Launching his entrepreneurial career decades ago with ahead-of-his-time advocating for "alternative lifestyles," dreams of a Disneyesque development future for the suburbs and unabashed bold stands on a variety of social issues, Lloyd Levin remains a man obsessed with the future. But the 81-year-old former insurance executive and marketing wiz from Mount Prospect still clings to one remnant from the past.
"This is spectacular!" Levin gushes as he shows off a century-old, hand-painted Valentine's Day card that unfolds into a lush and detailed trolley car with Cupid spreading love among cherubic passengers. "It's overwhelming what they did with the colors and the silver and the gold. Look at the intricacies of it."
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He notes that one of the miniature figures on the cards holds an even smaller card reading:
To My Valentine:
This little card
I send to you
To tell you
I continue true
"This is fun stuff," Levin says as he thumbs through the simple, old-world beauty of his collection of 3,000 antique Valentine's Day cards, some of which predate the Civil War.
While he considers the trolley card made in Germany around 1910 as the most beautiful, Levin loves one of his 1850s valentines for the story that comes with it. It was written by Col. Alba M. Tucker, a railroad man who served with the 100th Regiment Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War and later became mayor of Elkhart, Ind. Running railroad operations for the North, Tucker was in charge of the train that brought Confederate President Jefferson Davis to a prison in Virginia, Levin says.
Gently removing the intricate, hand-punched paper lace card from its protective plastic sleeve, Levin opens a flap to reveal a message of "Love and Affection" sent to Sarah Jane Henry, whom Tucker wed in 1857. On the following page is Tucker's handwritten love note addressed in a cursive flourish to "My First Love and My Last."
"Well, maybe not," concedes Levin, who says he once met someone claiming to be a descendant of an illegitimate offspring of the war hero.
The best of Levin's antique cards found new life in 1987 as part of a marketing plan Levin developed for the Marshall Field's store on State Street in Chicago. Having learned many of his marketing skills working in the era romanticized by the TV show "Mad Men," Levin incorporated the antique pieces of art into modern valentines selling for anywhere between $6.50 and $1,000. "It was a message of hope," Levin says, "that our love will last as long (as the antique cards)."
The story of Levin's project got picked up by a news wire service that sent it around the world under a headline of, "Would you spend $1,000 to say 'I Love You'?"
Levin got the idea from the time he recycled a vintage Christmas card by mailing it to a good friend. That friend recycled the same card the following year, and they've been sending it back and forth for 26 years.
Some items in his collection are "vinegar valentines," such as the card sent from "one of your victims" featuring a woman who traps men in her web. "That's not a love note," Levin says. "It's an 'I hate you' note."
Having traveled from Bangkok to New Zealand to Paris and beyond during his long career, Levin still doles out an antique card to "people who do normal work and don't get thanked for it," he says. "I once made a flight attendant cry just by giving her a valentine."
Each card has a story, but Levin's are better. One card somehow reminds him of the time he went to Bermuda with 127 black ministers as part of his efforts to make the insurance industry realize the financial benefits of expanding goods and services to all people. An innovator and progressive thinker, Levin did the same for women, homosexuals, cohabiting couples, drug users and "swingers," he says.
A 1977 Daily Herald front-page story about Levin ran under the headline, "Revolutionary fights economic bias." Another touts his successful push to ban smoking inside train stations a generation before that idea picked up steam nationwide. The Chicago Reader in 1975 profiled Levin in a story titled, "Would you buy a social revolution from this guy?"
"I was a mover and a shaker," Levin says, dipping into his collection of stories to talk about how he loved his times spent working with diverse characters such as Gloria Steinem, Cardinal Bernardin and Phyllis Diller.
"She was a gourmet cook," Levin says of Diller. Levin still insists his idea to sell "Phyllis Diller's Chili on a Stick" from vending machine could have been a winner.
Born in East Chicago, Ind., Levin says he was introduced to the love of his life by congresswoman Jan Schakowsky's mother. He and Hermine have been married for 60 years and have two adult children. His wife, severely affected by the smoking her husband fought against, now needs constant care and lives in a facility where Levin visits frequently.
"I was brought up in a time when you wooed your girlfriend," says Levin, who was 21 when he took his 17-year-old future bride to see the romantic comedy, "We're Not Married," featuring a host of stars including Ginger Rogers, Fred Allen, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mitzi Gaynor and a 25-year-old Marilyn Monroe. "We forget how to be romantic anymore."
A handwritten note carries far more meaning than a text message, he says. His card collection is a reminder of how to do that.
"I don't see anything we do today that so zeros in on 'Isn't it nice to have a love?'" says Levin. "We didn't have television. We didn't have the Internet. We had one-to-one relationships. You can't hug a computer."