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Friday, 21 January 2022

The Boxer Who Bashed Out the ‘Bad Boy’ Book on a Borrowed Typewriter, and Other H. Allen Smith Stories

A typewriter can be a pretty formidable contraption when you sit down in front of it and say: ‘All right, now I'm going to be funny.’

-       H. Allen Smith (1941)

Writing a story on a typewriter is just putting the right ends together and then sort of weaving them around the middle.

-       Boxer Matty Mario (1939)


My wife is a prodigious reader. Fortunately, we have a vast array of books here, books of much variety and many vintages, stacked in every room, and sometimes Harriet can dig out and dust off something she hasn’t already read. One such find was a book given in 1958 to her mother, Pat Horner (author of When Words Fail) by Elizabeth Warburton, wife of Dunedin-born adult education lecturer Jim Warburton. It’s called The World, The Flesh and H. Allen Smith, edited by Bergen Evans and published in London by Arthur Barker in 1954.

Bergen Evans - like H. Allen Smith a proud Midwesterner, unlike Smith a professor of English - selected from the prolific writings of Smith prime pieces to be included in this work. Evans knew good writing when he saw it – indeed he relished it. As Phyllis McGinty wrote in The New Yorker, "I'd take more pleasure in discussions schola'ly / If Bergen Evans wouldn't laugh so jollily." Evans would be in his element today, in this regressive time of pandemic deniers, vaccine sceptics and other Flat Earth believers. He’d have found so much material for his column  "The Skeptics Corner", and to follow up The Natural History of Nonsense and The Spoor of Spooks and Other Nonsense.

So, too, would H. Allen Smith have found today’s world ripe for the picking. As it is, Harriet was delighted to come across The World, The Flesh and H. Allen Smith, even though its wonderful array of whimsical yarns about long-gone characters belongs to another age. On the other hand, Smith could be way ahead of his time: consider “Naming the Baby”, which predated the mindless monikers given grievously unfortunate children by present-day celebrity clowns (Reignbeau, Sage Moonblood, Moxie Crimefighter, Breeze Beretta, Audio Science, Bronx Mowgli, Moon Unit, Pilot Inspektor). One of the many reasons I love Harriet so much is that we have the same tastes in humorous writing – we discovered early on in our relationship that we shared a great passion for the like of S.J. Perelman, Damon Runyon and Flann O’Brien.

Harry Allen Wolfgang Smith (1907-1976) fits right into that group. He was a journalist and author but most importantly he was a  brilliant humorist. Born in Illinois, it was in Huntington, Indiana, that Smith dropped out of high school and, in 1922, found work as a journalist with the Huntington Press. This was the first of a string of newspapers for which he worked. Smith found fame when his book Low Man on a Totem Pole became a bestseller during World War II. This was followed by another bestseller, Life in a Putty Knife Factory, and a third, Lost in the Horse Latitudes. Which enabled Smith to write in 1946 The Truth: How it Feels to Be On the Best Seller Lists For 108 Weeks. His novel, Rhubarb, about a cat that inherits a professional baseball team, led to two sequels and a 1951 film adaptation.

Harriet knew that I would take enormous pleasure in reading many of the articles in The World, The Flesh and H. Allen Smith - and one in particular, titled “The Story of ‘Bad Bad’”. It’s a brilliantly witty piece about a prize fighter called Matty Mario, right, from Dongan Hills, Straten Island, who borrowed a typewriter from a man called Ed Ratigan and on it wrote a book called Bad Boy. All this I can confirm is true – except for Mr Ratigan, of whom I can find no trace. Smith interviewed Matty in 1939, when the boxer was 35. “I typewrite my own stuff,” Matty told Smith. His book, edited by Harry T. McHugh, a teacher at an orphan’s home, was published by Broadway Printers & Publishing Co on February 17 that year. It concerns a boxer called Johnny Conway, fighting under the name Johnny Kid Reed.

Other than what Smith wrote, factually, about Matty, copyright details of Bad Boy and his boxing record, nothing has ever appeared online about Matty – until now. For the first time in Internet history, we can reveal that Matty Mario was Mario Giacomo Ghiselli, who was born to an Italian bartender, Giovanni Ghiselli, and his wife Rosina (Rosie) on MacDougal Street, Manhattan, on October 3, 1904 (Smith said Greenwich Village, which is technically correct). A welterweight boxer, Mario fought 69 times between 1924-44, winning 35 bouts. In the early 1930s he was considered a world title contender.

