Clothed in Light: The Love Letters of Carl and Annetta Wonnberger

My darling, You are wonderful! I start with that because now again you have covered yourself with a light that sets you off from every other person I have ever known!” (Carl to Annetta, August 25, 1928).

The love letters of Carl and Annetta Wonnberger are among the most beautiful expressions of love, longing, and devotion I have ever read. With Valentine’s Day coming soon, it’s a perfect time to share with you some of their words that convey something of life’s highest mystery as it can manifest between two people.

Carl and Annetta Wonnberger. September 7, 1929. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Carl George Wonnberger (1901-1980) and Annetta Bouton Wonnberger (1909-1997) arrived at Cranbrook in 1929. Carl taught English at Cranbrook School until 1967, and they both founded the Cranbrook Theatre School in 1942. Their life is a love story of manifold paths. Their letters provide us with an intimate glimpse into the couple’s hearts in the two years preceding their marriage and the beginning of their life together at Cranbrook.

Annetta first met Carl in the Spring of 1926, when she visited the Storm King School, New York, to take the college entrance exam, which she failed. Carl, a teacher there, was the administrator. Annetta attended Drew Seminary as a post-graduate student and retook the exam in the spring of 1927, and that is when they connected. If sparks didn’t fly at their first meeting, they did at the second, as shortly after, on June 23rd, Carl asked Annetta to marry him.

Writing in July 1927, Annetta recalled that early evening in June—their walk in the woods, the perfect quiet except for the frogs and locusts around Black Rock, the ride back and the thunder shower. Annetta’s candid style of writing offers us quite a vivid sense of her character as well as a discernible process of maturation over the two years:

Carl, ever since I was a small child I have lived in a sort of fairyland of dreams and ideals. It was only natural, of course, that the people whom I met in real life differed from the creatures of star-dust and moon-mist fashioned by my fancy. And it has always been hard to realize the truth. But you, dear, there is no disillusionment about you. You are all I have ever dreamed the man I would love would be – and more. I only hope that I may be able to follow the road you’ve shown me, and reach the goal you’ve set.”

Letter from Annetta to Carl, November 30, 1927.

From 1927-1929, Annetta attended Smith College in Massachusetts, while Carl remained a teacher at Storm King in New York. They would meet up periodically, but the rest of the time was spent in yearning, which is recorded in their letters (sometimes more than one a day!).

Letter from Annetta Bouton to Carl Wonnberger, January 7, 1928. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

The earliest letters are those of Annetta to Carl, and they indicate a great faith in how she feels, rather than what she thinks:

But my philosophy is that happiness is where one finds it. And did you ever notice what lovely bits of sunny sky a mud puddle can reflect? … And my greatest happiness, dear one, will be derived from the mutual understanding, affection and companionship which already exists between us, and will develop more fully with the passing years. And all happiness, dear, isn’t a matter of perfectly calm going and sunny weather.”

Letter from Annetta to Carl, December 10, 1927

When Carl gave her a colorful shawl, she writes back with such curiosity about its creation and remarkable insight for one so young:

To me it seems that there linger about such things the ghosts of the people who made them and the places where they were made. Young hands or old hands? Eager hands or weary ones? Hearts happy in the creation of a lovely thing, or hearts so worn with the drudgery of making a living that they no longer could know beauty? … I am still unsophisticated enough to find life a thing of wonder and of mystery. Oh, I know that it isn’t all glamour – I know of the “face behind the mask” sort of thing and the heartaches, but there is so much beauty, if one will only see it.”

Letter from Carl to Annetta, December 26, 1927

Some of their letters describe their days and concerns in their ordinariness; while some became affectionately known as a “special,” a letter sent by special delivery with professions of yearning.

Letter from Carl Wonnberger to Annetta Bouton. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives

In the autumn of 1928, Carl’s voice begins to emerge more strongly while Annetta’s letters show that she has settled into a place of self-possession, after wrestling with that little scoundrel of self-doubt. Their relationship deepens now. Carl’s letters discuss the practicalities of seeking a place for them to live together once she turns 20, and the question of their coming to Cranbrook floats around for quite a while before it lands with any certainty. They also convey increasing frustration with the situation of separation from Annetta:

More anon! It’s quite late. Your lips on mine dear heart before you sleep tonight! Ah—but not yet. Only—sometime—let us hope, and pray and long, because in my heart I know that God made us for each other, and I for me will go through the tortures of hell many times over in the belief that some day, some time, I shall be able to call you my dear, my own sweet wife.”

