They were platonic high school friends from Park Ridge, Ill., both high achievers headed East to college.
John Peavoy was a bookish film buff bound for Princeton, Hillary Rodham a driven, civic-minded Republican going off to Wellesley. They were not especially close, but they found each other smart and "interesting" and said they would try to keep in touch.
Which they did, prodigiously, exchanging dozens of letters between the late summer of 1965 and the spring of 1969. Rodham's 30 dispatches are by turns angst-ridden and prosaic, glib and brooding, anguished and ebullient - a rare unfiltered look into the head and heart of a future first lady and would-be president. Their private expressiveness stands in sharp contrast to the ever-disciplined political persona she presents to the public now.
"Since Xmas vacation, I've gone through three and a half metamorphoses and am beginning to feel as though there is a smorgasbord of personalities spread before me," Rodham wrote to Peavoy in April 1967. "So far, I've used alienated academic, involved pseudo-hippie, educational and social reformer and one-half of withdrawn simplicity."
Befitting college students of any era, the letters are also self-absorbed and revelatory, missives from an unformed and vulnerable striver who had, in her own words, "not yet reconciled myself to the fate of not being the star."
"Sunday was lethargic from the beginning as I wallowed in a morass of general and specific dislike and pity for most people but me especially," Rodham reported in a letter postmarked Oct. 3, 1967.
In other letters, she would convey a mounting exasperation with her rigid conservative father and disdain for both "debutante" dorm mates and an acid-dropping friend. She would issue a blanket condemnation of the "boys" she had met ("who know a lot about 'self' and nothing about 'man' ") and also tell of an encounter she had with "a Dartmouth boy" the previous weekend.
Two different paths
"It always seems as though I write you when I've been thinking too much again," Rodham wrote in one of her first notes to Peavoy, postmarked Nov. 15, 1965. She later joked that she planned to keep his letters and "make a million" when he became famous. "Don't begrudge me my mercenary interest," she wrote.
Of course, it was Hillary Rodham Clinton who became famous while Peavoy has lived out his life in contented obscurity as an English professor at Scripps College, a small woman's school in Southern California where he has taught since 1977. Every bit the wild-haired academic, with big silver glasses tucked behind bushy gray sideburns, he lives with his wife, Frances McConnel, and their cat, Lulu, in a one-story house cluttered with movies, books and boxes - one of which contains a trove of letters from an old friend who has since become one of the most cautious and analyzed politicians in America.
When contacted about the letters, Peavoy allowed the New York Times to read and copy them.
The letters were written during a period when the future Hillary Rodham Clinton was undergoing a period of profound political transformation, from the "Goldwater girl" who shared her father's conservative outlook to a liberal antiwar activist.
Split from the GOP
In her early letters, Rodham refers to her involvement with the Young Republicans, a legacy of her upbringing. In October of her freshman year, she dismisses the local chapter as "so inept," which she says she might be able to leverage to her own benefit. "I figure that I may be able to work things my own way by the time I'm a junior so I'm going to stick to it," she writes.
Still, the letters reveal a fast-eroding allegiance to the party of her childhood. She ridicules a trip she had taken to a Young Republicans convention as "a farce that would have done Oscar Wilde credit." By the summer of 1967, Rodham - writing from her parents' vacation home in Lake Winola, Pa. - begins referring to Republicans as "they" rather than "we."
"That's no Freudian slip," she adds. A few months later, she would be volunteering on Sen. Eugene McCarthy's antiwar presidential campaign in New Hampshire. By the time she delivered her commencement address at Wellesley in 1969, she was citing her generation's "indispensable task of criticizing and constructive protest."
But in many ways her letters are more revealing about her search for her own sense of self.
"Can you be a misanthrope and still love or enjoy some individuals?" Rodham wrote in an April 1967 letter. "How about a compassionate misanthrope?"
No longer in touch
Peavoy's letters to Rodham are lost to posterity, unless she happened to keep them, which he doubts. He said he wished he had kept copies himself. "They are windows into a time and a place and a journey of self-discovery," he said. "This was what college students did before Facebook."
The letters are Peavoy's only link to his former pen pal. They never visited or exchanged a single phone call during their four years of college. They lost touch entirely after graduation, except for the 30-year reunion of the Maine South High School class of 1965, held in Washington to accommodate the class' most famous graduate, whose husband was then serving his first term in the White House.
"I was on the White House Christmas card list for a while," Peavoy said. Besides a quick receiving-line greeting from Clinton at the reunion, Peavoy has had just one direct contact with her in 38 years. It was, fittingly, by letter, only this time her words were more businesslike.
In the late 1990s, Peavoy was contacted by the author Gail Sheehy, who was researching a book on the first lady. He agreed to let Sheehy see the letters, from which she would quote snippets in her 1999 biography, Hillary's Choice. When Clinton heard that Peavoy had kept her old letters, she wrote him asking for copies, which he obliged. He has not heard from her since.
"For all I know she's mad at me for keeping the letters," said Peavoy, a pack rat who says he has kept volumes of letters from friends over the years. A Democrat, he said he was undecided between supporting Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.