As Matty told Smith, he had worked on the automobile assembly line at the Ford plant at Edgewater and by the late 30s had become a licensed masseur. During the Second War World he served as what was officially classified a boatswain’s mate class one (BM1) with the US Coast Guard, but unofficially he was a physical fitness and martial arts adviser. This was under a scheme put together by Matty’s friend, the great heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. From June 1942 Dempsey had a commission as a lieutenant and director of physical education for the Coast Guard Reserve at its training station at Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. The Dempsey group was released from active duty in September 1945. Unfortunately Matty’s athletic instruction business in Brooklyn had suffered in his absence on war duty and he had to file for bankruptcy at the end of October 1946.

Matty tried selling his movie (Double Cross, In-Law Interference), play (The Unknown Substitute) and TV scripts without a lot of success, but he did find a number of ways to make ends meet. For example, he made trans-Atlantic voyages on the ocean liner the SS America in 1946-54, on the New York-Le Havre-Bremerhaven-Cobh route, working as a passenger’s masseur.  While on shore leave, Mario was a pictorial model for fiendish characters in detective magazines, refereeing professional wrestling bouts with comical zeal, and playing villains on television crime shows such as Richard Montgomery Presents. His son, Richard Matthew Ghiselli (1929-1993), was a highly decorated combat veteran from the Korean war. Mario died in New York on August 2, 1977. In some ways - especially in light of his long boxing career - it seems surprising that he outlived H. Allen Smith. But then, Matty may well have been a lot smarter than Smith made him out to be. 

A Spike in Newspaper History: H.L. Mencken's 'Copy Hook'

Print newspaper journalists who worked in the good old days of 'hard' typewritten copy and hot metal will know what this is, and what it was used for. It was indispensable to editors, the more so on those occasions when they found themselves having to deal with the kind of copy which these days gets published, unchecked, online. But I wonder if even those old-time journos know how these things were made? Where were the “raw materials” obtained from? Clue: something used in Linotype machines was a key component.

It’s a copy spike, but the one in the Stanley Farrar photo (top of post) is no ordinary copy spike. This was the spike “souvenired” by H.L. Mencken when he was city editor of the Baltimore Morning Herald, after the Great Baltimore Fire had swept through downtown Baltimore on February 7, 1904, destroying the Herald building on the northwest corner of St Paul and East Fayette streets. (In exchange for providing photos of the fire to the Washington Post, the Post printed an edition of the Herald on the first night of the fire. For the next five weeks the Herald was printed by the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph and transported 100 miles to Baltimore on a special train, provided free of charge by the B&O Railroad.)

As he dug with his hands through the ruins of the fire, the only thing worth saving that Mencken could find was what he called his “copy hook”. He kept it until he died on January 29, 1956. Fellow journalist H. Allen Smith had asked Mencken to pass the spike on to him and some weeks after Mencken died it was sent to Smith in a custom-made, velvet-lined box. Smith moved to Alpine, Texas, in 1967, and kept the spike on a shelf in his study. In 1974 University of Texas journalism lecturer Martin L. “Red” Gibson asked Smith to pass the spike on to him, and Smith did so. Smith died on February 24, 1976. Gibson died in Austin, Texas, on May 22, 1993, after a brief battle with lung cancer, and the present whereabouts of the spike is unknown. 
However, writing about the history of the spike in the Baltimore Sun on February 5, 1978, Gibson said, “Don’t write and inquire about my health and suggest that I ought to be making plans to pass the Mencken spike along to younger hands. I may take it with me.”

Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Metropolis Revisited: Superman, Jimmy Olsen and the Cute Corona Skyriter Typewriter (Oh, and Puff the Magic Dragon Too)

Blinky watches Lois Lane type on the Corona Skyriter

Subjected by John Lennon to a Proust Questionnaire on a flight from Paris to Lyon in 1965, George Harrison said his favourite hero in fiction was Jimmy Olsen. Given, at the time, Harrison felt his music writing was being grossly undervalued by his fellow Beatles, he could well have been identifying with Jimmy Olsen, whose role as a flunkey to Clark Kent and Lois Lane was never meant to steal scenes from the stars. The late Jack Larson, who played Daily Planet cub reporter Jimmy in 101 episodes of the TV series Adventures of Superman, from 1952-58, might have felt flattered by Harrison’s accolade, except that Larson found being typecast by Jimmy had become a “nightmare”. “I thought playing Jimmy ruined my life,” Larson said in an interview with Reuters in 1987.

I was reminded of Jimmy Olsen about six weeks ago, when a friend, Peter Crossing in Adelaide, emailed me to say he had come across an episode of Adventures of Superman on an obscure community channel, 44. “It had us reliving the days of early TV long ago,” wrote Peter. “This particular episode, ‘Stamp Day For Superman’, had a discussion that centred around Jimmy Olsen’s brand new typewriter.” I made a mental note to have a look for ‘Stamp Day for Superman’, but it was a fascinating book we got for Christmas from our daughter in London that finally got me into gear. The book, Word Perfect by Susie Dent, devotes a chapter to a different word for each day of the year. For January 16 the word was “Screamer” (as in the exclamation mark, of which DC Comics are so fond) and it pointed out that it was on January 16, 1939, that the Superman comic strip made its debut in American newspapers. (First strip below).

Anyway, I watched ‘Stamp Day for Superman’, presented in 1954 by the US Treasury Department, and another happy memory of Peter Crossing’s time in Canberra came full circle. Jimmy Olsen’s "cute" typewriter was a Corona Skyriter, which he had proudly bought from stamp savings bonds. The Skyriter plays a pivotal role in the Superman episode, as it is used by both Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and the crook Blink (Billy Nelson). In particular it is used by Lois to type an ID picture of Blinky as well as a plea to be rescued, sent out as a paper plane.

Why the Skyriter brought back memories of Peter’s Canberra days is that he used to present the blues and jazz program "Down in the Basement" on ArtSound community radio, and each year would invite us to a trivia quiz night to raise funds for ArtSound, These included a “Who Am I?” contest and one year the teasers concerned the writing of the Peter, Paul and Mary hit Puff the Magic Dragon. The clues started with Peter Yarrow finding in a typewriter at Cornell a poem written by Lenny Lipton. I was intrigued by all this, and set out to discover more. To cut a very long story short, the upshot was that I was able to track down Lipton and ask him what model typewriter he was using to write the poem Yarrow found. Lipton and Yarrow consulted, and the answer was …

A Corona Skyriter! (! as in a Screamer!).

Jack Larson at school in Pasadena.

Monday, 17 January 2022

Setting Up a 1940 Remington Portable Typewriter From Right Across the Continent

Long distance information, give me Freo WA

Help me find a party who’s 2000 miles away

She did not leave a number, but I know who placed the call

'Cause I saw her little typer sitting right there in the hall

Last evening, just as I was settling down to watch the cricket Test on TV, a photo of a typewriter popped up on my Facebook page. Nothing unusual in that. Facebook friends often post typewriter images on my page, or otherwise draw my attention to them, which is very thoughtful and nice of them. Usually they have come across a typewriter at a market or an op-shop or bric-a-brac store, or on display somewhere. They’re not interested so much in the typewriter itself, it’s just that they know I’m interested and they’d like to encourage my interest.

It turned out the typewriter photo that landed up on my Facebook page last evening was different. It was owned by a Facebook friend, a former colleague from my days working for West Australian Newspapers in the 1980s. In fact, my old friend, Jolly, had only just received the typewriter herself. I had belonged to her mother, a former country correspondent for West Australian Newspapers and for what was back in the day the Australian Broadcasting Commission (since 1983 a corporation).  The typewriter had been stored in a garage since her death in 2002, and was handed to her daughter, Jolly, only last week.

It is a 1940 Remington Standard Model 5 portable (which in itself raises some questions*). Jolly asked for my advice, given my “expertise” on the subject of typewriters. What did I think? I wasn’t sure what to think at first, apart from making some observations based on the photos. The case was obviously water damaged, and its clasp was clearly rusted. But the typewriter itself looked to be in very good condition for its age.

