When Steve Soboroff gets one of them in his sights, he goes into what he calls “emergency overdrive.”
He has been known to bug estate lawyers, hoping to move in and make an acquisition before someone else has the same idea.
Sometimes, his enthusiasm gets the better of him. That’s what happened when Walter Cronkite died in 2009 and Soboroff got a little too pushy too soon.
“Let the body cool off,” huffed a lawyer for the famed TV anchor before hanging up.
That one got away, but Soboroff, a Los Angeles real estate investor and civic leader, has bagged 15 others.
The object of his fascination? Typewriters.
There’s the 1932 Royal Model P that Ernest Hemingway used to write letters during his time in Cuba. There’s a tiny Imperial Good Companion Model T on which John Lennon banged out song lyrics years before the Beatles invaded America.
There’s the 1936 Corona Junior on which budding playwright Tennessee Williams composed his antiwar farce “Me, Vashya” for a student competition at Washington University in St. Louis. (He lost!)
“I love people who are the best at what they do,” Soboroff said. “The idea that geniuses sat there and accomplished what they accomplished on these typewriters … it gives me chills.”
In an era of iPads and text-spouting telephones, the ancient, clunky typewriter has become an improbable object of desire. Analog aficionados of all ages are collecting, admiring, fussing over and rhapsodizing about the noisy instruments.
Actor Tom Hanks owns an assortment of more than 200 old machines. An unidentified American collector paid $254,500 in 2009 for the weathered Olivetti manual owned by novelist Cormac McCarthy.
At a recent “type-in,” millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers gathered in a Phoenix coffeehouse to compose snippets of poetry and prose on Royals and Remingtons. At similar events throughout the country, participants swap or sell machines. Typewriter fans around the world chat in online forums.
“It’s an interesting paradox that, in this century, a typewriter has become something very personal,” said Richard Polt, a philosophy professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati who collects typewriters and edits ETCetera, a quarterly magazine about historic writing machines.
“The durability means you can develop a personal connection to your typewriter more than you can to, say, your laptop,” he said. “It can be with you your whole life.”
Soboroff covets typewriters once owned by famous, or infamous, people.
His collection includes two Montgomery Ward Signature Portables. One belonged to Jack Kevorkian, the advocate for assisted suicide known to many as “Dr. Death.” The other was found in the remote Montana cabin of Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber.
Soboroff, 63, who lives in Pacific Palisades, has been a prominent figure in L.A. business and politics. He was chief executive of Playa Vista, helping to steer the controversial development in its early stages. An advisor to former Mayor Richard Riordan, he served as president of the L.A. Recreation and Parks Commission and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2001.
Soboroff discovered his passion for typewriters almost by accident.
In 1997, he paid $30,000 at a Dodger Stadium auction for the glove that Sandy Koufax wore while pitching a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants in 1963. Seven years later, he sold the glove for $126,500 at auction atSotheby’s in New York.
Also on the block atSotheby’sthat day was a typewriter used by the late Jim Murray, thePulitzer Prize-winningsports columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Soboroff was seized by an urge to own the machine. “I loved Jim Murray!” he explained.
He prevailed in a bidding war with The Times, paying $18,000 for the Remington Model J.
An obsession was born.
Soboroff surfs the Web and works his sources in the world of typewriter connoisseurs, looking for vintage machines with storied histories. Landing a particularly desirable model can require ingenuity and chutzpah.
Last month, Polt learned that an Underwood owned by Andy Rooney, the curmudgeonly “60 Minutes” commentator who died in November at age 92, was up for grabs.
Polt alerted Soboroff to an estate sale under way at Rooney’s house in Norwalk, Conn.
Soboroff scoured the Internet for the names of businesspeople who lived in the vicinity. Figuring that real estate types like him “sleep with their phones,” he made a cold call to real estate broker Chris Buswell. It was 11:30 p.m.
Buswell was in bed.
“I listened to what he had to say, but I was suspicious,” Buswell recalled.
Then he figured Soboroff had to be for real. Who would make up such a story?
“I told him he lucked out,” Buswell said. “I live three doors down from Andy Rooney.”
The next morning, Buswell bypassed the throng in front of the Rooney home and went in the back door, where he spoke with the husband of the auction organizer.
By phone, Soboroff offered $3,000 and his credit card number.
The Rooney machine is among several typewriters that Soboroff will lend to the refurbished Malibu library for its reopening celebration Sunday. Visitors will be invited to contribute $250 for the chance to type on the machine of their choice, with proceeds going to charity.
Soboroff takes a fatherly pride in his collection. It includes typewriters owned by John Updike, Ray Bradbury, George Bernard Shaw, Joe DiMaggio and Jack London.
Among his finds is a movie prop: a typewriter used in the 1973 film “The Way We Were,” starring Robert Redford as a novelist and screenwriter and Barbra Streisand as a political firebrand. Streisand presents the Corona Standard to Redford as a gift to encourage him in his writing.
In late March, Soboroff paid $27,000 for a fully functional Underwood portable owned by Orson Welles. He plans to commission a lab analysis to determine whether Welles wrote early drafts of"Citizen Kane” on the machine.
Last year, Soboroff bought at government auction the Signature Portable seized from Kaczynski’s cabin in 1996. The gray plastic carrying case is covered with FBI evidence tape. (This was not the machine Kaczynski used to type his “manifesto,” a 35,000-word rant against America’s “industrial-technological system.”)
Seeking details about the typewriter, Soboroff wrote to Kaczynski at the maximum-security prison in Colorado where he is serving a life sentence for his 17-year bombing rampage, which killed three people and injured more than 20. In a handwritten reply, Kaczynski said that if a contact “confirms that you are who I think you are, then of course I’ll do my best to answer the questions.”
Soboroff’s son, Jacob, suspected that Kaczynski had confused his father with an Iowa man, also named Soboroff, who was convicted of threatening to poison a city’s water supply. In September, Kaczynski sent a postcard: “It turns out that you are not who I thought you were. Tough luck.”
Soboroff goes to great lengths to verify the provenance of his typewriters.
After buying Hemingway’s Royal Model P, he visited the Hemingway Collection at theJohn F. KennedyPresidential Library and Museum in Boston and secured copies of documents that Hemingway had typed at Finca Vigia, his house near Havana. A lab found that the type matched the Royal.
Soboroff bought Williams’ typewriter on EBay from a seller who claimed to have found the machine in the basement of a home in Clayton, Mo., that he purchased from the playwright’s mother. Soboroff had a title company verify the property’s chain of ownership.
He noticed that the typewriter bore a sticker with the name and phone number of a repair shop. Soboroff called the number and spoke to an elderly repairman, who remembered the machine and affirmed that it had been Williams’.
To determine whether a different typewriter had been used in an episode of the original"The Twilight Zone"series, broadcast from 1959 to 1964, Soboroff paid $500 to a member of a Twilight Zone fan club to watch all 156 episodes. Although the machine bore a studio tag, the fan saw no evidence of it on-screen.
For Soboroff, picking a favorite among his typewriters is like choosing a favorite among his five children. But he figures the most valuable piece is the one owned by Lennon. He paid about $4,500 for the machine in 2009 and says he has been offered “well over six figures” for it.
That would undoubtedly please the typing teacher at Taft High School who, Soboroff recalled, urged students to “sit upright and throw the carriage return back with a little bit of elegance.”