Marcel’s letters translated. Porter, who does not speak French, was shocked to learn Marcel’s letters had been mailed from a labor camp in Berlin. “Marcel desperately missed his wife and three young daughters,” she said.
Porter would learn his wife and daughters were waging their own battle for survival in a village in the countryside southwest of Paris.
In her soon-to-be-released book, “Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate,” Porter shares the story of her search for answers. Skyhorse Publishing of New York City will release the book June 6.
Porter says the peek into Marcel’s life revealed in that first translated letter left her yearning for answers.
“Marcel had this incredible tenacity and hope, which was amazing considering where he was.” What began as a curiosity turned into an obsessive search for answers. “I had to know if he survived and made it home to his family,” she said.
In the book, Porter pieces together answers from archives in Germany, France, and across the United States. Along the way, she learned more about the 600,000 French civilians forced to live and work in Germany during World War II.
“There were millions of jobs in factories, farms, and mines that needed to be done to support the war industry. The Germans needed laborers to replace the German men who had been transferred to the fronts to fight, so they demanded workers from the countries they occupied. At times, Marcel was living in a camp surrounded by razor wire and guarded by S.S. Men worked 70 hours per week and survived on starvation rations. Yet as bad as the French workers had it,” Porter acknowledged, “others had it far worse.”
In one of the letters, Marcel wrote: “We are about 60 in an old kitchen that is our lodging now. We bed down on straw. Do you picture it? Good thing that it isn’t too cold. We don’t have any light, that’s why my letter is messy.”
In another he said: “As soon as we leave the table we are hungry again. What we eat doesn’t stick to our ribs,” and “Death does not count any more.”
Marcel’s letters were also filled with words of love and optimism. One letter ended with these tender words for his wife: “And for you, my beloved one, I always save my most tender kisses.” In other letters, he offers gentle advice to his young daughters.
With the help of a genealogy researcher, Porter learned Marcel’s fate, which is revealed in the book. The genealogy researcher also helped Porter track down several of Marcel’s relatives in France. Porter obtained permission from his family to share the contents of these never-before-published letters.
Early reviews have been very favorable.
“Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate” will be available in hardcover and eBook format when it is released June 6, 2017. Pre-sales are already underway online at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com, as well as through Apple’s iBooks and IndieBound.org. Both formats retail for $24.99.