I suggested Jolly should go to Richard Polt’s Classic Typewriter Page, click on the link to his page of detailed information about Remington portables, and get some idea about the age of the machine.  Then I noticed the typewriter was sitting in the lid of the case and the base, with its two clasps to hold the typewriter in place, was acting as the lid. This is a very common mistake people make – they assume the thinner of the two case sections is the lid.

Anyway, this observation lead to a exchange on Messenger that lasted a good hour or more. In the end, not only was the typewriter clasped in place in the base of the case, but it was working and Jolly was thrilled to be writing with it. In the meantime, we had worked out such things as the where the carriage lock was, the correct threading of the ribbon, the ribbon spools movement, getting fresh ribbon through Richard Amery, if needed, where the apostrophe was (above the 8), the right margin release key, the back space key, the ribbon colour selector switch and the touch control switch.

At first I had wondered what use I could be in offering any technical advice from a distance of 2000 miles, one side of the Continent to the other. Jolly still lives in Western Australia, I am in Canberra, and our means of communication was Messenger. But it all turned out fine, with the best possible result at the end of the evening – Jolly so happily typing away on her mother’s old Remington portable. During our exchanges (37 in all) a group of mutual friends joined in – mostly by simply reading our messages – and they too expressed their delight in following the whole procedure.

And I was left of a feeling of satisfaction that all this could be achieved over such a vast distance.

*I'm a bit curious about how this 1940 model reached Australia. After tariffs had been doubled here in 1932, imports were greatly restricted four years later. The Australian Government, reacting to a yawning imbalance in trade between this country and the United States, barred fully assembled American typewriters from being imported. Remington assembled US-made parts in Sydney and sold the machines as "Australian built", but these were confined to earlier portables, such as the Model 4. I know of a former West Australian editor who brought a Remingon Rand Model 1 back home from the US for personal use, but by and large it would have been very difficult for an Australian to get his or her hands on "new" Remingtons during the early years of World War II.

Sunday, 16 January 2022

Corona Four-Bank Portable Typewriter Stars in 'Mrs Wilson"

We watched the three-part BBC TV series Mrs Wilson on the weekend and were spellbound by it. Gripping stuff, with loads and loads of lovely typewriters (the star turn belongs to a black Corona four-bank, but in war-time government offices there are lines of Imperial standards, and rightly so). Mrs Wilson is a 2018 British historical drama, executive-produced by and starring Ruth Wilson, who plays her own grandmother, Alison Wilson.

Alison is a widow who uncovers the mysterious and secret life of her late husband, Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson (1893-1963). Alex Wilson was an English writer, spy and MI6 officer. He wrote novels under the names Alexander Wilson, Geoffrey Spencer, Gregory Wilson and Michael Chesney. After his death, his family discovered that he had been a serial polygamist and a pathological liar. As of 2018, documents that could shed light on his activities remain classified as “sensitive” by the British Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, under section 3(4) of the Public Records Act 1958.

The series is based on Alison Wilson’s memoir Before & After, but as might be expected, in creating dramatic effect scriptwriter Anna Symon has played free and easy with the facts in the original story. This was with the apparent approval of the lead actor, Ruth Wilson. Each episode starts with the words “The following is inspired by real events”.

The series was of particular interest to me, as for the past couple of years I have been working on the biography of the man who was the real inspiration for James Bond. There are certain similarities between Alex Wilson and my man, but in my case the subject’s family has not been cooperative. That’s a shame, as I believe my man’s story knocks Alex Wilson’s into a cocked hat. He was the real deal, whereas Alex Wilson comes across as a great pretender when it came to intelligence work.

Saturday, 15 January 2022

Arthur Fraser Ran His Typewriter Business for 66 Years

Pinned between the A33 and the B3031 in Reading, the historic market town in the Thames Valley in Berkshire, England, is arguably the oldest extant typewriter business in the world. Admittedly, it no longer deals in typewriters, and changed its business name from Fraser’s Typewriters to Frasers Office Supplies, dropping the possessive apostrophe as well as the typewriters, on October 8, 1993, after 74 years of selling and repairing typewriters. Still, it continues to be a Fraser family business, one now jointly run by the direct descendants of founder Arthur Riddell Fraser (1891-1985). And as far as the Frasers are concerned, it is the same outfit that Arthur started on July 1, 1919, though from an initial budget of 
£17 and 6 shillings it now has annual revenue in excess of £2.8 million.

