Maya Angelou’s personal typewriter, sold in the estate sale held at her Winston-Salem home last week, is heading to Los Angeles.
Steve Soboroff, president of the LA board of Police Commissioners, has been collecting typewriters owned by famous people for 16 years. He acquired the late author and activist’s electric Adler typewriter for $5,000 on Friday after reading about the sale in the Journal.
Laster’s Fine Arts and Antiques conducted Angelou’s estate sale from her home last Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Soboroff connected with owner Larry Laster by phone Friday.
Soboroff said Laster told him the machine’s cord was missing.
“I don’t care about the cord,” Soboroff said, laughing. “I care that Maya Angelou touched it.”
Angelou’s machine is Soboroff’s 33rd famous typewriter. He also has machines previously owned by John Lennon, Ernest Hemingway, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, and Tom Hanks. He recently acquired two machines owned by Shirley Temple and used during the height of her childhood stardom. Greta Garbo’s Olympia De Luxe typewriter types in cursive. Andrea Bocelli’s types in braille.
After Angelou’s machine is inspected and serviced by Soboroff’s typewriter “doctor,” it will join the rest of his collection at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles.
Soboroff said choosing a favorite typewriter would be like choosing a favorite child, but Angelou’s will fill a hole in his collection that has bothered him for some time.
“There are some incredible authors and poets (in the collection), but I didn’t have any that were from famous African-Americans,” he said. “I’ve been constantly looking.
“When it comes to importance, to the significance of the collection, this is right at the top.”
Angelou was known to have kept a hotel room in which she did most of her writing. She said she would go to the hotel in the morning and write by hand on legal pads. She would leave by early afternoon and revisit her writing later that evening.
Soboroff said he expects the typewriter stayed at home and is where she refined her handwritten work.
“It’s a typewriter that was in the house and it was very well used,” he said.
Colin Johnson, Angelou’s grandson, said although this was not the machine that “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was typed on, she did use it.
“My grandmother never moved past the typewriter and pen and paper,” Johnson said.
She did have a laptop, Johnson said, but she didn’t use it for work or even personal correspondence.
“The only thing she did on the laptop was play Boggle,” he said. “Then, Oprah got her an iPad, and she played Boggle on that.”
Johnson said Angelou did get interested in watching her Facebook page in the last years of her life, but she never personally typed posts or comments.
“She loved pen and paper,” he said.
Johnson said Angelou started using a typewriter while she was working with a civil rights organization.
He said the family is glad that her typewriter is joining Soboroff’s collection.
“It’s exactly the right place,” he said.
Soboroff is also looking for people who knew and worked with Angelou and may be able to tell him something about the typewriter. Personal anecdotes help people connect more to the machines, he said. Soboroff has a copy of the poem Angelou read at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1992 and hopes to compare it to the typeset of the machine he bought.
“That’s one thing I’m going to look forward to,” he said.
Richard Polt, a professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, recently wrote a book about the typewriter’s resurgence in the 21st century and maintains a blog about the machines. Polt said the typeset on a machine becomes unique with use and can be used to identify works typed on a particular typewriter.
“Each mechanical design works a little differently,” he said. “Then after somebody has used it, it will develop little nicks and cuts and deviations. An individual’s typewriter, especially if used for a while, has an individual fingerprint.
“It’s individual, like the author.”
Polt said the Adler typewriter used by Angelou was an electric model, most likely made in the 1960s or 1970s.
A sticker on the machine dating to the 1980s from Executive Business Machines was likely placed during a service appointment.
Bert Townsend has been servicing typewriters for more than 50 years and is the only person still repairing and servicing typewriters in the area. Townsend said he was working for Executive Business Machines, which later became Northwest Office Solutions, during the time that Angelou’s machine was there. Townsend said he couldn’t find the old service records but does remember working on a typewriter for Angelou.
“That was a long time ago,” said Townsend, who is now 89 and still works on typewriters several days a week at Northwest Office Solutions.
Townsend said that if Angelou bought the machine locally, it was most likely at Kelly Office Machines (now Kelly Office Solutions). Kelly was the Adler dealer in Winston-Salem.
Typewriters were used for business through most of the 20th century but fell out of favor with the rise of computers. Very few businesses still use them, but Polt said they still hold sentimental value for some people.
“They were a writer’s companion,” Polt said. “We feel, maybe superstitiously, that the spirit of the author has somehow gone into the machine. That’s the magic of Steve’s collection.”
Proceeds from exhibitions of Soboroff’s collection go to the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, which funds journalism scholarships.
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