Letter from Carl to Annetta, September 19, 1928

One thing I never get fuddled on—that is that I love you with all my soul, that I miss and want you, and that until you come to me for always I shall never be happy a moment.”

Letter to Carl to Annetta, January 6, 1929

Annetta’s voice remains calm guided by her observance of nature:

Dearheart, this is a hectic existence. I’ll be so glad when it’s all over and I can dare to think about something else – about how beautiful the young moon looked caught in the bare arms of the elm tree; or how stately the snow-raked fir trees look, standing like sentries in the dim forest or in the silence of the night.”

Letter from Annetta to Carl, January 16, 1929

And this is reflected back by Carl:

But the corner of life where you are is the corner which opens to the sweet air and the sun and all that is lovely or wonderful in life.”

Letter from Carl to Annetta, January 21, 1929

After all the swooning, they start looking at the choices they can make together and leave the rest in the hands of mystery:

Darling will you pray when you go to bed that we may soon be together. I do! Such prayers must be answered if there is any God in whom love is dear and sacred.”

Letter from Carl to Annetta, February 27, 1929

And trust in how it will guide them:

Don’t fear anything. Nothing on God’s earth could drive me away from you now, dearest, and if things ever go black for us again, just think back on our consecrated moments of delight, and come close to me that I may kiss you and hold you to me. We are one, my dear wife, as long as we have breath, and our love is something great and abiding. Oh Annetta, you are my wife, my wonderful wife, and I your husband, waiting for you to come home to me. Just that—no more.”

Letter from Carl to Annetta, April 30, 1929

After so many words, perhaps their love story is best summed up with the music which Carl shared with Annetta:

My Darlingest True Wife, Grieg’s “Ich Liebe Dich” has been going around in my head all day, darling. Do you know it:

“Ich liebe dich—Du mein Gedanke, du mein Sein und Werden
“Du meines Herzens erste Seligkeit!
“Ich liebe dich wie nichts auf dieser Erden
“Ich liebe dich—Ich liebe dich in Zeit und Ewigkeit!”

“I love thee—Thou all my being, all my will and pleasure
“Thou who didst wake my heart in joy t’adore,
“I love thee like naught else below you azure,
“My love art thou, my love art thou today and evermore!

Letter from Carl Wonnberger to Annetta Bouton, May 10, 1929

Carl and Annetta married on September 7, 1929, the day she turned 20 years old, and then they made their way to Cranbrook, where they lived as one in the community for the rest of their lives. The Carl and Annetta Wonnberger Papers will be open for research later this year.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Editor’s Note: Cranbrook Archives is able to tell stories like these through the generosity of our donors. The Carl and Annetta Wonnberger Papers was formed through gifts made by daughters Joanne Wheaton and Nancy vom Steeg and granddaughter Paula Jo Kemler over the last thirty years.

7 thoughts on “Clothed in Light: The Love Letters of Carl and Annetta Wonnberger

  1. What a lovely article. I took Special (advanced) English from Mr. Wonnberger in ’63-’64 and recall with delight him bragging to us, “Well, you know, Thornton told me he wrote ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ as a gas for Talullah.”

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  2. Laura, your post is lovely. Thank you for the work you are doing on my grandparent’s letters and your appreciation of their special beauty.

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  3. Enjoyed this article; such lovely prose. I certainly remember the Wonnbergers as I lived next door to them while growing up at Cranbrook School

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  4. Carl Wonnburger or the “Bat” as we called him
    was one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He knew every word that Chaucer and Shakespeare had ever written, and frequently lapsed into sliloquese in the midst of a lecture.
    He had a unique system for grading, ABCDEF was the norm , and he used ABCDESF . A “S”
    was half of an “E” and required a lot of additional superior effort to erase. And finally he made us write is every category for the Detroit News Scholastic Awards even if we had never done it before. The lesson to be learned here was to think fast on your feet.
    He also made the identification of “Spot Phrases ” a part of every final exam.
    And yes he vision impaired. The Bat lives on.

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  5. I love the Wonnberger article! I had him for Jr, and Special English in ’63 and ’65. He was truly an inspiration in so many ways, and as I am now in my elder years, I am thrilled to learn of the tender love between Carl & Annette. Now, so many years later, he teaches me again about humanism. Thank you for this article. My, how my time at Cranbrook has influenced my life!

    Liked by 1 person

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