Search for the Magic Typewriter

Guest Blog: Retro typewriters that captivated Jack Kerouac, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen are making a comeback in new and revamped forms

I love my Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. It is the only regular marketing email that I do not automatically delete.

Each month "Ham Schlem" announces a new "best." It may be a specialty novelty item: the world's best alarm clock, popcorn maker, hands-free hair rejuvenator and so on.

But the revealing return to yesterday was a brand-new copy of a Royal typewriter, with black and red spools and keys that aren't yet sticking, because this little portable is brand spanking new. And it's under $200 — a steal.

The trend, however, is to go for the original. Even though the originals are 30 to 80 years old, typewriters were built to last forever.

Consider New York's supreme vintage typewriter marketer Kasbah Mod, which refurbishes old (turn-of-the-century to the '60s) models and not only rebuilds, cleans and repaints them but calls on the former street graffiti "artist" Luis “Zimad” Lamboy to transform them into works of art.

Kasbah Mod has successfully found a new, distinctly different market for the typewriters. “It was traditionally dusty, old grandmother's kind of antique shops,” KM's founder, Chase Gilbert, offered. “You had antique collectors and a certain kind of following in the older community, but our demographic is decidedly different. Our demographic is young people, around 15-40, that are buying these items as design objects. That’s not to say they’re not using them, but it’s not the antique collector type.”

Between online and direct sales, around 75-100 machines are sold each month at prices ranging from $595 to $1,200. KM even offers an exclusive Lamboy creation that would make Trump envious — a 24-carat-gold-plated typewriter on sale for $955.

I imagine “Ham Schlem” will sell a busload of the retro reproductions by complimenting the still-emerging and vibrant trend to return to the typewriter.

Most buyers, however, want to get back to the real thing: the dusty Smith Corona, the Underwood (Warner Bros. honcho Jack Warner called his resident writers "schmucks with Underwoods"), Remingtons, Olivettis (favorite of Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich) and what emerged as the iconic, most desired of all time, the Swiss-made Hermes 3000 in seafoam green. This was the machine that captivated Jack Kerouac (right).

A sub-sector of typewriter collecting is securing the actual machines used by the famous.

Steve Soboroff, former L.A. city commissioner and candidate for mayor, has become well-known for his personal typewriter collection. He owns machines once tapped on by Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, George Bernard Shaw, Joe DiMaggio, John Lennon, Ray Bradbury, William Faulkner, Andy Rooney, John Updike, Jack Kevorkian, and the Unabomber, among others.

Oscar winner Tom Hanks has been collecting portable typewriters for many years and has amassed over 300.

Woody Allen has been using the same German-made Olympia SM3 for 50 years. Neil Simon has been typing on the larger SM9. Danielle Steele and Wallace Stegner wrote on an Olympia. Hunter Thompson was famous for writing on a massive red IBM Selectric. Isaac Asimov adored his Selectric before becoming one of the first to discover "word processing."

Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro has typed for 30 years on a Smith Corona 210. He was so convinced that his machine was a key reason for his success, he purchased 17 of them when he learned that Smith Corona was discontinuing production.

I'm sadly old enough to have experienced a turn-of-the-last-century Royal on which I learned to type at age 10. I began by typing letters to every author I read and to guests on “The Jack Paar Show.” Many wrote back.

After my first paid writing gig for “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” I used the $120 to buy a little white portable Royal De Luxe. I knocked out short stories and plays and a script for "Flipper."

As my little workhorse had elite (small) type, a New York agent told this 19-year-old to get a machine with pica (large) type. I chose the big, standard Royal like the one Billy Wilder and Izzy Diamond recommended, with perfect type for scripts.

Many years and many thousands letters and memos after, I traded in for an IBM Wheelwriter that cost a grand. Since I liked to write my own memos, at my desk, WMA bought me a Valentine red Olivetti that I wish I had taken when I left. Ultra-hot and desirable.

Francis Ford Coppola

With a commission to write a novel, I decided I would do it on an authentic collectible. I first bought a Remington Rand from the '30s, then an Underwood Quiet Deluxe from the '50s, followed by the Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Wallace Stegner Olympias. Coppola's sharkskin Underwood Lettera 33, a gold and black Royal El Dorado and a Czech Triumph Tippa followed. None of them did the trick. I lucked into a mint Hermes 3000 and changed the ribbon. No magic there.

Sometime in the early '60s, I interviewed Lenny Bruce. His agent wrote me, and I was mesmerized by the font from his typewriter. What on earth was that machine? 

His letter looked as if printed for publication with something known in the trade as “proportional spacing.” An Underwood Raphael electric, I was told, and began my search. I learned that Remington had also made such a machine, "the Statesman." I would try to find either (or both) for my new novel, but continued to make notes, create entire chapters, outline the characters on my trusty Dell while searching the world to find my dream machine. The search continues.