The Typewriter: An Exaltation

Tick-tick. Tick-tack-tick. Thunk-tacka-tick-tack. Ding! Ticka-ticka-ticka. Schwip!

For my twelfth birthday a family friend – who apparently had better insight into my calling than I would for another 25 years – gave me a 1951 Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter. It was a unique and wonderful gift for an 80s kid who was otherwise living at the dawn of the digital era, a time when digital beeps produced an increasingly permanent sort of white noise that has come to characterize our daily lives. Had I known the machine’s life story I’d have realized that my friend also gave me a piece of history, not to mention a piece of her own soul.

Alas, twelve-year-old Christopher had about as much use for a forty-year old typewriter as he might have had for a wind-up Victrola. Even our family’s modern Smith-Corona electric typewriter (so advanced it had a white-out key) had been relegated to the bottom shelf, for we had just gotten our first home computer. I was busy learning to work the Apple II+ word processor, turning my thoughts into green letters, then print-out’s I handed into my teachers. It was 1987 and dot matrix reigned supreme.

Designed in Italy by Marcello Nizzoli, Olivetti was a popular portable brand in the 50s and 60s. In 1951 a brand-new Lettera 22 lightened your wallet by $75 to $90 (roughly $700 to $800 in today’s dollars), making it something of a luxury product at a time when an IBM Selectric only set you back ten bucks. Present-day Olivetti aficionados include Cormac McCarthy, Tom Hanks, and the late Leonard Cohen.

Sleek Olivetti typewriters were unusual in an age when most of their brethren were all angles and black-and-white practicality. In contrast to the stern, colorless façade of a Remington Soundless or the blank institutional stare of an Underwood Touchmaster, the Olivetti 22’s curved, almost sensual metal sheathing evoked the world’s growing fascination with all things aerodynamic. After all, it was the dawn of the jet age and even Buicks were getting vertical stabilizers. As the opulence of the Art Deco era gave way to Modernism’s sleek lines the Olivetti 22 was one of the machines for the moment.

It’s not just a looker: Even by today’s standards its mechanisms are wonderfully balanced, each keystroke producing a precise snap from finger to page. It’s a sublime linkage of thought and expression, a tactile echo of the synaptic sparks that create words (or at least midwife them into the real world).

A couple of years later we moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area and the Olivetti vanished among boxes of books and clothes and model airplanes, packed with scrunched–up newspaper care then deposited in a corner of the basement.

Which, looking back, is a shame. Because even though I spent the first fifteen-odd years of my adult life in the practice of law my destiny was always with the written word. If I’d tried out the Olivetti sooner I might have discovered that fact and saved everyone a lot of trouble.

I’d also have discovered that it’s almost impossible not to get a good story out of the Olivetti. It’s not just any old typewriter. The friend who gave it to me was Steffi Duna, a Hungarian dancer, singer, and actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her career read like movie script: Born in 1910 to a family of vintners in a village outside Budapest, by the time she was 20 she had danced in most of the capitals of Europe. At 22 she debuted on the London stage in Noel Coward’s Words and Music, becoming one of the four actresses who breathed life into Coward’s most famous song, “Mad About the Boy.” Before retiring in 1940 she had starred in numerous films and worked with actors including Lucille Ball and William Boyd. She starred in the first Technicolor talkie, 1927’s La Cucaracha.

She was still using the Olivetti in the 1980s, eschewing technological advancement for the simple pleasures of the typewriter. It’s amazing to think how many thousands of letters she must have written over the years. How many did she compose to Lucy, with whom she starred in 1939’s Panama Lady and maintained a lifelong friendship?

Steffi’s husband was Dennis O’Keefe, an actor whom IMDB describes as a “Tall, cheerful outdoorsy leading man of Hollywood B movies,” and lists 278 movie and TV credits over his 30-year career. He was in some big films, too. In 1944 he was in a pair of war pictures, alongside John Wayne and Carol Lombard in The Fighting Seabees and with Gary Cooper and Laraine Day in Cecile B. DeMille’s The Story of Dr. Wassell. In the 1950s he wrote and co-wrote screenplays and teleplays, composing many on the Olivetti, often with Steffi’s help. My humble little typewriter may once have put words in Alan Ladd’s mouth. O’Keefe also was known to be generous with friends and co-stars. Maybe The Duke himself borrowed the Olivetti on the Seabees set to dash off a letter home. It’s portable, after all.

The typewriter weighs 4.5 pounds and comes in a rugged, steel-framed canvas carrying case with a leather-wrapped steel handle and a heavy zipper. The case itself is a sort of Greatest Generation khaki, the handles and stitching saddle-colored. There’s a water ring on the back-left corner, smudges of what may be charcoal, grease, or mascara on the back, and faded immigration stamps across the top including Cuba, Italy, The Maldives, and Mexico. It’s vaguely redolent of an incense hard to place.

