Friday, April 19, 2013

Paean to the typewriter & models used by famous writers

I owned the exact model, pictured at right, for the longest time, finally giving it away in a much-regretted fit of clearing out clutter. I found it in a junk shop and had fantasies of getting it in working order, something that Paul Schweitzer of Gramercy Typewriter certainly could have helped me with (click the link to see a short video of this amazing artisan).
The Land of Oz's L. Frank Baum used a Smith Premier. Both Truman Capote and Maria Callas favored a Royal HH (La Callas looks like she could give Mad Men's Joan a run for her money in the va va voom department). Agatha Christie wrote her tales of Roger Ackroyd et al. on a Remington Portable Victor.
Is Bette Davis typing her memoirs on this Remington Noiseless Portable (or telling Warner Bros where to get off)? At left, Bob Dylan contemplates the jingle jangle morning with his Royal Caravan (and in the scene from Don't Look Back below, he types on an Olympia while Joan Baez serenades him).
Doyenne of food writers M.F.K. Fisher used an Underwood in her younger years and a Smith-Corona Galaxie series portable later in life. Other famous typewriters include the 1940s Royal Quiet DeLuxe Edward R. Murrow used to report on World War II and John Steinbeck's hefty IBM Model C (btw, check out our centennial editions of The Pearl and Of Mice and Men). Steinbeck also owned one of the first lightweight portables, a Hermes Baby.

Richard Wright favored a 1940s Royal Arrow while Orson Welles pecked on a 20s woodgrain Underwood portable.

What a wonderful shot this is of Ralph Ellison with his Olivetti Studio 44!
Daphne du Maurier at her Underwood. "Don't Look Back"?
Writers who still use typewriters include Kazuo Ishigiro, Oliver Sacks, P.J. O'Rourke, David Sedaris, and John Le Carre (actually, his wife types his longhand drafts). John Updike used an Olivetti MP1 portable all his life. (It was made in 1932, the same year he was born.) Olivettis are supposedly the Jaguar of portables. Have you ever owed a typewriter? I had a trusty Smith Corona electric that got me through all of my college papers.
Antique typewriters have become collectors' items because they're no longer manufactured and because many of them are exceptionally beautiful artifacts. (They are also in demand with set designers for period dramas.) For their film The Typewriter, Christopher Lockett and Gary Nicholson traveled through America chatting up typewriter experts and aficionados. Here's the trailer:

And here's a gallery of vintage models accompanied by Leroy Anderson's beguiling "The Typewriter"


  1. I love my Underwood-Olivetti Lettera 22! Great portable. Manual typewriters are healthier for the hands and fingers than electronic keyboards, in the same way that grand pianos are better for the hands than uprights, because you have to use the support of larger muscle groups to press the keys. (And don't even get me started on those horrid electronic appliances that masquerade as pianos.)

  2. I still have 2, my Smith Corona manual portable, which I had in high school, and an electronic typewriter. It is the latter that is superannuated now that I have a laptop. There are tasks easier to do on the typewriter (like envelopes), and, in the dark of a blackout, toutes les machines sont muettes. Nothing but a shortage of tape can stop the manual from completing its task.
    It rubs me oddly to think that a whole generation will never know the joys of Wite-Out, or those funny erasers with little brushes, or carbon paper.

    1. I hate that they're being mined for parts, but I do crave a typwriter key bracelet!

  3. Why are Olivettis like Jaguars (and why is that good)?
    My father once brought me an Olivetti for my birthday, and managed to slip out the door before my test drive stalled. The H went down but did not come up. The carriage wouldn't move.
    As if I knew anything about it, I looked under the hood and found a plastic string connecting the H key to the carriage. Naturally, I got a scissors and cut it. Bang! went the typewriter, and the top half of the machine flew off, ending my budding career as typewriter repairman.

    Had I known about Gramercy, I would've taken the pieces to him to put together. And sent the bill to Dad.

  4. google "famous typewriter collections" or "soboroff typewriter collection, as i own 2 typewriters that were previously owned by famous folks (including a couple of the ones that you have photographed above!)

    still collecting :)

  5. I am appraising a Remington Rand once owned by Hemingway. Any idea of its value?