Famous types: Timeless typewriters, from Hemingway to Hanks

September 1, 2018 10:01:48 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Sarah McCullough felt the impact as she helped carefully unpack them. Nine typewriters, all of great significance. Nine typewriters, mechanical memoirs, in their way, of literary giants and entertainment icons. As layers of protective wrap came off and the vintage carriages were revealed, it was natural to picture Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw or Maya Angelou leaning over their machines, fingers striking the keys. Or a teenaged John Lennon, perhaps experimenting with lyrics. It was natural to wonder, what was typed on these? 


"William Gantt, chair of the Southern Literary Trail, and I unpacked Tennessee Williams' typewriter. It gave us chills," said McCullough who is coordinator of Cultural Heritage Projects for Mississippi State University's Mitchell Memorial Library.  


The Famous Types exhibition in the library's third-floor John Grisham Room is part of a renowned collection belonging to Los Angeles civic leader Steve Soboroff. Typewriters once owned by Ray Bradbury, Truman Capote, Tom Hanks and Gore Vidal are also in the current exhibit, in addition to memorable items such as an original painting by Williams, Capote's hat and photographs by Hemingway. The University of Alabama has also loaned a typewriter that belonged to journalist and novelist William Bradford Huie. 


The MSU Libraries presentation, open during library hours through Sept. 24, is in partnership with the Southern Literary Trail. 




Soboroff has assembled what is considered the world's most important collection of original typewriters from famous -- and infamous -- authors and personalities. He serves as president of the city's police commission and was instrumental in developing the Staples Center. His obsession with typewriters began at a 2005 Sotheby's auction. Soboroff was selling a baseball glove that had belonged to baseball great Sandy Koufax, but he also set his sights on a Remington Model J typewriter owned by another of his heroes, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Jim Murray. Soboroff beat out the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Dodgers in the bidding. Murray's became the first of more than 30 typewriters Soboroff has acquired since then. 


On a placard about Soboroff at the exhibit, he is quoted as saying, "The idea that geniuses sat there and accomplished what they accomplished on these typewriters ... it gives me chills." 


"This is such a rare opportunity," said McCullough of the chance to view a portion of the private collection. Dean of Libraries Frances Coleman agreed. Library programs and exhibits such as this greatly enhance learning and awareness for not only students, but the community as well, she said. 


"And Sarah has done a wonderful job with this," Coleman added. 


The exhibit's thoughtful design has each typewriter on a separate desk, one that complements the previous owner's personality or era, wherever possible.  


John Lennon's 1951 Imperial, for example, that he used as a young man is displayed on a table that might have been a student's modest workspace. Information with each typewriter tells something of its famous owner and includes a compelling quote. 


About typing, Lennon wrote, "I typed a lot of the book. I can only do it very slowly with a finger, so the stories would be very short 'cause I couldn't be bothered going on. All I'm trying to do is tell a story." 


Tom Hanks' Hermes 3000 has a typed note to Soboroff from Hanks in the carriage. It reads, in part, "Here's one of my gems. ... This has been a great machine ... Enjoy. " 


The oldest typewriter in the exhibit is Hemingway's 1929 Underwood Standard. Truman Capote's Smith Corona Electra 110 was his last typewriter, used to turn out his final books, short stories and personal correspondence, McCullough said. 


She finds each typewriter meaningful. Tennessee Williams' 1936 Corona Junior, however, holds some special significance. 


"I think because he's one of ours," she said of the playwright born in Columbus. "He said, 'Home is where you hang your childhood.' He always kept Mississippi in his heart." 




Soboroff said it is a great opportunity to have this selection from his collection exhibited at MSU and two other locations on the Southern Literary Trial, according to the university. It's particularly meaningful to have Tennessee Williams' typewriter exhibited close to his birthplace, he added. 


By seeing typewriters luminaries used to express their extraordinary imaginations and creativity, the collector hopes visitors to the exhibition will be able to connect with the writers and, in turn, be inspired by their lives and work. 


The exhibit at Mitchell Memorial Library opened Friday and will be on display through Sept. 24. For more information and hours, visit library.msstate.edu/famoustypes, or contact the library at 662-325-2506. 


Editor's note: Some information in this article is courtesy of a press release by Sasha Steinberg of MSU's Office of Public Affairs.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.