It might have remained in storage for years or decades more had fate not intervened. My father died in 2006, and when I visited my mother in the ensuing years I often took time to sort through some of the accumulated family ephemera in the basement. It was during one of those dusty, spider-intensive, beer-assisted forays into the past that I opened the box containing the Olivetti, like a domestic Indiana Jones unearthing a long-lost treasure.

The first thing I noticed was the smell: Incense, metal, canvas, oil, and history.

I think the smell of history peaks between 50 and 100 years. It’s the smell of an old room in an old building where something once happened, the smell of memories being freed. The smell when you went down into your grandparents’ basement full of boxes of old books and toys, the wooden skis leaning against the wall, the sewing machine encased in dust. My dad’s high school yearbook still smelled of Salinas summers and Chevy axle grease fifty years after he graduated.

After a century the essences begin to depart. That’s why when the wind is right you can still catch whiffs of cordite and internal combustion on the Normandy beaches, while Antietam smells only of chestnut pollen and dry wheat.

The Olivetti is 66 years old. A history-minded sommelier might say its bouquet is in its prime. For me it’s the smell of my own grandparents’ basement in Puyallup, Washington on a rainy day. It’s the smell of old books, real books, books that told stories apart from the ones in their pages. The smell of everything the color of childhood, a cartoon of Snoopy typing It was a dark and stormy night in the 40-year-old book that belonged to my aunt, a stain from a lollipop or Popsicle on the cover smack in the middle of Charlie Brown’s bald head. A dark and stormy night can mean anything to a child, and lead anywhere.

The smell is also one of the secrets that makes writing on a typewriter unlike any other form of composition. It’s magical, because a typewriter engages all five senses. It’s a total physical immersion in the written word.

There are the smells of the particular machine’s unique history, along with ink, oil, metal, and paper. After a while the scents accumulate as a vague taste on the tip of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. You may find that your next meal is tinged slightly with ink dust (a dish featuring tomato sauce is recommended, primed with a vodka-based cocktail and assisted by plenty of garlic). There are the sounds: The type bar mechanism, carriage movement, spaces, shifts, inserting and removing pages, and of course the keystrokes and the ding! at the end of each line. The rattle of the table. So many vibrations in a single letter!

The sense of touch is acute with a mechanical typewriter. The paper itself is different, lighter and rougher than soulless laser printer stock. It’s more like – well, paper. The Olivetti requires moderate key pressure such that typing with all five fingers is impractical unless you’re Dwayne Johnson. I find myself typing Hemingway-style, middle fingers reinforced by index fingers, my right hand handling carriage return. The task is visually engaging, eyes shifting constantly among page, keyboard, and machine. The Olivetti’s European-style QZERTY arrangement keeps the American writer alert; it also lacks “1” and “0” keys, requiring a lowercase l and an uppercase O. The motion of the type bars and carriage is hypnotic, choreographed to the action and movement on the page.

The sensory immersion creates a meditative state ideal for creativity. Each keystroke requires particular attention, since there’s no delete key and white-out is a time-consuming thought-killer. Freed from the tyranny of constant electronic revision the additional mental engagement focuses the mind. It gives the conscious and ego something to do and lets the writing id take over. 

Which is the most magical thing of all about the Olivetti: It’s a fool-proof cure for writer’s block.

Composing drafts in different media allows the writer to experience a story from a variety of vantages, different nuances and facets emerging in the progression from storyboard to handwriting to computer screen and finally print copy. At any point in the process, when I come to a stumbling point, when an outline isn’t coming together or I can’t quite seem to hear a character’s voice, I sit down at the little wooden desk occupied by the typewriter, a ream of (real) paper, an ash tray, and a few hardcovers between a pair of antique bronze bookends shaped like elephant heads.

Sometimes I light a cigarette because sometimes a writer has to, Surgeons General and healthy old age be damned. What of the troublesome character, scene, or moment that brought me here? It recedes, ceding consciousness to the thrill of inspiration. A drag on the cigarette, the smoke pinches the lungs and nicotine tickles the brain.

A question, then, to my trusty old friend: Where were you, fifty years ago today? Who was spilling their guts to you? What did the traffic sound like that night?

Where did she sleep?

The Olivetti has stories to tell, if the writer will listen. Listen I do and it begins to answer my queries. Slowly at first, one letter at a time, Ouija-like. A scene never beheld or a character never encountered emerges from the void between me and the machine, assumes shape and form and action. I’ve been here before, though we’re here for the first time. 

She leaps the railroad tracks and runs through thick fog beneath an orange streetlight, pursued by a faceless man in a blue trench coat. She clutches a package wrapped in newspaper under her arm, holding it like it’s her own child. Beneath the distant wail of a locomotive, out of the corner of her eye at the edge of the light she sees me watching her. She brushes her red hair aside. We make eye contact, and in an instant I know everything.

Or, if you prefer, more simply: It was a dark and stormy night….

Thunk-tack-tack-tick. Tick-tick-tacka-tacka. Tick-tick. Tack-ding!

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