Keystrokes of Genius
Typewriters take over Gallery 360
To collector Steve Soboroff, his prized vintage typewriters—once owned by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and John Updike—hold a talismanic power. “The idea that geniuses sat there and accomplished what they accomplished on these typewriters… it gives me the chills,” Soboroff says. But to Northeastern University art director Bruce Ployer, curator of the newly opened exhibit Celebrity Type, they’re first and foremost beautifully designed objects—hence why the wall text lists each machine’s model and year first, in a larger font than that accorded to the famous name of its former owner. “For me,” Ployer says, “the typewriter is the star.”
On view now at Northeastern’s Gallery 360, Celebrity Type features 14 machines representing a wide swath of styles, eras, and personalities, some accompanied by relevant ephemera, like copies of typed manuscripts with the author’s handwritten cross-outs and corrections. There’s the 1929 Underwood Standard Portable owned by Hemingway, who wrote his dialogue on a typewriter to better capture the rapid-fire rhythms of speech. Ray Bradbury's 1947 Royal KMM churned out many of the sci-fi scribe’s works, though not his most famous one. (Fahrenheit 451 was written in a nine-day marathon on UCLA library typewriters rented for 10 cents per half-hour, to the tune of $9.80.)
Some typewriters date to early in their owners’ careers: A teenage John Lennon used his Imperial “The Good Companion” Model T to type lyrics for Beatles precursor the Quarrymen, and Tennessee Williams’ 1936 Corona Junior, purchased while he was a student at Washington University in St. Louis, tapped out Battle of Angels, his first play to be professionally produced. But George Bernard Shaw’s 1934 Remington Noiseless 7x was purchased late in life, when he’d written all but five of his dozens of plays.
The most appealingly alien entry is Andrea Bocelli’s Standard Perkins Brailer, a sinuous silver design with nine keys, used by the blind tenor in his studies and to type opera verses. Joe DiMaggio’s 1934 Smith Corona Sterling, a gleaming burgundy number used in the home he shared with Marilyn Monroe, is perhaps the most pristine of the bunch. Orson Welles’ 1926 Underwood 4-Bank shows more wear, but despite some flaking paint it’s a handsome mahogany-hued specimen, complete with its original portable box (portability being a relative concept, of course).
A couple of the typewriters belonged to more notorious names. Jack Kevorkian’s 1950s Signature 300 turns up in an appropriate hospital-scrub green. (Dr. Death was also the author of eight books.) Then there’s Ted Kaczynski’s Montgomery Ward Signature, seized during the FBI raid of his Montana cabin; for some reason the Unabomber had removed the machine’s top, revealing its gleaming metal innards.
For some gallery goers, the exhibit is an occasion for nostalgia. “I can’t believe how many people have come out of the closet as typewriter geeks,” Ployer says. But for others, including many Northeastern students, it’s a chance to see and touch machines they’ve never used, having grown up typing on laptops and smartphones, never knowing the comforting clacks and dings that provided audible—almost musical—proof of progress.
Speaking of music, a September 5 reception will feature a performance from the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, plus backstories from Soboroff, whose daughter attends Northeastern. Can’t make the party? The exhibit is free and open to the public daily through September 25.