Arthur himself started in the typewriter trade in Manchester as a 14-year-old on February 19, 1906, earning 10 shillings a week, and continued in it until he retired in 1985, a stint of an astonishing 79 years.

Arthur's 1919 advertisement

Arthur’s first business address was 16 Queen Victoria Street, Reading, a pedestrianised thoroughfare wedged between the King’s Road and London Road, and an appropriate address given Queen Victoria Street was once London’s “typewriter row”. Arthur advertised himself as a “typewriter expert” with 13 years’ mechanical experience. He sold all brands, new and rebuilt, starting at 12 guineas, as well as carrying out repairs and overhauls. Within 18 months of opening his business, Arthur had the sole agency for the Oliver in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire. Before his company moved to its present address at 7 Arkwright Road, it made many moves, including briefly to 89 Broad Street in 1929. For 44 years from 1934 Arthur was based at 5 Blagrave Street. Arthur’s son Gerald (1920-) joined the firm that same year. Before the present address, there was another move, to 135 Cardiff Road, then in 2011 the last shift to Arkwright Road.

In a page 4 picture story in the Reading Evening Post on February 13, 1981, the Post labelled Arthur “the king of typewriters”. “When it comes to typewriters,” the Post said, “there is no-one alive who knows more about the subject than Mr Arthur Fraser. For next Thursday he celebrates 75 years in the trade, which, he claims, makes him the oldest typewriter man in the world. He will be 90 in April but he still goes into [his] Blagrave Street offices every day, to advise or to lend a hand.” In 1969, marking his company’s 50th anniversary, the Post had merely called Arthur the “grandfather of the typewriter trade in Great Britain” and “one of the oldest typewriter men in the world still fully active”.

Arthur was born in Manchester on April 16, 1891. From November 1914 he served as a mechanic with the Royal Flying Corps. After World War I he moved to Reading and in July 1918 married May Elizabeth Hamblen. It was from his wife’s mother, Sarah Ann Hamblen (née Martin), that Arthur borrowed a table for the first typewriter, worth £15, that he took into his Queen Victoria Street office. Arthur’s opening budget was £17 six shillings. He had to pay 10 shillings a week rent and rates for the company headquarters, and from what was left over after living expenses he bought £6 worth of timber for benches and tools worth £2. But the business took off and Arthur worked six and a half days a week for the first 18 months to meet the demand for his skills. Mrs Fraser was company secretary for 36 years. Arthur took on an assistant mechanic, Herbert Henry Curling (1903-1986), who stayed with him for more than 5o years – after 25 years Arthur made Herbert a co-director. Herbert retired in 1970. Douglas Ashley Hall joined Arthur and Herbert in 1929 and retired in 1984. Hall’s grandson, Nicholas Ian Clark (1968-) joined in 1985 and is now one of Frasers’ co-owners.

Arthur's great-grandson Alan Fraser, left, with co-owner
Nick Clark, right, and apprentice Chante Edwards

Second World War service took Gerald Fraser and a number of trained mechanics away from Blagrave Street, but Arthur and Herbert trained two women and three boys to carry on the company’s work. When Nazi bombers targeted Reading on the night of February 10, 1943, the “casualties” included 46 typewriters, two of which, from a law office, were found buried in debris in the middle of a road by demolition workers two days after the raid. Arthur later recorded, “46 blitzed typewriters returned. Hitler failed to beat us.” Indeed, business had become so brisk by then that Arthur made Fraser’s Typewriters an incorporated private limited company on January 23, 1944. The company started a profit-share scheme in the 1950s. Arthur’s grandson Peter Alan Fraser (1947-) joined the firm in 1965 and Arthur’s great-grandson Alan Paul Fraser (1974-) is now a co-owner of Frasers.

Arthur Riddell Fraser died in Reading on December 21, 1985, aged 94.

Thursday, 13 January 2022

The Empire Corona Portable Typewriter

Relabelled again and sold in Australia through the H.G. Palmer department stores.

