„WANTED:Smart, funny, honest, articulate, adventurous, educated, opinionated, passionate … SWM by SWF who is all of that and more. Reply …“

Notice this personal advertisement contains none of the usual, cliche language in the majority of ads seeking romance, love, even ongoing sex. There was a reason for that: no walks at sunrise or sunset; no dictates on profession or appearance; no strong compatibility in musical or food tastes; no amount of agreement on what two people like to do in their spare time; none of what is advertised will guarantee a relationship.

Take this from someone who knows, and I know. I married a man I met through a personals ad. We have been married for more than 20 years.

Before there were online dating sites, before there was an Internet or a worldwide Web, there were publications like the L.A. Weekly and the New York Review of Books that ran personals ads. These ads were devoid of overtly suggestive language, and there were no come-ons for massage or escort services on the same pages. They required that respondents send letters to a blind mailbox representing one person who was the indicated gender and, one hoped, truthfully represented the statements in the ad.

When I placed my ad, I was in my mid-30s, a never-married veteran of every possible type of dating scenario available in a large American city. I had even responded to personals ads myself. I had had ongoing relationships, any one of which might have led to marriage. „Might have“ — if they were someone else’s relationships. But I had not been ready to get married.

After living for several years with the fallout of a hit-and-run, in which I was the seriously injured pedestrian, I thought I would be better off with a spouse to take care of me. So I decided to shop for a husband by being the one who placed the ad. The candidates would come to me, and come they did.

I stopped reading the replies when their numbers exceeded 100. That comprised two large manila envelopes containing every description of missive, ranging from professionally printed portfolios or „product kits,“ to crayon scribbles on what I suspected were paper napkins. Although I picked up a few more envelopes after those two, I never even opened them.

Having opened and counted those 100 or so writings, I began to sort them. Immediately discarded were the „non-letters,“ or incoherent, illegible bits of paper; postcards, greeting cards, joke cards. Printed matter and produced pieces got a stack of their own. Last came the standard letters, plain paper in business envelopes. These were opened first.

Personals Ads
Personals Ads

After some more sifting, priority was given to letters without pictures that told a simple story about the writer and that bore a telephone number. I realized that since I had not described myself physically, and I did not ask writers for a photo, I didn’t want to have my screening affected by appearance. And that was the reason why I did not contact any of the hopefuls who sent portfolios or the like.

The dating game began. I made phone calls. Often after one or two phone calls, it was clear that we would not „click,“ and that was it. Sometimes it took one date; sometimes two; or even five — one of us would say or do one thing the other could not countenance.

Going into this, I had some mostly unspoken rules. One of those was that since I was the one making the date, I would be the one to pay — up to a point. Another was that a date did not ever consist of any of the following:

  • staying in my residence, or his;
  • any activity past 9 p.m.;
  • cigarette, drug or alcohol use beyond one glass of wine or beer;
  • affection beyond hugging or kissing in public.

The first date ended when G. decided he would rather watch a ballgame on (my) TV than go out for lunch at the beach. Another terminated early when both of us saw that we would never agree on appropriate dress and venue for a movie and casual dinner. So it went, in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

Then there was the man I would marry. His letter was eloquent yet simply written, on notepaper of the type sold in any discount or grocery store, in ballpoint pen. He told me the story of growing up in rural Northern California and then moving as a 20-year-old to live in San Francisco, a young man’s adventure. He wrote one line that made me laugh:

„I think I like older women.“

At this point, he was in his early 20s; I, in my mid-30s. We became penpals. In the beginning, there was one letter every week or two. The letters‘ frequency increased to about two a week. Finally, unbidden, he sent a photo and asked for one. He looked both somewhat younger than he was and timeless. I sent my passport picture — a straight-on headshot.

I called him. We spoke for more than two hours. That phone call cost more than cheap plane tickets from L.A. to S.F. In another letter, he proposed that we talk about a visit. I said I would visit him on Memorial Day weekend. This was March.

The flight on Friday afternoon was delayed for fog at both airports. By the time the plane reached SFO, I wasn’t expecting him to be there. But he was, with a (wilted) bouquet of flowers and a smile on his face. We took a cab back to San Francisco and had a wonderful time.

We kept up the correspondence and had one more long date weekend, on July 4th in Los Angeles. He asked me to marry him.

The wedding was on Halloween 1987, in our living room in San Francisco. It has been a marriage ever since.