Alan Blackman, calligrapher who spent 36 years mailing letters to himself, dies at 96

By Sam Whiting,ReporterJune 20, 2024(

A master calligrapher and collector of commemorative stamps, Alan A. Blackman was an international phenomenon whose “Letters to Myself” were exhibited at the San Francisco Main Library. He died June 6 at age 96.Brandon Chew/Special to the Chronicle 2015

Alan Blackman could count on receiving one letter per month hand-addressed in perfect calligraphy and sent through the U.S. mail. He knew it was coming because he addressed, stamped and mailed the envelopes himself — an act of art and eccentricity that lasted for 36 years before he finally shared them in a traveling exhibition called “Letters to Myself.”

An exalted figure in the insular world of calligraphy, who accentuated his own strange persona by affecting the style and mannerisms of the fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Blackman died June 6 at VA Medical Center in San Francisco, said his niece and caregiver, Lissa Spitz.

Blackman turned 96 on May 26 and was still living alone in an apartment overstuffed with envelopes, arranged in boxes in chronological order, all addressed either to Alan A. Blackman, 1125 Shrader St., San Francisco, CA 94117, or Alan A. Blackman, 4119 24th St., San Francisco, CA 94114. There were never any letters inside the envelopes. His obsession did not go that far.

Blackman was part of a community of stamp collectors who pursue first-day cover stamps. On the day the U.S. Postal Service issues a new commemorative stamp, such collectors stick it on an envelope, take it to the post office to get it postmarked that day, and mail it to themselves. Where he elevated the hobby was in the handwriting of the address.

“Every new envelope was a mind-blowing reaction to the design of the stamp it depicted,” said Carl Rohrs, editor of Alphabet: The Journal of the Friends of Calligraphy. He considers Blackman’s “Letters to Myself” project to be “one of the seven wonders of the world of calligraphy,” a world that goes back to ancient Greece.

The word “calligraphy” translates to “beautiful writing,” with each stroke of the pen or paintbrush transmitting a letter in alternating thick and thin ink. Its most common use is in the addressing of wedding invitations, but Blackman was never interested in a common or commercial pursuit.

He was interested in the purest form of the art, using simple tools — a broad-edged pen or pointed brush — to make shapes in just a few strokes.

“The illustrations that he made were whimsical and inspiring and filled us with joy and wonder at his creativity,” said Lorraine Swerdloff, communications director for the the Washington Calligraphers Guild, which exhibited Blackman’s envelopes at an international calligraphy conference at James Madison University in Virginia.

Blackman designed two typefaces, the most prominent being one he called Galahad. It has hundreds of characters and has been published by Adobe, the giant software firm. Galahad has been around for 30 years, and Blackman often demonstrated it in workshops and conferences sponsored by calligraphy guilds. He taught in Germany, England and half the states in the U.S., including Alaska.

He also served as past president, treasurer and a longtime board member of the Friends of Calligraphy, a San Francisco society with 700 members. “Everybody in the world of calligraphy would know the name Alan Blackman,” Rohrs said. “He was a unique, quirky guy, one of the most original people I’ve ever met.”

Alan Abner Blackman was born May 26, 1928, in Brooklyn. When he was 7, his mother, Rose, moved Alan and his older brother, Sheldon, out of New York City to escape both an unhappy marriage and the Great Depression. Their destination was the mountain town of Hunter, N.Y., where her family owned the village newspaper. The brothers Alan and Shelly became stamp collectors in support of the stamp-collecting statesman, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Blackman studied anthropology and sociology at Queens College, part of the City University of New York system. After graduating in 1950, he followed his interest in stamps to a job as a postal clerk at the 42nd Street Airlines terminal in New York City.

He then joined the U.S. Army and was trained as a signal slicer in a construction battalion. He was able to secure his preferred posting, in Germany during the postwar reconstruction, because he wanted to learn German.

“He said it was the most beautiful language,” said his niece, “and he became fluent in it.”

Discharged in 1953, he went to England to witness the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and pursue a fascination with the royals. While there, he met Maria Delores, a visitor from Spain, and they were married in England.

“They had a short and very painful marriage,” his niece said. “He never talked that much about her.” They had a son, Stephen, before divorcing.

Blackman eventually came out as gay. He later explained to the Chronicle that he began his “Letters to Myself” project as an attempt to connect with his son, who lived in Berkeley and later England, by mailing him letters addressed in Blackman’s elegant handwriting.

He’d learned calligraphy by enrolling in night classes at the California College of the Arts. His motivation was to improve the signage on exhibits at the anthropology museum at UC Berkeley, where he had a day job.

He also worked at the Rincon Annex Post Office and at Flax, the art supply store.

The “Letters to Myself’ project ran from 1968 until 2004. The envelopes were addressed in uniform style when he started out, but his creativity overtook him.

“It dawned on me that since the stamps were always different, the design on the stamp could influence what the address looked like,” he told the Chronicle in 2015. “That was quite a departure. I had not anticipated it, but once I discovered it, it became a subject of great fascination to me and to my friends who had seen these things.”

In 2015, “Letters to Myself’’ was exhibited in the downstairs gallery at the Main Library. There were 200 envelopes, and the only viewer unimpressed with it was Blackman himself.

“I’m at war with my own work,” he said while looking at walls covered in his envelopes. “I usually don’t like it.”

The exhibition was dedicated to the memory of Stephen, who died in 2012.

In addition to envelopes, which are letter-size, Blackman did works that are poster-size and created individual manuscript books. Hundreds of Blackman’s artworks will eventually become part of the Richard Harrison Collection of Calligraphy and Lettering at the San Francisco Public Library.

Examples in all sizes will be included in the upcoming fall issue of Alphabet. The entire issue, 40 pages, is dedicated to Blackman. This has happened only one other time in the 49-year run of the publication.

“It was certain, in my mind, that he’d have the entire issue,” Rohrs said. “He was amazing.”

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June 20, 2024

Sam Whiting


Sam Whiting has been a staff writer at The San Francisco Chronicle since 1988. He started as a feature writer in the People section, which was anchored by Herb Caen’s column, and has written about people ever since. He is a general assignment reporter with a focus on writing feature-length obituaries. He lives in San Francisco and walks three miles a day on the steep city streets.


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