I was rather surprised yesterday to find that at the end of July 2007 I had not alone made an inventory of my typewriter collection, such as it was back then, but the inventory was still in existence. At that time, 14½ years ago, not many of my 193 typewriters were what could be called truly vintage. As the collection grew, by almost five times the number of machines I then owned, that situation very much changed. And with an emphasis on much older models, I naturally started to lose interest in those 1950s and ’60s machines which had once so fascinated me.

Near the top of the inventory, for example, were two metallic green Empire Coronas. Goodness knows where they are now. They were no more than relabeled Smith-Corona Skyriters,  of course, but back in my earliest days of typewriter history research I was intrigued by how an American machine could be sold as a British-made Empire Corona. (Bearing in mind my 2007 collection also included such little mysteries as a Czech-made Norwood and Japanese-made Pinnocks.) The Empire Corona had me scratching my head about things that had been going on in the typewriter world at the time I first started using a typewriter.

Rob Bowker's Empire Corona

In September 2007 I contacted Will Davis with some information I’d gathered for Will’s Portable Typewriter Reference Site. Will was almost as puzzled as I was by these Empire Coronas. “Here are a couple of interesting typewriters,” he wrote in a caption beside an Empire Corona with an Empire Aristocrat.  “Both were built in West Bromwich, England, in the same factory but at different times. Very rarely you will see a machine of the Hermes pattern with Corona or SCM labeling, made during a short period of ‘running down the stocks’.”

Assembling Skyriters and turning them into Empires

All would become clear to me in the next few years. But, reminded yesterday of my Empire Coronas, I was still interested in revisiting the events which led to Smith-Corona-Marchant taking over the old Salter typewriter plant in West Bromwich outside Birmingham in England.

SCM’s cash offer for all outstanding 33,000 common shares and 39,267 preferred shares in British Typewriters Ltd of West Bromwich was announced on July 27, 1958, by SCM president Elwyn Smith, with a deadline for acceptance set at September 1. By August 26 the deal was done. (Elwyn Lawrence ‘Tump’ Smith, 1894-1979, was a son of Wilbert Lewis Smith and nephew of Lyman Cornelius Smith.)

British Typewriters had gained the rights from E. Paillard & Cie in Yverdon, Switzerland, to make Hermes Featherweights as Empire portable typewriters, soon after the Featherweight was launched in 1935. Smith said SCM planned to enlarge the West Bromwich factory to make Corona Skyriter portables as well as the Empire. As it turned out, however, in its first year in Britain the American company merely assembled and relabeled the Skyriter. Still, rocky times lay ahead.

On September 17, 1959, British Typewriters and Smith-Corona dropped the prices of some models. At the end of April 1960, SCM said the price squeeze in the US typewriter market, the subject of tariff hearings in Washington DC, had forced the American company to move production of all of its portables from Groton, Cortland and South Cortland to West Bromwich.

The Salter factory was levelled in June 2013.

A brief filed before the Tariff Commission said the move followed the closing of SCM’s main plant in Syracuse, with production first moved to Groton and Cortland then Britain. This, explained SCM’s Syracuse personnel director Howard Pellenz, referred only to the Skyriter, with standard size machines still to be made in the US. Pellenz called the Skyriter a “loss leader” in the industry. A loss leader is a pricing strategy in which a product is sold at a price below its market cost to stimulate other sales of more profitable goods. With this sales promotion-marketing strategy, a “leader” is any popular article sold at a normal price. Continued production of the Skyriter in the US “did not make sense in view of high domestic production costs”.

British Typewriters had taken over the old Salter plant in West Bromwich in 1936, soon after the company’s founder, former Imperial sales manager and Royal Flying Corps pilot Bill Mawle (above, 1897-1971), had acquired the rights to make a variant of the Hermes Featherweight portable. The plant was hit by German bombers in World War II and a rebuild was completed by 1954.

As part of SCM’s takeover offer, Mawle and his works manager J.C. Holdship, both of whom had been with British Typewriters since 1936, were retained in their positions. Mawle stepped down from the managing directorship in January 1962 and was succeeded by Holdship. At the end of 1974 SCM expanded the West Bromwich factory as well as opening a plant in Singapore. The West Bromwich factory was closed on February 5, 1981, with the lose of 230 jobs. Cortland was closed in 1993 and production moved to Mexico. SCM went bust in 1995.