The Hidden World of the Typewriter

Before laptops and tablets came along, writers did their writing on clunky, unwieldy machines -- aids to work that were also works of art. 
George Bernard Shaw's Remington Noiseless 7x typewriter (James Joiner)

The typewriter is, among things, an archetype of today’s computers. But while computers are increasingly products of our disposable consumer culture assumed and built to be upgraded often  typewriters were built to last. While occasionally some innovation or another would pop up – a machine made noiseless or self-correcting or electric – the general idea remained the same. Fingers mashed down a key, the key drove a lever with the designated character on it toward an ink-saturated ribbon, and with a decisive clack the intended mark was made (provided the typist’s fingers were accurate). It was a physical interpretation of intention-meets-action, thought-meets-paper, and many users maintained an ongoing relationship with their typewriters for years.

So intense was this relationship between writers and their machines, in fact, that many people who made their careers out of writing never made the transition to computers; Hunter S. Thompson used a typewriter until his until his death in 2005. And Cormac McCarthy is still click-clacking away, after selling his Lettera 32, which he’d been writing on for close to 50 years, at a charity auction a few years back for $254,500 – and promptly receiving another of the same model from a friend for $20. It's unsurprising that he'd stay committed to the heavy, clunky producer of words. Computers and other digital tools may have brought ease to writing; they don't offer, however, the deliberation that typewriters do -- the forethought required to avoid the particular punishment of a typer: a piece of correction ribbon or dab of White Out be required to eradicate an erroneous mark or misplaced musing.

There was a time that nearly every home and office had at least one typewriter, ready to tap out letters or lists, invoices or inspirations. Today, of course, the machines have gone the way of vinyl records, romanticized analog nostalgia, a sometimes-useful kitschy artifact with which to wax nostalgic. But, also like vinyl records, typewriters have their enthusiasts, cult followers and collectors drawn to their character and to the mystery of all the ideas and dreams that have been poured, or, rather, pounded, into them. Actor Tom Hanks is a collector, with a rumored 200 or more.

Ernest Hemingway, 1929 Underwood Standard: Hemingway once told Ava Gardner that the only psychologist he would ever open up to was his typewriter. (James Joiner)

 

Andrea Bocelli, Standard Perkins Brailler: Blind since childhood, Italian tenor Maestro Andrea Bocelli used this Standard Perkins Brailler in his studies, and for opera verse from his memoir The Music of Silence. (James Joiner)

 

There’s one man, however, who has made it his life’s work to collect not just typewriters, but specifically famous people’s typewriters.

Steve Soboroff is a California businessman, with a career that includes running for mayor of Los Angeles, a brief stint as vice chairman of the L.A. Dodgers and a current appointment as one of the LAPD’s police commissioners. He is also the foremost collector of famous folks' typewriters, with a cache that spans the famous – John Lennon and Joe DiMaggio – to the infamous: He owns one of two units taken by the FBI from Ted Kaczynski’s Montana cabin.

I met Soboroff in Boston, where a curated selection of his typewriters is being displayed at Northeastern University. The collection routinely tours, and people can type on their favorite luminary’s machine for a fee that goes towards a fund for journalism scholarships. I brought my camera; the images included here were shot, in keeping with the analog theme, on Impossible Project film for old Polaroid Cameras. 

Soboroff and I are standing in front of a slightly haggard yet modern-looking model, and it’s conspicuously missing its cover. Soboroff is telling me about a letter exchange he’d had with the previous owner, the aforementioned Unabomber.

“The letter I wrote to him was, ‘Where is the cover to the typewriter?’ Now, I know. He made a bomb out of it.” Soboroff speaks loudly, gesturing to the small crowd of students who form a rapt audience. “I wrote it to him on this typewriter, I wanted to trigger him to respond to me …. So he wrote to me, it says, ‘I don’t return any letters, but today I received a letter that may make me change my mind. If you are who I think you are, then of course I’ll do my best to answer.’ So I thought, ‘well, huh. I ran for mayor of LA, maybe the guy knows who I am.’ My son said, ‘Dad, that’s not what he’s thinking. He’s thinking you’re your cousin.’”

Soboroff snorts.

“Well, I have a cousin named Jeffery Soboroff who I’ve never met, who was arrested for threatening to poison the water supply in a town in Iowa. I betcha he thinks I’m that guy.” He laughs, mimicking Kaczynski, “'Hey, I’m a mass killer, you’re a mass killer, we’re bros!’ Anyway, a month later I get a postcard from him: ‘It turns out you are not who I thought you were. Tough luck.’ Tough luck? Who’s serving 300 years in prison? I live in Malibu!”

Presented by

James Joiner is a writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Esquire.com and Rolling Stone, and is on Instagram at @jjamesjoiner.

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