Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dear Karen...

Family Weekly was a Sunday newspaper supplement that began publication in 1953. Like its competitors Parade and This Week (where many JDM stories were first published) it commanded a huge readership by the very nature of its distribution model. At its high point it was carried in over 350 separate newspapers in the United States and claimed a circulation of nearly 13 million issues per week. Editorially it was little different from the other supplements, although as its title implies it attempted to swing to a more family oriented direction. In 1985 it was purchased by the mind-numbing USA Today and began appearing in all of the Gannett newspapers throughout the country -- typically small town newspapers that had been acquired by the publisher. They changed the title to USA Weekend and it still appears each week in hundreds of papers throughout the US.

In 1973 the editors of Family Weekly received a letter from one Karen Landoll, a housewife and secretary from Galion, Ohio. They deemed it special enough to run as a featured item, calling the letter "poignant." Judge for yourself below.

Appearing in the April 29 issue, the letter drew a heavy response from the magazine's readers, "some containing advice, some criticism, some offering help." Among the responses were two from celebrities, one from Vikki Carr, whom Landoll specifically mentioned in her letter, and another from author John D MacDonald. JDM was not mentioned in the letter but his friend Dan Rowan was, which may have been the impetus behind his response.

What he wrote is typical MacDonald: scathing, instructional, name-dropping Calvinism that leaves no doubt as to his frame of mind. At times MacDonald's rants could prove tiresome and even vindictive, but one gets the sense here that Landoll deserved every bit of the author's disdain.

First Landoll's letter, then the responses, which appeared almost three months later in the magazine's July 22 issue.

Dear Family Weekly,

I suppose I'm writing to the wrong place but I feel that a person in your position could at least advise me on my problem anyway. If I don't hear from you, I'll understand because I wrote to Dan Rowan and Dick Martin and I never heard from them. I also tried getting through to Mike Douglas in Philadelphia two years ago and because I wasn't someone big, I couldn't get through. I can't blame them though because they made it big and they don't have time to help a little person. I would write Vikki Carr but I don't know her address, but I believe she would help me because she has a heart.

Ever since I was five years old, I've wanted to be a professional singer. I sang in the church choir from age five to age 17. I also sang in school choirs and school plays. I love singing and I'm very good at it. This is not just my opinion but everyone's opinion who has heard me sing.

How does a person get a chance when they don't have the money? I just need someone big to hear me so I can prove what I'm saying. It's hard for me to be married, work a secretarial job, and not be doing what I really want. It's like my husband and I have a big secret that would surprise the world but we don't know how to let them know. My husband wants me to be a singer because he knows that it means the world to me. I'm tired of singing in my house. I want to sing to the world. I have been praying for this dream to come true for so many years but no one hears, because no one cares.

I'm 23 and my husband is 25. I work for a car dealer and my husband is an insurance man. You can tell by that that we don't have much money. We've been married four years and we don't have any kids.

I just need someone to listen and someone to care. I want to be a singer so bad that I dream of it, pray for it and cry over it. I'm tired of going through life and always wanting to do this but never achieving it. Please advise me what someone can do when they know they can do it but they need someone to listen! Who do I go to? Who would listen to me? I'm no one! I do want to be someone!


Karen J. Landoll

Sarasota, Fla.

Dear Karen,

Your letter has been a subtle irritant in the back of my mind for this past week, but not for the reasons you might suspect.

Please try to understand when I say that your letter seems to me to be arrogant rather than, as Family Weekly labeled it, poignant.

It is not your fault that you have this warped image of the real world, that you have the belief that somehow the world owes you the chance to start at the top. The Cinderella myth has always been overworked by the flacks of all branches of the entertainment world, because it is far easier to make a Cinderella story interesting than a story of years of hard labor in the boonies. But young people like you, who have an unmeasured, untested talent, believe that if just given a chance, you can prove your right to become an instant Star.

It is not done this way. Rowan and Martin, Mike Douglas and Vikki Carr are not going to open magic doorways for you. I can tell you why. I am privileged to count Dan Rowan as a personal friend. He is a sensitive, decent, sympathetic man. Before he and Dick were "discovered," there were 18 years of gigs, club dates, saloons, squalid motels and small money.

I have a neighbor here in Florida named Joy Williams, whose first novel has just been published by Doubleday with much fanfare. It is called State of Grace. Behind this "discovery" of her talent is an eight-year period of writing, writing, writing, until, within the past couple of years, she acquired sufficient competence to sell shorter pieces to good magazines.

Do you, in your innocence, think that Dinah Shore, Peggy Lee, Eyde Gorme, Vikki Carr, Ella, Streisand, Billie Holliday, earned their right to "sing to the world" by writing plaintive little letters to top entertainers? When each one was "discovered," it was because each one had made herself visible by years of hard, tough work.

Let me tell you what other young women are doing, women who perhaps have a stronger motivation than you. They are singing. They are haunting the local radio and television stations, the lounges, fairs, benefits, clubs, churches, funeral parlors, grabbing at each and every chance to sing for the people, whether it be for a ten dollar bill, a box lunch or two lines in the paper. Each time they sing, they learn things that cannot be learned in 12 years of singing around the house. They learn more about the professional requirements of timing and phrasing, of fitting the voice to various kinds of mikes and speaker systems and dimensions of the halls, of enduring drunks and fools, and jackhammers in the street outside.

These young women do not seek the opinion of friends to learn if they are "good at singing." They learn that the best way, by being asked back, by being given fifteen dollars instead of ten, by being applauded by total strangers.

That's how it really happens, Karen. From no one to someone is never an overnight thing, and writing letters won't do it. I am astonished that you could live for 23 years and love singing, and not know this already. There are many valid biographies and autobiographies of singing stars available. Have you not been interested enough in how it is done to even read these stories? Right now, you have wasted four or five years in an empty yearning to be famous, in "praying for this dream to come true." Can you imagine the wry and amused bitterness in the minds of the girls who have been singing for the people in small places for these five years, trying to make their dream come true, too, when they read of your petulance at having your letters ignored?

I get poignant letters that begin, almost invariably, "I have always wanted to write." Me too, pal. My first two short story sales brought in a grand total of $70. They cost me one million words of manuscript, untold hundreds of hours, and over $100 in postage, mailing my stories out. I answer those poignant letters by saying in return, "If you always wanted to write, and wanted to badly enough, you would be writing, regardless of whether or not you are selling."

Karen, have you always wanted to sing with such aching need that you were willing to start at the bottom? Or do you just have this romantic image of yourself as a frustrated potential celebrity?

Get out and work for peanuts, or work for free. Or give up the notion.

Sincerely yours,
John D. MacDonald

Beverly Hills, Calif.

Dear Karen,

After reading your letter which was recently published in Family Weekly, I was honored by your kind thoughts, and would like to reply.

As you have already begun to learn, being a singer, or just breaking into the entertainment business itself, is pretty difficult. I don't have any information about what you would like to do in your career, and don't know how much help I can be, but I would appreciate your sending me more information, perhaps including some demo records or tapes.

Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Warmest regards,
Vikki Carr

I can find no evidence that Karen Landoll ever recorded anything, at least under her own name.


  1. I've been thinking about JDM's letter and while I agree with everything he said, I'm surprised he bothered to write it at all. This lady who wants to become a singer is representative of millions who think they can write without writing(or even reading), or sing without any experience, etc. I'm sure JDM knew all about these ignorant people and I guess her letter just pissed him off.

  2. I'd bet money that what caused his written response was the fact that she mentioned his buddy Dan Rowan in her list of people that cruelly ignored her.